Is Western Haiku a Second Rate Art?

MAY 2001

 WHC Academia

Is Western Haiku a Second Rate Art?

Susumu Takiguchi
Oxford, UK

Introduction to WHCacademia

In Japan, work does not (or must not) start until “goyo-hajime” (official start of work) on 4 January. Un-official reason may well be that people are out of action because of excessive drinking of “toso” sake for the first three days of the new year and are in no way capable of doing any work at all. On “goyo-hajime”, they diligently turn up in the office, attend the New Year’s ceremony of the company or whatever, drink more sake and all but disappear mysteriously after the morning’s hard work of exchanging name cards, New Year’s greetings and presents and last but probably not least of making sure that everybody is there for this utterly unproductive half a day and that he/she could not possibly have failed to turn up to attend this ritual.

No such luxury for the likes of us here in the WHCacademia. We must work, work and work hard without the pleasure of any mumbo-jumbo. Hence, I will make a kick start.

What is WHCacademia? It is a closed membership and moderated list where those genuinely interested in discussing and studying issues of haiku seriously and in depth will do so in a free, frank, original and critical way within the boundary of civility, mutual-respect and good manners (totally different from the so-called “political correctness”). The successful “Debating Chamber” and “Kansho Column” have been moved here from the haikuforum (an open and general list). Together, we will refine the characteristics and protocol of the WHCacademia as we go along.

At the World Haiku Festival 2000 London – Oxford Conference 25 – 30 August 2000, many of these issues were debated under the two main themes of “Challenging Conventions” and “Charting Our Future” in a “new, critical, challenging and thought-provoking” manner and in the way in which the future paths of world haiku could be illuminated. This should be continued and followed up, which is exactly what I propose to do at the beginning of the life of WHCacademia. I will introduce some, if not all, of the issues discussed at the Conference and we will try and advance such discussion further. We will see how it goes. However, please keep in mind that after good revision and editing some results of the discussion might be formally published in an appropriate way under the auspices of WHC.

OK? Then, here we go!

WHC Debating Chamber: “Is Haiku A Second-rate Art?”

Since its early history haiku has been subjected to fierce challenges or attacks from time to time. Every time major challenges were made to haiku, there appeared great reformers who successfully responded to these challenges and not only rescued haiku from further deterioration but actually elevated the genre to a higher position. Basho, Buson, Shiki and Kyoshi are major names among such reformer.

Soon after the end of the last war, a major challenge was made in Japan against haiku, putting the haiku world into turmoil and confusion. Young ones cheered and followed, middle-aged haijin were in a serious dilemma while the elderly, the old guards, fiercely resisted and counter-attacked. This may be a good starting point for our discussion in the WHC Debating Chamber as the WHF2000 has launched a challenge to contemporary haiku, whether it is Japanese or Western, or that which is practised in other parts of the world, in order to shake up the complacency, dogma and barren strife between factions, which may have crept into the world haiku scene. We may encounter resistance, chastising or derision but the discussion will commence within the confines of WHCacademia before it may or may not be addressed in the open sea.

The said challenge came from a Japanese scholar called Takeo Kuwabara, and is known as “Daini Geijutsu Ron” ([haiku] as a second-rate art). I shall briefly introduce what it is about and its historical context. It is not our intention to discuss Kuwabara himself here. My belief is that we need Kuwabara type of questioning applied to the contemporary haiku. For the sake of focused argument, let us confine ourselves to the Western haiku since the end of the last war, as we know it (do we?) Hence, the theme of our first discussion in WHCacademia is, “Is Western Haiku A Second-rate Art?” What a topic to choose at the New Year’s celebrations!!! After reading the following, please someone start the discussion.

It may be that no other articles written on haiku after the World War II have created so much fierce controversy than Kuwabara Takeo’s “Daini Geijutsu Ron” (“Haiku as a Second-class Art”). When we look back upon this well-known article and the uproar it caused, it is important to look back on the time and situation of Japan in which it was written. The article was published in the November issue of the magazine “Sekai” (or the world) in 1946, barely a year and a few months after Japan’s catastrophic defeat in the war which she entered partly to vindicate, among other things, the supremacy of the Japanese spirit and cultural values.

The first military defeat Japan had ever experienced shattered the confidence of the Japanese people. It was also a defeat of gigantic scale and of fundamental consequences. Helped by the policy taken by the occupational forces to eliminate any possible causes for the Japanese militarism and war efforts, anything which represented “old Japan” was either attacked or shied away. Haiku was no exception. Even during the war, haiku poets were put under increasing pressure to conform to war efforts because they were regarded as useless irrelevancies in the eyes of the military. Some wrote pro-war haiku. Others were even imprisoned. After the war, they felt “emancipated” and set about to re-establish themselves. It was ironic that on the other side across the Pacific Ocean, the very theatre of the war between the two difference cultures, haiku was beginning to enjoy an extraordinary and unprecedented popularity among the people who fought against the country which begot the art.

Kuwabara’s article was not even published in a haiku magazine or even in a literary magazine. The “Sekai” is a very serious magazine dealing with thoughts and intelligentsia’s ideas mainly in the political realm. It was therefore the general intellectual readership that Kuwabara aimed at as his audience rather than the closed haiku fraternity itself. The article has a subtitle “About Modern Haiku”. Kuwabara’s attack on haiku was part of the general trend at the time to criticise any branch of Japan’s (old) culture. The criticism was undertaken usually from the standpoint of foreign (mainly Western) culture and prominent among the people who took this stance were scholars and students of Western literature. Kuwabara was one of them.

The victor’s logic was ruling defeated Japan whereby in simple terms whatever in Western literature was good and whatever in Japanese literature was wrong. Modern Japanese literature was regarded as inferior, closed, peculiar and out of date. It was felt strongly that it was urgently necessary to “elevate” its standards to international levels.

In such a hostile environment for haiku, it would not matter much if the method of criticism might be slightly too crude. Kuwabara chose at random no more than fifteen haiku poems ten of which are deemed to be representative of some leading haijin of the day (which sounds arbitrary and hardly credible) and the other five by lesser hands. He conducted a sort of survey using these samples but without identifying the authors of them, something akin to a blind-tasting of wine. The results were like what can only be expected by blind-tasting of wine, arbitrary and subjective, and therefore unreliable, judgment of the samples. Moreover, he says the sample haiku moved him little artistically. On the contrary, he says, they bored him to tears by merely depicting such things as viewing chrysanthemum and such like. His criticism is not confined to the subject matter of haiku. He says that if novels and modern plays were to be included in the genre of art, haiku should not be called art because it did not qualify. Therefore, he says, we should call haiku “a secondary, or second-class, art” and distinguish it from novels and plays.

Haiku was disqualified by Kuwabara as a proper art because (a) it was no more than a “pastime” enjoyed by a clique of devotees who are prone to create a closed and special world of their own (don’t we know similar things happening in the West?), (b) it was difficult to distinguish professional haijin and amateurs from their works, (c ) it was in real terms very difficult by a single haiku poem to determine the quality of a haijin, (d) such a short poem as the 17 syllable haiku could hardly be a vessel to contain the complicated thoughts, sensibility and serious issues of modern society, (e) the Japanese haiku world and its haijin still maintain a feudalistic isolationist attitude, (f) the position and reputation of a haijin is not determined by the quality of the haiku he/she writes but by other factors such as his/her position in the society, how many followers he/she boasts of, the number of copies of his/her magazine, how strong his/her faction is etc. (g) individualism is lacking or scarce in these haijin (h) it would be best for the Japanese to give up haiku for now.

Interestingly, the younger generation of haijin in their thirties who disapproved of the feudalistic nature of the haiku world welcomed Kuwabara’s article. The established figures reacted very strongly against it. They included such famous haijin as Nakamura Kusatao, Mizuhara Shuoshi and Yamaguchi Seishi. The haijin who were right in the middle of these two extremes received Kuwabara’s criticism with a mixed feeling but used it to re-examine their own haiku.

The history of haiku is a repetition of ups and downs of the genre. When the downs were of serious nature then they were followed by some fierce criticism against haiku and a reform movement. About half a century before Kuwabara, Masaoka Shiki was engaged in such an attack and reform. At the turn of the century and millennium, we are once again faced with the situation where such criticism and reform are called for. The World Haiku Festival 2000 is an attempt at responding to such a call. Like Descartes doubting everything, we take the same method as his discourse and in principle challenge all Western conventions of haiku, including highly well-established rules and practices.


This entry was posted in Haiku, Vol 1-1 May 2001 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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