A History of Japanese Literature/Book 6/Chapter 4

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1474623A History of Japanese Literature — Book 6, Chapter 4William George Aston




It might naturally be supposed that in the Tanka of thirty-one syllables poetry had reached its extreme limit of brevity and conciseness. But a still further step remained to be taken in this direction. In the sixteenth century a kind of poem known as Haikai, which consists of seventeen syllables only, made its appearance. The Haikai is a Tanka minus the concluding fourteen syllables, and is made up of three phrases of five, seven, and five syllables respectively, as in the following:—

"Furu ike ya!
Kawadzu tobi-komu,
Midzu no oto."

It differs from Tanka, however, in more than metre, being much less choice in diction and matter than the older kind of poetry. It admits words of Chinese derivation and colloquial expressions, and often deals with subjects which the more fastidious Tanka refuses to meddle with.

The earliest professor of this accomplishment was Yamazaki Sō-kan, a Buddhist priest (1445–1534). The verses of his which I have met with have mostly a comic character. Here is one:—

"Even in the rain, come forth,
O midnight moon!
But first put on your hat."

A halo is called in Japanese kasa, which also means a broad hat or umbrella.

Another early Haikai writer was Arakida Moritake (1472–1549). The following is from his pen:—

"Thought I, the fallen flowers
Are returning to their branch;
But lo! they were butterflies."

Coming down to the Yedo period, the first name of note in this department of literature is that of Matsunaga Teitoku (1562–1645). A well-known Haikai of his is the following:—

"For all men
'Tis the seed of siesta—
The autumn moon."

In other words: The autumn moon is so beautiful that people sit up half the night to gaze on it, and have therefore to make up for their want of sleep by a siesta on the following day.

If it were not, however, for the fame of Matsura Bashō (1643–1694) and his disciples, it would hardly be necessary to notice this kind of composition at all. He imported a more serious element, and greatly refined and improved the Haikai, until it became a formidable rival to the Tanka. The latter had in these days become too exclusive for the popular taste. The Fujiwara family, who were its special patrons, practisers, and critics, maintained the traditional canons of the art in all their rigidity, and the nation was glad of a new and more unconfined field for its poetical talent. To write tolerable Tanka required a technical training, for which the many had neither time nor opportunity, but there was nothing to prevent any one with ordinary cleverness and a smattering of education from composing Haikai. Saikaku, an unlearned man, is said to have produced twenty thousand stanzas of this kind of poetry during one day's visit to the shrine of Sumiyoshi, and to have received on that account the cognomen of "the twenty-thousand old man." The story is an obvious exaggeration, but it shows what an easy thing Haikai writing was thought to be.

Bashō belonged to a Samurai family, hereditary retainers of the Daimio of Tsu, in the province of Ise. He acquitted himself with credit in an official capacity connected with water-works in Yedo, but for some reason threw up his appointment and entered the Buddhist priesthood. He built himself a cottage in the Fukagawa district of Yedo, and planted a banana-tree beside the window. It grew up and flourished, and from it he took the name of Bashō (banana), by which he is known to posterity. He was a diligent student of the Zen Buddhist doctrines and of Taoism, and was also an artist. From time to time he took long excursions to the remotest parts of Japan, leaving behind him traces of his presence, which remain to this day, in the shape of stones inscribed with poems of his composition. On one of these journeys he took suddenly ill, and died at Ōsaka in the fifty-first year of his age.

Shōtei Kinsui relates the following incident which happened on one of Bashō's tours. It illustrates the favour in which Haikai was held even by the lowest classes of the people:—

Once, when on his travels, Bashō passed through a certain rural district, making Haikai as he went along. It was full moon. The whole sky was flooded with light, so that it was clearer than noonday. It was so bright that Bashō did not think of seeking an inn, but continued his journey. In a certain village he came upon a party of men who had brought out saké and something to eat with it into the open air, and were enjoying the moonlight. Bashō stood still to watch them. Presently they fell to composing Haikai. Bashō was greatly pleased to see that this elegant accomplishment was practised even in so remote a place, and continued looking on, when a silly fellow of the party noticed him and said, "There is a priest who looks like a pilgrim. He may be a begging priest, but, never mind, let us invite him to join us." They all thought this would be great fun. Bashō could not refuse, so he joined their circle, taking the lowest seat. The silly fellow then said to him, "Everybody here is bound to compose something about the full moon. You must compose something too." Bashō apologised. He said he was a humble individual, belonging to a country place. How should he presume to contribute to the entertainment of the honourable company? He begged, therefore, that they would kindly excuse him. "No! no!" said they, "we can't excuse you. Good or bad, you must compose one verse at least." They urged him until at last he consented. Bashō smiled, folded his arms, and turning to the clerk of the party, said, "Well, I will give you one:—

' 'Twas the new moon——' "

"The new moon! What a fool this priest is!" cried one. "The poem should be about the full moon." "Let him go on," said another; "it will be all the more fun." So they gathered round, and mocked and laughed at him. Bashō paid no attention, but went on—

"'Twas the new moon!
Since then I waited—
And lo! to-night!
[I have my reward]."

The whole party were amazed. They took their seats again and said, "Sir, you can be no common priest to write such a remarkable verse. May we ask your name?" Bashō smilingly replied, "My name is Bashō, and I am travelling about on a pilgrimage for the sake of practising the art of Haikai." The rustics, in great excitement, apologised for their rudeness to an eminent man "whose fragrant name was known to all the world." They sent for their friends who were interested in Haikai, and began their al fresco feast anew in his honour.

It has been objected that Haikai, even in the hands of an acknowledged master like Bashō, is too narrow in its compass to have any value as literature. The Kangakusha Dazai Shuntai calls it a tsutanaki mono (a stupid sort of thing), and Shōtei Kinsui admits that in the eyes of "the superior man" this is doubtless so. Its popularity, however, is undeniable. The name of Bashō was known to the very cow-herds. He had ten disciples, and they in their turn had pupils whose name is legion. Monthly conferences of Haikai amateurs were held regularly both in the capital and the provinces, and there were professors who contrived to make a living by practising this art.

It would be absurd to put forward any serious claim on behalf of Haikai to an important position in literature. Yet, granted the form, it is difficult to see how more could be made of it than Bashō has done. It is not only the metre which distinguishes these tiny effusions from prose. There is in them a perfection of apt phrase, which often enshrines minute but genuine pearls of true sentiment or pretty fancy. Specks even of wisdom and piety may sometimes be discerned upon close scrutiny. Suggestiveness is their most distinctive quality, as may be seen by the following:—

"A cloud of flowers!
Is the bell Uyeno
Or Asakusa?"

To the English reader this will appear bald, and even meaningless. But to an inhabitant of Yedo it conveys more than meets the ear. It carries him away to his favourite pleasure resort of Mukōjima, with its long lines of cherry-trees ranged by the bank of the river Sumida, and the famous temples of Uyeno and Asakusa in the vicinity. He will have no difficulty in expanding it into something of this kind: "The cherry-flowers in Mukōjima are blossoming in such profusion as to form a cloud which shuts out the prospect. Whether the bell which is sounding from the distance is that of the temple of Uyeno or of Asakusa I am unable to determine."

But brevis esse laborat, obscurus fit. A very large proportion of Bashō's Haikai are so obscurely allusive as to transcend the comprehension of the uninitiated foreigner. The following are some of the more lucid. The same quality of suggestiveness pervades them all.

"An ancient pond!
With a sound from the water
Of the frog as it plunges in."

"I come weary,
In search of an inn—
Ah! these wistaria flowers!"

"Ah! the waving lespedeza,
Which spills not a drop
Of the clear dew!"

"'Tis the first snow—
Just enough to bend
The gladiolus leaves!"

"Of Miïdera
The gate I would knock at—
The moon of to-day."

That is to say, How beautiful the scenery about the temple of Miïdera must look on a fine moonlight night like this! I would that I were there to see it.

"On a withered branch
A crow is sitting
This autumn eve."

"The cry of the cicada
Gives no sign
That presently it will die."

The following are by other writers:—

"'Tis the cuckoo—
Listen well!
How much soever gods ye be."

"'Tis the first snow,
Yet some one is indoors—
Who can it be?

"The club-shaker's
Rising and falling in the water
Until it becomes a musquito."

The water-grub, which subsequently becomes a musquito, moves about by the rapid vibration of its tail. Hence the name "club-shaker." To the Japanese it is an emblem of the mischievous boy who is destined to develop into a wicked man.

"O ye fallen leaves!
There are far more of you
Than ever I saw growing on the trees!"

"Alas! the width of this musguito-net
Which meets my eye when I wake
And when I lie down."

The following characteristic specimen of this kind of poetry is quoted in Mr. B. H. Chamberlain's Handbook of Colloquial Japanese:

"Asagao ni
Tsurube torarete,

Literally, "Having had my well-bucket taken away by the convolvuli,—gift-water!" The meaning, as Mr. Chamberlain not unnecessarily explains, is this: "The poetess Chiyo, having gone to her well one morning to draw water, found that some tendrils of the convolvulus had twined themselves around the rope. As a poetess and a woman of taste, she could not bring herself to disturb the dainty blossoms. So, leaving her own well to the convolvuli, she went and begged water of a neighbour. A pretty little vignette surely, and expressed in five words."


The Haibun is a kind of prose composition which may be conveniently mentioned here, as it is a sort of satellite of the Haikai, and aims at the same conciseness and suggestiveness. The most noted writer of Haibun is Yokoi Yayu (1703–1783), a high official of Nagoya, in Owari. He is the author of the much admired apologue which follows:—

"An earthen vessel, whether it be square or round, strives to adapt to its own form the thing which it contains: a bag does not insist on preserving its own shape, but conforms itself to that which is put into it. Full, it reaches above men's shoulders; empty, it is folded up and hidden in the bosom. How the cloth bag which knows the freedom of fulness and emptiness must laugh at the world contained within the jar!

O thou bag
Of moon and flowers
Whose form is ever changing!"

In other words: How much better it is to yield our hearts to the manifold influences of external nature, like the moon and flowers, which are always changing their aspect with the weather and the season, than, self-concentrated, to try to make everything conform to one's own narrow standard!


Kiōka (literally "mad poetry") is a comic and vulgar variety of Tanka. There is here an absolute freedom both in respect to language and choice of subject. The Kiōka must be funny, that is all. In this kind of poetry, of which an immense quantity was produced during the Yedo period, the punning propensity of the Japanese has been allowed full scope. Share (pronounced "sharry") reigns there supreme. Share is one of those numerous Japanese words for which there is no exact English equivalent. It may be translated "wit," but in order to express its full meaning a spice of what is comprehended under the terms gaiety, esprit, playful fancy, stylishness, must be added. Japanese wit, like that of other countries, has an element which defies analysis or classification. But the jeu-de-mots predominates. Share infests not only the Kiōka, but the drama and fiction, to an extent well-nigh intolerable to European tastes. Dr. Florenz, Professor of Philology in the Imperial University of Tokio, has treated this subject with truly German conscientiousness and erudition in a paper read before the German Asiatic Society of Japan in July 1892. Following a native investigator named Tsuchiko Kaneshiro, he classifies share under two heads with divisions and subdivisions, making in all twenty different kinds. Our old enemy the pivot-word is here, also the pillow-word, and several varieties of the ordinary pun, with various fearfully complicated acrobatic contortions of speech which I shall not attempt to describe. Even the reader who has a competent knowledge of the language requires a special study to understand and appreciate them. He follows these far-eastern waggeries with a halting step, and frequently finds himself in the position of the Scotchman who was heard suddenly to burst into laughter at a joke which had been made half-an-hour before. Nothing testifies more strikingly to the nimbleness of the Japanese apprehension than their delight in these "Taschenspielerkunstchen des sprachlichen Ausdrucks" (linguistic prestidigitations), as Dr. Florenz has aptly called them, whether in conversation or in books. It may be doubted whether such an excessive fondness for mere verbal wit does not amount to a disease, and whether it has not constituted a serious obstacle to the development of higher qualities in their literature.

In quite recent times a popular kind of lyrical poetry has come into fashion which somewhat resembles the ancient Naga-uta in form. The following may serve as a specimen:—

"Vain has been the dream
In which I thought that we met;
Awake, I find myself again
In the darkness
Of the wretched reality.
Whether I try to hope
Or give way to gloomy thought,
Truly for my heart
There is no relief.

If this is such a miserable world that I may not meet thee,
Oh! let me take up my abode
Deep in the far mountains,
And deeper still
In their furthest depths,
Where, careless of men's gaze,
I may think of my love."