Blue Sharks

by Scott Metz

ume sai te niwajû ni aozame ga kite iru

Kaneko Tohta 金子兜太*

Back in 2009, I began a series for The Haiku Foundation’s blog (troutswirl) named Envoys. In this series, which was rather short-lived but exciting and pleasurable to work on, I selected a haiku by a non-English poet and culled together as many translations of it as I could. For that first Envoy, which I presented in three parts, I selected a haiku by the Japanese poet Kaneko Tohta

Like squids
bank clerks are fluorescent
from the morning.

(tr. by Makoto Ueda, from Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology, University of Toronto Press, 1976)

The selection of that haiku was timely, being juxtaposed with the economic rape and near-collapse of the US economy by vulture and hyper-capitalists and “bankers”—and which we’re still feeling the effects of. It hasn’t lost its significance/resonance, and more than likely won’t for some time, if ever.

In the summer of 2011, I began a strand on The Haiku Foundations Forums that was, in part, about another one of Tohta’s haiku

After a heated argument
I go out to the street
and become a motorcycle

(tr. by Makoto Ueda, ibid.)

brought up to discuss the topic of “haiku & transformation”.

All of this to say, I love Tohta’s work and consistently find it to be inspirational as well as a springboard for contemplation, reevaluation, questioning, and discussion. In just the two poems above, we see the use of figurative language, simile, metaphor, the fantastic and a sense of the surreal in play, a sense of wildness, a melding of ancient and modern nature — poetry of both the imagination and the sketching from life (the totality of reality).

It can be argued, I think, that English-language haiku is a unique poetry, a poetics all its own, very much separate from Japanese haiku and its tradition, in that it is one based on imitation of, in mimicry of translations richly and deeply rooted in biased, though creative, interpretations and assumptions. It is a kind of mutant scion, though certainly not an island. Early translations that inspired the Imagists and later the Beats, and then the New York School of haiku poets of the 60s and 70s, really only received some of the most basic, historically accurate, aspects of haiku: the focus on imagery, juxtaposition, and seasonality. What was missing were things such as language play, references, allusions, intertextuality, figurative language (especially metaphor and symbolism), subjectivity, the fantastic/surreal (long before it was called Surrealism by the French artists of the 20s), or that it was primarily “a poetry of the imagination” (“Beyond the Haiku Moment”, Haruo Shirane).

Charles Bernstein, an American poet, theorist, editor, and literary scholar who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, recently said, “We have many poems translated into English which are much more [. . .] like expository summaries or paraphrases. . . . We have poems translated into English from Spanish, Portuguese, for instance, which are more incomprehensible than the originals. They lose the whole resonance. They become sort of silly — they’re like paraphrases. You wanna keep some understanding of the overall incomprehensibilities sometimes of the original”. (Transcribed from his appearance on breaking through with W. J. O’Reilly, 2011)

This equally applies to Japanese poetry, and perhaps most especially haiku, with its extreme condensation, brevity and fragmentariness. Certainly the translations that inspired the Imagists and Beats, and then the New York School haiku poets, were basing their own work on “expository summaries”/“paraphrases”, versions “more comprehensible than the originals”, versions lacking their original “incomprehensibilities”. As Susan Stanford recently wrote to me, “I’m less and less sure haiku is translatable”. Perhaps far too often this point is not made enough, or loudly enough.

And so, even now, one wonders whether Japanese haiku can truly be translated into English, and what the effects might be if not done with great care and thought as often as possible. Whether they can be or not, it only makes sense that if they are, then more than one translation should be presented (not unlike a Cubist painting wherein something is presented from many different angles at once) in order to try to get across what the poet was really trying to do with their words and language, with some explication and perhaps interpretations as well, or, again, as much as possible.

One of the reasons I was excited to start Envoys was because it allowed me to select a particular poem and attempt to get closer to the original, and allow the reader to read as many versions/interpretations as possible and draw their own conclusion/s; in a sense, attempt to open the poem back up from just one singular translation and interpretation; or, now that I’ve heard Bernstein’s comment, to get away from the haiku being just a “paraphrase”/”expository summary”, or something oversimplified and left at that without further comment. Here, the blog platform comes nicely into play, I think, as it allows readers to share interpretations and understandings. Based on the culled translations, what do you make of the haiku? Which one do you prefer? Why? And seeing how others have translated it, and with a transliteration in front of you, as well as some explication, can you come up with a translation of your own? What would your ordering, line breaks and word choice look like?

Tohta’s blue sharks haiku

ume sai te niwajû ni aozame ga kite iru

Kaneko Tohta 金子兜太

For me, it is two different elements that engage and excite me most, and draw me back again and again: its surrealism, and, secondly, its defying of traditional imagery expectations, and all the resonances they create. (Also, the repetition of “u” in the original Japanese is wonderful in how the language mimics both the ume blossoms — brought out nicely, I think, in both Dhugal J. Lindsay and Eric Selland’s translations — and/or perhaps even the blue sharks).

the plum in bloom
blue sharks have come right in
into the garden

Dhugal J. Lindsay (Modern Haiku 31.1, 2000)

The plum trees are in bloom
Blue sharks invading
Throughout the garden

Eric Selland

For the most part, it seems, the topic of surrealism has been mostly shunned as a legitimate topic to consider, mostly in part to the ahistorical idea that that is simply NOT what haiku are supposed to be or contain. Too Western. A big no-no. This though, like other elements of Japanese haiku, has been something left out and/or de-emphasised when translated, or not properly excavated historically, and hence discarded by biases and/or misunderstandings. With the emphasis of Western study being on Japanese haiku before 1900, it is no wonder that is has been neglected.

However, take, for example, this quote by John Solt from his 1999 book Shredding the tapestry of meaning: the poetry and poetics of Kitasono Katue (1902-1978), (Harvard University Asia Center 1999):

In a 1969 essay, Nishiwaki Junzaburō [1894–1982, a contemporary Japanese poet and literary critic] stated that “the lines by Japan’s great poet Bashō, ‘inazuma o te ni toru’ (to catch lightning in hand) and ‘namida o niru oto’ (the sound of tears boiling) were forerunners of surrealism.” In another essay he quotes Bashō’s “aware o kobosu no tane” (plant seeds spilling pathos) and refers to the haiku master as the “Japanese surrealist Bashō.” Elsewhere, Nishiwaki called Bashō “Japan’s greatest surrealist” and ranked him alongside James Joyce. His perceptive remarks, however, came forty years after he had first introduced surrealism to Japan (p 66).

While Junzaburō’s claim is perhaps debatable, the point is well taken and far from radical, and something interesting to look for and explore in other works by Bashō and other Japanese haiku poets throughout the centuries. If true, haiku at its core is a kind of surrealistic poetics that never had the benefit of a term, as was eventually established in the first twenty years of the 20th century in France (not to mention the centuries-old Japanese tradition of renku, or haikai linking verses, which involved a method of highly imaginative “automatic writing” that was encouraged and practiced by Dadaists and Surrealists of the 1920s, and practiced by Shiki and his group of haiku poets in late 19th century — nothing rare or new). It seems surrealistic aspects of haiku, from throughout its history, have been virtually ignored. Not because it is nonexistent, or cannot be identified, but because it is perceived as too Western and does not fulfill the expectations or desires of Western haiku poets and readers.

Interestingly, Jeffrey Johnson, in his book Haiku Poetics in Twentieth Century Avant-Garde Poetry (Lexington Books 2011) makes the fascinating and convincing argument that not only did haiku help inspire and give birth to modern English poetics (Imagism), but had a large impact on the French artists — specifically Paul Eluard, André Breton, Max Jacob, Louis Aragon, Jean Cocteau — who were involved in creating Surrealism as we’ve come to know it. Even critics at the time, especially William Schwartz, often noted the importance of Japanese poetics and, specifically, haiku on those artists’ concepts and art (p87-113).

Surrealism’s “focus on [. . .] dissolv[ing] the barrier between dreaming and the waking states of consciousness” (Solt, p66) (a kind of quasi-Buddhist concept, as Johnson notes in his book) clearly plays into Tohta’s haiku, especially in light of receiving Richard Gilbert and Itô Yûki’s commentary about the poem (below).

Though the “Japanese were digesting surrealism from the mid-1920s and actively publishing on the subject from 1927” (Solt, p80), and while it might be debatable whether a poet like Bashō is as surreal as Junzaburō’s claim, surrealism without a doubt historically, unquestionably, fused with Japanese haiku starting in the 1960s.

As the Japanese haiku anthology The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century (Modern Haiku Association 2008) tells us, reflecting anxieties and changes in Japanese culture after World War 2 (economic growth, issues of war and treaties, as well as continued Western influences in general), the Avant-garde haiku movement took hold in the 1960s and searched “for new possibilities in haiku” (p31). One of these Avant-garde groups was “the so-called “artistic” school, which sought for aesthetics of expression in haiku, [e]mploying the methods of French Symbolism and Surrealism, and sometimes using the beauty of classical Japanese literary works . . . express[ing] the sense of crisis of the times to develop the free spirit of the former Shinkō [New Style] haiku movement [which began in 1931], with their own principles of aesthetics” (p30-31).

In fact, perhaps the surreal, or surrealistic tendencies — or its first soundings, as well as that of the fantastic — can be found to go back even further to that of Natsume Sōseki, considered one of Japan’s greatest writers. For example, Susan Napier, in her book The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity (Routledge 1996), explains how Sōseki’s Ten Nights of Dream, published in 1908, “[i]n its effective development of a surreal atmosphere of Otherness, combined with its imaginative use of the notion of dream itself, [. . . ] creates a liminal literary world which is clearly that of the twentieth century. It is a world which Freud or Jung would certainly have recognised in terms of its suffocating representation of such peculiarly modern anxieties as crises of identity and free-floating guilt, expressed through archetypal imagery” (p1-2). She goes on to note that “ . . . Sōseki and other writers of Japanese fantasy created works that appeal to non-Japanese readers at the same time as they used specifically Japanese elements to portray concerns particular to modern Japan” (p2).

This seems relevant in relationship to Tohta’s “blue sharks” haiku in that it has universal appeal, while also using “specifically Japanese elements” (Japanese ume). Tohta’s haiku also, of course, reflects the Avant-garde sensibilities of the 1960s in Japan, which he was a major part of, in that it employs surrealism, and possibly symbolism, as well as “the beauty of classical Japanese literary works”. A question then is: how might it “portray concerns particular to modern Japan” (circa 1979, when the haiku was composed)? Of course one answer is simply that it doesn’t and wasn’t intended to. And yet the question lingers and should at least be tossed around.

Sōseki was a close friend and associate of haiku poet and critic Shiki (the person who coined the term “haiku”, and another reformer of Japanese literature), and someone who dabbled in haiku as well. The following haiku by Sōseki are poems that engage with the fantastic and surreal, and perhaps, in part, acted as touchstones for the poets of the Avant-garde schools of the 1960s:

Into a man
as tiny as a violet
may I be reborn!

In the basin,
as I wash my face, there rises
autumn’s shadow.

The piercing cold—
I marry a plum blossom
in a dream.

(tr. by Makoto Ueda, from Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology)

As mentioned, Sōseki was a close associate of Shiki, who around the turn of the 20th century not only coined the term “haiku” but promoted a particular style of composition, shasei (sketching from life). While Sōseki was engaged, at least in part, by a surreal kind of aesthetic and the fantastic (his most famous novel, entitled I Am a Cat, says a lot), his friend Shiki was engaged with the idea of “sketching”. Kaneko Tohta has spoken on this style of writing extensively, especially in Ikimonofûei: Poetic Composition on Living Things (Red Moon Press 2011). As with so many things it seems when it comes to haiku and their translation/transformation into English, the concept of shasei seems to have been somewhat maligned and confused as well by certain biases. Shiki, says Tohta, “discussed only the ‘sketch’ as a poetic concept. Shiki never used the term ‘objective’ [this, Tohta strongly notes, was entirely the doing of Takahama Kyoshi, one of Shiki’s followers]. . . . [Shiki] attempted to compose haiku on any and everything that inspired him, both internally and externally. . . . In this way, Shiki definitively included subjectivity” (p26-8).

(The exchanges of poetics between Japan and the West, especially France, is enchanting: the fantastic/surrealistic aesthetics of Japanese art and poetry throughout the centuries, and specifically the use of juxtaposition — the radical surprise/twist/jump — in Japanese haiku was brought to France in the early 1900s, then the coinage/creation of Surrealism soon after, followed by a kind of reimportation to Japan that would inspire haiku poets of the 1960s and thereafter; the realism of French Impressionism brought to Japan that inspired Masaoka Shiki’s concept of shasei/“sketching from life”, then shasei finding its way back to the West as THE new way of writing haiku (which in so many ways it certainly was at the time), inspiring the Imagists (and with the next domino the Objectivists), the Beats and then the New York School of haiku poets, and thereafter establishing itself as the pre-eminent style of composing haiku in English.)

If anything then, this haiku by Tohta, and many others of his, is not a departure from the norm, or radically anti-traditional, but fully a part of the lineage in Japanese culture of exploring the fantastic, and a melding of the dreaming and waking states of surrealism.

What anxieties then might Tohta be trying to express through his “blue sharks”, if any? Is “blue” meant to be symbolic? Of imagination (as was believed to be the case when analyzing Wallace Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium, by symbolist critic Veena Rani Prasad)? Of sadness? Of rebirth?

The same kinds of questions apply to the sharks. Are they anything other than just sharks? What might they be symbolic of/a metaphor for? Perhaps they are a metaphor for humans and their desire to devour the freshness of the blossoms. Or maybe the ume blossoms are so beautiful, so elegant and transitory, that they have drawn the sharks out of their natural environment, on to land (somewhere alien), and into the garden. Why have they suddenly arrived in his garden? Do they represent something from his past, his childhood? Or are they representative of something of his immediate present life? Are they “sharks” of danger? Angry? Hungry? On the prowl? Or are they instead, like so many species of sharks, docile, though able to inspire great fear and anxiety, hence making the poet (and reader) still as can be? No. Sudden. Move. Ments.


The silence of the haiku is eerie, yet exquisite.

What can we make of the sharks juxtaposed with the elegance, diminutiveness, and fleetingness of the traditional ume? The fantastical gap is not only emotional, strange and alien, but physical in nature as well, with both exuding hearts of wildness.

ImageFilter v6.3ÿ

Ogata Korin (1658 – 1716)

ume sai te niwajû ni aozame ga kite iru

Kaneko Tohta 金子兜太

A transliteration:

梅 咲 い て 庭 中 に 青 鮫 が 来 て い る
ume / saite / niwajû / ni / aozame / ga / kite’iru

ume = Japanese plum / ume (no change)
saite = blooming; in bloom
niwajû = garden+throughout/everywhere/all around (also indicative of “family (home) garden”)
ni = in
aozame = blue shark(s); (poss. Mako shark(s) [in katakana])
ga = (subject marker)
kite’iru = show up, arrive, visit, appear, come, materialize, etc.

* * *

Text by Richard Gilbert & Itô Yûki

japanese plum bloom
blue sharks show up
everywhere in the garden


ume bloom
blue sharks show up
everywhere in the garden

or interpretively (this is not a literary or poetic translation so much as a way to indicate interpretive meaning):

japanese plum bloom
blue sharks swim everywhere
through the garden

also possible:

japanese plum bloom
blue sharks
everywhere in the garden

(the verb in the original is implied, in the just-above)

kigo: 梅 ume, plum blossom; Spring.
Meter: 5-5-9. Composed in 1979.
A surrealistic haiku.

The kanji are not mysterious (we don’t find double-entendres, puns, etc.). One of Kaneko’s representative haiku, selected in the book, Reading Kaneko Tohta’s 100 Haiku by Sakai Kôji (p150-151) (Sakai is Kaneko’s friend), where the haiku appears as one of three with the theme “blue shark and spring dream”. The commentary reads, in paraphrased summary: “White ume blooms and spring sunrise beams make pale shadows. In such an atmosphere, energetic and violent blue sharks swim — such scenery cannot be real, however this haiku possesses a vivid and clear reality. In the sunlight of early spring, the whiteness of plum blossoms and the blueness of the blue sharks among such sunbeams blend subtly and beautifully.” The second haiku in the series uses the word “seika” meaning, “the house where I was born” —so the scene in the haiku we are considering may be Kaneko’s family home, or may not — it isn’t clear.

Also, just to note, the original meaning of “hanami” is not watching cherry blossoms, but viewing ume – the pink/red variety are imported from China; this import became popular. Generally the white variety is used for umeboshi; umeshû is distilled from the white ume, which has a smaller seed at the fruit’s center). In the Manyôshû [the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled sometime after AD 759], the white ume occurs frequently, while in the Kokin Wakashu [published in about AD 905], the red variety is more plentiful.

There are two monument stones carved with this haiku at Shin Eiji Temple (a Jôdo-Shin-shu temple) in Shiba Prefecture, and Jôkoôin Temple (a Tendai-Shu temple) in Saitama Prefecture.

As such, we think to translate “the garden” (not “my” garden — whether the garden in question is at his family home or not). “kite iru” is most obviously “come” but can also be any synonym, such as “arrive” or in our sense, “show up”. Because sharks must move to live (they cannot easily breathe when motionless), we cannot imagine sharks as hanging around, statically, in the garden — so, “have come”, which implies “staying”, we think is not so effective. In fact, we wonder if there is a sense of showing up and moving through the garden.

Richard Gilbert & Itô Yûki
January 18, 2012, day of the SOPA Protest

(from Kaneko Tohta, Selected Haiku 1961-2012, Red Moon Press)

* * *

Other translations into English

ume saite niwajuu ni aosame ga kite iru

Plum in bloom, and all over the garden blue sharks are visiting

Hiroaki Sato (A Haiku Path 1994)


the plum in bloom
blue sharks have come right in
into the garden

Dhugal J. Lindsay (Modern Haiku 31.1, 2000)


plums are blossoming —
everywhere in my garden
blue sharks have come

Gabi Greve (World Haiku Database)


plum blossoms
blue sharks
all over my garden

Fay Aoyagi


Plums blooming
blue sharks have come
all over my garden.

Savina (Haiku International Anthology, 2002)


plum petals open —
an invasion of blue sharks
all over the garden

Carmen Sterba


Plum trees are blossoming and all around the garden, blue sharks are arriving

James Shea


The plum trees are in bloom
Blue sharks invading
Throughout the garden

Eric Selland

I have two translations. This first, that I like better, changes the image order, putting blue sharks at the end as a nice punch line:

plum in bloom —
coming into the garden
blue sharks

But this one respects the image order of the original poem:

plum in bloom —
into the garden
blue sharks come

David G. Lanoue

“While, given the clear seasonal reference, it is not difficult to grasp the sense-impression of biting cold from the Daliesque image of blue sharks in the garden [. . .] demanding a [. . .] bold imaginative leap on the part of the reader. Like much of the best surrealist art, it manages to be at once powerfully disturbing and humorous.” Philip Rowland (“Surreal Haiku?”, R’r 9.3)

* * *

Author note: In putting this post together, I would like to thank Susan Stanford for her suggestions, as well as a transliteration (the one in the post was created by Susan, with additional help and revision by Richard Gilbert —many thanks to both!) so that readers can have a crack at translating the poem themselves (please do!). I would also like to thank Eric Selland, Fay Aoyagi, Carmen Sterba, James Shea, and David G. Lanoue for being gracious enough to provide their own new translations of this haiku upon request.

Editor’s note: This article was first published on the R’r blog in 2012 and appears here with the author’s permission.

Scott Metz, who  lived in Japan for 3 years from 2003 was formerly the editor of Roadrunner, co-editor of MASKS, and blogmaster of troutswirl for The Haiku Foundation. He is the co-editor, with Lee Gurga, of the Haiku 21 series, and edits is/let haiku journal. Scott lives on the Oregon coast, where he teaches Writing and Literature.

* Kaneko Tohta (1919-2018) was a graduate of the University of Tokyo, studying under poet Shuson Kato (1905-1993) and continued composing haiku while working at the Bank of Japan. As a war veteran, he actively advocated peace in later life, talking about his tragic wartime experiences. After the war he started writing avant-garde haiku without traditional seasonal references and also incorporated social issues and ideologies into his poems. He received the Modern Haiku Association Prize in 1956 and in 1962 founded the haiku magazine Kaitei. In 2012 he received the Kikuchi Kan Prize for his contributions to Japanese Culture and in 2015 he was awarded the Asahi Prize for being at the forefront of contemporary haiku. He appeared regularly on television in Japan to talk about haiku, only retiring in January 2018 (he passed away the next month).