A Poet’s Anthology

The Range of Japanese Poetry  (1)





Fuyu ga kita.


Shiroi kigi no hikari wo


karada no uchi ni chikuseki shite oite,


yoru fukaku nemuru



Maeda Yūgure



Winter has come.

I pile up

the white light of the trees

in my body,

and sleep deeply at night



Maeda Yūgure started out around 1905, near the end of the Meiji period, as one of the young bloods of the Naturalist tanka, which opposed the romantic style of the tanka poets grouped around the magazine Myōjō. Possessed by nature of a temperament keenly sensual, however, he could not stay with the sober palette of realism for long and went through several transformations as he sought his own voice. This colloquial free form tanka, from Aogashi wa utau (The Green Oak Sings, 1940) represents one of the important stages in his development.

Now that their leaves have fallen, the winter trees have become brighter and the winter sun shines on them whitely. The poet bundles up the light in his body and sleeps soundly in the black womb of night.





Usurai wa


miyama e kaeru


hana no goto



Fujita Shōshi



Thin ice

like flowers returning

to deep mountains



 Fujita Shōshi is a contemporary haiku poet; among his recent collections is Kariudo (The Hunter, 1976). This poem appeared in the haiku magazine Taka in March 1978.

 Thin ice was stretched like a film over the surface of the water, so clear it seemed it would shatter at the touch. The fragile purity must have sent the image of scattering flowers flashing through the author’s mind and from there the poem was born. The author completed it withreturning to deep mountains, but the phrase is not susceptible to rational explanation. This poem, with its dependence on the reader’s intuitive understanding, is typical of one kind of modern haiku.





Sasa no ha ni


yuki furitsumoru


Fuyu no yo ni


toyo no asobi wo


suruga tanoshisa



Kagura uta



Snow falls and piles up on

bamboo leaves


It’s fun to dance for the gods

on a winter’s night



 In ancient times, performances of kagura, sacred Shinto dance and song, were often held at court during the winter and thus we have these lyrics.

 They contain the only extant usage of the phrase toyo no asobi, which is assumed to mean kagura. The musicians and singers were divided into two groups, and while one sang the words above the other harmonized with these: From the time of the gods they danced and sang with bunches of bamboo leaves in their hands.

 From ancient times, dancing wildly before the gods was used to reach a state of trance after which, possessed, one danced holding bamboo leaves. The use of bamboo leaves in the lyrics here must be related to that.





Iku tabi mo


yuki no fukasa wo





Masaoka Shiki



Again and again

I ask how high

the snow is



 From the 1896 section of Kanzan Rakuboku (Cold Mountain, Fallen Trees), a hand-written manuscript left by Masaoka Shiki, father of the modern haiku. One of four haiku entitled Snow While Sick.Snow’s falling! / I see it through a hole / in the shutter(Yuki furu yo Shōji no ana wo mite areba) is also good, but the one given above is, after all, the best.

 In 1896, Shiki’s back pain was so severe that he was almost unable to get out of bed. A heavy snow was falling outside, the first in a long time, and while imagining what it looked like as it piled up, Shiki asked his mother and young sister, who looked after him, how high it was again and again. The compressed syntax of haiku is able to express with poignant intensity the invalid’s excitement, imagination and yearning.





Kōchu ikka no


hyō wo tsuibami


hi no tori ya



Mitsuhashi Takajo



A hailstone held

in its beak,

the firebird soars



 From Mitsuhashi Takajo Zenkushū (Collected Haiku of Mitsuhashi Takajo, 1976).

Where is the firebird flying? It flies in the poet’s heart. And it holds in its beak a single hailstone, against whose glittering ice the flames that engulf the bird increase in brightness. Cold, yet hot, a bird in a woman’s dream.

 Takajo died in 1972 at the age of seventy-three. Defying the conventional script for a woman’s life until the end, she wrote many poems like this, romantic and touchingly courageous self-portraits.





Fuyuzare ya


Mono wo iishi wa


kago no tori



Takahashi Awajijo



Winter desolation

What speaks is

the caged bird



 From Kaji no Ha(The Mulberry Leaf, 1937). Takahashi Awajijo was a haiku poet born in Kobe; she died in 1955, at the age of sixty-four. She joined the women’s branch of the Hototogisu Haiku Association in 1916 and later studied haiku under Iida Dakotsu. She is said to have particularly liked the haiku of the Edo period poets Matsuo Bashō and Yosa Buson and their influence can be seen in the elegance of her diction.

 On a desolate winter day, in the hushed quiet of someone’s house, a bird, perhaps a mynah, speaks out from time to time. Its mistress has no one to talk to; beyond the bird, there is only silence.

 The author was widowed early and brought up her only child alone, never remarrying.





Nakahara yo.


Chikyu wa fuyu de samukute kurai.







Kusano Shinpei



Nakahara, friend!

The earth is wintry, cold and dark.

Well then, good-bye.



 From Zekkei (Beautiful View,1940), this is the poem Kūkan(Space), in its entirety.

 The poet Nakahara Chūya died in October 23, 1937, at the age of thirty. Shinpei wrote Spacein memory of him but it was not published until April 1939, in the sixth issue of Rekitei. Probably this was because there was a two and a half year hiatus between the fifth and sixth issues of the magazine, which was then Shinpei’s only venue of publication.

 As a boy, I read this poem in some anthology and have a vivid memory of my excitement at realizing for the first time how much poetry could convey with just a few words.





Umi kurete


kamo no koe


honoka ni shiroshi



Matsuo Bashō



The waters fade

and the wild ducks’ cries

are faintly white



 Matsuo Bashō was a popular haiku poet with a flourishing career when he left Edo on the journey recorded in the travel diary Nozarashi Kikō (Wind-Washed Skull Journey,1684). It was to prove a memorable journey, which established the Bashō style of haiku in Nagoya and Atsuta, and gave birth to the linked verse collection Fuyu no Hi (A Winter’s Day).

 This haiku was written during Bashō’s stay near Nagoya in Owari. He had, he recorded, spent the whole day by the sea. The cries of the wild ducks spread over the pitchblack surface of the water faintly white, it seemed, in the darkness.

 The word Shiroshi (white, 白し) must also mean shirushi (distinct, bright, 顕し). And yet, it is, paradoxically, afaintwhiteness, afaintbrightness.

 Haiku are, of course, usually seventeen syllables and this is no exception. In its manner of division, however, it is unusual, being divided into 5-5-7 syllables instead of the conventional 5-7-5. Read slowly, with slight pauses between each line, the Japanese gives an effect of hushed stillness.





Ie goto ni


kaki tsurushi hosu






yume no gotoku ni



Kubota Fujiko



From every house

persimmons hung to dry

I’ve lived for ages

in Takagi Village

as if in a dream



 From Niwa Suzume (Garden Sparrows,1952). A tanka poet born in Takagi, Shimo Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, Fujiko died in 1965 at age 79. Married to Kubota Toshihiko, her father’s adopted son, who was later known as the tanka poet Shimagi Akahiko, she joined the tanka group Araragi, and came to Tokyo with her husband. But they later returned to Takagi, where her husband died of illness. She spent most of her life in Takagi.

 Persimmons hung out to dry are a beautiful sight in mountain villages from late autumn to early winter. This poem has a quiet, tranquil tone. The author must have had a special feeling for persimmons. One of her husband’s pen names wasMan of Persimmon Villageand the title of his last volume of tanka meansPersimmon Shadows.





Kareashi ni


kumoreba mizu no





Abe Midorijo



By withered reeds

dimmed by clouds,

the water sleeps



 From Bifū (Breezes,1955). A haiku poet born in Sapporo, Midorijo died in 1980 at age 93. She began to write in the early Taishō period. As part of her effort to perfect thesketch from lifestyle advocated by Takahama Kyoshi, she studied drawing with Morita Tsunetomo and qualified six times in succession for the prestigious Shunyō Society of Art Exhibition.

 Few women were as capable as Midorijo of expressing passion and elegance in the deliberately understatedsketch from lifestyle. Water is sleeping lightly beneath the withered reeds on a cloudy day. Just a simple description, but somehow it evokes a world of great depth.





Ri no den wo kenshi ni kitareba


renjitsu risei ga taku ni


chinshū wa kuriya ni michite uzutakashi


菅 茶山

Kan Chazan



The official is here inspecting rice

and every day in the headman’s house

delicacies fill the kitchen, piled high



 From Kōyō Sekiyō Sonsha Shi (Poems of Autumn Leaves, Evening Sun, and Village Houses). A leading poet of Chinese verse in the late Edo Period. Quoted here are the last three lines of a gogon zekku poem (4 lines, each 5 characters) titledTaken Down from the Words of Passersby on a Road in Bitchū.Chazan recorded without change the excited talk of villagers on a street in Bitchū as they gossiped about the official’s visit and the fancy treatment he was getting from the village headman. Banquets and bribes to butter up our betters: one of those styles of life that knows no season.







Watashi no mimi wa kai no kara


umi no hibiki wo natsukashimu




Horiguchi Daigaku’s translation of

Jean Cocteau




My ears are seashells

They remember the ocean’s echoes



 From Gekka no Ichigun (A Gathering Beneath the Moon,1925). This collection of translations sent shock waves through the world of poetry and inspired the new generation of Shōwa period poets. In addition to 19th century European and American poets already known from the Meiji period, it introduced many new 20th century poets, especially French ones, including Cocteau, whoseEarswon great popularity.

 The coincidence in form between ears and seashells opens a door to the wide sea. The natural beauty and grace of the Japanese makes the reader forget it is a translation.





Omina ni te


matamo komuyo zo




Hana mo natsukashi


Tsuki mo natsukashi



Yamakawa Tomiko



Let me be born

a woman again

in the world to come

And I will love the flowers

And I will love the moon



 From Yamakawa Tomiko, Vol.17 of Gendai Tanka Zenshū (Complete Modern Tanka,1929). After yielding her teacher Yosano Tekkan, whom she loved, to Hō Akiko, Tomiko married a man chosen by her parents. Soon widowed, she returned to the Myōjō poets’ circle, where she exercised her literary talent to the full for a brief period, and then died of tuberculosis at the age of 30. No one would call the last half of her life very happy, but, with a presentiment of the death that would soon claim her, she wrote that she wanted to be born a woman again in her next life.And I will love the flowers / And I will love the moon”―a tone so intense that there is no room to ask for reasons.





Shiratori wa


kanashikarazu ya


Sora no ao


umi no ao ni mo


somazu tadayou



Wakayama Bokusui



White bird,

are you not sad ?

You drift, never dyed

by the blue of the sea

or the sky’s azure



 From Umi no Koe (Sea Voices,1908), Bokusui’s first volume of tanka, published privately the year he graduated from the English Literature Department of Waseda University. The famous poem beginningIku yamakawa(How many mountains and rivers) is in the same volume.

White birdmeans a seagull here. The cover illustration by Hirafuku  Hyakusui must have been based on this poem. Contrasting the white of the bird to the blue of the sea and sky, the poet grieves over the bird, alive in the midst of nature’s vastness, and over his own youthful loneliness. Contemporary tanka poets avoid repetitions likesora no ao umi no ao(literally,the blue of the sky, the blue of the sea*) but in Bokusui’s poems they work wonderfully to express feeling.

*Translated as blueandazurebecause of the shift from kanji to hiragana.Tr.





Oitaru wa


mina kashikokari


Kono kuni ni


mi wo korosu mono


subete wakōdo


与謝野 寛(鉄幹)

Yosano Hiroshi(Tekkan)



The old men

are all so wise

In this country

it is always the young

who sacrifice their lives



 From Kashi no Ha (Oak Leaves,1910), a collection of modern-style poems and tanka. One of six tanka lamenting the accidental deaths of the crew of Submarine No.6, shipwrecked in the waters off Shinminato in Yamaguchi Prefecture, on April 15, 1910. The captain, Lt. Junior Grade Sakuma Tsutomu, continued to write his log up until the moment he died, and his composure and bravery were greatly praised. Hiroshi mourns his martyrdom, repudiates war, and indicts theold menwho in theirwisdomsend the young into the maw of death while living on themselves.

Hiroshi wrote several tanka and modern-style poems in this vein and they deserve more attention than they have been given until now.





Saogami no


wakare kanashi mo


Kon haru ni


futatabi awan


ware naranaku ni



Masaoka Shiki



Ah sad, this parting

from Lady Sao

In the spring to come

how can I hope

to meet her again



 From Take no Sato Uta (Poems from the Bamboo Village, 1904). Written at the beginning of May, 1901, this is one of the most beautiful poems of Shiki’s last years. For six years, due to tuberculosis and spinal decay, he had been confined to bed, doing virtually nothing but write.

Saogami is Saohime, the goddess of spring. Saogami no wakare is the parting from spring. Ware naranaku ni is literally an emphatic way of saying,it will not be me.He thinks wistfully that he is now so ill he may never meet the goddess of spring again.

Shiki loved spring. He did live on through spring of the following year, but died in the early autumn, on September 19, 1902.





Tōkei no


manako tsumurete





Murakami Kijō



A fighting cock,

eyes gone, still kept,

still fed



 From Kijō Kushū (Kijō’s Haiku,1926). Born into a high-ranking samurai family, he contracted ear disease and for many years worked as a poorly paid scribe at the Takasaki District Court in order to support his wife and 10 children. He studied haiku with the young Masaoka Shiki and then Takahama Kyoshi.

 In his style, Kijō confronted life head on and showed a rugged individuality. A blinded fighting cock is of no use anymore. One would expect it to be killed, but out of pity, its owner still keeps it. The poet sees himself in the rooster but avoids sentimentality by letting only the rooster into the poem.





Waga ie wa


garakuta bakari


Garakuta no


ichibu zo ware mo


ko mo tsuma mo mata



Ikadai Kaichi



Rubbishthat’s my house,

nothing but rubbish,

even me

And my wife,

and my children, too



 From Aratae (Rough Cloth, 1940). A tanka poet from Takaoka City, Kaichi died in 1971, at the age of 71. He worked as an elementary school music teacher until he was quite old. As a resident of downtown Tokyo for many years, he created his own unique world, depicting in poems the poverty, pain and sadness of urban life among the lower classes. He often wrote about his students, as in the poem:At night / the girl dances / to support her family / and in her classes in the day / spends her time napping.One of his pupils engaged in prostitution to help her family; that kind of harsh life, common in the prewar era, lies in the background of this poem.

 The decade of 1935-1945, not so long ago in years, has become part of the distant past.





Kane narashi


Shinano no kuni wo


yuki yukaba


arishi nagara no


haha miruramu ka



Kubota Utsubo



As I go about

the land of Shinano

ringing my pilgrim’s bell,

will I see, perhaps,

my mother as she was then ?



 From Mahiru No (The Fields at High Noon,1905). Born in the outskirts of Matsumoto in the Shinshū district, Utsubo was the last child, born when his mother was past 40, and especially loved by his parents; but he lost his mother, and then his father, while still a boy.

 Kane narashi meansbecoming a pilgrim.Haha miruramu ka can be interpreted aswill my mother perhaps see me ?but the author seems to have meantwill I be able to see my mother ?He has, that is, omitted thewobetween haha and miruramu, and also between kane and narashi.

 This has been one of the most popular poems about filial love, and may even have influenced the well-known tanka by Wakayama Bokusui that begins,How many mountains and rivers must I cross…”





Yama fukami


haru to mo shiranu


matsu no to ni


taedae kakaru


yuki no tamamizu



Shikishi Naishinnō



Deep in the mountains,

too deep to know of spring,

sparkling beads of melted snow

fall slowly, drop by drop,

on my pine bough door



 Shinkokinshū (13th c.), Book 1, Spring.

 A cottage in the mountains at the beginning of spring. So deep in the mountains that one cannot imagine spring has comeand yet, drops of snow melted by the sun are falling slowly on the rough door made of pine boughs and boards.

 Shinkokinshū poets had a fondness for pictorial beauty and one sees it here in the juxtaposition of the pines’ green and the sparkling drops of melted snow. With the loneliness of the mountain cottage enfolded in the luster and brightness ofsparkling beads, another layer is added to the taste of spring.





Tsuki no kagayaku wa


haretaru yuki no gotoshi


Baika wa


tereru hoshi ni nitari



Sugawara no Michizane



The moon sparkles like new fallen snow

The plum blossoms resemble shining stars



 The first two lines of A View of Plum Blossoms on a Spring Night, the first poem in Michizane’s collection of Chinese poetry, Kanke Bunsō. The collection is ordered by year of composition, so this is Michizane’s first poem, written at the age of 11(10 by modern count). It is thought that his tutors were his father Koreyoshi and his father’s disciple Shimada Tadaomi. The third and fourth lines readHow lovely! In the garden where the golden mirror sheds its light, / clusters of plum blossoms like white jewels give off scent.

 An artless poem, it gives an impression of freshness and is early evidence of Michizane’s great talent.





Yūmeshi ni


kamasugo kueba


kaze kaoru






Sand eels

for dinner, and the

fragrant wind




Hiru no kuchido wo


kakite kimi yoki






Scratching that leech bite

feels so good



 FromThe Ash-water Bucketsequence of the Monkey’s Raincoat, one of the haikai linked-verse collections of Bashō and his followers. The two verses describe a man sitting down to dinner after hard manual labor in the rice paddies and scratching to his heart’s content at the place where a leech sucked his blood.

 Kamasugo is ikanago, sand eel, not the larger kamasu, saury-pike. Kaze kaoru, fragrant wind, is a summer season word which captures the special freshness of summer breezes that come from the southeast.

 The feeling of relief at sitting down to a simple dinner after a full day’s work is vividly conveyed by the pleasurable scratching of an itch.





Ame no umi ni


kumo no name tachi


tsuki no fune


hoshi no hayashi ni


kogikakuru miyu



Kakinomoto no Hitomaro Kashū



In the sea of heaven

cloud waves rise

and the moon boat sails

into a forest of stars,

to be seen no more



 The first poem of Book 7, Miscellaneous Poems, of the Man’yōshū(8th c.).

 Heaven is a vast sea, and the clouds floating in it are high, foaming waves. The moon, a boat, crosses them, and disappears into a forest of stars. Of the many beautiful descriptive poems in the Man’yōshū this is one of the more unusual. I like the metaphora forest of stars.

 Someone in ancient times may have looked at the moon boat crossing the heavenly sea and fantasized something like a UFO, come from a far-off star.





Ame ni toyomu ōnushi


ake modoro no hana no



あれよ 見れよ 清らやよ

Are yo Mire yo Kiyoraya yo


Jiten toyomu ōnushi



Omoro Sōshi



The Great Lord echoes

through the heavens,

a blazing red flower in full bloom

There, look there ! How bright !

The Great Lord resounds

through earth and sky



 The 22 volume Omoro Sōshi is a collection of poetry and song of the Okinawa and Amami archipelagoes, dating from about the 12th century to the early 17th.

 The omoro is a sacred song of prayer to the gods for the prosperity and good harvests of a village community. Varied in content and form, it is Okinawa’s oldest kind of poetry, and occupies an important position in the history of Japanese literature.

 Modoro, blazing, means to burn so brightly the shape is blurred. This poem is a hymn of praise to the morning sun, sublime in its vision of the rising sun as a gigantic flower.






Umui ariaki nu



yuwa nu tsirinasa ya



Narinu yusuijima ni



outidu shiyuru



Nakamabushi, yomibito shirazu



The pain of longing through the night,

until the dying moon !

I knew it first

in a distant land, far from home

Nakama song, Anonymous



 Ryūka Zenshū (Complete Ryūka Collection, 1968). The ryūka is the tanka of Okinawa. While the omoro is a narrative form, the ryūka is a lyrical one, most often about love. Authorship is diverse. There are 30 syllables, arranged 8-8-8-6, and it was sung to samisen accompaniment. It entered Yamato together with the samisen, and had a great influence on the development of pre-modern song, which is based on a 7-7-7-5 form.





Omokage bakari nokoshite


Azuma no kata e kudarishi hito no na wa


shirajira to iumaji






Memories were all he left behind

when he went down to the East,

and never ever will I tell his name



 A poem like a sigh that escaped a woman left behind when her man set off for the Eastern provinces, this is a good example of the sophistication of pre-modern song. The compression of the first line is especially fine. Shirajira means openly, but also suggests shiranai, I don’t know (his name). I will never speak his name, will hide it forever in my heart, she vows.

 It’s interesting to compare this man who went down to the East to a sad wanderer like the ancient poet Ariwara no Narihira.





Yūgure wa


kumo no hatate ni


mono zo omou


Amatsu sora naru


hito wo kou tote



Yomibito shirazu



When evening falls,

my reveries turn

to the farthest clouds,

for I love one who dwells

in the vast skies above




 Kokinshū (early 10th c. ), Book 11, Miscellaneous Poems. Kumo no hatate ni means to the end of the clouds. Amatsu sora naru hito means a person in the sky above, that is, a person one loves but who is impossibly far above one in rank. The speaker is probably male, and the object of his affections a woman of such high rank that, under the prevailing social system, he could never win her. The poem, however, transcends such realistic circumstances and expresses the longing and anguish common to all who love.

 This poem has enjoyed wide popularity, and is the prototype of poems about the melancholy, unrequited lover gazing at the sky.





Ayaniku ni


wazurau imo ga


yū nagame






A girl

sick with love

gazes at the twilit sky




Ano kumo wa ta ga


namida tsutsumu zo






Whose tears

do those clouds enfold ?



 FromWild Geesea sequence in Wild Fields, one of the Bashō linked-verse collections. It is as if the classical world of the preceding poem was reborn in linked verse.

 Ayaniku means unfortunately. Wazurau means sick, but here implies love-sickness. Yū nagame is a tormented heart gazing vacantly at the twilit sky.

 The verse which Bashō added to Etsujin’s asks whose are the tears held within the clouds of the evening sky, thus apprehending the woman’s anguish as part of a larger landscape, and adding a dramatic touch.





Mono omoeba


sawa no hotaru mo


wagami yori


akugare izuru


tama ka to zo miru



Izumi Shikibu



Sunk in reverie

I seem to see

in the river fireflies

my soul

gone forth in longing

from my body



 Goshūishū (11th c.), Miscellaneous Poems. The prefatory note says that Shikibu composed this poem while watching the fireflies fly over Mitarashi River during a retreat at Kibune Shrine in Kurama, after her lover had forsaken her.

 It was believed that the body and the soul were originally separate, and that the soul split off at times of great sadness, as here, akugare, in longing. Sunk in grief, even the flickering light of the fireflies in the darkness looks like her own soul strayed from her body. The poem’s inspiration may have been fear, but the tone is wonderfully strong, almost voluptuous.

 The god of the shrine is said to have replied:Do not grieve so long / that your soul becomes like / the spray flying off / from the foaming rapids / as they cascade through remote mountains.(Okuyama ni tagirite otsuru takitsuse no tama chiru bakari mono na omohi so ).





Yoru no umi ni tsuriageta kurodai


Sono me ni shingetsu ga itsu made mo nokotte iru



Tanaka Fuyuji



Black bream fished up from the night sea:

For a long time the new moon remains in its eyes



 From the free verse collection Budō no Onna (Woman of Grapes, 1966), the poem Shingetsu (New Moon) in its entirety.

 Tanaka was a free verse poet who died in 1980 at the age of 85. Many readers were devoted to him because of his precise observation of seasonal sights all over Japan and the refined and elegant simplicity of his diction.

 In reality, the new moon could never be reflected for hours in the eyes of a bream after it has been caught; but imagining the sharp, thin shape of the new moon, it comes to seem possible. Only with the new moon, though: If it were a full moon, the effect would be ruined.





Akebi no mi wa nanji no reikon no gotoku


natsujū burasagatte iru



Nishiwaki Junzaburō



Akebia fruits, like your soul,

dangle the summer long



 From the free verse collection, Ambarvalia, 1933. Nishiwaki died in 1982, age 88.

 This is the last two lines of the eight-line poem Tabibito. The subject is a contemporary traveller roaming ancient Europe; the first, startling line, is the apostrophe:You, ill-tempered traveller!(Nanji kanshakumochi no tabibito yo). The two lines above follow these:Return to your village. / Bless the cliffs of your birthplace! / Their naked earth is your dawn.(Nanji wa nanji no mura e kaere Kyōri no gake wo shukufuku seyo Sono hadaka no tsuchi wa nanji no yoake da).

 Pale purple akebia fruit: a strangely alluring vision of the poet’s own soul dangling in the hills, with a restless nostalgia for the eternal.





Mizutori no


se ni nokori iru


yū akari


umi kureyukeba


tada honoka naru


大岡 博

Ooka Hiroshi



Evening light lingers

on the wild ducks’ backs,

then, as the lake


grows pale



 From Keiryū (Mountain Streams,1952). Ōoka was a tanka poet who died in 1981, age 74. He studied poetry under Kubota Utsubo. Mountain Streams was his first tanka collection; this, written in 1932, its first poem.

 At lake Ashinoko, in the Hakone mountains, the sun sinks behind the hills. The last, thin light rests faintly on the ducks’ backs, felt, almost, rather than seen.

 The pale light of the outer world may actually be a twilight time within the young poet himself. He was my father, 25 then; I was one year old. I often reread this poem of my father’s youth.





Anata wa katsu


mono to omotte


imashita ka to


oitaru tsuma no


sabishige ni iu



Toki Zenmaro



Did you think

we’d win ?


my old wife




 From Natsukusa (Summer Grass, 1946). Zenmaro was a tanka poet who died on April 15, 1980, aged 94. All his life he pursued broad intellectual activities and literary projects, never content to stay within the narrow borders of the tanka world.

 This poem records verbatim a conversation with his wife in 1945, shortly after the war ended with Japan’s defeat. It sounds like simple prose, but I feel that among the many poems from those days this is one of the best. After it comes this:Three sons / drafted, gone to war. / Should I have prayed / for them / to lose it?The same thought was shared by many parents.





Enten no


tōki ho ya Waga


kokoro no ho



Yamaguchi Seishi



Distant sail

under blazing sun, sail

of my heart



 From Ensei (Distant Star, 1947). Seishi, born 1901 in Kyoto, is one of the most respected haiku poets today.

 Depending on one’s point of view, one might call this either a poem of youth, in which a young person expresses longing, or else a poem of maturity, in which an older person’s sense of regret and isolation is projected onto a sail seen far off in the distance. The brief haiku form, rather than conveying its creator’s real meaning openly, sometimes, as here, shows us a strangely beautiful world, beyond time, beyond thought.

 In actual fact, this poem was written on August 22, 1945, one week after the end of the war, while Seishi was convalescing from illness near the sea at Ise.Down and outwould probably best describe the mood it was born from.





Hayari kite


keyaki taiju ni


komoru kaze


himei no tama no


man no suzu oto



Yamada Aki



Impetuously the wind

breezes in, then rests

in the great zelkovas,

its whispers the hand bells

of 10,000 souls

lost in war



 From Sanga Mugen (Infinite Mountains and Rivers, 1977). This femail poet’s works do not have a clear and easy flow. Even near 80, her poems often had a kind of uncompromising quality, as though she had simply held her breath and let loose with what was on her mind.

 At the height of summer, when a gust of wind comes to rest among the large zelkova trees, the whispering of the leaves is like a multitude of hand bells rung by the souls of thoseuntimely dead(himei) who perished in the fires of war.





Ki no ma yori


morikuru tsuki no


kage mireba


kokoro-zukushi no


aki wa kinikeri



Yomibito shirazu



When I look up and see

moonlight filter through the trees,

I know that autumn,

heart-exhausting autumn,

is already here



 Kokinshū, Autumn. Kokorozukushi means to use up one’s heart, exhaust one’s feelings. With autumn, the scenery of the fields and mountains changes. Here and there beautiful reds and yellows begin to dot the natural world. But this is a golden light that lasts but an instant and then is gone. Every time I think of it, says the poet, my heart is uneasy.

 The poem’s center is this subjective feeling, but at the same time its evocative language objectively captures, at some primal level, the atmosphere of autumn. It was this that made it popular, and widely quoted, in The Tale of Genji and elsewhere.





Akikaze ya


Shiraki no yumi ni


tsuru haran



Mukai Kyorai



Autumn breeze

Come, string a bow of

unvarnished wood !



 An autumn poem from Wild Fields.

 Kyorai was one of Bashō’s closest disciples. Elegant, genteel, and also hardworking, he was accomplished in the martial arts. A bow of unvarnished wood, not even bound in rattan to its whiteness, fresh as the autumn breeze, he attaches a bowstring, and with intense pleasure aims straight at the target.

 In part because it hints at the author’s own personality, this became one of Kyorai’s best known poems. When Natsume Sōseki taught high school in Kumamoto, Terada Torahiko, then his student but later to become a scientist and member of Sōseki’s literary circle, asked advice on how to compose kaiku. Sōseki gave this poem as an example of what the beginner should strive for.





Sora wo ayumu


rō-rō to tsuki hitori



Ogiwara Seisensui



It walks the sky, cloudless,

clear: the moon alone



 From Gensen (The Wellspring, 1960). Seisensui, a haiku poet born in Tokyo, died in 1976, age 91. In 1911, with his haiku teacher Kawahigashi Hekigotō, he began the magazine Sōun, for publishing New Tendency haiku. Some years later, he shifted to free-form haiku and nurtured the talent of such poets as Ozaki Hōsai and Taneda Santōka. He was extremely prolific, publishing about 400 volumes of verse and prose.

 This poem dates from 1920. The moon is alone. So am I. And so we walk together, one above and one below, in freedom, bright and clear. Rō-rō, translated ascloudless, clear, is where the poem’s emphasis lies.





Kokoro no sumu mono wa


aki wa yamada no io-goto ni


shika odorokasu chō hita no koe


koromo shide utsu tsuchi no oto



Ryōjin Hishō



Autumn lifts up the heart with these:

The voice of deer-scaring clappers

from every hut in the mountain fields

The sound of mallets, beating on against silk



 An example of a medieval song based on a list. To scare away the deer and boars that lay waste to mountain crops, clappers were strung on ropes from the huts set up in the fields during the growing season. Their sound, and that of the fulling of silk (to bring out the gloss) brought peace to the heart.

 Shide utsu: two people beat in turn, so there is no pause between strikes. Another interpretation takes it as beating gently, but since it is coupled with the sound of clappers, it seems more appropriate to take it as a loud and clear sound echoing through the clear autumn evening.







yomo no kusaki no


uraba miete


kaze ni shirameru


aki no akebono



Eifuku Mon’in no Naishi



All green things and trees

blown and bent,

the back leaves shine

white in the wind,

in autumn’s dawn

 Lady-in-waiting of Eifuku Mon’in



 Gyokuyōshū (early 14th c.), Autumn. Daughter of Fujiwara Motosuke, a high-ranking noble, and lady-in-waiting to Emperor Fushimi’s consort Eifuku Mon’in, this poet participated in the development of the new style associated with the Gyokuyōshū and Fūgashū (mid-14th c.).

 Shioru: the way wind and snow push plants down. Uraba means the top leaves, but here seems to denote the undersides of the leaves as well, exposed when they are bent by the wind.

 The autumn day dawns amidst the noisy rustling of leaves. White leaves, the whiteness of the lightening sky: each in motion, changing moment by moment.







mada koi togenu


ake sayaka



Sano Seiyōjin



Red dragonfly,

its love not yet fulfilled:

Scarlet bright



 From Ama no Kawa (The Milky Way, 1941). A haiku poet born in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture, Seiyōjin died in 1963, age 67. He belonged to the group of poets that followed Watanabe Suiha. In addition to working for a trading firm run by Americans (his pen name Seiyōjin 青陽人,blue sun man,is homonymous with 西洋人,Occidental man), he studied Noh performance for many years and at one time even taught Noh singing.

 Seiyōjin’s family had been dyers for generations and one senses in his polished style the careful craftsmanship of the artisan. One of his best known works is:Look! The Milky Way / Now I see clearly / the bottom of the storm(Ama no kawa ōkaze no soko akiraka ni). With the same sure art, the poem here captures the throb of life in a living creature.





Kin’u seisha ni terai


Kosei tanmei wo unagasu


Senro hinshu nashi


Kono yūbe ie wo sakarite mukau



Ōtsu no Miko



The golden crow lights the houses in the west

And drumbeats hurry my short life on

There are no hosts or guests on the road to death:

Tonight I leave my home, to venture there



 From the 8th century Kaifūsō, the oldest extant collection of Chinese verse made in Japan. The author, son of Emperor Tenmu, was gifted in the arts of peace and war, with a special talent for poetry. After the death of his father, he was one of the leading contenders for the kingship, but was executed on suspicion of fomenting rebellion.

 This poem was written on the day of his own death. Kin’u,golden crow,is the sun. The sun sets, its light spreading west, and the drum that announces night echoes as though further hastening the end of his short life. There are no companions on the road to death,no hosts or guests.Alone, he leaves his home and sets off on that distant journey.





Ubara kogi no shita ni wa


itachi fue fuku


Saru kanazu


Inagomaro wa hyōshi utsu


Kirigirisu wa shōgo utsu






Beneath the brier bush,

Weasel plays the whistle.

Monkey dances to

Mr. Locust’s beat

and Cricket strikes the bell.



 Fuzoku-uta were provincial folksongs from the Heian period and earlier which were often sung at banquets in the homes of nobles. Only about fifty are extant today. Some are close to tanka in form, while others are one of a kind. The one here, from the Taigenshō, describes an orchestra of small animals reminiscent of the medieval picture scroll Chōjū Giga (Carnival of Bird and Beast) attributed to the artist-priest Toba Sōjō. The Heian period anthology Ryōjin Hishō has a similar song.





Baku no sumu


nobe tomo shirazu


tabine shite


umaki miyako no


yume wo kuwareki



Shikatsube no Magao



Not knowing it was a field

where baku sport, I slept

my traveller’s sleepand had

my sweet dream of Miyako

gobbled up !



 Kyōka Saizōshū Book 7, Travel. In the world of kyōka (literally,crazy poems: witty poems in the tanka form) in the 1780s, Shikatsube no Magao was a figure second in importance only to Yomono Akara. He started out as owner of a shiruko (sweet bean-soup) store in Edo’s Sukiyabashi district, but later became a professional teacher of kyōka and had many followers.

 The poem’s title isTravel Dream.The subject is a rare one: the imaginary animal called baku, which is said to be fond of eating dreams. Were it a tanka, the traveller’s dream would have to express longing for Miyako, the capital. The kyōka, however, laughs that off. Instead, the dreamer, unaware of the baku’s presence, has his sweet dream of Miyako gobbled up before he can enjoy it.





Tsubura naru


na ga me suwanan


Tsuyu no aki



Iida Dakotsu



Your full, round

eyes I’ll sip

Dew of autumn



 From Sanroshū (Mountain Hut, 1932). Written in 1914, at age 29. In the same year, Dakotsu wrote this elegant haiku, which deeply impressed Akutagawa Ryūnosuke: Mortally ill, / her fingernails so beautiful / on the brazier (Shibyō ete tsume utsukushiki hioke kana). But he also wrote poems of artless purity, like the one above.

 The character meanslip, notsip. Suwanan should properly be suinan. So, strictly speaking, there are two mistakes. However, if they were corrected suinan 吸ひなん, the poem would be ruined. Conjuring up a kiss, the poet speaks only of eyes. A simple poem, but a masterful one.





Shirotae no


sode no wakare ni


tsuyu ochite


mi ni shimu iro no


akikaze zo fuku



Fujiwara no Teika



On foamwhite sleeves at parting,

dew drops fall,

color of the weeping heart

and of the wind,

whose autumn sting dyes all



 This poem begins Book 15, the fifth and last section of love poems in the Shinkokinshū. One of the greatest poems by the medieval poet (and man) who stands supreme in the tone known asethereal charm,it expresses a woman’s feelings as she grieves over parting from her lover at dawn.

 Tsuyu,dewis the dawn dew, but also means the woman’s tears, falling on her sleeves. Aki,autumn, includes the homonymous aki,to tire of, and hints at the woman’s abandonment. The phrase mi ni shimu iro,color that stings the heart, is one of consummate skill, but also an alchemic reworking of an old poem:It blew this way / and stung my heart / O autumn wind, / once I thought / you had no color !(Fuki kureba mi ni mo shimikeru akikaze wo iro naki mono to omoikeru kana)





Mikon no ware no


tsuma no ni arazu ya


Umi ni muki


shiroki bohi arite


usubi atareru



Tominokōji Yoshiko



This must be for

the husband I never wed

A white grave marker

faces the sea,

lit up by the fading sun



 From Hakugyō (White Dawn, 1970). A tanka poet of the war generation, and a student of Uematsu Hisaki. Another of her poems from this period is:When autumn comes / to a room / where a woman lives alone / mirrors shine out / from everything there(Onna hitori sumu heya no uchi ni aki kureba nabete no naka ni kagami tachikuru).

 To a strongwilled woman of middle-age who has never married comes a vision to disturb her peace of mind. She writes of it with deep yet unsentimental pathos: this sudden possession by the irrational feeling that a grave marker facing the sea must be that of her own husband, though she never married.







furimi furazumi




shigure zo fuyu no


hajime narikeru



Yomibito shirazu



In the godless month

the rains come and go,

come and go.

Their fierce ephemeral bursts

are winter’s beginning.




 Gosenshū, Book 8, Winter. Kaminazuki was the tenth month in the lunar calendar. By modern reckoning, it begins in mid-November.

 Shigure are the brief but heavy rains of late autumn through winter. In the Man’yōshū they were treated as autumnal, but in the Kokinshū, they were placed among the first winter poems, and from then on became an early winter topic. Perhaps there was a subtle change in the sense of season after the capital’s move from Nara to Kyoto. This poem of the late 10th century is like the formal assertion of a popular notion that began about this time.





Oki no ishi no


hisoka ni umishi


namako kana



Nomura Kishū



The offshore rock

secretly gave birth

to a sea cucumber



 From Koishikawa, 1952. Kishū, a modern haiku poet born in 1886 in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, moved to Tokyo as a child. A life-long disciple of Matsune Tōyōjō, he succeeded him as editor of the haiku magazine Shibugaki.

 Perhaps because of its strange shape, the sea cucumber since olden times has often been the subject of humorous haiku. This one stands apart because it brings to mind a love poem by Nijō-in no Sanuki from the medieval collection Ogura Hyakunin Isshu:My sleeve / an offshore rock / unseen at low tide, / no one knows how / it is never dry(Waga sode wa shiohi ni mienu oki no ishi no hito koso shirane kawaku ma mo nashi). In this tanka, the offshore rock is just like a woman damp with tears of unrequited love.

 It’s amusing to imagine that the offshore rock identified with the weeping woman is also the one that secretly gave birth to a sea cucumber.





Toyotoshi no shirushi wa


shaku ni michite furu yuki



Chūko Zasshōshū



Sign of an abundant year:

A full foot’s fall of snow



 A brief song recorded in the secret teachings of the Ayanokōji family, hereditary performers of traditional vocal music since the Heian period. It was one of the lyrics sung during the Imperial Gosechi festival and at court banquets.

 Even with today’s urbanized life, people sometimes rejoice at a big snowfall, but the celebratory tone of poems like this has almost died out. A year of much snow is not necessarily a plentiful year, but it used to be that the perception of seasonal phenomena was inseparable from an intense interest in forecasting whether the harvest would be good or bad. One can’t just lightly say that people look on the landscape now with the same eyes that they did of old.





Shiga no ura ya


Tōzakari yuku


namima yori


kōrite izuru


ariake no tsuki



Fujiwara no Ietaka



Shiga Bay

The waves move off

into the distance

and from them, frozen,

climbs the dawn moon



 Shinkokinshū, Book 6, Winter. Written on the topicWinter Moon on the Lakefor a poem competition at the house of Minister of the Left Fujiwara Yoshitsune.

 Shiga Bay is one of the bays of Lake Biwa. The poem describes the moon rising over the lake in the depths of winter at early dawn, when the air is coldest. The water near the shore freezes first, so the wavesmove off into the distancefrom the beach. From those distant waves, the moon rises very late at night, almost at dawn, thin and frozen. A union of clarity, desolation, and strength.

 This poem intentionally echoes the winter Goshūishū poem:Now late at night / is the shore frozen ? / Fall off / into the distance / move the waves of Shiga Bay(Sayo fukuru mama ni nagisa ya kōruramu Tōzakariyuku Shiga no uranami).





Seki no ko no


nazonazo asobi


kiri mo naya



Nakamura Teijo



My coughing child’s

riddle games

know no end



 From Teijo Kushū, 1944. There are many female haiku poets, but Teijo must be the best example of one who was able to harmonize in the happiest way the demands of family life and poetry. The fact that many of her best poems were about her own children was related to this.

 A sick child in bed begs his mother to play with him and forgets himself in telling riddles one after another. He goes on and on even while coughing.





Ganjitsu ya


Kuraki sora yori


kaze ga fuku



Aoki Getto



New Year’s Day

From a dark sky

wind blows



 From Getto-ō Kushū, 1950. Born in Osaka, this haiku poet died in 1949, at 69. His family ran a pharmaceutical business. Among Masaoka Shiki’s followers in western Japan, he was so highly valued that Shiki sent him this poem:Oh you, the magistrate / of haikai in the west / moonlit autumn(Haikai no nishi no bugyō ya Tsuki no aki).

 Good New year’s poems are always in short supply. This is an unusual one, fresh and yet mysterious. The wind blowing from a dark sky is not a phenomenon limited to New Year’s Day, of course, but Getto has seized it and used it in such a vivid way that I have the feeling of witnessing one of those moments when life and poetry intersect.







Sagamu no ono ni


moyuru hi no


honaka ni tachite


toishi kimi wa mo



Kojiki Kayō



In the little field

of Sagamu, the fires

burned, the firesand

you stood there among them

and said you loved me

Kojiki song



 When the god of Sagamu Sea tried to keep Yamato Takeru from crossing and made the sea so rough that Yamato Takeru’s ship was almost wrecked, his consort Ototachibana jumped into the sea and stilled the waves. This poem is given in the Kojiki as the farewell poem she recited in her last moments.

 Sanesashi is a pillow word for Sagamu. The meaning of the poem in the Kojiki context is:When we met the enemy’s fires in Sagamu’s fields, even in the midst of the flames you said you loved me.But if read apart from the legend of Yamato Takeru, this is a farmer’s love song, and the meaning is:In the early spring, the fields were being burned and at the fires’ height, it was you who said,Please marry me.’”, for the original meaning of toishi is from tsumadoi, to propose marriage.





Asakage ni


waga mi wa narinu




honoka ni miete


inishi ko yue ni



Kakinomoto no Hitomaro Kashū



My body’s turned to

a morning shadow

because of a girl I saw,

faint as jewel light,

then saw no more

The Hitomaro Collection



 Man’yōshū, Book 9.The Hitomaro collectionis an old tanka collection which was in existence at the time the Man’yōshū itself was compiled. Hitomaro himself may not have authored all of its poems, but many are excellent and repay repeated readings, including this love poem.

 Asakage, morning shadow, is the weak shadow things cast at daybreak. Tamakagiru, jewel light, is a makurakotoba (pillow word) used to modify honoka, faint, perhaps because a jewel gives off a faint light.

 The poem is about wasting away from love but it has a captivating beauty.





Osananajimi ni hanareta ori wa


oki no rokai ga oreta yo na



Sanka Chōchūka



Being far from my childhood friend

is like having my oar break on the high sea

Poems of mountain Huts, Birds and Bugs



 A mid-Edo period collection of songs published in 1772. The contents, which consist mainly of lyrics from all over Japan for dances of the summer Festival of the Dead, are thought to date from the early Edo period and after. They are a mine of information about the relationship between folk song and popular song.

 This song is from the province of Iga (part of modern Mie Prefecture) and describes how forlorn it is to be parted from a childhood friend. Read by itself, it would seem to be about male friendship, but probably, like most folk songs, it is about male-female love.

 Hanareta,far from, is a flexible word, capable of suggesting many meanings.





Haru mijikashi


nan ni fumetsu no


inochi zo to


chikara aru chi wo


te ni sagurasenu



Yosano Akiko



Spring is short

What has eternal life ?

I thought, and

let his hands seek out

my strong breasts



 An extremely famous poem from Midaregami (Tangled Hair, 1901). The idea that youth is short and nothing lives forever is an ancient one but no tanka poet has ever expressed it as boldly as this poem in its last two lines. I think the daring was strictly in the realm of fantasy, however, product of the extravagant imagination of a young girl brought up in a merchant family (owners of the Surugaya confectionery in Sakai) who found her escape in the world of medieval romances.

 Perhaps because she was stung by the ridicule of the critics, Akiko later rewrote the last line as te ni saguru ware,I seek out, so that the speaker herself touches her own breasts, but I prefer the original.





Yuki hageshi


Dakarete iki no


tsumarishi koto



Hashimoto Takako



Fierce snow

Once, embraced,

my breath stopped



 From Kōshi (Red Thread,1951). Takako studied haiku with Sugita Hisajo and latter joined Yamaguchi Seishi’s haiku group. She expressed the eruptions and flickerings of female emotion with a fresh and sure touch. She is one of the best modern women writers in terms of her discipline as a poet and range of expression.

 Widowed in her late thirties, Takako wrote many moving poems in memory of her husband. This is one of the best known. Staring at the furiously falling snow, she calls up from within that sight a memory of equal intensity.




Translated by Janine Beichman



OOKA Makoto
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OOKA Makoto

Poet and literary critic. Born in Shizuoka in1931. He has written many poetries since his high school. After graduating from Tokyo University in 1953, he has worked at the Yomiuri Press for some years. His poetries have been translated into several foreign languages, through which he has often tried poetry-linking with overseas poets. Ooka is considered to be one of the greatest poets in modern Japan. He has received many distinguished literary awards from both domestic and overseas. Some of them are l’Order des Arts et des Letters in 1989, Japan Art Academy Award in 1995 and Order of Culture in 2003. A member of Japan Art Academy. He served as the 11th President of The Japan P.E.N. Club from 1989 to 1993. A Poet’s Anthology (Oriori no Uta) is published by Katydid Books in 1994. For A Poet’s Anthology , the author has searched through the whole range of Japanese Poetry.

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