Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Winter 2009, vol 7 no 4

Women & Postwar Gendai Haiku: From Invisibility to Leadership
Udo Kiyoko, Modern Haiku Association President talks with
Richard Gilbert and Itō Yūki

Transcript by Saiki Aiko (Kumamoto University, Ph.D. cand.), June 2009
Translation by Itō Yūki, Saiki Aiko and Richard Gilbert, August 2009


Uda Kiyoko-sensei [宇多喜代子, b. 1935] is the President of the Modern Haiku Association (gendai haiku kyōkai) the largest 'contemporary-aesthetic' haiku organization in Japan, founded in 1947.1 Uda was awarded the Japan Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon in 2002, a national honor bestowed upon individuals who have greatly contributed to society through academic and artistic merit. Uda is among the most notable of gendai haiku leaders, and more comprehensively of literary society in Japan, and has been active for some decades as an international representative on the Asian continent, initiating cultural and artistic exchange.

Translator's note

This interview took place at the Kakimori Museum in Itami, Osaka, on August 3, 2007. The excerpt translated here represents eleven consecutive minutes, from minute seven of an approximately 150-minute interview. Parenthetical information indicates translators' information inserted for reader clarity; ellipsis indicates pauses in conversational flow. We have endeavored to emulate Uda's conversational pace by separating linked ideas with the em-dash. This excerpt is available to view as a subtitled flash-video, at "" and can be downloaded (mp4 format) at "".


[Gilbert] It seems quite significant that the historic achievements of the New Rising Haiku movement2 have led to the modern haiku (gendai) form and culture, in the contemporary era. This seems especially true concerning the activities of female haiku poets who became prominent after the war. Could you offer your thoughts on this topic?

[Uda] Well, from the Showa 20s (1945-55) on, I've lived for approximately fifty years (in postwar Japan) to today—in 'real time,' and so have come to realize our circumstances, concerning haiku. To be frank, wherever one goes (or has gone) there have been few women. The numbers of female haiku poets were few, and moreover, it was generally thought that haiku-kei, that is, the literary form of haiku itself, was unsuitable for women.

I'm referring here to "cutting." kiru (lit. 'to cut': in haiku, known as the technique of "cutting." kiru is the root-verb-form of kire): haiku cuts, as you know: it cuts. Relatively speaking, women have been (how can I say)—'pliant' women, we all, have been poor at "cutting" (kiru), as women have tended to "adhere"...

[Itō] Yamamoto Kenkichi made such a statement, didn't he?3

[Uda] Yes... I myself feel there are so many things women want to describe—or should I say that women wish to describe various things? That is, to speak of things, to want to speak of things... could this be part of a woman's way? That is, when women express their personal narratives; "myself," wherein: "What is the kind of life I have spent..." When women begin to describe events that have happened in their lives, they often want to describe such topics with fluency. Concerning such an aspect—the "cut" / "cut" of haiku: haiku is a literary form based on truncation, isn't it?

So, yes, haiku "cuts" explanation: this is haiku. Haiku "cuts": scenes, actions, everything, and cuts time and language. So, though it is said that "cutting" is really omission, I think that "cutting" is at the same time the essential proposition of haiku.4

And, if asked about what haiku is, there are a variety of aspects of haiku—that is, as a seasonal verse, or as a form of poetry consisting of "five-seven-five"—but the essence of haiku is "cutting," in my opinion. As such, especially for women, this (technique of cutting) was perhaps ill-suited to their expression.

And as well, this pertains to the fact that socially it used to be quite difficult for women to go out in public. Women have always been okusama (oku + sama: formal for "wife"; oku means "hidden/in back/behind"), and so (women) have been in oku (in back, behind; i.e., women did not go out in public). At that time, women rarely announced their full name. For example, I have had very few opportunities to offer someone my full name: "Uda Kiyoko."

[Itō] I see... we commonly indicate or identify women as "whomsoever man's wife," even today.

[Uda] Yes, yes, so we identify women as "so-and-so's mother" or "Mr. X's okusama,"—"Mr. Gilbert's okusama." There's no "place" to ask for Mr. Gilbert's wife's name... So, we have rarely asked women what their actual names are. Yes—this is the way it's been. So, let me say, many didn't know the names of their neighbors' wives, people who had known each other (lived next to each other) for more than fifty years! That's the way it was.

Out of that situation, women came to be freed from burdens such as housework, etc. Society has begun to allow advancement... so a new sense of freedom has appeared. As such, regarding haiku, as you know, authors identify themselves (nanori) in haiku: "This author: what's their name?" And so, whenever (women) had to speak out, with a clear, direct voice; to speak their name—this was extremely embarrassing—everyone was embarrassed! Because women had never spoken their name out loud in public. There had hardly ever been any chance to speak one's name!

So there is a huge gap between the era in which I became involved with haiku, and today. The individual author states: I am that person who wrote this haiku, and my name is so-and-so.

Today, modern female haiku?poets definitively, distinctly identify themselves. And this should be natural—true by definition. And yet, such a situation (as mentioned) had been in place over a very long period of history. For example, even famous historical women were recorded as just: "woman" or "Mrs. X." So, haiku, a brief poetic form, has provided a first opportunity to express one's own name... from the home to the arena of public society... such an era has arrived.

This process occurred from about the Showa 20s (1945-55), and I surmise the lives of women of previous generations were very hard. Additionally, most housework depended on women. Family housework; it's called the "domestic economy," isn't it? All of this was woman's work. Women had very little time to spend on themselves, for their own purposes. But as you know, the rice cooker, the washing machine, and many other things have supported women's housework. Somewhat, yes, socially (there still exists) a considerable social disparity; though compared with the time-period I experienced, the era when working women were derogatorily labeled shokugyo fujin ("working women") is over. The status of women has greatly improved in our society! As human beings, women are resilient; at any rate, we as women have now been finding our "place" on our own... When women find their place in the kitchen—that is their own place. In fact, women who have been fulfilled there haven't been at all miserable. I suppose they have found some enjoyment in their lives.

Women had been severely socially disadvantaged in prior times (prior to the Showa 20s). You know, the right to vote was extended to women only after the war—it's called 'women's suffrage,' isn't it? We (women) were given voting rights: we voted for the first time! (laughs). There were no rights before or during the war.

[Itō] During the wartime period (1931-1945), due to "The Public Order and Police Law," women were unable to meet together, yes?5

[Uda] That's true, we could not meet together. And this form of oppression represented a different situation from that which soldiers experienced on the battlefield—that period caused ordinary people great misery: they weren't free to speak out or express themselves. So that's how it was... Now such circumstances have almost completely departed; I suppose the environment of women has gradually improved. If we aren't attached to a mistaken idea about freedom, the "good times" have come. "Freedom" doesn't mean we can do whatever we want. We have to take responsibility for our actions—we have individual responsibility. And while they say haiku is free-form poetry, it also has a number of rules.

[Itō] There is a saying, "haikai-jiyu" ("haikai is for freedom," a celebrated epithet of Bashō).6

[Uda] So it is said; yet at the same time, the constraints are appreciated; everyone composes haiku with this understanding. Concerning haiku form, generally speaking, if a haiku has an extra 'sound' (ichi-ji), there is some contemplation of exactly how this will be resolved. "5-7-5 but an extra 'sound'—so what shall be done about that?" is the thinking. So, considering what alternate language might correspond: the night flies! (laughs). This process is enjoyable; that is, if we were free to just do anything, this process might not result in such enthusiasm.

On the edge of freedom. "If you slip there, you will fall down" or something like this. We play there. Not playing here (pointing to the center of the desk), but playing there (pointing to the edge)—this brings joy. So, especially—especially, gendai haiku offers this sense.

That is, not the given situation: e.g., a given chair at a specific location = "Compose Here." But rather, we go there (points to the edge)—on our own. Within this realm is the danger of failure due to making a false step. We all, haiku poets—yes—have increasingly been seeking more and further new expressions, and we have been experimenting with them. So, there is such an enjoyment, I believe.

[Gilbert] Now, you have become the President of the Modern Haiku Association. It must have been a really long journey...

[Uda] (Laughs) Yes, now we've arrived at such a stage! All sorts of challenges are for the "first time" for (Japanese) women—[Itō: Is that meant to be derogatory?] [Uda:] Yes, though some people apply that label ("first time"), I don't find the responsibility a heavy burden, and have accepted the role of President because our society is a not-for-profit institution; the (MHA) doesn't make money—there is no so-called "commercial enterprise" involved.

If the MHA were a profit-making institution, I would in no way be able to accept this position. For a great many aficionados, that is to say, concerning haiku and haiku poets, some eagerly compose haiku with a strong self-identity (as haiku poets), while others are involved just for their enjoyment—can I call them "haiku lovers"? I cherish such people-those who are 'mere' readers, who simply read haiku for enjoyment—those readers of haiku—who read without necessarily composing—I really like and enjoy such readers. Towards such people, I feel really—that I could accomplish something (laughs). And so I thought perhaps I could take on the role. As well, I've spent my haiku career as one of the "young" (within postwar haiku generations).

So, for your generation (speaking to Itō, in his 20s) the situation is very different. As for my own experience, I used to be labeled: "Ah, 'hon.' young generation" ("ahh, o-wakai sedai") wherever I went, until only recently. Well, haiku has, you know, the problem of "generation(s)"...

As far as I've personally experienced, over the (postwar) decades (concerning the status of women, traditional socio-cultural roles in the haiku world, etc), certainly societal valuation has been changing. So, today, somehow, I've come to find that my own standards have broadened. Even if another's standards contrast with mine, I can afford to admit this divergent stance. And it is in this spirit that I accepted the role of President. In addition, our society isn't exclusionary... So, I felt that I could do it. In addition, many people have supported me, and enabled me to take on this role.

So, from now on, without a distinction between men and women, a position such as this has come to be made, I suppose. So, it is possible, and fortunate - both at present, and for the future. However, when I became President, as I took up the post, often phrases such as "the first female" were bandied about—I was rather taken aback by the prevalence of such stock epithetical headlines! (Laughs)


This research is supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research and the Japan Ministry of Education (MEXT), Kakenhi 18520439 (2006-07), and Kakenhi 21520579 (2009-11).


1The Modern Haiku Association has an English-language page with a "Welcome" and brief recounting of the historical founding of the organization, by Uda Kiyoko: ""; Kaneko Tohta is the Honorary President of the Modern Haiku Association.

2For information regarding the New Rising Haiku movement, please see two papers by Itō Yūki, available online: "New Rising Haiku: The Evolution Of Modern Japanese Haiku And The Haiku Persecution Incident," Simply Haiku "", and "Forgive, But Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalitarianism," (interview with Udo Wenzel) Haiku Heute Journal "".

3Yamamoto Kenkichi (1907-88), a notable haiku critic, discriminated against female haiku poets. In his well-known lecture, "On Women's Haiku" [Joryū haiku ni tsuite] (1954), he stated that haiku "is not a suitable literary form for the expression of women's emotions, as tradition" (Yamamoto Kenkichi. What Is Haiku? [Haiku to wa nani ka] Tokyo: Kadokawa-Sophia bunko, 1993. p. 290).

4Uda's comment follows Bashō, as Kyorai penned in his Kyoraishō (circa 1704 CE):

Placing kireji in hokku [haiku] is for those beginners who do not understand the nature of cutting and uncutting very well. . . . [However,] there are hokku which are well-cut without kireji. Because of their subtle qualities, [for beginners] more common theories have been founded, and taught.. . . Once, the master, Bashō, said, as an answer to the question of Jōsō [one of Bashō's ten principal disciples. b.1662?-1704]: "In waka, after 31- on, there is kire. In hokku, after 17-on, there is kire." Joso was immediately enlightened. Then, another disciple asked [on the same topic], and the master, Bashō, answered, "When you use words as kireji, every word becomes kireji. When you do not use words as kireji, there are no words which are kireji." And the master said, "From this point, grasp the very depth of the nature of kireji on your own." All that I have described here is what the master revealed, until the very threshold of its true secret [oral tradition], the thickness of one leaf of shoji-paper. (Kyorai. (2001) 'Kyoraishō,' in Isao Okuda (ed.) Shinpen nihon bungaku zenshu vol 88: Renga-ron-shu, nogaku-ron-shu, hairon-shu [The new edition of the complete works of Japanese Classic Literature, vol. 88: Theories on Renga, Noh, and Haiku], (Y. Itō and R. Gilbert, trans.). Tokyo: Shogakukan, 497-99.

5The "Public Order and Police Law of 1900" (治安警察法, Chian Keisatsu Hō) prohibited any kind of political activity for women. Women's associations fought against this law, and it was amended in 1922 and again in 1926. However, in 1925, the law to persecute thought criminals, the "Peace Preservation Law" (治安維持法, Chian Iji Hō) was established. The Public Order and Police Law and The Peace Preservation Law were both abolished in 1945.

6Haikai jiyū [俳諧自由]: "haikai is for freedom" (Bashō). The full phrase is: "haikai jiyū no ue ni tada jinjō no keshiki o sakusen wa, tegara nakarubeshi", "Haikai is for freedom; therefore, to describe mere ordinary things is not a great deed." [俳諧自由の上に、ただ尋常の気色を作せんは、手柄なかるべし。] (excerpt). Bashō qtd. In Kyoraishō (Celebrated analects of Bashō. First pub. circa 1704 CE) Kyorai. (2001) 'Kyoraishō,' in Isao Okuda (ed.) Shinpen nihon bungaku zenshu vol 88: Renga-ron-shu, nogaku-ron-shu, hairon-shu [The new edition of the complete works of Japanese classic literature vol 88: Theories on Renga, Noh, and Haiku], (Y. Itō and R. Gilbert, trans.). Tokyo: Shogakukan, 445.