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100 haijin after Shiki

WHR March 2019


Susumu Takiguchi


Kubota Mantaro (1889-1963) 

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.

Kubota Mantaro (1889-1963)



Kubota (surname) Mantaro (given name)*

7 November 1889 ~ 6 May 1963

*Following the academic convention of Japanese studies, Japanese full names are written in

the order of the country’s practice, i.e. surname followed by given name.


There is a famous episode about this author. It relates to how he died rather than
how he lived. It also speaks volumes about what his personality was like.

One early summer evening Kubota was invited to a dinner party by a famous 
Japanese painter, Umehara Ryuzaburo, sometimes called the Japanese Renoir, 
at the artist’s home in Shinjuku, the west of Tokyo. Kubota, apart from being a 
well-established novelist, dramatist and haiku master, was also renowned as a 
difficult-to-please gourmet. He was therefore reputed to enjoy fine food and 
drink. However, there was one thing which he avoided eating. It was a shell fish 
called akagai, (blood clam, or ark shell: Scapharca broughtonii) which was 
popular among gourmet. And the reason for avoiding akagai was that it was too 
hard for Kubota to bite or chew easily.

Unfortunately for Kubota, this was exactly the item spread for the evening in the 
form of nigiri-sushi. It was carefully chosen especially for him by the host Umehar
a because of its high rating as a delicacy. Thus Kubota was at once put in an 
excruciatingly difficult position where he had to choose either to tell the host the 
truth and not eat it, or to eat it in order not to offend him. He chose the latter. 
No sooner he put the delicacy into his mouth than he developed dysphagia and 
soon after was literally choked to death. He must have decided to swallow the 
shell fish whole in the good old kamikaze spirit without attempting to chew it. 
(There are some who mention that he died of food poisoning, which seems to be 

He was taken to the Hospital of Keio University of which he was an alumnus but 
was already in the state of what in Japan is called shin-pai-teishi 
(cardiopulmonary arrest)  which means in plain English he was dead. In Japan, 
only doctors can legally pronounce anybody dead, which in the case of Kubota 
was done at 18:25 hours.

It was later found that his strict code of courtesy dictated him not to tell the host 
or any other guests what crisis he was unexpectedly faced with. Once outside the 
banquet room he tried to rescue himself in the toilet but sadly collapsed in front 
of its door. This was in 1963 (Showa 38) and Kubota was 73 years and 6 months 
old. A heart attack or stroke was obviously suspected in the first place. But post-
mortem revealed nothing wrong  with his heart, brains or any other organs. 
Puzzled, the doctors cut through the windpipe and found a rolled-up blood clam 
tightly blocking the air.


yudofu ya inochi no hate no usu-akari


        boiled tofu;
        at the end of one’s life…
        a dim light


季語:湯豆腐ー冬  出典:流寓抄以後  年代:昭和38年


This haiku was written some five weeks before his death. It has therefore often 
been regarded as his death poem, or at least one which was written with his being
conscious of his old age and therefore of the not-too-distant future of its ending. 
That may be reading too much into it, though certainly a great deal of feelings of 
pathos are put into it about his life which was in the twilight years.

In his life, he had more than his fair share of losing his nearest and dearest by 
death. His first wife had committed suicide because of his philandering. His 
second marriage had broken down and the couple were living separately. The 
third woman he dearly loved had also had a sudden death a year before this haiku
was written. Moreover, his beloved son died at 36.

As if these were not enough, he had to endure other misfortunes. His home was 
destroyed twice: once by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and twice after the 
American air raid in 1945 which obliged him to move to Kamakura. Earlier in the
same year, both of his parents died one after another. So, it would be unnatural 
to think that he did not have his own death in mind when composing this haiku.

Yudofu is the kigo for winter. It is one of the typical Japanese dishes called 
nabemono. Basically, you boil various things in a large flat pot which is placed on
the table in front of you and each person helps him/herself to whatever becomes 
cooked which he/she wants, dip it in a sauce and eat it. Typically, meat or fish is 
the main ingredient with vegetables always to accompany, but tofu is often used 
as the main ingredient in its own right, or in addition to other main ingredient. 
One assumes that there are few Japanese who do not like yudofu very much.

The saving grace is the sense of humour and detachment which haiku could 
provide him with. Tofu was his favourite food and consequently there are quite a 
few haiku written about it, which is in itself humorous. Tofu can be said to be a 
comfort food for the Japanese because it is nice and soft. It is nutritious without
being expensive or extravagant. It is easy to eat whether cooked or not. It is our 
‘friend’. The contrast between tofu as such and the grave matter of death is 
striking and gives out a slight sense of humour.

The puzzle, or a key question, is the dim light in shimo-go (the third line). Did 
Kubota mean a fading light (diminishing hope or optimism)? Or, did he mean a 
light was still a light however faint it might be, a symbol of lingering optimism? 
Fading light could  also mean his own life approaching its end. The irony is that 
it was composed at a bonen-kukai held in Ginza, Tokyo. “Bonen” means trying to 
forget the passing year, but it can also mean forgetting one’s age.



kanda-gawa/matsuri no naka wo/nagare keri


        the River Kanda,
        running through
        the festival


季語:祭ー夏  出典:道芝  年代:大正14年


Kubota is often referred to as a kissui no Edokko, or a native of the downtown 
(of Tokyo through and through. Edoof course is the old name of Tokyo, and was 
famous for its distinct culture apart from many other things. The downtown, like 
cockney of East London, still preserves many features of that culture to this day. 
As Tokyo has become a melting pot of all manner of people from many different 
regions of Japan, those who are born and bred there have become few and far 
between and have come to be distinguished as “genuine” Tokyoites.

Kubota was born right in the middle of the downtown, Asakusa, which is today 
one of the most popular international tourist traps in Tokyo. His parents were 
running quite a  sizeable business of making and selling tabisocks, employing 
about 15 skilled workers. He went to a local elementary school, after which he 
entered the Tokyo Third Junior High school which was also situated not too far 
from home and to which another famous writer, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, enrolled
a year later. After some delay on account of his failure in mathematics exam, he 
went to study literature at the University of Keio. There he met two heavy weights 
in Japan’s literary world, Mori Ogai and Nagai Kafu, who were teaching at the 
Literature Faculty. This encounter more or less determined his future.

People in the downtown loved matsuri (festivals) and still do. This one is a 
summer festival. They are like the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, with elaborate and 
shiny floats carried by young men in traditional attire, loud music with flutes, 
drums and metal instruments, dancing of young women in festival costume, all 
cheered by thousands of spectators who fill the streets where the matsuri 
procession take place. The beauty of this haiku lies in its skilful depiction that 
there are so many people present in the scene that it looks as though the river 
seems to be flowing amidst the matsuri throng. Some commentators say that this
is a relatively small festival and that the river is flowing just as usual as if to say it
has nothing to do with it. I do not agree.


mayudama ya/ichido kojireshi/fufu-naka

        mayudama decoration;
        once it began going awry…
        our marriage


This haiku has a maegaki, which says, “Welcoming the New Year in” (1956). 
 Kubota was 67 years old. He and his wife had moved back to Tokyo the previous 
year, leaving Kamakura where they lived for over ten years. So, it was for them 
the first New Year in the new residence which was located in the district. The 
feeling was that everything was new. This should have included their perception 
of the married life. Something new, something fresh. However, their relationship 
had been marred by his infidelity and the strain is almost palpable in this all-too-
honest haiku. The uplifting New Year’s celebrations are contrasted to the piquancy
of self-mocking confession, presenting a fine example of toriawase. This poignant
image of the haiku looks as if it has been extracted from the pages of some of his 
novels. It is even more moving if one thinks of his tragedy 21 years earlier, 
whereby his previous wife killed herself. 

Mayudama is a kigo for the New Year. It refers to the traditional practice of 
hanging on 15 January a branch of certain trees such as a lacquer tree (Rhus 
verniciflua), Poison tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) or a willow tree from the 
ceiling, with a lot of decorations attached to it like a Christmas tree. The 
decorations range from mochi rice cake sliced in the shape of a cocoon 
(mayudama in Japanese), gold coins (token), ears of rice crop, models of treasure
ships and confectionery. The practice is to pray for a good harvest, commercial 
successes, and happiness generally. Mayudama was originally to pray for good 
crops of cocoons. Few people practice this feature at home now but it is commonly as a decoration in businesses to attract custom.


anko mo waga mi no go mo niyuru kana


        monkfish and
        the karma of my life
        both bubbling


季語:鮟鱇ー冬  出典:流寓抄以後  年代:昭和38年


This famous haiku was written in 1963, the year when Kubota died at 73. The 
death occurred in early summer on 6 May. So, it must have been during the 
previous winter (the haiku was created in March) when the monkfish stew was 
eaten because it is normally a winter dish. Every bit of a monkfish can be and is 
eaten, which begot the phrase,nanatsu-dogu (or the seven tools) of the monkfish,
such as flesh, skin, liver and fins, i.e. everything except for bones.

There are many Japanese words derived from Buddhism and go is one of them. 
It is the Japanese translation of the Sanskrit word, karman. It is obvious that 
Kubota was looking back his whole life and thought about good deeds and bad 
deeds that he had done, especially the latter. Monkfish is famed for its ugly looks 
more than for its delicioustaste. The ugliness has an association with negative 
side of things, in this case bad things which Kubota had done in his life. Therefore,
the monkfish stew must have looked to Kubota like a summing-up of what came 
to pass in his entire life. Topmost on his mind must have been Misumi Kazuko, 
his mistress, who died in December of the previous year, only about 4 months 
before this haiku was composed.

Kubota had forsaken his wife and moved out of the married home to live in hiding 
with his mistress Kazuko in an obscure corner at Akasaka. This was in 1957 when 
Kubota was 68 and Kazuko 54, i.e. five years before his death. They met when 
Kazuko was still a geisha at the famous pleasure quarter, Yoshiwara. In February 
that year his beloved son, Koichi, died, which devastated him.

Career-wise, it was a memorable year as in November he was awarded the most
prestigious medal in Japan in the literary and cultural field, the Cultural Medal.
Glittering professionally, Kubota was suffering from tragedy in his family and 
from his broken marriage. Kazuko, presumably, was his only solace. Faced with 
Kazuko’s death, Kubota left us with a poignant haiku with wry humour:

死んでゆくものうらやまし冬ごもり(shin de yuku mono urayamashi 

fuyu gomori: those who die/I do envy/winter hibernation).



mochi furi shi fufu no hashi ya hiya-yakko

        long-time possession…
        man-and-wife chopsticks,
        eating chilled tofu

Thus it was that Kubota’s life was one of philandering, of more than a fair share 
of deaths of his loved ones and of a brilliant career as a leading literary figure. 
Leaving aside his earlier love-life, the beginning was love at first sight, which 
happened in 1919 when he was 30, and married a girl who was staying with a 
friend of his as an apprentice being trained to be a bride, which was a common 
practice in Japan at that time.

She was a geisha called Konryu. Her real name was Kyo. And she became a 
devoted wife. She bore him a baby boy, Koichi. It was supposed to be a happy 
marriage, but 16 year later Kyo committed suicide by overdose. This was in 1935 
when he was 46. The reason was his infidelity. In the previous year he met a new 
woman, Kuroki Haru, a waitress at a café, which was the direct cause of his wife’s
despair. Haru gave birth to a baby girl a month after Kyo’s suicide. More 
surprisingly, he and this newly-found lover parted the following year.

In 1946 when he was 57 he remarried to Mita Kimi, about whom we have already 
discussed. Let me just add that she was 24 years younger than him and was a 
successful business woman, running a hotel. The marriage was full of happiness 
at first but soon turned sour. He disliked her so much that he wrote a haiku:

 蝙蝠(こうもり)に口ぎたなきがやまひかなkomori ni kuchigitanaki ga yamai 
kana (on the bats…/she has a foul mouth/that’s her illness).

Kubota always maintained that for him haiku was no more than a pastime. This 
caused quite a controversy. He spent a great deal of his time and passion on haiku. More of his
haiku were published in haiku magazines than the so-called professional haiku 
poets. He was even the editor of the prestigious haiku magazine called Shuntō. 
Some criticised, saying that it was a posture to make him look different from his 
ranks. Some even went so far as to say that he was hypocritical. However, Kubota 
was only doing his own thing, being an independent-minded person. He knew the adage: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. For him, haiku was a bit of a play, relaxation 
and an escape even.