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I have written about many books, and attempted to introduce people to many authors of fiction whose work held special appeal to me, particularly within the deeply underappreciated field of Japanese literature. Folks such as Kobo Abe, Yukio Mishima, and Kenzaburo Oe have all been subjects of my ham-handed reviews and mini-biographies, but I have only once written about poetry, and never about Japanese poetry. Faced with a deadline for a piece, my mind fixated on the idea of discussing different Japanese poets to offer a broad introduction, and to share, for once, my love of poetry.

I also have to thank Brecht, for sharing his project with me so graciously and giving me free reign. I kept telling him I was going to do one project and then changing it, and this project also represents a change towards a different creative impulse. I hope that no one is dissatisfied with the overview that follows, and I hope that working with poetry is not outside the realm of this series. For me, poetry can go boom, in providing guidance in life, comfort, and philosophic engagement that helps to develop the creative drive and the individual's understanding of the world and their place in it, as well as the impulses of other human beings. I'm actually glad to write this time on a subject that is new to many here, and to hopefully influence you to seek further reading.

Japanese poetry epitomizes much of what I find dearest about poetry in general; it is quiet, condensed, introspective, and built around pluralistic meanings. A haiku for instance, is not just a poem about a piece of nature, it is a strict form with specific coda, most important being the placement of a kigo (a seasonal word of phrase), which anchors the poem and harkens to other uses of a particular kigo in earlier poems (for a great essay on haikus, read Robert Hass's comments for his collection of Haikus from three of the greatest haiku poets, Basho, Buson, and Issa). The point of a haiku is not what it describes, but rather the emotional connotations of its images and their grander implications, which comment on human experience in often profound and unexpected ways. This understanding is important before venturing into any reading of Japanese poetry.

In this case, rather than focus on any one poet however, I wanted to bring together three poets that even most well-read readers of poetry would not have encountered, thus introducing three important and excellent Japanese poets to new audiences, and giving a broad overview of historically important poetry up to the present day. The three poets I chose were: Saigyō, Ryōkan, and Tanikawa Shuntarô.

Saigyō lived in tumultuous 12th century Japan, which saw the extended conflict between the Taira and Minamoto clans and the collapse of the previous era. A member of a distinguished warrior class family, Saigyō was a samurai, a bodyguard for political personages in Kyoto. However, at age 22, he abandoned both his given name Satō Norikiyo and the life of a warrior to become an ascetic monk, attempting to walk the “way of poetry” that intertwined with the way of Buddhism, and with this goal in mind, he adopted the name Saigyō, a Buddhist reference that means “Western Journey.” Saigyō spent long periods of time in isolation, and wrote waka, an earlier form of poetry that used, what we approximate in English as, a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable sequence.

In a similar tradition, Ryōkan was born Eizō Yamamoto in 1758, the first son of a prominent family of village headmen, in Echigo, located in the northwest of Honshu, and which is one of Japan’s more isolated prefectures. Like Saigyō, Ryōkan abandoned this life and his name to become a monk, and trained in a monastery for ten years before disavowing himself of organized religious life. For the remainder of his life, Ryōkan would live as a hermit, part vagrant, part beggar, and it is the humility and unpretentious directness associated with him and with his poetry and calligraphy, that has made Ryōkan one of Japan’s most popular Zen monks and marked his enduring literary legacy. Indeed, his full name Ryōkan Taigu translates as “broad-hearted, generous fool.”

The last of the three poets, Tanikawa Shuntarô, is Japan’s current Poet Laureate (figuratively speaking), born December 15, 1931, which made him a child of the war years and subsequent American occupation. Not only a poet, but a translator, Tanikawa Shuntarô has translated Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, as well as nursery rhymes from Mother Goose, and has written popular songs in addition to his numerous volumes of award-winning poetry in Japan. Juliet Grimes called him “The Greatest Living Poet You’ve Never Heard Of;” he has published an astonishing sixty volumes of poetry in Japan, received awards from around the world, including China and America, and is often considered to be in the running for a Nobel Prize for Literature.

I. Saigyō

I have chosen to address the three poets in order of oldest to most modern. Saigyō is the most difficult, perhaps, of the three poets to engage with, because his works are very tied into the linguistic meanings and quirks of ancient Japanese and challenging even to modern Japanese readers. Luckily, William Lafleur’s book Awesome Nightfall, provides extensive commentary on the poems and on the manner they function in Japanese. This was an invaluable resource for someone like myself who does not (yet!) know Japanese, and enabled me insight into the pattern and style of Saigyō as a writer.

Take this poem for instance:

kaze ni nabiku
fuji no keburi no
sora ni kiete
yukue mo shiranu
waga omoi kana

which Lafleur provides a translation as:

The wisps of smoke from Fuji
yield to the wind and lose themselves
in sky, in emptiness,
which takes as well the aimless passion
that through my life burned deep inside.

I will use his commentary on this particular poem as an example, and here is part of Lafleur’s examination:

This verse does extraordinary things within its small scope. Writing at a time when Fuji, not then in its current dormancy, was showing its volcanic nature by means of a thin column of smoke arising from its crater, Saigyō takes advantage of what is known about the hot core of such mountains. That is, he draws a parallel between Fuji and himself—since, in the last line of the original, the term omoi denotes both thoughts and emotions. And, thus, since this is a poem of personalized retrospection, Saigyō refers to the passions that had been so much a part of his own life. (This sense is reinforced by the fact that the term here transliterated as omoi was then pronounced as omohi and, as such, had present within it the sound hi, meaning “fire.”)
From the glance of the two versions of the poems, Japanese and English translation, I note first the clunky way in which English manages to approximate the meaning. The Japanese version is much more compact, and requires much fewer constructions and combinations of different words to appropriate its original meaning, (and it is for this reason alone that I intend to start learning Japanese this summer). I feel keenly the special sense of nihilism in the poem, as it speaks of the individual human’s passion emptying out into a vast empty world—and it was this very sense of nihilism that Kawabata Yasunari spoke of in his Nobel Prize for Literature lecture: “Here we have the emptiness, the nothingness, of the Orient.” Here is a similar poem:

iwama tojishi
kōri mo kesa wa
koke no shitamizu
michi motomuran

Tightly held by rocks
through winter, the ice today
begins to come undone:
a way-seeker also is the water,
melting, murmuring from the moss.

Something so often lacking from the Western tradition of poetry is the total absence of individual. Poems are much more strongly connected to expressing the subjective personality of the poet and pertain to humans, events and personalities, appearances and struggles—I cannot for instance, recall off the top of my head, a single sonnet of Shakespeare that was not about a person, and of course, classics of Western tradition are the epic poems and the lengthy narrative poems, which have obvious investments in people and events. Here however, we have a poem of observation, one that imparts a certain ethereal sense of isolation, and presents the reader with a lake or sea choked with ice all the way to the shoreline; a mass of ice that is now crumbling in spring. There is a certain patience to this poem that I and my generation could never grasp—that few anywhere could grasp—especially when one considers that Saigyō may well have spent an entire day watching the ice shift. But what connects to me and makes this poem profound is how without connecting to a single human object or trait, this poem evokes, through compact form, such a wide array of human emotions, from dissolution to alienation to wonder. This single poem embodies what inspires my passionate love of Japanese poetry, a love which has caused me to feel more impatience than wonder when I go back to read over classics of Western form that then begin to seem hopelessly long-winded and artificially mannered. I will end my section on Saigyō with one final poem:

yazamu ni aki no
naru mama ni
yowaru ka koe no
tōzakari yuku

As each night of fall
grows colder than the one before,
the chirp of the cricket
gets more feeble: each night it
moves farther into the distance.

II. Ryōkan

My collection of Ryōkan’s work, Sky Above, Great Wind, put together by Kazuaki Tanahashi, emphasizes the Zen elements of Ryōkan’s life and clarifies them with great skill and engaging writing. Much of Ryōkan’s most famous work is his calligraphy, which unfortunately is not a medium suited to the subject of this overview and format, but his poetry is no less profound. One short poem, from a piece of calligraphy, has a particularly empathizable sentiment for anyone who experiences solitary moods or periods of frustration with people:

It is not that
I avoid mixing
with the world;
but I do better
playing alone.

One facet of Ryōkan’s writing that has given such it enduring popularity and crafted the unique pleasure marked by his style, is not only his self-deprecating and quirky personality, but also the manner in which he seamlessly writes both poems similar to the lofty, distanced tracts of Saigyō and also writes about himself in unassuming fashion. The poem above is but one example of that; a pithy comment about his solitary lifestyle. The only failing of the Tanahashi collection and commentary is that it fails to provide English-script versions of the transliterated Japanese of the original poems, so that the reader can explore the sounds of the original language, its line-length and flow.

That aside, Ryōkan’s quirky and more personal, directly involved poetry form much of his charm. However, what makes Ryōkan special is his ability to write laconic personal observations with compact language and a deep awareness of Japanese poetic traditions, with which he produces both witty and more ascetic poems in the tradition of others like Dogen or Saigyō. The sensitivity and unadorned emotions of Ryōkan are on tangible display in his poetry, such as this waka:

A cuckoo
hops, weeping,
behind the leaves.
Does it see the world
so sad?

To comment on that poem, the most interesting aspect is how Ryōkan uses the cuckoo, a kigo associated with early summer in Japanese poems, in such a melancholy, forlorn manner. It is said in Japan that the call of the cuckoo sounds like someone saying “return home,” and the cuckoo as a symbol is generally associated with themes of honor and good fortune (the Tale of Heike popularizes such sentiment). The cuckoo has meaning as a symbol of idealization and harkening the new season, so to present it in such a dissolute manner as Ryōkan does here, has an effect of surprise that makes the waka so effective.

My personal favorite of Ryōkan’s poetry from the Tanahashi collection, combines the surprising observations of nature with his own special way of commenting on his own existence:

Not yet disappeared
like a dewdrop
on a blade of grass,
I am still in this floating world,
moon in the morning.

The great strength of the Japanese poetic tradition is, I find, its positioning of a fragile individual and sense of self, an aesthetic that is distinctly modern. The open-minded acceptance of pluralistic meanings, and comments, even, on the impossibility of moral judgment allow the diffusion of a complex and fuller world view than what I have been able to get studying Western traditions of poetry. And much of the influence to the better modernist and postmodernist poets in Western literature in the last one hundred years has been the discovery of Japanese and Chinese poetry. The last poem from Ryōkan exemplifies this quality, as it wearily dismisses moral ideology and connects this with images that bespeak fragility, isolation, and alienation:

Reflecting over seventy years,
I am tired of judging right from wrong.
Faint traces of a path trodden in deep night snow.
A stick of incense under the rickety window.

III. Tanikawa Shuntarô

I am hardly doing Tanikawa Shuntarô justice in working with just one of his books of poetry, Map of Days (translated by Shuntarô’s good friend Harold Wright). One book can hardly be representative of an entire sixty year body of work, but Shuntarô is still unfortunately under-translated and sparsely available in America. However, Map of Days is a wonderful book of poetry, which offers a great look at modern, free verse Japanese poetry by its most popular and respected living poet.

As might be obvious now, with poetry reviews I prefer to share entire poems and offer comments about the poems and why I appreciate them. In Shuntarô’s case, that means quoting some much longer poems than the short poems that have come up until now (and Wright graciously provides transliterated versions of the Japanese, so I will be including both versions). They come from a current, published work, so I do recommend that anyone who finds they really like the examples, buy the short book, and support the translation of Tanikawa Shuntarô. Coming to the first poem, I will stick to the vein in which I concluded the discussion of Ryōkan:


Watashi no machigai data
Watashi no machigai data
Kô shite kusa ni suwareba sore ga wakaru

Sô Yagi Jukichi wa kaita (sono iki-zukai ga kikoeru)
Sonna ni mo fukaku jibun no machigai ga
fu ni ochita koto ga watashi ni atta ka

Kusa ni suwarenai kara
Mawari wa konkurito shika nai kara
Watashi wa jibun no machigai o shiru koto ga dekinai

Tatta hitotsu demo machigai ni kizuitara
subete ga ichidoki ni gakai shikanenai
Isu ni suwatte watashi wa bon’yari sô omou

Watashi no machigai ja nai anata no machigai da
Anata no machigai ja nai karera no machigai da
Minna ga machigatte ireba dare mo kizukanai

Kusa ni suwarenu mama watashi wa shinu no da
Machigatta mama watashi wa shinu no da
Machigai o sagashiagunete

Being Wrong

“I was wrong
I   was   wrong
sitting on the grass   like this
   I’ll come to understand….”

Or so Yagi Jukichi wrote
(I hear the sound of his breathing)
was my being wrong that deeply
   fathomed by myself?

Because I can’t sit on the grass
because I’m surrounded by concrete,
I can’t come to know I am wrong.

By my becoming aware of just one wrong
everything could crumble down at once,
sitting on a chair I get lost in such thoughts.

I’m not wrong you are wrong
you are not wrong they are wrong,
if they’re all wrong no one is aware.

Without sitting on the grass, I’ll die
being wrong, I’ll die
weary of searching for where I was wrong.

The book’s translator, Harold Wright, is apt in describing it as “an urban book” in his introduction. The setting of Map of Days is the bustling artificial landscape of Tokyo, with other cities evoked on occasion. Many of the poems, like the one above, play with the difficulty of reconciling traditional poetic symbols of nature within a new landscape, and frequently yearn for a quiet, far away place; for an idealized nature. The poem’s comment that since the poet is surrounded by concrete not grass, he cannot reach the same epiphanies of his poetic predecessors serves as a stark example of a new and more modern experience. Shuntarô explores the role a modern poet can play in Japan and how the modern poet can navigate his cultural traditions, as expressed in the idyllic yearnings of the poems. The collections eponymous poem is that yearning in all of its illusiveness and impossibility:


Kongurakatta michi desu
Mô hodokenai motsureta keito
Meiro ni date hitotsu wa deguchi ga aru noni
Atama no ue no ao-zora bakari hirobiro shite

Watashi wa anata o otte kita no desu
Anata no mitsumeru tôi tokoro o
anata no senaka-goshi ni nozokô to shite
yoake no machi-kado o magari hiru no kôen o sugi

Yugata no kawa ni soi yoru no kosenkyô o tôtte
hibi no chizu o tadotte kimashita ga
yamayama o nozomu no ni deta to omotta toki
anata no ushiro-sugata o miushinatta no desu


It’s a tangled road
a snarl of yarn that can’t be unraveled
there is one exit, being a maze,
the blue sky alone, opening above.

I have been chasing you
hoping to glimpse the far-off place
you gaze at, to see past your back,
around corners of dawn, past noons in the park.

Along rivers of evenings, overpasses of darkness
a map of days was followed,
yet coming to an open view of the mountains
I lost sight of your receding form.

The conclusion of “Road” is a striking climax of the poem’s built up search for some escape from an urban landscape, all the more poignant because the ending leaves the poet failing to find the searched-for ideal. The poem presents this idealized nature as almost coquettish, and the poet continues to chase after it, yet it remains in the distance, a distance that represents fantasy.

There are many more great poems in Tanikawa Shuntarô’s Map of Days, and my favorite poem of the collection, “The Law of Perspective,” could not be fit into this review, unfortunately, as it is two pages long and would then be a four page block of poetry when included with its original Japanese. It contained many striking lines, images, and profound thoughts, my favorite of which is “That single point, / where all things vanish, / might very well be here.” The poem followed a similar theme to several others in this collection—that the smaller the world becomes the smaller the individual becomes. All distances traveled leave a stream of vanishing objects continuously  falling out of perspective and in cities individuals shrink to a single point in a vast construct.

Map of Days
might be one of Tanikawa Shuntarô’s minor works, but it still shines as a brilliant example of his poetry, one that seeks the romanticized understandings of the past and finds them lost to the present modern world. Shuntarô shifts between humor, seriousness, light-heartedness, yearning and loss, sometimes all within the same poem. The subsequent poems invoke diverse reactions and keep the reader engaged, turning page after page as they navigate their own emotions.


Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times and Poetry of Saigyō
, William LaFleur. Wisdom Publications, 2003. 192 pg.

Sky Above, Great wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan, Kazuaki Tanahashi. Shambhala Publications, Boston, Massachusetts. 2012. 248 pg.

Map of Days by Tanikawa Shuntarô (translated by Harold Wright).  Katydid Books (University of Hawaii Press), Honolulu, Hawaii. 1996. 103 pg.

Tanikawa Shuntaro, The Greatest Living Poet You’ve Never Heard Of

Tanikawa Shuntaro - Biography & Links to Poems

Symbolism in Flower Cards

Yasunari Kawabata's Nobel Lecture: Japan, the Beautiful and Myself

P.S. While DKos does have reader gauges, these aren't entirely accurate. I always appreciate users who vote in my poll as that gives a more accurate count of readership, and always get an idea of what my readership looks like; how familiar they are with my topic; how I may have influenced them, etc. Which is always nice to know for something you worked hard on; sucks to feel like you are talking to a wall, that is why every diary I've ever written contains a poll.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri May 03, 2013 at 03:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


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