WHR December 2011

I can well understand if someone finds in a magazine or website a haiku which resembles strongly to the one he/she has had published before and feels that his/her work has now been stolen or somehow violated, with a possibility that it may well have been plagiarised. Many would feel the same even if the resemblances were slight. The sentiment must in essence be the same as when one comes home only to find that the house has been burgled.

This is a natural reaction. However, is it that simple?

First and foremost, why should one be so negative about it? Positively, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” If one’s haiku is copied to a larger or lesser extent, it can mean that someone else has thought it is worth copying. If the act is sincere, it is a form of praise. It can also mean that others wish to learn from it, in which case one is inadvertently spreading good influence among the fellow haiku poets. Man is an imitating animal. We imitate right from the time we are born. We do it more or less all the time. How would we acquire a language, except by imitation? Indeed, 99 per cent of what we are, what we know, what we say and what we write may be not ours! And that is not a bad thing at all. Without it, our society, nation or even the whole world would collapse. So, to be genuinely original is not an easy thing to achieve in real terms, if not impossible, and significantly it has always been feared or rejected as something dangerous. This is an important point for a haiku poet to bear in mind before he/she goes out and shouts that his/her haiku has been copied.

Secondly, if one’s haiku is created independently and in isolation to the one similar to it, there is in reality and virtually nothing the other author can do about it. If both of them are good, that is something we haiku poets (and non-haiku poets) should celebrate for them and for ourselves. If one of them is bad, that should show up in everybody’s eyes and the matter should end there. If both of them are bad, they should be discarded quietly and no dispute should arise.

Thirdly, learning has always been imitating (emulating is the correct word) in Japan and haiku is a Japanese product. This is still largely true, though there are exceptional individuals who go their own ways (mainly as a result of Western influence). Students learn in the way they will become more and more like their teachers and hopefully as good as them. Take swordsmanship in the past, for example. Students were admitted to enter a certain school (e.g. Yagyu-ryu) led by a certain master swordsman and went through long and hard training by imitation until the master exhausted all that he had to teach (this involved of course spiritual training as well as skills and techniques) . The master issued Menkyo-Kaiden (certificate for “everything that can be taught has been taught”) and the students thus graduated the school and were now left to either train themselves or sometimes to enter another school if they wanted, as they did, to improve their swordsmanship further. This is a good example because one really had to make one’s swordsmanship better and better, otherwise they would have lost their lives. This can be compared with the old studios for prospective artists in the West where copying was the order of the day and trying to seek originality by showing individual differences was regarded unacceptable. In other words, concepts which led to copyright, plagiarism, intellectual property, patent etc. are relatively new even in the West. They were results of industrialisation, capitalism and individualism whereby tradable ideas (e.g. books) needed protection from abuse and theft.

What is mentioned in the preceding paragraph is about apprenticeship or tuition, whereby students go through necessary training to gain knowledge, skills and experience, the function which is now taken over by university and vocational education. However, these educational institutions cannot adequately provide all the students with all their needs because there are so many gaps one wants to learn. Special subjects such as haiku are especially the case in point. Courses in haiku and those qualified to teach haiku in them are really few and far between in the world, outside Japan. All this means that haiku is an untested, un-taught, uncharted and unexplored territory which can become either a new and exciting fertile ground for literary creation or a wasteland leading to such undesirable concomitants as “anything goes”, the whole world becoming haiku wild west, mushrooming of self-appointed teachers, the blind leading the blind, deteriorating quality, misconceptions becoming rules, poems of little value mass produced in haiku factories and put on shelves of haiku super markets, inferior works becoming worshiped and emulated, one dominating trend pervading every corner of the world etc. etc.

Having said all that, we are where we are and in need of dealing with the question as best we can. As we cannot realistically destroy capitalism or individualism, the two driving forces for originality, we just have to put this originality to good use and at the same time minimise whatever ills associated with it. In my opinion, this is actually very simple in the case of haiku. Follow tradition first, and only then, start seeking originality, and if you are not quite sure at times about the quality of the originality always do not fail to come back to the tradition. In other words, tradition should be the starting point and should remain the reference point. If you are learning about pine trees from pine trees and about bamboos from bamboos, or follow what people in the past sought and not the people themselves (idolatry), you should learn about haiku from the Japanese haiku tradition and follow what the Japanese haiku poets of the past sought.