Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Spring 2009, vol 7 no 1

An Interview with Hasegawa Kai: Part 2
by Robert D. Wilson, Interviewer
Tanaka Kimiyo and Patricia Lyons, Translators

Hasegawa Kai: I would like to wish you a happy New Year. I am writing my responses to your questions on January 1, 2009. I apologize that so much time has passed since receiving this second set of questions.

As I read your questions, the first thing that came to mind was that there must be a great difference in attitudes to nature between the West and East Asia based on differences in religious culture.

Within the sphere of Christian culture, human beings are considered to have been created in the image of God, while plants, animals, and the rest of nature are thought to exist for the benefit of human beings. Thus a line is drawn between humans and nature, and they are in opposition to each other.

In contrast, in the countries of East Asia humans are thought of as being a part of nature. Buddhism, in particular, holds that animals may be reborn as humans, and humans as animals. Thus there is no clear line between nature and humans. From this way of thinking, various aspects of culture have been born, and haiku is one of these.

I believe that an accurate understanding of these differences is the first step to achieving reconciliation with each other, rather than disappointment and the building of walls.


Robert Wilson: Is the use of kigo essential to the writing of a haiku? If so, why, and what is the purpose of kigo and the role it plays in haiku?

There are some English language poets who do not include a kigo in some of their haiku, using as a justification, that not everyone lives in a natural setting, such as those living in congested urban centers.

HK: Kigo (words that express the seasons), which carry out important functions in haiku, were born from the soil of the idea I mentioned previously, that "humans are a part of nature."

The seasons are born from the revolution of the earth around the sun, and the first function of kigo is related to this. By including kigo in haiku, the rhythm of the earth's revolution is incorporated within the haiku.

The second function is that kigo bring an expansive world into haiku. Words are all products of the imagination, but kigo, in particular, are crystallizations formed by the imagination. We are able, for example, to roam freely within the universe contained within the kigo "hana" [flowers, especially cherry blossoms].

samazama no / koto omoidasu / sakura kana

calling to mind
all manner of things
cherry blossoms

This haiku describes remembering various things from the past while gazing at cherry blossoms, and kigo also have the same function. This is not related to whether one lives in the country or in the city. The revolution of the earth and the human imagination are the same in the country and in the city. The question is whether or not one is aware of living within the universe.


RW: You briefly mentioned in our last interview the term kokoro (feeling). What exactly is kokoro and what kind of feelings does it represent? Some say that emotion should be minimalized in haiku.

HK: By "kokoro," I mean "imagination." Modern haiku have emphasized "objective description of an object" in order to eliminate subjective assumptions, but they do not eliminate imagination. That is because words themselves are the products of imagination.


RW: More and more I'm reading haiku in off and on-line journals that do not adhere to the metrical schemata (S/L/S) of traditional haiku; and poems by the same artists may differ in metrics depending on the poem; S/L/L/ L/S/S, etc. Are these truly haiku or western haiku-like imagistic, free verse short poems posing as haiku? Why is adherence to the S/L/S schemata important to haiku?

HK: First of all, please remember that the 5 / 7 / 5 rhythm of Japanese haiku is not of seventeen syllables but seventeen beats. These seventeen beats are like the pulsing of the heart of the Japanese language.

Given this, two things are apparent. First, a Japanese haiku composed of seventeen beats is acceptable, even if it does not necessarily have seventeen syllables. Moreover, there are also haiku with 5 / 5 / 7 and 7 / 5 / 5 beats. However, if rhythm is considered unnecessary from the start, the result is not a haiku. Haiku is poetry, and rhythm (beats) is the life of poetry.

Second, the 5 / 7 / 5 beats are the rhythm of Japanese haiku only, and thus the requirement does not apply to haiku written in other languages. To begin with, it is meaningless for haiku in other languages to adhere to the Japanese 5 / 7 / 5. What should one do then, when writing haiku in another language? It is best to determine the rhythm of the heartbeat of that particular language.


RW: As you know, Simply Haiku showcases traditional English language Japanese short form poetry. In my estimation, kigo-less haiku and those utilizing irregular meter are not true haiku unless they fall under the category of avant garde haiku, and even then, I don't see these avant garde haiku as haiku. What are your feelings in this area?

HK: Not only in haiku but in literature in general, there can be nothing "avant-garde" because literature is created using words, and words are by nature traditional. For a haiku to be labeled avant-garde, it could only be composed of something other than words or using words as if they were not words. What is presently labeled as avant-garde is not avant-garde but is nothing more than one sub-species within the tradition.


RW: I have heard it taught many times by Western haiku writers that personalization in haiku in regards to giving human-like qualities to non-human creatures (flora and fauna) as well as to inanimate objects such as the moon, a tree, a blossom, etc. are taboo. In some belief systems, however, creatures and inanimate objects are thought of as living entities equal to humans. Your insight will be helpful to those getting mixed messages by Western haiku teachers and authors.

HK: I believe this is made clear in what I wrote at the beginning.


RW: Who has been the greatest influence on you as a haiku poet/critic/sensei, and why?

HK: For me, the greatest teachers have been the Japanese people themselves. As you know, the country of Japan is composed of just these green islands, but it has adopted aspects of other cultures, selecting and modifying them. What is it that the people of this country, from the distant past, have valued and what have they discarded? I always begin by observing carefully how they have thought and acted toward a particular thing and hold that in mind.

As for individual Japanese, there are people like Basho, Saigyo, Zeami, and Rikyu. And among people of other countries who have influenced them are people like Du Fu, Zhuangzi, and Buddhist priests.


RW: Is there any advice or admonition you'd like to share with our readers concerning English language haiku? You have great respect by scholars and poets in Japan and anything you can share with us will help us on our haiku paths.

HK: My advice would be that English haiku must have its own unique path. While Japanese haiku can provide hints in regard to rhythm and nature, this path cannot be an imitation but must be grounded in the particular language that is English. If that is not the case, there is no meaning in making haiku in English. This is similar to the way the Japanese learned about Western culture during the 19th century.


RW: Thank you, Mr. Hasegawa, for taking time out from your busy schedule to share with our readers your insight into haiku poetry.


Hasegawa Kai Hasegawa Kai is a professor at Tokai University in Japan. He also is a reviewer of literary and cultural works, including haiku, for the Yomiuri Newspaper; a judge of the Asahi Newspaper Haiku Corner; a member of the Haiku Poets Association; and the founder and leader of his own haiku circle and journal, Koshi. Professor Hasegawa Kai is the author of over 20 books of haiku criticism and is an award-winning poet.