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Contemporary Haibun Online: January 2015, vol 10 no 4

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Joan Zimmerman

A Japanese Perspective on the Haibun: The Same Moon Each Night A Different Moon

An Introduction to Haibun with a translation of Kurita Chodō's "Tsukiyo soshi" (2013) is the first bilingual book that illustrates the modern feeling for haibun in Japan. It is a limited-edition 64-page book, edited and published by Mrs. Noma Minako, the convener of the 3rd Haiku Pacific Rim Conference (in Matsuyama in 2007) and a past-chairperson of the Shiki Memorial Museum English Volunteer Group.

Bound with elegant Japanese end papers, the book begins with color photographs of the moon over Matsuyama Castle. It is a parallel text, with Professor Patricia Lyons' translation into English of the Japanese text and poetry.

The text begins with the essay "What is Haibun?" by Professor Imamura Takeshi, author of Kyo arite: Kurita Chodō sono hito to sakuhin (There Is Today: Kurita Chodō, his life and works). He states:

A haibun is a short prose piece … [that combines] feeling and emotion derived from a deep observation of nature and human life, in an attempt to fuse elegance with the commonplace. A haibun can act as a preface to a haiku and, at the same time, can be seen as a kind of essay. But even though it is a prose piece, it should possess poetic sentiment and rhythm.

Interestingly, this description allows a haibun to be only prose. There can be haiku-less haibun!

The next section contains 40 pages of Kurita Chodō's haibun Tsukiyo soshi (Sketches of Moonlit Nights). Photographs and brush paintings generously illustrate the haibun, each of which is shown in the poet's original Japanese with Professor Imamura's modern Japanese version.

These illustrative haibun are not by modern poets but by a poet of the 18th and 19th centuries. Kurita Chodō (1749-1814), a devoted composer of haibun, linked verse, and haikai, was a friend of the 14-year-younger Kobayashi Issa.

The ten Sketches of Moonlit Nights haibun move the reader gracefully through the phases of the moon, starting with "The Third and Fourth Day Moons" whose closing haiku is:

on a rough straw mat –
eating my meal and above,
the River of Heaven

The second haibun is one of the briefest:

The Waxing Moon

By the seventh and eighth days, the moon takes on a lovely shape. As people come and go along a broad street, they may look familiar, but it is difficult to know for sure. How delightful it is to exchange glances for no reason at all. At this time, the moon hidden behind pine needles is especially wonderful.

going out in autumn
it always seems to be
a moonlit night

As with other haibun of that era, the haiku is much of a piece with the prose, so different from the modern English-language enthusiasm for making large leaps between prose and haiku.

Two haibun are prose alone. One is "The Waiting-Night Moon":

What a fine name it is, the Waiting-Night Moon. While pondering whom to visit on the following night, when the fifteenth day moon will be full, we think of this person and that, and cannot wait to see them. It is the way of this world of ours that what lies before us soon will change. How much more elegant to refrain from looking one's fill of the moon tonight.

Charmingly, the editor has placed a photograph of a Waiting-Night Moon at the place where the haiku might have been.

The haibun are followed by a chronology of Kurita Chodō's life, which included 1795 and 1796 visits by Issa and 1801-1808 correspondences with Issa. After two 1807 "parting" tanka (when Kurita Chodō left Mitsuyama), the editor gives four of her favorites of his haiku, beginning with

blossoms in full bloom
nothing left for them
but to fall

Professor Imamura's 5-page (and English-only) essay, "The Moon and the Japanese," begins "The Japanese are basically animistic at heart." It describes the importance of the moon in Japanese culture. By giving the Western reader insight into the special power of the moon for the Japanese, it beautifully complements the haibun.

Mrs. Noma's "Afterword" explains the context and history of the project initiated by a query in 2012 from poet Beverley George, whose on-going interest helped nurture Mrs. Noma's devotion in bringing this collection into life.

This invaluable book gives us an opportunity to learn from the Japanese haibun tradition. Additional information on this text is available from Beverley George (2014) in her review and background paper published in Blithe Spirit and subsequently available on-line. June Hopper Hymas (2013) adds her enthusiastic and independent voice about this book and the transfer of information that it offers from Japan to the West.

I could have wished that the opening essay compared and contrasted modern Japanese haibun with the book's centuries-old poems. But that omission reinforces the point that in modern Japan there seems to be relatively little activity in haibun (Zimmerman, 2014; Fay Aoyagi in HPNC, 2014). I hope that this book helps to revive interest there as well as nurturing practice in the West.

My gratitude to Beverley George for introducing me to this delightful book.


George, Beverley (2014). Blithe Spirit 24 (3). A review and background paper, subsequently published on-line at Poetry Society website.

HPNC (2014). "Minutes of the Autumn Meeting of the Haiku Poets of Northern California, Fort Mason, San Francisco CA, October 19, 2014" in Haiku Poets of Northern California Newsletter #75 – Autumn 2014.

Hymas, June Hopper (2013) Blogspot posting September 15, 2013 at http://junehymas.blogspot.com/2013/09/another-step.html.

Zimmerman, J. (2014). "What English-Language Haibun Poets Can Learn From Japanese Practices: the Mysteries of an Almost-Heard Birdsong First Autumn Abroad," Contemporary Haibun Online 9:4.