Fire, Beauty and Haiku


Life, Love and Poetry of Suzuki Masajo

Susumu Takiguchi

After the grand celebration party in down-town Tokyo of the Tamamo School, commemorating the 800th issue of its haiku magazine, I was swiftly escorted  out of the banquet hall and ushered into a huge white Mercedes. The elegant lady behind the wheel, attired in a gorgeous kimono, was a favourite disciple of the most revered and loved female haijin in Japan – Suzuki Masajo. The powerful vehicle proceeded quietly and smoothly through the throng of nocturnal passers-by, large shining cars and hoards of bicycles into an exclusive corner of the already exclusive Ginza. The exquisite ride came to an abrupt end several corners too soon. Three people waiting in the street, opened the car door for me, leading me through a narrow door into a small koryohriya (traditional Japanese restaurant cum watering place). Suddenly, I was standing in front of a figure who had been somebody I could admire only in magazines and books. It was Masajo.

usumono ya hito kanashimasu koi o shite


light silk kimono –
having an affair that makes
someone else unhappy

version by ST, the same hereinafter 

Masajo is synonymous with romance, or using a Japanese expression, the fire of love. She is an embodiment of love, beauty and haiku. Her early elopement as a married woman with a young naval officer, seven years younger than herself, is legendary and if my memory serves me aright was made into a film. A woman of exceptional beauty, during her second marriage, she travelled some eight hundred miles westward to meet her sweetheart even though she did not know if he had received her telegraph telling him of her coming. Her destination was a small provincial seacoast town called Ohmura, just north of Nagasaki. This small castle town, Ohmura, is nowhere else than my own hometown. Although my ancestral samurai house is now in ruins, the inn where Masajo stayed with her lover can be found to this day, still prospering.

renjoh ni uchikachi-gataki hitoe kana


thin summer kimono –
ah, I cannot for the life of me resist
this burning love for him

Masajo, now in her ninety-second year, smiled at me, gently pushing me into one of about eight stools in the restaurant. Only the luckiest can sit on them and “perch” onto a bar in order to have the rare pleasure of savouring her exquisite food and drinking her choicest sake. Her restaurant is called “unami”, a summer haiku kigo which either refers to rape fields rippling like waves in the early summer wind, or more commonly, to waves in the sea or rivers in early summer. Either way, it is a symbol of beauty. Ten minutes before, she had been treated like senior British royalty by top leaders in the strictly hierarchical Japanese haiku world. Now, Masajo, clad in her apron, was serving her clients and looking after me.

To my surprise, Masajo seated herself next to me. To my even bigger surprise, she poured sake, the legendary “Haku-taka” (white hawk), into my “o-choko” (sake cup). “So, you come from the town where I eloped?” Masajo was totally uninhibited, which made me bashful. She looked at me, smiling at my blush. The details of her elopement which she recalled, an event of sixty years past, were astonishing. Embraced in the cosy warmth, merry voices and delicious aroma of “unami” restaurant, it seemed, almost, that I had found myself in a dream world. More than once did I feel as if I had become a character in her film. Not playing a big part, but deeply moved, I found it difficult either to look at this beautiful ninety-two year old, drink her heavenly sake or eat her gourmet food without feeling captivated by her being.

tohki koi sake no nukumi ka aki no kure


love from a distant past –
or the warmth of her sake?
autumn is ending

Masajo had once remarked, “I shall not commit ‘dual-suicide’ with haiku. If I were to choose between haiku and love, I would drop haiku.” She dropped neither.

yuku haru ya kaze no oto sae kikenu roji


spring passing –
a small lane where even the sound
of wind cannot be heard

In such a small lane in Ginza, Masajo started her tiny restaurant, having given up the family hotel business in her hometown of Kamogawa, on the coast in Chiba prefecture. She was brought up with the sound of waves, one of the most favourite themes of her haiku. As we have already seen, the name of her little restaurant “unami”, itself is a name for early summer waves. Moreover, while her haigo, Masajo, comes from her real name, Masa, in terms of pronunciation, its meaning, as is given by the chosen Chinese characters, was derived from the word “masago”, meaning fine and beautiful sands on a beach; a perfect fit for someone who loves the sound of waves and the sensation of being at the mercy of them, sensual, erotic and dreamlike.

arutoki wa fune yori takaki unami kana


now and again
higher than the boat –
summer waves

Masajo was born on 24 November 1906 to an old “ryokan” (inn) business family. The ryokan, called Yoshida-ya, had a long history spanning 300 years (it is still in business under the new name of Kamogawa Grand Hotel). Their clientele included writers such as Okakura Tenshin, businessmen such as Iwasaki, and the Japanese Emperor.

Her long and even tragic life began with the early death of her mother (27 years old) when Masajo was only five years old. Two years later, her father remarried. Her stepmother, a beautiful and kind lady of the same age as Masajo’s own mother, was a geisha. When, at the age of 14, Masajo wanted to become a geisha she asked her for advice. Although her stepmother supported her, this wish was quashed by her father and sisters.

Masajo was the youngest of three daughters. The eldest, Ryu, was also a fine haiku poet with a haigo of “Ryujo”. Ryu’s literary talent blossomed early and she started to write haiku in earnest when she was only fifteen. However, she died at the age of  33, leaving three daughters and a son behind, all still in their primary school and kindergarten days. It was December 1935 and Masajo was 29. Grief adding to grief, in January of that same year, Masajo had experienced another devastation. Her husband, a wholesaler of general merchandise, suddenly ran away as a consequence of huge gambling losses. He became a missing person. Six years previously, after a passionate romance, she had married the man, remarking, “if you become a beggar, I shall be one too with you”.

The family conference ruled that she be returned to her own family but that her only daughter’s custody be with her husband’s family (Her first baby was still born). Thus, in a matter of two months, she suddenly and virtually lost the very two persons she loved most.

Masajo’s unhappiness was greatly augmented when she was “persuaded” to marry her brother-in-law only four months after the elder sister’s death, fourteen months after she lost her own husband. She felt the age difference was too big (it was actually ten years). This marriage meant that Masajo now became the owner of the family inn, Yoshida-ya. In spite of her new role of responsibility and authority, she was not even allowed to go to Tokyo alone to meet her own daughter, as she herself had become stepmother to four children.

Hito-mawari chigau fufu ya koromo-gae


Ah, our big
age difference! change to
summer clothes

The following year, Masajo experienced yet another tragedy. Her father, whom she adored, died at the age of only 62. The depth of her unhappiness was such that she drifted into a love affair with a young, handsome naval officer seven years her junior, who was stationed at a nearby base.

hotaru-bi ya on-na no michi wo fumi-hazushi

1957, Masajo         

light of fireflies –
I have fallen from grace
of woman’s way

Many more sad things followed in her long life, but one which was a blessing in disguise happened in 1955, when she was 49. While she was on a visit to Tokyo to fetch the copies of her first haiku anthology, her Ryokan, Yoshida-ya, went up in flame, burning to ashes. The business and family fortune were lost.

oh-yuyake wagaya yakitaru hi no iro ni

1955, Masajo 

great sunset glow –
in the colour of the fire that
burnt down our house

utsu-semi ya kono mi hitotsu ni ku wo atsume

1955, Masajo  

a cicada’s shell –
in this single body
pains accumulate

Utsu-semi is a cast-off skin of a cicada but it is also a homonym for another word which means “this world of ours”, or “we human beings living in this world”. Utsu-semi is also a “makura-kotoba” (pillow word) which leads to “mi” (my body, or myself). My interpretation is that Masajo was lamenting that so many painful things had occurred so often to her, that they accumulated and filled the empty shell that she had become. What a very sad and melancholic haiku this is!

Masajo’s haiku friends and others who loved her rallied around to help rebuild the inn and resurrect the business. Within just under a year, a brand new building was completed. Her business re-opened in April 1956, her 50th year. Her feelings, however, were mixed. The joy and pride of turning her misfortune around were obviously felt, but she had a void in her heart which could not be filled by material resurrection. And so she visited Tokyo often. It was to see her lover:

sumire-no ni tsumi aru gotoku kite futari

1956,  Masajo 

to a field of violets,
coming like sinful persons
two of us

In January 1957, Masajo went to see a play in which her daughter was acting. During the intermission, she was suddenly called. It was her husband. A sick man, he cornered her with an ultimatum: She should choose to commit to nurse him or to leave him altogether. She chose the latter. A week later, she left husband and inn, taking only her futon and the wardrobe which her dear father had given as a wedding present on her first marriage.

on-na sangai ni ie naki yuki no tsumori keri

1957, p. 332 

alone in this world –
a woman without a home;
snow settling

Again, Masajo’s friends came to her rescue. They lent her two million yen without interest or time limit for repayment. Within two months after having been kicked out of her own house, she used this money to buy and open “unami”, her restaurant in Ginza.

And as they say, “the rest is history”…

As I went on enjoying Masajo’s sake, fine meal and her hospitality, I became aware that autumn was ending and the evening itself, too. The warmth of “unami” restaurant and its gracious proprietor/head waitress had also warmed me, body and soul. I was ready to face the coming winter. It was with mixed joy and sadness that I thanked this eternal beauty as we bid farewell, perhaps for the last time.

Now, not being “chaperoned” in a Mercedes or Rolls Royce, but walking alone against the autumn wind down the quiet, abandoned night-streets of Ginza, I tried to remember other of the love haiku written by that special someone who had been conversing with me until only a few minutes ago. Just so that I could convince myself that it was not a dream, I recited some of them loudly, seeing that there was no one around to be alarmed.

hito koishi aoki konomi wo te ni nukume

1958, Masajo  

longing for my beloved –
I warm a green berry
in the palm of my hand

koi shita ya ichigo hito-tsubu kuchi ni ire

1961, Masajo 

wishing to fall in love,
I pop a strawberry
into my mouth

futokoro ni tegami kakushite hinata-boko

1951, Masajo      

deep inside the kimono
I have hidden his love letter –

tare yori mo kono hito ga suki karekusa ni

1958, Masajo 

more than anyone else
this person do I love;
on withered grass

hitasura ni hito wo aiseshi kako ya kan


with all my heart
I loved a man – such a past!
early February cold

koi wo ete hotaru wa kusa ni shizumi-keri


fresh in love –
two fireflies have sunk deep
into grass

sae-kaeru sumajiki monono naka ni koi

1966, Masajo

soul-chilling cold –
among things one mustn’t do
is a love affair!

biiru kumu dakaruru koto no naki hito to

1960, Masajo

pouring each other beer,
these men with whom I shall never
make love

Mozu-takane on-na no tsukusu makoto kana

1963, Masajo

the shrill of a shrike –
what true hearts with which
women care for men!

kare-kusa no hito omou toki kon-jiki ni

1962, Masajo

withered grass,
when I think of my sweetheart,
turns golden

waga koi ya akikaze wataru naka ni ari


my love affair
lies in the passing
autumn wind

kabi no yado ikutose koi no yado to shite


mouldy dwelling –
how many years now
as a love abode?

nyotai hiyu shiireshi uo no sore yorimo

1972, Masajo

woman’s body gets cold,
colder than the body
of the fish I bought

on-na no aki kami some-agete ura-ganashi

1972, Masajo

autumn for woman –
having dyed my hair,
I feel sad, somewhat

nani wo motte akujo to iu ya hitorimushi


on what ground
do they call me a bad girl?
a moth –

hito wa nusumedo mono wa nusumazu sudare maku

1973, Masajo

I may have stolen men,
but I have never stolen a thing –
winding up the rattan blind

sono mukashi koi no hamabe ya kani hashiru

1968, Masajo

once upon a time,
on the beach of our love
crabs scuttled

tohki tohki koi ga miyuru yo fuyu no nami


I could just see them,
my love affairs of long long past
in the waves of winter

aki no me ya mizumizushiki wa koi no kao

1973, Masajo

buds in the autumn!
as fresh as the face of
a woman in love

tohnoku wa ai nomi narazu yuu-botaru


what goes away
is not limited to love –
an evening firefly

houtaru no shi ya sanzun no kago no naka


the death of a firefly –
occurred in the cage of
three inches

This entry was posted in Classics, Haiku, Vol 1-2 August 2001 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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