Saturday, August 24, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Misunderstood Japanese Literary Terms

Few weeks ago, I received a copy of What Happens in Haibun: A Critical Study of an Innovative Literary Form, written by David Cobb, the renowned poet and a founding member of the British Haiku Society, and I was surprised to find out that in his slim book (88 pages in total, including 5 pages of the information regarding copyright, acknowledgement, contents, ..etc), there are 3.3 pages (pp. 83-86) or 4% of the text, dedicated to a glossary of Japanese terms, some of which are given a relatively lengthy description  situated in the different contexts, Japanese and Western (mainly Anglo-American). This shows that David Cobb placed a special emphasis on the functional role of a glossary of literary terms: a touchstone for important aesthetic concepts and ideals.

However, of his 21 Japanese literary terms, five are seriously misunderstood.

Haibun       The generic name for any confection of prose with embedded haiku. Includes, at least in the West, essays and “[haibun] stories,” which may be either anecdotal and imaginary, or a blend of both fact and fiction (See also kikobun, nikki) (p. 83) 1

As I have clearly pointed out in my “To the Lighthouse” post, titled “Haibun Myth,” haibun, broadly speaking, existed before Basho in the form of short essays, prefaces or headnotes to hokku written by haikai poets (Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 213). In the first important collection of haibun, Fuzoku Monzen, by Basho and members of his school, there are various categories of elegy, preface, rhyme-prose, essay or monograph ("setu") that were "derived from traditional Chinese collections like Wen Hsuan (Monzen in Japanese), but little attempt was in fact made to distinguish one genre from another” (Keene, p. 142). And Basho's contemporary, Ihara Saikaku (1642 -- 1693), already "employed an experimental, dramatic form of haibun, or haikai prose, for which there was no precedent in the prose literature of his time" (Shirane, p. 21). On the contrary, to the best of my knowledge, haibun-specific journals in the West, such as Contemporary Haibun Online and Haibun Today, have never published a haibun written in the form of essay. And it was not until this year, a haiku journal, Modern Haiku, published its first haibun explicitly written in the form of essay -- Dimitar Anakiev’s “How Narrow Is THE HAIKU PATH?: Essay in the form of a haibun on perspectives of haiku).” 2

Karumi  Often translated as “lightness,” but not in the sense we use “light” in “light verse.” Rather it seeks the ability to deal with “weighty” subjects with philosophical detachment; not be “weighed down” by them. Treating good fortune and disaster the same (p. 84)

I do not know how or where Cobb get his idea of karumi that “it seeks the ability to deal with ‘weighty’ subjects with philosophical detachment “ (p. 84) because he does not offer any sort of textual evidence or scholarly reference. According to Basho scholar Haruo Shirane, in his last years Basho experimented with the karumi (lightness) style that "stressed everyday common life, contemporary language and rhythm, and avoided heavy conceptualization or allusions to the past" (Shirane, Early Modern Japanese Literature, p. 201), and for Basho, this salient characteristic of Japanese art meant "a return to everyday subject matter and diction, a deliberate avoidance of abstraction and poetic posturing, and relaxed, rhythmical, seemingly artless expression (Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 26). And according to Christopher Drake, in terms of the linkage technique, “Basho's late notion of karumi or lightness, which refers more to linking than to verse content, is still based on a preference for relatively distant links and an exclusion of verbally dense verses” (Drake, p. 57). In the forward to Betsuzashiki ("Shomon Renku"), Basho considered this quality of "lightness" to be "like seeing a shallow sandy-bedded brook. The shape of the verse, the very heart of the linkage, both are light and refreshing." Below are two of Basho’s hokku written in the karumi style that have nothing do with “’weighty’  subjects with philosophical detachment” (p. 84):

under the tree
soup, fish salad, and all --
cherry blossoms

in the plum blossom scent
the sun pops up --
a mountain path

The first hokku is the first recognized poem written in the karumi style, the opening verse of  a 1690  kasen written at a blossom-viewing party at Ueno (Ueda, Basho and His interpreters, p. 286), and the second poem is the opening verse of one of Basho’s last haikai  sequences that demonstrate the karumi style, "Plum Blossom Scent," ("Ume ga Ka"), composed with Yaba in Edo(Shirane, Early Modern Japanese Literature, p. 201). For detailed comments, see my “Poetic Musings” posts, “Basho’s First Hokku in the Karumi Style,” and “Plum Blossom Scent, A Haikai Sequence in the Karumi Style by Basho and Yaba ” 
Nikki  a kind of haibun which we might call a diary or an essay (p. 85)

Nikki means “diary’ while setu refers to “essay,” or “monograph.” For more information, see Earl Miner, “The Traditions and Forms of the Japanese Poetic Diary,” Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 3, April 1968, pp. 38-48, and F. J. Daniels, Selections from Japanese Literature: 12th to 19th Centuries, pp. 52, 149. You can read the full text of Yamaguti Sodoo’s "Minomusi no setu” (“On the Mantle-Grub") in the first important collection of haibun, Fuzoku Monzen.

Senryu 1 A Japanese verse of the same length as a haiku, but without the requirement of a “season word” or a cutting word (kireji); making pointed comments on some aspect of human behaviour, and generally regarded by the Japanese as vulgar or at least inferior to haiku (pp. 85-6)

If this Japanese view of senryu as “vulgar or at least inferior to haiku” is true, why do hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of Japanese men and women read and write senryu daily? And why was Onishi Yasuyo, Japanese senryu poet, awarded in 1996 one of the most prestigious haiku awards, the Nakaniida Haiku Prize, for her brilliantly-crafted senryu (Gilbert, p. 224)? 3 In her interview with Richard Gilbert (“Gendai Senryu: History and Significance,” Gilbert, pp. 223-32), Onishi emphasizes that “the vehicle of senryu is an excellent way to express human pathos and the naked and true nature of what a human being is. In order to express such things, senryu may in fact be an ideal literary form” (p. 227). Below are some of her senryu included in Gilbert’s Poems of Consciousness (pp. 233-4)

from behind
comes the sound of water
comes news of death

where a life starts and becomes
                    september wind

in the deep bosom
of a sniper --
myrtle blossom

hydrangea darkness --
the past gradually withers

For more information about the aesthetic development of senryu in the Japanese context, see “Introduction,” Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of  Premodern Japanese Senryu by Makoto Ueda, pp. 1-40. And Ueda’s description of senryu is one of the best I’ve ever read:

"Senryu differs from haiku in its rhetoric, too, since it seldom uses the common haiku technique known as internal comparison. Whereas a haiku often juxtaposes two disparate objects challenges the reader to make an imaginary connection between them, a typical senryu presents one unique situation and asks the reader to view it in the light of reason or common sense. The reader who does that will usually experience a feeling of superiority, or of incongruity, or of relief, which in turn lead to laughter. (Preface, pp. vii-viii)

Zappai 1 A joky Japanese verse superficially resembling haiku, but intended to display wit or sentiment, possibly meant as an adage or aphorism.
             2 A similar verse in a Western language and shunned by the “informed” haiku poet. Also known as “spam haiku,” though writers of these are usually sticklers for 5-7-5 (p. 86)

Cobb’s description is in the spirit of the 2004 Haiku Society of America definition.4  This is a culturally offensive representation of zappai. Richard Gilbert and Shinjuku Rollingstone published a point-by-point rebuttal essay (Simply Haiku, 3:1, Spring 2005), titled “The Distinct Brilliance of Zappai: and the Need to Reconsider its HSA Definition,” against the 2004 Haiku Society of America definition.. In their insightful essay, Gilbert and Rollingstone emphasize that  “the linking of zappai to such writings as spam-ku and headline haiku in English is inappropriate and culturally offensive, as zappai has evolved directly out of the ancient haikai tradition…. and importantly, survives as a contemporary literary form of cultural expression, with composition groups, competitions, etc.” For more information about the socio-aesthetically contextualized understanding of the literary genre, zappai, see the “Zappai and Senryu” entry of The Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan  composed by Japanese scholars. A three-page excerpt of this entry can be found in Gilbert’s Poems of Consciousness, pp. 244-7. Below are some of contemporary zappai included in Gilbert and Shinjuku’s abovementioned essay:

listening to the morning rain
of the water man

Misatoken? (uncertain pronunciation)

no eyes no ears no mouth    the wife and step-mother doing well  

Iwashita Yumiko

sheer darkness    falling and finding the rain puddle  

Nakagawa Ryūseki


1 I changed "haiku stories" to "haibun stories." It's because I couldn't find "haiku stories" in any of haibun-related articles/books. Therefore, I think it's a typo. As for "haibun stories," see Ken Jones's "Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories," which was published in Contemporary Haibun Online, 3:3, September 2007.

2 Modern Haiku, 44:2, Summer 2013, pp. 164-5. For more information, see my “To the Lighthouse” post, titled, “Haibun Myth

3 This event occasioned controversy. One judge explained, “We wished to confer this prize based upon the excellence of the poetry, rather than the genre. In this spirit, Onishi accepted the prize (Gilbert, p. 224).

4 The 2004 HSA valuation of zappai states: Many so-called "haiku" in English are really senryû. Others, such as  "Spam-ku" and "headline haiku", seem like recent additions to an old  Japanese category, zappai, miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse  (usually written in 5-7-5) with little or no literary value. Some call the  products of these recent fads "pseudohaiku" to make clear that they are not  haiku at all.


Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Haruo Shirane, ed., Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002

Donald Keene, World within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976

F. J. Daniels, Selections from Japanese Literature: 12th to 19th Centuries, L. Humphries, 1959.

Makoto Ueda, Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of  Premodern Japanese Senryu, Columbia University Press, 1999.

Christopher Drake, “The Collision of Traditions in Saikaku's Haikai,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 52:1, June, 1992, p. 5-75.

Earl Miner, “The Traditions and Forms of the Japanese Poetic Diary,” Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 3, April 1968, pp. 38-48.

Richard Gilbert and Shinjuku Rollingstone, “The Distinct Brilliance of Zappai: and the Need to Reconsider Its HSA Definition,” Simply Haiku, 3:1, Spring 2005.


  1. David Cobb doesn't include "haikai" in the Glossary; however his view of haikai is flawed, based on the following passages:

    Basho urged his disciples to write haibun, not only with Chinese prose as a model, but in the spirit or style of haikai (he did not himself use the term haiku, but may have intended his karumi style of haiku which he favoured in his mature style) (p. 9)

    In the unlikely event of being asked for a maxim, I shall not say that haibun should be written in the spirit and style of haikai. I might say, in the spirit and style of English haiku and English senryu” (p. 10).

    Haikai prose means haibun (see Shirane’s General Index: “Haikai prose, see Haibun,” p. 365; “Haibun (haibun prose),” p. 364), Throughout Traces of Dreams, Shirane clearly points out that “haikai …. Broadly used to refer to genres deriving from haikai such as the hokku [later called haiku, p.2], haiku, renku, haibun, haikai-related travel accounts and narrowly used to refer to haikai linked verse” (p. 294).

  2. Another quality piece. I continue to find all definitions of senryu lacking, even Uedo's does not strike me as particularly precise. My own view is that a senryu is a haiku-like poem that differs from it in the sense that it takes place exclusively in the "inner world" of the poet, while a haiku requires some (not all) of its action to take place in the "outer world" of the poet. There is nothing scholarly about this definition, however, as I made it up myself.