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Buson's Butterfly on the Reality and Dream of Being
Hiro Saga

Utsutsu naki tsumami gokoro no kocho kana

Nothing actual,
in the feeling of pinching softly -
a butterfly.


This is one of Buson's Hokku poems which does not have a single agreed upon interpretation.

'Nothing actual' (utsutsu-naki) means being not real, not insane, or dream-like, but the focus of the difficulty is on 'the feeling of pinching' (tsumami gokoro). Pinching what, and who is pinching?

Repeated sounds of 'tsu', 'm', 'k', and 'o' invite us to dream or into a maze of consciousness.

As Mr. Yajima stated in his "Yosa Buson Sansaku" (Kadokawa Book, 1995), past interpretations are divided on its subject of pinching as a man (I, the poet) or a butterfly. The majority opinion is, however, for a man as the subject, and the following footnote in Kodansha's "Complete Works of Buson; Vol. One" (1992, p.229) looks to have accepted that majority as the standard interpretation: "On the fingers which softly pinched a beautiful butterfly, one feels, so uncertainly as a dream, pinching something not even a thing."

Here the butterfly is the object to be pinched, and the topic of the poem is the feeling of those pinching fingers.

This interpretation was first presented by Kyoshi in the Meiji Era and was followed by many later critiques. Among them, Sato Koroku's opinion, that one would feel like pinching it while looking at a dreamy figure of a butterfly, is worthy to be noted (Buson Haiku Hyoshaku, Daigaku-kan, Meiji 37), but still it is not free from the sense of man's pinching a butterfly.

Why do I feel uneasy about the 'standard' interpretation quoted above? First, it is because the subject (not the object) of the poem is naturally the butterfly since the poem ends with the word 'butterfly', which is like another poem;

On the hanging bell,
staying while he sleeps --
a butterfly

Here, according to Takayuki Shimizu, there are three different interpretations about 'the feeling of pinching.' One, the poet's feeling when he pinched the butterfly; two, the butterfly's dreamy feeling when he pinched something; three, the poet's feeling tempted to pinch the butterfly.

Shimizu's reading is based on the second interpretation, and is typical of the minority (Yosa Buson Shu, Shincho-sha, Showa 54, p. 64).

Hiro Saga is Professor of Media Literacy Research & Development Section, National Institute of Multimedia Education, Chiba Japan. His full bibliography is found here:

The image is Chuang Tze's "Butterfly by Buson." It is from Kodansha's "Complete Works of Buson: Volume 6" as Plate 227 on page 164. It reveals that Buson liked Chuang Tze's philosophy.

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