Monday, April 4, 2022

To the Lighthouse: Reflections on First-Person Experience in War Haiku

(First published in HSA Newsletter, 37:3, 2022 and reprinted by kind permission of NeverEnding Story contributor, Fay Aoyagi)

Reflections on First-Person Experience in War Haiku
by Fay Aoyagi


iki shiroku utau gasu-shitsu made no kyori

singing in white breath
the distance 
to a gas chamber         


shounen shoujo takibi su juu o kumitatetsutsu

boys and girls
make a bonfire
assembling guns

These haiku are included in Kika Hotta’s haiku collection, which was published in 2021 (1).  In the afterward, he states, “I wrote about the human actions in the period I was not born” and “[I] in some of this haiku am not the poet himself, but a human personality from either the past or the future.”  The collection received acclaim from prominent haiku poets/critics in Japan.
I believe haiku, like these examples, can be socially conscious and express things we did not personally experience.  A question that arises is how we use experiences we did not have.

なまなまと白紙の遺髪秋の風 飯田蛇笏(2)

namanama to hakushi no ihatsu aki no kaze
the hair of the deceased
on the vivid white paper
autumn wind

Dakotsu Iida

After I read Hotta’s collection, the above haiku by Dakotsu Iida came to my mind. He lost his eldest son in the Battle of Leyte Gulf during WWII. Many surviving families in Japan at this time received only a lock of their hair after their loved ones’ deaths. Though I’ve never experienced war, I can visualize what Iida wrote. It makes me feel as if I am in the poem, experiencing it for myself.  My father told me when his older brother died during WWII, his family didn’t receive anything other than an official notice of his death.    

Both armies

Ty Hadman (3)

This is based on Hadman’s own Vietnam War experiences. When Americans fought in Vietnam, I was in Tokyo. I had no American friends. I did not imagine I would be a naturalized American citizen one day. The Vietnam War was a “foreign” war to me. Then, why am I attracted to Hadman’s Vietnam war haiku? I was born in 1956. I belong to the same generation as Americans who were drafted. If I were Vietnamese, I could be one of the refugees who fled the country by boat.  Perhaps that is why Hadman’s haiku “speaks” to me. I became more interested in Vietnam War after I moved to the United States and read A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. More recently, I read books by Vietnamese-American authors, such as Vu Tran, Viet Than Nguyen and Eric Nguyen.  Maybe I try to understand more about the Vietnam War now because I am a "hyphenated" American.   

Holocaust Museum
in every photo
my family 

Carolyn Hall (4)

There is a strong sentiment in Hall’s haiku. We are all humans. We may call other human beings “family,” despite their colors of skins, eyes and hair. But I am not Jewish like Hall (“Hall” is her married name), and I will not see “my” family. When I was a child, I read a Japanese translation of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. I learned about the Holocaust at school and watched movies and documentaries. I even visited the famous attic, now the Anne Frank Museum, in Amsterdam. Have I tried to write about the Holocaust?  I guess the answer is “No.” It was a human tragedy.   You don’t have to be Jewish to condemn the horrifying act. Despite this, because of something deep inside of me, I don’t think I am qualified to write about it.  

In the Imperial Japanese Army, Unit 731, was in charge of biological and chemical warfare development and research. It was based in Harbin, Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Northern China. Doctors and researchers from prominent universities in Japan performed human experimentation using local Chinese people. Examinees were disparagingly called “Maruta” (a log). I don’t have any family members – even distant relatives – who belonged to this devilish unit. Still, I cannot shake the idea of having an aggressor’s blood because of my ancestry.  On the other hand, I come from the country where atomic bombs were dropped twice and so can say I have "victim's" blood as well. In spite of feeling this way I am not saying people have to inherit the sins of their ancestors or play the role of victim by proxy.   

Pigs cannot fly in the real world, yet we can imagine how we would feel if we were given wings or fins.  We can act as a sniper, a bomber, or a submarine operator in our poems.  We are in the "progressive" 21st century.  An African-American actor can play Hamlet at the theater. An Asian-American actor can be a Superman or Wonder Woman in the movie. Metaphorically, I can ride on the back of Hiroshige’s hawk, or apply to become a crab in haiku. Even so, I have not been able to put myself in the shoes of a Holocaust victim. Though I grew up in a ethnically homogeneous Japan, I have spent more than a half of my life in the United States, which is now my adopted country. I write haiku in English, my second language. There are people with many different backgrounds and ethnicities around me. I am not very political, but aware of international issues, as well as domestic ones. I have written some Hiroshima haiku. I picked up Japanese internment camps as a theme before. Why do I feel I cannot write from the point of view of a Holocaust victim? Is it because it happened in Europe? Is it because I belong to a different race? Is it because I feel there might be more “suitable” people than me? I can't say for sure.

戦争が廊下の奥に立つてゐた 渡辺白泉 (2)

sensou ga rouka no oku ni tatteita

deep in the corridor war was standing

Hakusen Watanabe

I grew up in an old Japanese style house. There was a long external corridor.   It had no sliding glass doors along it, and we had to close wood storm shutters after sunset. It looked like a long dark hole. I can visualize the image Watanabe (1913-1969) presents.  I feel the poet’s fear. Something terrible like war should not enter one’s house which is supposed to be a safe harbor. Watahabe’s haiku is categorized as “juugo haiku” (home-front haiku). During WWII, various cities in Japan and Europe were bombed.   Many civilians lost their lives. You don’t have to be Japanese to understand this haiku. War changes everyone’s life. 
In the New York Times, I read an article about an Afghan woman who fled the country with her husband with just one backpack. She was pregnant and gave birth at the refugee camp. You may have read or watched similar stories. As haiku poets, should we spread a story like hers? News footage on TV gives us a powerful image.  Can we digest it and compose strong haiku?  Can we move a reader even though we sit comfortably at home, away from bombshells?  I think that we can try. On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. San Francisco, where I live, has many Russian/Ukrainian descendants. There is “Russian” Hill in my neighborhood.  Is that enough for me to compose on a tragedy happening in Europe? Will I be able to create a convincing “juugo haiku”?   

spring chill
a crow perched on 

Fay Aoyagi (5)

Hotta’s haiku threw a very big stone into my mind’s well. Everyone can write about war – even without experiencing it first-hand. What is the difference between “authentic” haiku and “didactic” haiku? How can we avoid writing journalistic photographic haiku? Honestly, I don’t know the answer.

Bio: Fay Aoyagi was born in Tokyo and now lives in San Francisco. She started writing haiku in English in 1995 and later started writing it in Japanese, too. She published three books: Chrysanthemum Love, In Borrowed Shoes, and Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks. She is a former President of HSA and an Associate Editor of The Heron's Nest.

(1)  Jinrui No Gogo (The Afternoon of Human Kind), 2021 You Shorin, Nagano, Japan, a haiku collection of Kika Hotta
(2)  Gendai No Haiku (Modern Haiku), edited by Shobin Hirai, 1993, Kodansha, Tokyo 
(3)  Dong Ha Haiku, Smyth-Waithe Press, Kentfield, CA 1982
(4)  Unpublished. Used with permission from the poet
(5)  Unpublished.

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