Haiku and Japanese Religion

It would be most difficult to conjure up a better example of the ambiguity of Japanese, and in fact all Far Eastern, verse when read in a Western cultural context and syntactic structure, than the comparison of these two translations of the same work. Basho’s travel journals are rather telegraphic jottings of prose, each short section culminating in one or more haiku. A number of these are standard classics, haiku known to every Japanese school child, which have been translated by any number of Westerners. Any teacher who wished to make up a little collection of them and then use these two books as basic texts would have a wonderful source book in the problems of translation, or in the nature of poetic utterance. In addition, considering the sensibility, or lack of it, of most translators of haiku, Western or Japanese, you’d have a perfect study of progressive vulgarization — a built-in scale of aesthetic values.

This is the first problem. Like ukiyoye prints, with the possible exception of Kiyonaga and Sharaku, the seventeen-syllable haiku is a decadent form as such. The great age of Japanese poetry, in fact of art and literature generally, ended with the Ashikaga period in the 15th century. From 1500 of the Christian era the entire country was convulsed with continuous warfare. From 1615 to the opening of Japan to the West the de facto cultural and administrative capital was Yedo, modern Tokyo, and the arts became progressively more decorative, sentimental and insentient, under the influence of the taste of the growing middle class. The haiku of Basho, the prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai, are very definitely bourgeois art, which doubtless accounts for their great popularity with Midwest housewives. Similarly, in recent years, most Japanese have come to regard Zen Buddhism, the sect that most influenced the major haiku poets, as “Buddhism for Westerners.” Certainly a tradition which can admit to its canon of “greatest poems” a monstrosity of sentimentality like “Led to the flower viewing by his nurse, the little blind boy,” runs the danger of being totally assimilated to the flower arrangement and tea ceremony classes on which female American exurbanites waste their husbands’ money.

This is the great problem. When Basho writes them the depth, precision and lack of sentimentality redeem the haiku from decadence and elevate his best to major works of art. But can the form and sensibility of a genuinely significant poet like Basho be made aesthetically worthy of respect in English translation? This has in fact practically never occurred. Almost all translators of haiku are pernicious corrupters of taste, as can be studied at leisure in the resulting horrors, the native American “haiku.” Basho presents still another problem. In addition to a sensibility that can be so easily transformed into gross sentimentality, he is peculiarly cryptic. Many of his haiku are as puzzling to Japanese as they are to Western scholars and resemble Zen mondos; but lurking behind their mystery is not the ultimate empirical religious experience of Zenism but Basho’s own very odd and very refined personality. The translator of Basho sets himself the task of solving a whole set of telescoping conundrums, like Chinese boxes, in intercultural transmission.

Nobuyuki Yuasa and Cid Corman take two radically different roads to attempt to follow Basho’s travel diary in English. Neither succeeds, but then, neither fails as much as most translators. Nobuyuki Yuasa, like almost all Japanese translators, expands and explains in translating. This is usually disastrous. In his case it is done with dignity and taste and by and large is illuminating, not degrading.

Corman adopts an extraordinary language, bearing some resemblance to his own poetry and those poets associated with his magazine Origin. It does not mimic Japanese syntax but it does try to mimic Basho’s own psychological syntax and the tone of a decoratively scrawled notebook. Corman’s haiku are something else — Zen mondos with a vengeance. Many of them have half the syllables of the Japanese originals and resemble nothing so much as lines taken at random from a radically dissociated Robert Creeley. This is not always successful, but it sometimes is, and it is certainly one way to avoid lapsing into sentimentality. Or does it substitute a new, hip sentimentality? My principal objection is the excessive use of Japanese words and expletives. If you’re going to translate, translate, don’t duck. Corman gives the Japanese text in Chinese-Japanese characters on facing pages. Nobuyuki Yuasa gives just English. I would suggest that any future edition of Corman give the romaji — transliteration into the Western alphabet. The prosody of haiku is totally unknown to almost all haiku devotees in the West and bears exhaustive study, especially by those amateurs who think all you have to do is string together an imagist whimsy in seventeen syllables.

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A book which is, perhaps, more important and interesting than the Basho translations is Ichiro Hori’s Folk Religion in Japan. Ludwig Wittgenstein always spoke of doing philosophy — “what do we actually do when we do philosophy?” Altogether too few people ask this question of religion, least of all of the major religions of the civilized nations. Questions like this are left to the anthropologists and ethnologists. Descriptions of what actually goes on are abundant for every primitive people. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism are almost always described in terms of what their theologians says about them. This is a kind of hallucination of documents and may have little indeed to do with what happens in a Polish village synagogue, a church lost in the Abruzzi mountains, or the temple of Marichi, patroness of prostitutes in Kyoto’s Gion District.

Nowhere is it more important to understand what people do when they do their religion than in Japan. The person who thinks he can use D.T. Suzuki or Alan Watts as Baedekers to the actual practice of Japanese Buddhism is due for quite a shock when he visits Japan. The theories have as little to do with what happens as the works of St. Thomas Aquinas have to do with the folk religion of the peasants in Aquino.

In recent years there has grown up an immense literature of folk religion in Japanese, but Ichiro Hori’s book is the most comprehensive work to get into English in a very long time, and it is certainly the most comprehending. Much of the writing on this subject in English has been tendentious and misleading, notably Ruth Benedict’s Sword and Chrysanthemum, written during the Second World War, but still used today by American students. Actually the best books were written during the fashion for things Japanese — of which the again fashionable art nouveau was a reflection — around the beginning of the century, Percival Lowell’s Occult Japan, or the eccentric and sentimental writings of Lafcadio Hearn. They may verge on travel brochures, but they are about actual practice among people who never heard of the Lankavatara Sutra.

In no modern nation is folk religion more important than it is in Japan. This is the whole secret of Japanese culture. The Japanese themselves like to talk about what enthusiastic Westernizers they are and Japanese scholars write books about Chinese, Indian, Central Asian and even Bactrian Greek influences. In fact everything that comes from outside is digested and absorbed and turned into something completely Japanese, whether it is an electric sign on the Ginza, or a Kabuki play with the same plot as Medea.

The great virtue of Ichiro Hori’s book is that it traces the shaping and transforming influences of the living folk religion from prehistoric antiquity and the practices of Northeast Asian shamans and shamanesses down to the proletarian religions which have proliferated since the Japanese defeat and occupation. A modern cult which takes off from Nichiren Buddhism becomes much more comprehensible when understood as a new expression of an always abiding common religious life; but so too does the esoteric Buddhism of the period of the great Japanese literary classics, or the Zen of the post-feudal age.

Cultures die if this folk response to the crises and mysteries of life is obliterated by an invading culture. Pitt-Rivers long ago pointed out that the people of the Pacific Islands were dying of anomie — namelessness — because Western culture had robbed them of their responses to life. There was certainly plenty of anomie abroad in the ashes of Tokyo, Nagasaki and Hiroshima — as can be studied in the hopeless novels of Osamu Dasai — but the common people were able to regain a sense of control in religious practices that went back to prehistoric Japan.

The only fault I have to find with Ichiro Hori’s book is that its descriptions are too verbal and abstract. He could have done with a bit of the travelogue, objective description of Lowell’s Occult Japan, and with plenty of illustrations. It is hard for a person who has never been to Japan to visualize exactly what the people are doing when they do folk religion. He tells you about it but he does not present it in sensory, objective terms. However, as an introduction to the loftiest speculations of Japanese Buddhist metaphysics, or as a guide to a walking tour of Japanese rural temples and festivals, the book is invaluable.



This review of Ichiro Hori’s Folk Religion in Japan and of two different translations of Matsuo Bashô’s Oku no HosomichiThe Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa) and Back Roads to Far Towns (trans. Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu) — originally appeared in The Nation (6 May 1968). Copyright 1968. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Diverse tanslations of Bashô’s frog haiku
Diverse translations of Bashô’s Oku no Hosomichi
Rexroth’s translations of Japanese poetry
Other Rexroth essays