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Sharing Japanese poetry with the rest of the world

by David Burleigh

THE RABBIT IN THE MOON/TSUKI NO USAGI by Kayoko Hashimoto. Kadokawa-shoten, 2007, 260 pp., ¥2,667 (cloth)

EARTH PILGRIMAGE/PELLEGRINO TERRESTRE/CHIKYU JUNREI by Ban’ya Natsuishi, English translations by the author and Jim Kacian, Italian by Luca Toma. Milan, Italy: Albalibre, 2007, 146 pp., 10.00 euro (paper)

It must be true, surely, that much of the understanding of Japanese culture held by people outside this country is randomly formed. Of course there will be influence from ideas circulating in the media, but of more immediate impact are likely to be direct and individual personal contacts: what we learn, understand, remember from people we have met. So too with the world of haiku.

Both the poets under review have traveled overseas and, more importantly, worked with other poets there. Kayoko Hashimoto, now retired, spent her life teaching. A native of Tokyo, she first composed a haiku at the age of 6, and the praise she garnered then set her on a lifelong path. Her family were acquainted with a distinguished woman haiku poet, and the author received instruction from one or two others. Haiku is very much a group activity, carried out under the direction of an established master, and the poet enlisted her mentor’s help with the selection. Her new collection, a handsome hardcover volume in a slipcase, is bilingually presented, with the haiku printed horizontally, Japanese and English on facing pages.

It is divided into titled sections, and covers her work for the last 20 years. Sensitive to seasonal change, and practiced in traditional procedures, the poet notices the cool touch in a manicure that signals the approach of winter, or celebrates how the “myriad green” of springtime growth makes “music resonate / all through the house.” These are experiences to be shared with others: “Overlooking / blossom clouds, with foreigners / haiku gathering.” The English versions are the poet’s own. The different parts of this admirable collection trace the author’s outward journeys, from the view in Japan with which it opens:

Overnight winds

brought leafless trees

and a view of Mount Fuji

Near the end comes a moment overseas when she discerns a folk image that she has brought from home:

Even to Rome

I bring along the rabbit

in the moon

There is a gentle humor to her writing, and a deep sense of gratitude.

Ban’ya Natsuishi (b. 1955) too came to haiku early in his life and developed under the tutelage of older masters, but now heads a group of his own, called Gin’yu (Troubadour). He has initiated contacts with haiku practitioners in several different countries, and has taken part with them in numerous haiku gatherings. As a result, he is one of the most widely known haiku poets outside Japan. Originally from Hyogo prefecture, Ban’ya writes under a pen-name and carries out his activities in the Tokyo area. Among other things, he has worked to set up an international liaison group.

One verse in “Earth Pilgrimage,” about the poet’s daughter, carries a curious echo of Kayoko’s title-poem, except that here the rabbit is a real one:

A girl to hold a rabbit

her father to give birth

to World Haiku

Like the other collection, this one is divided into sections, though it is really more a selected volume since a number of the poems have already appeared before. Each part invokes a different country, and the images can be quite arresting:

In the heart

of a fake gold watch

an African storm

This is one of a set of poems from Genoa, and reminds us how close Italy is to the coast of North Africa. The poet’s English-language collaborator on this trilingual volume, Jim Kacian, is American, but the poet’s journeys have taken him to Slovenia, Tunisia, China and elsewhere, on a quest to fulfill his lyrical ambition:

A new moon —

the sublimity of the orchid

not yet achieved

His book would fit neatly into a travel bag or pocket, while “The Rabbit in the Moon” is a volume for the lap or bookshelf. Undoubtedly both poets have contributed to the reception of haiku (Kayoko has also taken part in renga, or linked-verse composition) in other countries, and embodied in themselves some of the notions that people there formed about poetic practice in Japan.

Kayoko Hashimoto’s book may be most easily obtained from the author at 4-27-4-404 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 151-0053. For the Italian publisher’s Web site, see: www.albalibri.com or contact Ban’ya Natsuishi at 3-16-11 Tsuruse-nishi, Fujimi, Saitama, 354-0026 (e-mail: haikubanya@mub.biglobe.ne.jp).