The Life and Haiku of Ishii Rogetsu


WHF2002 – Susumu Takiguchi

The Life and Haiku Poems
of Ishii Rogetsu (1873-1928)

Susumu Takiguchi
Chairman of the World Haiku Club

The World Haiku Festival 2002
20 – 22 September 2002, Yuwa Town, Akita, Japan

Ladies and Gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce, through you, the person and work of the local hero of Yuwa Town, Akita, to the rest of the world for the first time. Some of you may wonder why Yuwa Town was chosen as the site for the second World Haiku Festival. In other words, what is the connection between Yuwa Town and world haiku?

The connection is the hero himself: Ishii Rogetsu (1873-1928). Rogetsu is the haiku name of this relatively obscure, but nevertheless important figure in the Japanese haiku world. First, let me explain the origin of his haiku name. It is said that one day Rogetsu was appreciating the beauty of a camellia tree under the moonlight in his garden, when he observed hundreds of exquisite dewdrops twinkle. This beautiful scene was crystallised into his haiku name. Ro means “dew” and getsu means “the moon”.

Rogetsu was one of the students closest to Masaoka Shiki, who regarded him highly. Other important fellow students, such as Takahama Kyoshi or Kawahigashi Hekigodo, also respected Rogetsu. And Yuwa Town is where he was born, bred and spent most of his life until he died at the age of fifty-five. His occupation was medical doctor. However, he devoted his life also for the benefit of his home town (which was only a small village) through the field of education and other worthy causes. This year marks the 130th anniversary of the birth of Rogetsu.

Biographical Sketch of Rogetsu

Young Days

We begin with a brief sketch of the life of Rogetsu. He was born on 17 May, 1873 (Meiji 6), in Memeki, Tomegawa-mura, Kawabe-gun, Akita. Located beside the Japan Sea, the area is, for half a year, covered with snow. Memeki later joined three other neighbouring villages, forming the present Yuwa Town, which is about 20 kilo meters south of Akita City. When he was born as the second son, his father, Tsunekichi, was 38 years old and his mother, Ken, 31. He had one elder brother, three elder sisters and one younger brother. Rogetsu was six years junior to Shiki, one year senior to Kyoshi and the same age as Hekigodo.

Rogetsu came from a good family of shoya (village headman) and wealthy farmers. This is, of course, relative, as the village itself was poor. The family estate still exists to this day. However, during the civil war which led to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the enemy forces attacked and reduced the village to rubble, making his family destitute.

Tomegawa-mura lies along the Omono River, which meanders like a giant dragon and seems to cover a large part of Akita Prefecture. A beautiful river, it is somewhat reminiscent of the the Seine’s upper streams. The width and abundance of water means that it has long been the main (and often the only) channel of shipping and communication. Its most important role was perhaps that of transporting great quantites of rice crops, paid as a tax (nengu-mai) in feudal Japan. Despite the incursion of modernity, the landscape of Yuwa Town is still rustic and beautiful. How much more so it must have been in Rogetsu’s childhood!

He was a bright and precocious child, fond of reading. However, tragedy struck when his father died at the age of 48, leaving the eleven-year old boy grieved. His 68 year old grandfather took over the father’s role for Rogetsu and taught him, among other things, tanka, haiku and painting. Rogetsu was particularly good at Chinese classics and Chinese poetry, which have long been most important areas of study in Japan, comparable to Latin for English schoolboys. He was also initiated to haiku; how much he took to it or understood it is open to question.

He did well in his studies, although he had to abandon school on account of illness. He was a slight boy with poor health. As a boy and as a young man, he was afflicted with various illnesses including ascariasis (scabies), beriberi, abdominal typhus and pneumonia. At home, he spent the greatly increased time reading Basho, Chinese poems and other literary works, while at the same time writing his own poems. After a while, he got a job as a teaching assistant at the nearby local primary school. He was not happy though, as his friends had gone to live in Tokyo, achieving their aspirations, while he was stuck living a “dog’s life” as an insignificant teacher of a provincial school.

Move to Tokyo

He was well-read, especially in the areas of history, Japanese and Chinese literature. When he was 20, Rogetsu made an important conscious decision to become a novelist. In October 1893 (Meiji 26) he moved to Tokyo in order to achieve his burning desire. The following year, he paid a visit to Tsubouchi Shoyo, a novelist and renowned scholar of Shakespeare — and someone who had established himself as “the” leader of Japan’s literary world at the time. Rogestu asked Shoyo to take him as a private student. However, after persuading Rogetsu against wanting to be a novelist — which was extremely hard to achieve,  Shoyo’s answer was NO.

This was a terrible blow to Rogetsu, but through a strange irony of events, it led him to be connected with Shiki. In April 1894 (Meiji 27), a worried friend introduced him to Shiki’s cousin, Fujino Kohaku, who then introduced Rogetsu to Shiki. Shiki promptly secured the aspiring writer with a job with the Sho-Nihon, the newspaper Shiki was working for. Sho-Nihon was a supplementary newspaper to the more substantial Nihon, owned by Kuga Katsunan, one of the leading figures of the Meiji Japan. Katsunan was effectively Shiki’s guardian who looked after the literary genius in sickness and health. Shiki had been asked to be editor-in-chief of Sho-Nihon, and through this newspaper, he had by then begun his relentless attack on what he termed tsukinami haiku masters (the ones who indulged in low-quality and clichés haikai for fame and livelihood).

Shiki liked people. He also had leadership quality. He looked after an incredible number of people who appeared in his vast human network. The way he looked after them was meticulous, attentive and often over-bearing (which some people such as Kyoshi found weary). However, Meiji era Japan was a dynamic society, a strange mixture of contradicting or competing factors. Shiki was at once democratic (giving equal opportunity to all, irrespective of their age or social status) and slightly authoritarian (telling people what to do, controlling others or imposing his will on others). The Meiji Era was an age of hope, newness and innovation,  all which were entangled in the same pot with opposing sentiments.

Thus it was, that Rogetsu entered the world of the Shiki school. He was given an initiation, by Shiki, on the basics of a newspaper company, such as how the editorial office or print shop worked. His first task was to read all the manuscripts which were sent in by news agencies and do the initial sorting out of which to be printed and those to be discarded. They were mostly about various developments and movements of political parties, or about affairs in the business world. Naturally, he was not so keen on this initial task. However, here was Rogetsu, a country bumpkin, living in the aspired Tokyo, having Shiki as his mentor and secure with a regular job. It was a long way from Yuwa Town.

Rogetsu’s encounter with Shiki also meant that he acquired the best teacher of haiku at the time, and the most helpful supporter of himself as a haiku poet. Through Shiki, Rogetsu came to know many haiku friends who were indispensable for his haiku development even after he returned to his home village. One of those was Sato Koroku, who also came from Northern Japan, as Rogetsu did. Koroku later became a renowned novelist. A year younger than Rogetsu, Koroku had gone to Tokyo before Rogetsu. Both had become newspaper reporters at about the same time, and both received the initiation to haiku from Shiki. As a pair, they became prominent students.


The Sho-Nihon for which Rogetsu had begun working was, however, short-lived. Within six months of its establishment, in July 1894 (Meiji 27), the paper had to close, as it had become financially untenable. Rogetsu was transferred to the “Nihon”, the parent newspaper, where he reported on social affairs with the introduction of social pages to the paper. It is interesting to note that Rogetsu was writing reports on killings, fires and accidents in the old elegant style of Japanese.

At long last, Rogetsu’s life seemed to be secure. However, misfortune struck him when he had a serious attack of beriberi. He sought advice from Shiki, who suggested he should have a change of air. Thus in August, Rogetsu moved temporarily to Chikura Hot Spring of Chiba Prefecture where he had treatment. He used the time there for writing. Kairo Tsure-zure (Notes at the Seaside Resort) was written during this period which were dark days for Rogetsu;  at the beginning of August, the whole nation was in a tense situation with the breakout of war against China. When his condition did not improve much, he decided to return to Memeki, Akita in September.

At home, the familiar environment, food, care and comfort worked wonders to nurse and nourish Rogetsu. He recovered sufficiently to return to Tokyo in November of the same year, where he resumed his work for Shiki at the Nihon newspaper. At times, he accompanied and assisted Shiki with reports on the developments and debates in parliament, for there were not enough staff at Nihon with many reporters now the war, fighting at the front line. It is well-known that Shiki himself left as a war correspondent in March 1895 (Meiji 28). However, while Shiki was waiting in Hiroshima, a truce was called. Nevertheless, in April, he set sail for China, where he stayed until May. And it is while he was on his way back to Japan that he coughed out blood in a bad way. He was taken to hospital in Kobe, and began a long suffering from the disease which was to curse the rest of his life. August saw both men taken back to their respective hometowns on account of different illnesses: Shiki to Matsuyama with pneumonia, and Rogetsu to Memeki, Akita, with beriberi. Coincidentally, by October, both were back in Tokyo. For Shiki. this marked his last time travelling out of Tokyo, as for the next seven years, he was to become too ill and bed-ridden for journeys. Ironically, for Rogetsu, this marked an important time, when he made a career change which was to take him permanently from Tokyo to practice medicine in his hometown.

Decision to become a medical doctor

Thus, Rogetsu gave up his desperate desire to become a literary person as his occupation. He decided, instead, to follow a career as a medical doctor. The following three years were spent becoming qualified. After various tests, in April 1898 (Meiji 31) he secured full qualification through passing the final examination for a license to open a clinic. in December 1899 (Meiji 32), following on-the-job trainings in a number of hospitals, Rogetsu finally established his own clinic. Now 26 years old, it was a decisive moment for him. Shiki did not like Rogetsu’s decision, and had tried to persuade him into changing his mind. In the end, Shiki relented and organised a farewell party for Rogetsu at his house.

Between 1895 (Meiji 28), when Rogetsu decided to become a doctor, and 1899 (Meiji 32), when he opened his own clinic, he spent his time between Tokyo and Memeki. While he was staying in Tokyo, he made a point of attending haiku meetings held at Shiki’s residence. Those who frequented the meetings regularly include Meisetsu, Kyoshi, Ogai, Tengai and Hekigodo. His haiku made remarkable progress during this period. Also, at that time, there was an important event in the history of modern haiku. In January 1897 (Meiji 30) the haiku magazine Hototogisu was launched in Matsuyama by Yanagihara Kyokudo; the magazine moved to Tokyo the following year, this time published by Takahama Kyoshi.

Rogetsu as a haijin

What is important to emphasise, is that it was a literary career which Rogetsu abandoned, and not literature itself. In those days, it was almost impossible for anyone to make a living out of writing novels or poems. Most authors had to earn their income from other jobs, such as teaching or journalism. As Fukuda Kiyoto points out, one good thing about Rogetsu’s decision, is that he effectively released his haiku from all other complications inherent to jobs and duties. In this way, he could keep his haiku as a pure pursuit. He also started to write tanka in earnest, as Shiki had become active in reforming tanka, and started the famous Negishi-Tanka-Kai.

One more important series of meetings was Buson Rinko, under the direction of Shiki. This was a study meeting of Buson’s works, as the anthology of the masters haiku was “discovered”, and had came into Shiki’s possession. It lasted as long as five years and four months from its first meeting in January 1898 (Meiji 31), to the 62nd and last meeting April 1903 (Meiji 36). That which was discussed was later published as a book in 1911 (Meiji 44). Rogetsu could attend only four of these meetings, but was greatly influenced by them, especially in skill of haiku critique.

1898 (Meiji 31) saw the publication of the famous Shin-Haiku (new haiku) by Minyu-sha. This was the first anthology of Meiji haiku. It covers the period between 1892 and 1897, and the selected poems were those by the Nihon-ha poets, centring upon Shiki. Shiki’s own haiku poems occupy about ten per cent. 71 of Rogetsu’s haiku were included.

In 1899 (Meiji 32), Rogetsu moved to Kyoto, where he lived for about six months. The move was partly for a change of air, to recover from beriberi, and partly to have his initial on-the-job training as a doctor. Shiki introduced Rogetsu to a Kyoto haijin, Nakagawa Shimei, who in turn introduced Rogetsu to a hospital in Higashiyama where he could get basic training. He also enjoyed Kyoto and travelled a lot to different places of interest, writing many haiku.

Move to home town for good

In October of the same year, he left the enjoyable life in Kyoto returning to Tokyo to spend what was to be his last days in the Capital. The time was approaching when he would go back to his home town for good.

At the beginning of December 1899 (Meiji 32), Rogetsu opened his clinic and began a new life in his hometown. From the start, he made a success of it — to such an extent that in April of the following year. he was appointed as the designated doctor of two villages. He stepped up his involvement in local haiku activities. In March 1900 (Meiji 33), he launched a new haiku magazine with his haiku friends, most notably Shimada Goku. Based in Noshiro, Akita, the publication was given the name Hai-sei (Haiku star) by Shiki, who wished it to be a regional base for the Nihon-ha school. The Hai-sei still exists to this day.

In June 1901 (Meiji 34), at the age of 28, Rogetsu married. His bride, Koto, was 20 years old, and came from Akita City. They moved to a new house and started the married life.

The following year, 1902, turned out to be the saddest year for everyone including Rogetsu. About 1 o’clock in the morning of 19 September, Shiki breathed his last, ending his 35 years’ of tumultuous life. Rogetsu wanted to visit the dying Shiki but could not make it. He had received heart-rending letters from Shiki, and also reports about the latter’s condition from various sources, including Hototogisu. Rogetsu wrote a memorial essay talking about his relationship with Shiki, published in the Hai-sei.

Apart from his contribution to the local community as a doctor and renowned haiku poet, Rogetsu also did much to contribute to the educational and cultural development of the village. He raised funds to build a local library which he named “Memegi-bunko”. He also established a youth group, believing that the future of the village depended on the quality and strength of young people. As the leader of this group, he organised many activities including athletic meetings, night school, kendo swordsmanship class, painting class, vegetable fair etc. He was elected to membership in the village council in 1908 (Meiji 41), and helped the sickly village finances recover to an even keel. He had seven children: three boys and four girls. However, three of them died young (the eldest son at 21, the eldest daughter at 18 and the third daughter at 3), which, as was the case with Kyoshi, deeply affected Rogetsu.

Towards the end of his life, Rogetsu made three major trips. In 1925 he went to Hokkaido. In the following year, he travelled along the northern coast of Japan, visiting Sado Island. In 1927 he went round Yoshino, Ise, Kyoto and Tokyo. Each time, he wrote a travel diary.

Rogetsu seemed to have achieved peace in rural existence as a doctor, haiku poet and village elder. He no longer pined for Tokyo nor the kind of life his friends led there. He was a celebrity in his home town and commanded a wide respect. He had his fair share of tragedy but he was happy. On 18 September 1928 (Showa 3), he was delivering a farewell speech at Memegi Primary School for Suzuki Fukumatsu, the school master, who was being transferred to another school. It was a special occasion, but still a mere routine duty for Rogetsu. In the middle of his speech, Rogetsu became ill, and holding his head with his hands, could not continue. At 7 o’clock that evening Rogetsu was dead. He was 55.

Haiku Poems by Ishii Rogetsu

Let us study some of the haiku poems written by Rogetsu. How R. H. Blyth thought of Rogetsu might be a good starting point. We look at the Nowaki (autumn tempest) haiku which Blyth introduced, with English translation by Blyth himself:

Nowaki fukedo ugokazaru kumo takashi (Rogetsu)

The autumn tempest rages,
But high in the sky
The clouds are motionless.

(tr. by R. H. Blyth)

That Blyth selected this haiku is in a sense a tribute to Blyth himself. This is because the Nowaki haiku is typical of Rogetsu’s style and tells a great deal of this man.

First of all, Rogetsu was a “manly” man and liked masculine subjects. Strong-looking clouds, violent wind and storm are some of his most favourite themes. Here, “tempest” may not be an ideal word and, together with another dramatic word “rages”, seem to reflect Blyth’s penchant for Shakespeare.

Nowaki basically refers to wind. It is the strong and violent wind which blows in nihyaku-tohka or nihyaku-hatsuka time and the simplest way to describe it is that it is a typhoon. Though of course often accompanied by heavy rain, Nowaki is normally talking about wind, while a tempest connotes a violent storm with rain or snow or whatever else. In this haiku, it is clear from the word fukedo ([though it] blows) that Rogetsu is talking about wind, which is also evidenced by the fact that high up in the sky one can see the (motionless) clouds (i.e. it’s not raining). That said, the fist line in Blyth’s translation does illuminate very clearly the strong inner emotion of Rogetsu.

Secondly, Rogetsu had a romantic streak and his own version of idealism was strong in his thought. It took the shape of philosophical or metaphysical tendency in him. Though he did not blatantly use conceptual or abstract words, this tendency was apparent in his poetry. This is the point of departure for Rogetsu from Shiki. The Japanese in the Meiji era did not hesitate to speak up their mind. Debating was encouraged. Differences of opinion were more voiced than hidden. So it was with Rogetsu. Even if he was Shiki’s student, he raised criticism about some of his teacher’s fundamental teachings. This included his qualified opposition to “shasei”, and then, to Buson who inspired Shiki into developing this principle he had derived from his study of painting.

Returning to the haiku under review, everything is ostensibly following the “shasei” principle. However, on second look one realises that beneath that surface layer a metaphor is hidden, or indeed thinly veiled, and is naturally transported to the inner thought of Rogetsu. Rogetsu is in praise of the clouds which are stable and steadfast, transcending the storm below. They are a symbol of higher values of human beings beyond the usual strife, stresses and strains at mundane levels. There was a streak in the minds of the Meiji men, which was influenced by romantic philosophy or concept of idealism. In Rogetsu ran this streak but Shiki was a realist who had almost a scientist’s objectivity, though he had his own brand of idealism. This is one of the fundamental differences between the two men. In the haiku under review, we see a mixture of “shasei” and idealism. One could interpret it as a happy marriage. Or, conversely, one could sense a point of departure for Rogetsu from Shiki.

Tokoroten susutte jimon jito kana (Rogetsu)

Sucking up the gelidium jelly,
I ask myself questions,
And answer them.

(tr. by R. H. Blyth)

Blyth reports that Rogetsu was “greatly respected in the haiku world after the death of Shiki.”(Note: p. 150, A History of HAIKU, Volume Two)  In the same small section he introduces this tokoroten haiku but does not offer any comments. One can speculate almost anything as to what Rogetsu wished to say in this poem. What is certain is that he would not have used such a phrase as jimon jito without meaning some kind of a metaphor, or hidden meaning. Jimon jito is rather a peculiar phrase to use in haiku, especially in Rogetsu’s time. He therefore must have used it deliberately. It can mean several things. Firstly, Rogetsu may be depicting a kind of his loneliness whereby he had to deal with certain difficult (philosophical) questions all alone as he is not in the company of those with whom he could discuss them. It can mean that he was casting a doubt on the way he was living. The comical juxtaposition of tokoroten and jimon jito indicates a degree of self-mockery and a faint self-pity about it.

The reason why Blyth chose this haiku seems almost self-evident. It is the Zen-like atmosphere and scene which permeate this haiku. It is also the kind of un-expected moment (the act of eating tokoroten) when Rogetsu seemed to tackle some question, when satori may or may not happen. I am always cautious whenever critics, including Blyth, start talking about Zen in relation to haiku. However, in this section Blyth wrote no words referring to Zen. It is therefore not prudent to speculate even if the reference seems apparent.

Hina-ichi no hitomoshi-goro wo ame ga furu (Rogetsu)

As they were lighting up
In the Doll Market,
It was raining.

(tr. by R. H. Blyth)

This has a different style from the ones we have seen above. The subject matter is feminine, as it were. Everything is soft and gentle: the spring rain, the Doll Market and the twilight. Blyth compares this haiku with that by Buson because the topic and contents are very similar between the two:

Hina-mise no hi wo hiku koro ya haru no ame (Buson)

As they were putting out
The lights of the doll shops,
The spring rain.

(tr. by R. H. Blyth)

Blyth suggests two different kinds of loneliness which we may feel in these two poems even if it is difficult to “name or describe” them. What he came up with is:

That [i.e. loneliness] of Rogetsu is human; that of Buson is of nature, of spring, of night.

This is indeed a very subtle distinction which I, for one, would not venture to make. The only comment I could add is about the difference between Buson’s hi wo hiku koro and Rogetsu’s hitomoshi-goro. The former is definitely about the doll vendors finishing the day’s work, closing the stalls and putting out their light. However, hitomoshi-goro which Rogetsu used normally means evening, or dusk, as it literally means around the time when people start putting on the light at their houses. It is the time for evening meals, for children to go home from their plays and for the family to get together. In other words, Buson’s eyes were on the doll shops themselves, observing what was going on, including the switching off of the light. Rogetsu, on the other hand, was thinking about home which was beckoning him back at dusk. In other words, Buson focused on the scene as a kind of objective landscape (which he sketched – shasei), while Rogetsu’s heart was with the home to which he wanted to return, i.e. human affairs.

I do not have the time to find out when Rogetsu wrote this haiku but somehow I cannot help thinking that it has something to do with a series of tragedy whereby Rogetsu lost his daughters and son either as a child or a young person. When he was 35 years old he wrote a haiku on the same hina theme for his eldest daughter who was only three:

hina mo nashi nanji wo momo no hana no kao (Rogetsu)

no hina dolls;
you are the flower face
of peach blossom

(tr. by Susumu Takiguchi)

The 3rd of March is variously called, Hina Matsuri, Hina no Sekku, Momo no Sekku or Momo no Hi. It is Girls’ Day, and it is customary in Japan to display the whole set of dolls which are created after the fashion of the Heian Court, having the prince and princess and all their retinues and servants. Thus the word, hina, symbolises the love of parents for their daughters. The same eldest daughter, Tsuwa, died suddenly when she was 18 years old, leaving Rogetsu grief-stricken.

Blyth introduced these haiku poems by Rogetsu mainly for comparison purposes with works by other poets on a same or similar theme and content. It is therefore not really possible to know how Blyth evaluated Rogetsu, except that he accepted the reputation of this poet and showed his importance by comparing his works with those by the likes of Buson. However, Blyth gave a respectable start for the study of Rogetsu and that is welcome from the point of view of WHF2002.

A selection of haiku poems by Ishii Rogetsu

Let me discuss some more haiku poems written by Rogetsu, which seem to me to have great merit. They also show the main characteristics of Rogetsu’s style and colour:

fuku kaze no oto sae take no aki-gokoro

even the wind
that blows – the feeling
of the “bamboo autumn”

In 1888 Rogetsu entered Akita Middle School at the age of 15. In addition to school curriculum, he studied Chinese classic, especially Chinese poems, waka and haiku under a local poet. He later commented that he was not good at haiku then. However, this particular haiku was praised in a kukai, though Rogetsu is said to have dismissed it with a wry smile. It needs a little bit of explanation. Take no aki (bamboo autumn) is a season word for spring, yes, spring. Old leaves of bamboo trees tend to become yellow around April in Japan as if it is autumn, the opposite to all other trees and plants. [Conversely, in autumn bamboo leaves turn bright green, which is called take no haru (bamboo spring) and is an autumn season word: quite a mind teaser]

Rogetsu was obviously conscious of it and used this “twist” in nature to advantage: a clever contrivance to give a sense of humour and irony. We will not know if the wind was something like autumn wind or totally spring-like. Neither will we know if Rogetsu was talking about the feeling of spring or autumn, as what is written is a word-play. The haiku poets he was mingling with locally were what Shiki called tsukinami (mediocre poets blindly following traditional conventions superficially). He was soon to leave them and start writing haiku on his own. Though Rogetsu himself did not give high marks to this poem, it is not bad at all for a boy of fifteen:

take yure-te umi mo mie-keri yuh-suzumi

bamboo trees sway,
giving me the chance to see the sea;
evening cool

Rogetsu must have liked bamboo trees a lot. Though a commonplace theme (seeing something through something else, such as the moon(light) through tree branches), the haiku has the refinement of an accomplished (adult) haijin. Little wonder, then, that this haiku was included in the votive offering to a local shrine in the shape of a tablet with haiku poems written on it. He used his haigo (haiku pen name), “Rogetsu”, for this haiku, which indicates that he had mastered the basics of traditional haiku at his early stage of his life.

yuh-kaze no kure mon no sakura hana mo nashi

evening wind –
at the gate in twilight, even
the cherry without blossom

Rogetsu was a good haiku poet but it was Shiki who introduced him to the nation. Shiki started his Meiji 29 nen no Haikai (later changed to Haiku-kai), or The Haikai in the Year of Meiji 29, in 1897. This was a series of essays which dealt with the haiku trends during that year and the major haiku figures, which were published in the Nippon, the newspaper he was working for. The series ran 23 instalments from 2 January to 15 March in 1898. The haiku poets included such illustrious names as Kyoshi, Hekigodo and Meisetsu. Along with these names, Shiki wrote about Rogetsu and published 23 of the latter’s haiku which he thought would be typical of the emerging poet. Among other things, Shiki emphasises the fondness of Rogetsu to use themes and vocabulary which he borrowed from Chinese classic and also points out that Rogetsu’s topic are huge and manly. Shiki’s comments goes:

Apart from Kyoshi and Hekigodo, there is one poet who demonstrated his unique position in the Japanese haiku world last year. His name is Rogetsu.

The “evening wind” haiku under review was the first of these 23 haiku poems. Rogetsu’s sense of irony appears once again in this haiku. He takes up spring as the season of the poem and yet it is not bursting with newness and life. He talks about cherry and yet the blossom is over. He refers to a spring scenery and yet it is after sunset and the evening wind is blowing in darkness. He depicts a gate and yet it does not seem to be leading anywhere.

ichizan no doh-toh furuki wakaba kana

the whole mountain
decorated with young leaves!
ancient shrine

This is also one of the 23. It should now be clear that one of the characteristics of Rogetsu’s haiku is “contrast”. Not necessarily in the narrow sense of “toriawase” (combination of two or more things in one haiku), but in a more versatile sense, Rogetsu places contrasting elements in his poetry in order to accentuate what he wants to say. The contrast in this poem is more than obvious. The context, kireji and proportion make it clear that he emphasises the newness, colour and vivaciousness of new leaves by setting them in contrast with the oldness and smallness of the shrine. This contrast may well be a reflection of his inner life which was not all of a piece but full of conflicting elements such as loneliness and joy.

kari wo kiku yofune no soko no shinshi kana

a literary student –
in the bottom of a night boat,
listening to flying geese

Also from the same 23 haiku, this one may be a self-portrait. Shinshi (or shinji) was a student who passed the national examination to become a mandarin in ancient China. The term was imported to Japan to mean the same thing. However, Rogetsu may have used it more loosely. He himself passed the examination to be qualified as a doctor. And he was a student of literature in real terms. Be that as it may, the poem is a beautiful one and shows the romantic side of Rogetsu.

soh kassu yanagi wa midori tohgarashi

a monk shouts –
the willow is green,
red pepper

Rogetsu wrote haiku on Buddhist monks. This particular one is about a Zen priest and his shout is called katsu. In modern American parlance, this haiku could be called a “shopping list” haiku where three (unrelated) things are put without having anything to do with each other, like the contents of a supermarket trolley. However, because it is something to do with Zen, such a preoccupation is superfluous and matters nothing. The more irrelevant the contents are, the closer the student of Zen may be to enlightenment. The “contrast” between the fresh green colour and the red in the pepper is as vivid as the theme of the haiku is vague.

soh shin-de geppen yare-nu yama no ue

the monk has died –
the partial moon has broken
above the mountain

An extraordinary haiku, especially considering the stage of haiku development at Rogetsu’s time when tradition still reigned supreme. Compared with the works of his contemporaries Rogetsu’s haiku must have looked almost surrealistic. Part of Shiki’s comments go

All [six] poems are extraordinary and new. They are beyond the imagination of ordinary people. Never have we seen in ancient times or today haiku poems quite like these.

To me, this haiku is almost sinister. Rogetsu loved the mountains of his hometown in Akita. He especially loved to watch the sky above these mountains. The crescent moon, or any moon short of full moon, must have had special meanings for Rogetsu and when there were moving clouds such moon would look as though it is broken. That there is hidden metaphor goes without saying. Fukuda Kiyoto who achieved a pioneering study of Rogetsu comments, “. the penchant [of Rogetsu] for visionary and surrealistic poetry is not only the result of Buson’s influence on him but also stemming from his own fundamental sensibility, and it is the deepest fountain from which his art is derived.” (Note: Haijin Ishii Rogetsu no Shogai, Life of Haijin Ishii Rogetsu, Fukuda Kiyoto, p. 67)

kohzui ya tsuki wo hitashi-te oshi-yosuru

pushing, and
soaking the moon within itself,
comes the flood

At the time of writing, parts of Britain are experiencing severe flood. So is India and China. The violence and power of the flood are contrasted with somehow fragile moon. It is almost a rape scene. Compared with the Romantic and sentimental feelings the Japanese have cultivated over centuries about the moon, the treatment of the moon in this poem is indeed new and quite possibly unprecedented as Shiki observed. Nature is not treated by Rogetsu as something of an object of worship or manifestation of beauty. His scientific discipline as a medical doctor may have worked to prevent him from becoming a sentimental nature lover.

akatsuki no hoshi mo kie-keri shiro-kikyoh

stars of dawn
have now vanished –
white Canterbury bells

This haiku looks, sounds and reads far more beautiful in the original Japanese than in English, even allowing for my poor version. Rogetsu lived in the Gion district of Kyoto for about six month as a young doctor when he was 26 years old. He obtained a job at Higashi-yama Hospital as an assistant in the Ward of Surgery and Gynaecology of a doctor who had just come back from a study abroad. Higashi-yama and Gion are especially beautiful and Romantic part of Kyoto and this ideal environment may have inspired Rogetsu to create poems of classical beauty and sensibility.

nuke-ideshi futon no ana ni futatabi-su

into the hole
I left behind
on the futon bedding,
I go back

This is one of the many haiku poems by Rogetsu which were included in the selection published in the Hototogisu in 1901. The selection was divided into four seasons and this one of course belonged to winter. In this haiku, Issa’s influence on Rogetsu is more apparent than Buson’s. We can feel the warmth preserved in the futon and the bitter cold in the ambiance from which Rogetsu was pushed back. A very visual and tactile haiku.

mizu-dori no uku mo kuguru mo johdo kana

water bird –
whether it floats or dives into the water;
all’s “pure land”

This is one of the most famous haiku by Rogetsu. He was aboard a ferry boat on the Omono River. He enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the river, blue sky, a cloud floating by, and the winter trees on both sides. Of course he compares himself, or any human being, to a water bird. The sinking or swimming of the bird is likened to the vicissitudes of human life. The use of the Buddhist terminology johdo (pure land) would not necessarily make this a religious haiku. However, the haiku indicates the frame of mind Rogetsu had come to hold towards the end of his life: some sense of serenity, calmness emanating from resignation and his attaining of peace of mind. This haiku was composed a year before his death:

kusa-gare ya ama ga haka mina umi ni muku

withered grasses –
all tomb stones of fishermen
facing the sea

Rogetsu went on journeys like other haijin and during 1927, the year before his death, made as many as three journeys. This haiku was written during one of them when he travelled to Kinki and Ise. Reference to death increased as he may well have become more and more conscious of it. Though he had a strong personal sympathy with the lot of the fishermen, what this haiku depicts has extended relevance of universality. It could just be a poem in Greece or India.

kaeri-tsuke-ba tsuma wa daikon hiki-te ori

coming home at last –
my wife is pulling daikon radish
from the field

We can almost see the smiling wife of Rogetsu as he approaches the vegetable garden which he cultivated with her. A peaceful life in the mountains which he had made his home when he gave up his life in Tokyo those many years ago. The radish they grew together now became large enough to eat while he was away.

kusa-gare ya ichi-mu to kie-shi miyako no hi

withered grasses –
the lights of the capital have vanished
like a night’s dream

Rogetsu came back from the capital which he had abandoned once as a young man. Visiting it again did not make him pine after it. All the things connected with the capital were but a dream. Rogetsu belonged to Memegi (Yuwa Town) where he was born and now there was absolutely nothing in his mind to change it. He devoted his life to it. His greatness lies in that devotion.

ame to takaku tsuchi to hikushi ya mushi no koe

songs of crickets –
as high as heaven, and
as low as earth

On 10 September 1928, Rogetsu sent this haiku with a comment to Haisei, a haiku magazine he had created. In it, he referred to an article he had read in another haiku magazine. The article maintained that in ancient time the Japanese people must have been writing free verse as we see examples of free verse in the “Ki-Gi” (i.e. Kojiki and Nihon-Shoki) and that it was the fault of the compiler of the Manyo-shu who selected only those poems which had 5-7 rhythms, which led to the exclusive use of 5-7 or 7-5 rhythms. Rogetsu was furious about this article and said that he was so shocked by the absurdity of this argument that he lost interest in writing his criticism about it. And then he mentioned that even the sound of crickets was tei-kei (fixed form) and that the natural laws were indisputable. These words turned out to be his last published remarks, and in a sense, this haiku could be said to be his death poem. On 18 September 1928 he died. He was buried in the local Zen temple, Gyokuryu-ji, on 21 September.


This entry was posted in Haiku, Vol 2-3 November 2002 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Life and Haiku of Ishii Rogetsu

  1. Chris Piper says:

    A beautiful expose! humble passionate and erudite. You enriched my understanding of haiku through this talk Mister Takiguchi–So “Ka-aroha: Thank-you”!.Several haiku and many of your comments will feature in my latest book of haiku-poems entitled “Bashō & Company Down-Under”–Perhaps my last work for awhile in this genre, which I began writing a few-years ago in the hopes of tapping-into the dynamic of Sister-City relations between River-City-Wanganui, NZ (where I live) and Nagaizumi-Cho. Japan. Akita has a special-place in my understanding, also: because of the Miraculous Apparition which happened there via the Theotokos (Holy-Mother of God, Second-Person of the Ever-Blessed Trinity).If you wish to speak to me further about my writings and pedagogue for Occidental-Haiku or other matters implicit in this reply, my email-address is My name is Christopher Mark Piper. My wife, Akanehe (Agnes) is Tokelauan-NZ; my daughter-in-law is a Kiwi of Goan-ethnicity and I now have seven grandchildren, thanks to the generous manliness of my son, Manuel-John.. I live humbly and enjoy great happiness and prosperity amidst all the socio-political religious and economic oppression and evils escalating in Aotearoa-NZ and the world-today. I journeyed in my youth, and so have Haikai under my belt, so to speak. Among my 35-books to-date one which I wrote 2-3-years ago may interest you immensely: a new haiku-form I created entitled the “Kōun” haiku: It is a Tanka-Couplet, or single-breath “Sonnet of Syllables”. The couplets, though rhyming and deliberately aphoristic, are not gimmicky as the title of my book “Fortune Cookies” might suggest. My goal of 1300 such haiku was reached in a little over 8-weeks drawing from haiku-books I’d written and daily inspirations in the moment, The Kōun do not omit kigo and kireji from the form, nor the metaphysical paradox and simpatico of image and idea; though it recently occurred to me that the addition of a 3-syllable-titular would bring-about the 17-syllable breath and coronate the two-line poem with its proper external three-dimensionality, thus complementing and fleshing-out the internal-form . This small-epiphany came at end of a not-too severe critique I recently finished on a talk given by Ion Codrescu (2001) in which I denounced one or two line “haiku” on grounds of both genre and form. Once again: “E noho ra kia paim e Pa:: Good-bye and be well, Sir.
    Christopher Mark Piper

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