Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6

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Feature: Hiroaki Sato, "Sumitaku Kenshin & His 'Free-Rhythm' Haiku"

Sumitaku Kenshin (1961-1987), who died, just before turning 26, of acute myeloid leukemia, devoted the last 20 months of his life to haiku.

Kenshin was born on March 21, 1961, in Okayama, west of Osaka, and was named Haruo (spring man) probably because that date in most years falls on the spring equinox in Japan. In September 1982 he started taking a correspondence course on Buddhism. In July 1983, when a normal Japanese at his age had just joined a corporation, he became a priest of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism, in a ceremony held at the Nishi-Honganji, Kyoto, and was given the name Kenshin (revealed faith). In February 1984 he was diagnosed with leukemia and hospitalized. In October he became a member of the “free-rhythm” haiku group Sôun (Cumulus). In 1985 his conditions improved enough for him to leave the hospital, and for a few months he engaged in promoting “free-rhythm” haiku. But soon he was back in the hospital and on February 7, of the following year, he died.

After finishing junior high school Kenshin decided to become a cook, instead of going on to regular high school—a surprise to his parents. In Japan, high school, which corresponds to the tenth to twelfth-grade level in the United States, is still not part of compulsory education but most people attend it—92% in Kenshin’s days, 97% today. Instead, Kenshin found work at Okayama City’s community center and enrolled in a cooking school, which he attended in the evening. He soon befriended a café waitress five years older and made her pregnant. She had an abortion. Kenshin’s parents were forgiving and accommodating; they allowed the couple—a 15-year-old boy and a 20-year-old woman—to live together in their house. After eight months or so the woman left the house and, though Kenshin insisted that they continue, they eventually went separate ways.

In October 1983, three months after he became a priest, Kenshin married a woman a year younger. Upon learning of their son-in-law’s diagnosis, early in the next year, the bride’s parents asked for a divorce for their daughter and got it, though she was heavy with his child. The child, a boy, was born in June. Kenshin’s parents, ever accommodating, took custody of him. Still, the baby boy lived mostly with his father, in his hospital room. Such an arrangement was possible because Kenshin’s sister, Keiko, worked in the hospital as a nurse, and Japanese hospitals allow—nay, require—a relative to become a partial live-in caretaker, which is the role Keiko also played.

Faced with these predicaments, Kenshin turned to haiku, but his choice was as notable as his decision not to go to high school. Instead of the yûki-teikei, the 5-7-5-syllable composition incorporating a word or phrase which any of the saijiki (seasonal account) defines as a specifier of one of the four seasons and “the New Year,” he opted for the jiyû-ritsu (free-rhythm) haiku. which ignores not just the syllabic formation but the seasonal indicator as well (or, to be exact, regards inclusion of a seasonal indicator as accidental). This is worth noting because the latter, non-traditional variety, still attracts a very small minority—I have yet to learn how small—and is looked down upon by the traditionalists. Also, most haiku writers develop some familiarity with the form before making such a crucial decision. For example, Ogiwara Seisensui (1884-1976), who founded the magazine Sôun in 1911 and remained the dominant force in the “free-rhythm” movement, was versed in traditional haiku in his grammar school. But Kenshin is not known to have been a close student of haiku until his sudden conversion to the genre.

Once he took up the genre, in any case, Kenshin read the haiku of some of the notables in the “free-rhythm” movement with dedication: Nomura Shurindô (1893-1918), Taneda Santôka (1882-1940), Ozaki Hôsai (1885-1926), Kaidô Hôko (1902-1940), and Ogiwara Seisensui. He is known to have been particularly taken with Hôsai. His well-thumbed copy of a Hôsai book, with scribbling on the margins, remains.

Kenshin was in a hurry. With only two of his pieces accepted by Sôun, he put together a collection of his haiku, calling them shisaku (trial pieces) and published it at his own expense, in December 1985, in a cloth-bound edition. Other than that, Kaishi (Marine City), the new “new rhythm” haiku magazine begun in 1985, published a total of 90 pieces by Kenshin before his death. He left a total of 281 haiku.

Among the recent books of and about Kenshin are: Zubunurete Inukoro (Soaking Wet a Doggie), a small collection of his haiku, with Matsubayashi Makoto’s illustrations; a Kenshin reader, which is a collection of essays by a variety of hands, a professional wrestler included; and Itsuka Mata Aeru (Someday We Can Meet Again), a short, inconsequential biography by the psychiatrist Kayama Rika. Chûô Kôron Shinsha published all three, in 2002. The largest published collection of Kenshin’s haiku appears to be the one edited by Muneta Yasumasa, published by Tachikaze Shobô, in 1996, which contains 152 pieces. The about 130 pieces that the “reader” lists are limited to those cited by the essay contributors.

A selection of Kenshin’s haiku follows. Kenshin adhered to the one-line format, though he occasionally used the comma in an odd way. I have retained both features in the following translations.

Aki ga kita koto o mazu chôshinki no tsumetasa

That the autumn has come first the stethoscope’s coldness

Asari, ukkari toji wasureta kuchi o tojiru

The clam, closes the mouth it had absently forgotten to close

Amaoto, yoru no ike fukaku ochiru

The sound of rain, falls deeply into the night pond

Amaoto ni mezamete yori furituduku ame

Since waking with the sound of rain the rain has continued to fall

Arukitai rôka ni sawayakana natsu no hi no sasu

Into the hall where I’d like to walk shines the refreshing summer sun

Utsumuite aruku machi ni kage ga nai

Head down I walk the town with no shadow

O-cha o tsuide morau watashi ga ippai ni naru

Tea poured for me I fill up

Omoide no kumo ga sono kao ni naru

A cloud in my memory turns into that face

Kage mo somatsuna shokuji o sihteiru

My shadow also taking a shabby meal

Gasshô suru te ga ka o utsu

The very hands joined to pray slap a mosquito

Kâten kurai wa jibun de to yandeiru

It’s just a curtain I tell myself I am sick

Ki no nuketa saidâ ga boku no jinsei

A cider gone flat is my life

Keikôtô no oto nomi no no shizukesa ni oru

In the quietness of the sound of the phosphorescent lamp alone I am

Sakazuki ni ureshii kao ga afureru

The sake cup overflows with a happy face

Sabishii inu no inu rashiku o o furu

A lonesome dog wags his tail like a dog

Sabishisa wa yoru no denwa no kôtaku

Loneliness is the black sheen of a night telephone

Jisatsu ganbô, meramera to moeru hi ga aru

Suicide wish, there is fire burning in hissing flames

Suterareta ningyô ga miseta karakuri

An abandoned doll reveals its mechanisms

Zubunurete inukoro

Soaking wet a doggie

Taikutsuna byôshitsu no mado ni ame wo itadaku

In the boring hospital ward window I thank the rain

Dakiagete yarenai ko no takasani suwaru

I sit up to the height of the child I can’t lift in my arms

Tachiagareba yoromeku hoshizora

I rise to my feet and the starry sky reels

Damatte tenjô o miteiru

Silently I’m staring at the night ceiling

Tsuki, shizukani kôrimakura no kôri ga kuzurezu

The moon, quietly the ice in the ice pack collapses

Tôku kara anata to wakaru shiroi burausu

From the distance I can tell it is you the white blouse

Nani mo nai poketto ni te ga aru

The pocket with nothing in it has a hand

Nenbutsu no kuchi ga guchi iuteita

The mouth for prayers was grumbling

Myaku o totta dake no heian na asa desu

Took the pulse is all this halcyon morning

Yume ni sae tsukisoi no imôto no epuron

Even in my dream my caretaker sister’s apron

Yurusareta shawâ ga asa no niji to naru

The permitted shower turns into a morning rainbow


1. Japanese names in this article are given the Japanese way, surname first. Sato’s name is given the Occidental way.
2. March 21 is also Japan’s national holiday—yes, to celebrate the spring equinox!
3. Kenshin is also known to have had another woman friend who was dedicated to him during his hospital days.
4. Kenshin is known to have visited his grave in Matsuyama during his honeymoon. Shurindô died of influenza. Example: Haru no hi no raisan ni arui wa shô uchi suzu o furi (5-5-8-5 = 23 syllables), “Offering prayer chants this spring day some striking small gongs shaking bells.”
5. I have published a selection of his haiku, with Stephen Addiss’ illustrations, in Santôka: Grass and Tree Cairn (Red Moon Press, 2002). Example: Wakeitte mo wakeitte mo aoi yama (6-6-5 = 17 syllables), “I go in I go in still the blue mountains.”
6. I have published a selection of his haiku and prose, with Kyoto Selden’s introduction, in Right under the big sky, I don’t wear a hat: The Haiku and Prose of Hôsai Ozaki (Stone Bridge Press, 1993). Example: the title of the book, whose original reads: Taikû no mashita bôshi kaburazu (8-7 = 15 syllables).
7. Diagnosed with tuberculosis in his late teens, he remained laid up until his death. Example: Tsuki wa sunde hyônô no maueka (6-9 = 15 syllables), “The moon clear must be right above my ice pack.”
8. Allusion to a classic tanka which says that you sense the arrival of autumn from the wind.
9. In the original it is obviously Kenshin who is walking and does not see any shadow of himself—perhaps because it was cloudy. But linguistic compression possible in Japanese creates, in the original, the impression that it is the town that has no shadows—even the surrealistic impression that it is the town that’s walking with its head down.
10. Another example of compression possible in Japanese, though the compression necessarily leaves certain things opaque. To paraphrase with unstated things in brackets: “It’s just a curtain, [I should close or open it myself,] I tell myself, but I [can’t do it because I] lie ill.” That last part also suggests that the speaker is sickened by the thought of his immobility.
11. By a linguistic trick, the original simultaneously creates an image of happiness at the sight of sake being poured in a cup and an image of happiness flushing as the cup fills up and overflows. This is a point worth making because the standard sake cup is so tiny that it can brim with a happy face only in a surrealistic sense. An alternative image suggests more than one cup, one face.

Hiroaki Sato has published over two dozen volumes of translations of Japanese poetry. His and Burton Watson's anthology, From the Country of Eight Islands, won the American P.E.N translation prize in 1983. He is also the author of One Hundred Frogs, Bashô's Narrow Road, and Right under the big sky, I don't wear a hat: The Haiku and Prose of Hôsai Ozaki.

Mr. Sato is a past president of the Haiku Society of America (three terms). He lives in New York City.