Professor Alexander Dolin teaches Japanese Literature and Civilization Studies at Akita International University(AIU). He also writes haiku.
We would like to post haiku by Professor Alexander Dolin and his students, Mr. Brent Sanders and Ms. Lim Shi Qi.
Haiku by Alexander Dolin
wabisisa ya ame ka yuki ka to simodukiyo
Is it sound of rain or snow
this November night?..
nokori ha no sasayaki kikoyu aki no kure
Here comes the whisper
of the last remaining leaves
Autumn- evening dusk…
hitoha chiri oshimu eda yori namida kana
One leaf falls down―
and the branch lamenting it
drops so many tears…
Haiku by Brent Sanders
I sit in the dark,
And by the light of the lamp,
I write these strange thoughts.
Were time to soon stop,
I want to stay in this light.
Can I speak with Time?
The curtain of black
Fades into a violet sky.
An unknown bird calls.
Haiku by Lim Shi Qi
Leaves fall on the ground
When will the withering end
Perhaps till the trees bare
The sky is now cleared
Storm is finally over
The sun is shining
紫陽花 (ajisai), hydrangea, is the deciduous shrub up to five feet high with ball-shaped clusters of bluish flowers in June and July. It has become a common ornamental throughout the world.
In Japan both 額紫陽花(gaku ajisai), H. macrophylla and 沢紫陽花(sawa ajisai), H. serrata in particular have been cultivated for so many centuries that they have become part of the culture.
References to 紫陽花 (ajisai) can be found in 万葉集 (the Manyoshu), an 8th century anthology of poetry, and 紅額紫陽花(beni gaku ajisai) is identifiable in an ikebana flower arranging document from 室町時代 (the Muromachi period) (1333-1568).
However, during this period under the rule of the Samurai 紫陽花 (ajisai) became unpopular, because its changeable flowers were looked upon as a symbol of moral infidelity, while あやめ.(ayame), ‘sweet flag’, or ‘calami’, was very popular because it was regarded as a symbol of the Samurai’s bravery because of its sharp sword-like leaves.
As a result, in the former part of 江戸時代 (the Edo period)(1600-1868), few haiku poets took up 紫陽花 (ajisai) in their haiku.
Matsuo Basho(1644-1694) wrote only two haiku in which 紫陽花 (ajisai) was taken up.
He wrote one of them at 深川(Fukagawa) in 1694:
ajisai ya yabu wo koniwa no betsu zashiki
in grove, being little garden,
the detached room
Basho was invited to a farewell linked verse party for him before he returned to his hometown of 伊賀上野(Iga Ueno) before he left for his last journey. His host and disciple 子珊(Shisan) held this party at the detached room of his house, where a thicket with hydrangea was used as a rustic garden for the hut.
Basho offered this verse above mentioned as 発句(hokku), an opening and greeting poem, for his host when asked about the style of 軽み(karumi), lightness.
The other haiku of Basho’s is this, but nobody knows when it was written.:
ajisai ya katabira doki no usu asagi
in hemp kimono
帷子(katabira) in this haiku is a hemp kimono for summer wear, whose color is pale blue like that of hydrangea.
In the latter part of 江戸時代 (the Edo period)(1600-1868), the popularity of hydrangea gradually revived, and they were planted in the gardens of the temples that use 甘茶 (ama cha) ,hydrangea tea, to celebrate the birthday of Buddha on April 8th.
During the ceremony a small statue of the Buddha is anointed with sweet-tasting甘茶(ama-cha) ,hydrangea tea, to celebrate the sweet rain that fell on the day that the Buddha was born.
Now 紫陽花 (ajisai) has become such a common ornamental in gardens or parks as well as in temple gardens or yards. In addition, in literary works of Japanese short poetry it has also come to be taken up as one of the most popular flowers in Japan.
In July, 2004, my haiku appeared in the Asahi Haikuist Network by David McMurray, who has been teaching me how to compose haiku through “Haiku in English” , “International Haiku Correspondence with David McMurray” by the Asahi Culture Center.
bloom and Buddha
calm in the rain
David McMurray noted in his column as follows:
Green and the color blue, whose hue is that of the clear sky, shade most of the haiku submitted during this cloudy season of monsoon rains. Green is a pleasantly alluring color that poets use to symbolize growth. And even more artistically, some poets blend the blues of fireflies and hydrangea with the blues of melancholy. Fireflies evoke feelings of loneliness while the image of hydrangea in the rain is a symbol of sadness.
Another haiku of mine appeared in that column.
in a field of life
― Hidenori Hiruta
By Naoto Sato
When I was in my first year of high school, I read a book entitled “Think in English” by the late Dr. Toru Matsumoto, who had earned national fame as the instructor of “NHK English Conversation Program.” In the book, which I read in one sitting, Dr. Matsumoto advises, “Don’t translate English into Japanese. Try to understand English in English.” This came as a great shock to me, because I had always thought that unless English was translated into Japanese, there was no real understanding. At the same time, however, it was true that I had felt it was a nuisance to render every English sentence into Japanese.
At any rate, I took Dr. Matsumoto’s advice very seriously and decided to train myself to understand English without translating it. This proved to be much tougher than I had thought. It was because I had fallen into the habit of converting each and every English sentence into Japanese. In the book I mentioned above, Dr. Matsumoto emphasized the importance of “experiencing” English in order to cultivate the habit of thinking in the language. For this purpose, I started keeping a journal in English. At first I wrote mostly about the day’s happenings, but soon I wanted to express my inner feelings and thoughts. This turned out to be much more difficult than writing such simple things as “I got up at six thirty” and “I felt sleepy in today’s social class.” I felt a great need to enlarge my vocabulary so that I could express myself better.
Dr. Matsumoto suggests in the “Think in English” book that we read a lot of books written in plain English. Following this suggestion, I devoured quite a few, mostly novels. Every time I finished reading one, I wrote about it in my journal using many of the words, phrases, and expressions used in it. I did this without thinking in Japanese.
Another thing I did in order to develop the ability to think in English was to talk to myself in the language from morning till night. For example, when I happened to find a new store, I said to myself, “Hey, look at that new stationery store. I think I’ll go in and see what kind of stuff they’ve got.” When I was having a hard time with my math homework, I complained to myself, “Mr. H gives us too much homework. I don’t want to do it, but he will be mad if I don’t get it done.” I know this activity strikes you as bizarre and even foolish, but personally I really enjoyed talking with myself in English about many different things. After all, back then I did not have any friends or teachers to practice speaking English with.
The reason I have mentioned parts of the process that led to my habit of thinking in English is that I believe that writing English haiku goes a long way toward cultivating that habit. Mr. Hidenori Hiruta, who played a pivotal role in establishing Akita International Haiku Network, reinforced my belief, saying: “When you write a haiku in English, you should not think in Japanese. If you come up with a haiku in Japanese first and then translate it into Japanese, it does not work. You have to think in English from the very beginning. First form an image in your mind, and try to express it in English— without the help of your mother tongue. In other words, you’ve got to be able to think in English to compose English haiku.”
To be truthful, I am a complete novice when it comes to writing English haiku, and I know it will take me a long time before I can get to a point where I can produce decent haiku, whether in Japanese or English. One thing I am sure of, however, is that my initiation into this new activity will help me further enhance my ability to think in English or, better yet, to describe the shades and nuances of meaning of words in English. I am grateful to Mr. Hiruta for opening up an entirely new world for me.
Iris is a genus of between 200-300 species of flowering plants with showy flowers. It takes its name from the Greek word for a rainbow, referring to the wide variety of flower colors found among the many species. As well as being the scientific name, iris is also very widely used as a common name; for one thing, it refers to all Iris species, though some plants called thus belong to other closely related genera.
In Japan, there are three varieties of irises which the term “Japanese iris” encompasses : Hanashobu, Kakitsubata, and Ayame. They are cultivated in gardens or growing wild in Japan. Besides, there is another kind of plant which has been called ‘Shobu’, or ‘Ayame’ , or ‘Ayamegusa’ since the ancient days of Japan. This is because it is similar to iris in the form of its leaves.
Would you please look at the picture below and guess which flowers of the four types above mentioned were taken?
As you guess, they are Hanashobu. This picture was taken at Koizumigata Park (小泉潟公園) in Akita.
By the way, let me tell you about those three kinds of Japanese iris and another kind of plant called “iris” in the ancient times of Japan.
The 1st kind of iris is the Hanashobu （ハナショウブ, 花菖蒲, Iris ensata var）, growing in the wet land. It is the most extensively cultivated variety in Japanese gardens.
The 2nd kind of iris is the Kakitsubata (カキツバタ, 杜若, Iris laevigata), growing in the semi-wet land. It is less popular, but is also cultivated extensively.
The 3rd kind of iris is the Ayame.(アヤメ, 菖蒲, 文目, Iris sanguinea) typically growing wild on the dry land in Japan.
The 4th plant doesn’t belong to the kind of iris but is called ‘Shobu’ (ショウブ、菖蒲) in Japanese, or ‘Ayame’ ( あやめ), or ‘Ayamegusa’ ( あやめ草) in the old Japanese terms. This is a plant called ‘Sweet flag’ belonging to the Acoraceae family, Calamus, and known for its fragrant roots, rather than its flowers.
The 1st kind of iris, Hanashobu are wonderful garden plants. As the word Iris means rainbow, irises come in so many colors: blues and purples, whites and yellows, pinks and oranges, browns and reds, and even blacks. The genus Iris has about 200 species and is native of North Temperate regions of the world.
Around the middle of June, I visited such Iris Garden and took some pictures.
Taking a stroll around the Iris garden, I hit upon the following haiku:
Ama agari nanairo fukashi hanaayame
after the rain
In 1803 Kobayashi Issa (小林一茶)(1763-1827), one of the most popular haiku poets in Japan, wrote the following haiku:
Kakitsubata yori ano niji wa okoriken
from which that rainbow
In this haiku of Issa’s, he used another Kanji characters ‘ 垣津旗‘ instead of
David G. Lanoue interpreted about this haiku as follows:
Issa imagines that the rainbow has arisen from blooming irises—the intense, showy colors of the flowers continuing in bold streaks upward, into the sky, forming the rainbow. It is interesting that “iris” derives from the Greek word for “rainbow.” Issa could not have known this, but he intuits the same connection that exists in many Western languages. The rainbow is in the sky; irises are rainbows on earth.
In 1689 Matsuo Basho (松尾芭蕉) crossed the Natori River and entered Sendai, Miyagi on ‘ The Narrow Road to Oku.’ It was the day they celebrate by converting their roofs with ‘Sweet flags’, or Calami’ (あやめ). He visited there around the time of the Sweet Flags Festival (あやめの節句)(5th day of Fifth Month, also called the Boy’s Festival), when sweet flags were displayed on the eaves of houses to drive away evil spirits, or they took “Shobuyu, or 菖蒲湯 (bath with floating sweet flag leaves)” baths. The leaves keep mosquitoes and snakes away with strong fragrance. As the strong fragrance was believed to drive away bad air, people began to take baths with sweet flag leaves. Furthermore, the plant ‘Sweet Flag’ was believed to be a symbol of the samurai’s bravery because of its sharp sword-like leaves. Even now many families with young boys enjoy “Sweet Flag Bath(shobu yu)” in the Boy’s Festival on May 5.
At that time Basho’s host, the painter Kaemon(加右衛門), had given him sandals with blue cords. So in ‘The Narrow Road to Oku.’ Basho praises Kaemon for being an exceptional follower of ‘Furyu(風流)’, writing his following haiku:
Ayamegusa asi ni musuban waraji no o
Donald Keene translated this haiku into English:
I will bind iris
Blossoms round my feet―
Cords for my sandals!
Kaemon presented Basho with such sandals, praying for safety on theroad. That was because sandals with blue cords like sweet flag kept Basho from being in dangerous conditions. But Basho highly appreciated Kaemon’s spirits of poetry. And Donald Keene used the words ‘Iris blossoms’, not the words ‘Sweet flag stems’ in his translation. Certainly this makes Basho’s haiku more poetic and literary.
Last of all, let me refer to another haiku of Basho’s.
Hanaayame ichiya ni karesi motome kana
only in one night
In 1688, on the fourth day of May, Basho enjoyed the Kabuki drama by Motome, one of the most beautiful, young Kabuki players at the Osaka Kabuki theater. Just on the following day Motome suddenly passed away. Basho grieved over the unexpected death of his favorite Kabuki player, and he composed haiku for him. He compared Motome’s sudden death to the iris’ withering which usually happens only in one night. Strangely enough, Motome passed away just on the day before the Ayame Festival was held. Maybe Motome faded away just as a rainbow disappears so suddenly.
Let me show you such a sudden withering ‘Ayame’ faces in the following picture.
― Hidenori Hiruta