Editorial : Escapist Literature vs Real Literature


“Tohi-bungaku”(escapist literature)
“Shin-bungaku”(real literature)

Haiku poetry has essentially been a type of what I call “tohi-bungaku” in Japan*. While not going so far as emigrating into Utopia or fairy land, haiku poets have cultivated a special world, slightly detached from the stark realities of life.

*“tohi-bungaku” could be translated as escapist literature, but not used in a pejorative sense. “shin-bungaku” is real literature, and here the word “real” is used in association with realism. 

This special world has been one of light-hearted taste or hobby, flight into appreciation of nature through familiar flora and fauna, with humorous twists about the harshness of human existence, mature resignation and an almost comical response to the wonders around us. It is an adult’s world, not for children nor impertinent and self-conceited youth, or old men for that matter, if they are not matured in wisdom or spiritually “kareta=withered”.

This aspect is one of haiku’s main differences from waka or the orthodox renga (not “haikai-no-renga”), from which it had spun off. This and other intrinsic characteristics of haiku have nurtured what is referred to as “haiku-no-kokoro”. It is the haiku spirit which has not yet been fully understood by those unfamiliar with haiku, or who are not native to Japan.

Haiku had long been thought of by Japanese children and youngsters (not without reason) as something which only geriatrics would indulge in as they have retired from real life and have nothing else to do. Haiku simply suited an elder’s detached way of life. When young people “meddled” with haiku, they invariably made waves and disturbed the peace of this escapist paradise. Truly, the haiku “explosion” in Japan is a relatively recent phenomenon.

It is this aspect of escape literature that has brought to haiku a huge blessing: its unique characteristics and popularity, as well as an unexpected curse: its limitations as a form of poetry and shaky position as a genre of literature. Until the Meiji era arrived 133 year ago, haiku, or more precisely “haikai”, had been more or less left in peace as everybody followed what we now call the traditionalist haiku way (it was “the only way”). Of course, within this traditionalist way, there had always been different movements and schools, of which Basho‘s was the most prominent example. However, the biggest challenge for traditional haiku after the Meiji Restoration was whether or not, and how, it should make sense of the modern world. It seemed necessary now, for haiku to recognise and include subjects dealing with the sterner realities of life, a demand placed on any serious branch of modern literature.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) and successive reformers of haiku after him changed this situation. The pace and scope of this change significantly increased after World War II. Today, the so-called “internationalisation” of haiku is bringing about the third wave of great change to haiku. We are at the forefront of this new change. And we may well be one of its conscious or inadvertent creators. The most important element of this change is the question of testing the inherent escapist nature of haiku within the context of the contemporary world and future.

The sort of conflict between traditionalist and progressive which has occurred in the Japanese haiku community is now being repeated on the world scene. The most obvious thing which should happen is for the world to learn from the Japanese experience: glean wisdom from her successes and mistakes alike. Sadly, this does not seem to be happening anywhere near adequately. The largest hindrance is, of course, the language barrier, and the second largest is the cultural barrier.

In this internet age, the time is ripe for the Japanese to overcome any psychological barriers, teach what they know and discuss haiku issues with non-Japanese haiku poets. In the West, haiku poets have much yet to learn from haiku in Japan and would do well not to become complacent with the form in its current state of evolution, nor dismiss any further need toward its progress. No other times have called for more immediate interaction between Japanese and non-Japanese haiku poets than now. The World Haiku Club wishes to do its bit to provide facilities and initiatives for such viable interaction and to work with the like-minded people in furtherance of this vital link in the world haiku movement.

Many simple and obvious facts about haiku have been made unnecessarily complicated or obfuscated by faction leaders and zealous theorists, all for their own purposes. One such simple truth is that there is only so much that traditional haiku can do. It must not be expected to do anything more beyond its scope. In other words, there are severe limitations in the traditional haiku as a viable and significant branch of literature or art in terms of such fundamental functions as subject matter, universality, form and vocabulary. Modernisation of haiku, or its reform, is essentially and necessarily an attempt at overcoming these limitations. Two areas stand out as particularly lacking in traditional haiku: full use of imagination and the treatment of harsh realities of life.

Among other things, the World Haiku Club is trying to address these two issues. Basing ourselves firmly in traditional haiku, we have embarked on a trial to ascertain if we can build an extension from that firm base, or better still, to enable the tradition to branch outward from itself. Though the greater part of our activities are conducted solidly within the bounds of traditional haiku, some innovations and experiments are positively encouraged to address the issue of imagination. And now, we have expanded our scope by activating a new list: WHCvanguard. Here, essentially anything and everything which is not dealt with in the more traditional WHChaikuforum is treated: war, violence, atrocities, social issues, human condition, sex, eroticism, death, disease, tragedy, disasters, calamities, human emotions, the metaphysical, philosophical and religious etc. For the moment, WHCvanguard is addressing these issues only among its own members. The aim is to overcome, in our own ways, limitations of the traditional haiku and to see if a new and legitimate range of haiku can be created, to deal with themes outside the realm of traditional haiku and in styles not necessarily pertinent to it.

Thus it is that in this Issue, we introduce WHCvanguard as a Special Feature with some of the list activities displayed. WHCvanguard will form the main plank of our haiku movement together with WHChaikuforum, WHCbeginners, WHCacademia and WHCschools.

Other Special Features include a commemoration of the first anniversary of the World Haiku Festival 2000 London-Oxford Conference to which this Issue is dedicated. There are various new Features from this Issue such as Tasting Vintage Haiku (Lee Gurga), Haiku Treasure Trove (Patrick Blanche), Kara-Kuchi Ronso (or Spicy Haiku Polemics) and This Is Your Haiku Life (Suzuki Masajo). I hope you will find all these useful and fun.




World Haiku Review

“Pumpkin and Eggplant”
Water Color on Shikishi –
A mosha (copy) of a Gyokusei drawing
by Susumu Takiguchi
Oxford, UK

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

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