Of Persimmons and Bells

WHR November 2001

WHC Translation Project of Haiku Poems by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
Part 1 – Project 1

kaki kueba kane ga naru nari Horyuji  

A Question of Interpretation

Compiled and Edited by John E. Carley
Pennines, UK


In May 2001 Susumu Takiguchi, Chairman of the World Haiku Club, proposed, as part of the Masaoka Shiki Centenary Celebrations, an On-line Joint Translation Project to be undertaken by WHC Haiku Forum Members. Susumu posted:

“This is part of the incentive for all of us to study, share and enjoy Shiki’s works in a practical and real way.

It is also intended to address the issue of haiku translation (…) how difficult such translation is, how the results differ according to different interpretations of the same poem and how the translation itself, as a “living thing“, must evolve and be open to improvement and new interpretations (…) a point stressed by such scholars as David Lanoue.”

The procedure would be straightforward: the poem selected would appear in Romanji with an English breakdown of the constituent components; Susumu would offer a provisional translation to be complimented by a published translation from another source.

“Then,” Susumu continued, “anyone interested can post his or her opinions, comments and interpretations.”

Or, in the words beloved of any British child on Bonfire Night: ‘Light blue touch paper and stand well clear’!

Of Persimmons and Bells – kaki kueba kane ga naru nari Horyuji

The first poem selected was, arguably, the most famous of all Shiki’s haiku of which the foreword says – Horyuji no chaya ni ikoite – Resting at a tea house of Horyuji Temple.

kaki kueba kane ga naru nari Horyuji

Masaoka Shiki  25-26/10/1895

kaki – persimmon   kueba – as I eat   kane – bell   naru – rings   nari – an adverb*   Horyuji – Horyuji Temple

*see below
as I eat a persimmon
the bell starts ringing
at Hôryûji Temple

(version by Sususmu Takiguchi)
I bite into a persimmon
and a bell resounds –

(translation by Janine Beichman)


Read Shiki Essay #2:  Using Same Themes  (Persimmons), Volume 1, Issue 1
Susumu Takiguchi  [use your browser’s back arrow to return to this  page]

So, the project was off. Immediately came a request, from the author of this article, for clarification:

“Please could you indicate the nature of the modification that the adverb ‘nari’ brings to the verb ‘ring’.”

To which Susumu replied:

” It has a number of different senses in which it modifies verbs (and other parts of speech) but in Shiki’s haiku it is generally held that ‘nari’ has two functions. One is dantei (predicative adverb) whereby it makes the verb into strong affirmative. So, Shiki’s bell is not just vaguely ringing but ‘definitely’ and ‘certainly’ ringing: the reality of the ringing bell is very keen. Another function of ‘nari’ in the haiku is eitan (exclamatory adverb) which is used in Japanese verses very often. It shows how deeply Shiki was moved. The strength of his feeling is palpable.”

Good… that was two syllables-worth cleared up. Or at least the parameters defined. Maybe. As will be seen the exact nature of the bell’s ring would prove to be something of a conundrum. And as to the meaning… well, perhaps one way to throw some light on the poem would be to provide a degree of context. Obligingly Susumu posted:

“Like many other good haiku poets, Shiki had his favourite topics on which he wrote haiku over and over again. Persimmons were not only such favourite haiku theme for him but also his favourite food…

“The poem gives out the impression of a calm and peaceful scene (…) However, like many of his other haiku, there are sadder and more sombre realities behind this poem.”

The full text of this essay appears elsewhere in the magazine, however, as we skim these extracts, a question arises: If this degree of background is needed for a successful translation, how much is needed for a complete reading?

“The doctor who saw him gave him drugs which enabled him (…) to visit Nara, and it is possible that he may have thought that this could be his last chance to go there (…) the poem gives the impression that a sightseer was resting, while coincidentally the bell started to ring – all natural sequence and no contrivance whatsoever. Not quite so.

It is believed that Shiki was in Nara on 24, 25 and 26 of October. He wrote quite a few haiku poems during these three days, including some on persimmons (…) At an inn where he was staying he asked a maid to bring him a bowl of persimmons. The maid peeled and cut them for him, which he enjoyed eating when he heard the bell of Todaiji [a nearby temple], telling the start of night. He loved this moment so much that he could not wait the following morning to hire a rickshaw to take him to Horyuji Temple, which he apparently preferred.

In other words, he consciously went to Horyuji Temple in order to enjoy the bell and the persimmons there and to write a haiku.”

Hmm, one poem… two temples. Quite what this meant for the more rigorous exponents of ‘shasei’ was a question for another day. But for those project participants unfamiliar with the information, it raised a lot of questions about this poem in particular: Was it a conflation? An invention? A souvenir? Was the experience of eating the fruit intended as specific, or generic? Debra Woolard Bender had been researching, and, quoting from the Asahi Haikuist Network, Oct 24 2000, had come up with an interesting aside:

“David McMurray wrote that while Shiki loved persimmons, his illness and the fact the fruit is difficult to digest prevented him from enjoying them as often as he might like:

Then, quoting directly from David McMurray:

” – Shiki therefore paced himself so as not to overeat. His limit was apparently two persimmon per three thousand haiku, as described in this delightful poem –

Sanzen no haiku wo kemishi kaki futatsu

three thousand haiku
two persimmons “

As to the issue of specific vs. generic, D.W. Bender had found an earlier posting from James Karkoski to a Shiki Salon debate in 1999. James is discussing the condition of the verb:

“The -eba is a conditional that means ‘if’ or ‘whenever’,  which makes the statement ‘whenever I eat a persimmon’

So, the ringing of the bell isn’t something that happens independently outside of Shiki, it is something that he remembers whenever he eats a persimmon (…) By ignoring the verb tense (…) the original gets translated as a haiku moment even though it was the farthest thing from what is going on in the Japanese”

As it happens James Karkoski is taking issue here with the ‘persimmon’ translation by Janine Beichman that Susumu had selected as introductory material, and which appears at the head of this article. Only twelve hours in to the project and the questions were multiplying – from the nature of the bell’s ring, via the little matter of where and when, to the condition of the verb ‘to eat’.

Ever industrious, Ms. Woolard Bender, meanwhile, had opened up another field of enquiry, this time thanks to haijinx and Nobuyuki Yuasa’s article Laughter in Japanese Haiku:

“Yuasa sees humor in an incongruous relationship between eating a persimmon and hearing a bell (…) he points out that if Shiki were against laughter, he then was also equally against dead seriousness.

When I took a bite
Of persimmon, a bell rang –
Horyuji Temple.


D.W. Bender continued:

“I would (…) agree with Nobuyuki Yuasa that there is a (wry) humor expressed in Shiki’s poem while at the same time it expresses a deadly seriousness: a juxtaposition of emotion, if what I’ve surmised about life (“persimmons”) and death (“tolling bell”) is true.

“Shiki was serious about poetic truth. However, he evidently did not find a discrepancy in such by mixing in haiku a “present,” (eating persimmon and a temple bell), “future” (the bell at Horyuji Temple), and “past” (whenever).

“(…) Shiki has done a masterful job of writing a multidimensional haiku. It presents, past and future as well as the outer world and the inner man, light and dark (humor and seriousness). It combines season/nature and human. In addition, there would be the parallel of a piquant (sharp) tasting fruit and the startling sound of a bell, a (sharp) reminder of his brevity on earth.

“From these short studies, I would present a possible version:”

whenever I bite a persimmon   a bell tolls   Horyuji Temple

(version by Debra Woolard Bender)

Paul Conneally too had arrived at a similar conclusion – the juxtaposition of eating and hearing the bell could be both specific and generic:

“I think that the poem is not just about eating a persimmon and literally hearing the Horyuji Temple bell but the act of eating a persimmon now bringing to mind Horyuji where the bell was heard (…) So it is (written) to reflect the “bringing to mind” of the occasion.”

the temple bell rings
as I eat a persimmon–

(version by Paul Conneally)

By now James Karkoski had joined the debate in person and was keen to underline the significance of ‘kueba’ – the condition of the verb ‘to eat’ – not least for its implications with regard to the idea of a ‘haiku moment’:

“It’s already on record that Shiki didn’t simply bite into a persimmon and miraculously hear a bell that happened to start ringing. Which is what the choice of “as I eat” leaves the reader with.”

Rather more arcane though, at least at first sight, was his query over the exact brand of Persimmon:

“what kind of persimmons as “food” are they? Are they the ones where the skin of the fruit has been peeled and served chilled? Or are they the”hoshi-gaki” ones, which have been hung and dried during the winter?”

Susumu Takiguchi, though, was alive to the relevance of the question:

“the persimmons Shiki was believed to have eaten at the inn on (presumably) the evening of 25 October 1895 were the kind called “Gosho-gaki”, the kind which grows well in Nara area.

  “(…) more important is the point you have raised, namely, in what way were these persimmons served? It is customary (…) that someone (…) peels the skin of a persimmon, cuts them into small slices (like small pale orange moon slices) and serves them on a small plate with a ‘yoji’ (toothpick kind of thing) or a small fork.”

Erm, yes… So?

“Children sometimes eat persimmons without peeling the skin or slicing it but they are often advised that that could cause stomach ache.

So, it is most likely that Shiki was served with peeled and sliced persimmon. Therefore, ‘biting into’, as Beichman translated, is most likely to be a mistranslation.”

Which is plain enough. The action of the verb was starting to take shape: munch, chomp etc no longer being options. But the condition of the verb was doing less well. Susumu continued:

“Another point you raise is the translation of “kueba”, which has been the main focus of investigation in Japan for a long time. Debi quoted your earlier posting on this point. “If I eat” is one of possible interpretations. However, “whenever I eat” does not really apply. The general view is that this is not the case of “if” but “when” and more precisely “as” or “while”. Therefore, it should be “as/while I am/was eating”, indicating that the act of eating and hearing the sound of the bell happen simultaneously.”

Mindful perhaps that the principle juxtaposition of the poem is between persimmon and bell Susumu also offered the following observation:

“Japanese bells are huge and hung in a special bell place of a temple. A long wooden pole horizontally suspended is swung at speed to strike the bell. The length of time between tolls is quite long, longer than Big Ben. The toll is heavy, austere and reverberating.”

Dina E Cox had been puzzling on just this aspect of the poem:

“Would I be right in assuming that the sound of the temple bell then (…) is more that of a ‘large’ sound, more like a gong, than a bell (to our western ears)…. with a heavy sounding reverberation, which continues with diminishing intensity…. and only once that has disappeared, would the bell seem to be ‘struck’ again?”

It would seem that we had at last found the least contentious area of the poem. Susumu replied:

“Yes, you are absolutely right, exactly so (…) The typical kane is something like 8 or 9 foot high and 6 foot in diameter, and weighs goodness knows how many tons!”

And there was the wider point:

“This is the practical side of understanding (Japanese) haiku  – before we start thinking about the cultural and spiritual side – that actually is necessary in order to make any sense of it.”

Which is quite a daunting proposition – for a translation to succeed the translator, or team of translators, must have a comprehensive grasp of the socio-economic fabric, past and present, of both the culture of origin and the culture of destination.

Email though, like the White Rabbit, tends to be too busy to stop for long and James Karkoski, whilst sceptical of the efficacy of an uninflected present simple or present continuous translation of ‘kueba’  – such as Susumu’s draft proposed – had also raised an entirely fresh set of considerations.:

“After the rhythm which Shiki set up in “kaki kueba kane ga naru nari”, the phrase “Horyuji” is a perfect “yo-in” for the “gong” which echoes off and on and on into space when one of those bells are struck.

We were 24 hours into the project and the question of sound had taken on a new aspect: can a translation respect the phonic properties of the original? And what then are the implications for the presence, or otherwise, of phonic effects in English language haiku?

But good poetry is not necessarily dependant on analysis and Laurene Post proposed a draft “from the gut translation only…”:

taste of persimmon
as sharp as the bells

  (version by Laurene Post)

As with Janine Beichman, Laurene had omitted the word ‘temple’. Mary Angela Nangini, by contrast, preferred the Takiguchi approach:

as I eat persimmon
a temple bell rings

(version by Mary Angela Nangini)

To date every version of the poem proposed or scrutinised had been faithful to the image order of the original: persimmon/bell/location. Alenka Zorman wanted to explore the effect of inverting the last two elements:

eating a persimmon –
at Horyuji Temple
bell’s ringing

(version by Alenka Zorman)

Or, using the noun form of the verb ‘resound’:

eating a persimmon –
from Horyuji Temple
bell’s resonance

(version by Alenka Zorman)

Carmen Sterba too considered the sound of the bell to be central to the poem:

“the sound of the bell takes Shiki out of himself and links him with sound of an ancient temple bell (…) Whether that was the precise moment that he wrote it or not, is not as important as the epiphany Shiki experienced to create this haiku. (…) he realized that this bell had been heard before he had been born, and would also be heard after he died. (…) When he went back to Matsuyama, and ate many more persimmons… (…) It would give him a feeling of wholeness.

as I eat a persimmon
the temple bell resonates –

(version by Carmen Sterba)

These remarks on the nature of Shiki’s personal exegesis were strongly endorsed by Dina E. Cox who had an important observation of her own to make:

“the temple bell is resonating (…) it is interesting to consider the many layers of possibilities, as well as meaning, in this haiku – augmented I’m sure, by the ambiguities of translation.”

‘the ambiguities of translation’ – a crucial concept in so many ways, and never more so than for this most elusive of verse forms.

Some clarifications though may be in every way desirable. And Carmen Sterba’s thoughtful post had contained one such:

“The ‘ji’ in Horyuji means temple, so the word ‘temple’ is not (strictly) needed (as with Beichman). On the other hand, the sounds of a temple bell and a church bell are quite different, so I prefer to use the word ‘temple’ to modify ‘bell’ in the second line even though ‘kane’ (bell) stands alone in the original Japanese.”

Michael Nickels-Wisdom, meanwhile, brought some clarification of his own to the debate: a comment on the significance of persimmons, and – by implication – humility, to Shiki. Quoting from a translation by Hiraki Sato and Burton Watson contained in The Country of Eight Islands he posted:

Tell them
I was a persimmon eater
who liked haiku

And in the matter of the juxtaposition of ‘persimmon’ and ‘bell’, Don Socha had points to make about the significance of synesthesia in haiku via a translation of a poem by Chora:

scattering in the grasses–

Mary Lee McClure had been quietly digesting (sic!) the implications of persimmons large and small. Unbeknownst to her she was about to light everyone’s favourite fireworks:

the taste of this persimmon
and the deep bell of Horyuji
resounds once more

(version by Mary Lee McClure)

“I’ve taken many liberties, I know. But I happen to share with Masaoka-san his love for those lovely persimmons. And the gorgeous deep BONG of a temple bell is a sound never-to-be-forgotten. It resonates forever in your mind and gut and the simplicity of a bite of persimmon is all that’s needed to start it ringing.”

This lyrical excursion to the land of all-things-persimmon was to prove our undoing, or, just possibly, our fulfilment. But first Kevin Ryan had some rhetorical questions to ask, and some comments on the nature of simplicity:

“does the sound of slowly biting into one and the gap between bites have any reference to the slow deliberate striking of a Japanese temple bell?

“does the spreading taste and ‘presence’ of a mindfully eaten persimmon equate to the prolonged penetration of the vibrations of the Horyuji temple bell?

“is this essentially a comment on mindfulness?”

savouring a persimmon –
bell resonates

(version by Kevin Ryan)

“I see this verse as a simple acknowledgement of what we all know at some time – that we may find insight, upliftment and resonance anywhere – Shiki points a way to this beautifully and resonantly himself – in the simplest action, if undertaken fully.”

Kevin used the word ‘savouring’ to shade the action of the verb ‘to eat’. Earlier Laurene Post and then Mary Lee McClure had proposed ‘taste’, and it was this usage that attracted the present author who also had an alternative suggestion with regard to the bell:

“I am not too keen on ‘resonates’. I’d argue that its principal figurative sense in English tends to notions of interiority. To that extent, and in this setting, ‘resonate’ might be said to describe rather that evoke.”

a taste of persimmon   at Horyuji   the bell rings out

(version by John Carley)

Don Socha too had settled on ‘taste’, and had been musing on the effects of synesthesia and ‘distant’ reverberations:

“So, first I thought: tintinnabulation/ with this taste of persimmon–/ Horyuji  (but) While poetically, the term “tintinnabulation” may serve both the taste in the mouth and the sound in ear, the word itself may be too ornate or complicated.”

of the bell at Horyuji–
taste of persimmons

(version by Don Socha)

By now the process had been rolling for more than seventy-two hours. Under the heading ‘Nuts and Bolts’ the points raised might be summarised as:

1/ The tense and condition of the verb ‘eat’, its
physical nature and abstract connotations
2/  The actual and symbolic nature of the sound of the bell
3/ The type and taste of the persimmon eaten
4/ The nature of the juxtaposition bell-fruit.
5/ The most effective image order
6/ The inclusion of the word ‘temple’

The heading ‘Translation Issues’ would group some concerns such as:

A/ Literal, word for word, substitution vs.
the translation of concepts
B/ Capturing tone
C/ The inclusion of phonic effects
D/ The uses of ambiguity
E/ Layering the meaning.
F/ The degree of context needed

Clearly then, Haiku Forum members were poised on the brink of a magisterial synthesis which would yield the definitive translation of Shiki’s masterpiece.

Well… readers at home might like to try that for themselves. Us, we’re off to Persimmon Land. Michael Nichols Wisdom in reply to Mary Lee McClure:

“There’s an annual persimmon festival in, of all places, Gnaw Bone, Indiana (…) At the festival, we had the opportunity to eat persimmon pudding. Was this the American persimmon?”

Alenka Zorman, plus poem:

“November gray –
a ripe persimmon
the only sun

The persimmon tree and its fruit (we name kaki both) is well known in Slovenia too. It grows in the south of Slovenia, in Primorska region. It ripens in November after persimmon tree leaves fall. Size of a small orange.

An unripe fruit is yellowish orange and very astringent. A ripe kaki is reddish orange, mellow, very tasty and sweet, I like it very much. The best are those with some small black lines on them.

Susumu Takiguchi:

” In order to understand Shiki’s “persimmon/Horyuji” haiku really well, one must visit Horyuji around 25 October, take a rest at the tea house, eat persimmons and wait for the “tsuri-gane” bell to toll. Short of that, one should at least eat persimmons.”

Which, obligingly James Karkoski did. Both the persimmons:

“Our property came with a couple of trees from which the dry persimmons are made. The dried persimmons are roughly about half the size of the full bodied persimmons which are peeled and served as is with the knotted pieces knifed out.”

And the temple visit:

“There was a row of souvenir shops and tea houses on the road which led into the temple, but there was a distance between them and being inside the temple. I can’t remember if I heard a bell being gonged or not, but it is easy to imagine how the gong would roll out and echo and expand across the distance between where you were.

I seem to remember eating a soft ice cream cone. Vanilla, of course.

a taste of persimmon   at Horyuji   the temple bell   resounds

(version by John E Carley)

Haiku #1 and Translation Versions

kaki kueba kane ga naru nari Horyuji

Masaoka Shiki, 25-26/10/1895

as I eat a persimmon
the bell starts ringing
at Hôryûji Temple

(version by Sususmu Takiguchi  Oxford, UK)
I bite into a persimmon
and a bell resounds –

(translation by Janine Beichman Tokyo, JP)
whenever I bite a persimmon   a bell tolls   Horyuji Temple

(version by Debra Woolard Bender Florida, US)

the temple bell rings
as I eat a persimmon–

(version by Paul Conneally Loughborough, UK)

taste of persimmon
as sharp as the bells

(version by  Laurene Post, Florida, US)

as I eat persimmon
a temple bell rings

(version by Mary Angela Nangini, Toronto, CA)

eating a persimmon –
from Horyuji Temple
bell’s resonance

(version by Alenka Zorman, Ljubjana, Slovenia)

as I eat a persimmon
the temple bell resonates –

(version by Carmen Sterba, Kamakura, JP)

the taste of this persimmon
and the deep bell of Horyuji
resounds once more

(version by Mary Lee McClure, North Carolina, US)

savouring a persimmon –
bell resonates

(version by Kevin Ryan, Loughborough, UK)

of the bell at Horyuji–
taste of persimmons

(version by Don Socha, Michigan, US)

a taste of persimmon   at Horyuji   the temple bell   resounds

(version by John E Carley, Pennines, UK)


This entry was posted in Classics, Haiku, Shiki, Vol 1-3 November 2001 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Of Persimmons and Bells

  1. Patrick Herring, Leeds, UK says:

    I found this page when looking for another Shiki haiku, as you do, and couldn’t help getting dragged in. May I offer another version from my reactions to the others?

    Slowly eating
    a persimmon, the temple
    bell calls me home.

    i.e. the persimmon is an autumn & harvest reference but that’s only one point in the cycle of life: the bell takes him to where you can see the whole thing. I like the 5-7-5 mora scheme.

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