A Journey Through Japanese Haiku

Deliverance from Death

Culture Environment Lifestyle

Buson’s haiku creates a mini-drama of love, reprieve from execution, and the joy of everyday life.

御手討の夫婦なりしを更衣 蕪村

Oteuchi no / meoto narishi o / koromogae

The couple reprieved
from execution—
change to summer clothes

(Poem by Buson, written around 1770.)

Following an ancient tradition, many Japanese junior high and high schools change to summer uniforms on June 1. In the Heian period (794–1185), however, the change to summer garments took place on the first day of the fourth month in the old lunar calendar (during May in the modern calendar) with the switch back to winter wear coming on the first day of the tenth month (during November). The same date for the change to summer clothes continued when Buson was writing in the Edo period (1603–1868), and in haiku the general word koromogae for a seasonal change of clothes by convention referred to the specific shift to lighter summer garments, which brought a sense of ease to both body and mind.

Buson builds a miniature drama around this topic: “A couple is sentenced to death by their lord, but he reprieves them, and today they change to summer wear.” Perhaps they are a young samurai and a female servant. Usually, they would be put to the sword for conducting an illicit romance, but instead they are forgiven by their master and allowed to marry.

Having been spared, the two go about their lives and reflect on their joy in arriving at the day marking the start of summer. Koromogae represents rebirth in leaving behind the oppression of winter, and the brightness and invigoration of the day matches the couple’s feelings.

This kind of imaginative composition was not unusual in classic haiku, but Buson in particular appreciated expanding a scene from a seasonal topic. His ability to evoke a complex situation in the brief 5-7-5 form can only be described as exceptional.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)

literature haiku Japanese language and literature