Nature in Haiku – What Nature?

May 2001

Nature in Haiku – What Nature?
Susumu Takiguchi


Nature has featured in any poetry of any tradition. Why is it, then, that Japanese poetry seems to have acquired a special attention paid to it in terms of nature? More importantly, what exactly is meant by nature in Japan?

In what follows I shall attempt at answering these questions, taking haiku as an example. Witnessing people in conflict with each other over the issue of how to deal with the question of nature in haiku in general and with kigo, or season words, in particular, I cannot help thinking that this must really be a serious business.

As a starting point, let me deal with a particular subject which has been little discussed or understood. We all know that Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) completed the centuries-old process of separating hokku from the body of renku (1) (linked-verse), thus turning the former finally into an independent genre of modern literature in its own right. Hokku in this sense is haiku as we know it. The word “haiku” is not Shiki’s invention but it was he who gave it a modern meaning and reason for being.

We also know that Shiki discarded renku as a proper literary genre, which in fact is the most important aspect of his haiku reform and modernisation. What is not known well or discussed properly are the implications of this separation of hokku and renku. Renku has become a kind of ‘headless chicken’. But what about the ‘head’, i.e. haiku itself?

It must now be evident that the question we have to address is the impact of the loss of renku on the subsequent developments of haiku. More specifically, by having been severed from renku, haiku now had to meet the challenges to become, without its main body, a fully-fledged poetic form in its own right and survive in rapidly modernising Japan, and later in the modern world as a whole. In addition to this, haiku also had to cope with the problem of unravelling all the baggage which it bequeathed from renku and somehow was not allowed to leave behind. Of all the baggage, kigo is one of the most vexatious(2).

The rules of renku dictated that hokku should contain an indication of where and in what season a particular renku session was taking place. Thus kigo was an indispensable component for any hokku. When hokku became independent of renku it should also have been emancipated from the “shackles” of kigo, as some put it, otherwise the poem would become too artificial and restricting.

However, this did not happen and we have been lumbered with kigo, which has become one of the main causes of rows and rivalry in the haiku community. Common sense has it that we should learn to live with it and hopefully make the most of it. The problem is that poetry is not common sense. Besides, since Shiki’s time haiku has developed with kigo so much as a vital component that one cannot and should not dismiss it as surplus to requirement. This is because kigo goes much deeper than a fleeting mention of a hint of a particular seasonal phenomenon. It is related to the question of nature itself. Therefore it is necessary for us to try to understand nature in haiku in order to understand haiku fully.

Let us turn to someone more familiar to the Westerners – William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Curiously, Wordsworth’s vision of nature is very much akin to that of traditional Japanese haiku poets, particularly Kyoshi’s perception.

To be incapable of a feeling of poetry, in my sense of the word, is to be without love of human nature and reverence for God.   (Wordsworth)

It is not so much the natural landscape Wordsworth depicted in his poems that is important, as his interpretation of the relation and interaction between man and nature. He showed admirably ‘what happens when the innate power of Nature meets the power of perception of a human mind.’(3)  In this sense he was like a pantheist who ‘believes that God is visible in everything, and his nature can be ascertained from the nature of his creation, the Universe. ……Nature is a store of truths about human nature, the world, and God, but that truth lies inert until a human being conjoins with Nature and draws that truth out.’(4)

His may have been a moralistic age but Wordsworth’s tendency to include moral messages in his poems may be the main point of departure from haiku which does not preach morality. This exception apart, the similarity between his perception of nature and that of Japanese haiku poets is remarkable, albeit nothing but a coincidence.

(1)  Nature in Haiku – the Subject Matter

What I wish to deal with is the concept of nature as is perceived today in the West and in Japan. However, I will limit my observations to Britain and Japan. Needless to say one can expect similar perception of nature in North America or in France, for example, to that of Britain but one can safely assume that there are also conspicuous differences in different countries in the West in terms of nature’s manifestations, which makes it essential for me to stick to Britain, which is the only country I know a little bit about apart from Japan.

Many discussions about nature in haiku have led to confusion partly because of the lack of clarification as to in what terms the subject matter should be approached, including the tiresome but necessary question of definition.

So, what exactly does the word nature mean and how should we approach our theme? According to Raymond Williams, there are three basic meanings of nature used in current English today(6).

(1) the essential quality and character of something;

(2)  the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both; and

(3)  the material world itself, taken as including or not including human beings (i.e. that which is not ‘culture’).

The Japanese word for nature, shizen, does not have the number one sense. This word is in fact of Chinese origin, adapted only in the Meiji era when there was an urgent need to provide a new Japanese word for the translation into Japanese of the English word, nature. Having failed to find any suitable yamato kotoba, or Japanese words, the Japanese simply employed a Chinese word which seemed to have the nearest meaning.

Thus the Japanese word for nature lacks at least one of the three senses which the English equivalent has, and this has to be replenished by secondary terms, or other words, such as sei as in ningen-sei (human nature).

Without going too far into philology, let us establish that if the words purporting to mean nature vary from one language to another, the actual perception relating to nature would be even more varied. Thus there is a danger that people coming from different geographical, cultural and religious background can in fact be talking cross-purposes when they think they are talking about same thing called nature. This is probably what really is going on when people become so worked-up and excited when they argue whether or not haiku should have season words.

(2)      Nature in English Poems

One standard practice to find out whether there are haiku-like elements in English poems is to comb the works by leading poets and extract those which fit the bill. I have done it myself with poets including: –

Shelley (1792-1822)
Thomas Gray (1716-1771)
Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849)
Robert Browing (1812-1889)
Walter De La Mare (1873-1956)
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
John Keats (1795-1821)
T.S.Eliot (1888-1965)

Let us just see the third stanza of To Autumn by Keats: –

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, —

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Thus nature features amply in English poems. I have written six haiku poems out of this stanza. However, this approach of seeing parallel in English poems and haiku has limitations not least because it is rather arbitrary in the sense that one is cherry picking bits of English poems which suit the purpose of finding such parallel. One could surely do the same in Spanish or Arabic poems equally easily.

What, then, is the way in which nature is treated in haiku?

(3) Japan as a ‘special’ nation and the Japanese as a ‘special’ people: Is she, and are they?

The Japanese tend to think they are special, or at least foreigners are different from them. One of the subtle and healthy signs of a country being ‘advanced’, or ‘civilised’ apart from her material progress may be the degree to which her people start thinking that they are not that altogether special. Put another way, if a nation starts thinking that they are unique and superior, the rest of the world had better start worrying. No one denies that Japan is an advanced nation in the sense that she is an economic superpower. However, if the above definition were to be applied culturally or spiritually, Japan may not yet have become really advanced, let alone civilised. In Japan’s case, this is also caused by non-Japanese people who treat the Japanese as different from anybody else, which has affected things Japanese. Haiku is no exception.

In relation to nature, the widely-held stereotypical view is the ‘unique’ love the Japanese people are supposed to hold for nature and that they are at one, or live in ‘harmony’ with, nature. By contrast, the Westerners are said to separate human beings from nature because of their dualistic and anthropocentric view of the universe and to have been intent on ‘conquering nature’ for the benefit of themselves.

This Western view of nature is a product of Enlightenment and scientific supremacy. It is based on the assumption that nature is “subject to experimental manipulation and ultimately anything about nature is knowable and explicable as a set of universal laws. In theory, this approach sees nature as a domain entirely separate from the moral order.

This kind of analysis still holds true to some extent as showing the fundamental differences between the Japanese and English perceptions of nature. However, the opening of Japan to the outside world in the middle of the nineteenth century, particularly to the West, after more than two hundred years of isolation, has essentially changed this situation and either nudged the Japanese closer to the Western views of nature, or caused the traditional perception to live side by side with the newly imported views of nature. This is why visitors to today’s Japan find to their surprise one of the evidences of the most serious destruction of nature merrily living together with one of the most stunningly beautiful natural landscapes in the world. Also, turning the corner in the busy and ugly concrete jungle in Tokyo can still give visitors a pleasant surprise in the shape of a miniature of nature either preserved or reproduced in people’s gardens.

Japan did not have polluted air or water in Issa’s Shinano, nor highways and skyscrapers in Basho’s Fukagawa. She did not have scientists interfering with life’s natural processes and crossing the boundary of man into the realm of god. She did not have in Buson’s picturesque landscape a man-made car polluting everywhere. Optical fibres and satellites were unknown in the world of communication relying on hikyaku, or flying human legs and distant smokes. People admired the beauty of nature and feared her forces and destruction. In the country of pantheism of the utmost order, deities were seen in virtually everything including violent storms, earthquakes, floods and tidal waves. Nature was strong and beautiful and apart from anything else – natural. We were small, weak and vulnerable in the face of such nature, of which we thought we were a humble part.

Such was the perception which the Japanese used to have about nature until her modernisation, industrialisation and Westernisation. Now the situation is far more complicated.

In spite of the relentless progress of Westernisation, there are remnants of Japanese sensibilities and the perception of nature in haiku is one of them. In particular, we ourselves (human nature) are still perceived to be part of the mother nature in traditional haiku school. However, modern Japan has become a complex world where one simple view cannot explain everything.

The views of an astute observer of Japan, R. H. Blyth, reflect such complicated situation. Blyth said, “Nature without man is a body without a soul. But when a particular man’s feelings are inserted into nature, it is spoiled. Nature must be faintly suffused with humanity to give us complete satisfaction”

He also points out, “… the Japanese do not feel themselves in opposition to nature, that they do not wish to dominate it, is their making no division between what is good and what is beautiful. Truth is not seen as an external objective existence. The goal of life is not its attainment by slow and painful study. The truth is something created by us out of nothing at each moment.

(4)      Nature in Crisis

In the 21st century, nature is in crisis both in the real world and in the haiku world. In the real world, destruction of nature goes on unabated. Late John Crook told me just before he died that there were two areas which made him acutely sad and desperate. One was education and the other was environment. Haiku is no more than a literary form. It is not a moral weapon or educational tool. However, as haiku is a way of life (or life a way of haiku) and very much of nature poetry, it is inadvertently playing a role of making us more aware of the importance of environmental and nature protection. John’s haiku refers to the disappearance of sparrows in Trafalgar Square or diminishing sighting of song thrushes.

Nature of course comes from the word “natura” (birth, natural character) and “natura naturata” includes everything thus born, including human nature. In the ancient world, nature was not divided from human beings whether in the Orient or in the Occident. One theory says that the division started to occur in the ancient Greece, at the time of Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes.

Essentially, they started to think the “thought”, thus making “thought” independent of other human activities. And the human faculty capable of “thought” is our intellect or conscience, which in turn made us different from nature. The division between man and nature began there, which was the starting point of Western approach of understanding by “division”, i.e. isolation, analysis and categorisation. The story of Paradise Lost is another departure of man from nature.

Anthropocentrism has led to an unprecedented advance of science, technology and economics. Renaissance accelerated this process. Machine age and industrial revolution also turned man against nature. When man declared that God was dead, His creation, i.e. nature was further discredited. The destruction of nature and environment is an inevitable process of this approach.

Meanwhile, haiku was undergoing a different process where nature became vulnerable. The early death of Shiki created a vacuum and confusion, which brought out two extreme currents in haiku. One was a fundamentalist school of conservatism led by Takahama Kyoshi and the other was an opposite end, i.e. free haiku movement, initially led by Kawahigashi Hekigodo and subsequently by various champions of vers-libre such as Ogiwara Seisensui and more recently Kaneko Tota. The former’s adherence to nature has been threatened by the importance placed on human factors by the latter. Kigo has thus been exposed to severe re-examination and criticism. Nature is no longer the overriding theme of haiku.

5) Solution?

I would argue that the nature school and human school are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are both needed to constitute a synthesised larger world of haiku. From the point of view of the subject matter in haiku both are indispensable parts of the whole. Only, different competing factions and narrow-minded individuals are standing in the way of what is really an obvious integration needed for the two essential factors of haiku composition. One solution is for the members of both camps not to judge haiku according to each of their dogmas but by the intrinsic merits of haiku themselves. After all, in the realm of paintings, abstract paintings coexist with figurative paintings and surrealism and many other different schools. Why should it not be the same with haiku?

Susumu Takiguchi
13 May 2001


(1)      Renku is haikai no renga, i.e. a comic version of renga which is based on traditional waka poetry. Renku and renga are therefore not the same though they are sometimes mistakenly treated as such in the West. The word renku gained circulation only in the Meiji era even though it was first used in the Enkyo era 4 (1747). It was Takahama Kyoshi who made this word known to the public.

(2)      The other two obvious items of baggage are seventeen ji (Japanese phonetic unit) conventionally known as 5-7-5, and kireji (cutting words). However, apart from these ‘grammar’ requirements,  haiku was expected to continue to satisfy the needs of hokku, including the role of setting the scene, and providing inspiration for what used be subsequent hiraku (stanzas after hokku). Though highly important, hokku was no more than a ‘prelude’ or an overture to the whole cycle of 36, 44, 88, or 100 lines. Deprived of these cycles, haiku now had to shoulder disproportionately heavy burden. This has led to many problems associated with haiku since Shiki’s reform, a point which is largely neglected.

(3)      p. 225, Stephen, Martin, English Literature – A Student Guide, Longman, 1986 (5th impression 1995)

(4)      p. 225, Stephen, Martin, op. cit.

(5)      Margaret Lock, p. 122, Japanese Images of Nature – Cultural Perspectives, ed Pamela J. Asquith and Arne Kalland, Curzon Press, 1997

(6)      p. 184, Williams, Raymond, Keywords, London, fontana Books, 1976

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One Response to Nature in Haiku – What Nature?

  1. Margaret Ann Waddicor says:

    First this is a thorough and interesting paper to read as I write poetry where nature has a main role in my utterances …
    For me, the essence of a haiku is its reference to nature in harmony with man’s nature, neither more important than the other. They have a three tread weight, each step enriching the other and when the whole is reached, a kind of experience of wholeness that has elements of surprise, coupled with intense sensing of details, in what we in the west call nature; this surprise has been dampened by the western modern type of haiku, watering down the importance of nature, as we know it in traditional western poetry, bringing in elements that are incongruous, and have little of the beauty, joy and humour (Issa) we read into the Japanese haiku.

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