Snow in Akihabara: Haiku Revisited

Society Culture

In many countries of the world, haiku seems to function as a standard icon of Japanese culture, in line with other examples like the tea ceremony, Japanese gardens, or the nō and kabuki theater arts. So it may not seem particularly exciting to take another look at that “bonsai genre” of Japanese literature that is alternately termed Japan’s most famous literary export and the world’s shortest lyrical form. In this age of globalization, however, it does make sense to readdress some of the questions that have engaged Japanophiles, literature addicts, and scholars of Japanese literature for generations.

Interestingly enough, the issue of haiku going global remains contested. To one faction, haiku is trivial, often bordering on kitsch. Some malicious observers ascribe the preference for this genre in some Japanese studies classes to haiku’s brevity and the verse’s perceived convenience for instructors. To others, the “haiku spirit” is so essentially Japanese that it cannot be translated in any case. But what do we make of the fact that haiku is thriving in many parts of the world?

There is always the issue of translation. Whole books can be and have been written about how to properly transfer a Japanese form of art with a history of more than three centuries into a foreign literature and culture. Yet what interests us here is the fact that haiku has been established as a lyrical genre in many literatures and has developed a life of its own beyond the confines of the Japanese language.

Haiku Goes Global

What is it about haiku that makes it so popular? There are haiku clubs and societies, haiku journals, haiku contests, and an ever-growing number of publications in many countries. Germany is home to more than one publisher specializing exclusively in haiku, in addition to many websites and blogs with lively discussions of all sorts.

Politicians may resort to haiku as a sophisticated means of communication, as when Corazon Aquino, the eleventh president of the Philippines, honored her host country with a haiku of her own making on her official visit to Japan in 1986. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who published a collection of his own haiku in book form last year, is known for his use of the verse on a number of official occasions. But haiku is popular with people from all walks of life and all generations. Children may have become acquainted with the form through school textbooks, whether in Canada or in the Netherlands. As adults, they may enjoy composing haiku in all kinds of situations: happy or sad, quiet or pathetic, everyday or exceptional.

The attractiveness of haiku obviously lies in its availability, its seeming lightness, and the simplicity of its rules. Haiku functions as a form of self-therapy, of introspection, of capturing an intense moment. It is this quality of haiku as a performance and social act—which, by the way, connects haiku with its origins in renga, linked poetry composed by several poets—that explains its universal appeal as a pastime, turning you and me into amateur poets.

Haiku as an Art Form

There is, however, another side to haiku as a serious form of art adopted into the lyrical traditions of the world, practiced by writers exploring the possibilities of assimilating a foreign form and thereby expanding the horizon of their own traditions. Among them we find the most famous representatives of their times: Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (in 1913), who composed haiku in Bengali; Rainer Maria Rilke in 1920s Germany; and Nobel Prize recipients such as the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (1980) and last year’s winner, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.

Meanwhile, the discussions as to what constitutes haiku continue in many countries, including Japan. It has been rightly pointed out that it would not make sense to imitate Japanese haiku in other languages. When we compare haiku in English with those in, say, Southeast European languages we find that they have all developed their own distinct life and aesthetics. Still, there are those who try to orient themselves as much as possible with the rules of “classical” haiku, with a standard form consisting of 17 on, sound units, or morae in Western diction, in a 5-7-5 scheme. In addition, a haiku is expected to contain a kigo, a seasonal reference, and it is a humorous utterance in its original form. It is fascinating to see that there are masters who manage to combine these rules with their own artistic creativity and write haiku that can work perfectly naturally in the setting of a European lyrical tradition.

Such is the case with Durs Grünbein, Germany’s foremost contemporary poet and recipient of Germany’s highest literary awards, who has published a collection of his haiku titled In Praise of the Typhoon, composed during several visits to Japan since 1999. His haiku dated October 2005, on his visit to Akihabara, Tokyo’s “electric city,” reads as follows. (The German is the original; the English translation is mine. The Japanese translation, by Professor Nawata Yūji of Chūō University, was published alongside the German in Grünbein’s book.)

Welche Jahreszeit?
Was weiß ich, wo es ringsum
Auf den Bildschirmen schneit.

Which season?
How do I know, amongst
snowstorms on all screens.


(Originally written in English on March 16, 2012.)

Japan literature culture history Germany Haiku Akihabara arts Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit