WHR January 2017‎ > ‎

One Hundred Haijin, part 4

WHR Jan 2017



 Susumu Takiguchi


Nakamura Kusatao (1901-1983)

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) famously predicted that haiku could become extinct by the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). How wrong he was! And how delighted we are that he was wrong, without being unkind to him! This is indeed a cause for celebration.

One way of celebrating it could be to choose at random one hundred Japanese haiku poets who have helped to prove him wrong. If we chose one hundred best the case would be strong. But if we chose randomly, and not necessarily the best, one hundred from among, say, about five hundred who have been leading figures in the modern history of haiku in Japan, the case would be even stronger.

With this in mind, I would like to serialise my narratives in World Haiku Review about the one hundred Japanese haijin whom I shall choose at random and talk about. There is no particular reason why the number should be one hundred. It could be two hundred or fifty. Just over one hundred years have passed since the end of the Meiji Era, and a little bit longer since Shiki died. So, the number one hundred would not be bad. To write about more than one hundred haijin could be exhausting. If the number was fifty, the endeavour could be unsatisfactory and frustrating as more would surely be desired to be introduced. One thing which is certain is that it is not really intended to follow the fashion to use the number one hundred in haiku books, originally emanating from the ancient waka anthology Hyaku-Nin-Isshu (one poem each by one hundred poets). Being a heso-magari (contrarian) I would in fact have liked to avoid this cliché.


Nakamura Kusatao (1901-1983)



What came to be called the masterpiece of Nakamura Kusatao (1901-1983) has become too famous for its own good:


furu yuki ya/Meiji wa toku/nari-ni-keri


falling snow...

long has it now gone:

the Meiji era


Meiji is a Japanese emperor’s reigning period between 1868 and 1912. It is now such a long time past that few people in the 21st century Japan talk about it on a day-to-day base. Someone who was born in the last year of Meiji would now be 104 years old. For most, Meiji is thus an “ancient history”. Not so, for those who were born in Meiji or soon afterwards still under heavy influence of it. Meiji was the era when Japan managed to emerge from its obscurity to become a modern state comparable with the Western powers through concerted national efforts to modernise, industrialise and Westernise within a very short period of time. It was therefore to be spoken of as a great era, albeit turbulent and difficult. So when Meiji was ended it was indeed the end of an era, after which people looked upon it with awe and nostalgia.

For the young generations in today’s Japan, and for non-Japanese for that matter, this nostalgia is nothing but anachronism or irrelevancy. It is for this reason that certain haiku using specific place names or dates or country would not last long and would probably seldom become universal, unless they are very well-known worldwide.

Kusatao Nakamura was born in 1901, the 34th year of the Meiji era in Amoi, in Fujian Province of China, where his father was stationed as a diplomat. He came back with his mother to Japan when he was three and settled in Matsuyama, a centre of modern haiku, before moving to Tokyo where he was educated. He studied German and Japanese literature at Tokyo University and became an academic. He died in 1983.


The “Meiji” haiku which Kusatao wrote when he was 29 must still be ranked as one of the best haiku poems of modern time. Why? It is because there is so much depth and intellectual brilliance in the feelings with which he wrote it, which transcends time and place, albeit the poem needs some explanation for the uninitiated and foreign. Let us now look at some other works by him:


sora wa taisho no aosa/tsuma yori/ringo uku


the sky is of

the blue of the beginning of time...

I receive an apple from my wife


Kusatao is of course referring here to Adam and Eve. The subject is not only not Japanese but also highly un-haiku-like and to a non-Christian even pedantic. He actually wrote a lot of haiku relating to Christianity. His wife was a Catholic. Whether he himself was also a Christian is not clear, though it is known that he received the rights of the church before he died. Some record that on the day before he died he was actually baptised to become a Catholic.


yuki koso/chi no shio nare-ya/ume mashiro


courage, indeed

is the salt of the earth

white plum blossom


The inspiration of this haiku was derived from a passage of the Sermon on the Mount:  13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.


At the University of Tokyo Kusatao joined a student’s haiku society and came to be under the influence of Mizuhara Shuoshi, an influential haiku poet who brought some kind of a haiku revolution to the Japanese haidan (haiku circle) which was deeply steeped in tradition.

His study of German and Japanese literature gave him a new way in which he liberally brought drastic ideas into haiku. His becoming an academic once again could be a hindrance rather than a help in writing only traditional haiku.

Kusatao was no ordinary person and here is the rub. Haiku is supposed to be poetry of ordinary people, by ordinary people and for ordinary people. What then should we make out someone like Kusatao? He was special, an elite, a thinker and an intellectual revolutionist. Talking about his intellectualism however must not blind us from appreciating his other and opposite characteristic, that of sensuality and emotions:


tsuma dakana/shunchu no jari/fumite kaeru


wanting to make love to my wife,

I hurry home, treading on the gravel road

in the spring noon


No explanation or commentary is needed. The only point one may make is his depiction of the “treading on the gravel road”. Treading indicates that the author had been walking quite a while and therefore was tired, hearing the noise of his feet digging into and possibly scattering gravel along the way. Love-making is normally done during the night. In this poem, it would be in the middle of daytime, which makes his desire more desperate and immediate than otherwise. Another example in the same vein:


enten no/sora e azuma no/jotai kou


looking up at

the blazing hot sky, I long for

an Eastern woman's body


What is important here is the courage with which Kusatao somewhat broke with the taboo of sex. It thus changed the convention of haiku in a significant way. Partly because of this he was regarded as a leading figure of a "Ningen tankyu ha" (school of thought studying the human condition) as we shall look at again later.

Kusatao was widely read. Among big names, his hero was Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, as was the fashion of the time. To be attracted by this complex figure in the Western philosophy was in a way a reflection of Kusatao’s tortured soul itself. He was influenced also by Soren Kierkegaad and other existentialist thinkers. During his middle-school days he was pushing himself hard in his quest for the meaning of life so much that he suffered from severe depression. This was exacerbated by the death of his aunt and father, which added to his anxiety and fear of death. Kusatao was not a mad man but he often pondered upon the question of insanity.


fuyu-gumo wa/kyoin no yabu ni/seri agaru


winter clouds...

pushing themselves over the bushes

of a lunatic asylum


kurueru uta wa/saete furoba ni/hankyo su


mad songs

reverberate loud and clear

in the bathroom [of a psychiatric hospital]


gunkoku no/fuyu kyoin wa/uta ni mitsu


winter in the military nation...

the lunatic asylum is full of



Through this last haiku, is Kusatao saying that Japan went mad and became a gigantic lunatic asylum full of mad and patriotic songs? Among intellectuals of this period, especially those conversant with Western studies, there were some who were ambivalent about the nation's war effort.

Kusatao devoted himself to a serious study of literature, philosophy and religion, which might have saved him from becoming insane. Writing haiku about insanity also may have helped, as haiku brings into one’s view of life a sense of detachment and also a sense of humour both of which have the effect of pulling someone in crisis away from the realities with which he/she is proving to be unable to cope.

But it was tanka poems, and not haiku, written by Saito Mokichi that first truly opened Kusatao’s eyes to Japanese poetry. Once he got the hang of it he naturally went on to study the way of haiku. In haiku, he was at first self-taught. But in 1929 when he was twenty-eight he became a student of the giant of a figure who presided over the modern Japanese haiku world, Takahama Kyoshi.

Soon Kusatao started to contribute to Kyosi’s prestigious haiku magazine, the Hototogisu, which became his main preoccupation around that time. And before too long he became a leading figure in the Hototogisu School. His old mentor, Mizuhara[m1]  Shuoshi, was also an important figure in this school but became dissatisfied with and disillusioned by its rigid conservatism and eventually left the School in 1934 to start his own school of radical haiku with its new haiku magazine called “Ashibi”. Some other young and bright poets such as Ishida Hakyo and Kato Shuson followed suit. Though Kusatao was sympathetic with them he did not abandon the Hototogisu School.

However, there arose a new trend whereby haiku poets belonging to different schools got united by their quest for new types of haiku which would be more suitable for and demanded by the new age. Their aim was to look into the inner world of humanity as opposed to the traditional kacho-fuei (haiku of birds and flowers, i.e. nature) which was the main feature of the Hototogisu School. Kusatao became a leading figure of this new trend, aforementioned “Ningen Tankyu-ha” (the school of human study) alongside newly acquainted poets. Here is an example of his haiku which seems to be beginning to move away from the traditional nature haiku into a more human-orientated one:


uguisu/minna onaji oto nareba/ie omou


bush warblers...

all having the same song,

I think of home


Ordinary Japanese people would listen to bush warblers and admire and enjoy their lovely song. No more, and no less. Kusatao was different. For him the striking thing was that wherever or whenever they sing, it sounds the same to him. Let us see more examples:


chichi to nari-shi ka/tokage to tomoni/tachi-domaru


have I at last

become a father? I stop walking,

as does a lizard


banryoku no/naka ya ako no ha/hae somuru


new green everywhere...

the first of my baby's teeth

has appeared


akanbo no/goshi ga tsukami-shi/seru no kata


my baby's five fingers

grabbing firmly the shoulder

of my kimono


Kusatao had four daughters. His love for them was echoed by millions of others in the Japan plunging deeper and deeper into militarism and war ambitions.

In the remaining space, I will pick up certain haiku at random that further illustrate Kusatao's brilliance:


shunso wa/ashi no mijikaki/inu ni moyu


spring grass...

sprouting for the dog

with short legs


hito tobi ni/itodo wa yami e/kaeri keri


in one jump

the itodo cricket has returned

to darkness


kaiyose ni/norite kikyo no/fune hayashi


in the following spring wind

the boat carrying me home

sails fast


haha ga ya chikaku/ben-i mo ureshi/hanacha-gaki


my mother's house near,

glad too of the toilet...

flowers in the tea bush


joya no kane/me no mae iru tsuma/mou inu haha


the New Year’s bell

my wife who is in front of me,

and my mother who is not


Another woman whom Kusatao loved deeply was, of course, his mother. After his father's death in Kusatao's university days, his mother became even more dear to him. His high intellect did not allow him to regard his wife as a mother substitute. He managed to love both women who could potentially be, and often were, rivals for his affection.

The joya no kane bell tolls 108 times on New Year's Eve, each time exonerating each one of us from different sins. Most temples start it before midnight, leaving the last one to be struck immediately after it. What sins was Kusatao thinking about? Somehow, the joy of having a loving wife and the sorrow of missing his mother were mingled in the bell sound, which set his mind at ease.