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Japan’s modern haiku master

by David Burleigh

IKIMONOFUEI: Poetic Composition on Living Things, by Kaneko Tohta. Red Moon Press, 2011, 91 pp., $12.00 (paperback)
THE FUTURE OF HAIKU: An Interview with Kaneko Tohta. Red Moon Press 2011, 137 pp., $12.00 (paperback)

These two handy pocket-size volumes are the first of four to be issued by the Red Moon Press, all dealing with the haiku poet Kaneko Tohta (b. 1919), and intended to introduce his work to a wider readership abroad. The other two, scheduled for later this year, will be translations of his haiku. This is not the first time Kaneko’s work has been translated, but it is by far the most substantial introduction to it.

The compact burly figure of Kaneko has been for a number of years a familiar figure on television, and some of the footage from programs in which he appeared was incorporated into a DVD called “Ikimono” (Kinokuniya, 2009) in which he spoke about and read his work. “Ikimonofuei” consists of a translation of a lecture that he gave to the Modern Haiku Association in Japan in 2009, outlining his approach to haiku composition. It does not deal with small matters like syllables and images, but larger and more basic questions.

The word ikimono means “living things” and in the characteristically bold opening to his talk Kaneko sets himself firmly in opposition to the ideas of Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959), whose conservative practice had wide influence and a large following throughout the 20th century in Japan.

Where Kyoshi advocated kyakkan-shasei, or “objective sketching” with birds and flowers as its central subject-matter, representing the natural world, Kaneko proposes instead ikimono-fuei, composition that will embrace all living creatures, including human beings.

The raw, instinctual approach that Kaneko supports comes in part from his own background and upbringing, as we learn from the second volume. But what is refreshing in the lecture first of all is the way that, although he rehearses some of the debates about haiku practice that he has witnessed or been a party to, and thus fills in the background, he is bluntly dismissive of the petty quibbles they involve, as indeed he is also of the theoretical excesses of literary discussion in the present day: “I want to speak in a more humanly alive narrative voice; I feel I must express myself with this living human body.”

The son of a doctor whose father hosted gatherings of mountain men for haiku composition in his home area of Chichibu, the poet grew up in a rough masculine world in which poetry mattered so much that those attending sometimes came to blows. Later, as a student at the Imperial University of Tokyo, he became more involved, and composed haiku, which he continued to do during active service on the Truk Atoll during World War II.

The experience of war caused Kaneko to reject the rightwing thinking of his father, and during his own peace-time employment in the Bank of Japan he engaged in union activities. (See the interview with him in The Japan Times on Feb. 28, 2008.) Since retirement at the age of 55, he has dedicated himself to haiku. His particular study has focussed on the poets Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) and Taneda Santoka (1882-1940), whose troubled lives produced memorable work. Both were forced to reach deep inside themselves by the buffeting events of life.

While the wandering journeys of past poets are less possible today, Kaneko suggests that a kind of “settled wandering” may still be the ideal. It is this notion that he expounds in both the lecture and the interview.

At the interview there are others present, to record and prompt and so on, but the heart of it is the exchange between Ito Yuki, a young man in his 20s, and the 90-year-old poet, so that it becomes a dialogue between youth and age, innocence and experience. Since Kaneko himself is forthright and has clear opinions, this is very fruitful.

Without detailing specific issues, it is enough to say that Kaneko’s war memories form an important part of the later section of the interview, as also does the hidden Christian history of the part of Kyushu where the translation project has its base.

As anyone who has heard Kaneko speak will know, he talks rapidly, and the ebullience of the man comes through fully here. The portrait of him that emerges is well developed: “Life is something that can be uncovered,” he asserts.

The Kon Nichi Translation Group, based in Kumamoto, and their American publisher have performed an invaluable service to the poet and his readers overseas with the production of these volumes, which come with additional commentary fore and aft.

The final interview question, about the future of haiku is, like haiku, dealt with very briefly.

In the preface to one of half a dozen books that he published last year, Kaneko says that a period he spent in hospital gave him the time to consider haiku more profoundly. He is a remarkable man, whose work deserves to be read more widely.