Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
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Spring 2005, vol 3 no 1

Haiku in Context ~ #1, Robin D. Gill   [ bio ] [ email ]

( I )
Pissing on the New Year
a wee start for this series

shôben mo uka to wa narazu kesa-no-haru   —Issa (d.1827)
(urine even careless-as-for be/ought-not this-morning’s-spring=new-year’s-day)

even pissing
i must take care this
dawn of the year

Some say a poem should explain itself. To me, this is nonsense when we are talking about translated haiku, or for that matter any poem that comes from a different place or time (the past is a foreign country) from that we know well. Being patently short, one might think a haiku would require less explanation than longer poems, but the opposite is true: haiku leave so much unsaid that those who do not share the background of the author often need additional information to fully appreciate them. As my knowledge and understanding of old haiku grew, I became aware that I could easily grasp the meaning of some poems even literate Japanese acquaintances (editors at the same publisher) could not catch. For example, here is a poem by Shiki which I never fail to chuckle at:

neko no kao mo migaki-agetari tama-no-haru  —Shiki (d.1902)
(cat’s face even/also polishing/ed-up gem-spring=new-year’s-day)

even the cat
polishes her face for
the new year

Or, “Even the cat / has polished her face / for the new year.” Reading this in English, the humor is not readily apparent for it depends largely on the gem (tama) which modifies the Spring (haru). Gem as an adjective means something that is precious and beautiful. Used before Spring, to all Japanese familiar with old poetry, it means the Spring is not just the spring but the New Year. However, most Japanese today have to be reminded of the more common term for the New Year ara-tama no toshi, or “new/rough-gem-year,” before they can grasp the meaning of tama no haru, or “gem-spring,” namely New Year’s Day. (For the complex etymological arguments about the meanings of ara see my Fifth Season, in progress). They have not read poems like,

aratama ya kururi to mawaru kyô-no-haru  —Teikei (pre1645)
(rough/uncut gem: around rotates today’s spring/ny’s day)

the new year
starts spinning today:
a gem in the raw

– which is to say, the year as an uncut gem being tumbled. I presume the idea is not the rotation of the earth, though it may have been known by some in Japan at this time, but a pun on the practice of walking about proffering New Year’s greetings:

it’s new year’s
going ‘round and ‘round
like a raw gem

Or the next ku, (horrendous, but a bit better in Japanese where sun and day are one and the same hi) introducing the New Year as a new and presumably shiny gem:

aratama ya fukuro hodokete hi-no-hajime   —Kiteki (pre1728)
(new/unpolished-gem! bag opening day’s/sun’s start)

our new gem!
the sack is opened and
out pops the sun

Sack? Whose sack? There may be an old Chinese creation story here, but it is more likely the poet draws a parallel with the strings of coins called toshidama, or “year=gems=presents” presented to children on this day, i.e., “New gems=coins! / the sack is untied / the first sun=day.” A pun would work in Japanese where the number of the gem/s=coin/s need not be specified but not in English. While I have whole chapter on these presents (Issa alone has 28 toshidama ku!) in The Fifth Season, and think highly of Issa’s ku about his cat sleeping on top of them, the best toshidama haiku by far —indeed, I doubt anyone will ever beat it – is by a child (from the Kodomo Haiku Saijiki 1997):

otoshidama poketto ni ire hashiridasu   —Harigaya Naoki (fifth-grade)
([honorific+]year-gem=new-year’s-gift, pocket-in put, run-start/off)

The New Year’s Present

putting it
into my pocket,
i burst out running!

Be that as it may, a simple tama no haru without any ara (rough/new) is rare. But such poems are out there and, considering what animal rules the Sinosphere this year, let us see the following example:

tori no umi-otoshikeri tama-no-haru   —Shisei (pre1779)
(cock/chicken/hen’s hatched-out[+emphatic] gem-spring=new-year)

The Year of the Chicken

was it
hatched out
from under a hen?
this gem of a spring!

Unlike Teitoku’s infamous Cow Slobber ku for the Year of the Ox which I easily defend elsewhere (see my article in the February 2005 issue of Lynx) this is difficult, for it is barely a poem. It makes sense for the Year of the Cock is also the Year of the Hen, as no distinction is found in the name, and tama or “gem” also means “ball” and suggests “egg” (tamago), but the link to observation is just too weak. Only if we imagine the poet was not using tama-no-haru loosely (as is usually the case) but was really impressed by the beauty of New Year’s Day and, thus, decided to explain it as the metaphysical progeny of said Year Animal does the ku become a poem (hence my punctuation). Returning to Shiki’s cat:

Tama’s New Year

our gem, too
pretties up her face

Even Japanese who fail to catch the seasonal significance of “gem-spring” (tama no haru) – i.e., think it literally about the spring rather than the New Year – usually catch Shiki’s untranslatable pun on the tama: Tama is a very common, virtually generic, name for a cat (we only have such names for dogs, e.g., Spot, Poochie). Let me try again:

Tama’s New Year

even our cat
polishes her face: this gem
of a spring day!

Kyoshi who is the father of modern haiku, or step-father, if Shiki, who died young, is considered the father, must have immediately grasped all the meanings of tama, that is to say, realized this was a New Year’s poem. Since he fails to include the ku in his anthology of Shiki (the Iwanami classic), we must presume he was unaware of why it was not only clever but good. Knowledge of haiku is not at issue. Knowledge of cats is. Speaking as one who has lived with cats for 75 years (I sometimes lived with more than one cat, so the number exceeds the years I have lived), I will explain why I think the poem is good:

Shiki has correctly noted feline behavior related to the season. Cats over the holidays tend to do one of two things. If worried about the change in routine, they hunt and bring back more presents than usual to assuage their anxiety. If confident they are loved because of the attention they get from people off work or from rich special food, they blissfully clean up, spending more time on their faces than usual. Or, they may react in both ways at once.

Shiki has also correctly depicted the form of a cat. Tama has the meaning of a ball, and a cat’s head=face is pretty round.

Shiki has accurately portrayed the action of polishing. Just plain licking can be metaphored as “polishing;” but the way a cat licks the back of her paws and reaches back to burnish her forehead or crown is virtually the thing itself!

And, finally, this is pure speculation, but it seems to me that Shiki, whether he knew it or not, had his metaphysics right, too. A cat does not clean itself in order to be loved. It cleans itself because it is loved. (Some day, I will publish my essay into felinity, Hanchan’s Dream, where this sort of thing is detailed, but for now, please take my word for it). New Year’s Day did not enchant Japanese because it was magical. It was magical because Japanese were enchanted.


aozora ni kizu hitotsu nashi tama-no-haru   —Issa (d.1827)
(blue-sky-in wound/flaw one-not gem/beautiful/precious-spring=new-year)

this new year

in the blue sky
not a single flaw:
spring’s a perfect gem

Issa wrote a number of haiku about making (with smoke) or breaking (with smoke) the sky of New Year’s Day (see translations at David G. Lanoue’s Issa website) but only with this last ku on the subject – written the year after his careful pissing poem – does he finally make explicit the sky-as-gem metaphor only hinted at in his earlier poems. It is a version or an extension of the New-Year-as-gem idea and may also reflect Issa’s appreciation for the potential we, as children, are originally presented with at birth and with each new year. Again:

My New Year

spring dawns
one must take care
even pissing

So, could we say that Issa’s pissing ku reflects his awareness of the sacred perfection of the New Year and his concern lest he pollute it? Another, better known pissing ku by Issa defends the heavenly light that symbolized Buddhist Law: “Captain, let none make water! The moon rides the waves” (sendô yo shôben muyô nami no tsuki). Or, was Issa the countryman a bit on the superstitious side and read the future of the year into every little thing that happened?


i even take care
with how i make water
on the first day

Maybe, I think too much. The ku may only mean that on this day when everyone got up – or was supposed to get up – early, he was more liable to bump into someone when he went out to piss. He did, after all, write this ku the following year:

muku-oki no shôben nagara gyokei kana   —Issa (d.1827)
(facing-up[just after waking]’s urinating-while [ny]greeting/felicitations/formalities/)

shinano new year’s

we exchange formalities
while pissing

I was confident about adding the “we” because Issa has another haiku: “on both sides/greetings exchanged/while pissing” (ryohô nishôben shinagara gyokei kana). This is realism, but, properly read, cheerful enough: pissing outside is refreshing, a far better way to start the day/year than staring at a toilet in a little room.


We have seen several of the minor ideas informing “pissing with care,” but I have not yet gotten to the most important one. This ku written the same day as the careful pissing one brings us closer:

chiru yuki mo gyôgi tadashi ya kesa-no-haru   —Issa (d.1827)
(falling/scattering snow-even/also behavior correct!/: this-morning’s-spring)

new year’s day
even the snow comes down
in a proper way

New Year’s Day, especially the morning, was a special time deserving formal behavior. The idea of snow behaving is laughable, pretty bad, but not so bad if you know three things:

1) How much Issa hated, or claimed to hate the snow (which he even called “bad stuff” in one essay), as a man who was born in the country and had to live in it and, as a stepchild who was treated so coldly that he felt cold for life (his analysis, not mine!). So Issa’s “even the snow” is not so inane as it sounds: it expresses genuine emotion.

2) Issa was old when he wrote the careful piss and the proper snow ku. While the elderly had mixed feelings about the New Year – a) How lucky to still be here! b) Must I carry yet another year (I will explain later)? c) How shameful (as a Buddhist or a warrior) to have held on so long! – on the whole, they loved this ageless time before time. Before his famous ku describing his own New Year as “about average” (which was a celebration, for he was late to gain a (part of a) house and marry) the New Year was hell for him, but now that he had experienced a modicum of living (what Usanians call “getting a life”), he came to appreciate it. A well-known haiku by Ryôto (d. 1717) depicts an old man’s New Year as “that is good! “this is good!” (sore mo ô kore mo ô). Issa was not that content, but he was in a positive frame of mind.

3) Issa had just turned 61. Having just finished six 12 year cycles, he was, by convention, starting all over. Blyth, explaining Issa’s more famous New Year’s poem of that year (“folly/stupidity upon folly/stupidity returns” haru tatsu ya gu no ue ni mata gu ni kaeru), put it beautifully: “The wheel has turned full circle, the original folly of childhood now being replaced by the enriched folly of the aged.” (Haiku vol.2 Spring 1950).

In other words, Issa had a carte blanche to write these childish poems. And, by childish, as you might guess by now, I do not mean to put them down.


onna ni mo kotoba shikaku ni gyokei kana   —Sensan (pre 1751)
(women-to/with-even words rectangular/stiff/formally [new year’s] greetings ‘tis)

even women
formally addressed

In the 20th Century, women in Japan were turned into the guardians of traditional culture, while men sold their souls to pragmatism in order to compete with the West; but men, with their Chinese learning, were once the more formalistic sex in Japan because formality was needed to speak up to their superiors. As men were legally and culturally superior to women, as a rule, they spoke down to them using rough, informal language, except, as this poem indicates on formal occasions such as the New Year’s felicitation, when they deigned to address them with “rectangular words.” While one Japanese friend believes only the above reading is possible, I cannot help wondering if the first part of the poem (onna ni mo) could not be short-hand for onna no naka ni mo, or “among women,” in which case we would have:

even women
using stiff words

For women were also noted for speaking gently to one another. But, regardless of the vector of this ku, the point does not change. On this day, everyone participated in the rebirth of the year. Harold Stewart, explaining a haiku by Ontei,

“The clouds and waters now divide. The sun
Fans out its beams. The New Year has begun.”

– puts it thus: “Every New Year’s Day is not only the first day of the annual cycle, but a re-enactment in time of the First Day of Creation in principio, that is to say in principle, outside of time and before time begins, and not merely “in the beginning.” (A Chime of Windbells, 1969). I would put it like this: Life was purely formal, purely ritual, all mind or no mind, depending how pure being was defined (This sounds abstract, but I have gathered and translated scores of haiku on both sides of the all/no mind, or “all kokoro” vs. “no kokoro” idea of proper attitude). This is not so much a Zen thing as a Japanist(?) sunao thing. Sunao, a native Japanese word that is written with the characters for simple+straight is an adjective best described as an attitude. People who detest it think of sunao as “obedient” or “slavish,” the neutral humor it as “honest” or “direct” and those who like it think it synonymous with “being good,” “acting naturally” or behaving like a native (?) Japanese. Without even knowing the word, G.K. Chesterton has written a whole book in praise of it (Heretics).

It, the New Year, not sunao, is paradoxical, too: people are off work and free of all care, but all is significant and one can not be careless. Again, a modern child’s haiku (Ibid) says it best:

hatsu-hi-no-de mi ni ayamari no naki koto o   —Hara Akiko
(first sun-up self-with mistakes-not thing [+obj.(implies wishing/desiring/trying)])

the first sunrise
i hope i don’t make
any booboos

Japanese are not so formal today as in Issa’s time, but still we find this poem by an seventh grade student from Kochi prefecture! I do not know exactly what the girl worries about. Judging from the countless haiku on the subject, the most common way to get off on the wrong foot for children and adults in Issa’s day and today was/is sleeping in and failing to observe the first sun-rise. But is Akiko just concerned with sleeping in or otherwise flubbing up some observance and being criticized? Or, could she, like Issa making water, be thinking of more than herself?

first prayer

the new year’s sun:
may neither it nor i
screw up!

I remember reading in a small picture book edited by Robert Coles (whose large books on the moral and religious intelligence of the child in the words of the children themselves are a must-read) of a Hopi girl, concerned about the clouds being injured by airplanes.


the first sunrise
i pray it goes off
without a hitch

But where, in the broader sense of things, does a poem like this come from? Before returning to Issa’s careful pissing poem for one last time, I feel it high time to inform the reader of the larger context that includes all of the angles, precious, auspicious, and formal mentioned. It is the significance of the New Year itself. Japanese has dozens if not scores of synonyms for the New Year—if you have been attentive to the direct rendering, you may have noticed a few already—but even if all were translated it would still fail to convey the importance of the Japanese New Year. Harold Stewart, as we have seen, came close. So did Blyth in his paragraph-long introduction to The New Year in Haiku Volume II Spring, where he explained that “New Year’s Morning was felt to be the morning, not only of this day, but the morning of the whole year,” that “the rejuvenation of nature coincided with a fresh trust in humanity . . .” and that even “familiar things had on this day a new significance.” He also noted that this had something to do with the fact the New Year began in February, when “the spirit of spring was already in the air” and he began that paragraph with these words:

“The New Year is a season by itself.”

What Blyth failed to do is explain exactly what that first sentence meant. By his beautifully poetic description he, like Stewart after him, lets us know that the Japanese New Year is a sort of magical dreamtime, but that does not explain why it “is a season.” I would bet that someone has done so in English, but I have not read it, so I shall try.

The New Year is a season because it was treated as one by being given a special place as the other seasons were in traditional collections of poetry. This is most clearly demonstrated by haiku almanacs, or saijiki, for not only was the New Year separate from the other seasons, but large saijiki were once published in five books, four of which were for the usual four seasons and one of which was the New Year. How could this be?

First, the New Year was an all-in-one holiday. It celebrated the crossing from the old year to the New Year and the latter’s coming, as well as the coming of Spring, for the New Year was also the first day of Spring, likewise the birthday of the nation as Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas (more so than the 4th of July) and the resurrection of the spirit of the everything as our Easter (when some of us watch the sun rise) and finally everyone’s birthday (as essayed by Lowell in The Soul of the East, 1888). Imagine if you will, the power of a holiday combining so much!

Second, Japan’s traditional calendar, like the original Judeo-Christian calendar, combined the solar and lunar reality to create a natural correspondence with the day and the night far more sophisticated and, I would argue, beneficial to the psyche than the purely solar system used by the modern West, which cannot abide approximation and case-by-case (year by year) adjustment, or the purely lunar system used by Moslems whose identification with the desert apparently led them to deny the seasons by subjugating them entirely to the geometry of the night. With both dependable year-to-year solar continuity and lunar synchronicity (the first night was always dark, the third crescent, the fifteenth full), the Japanese were exceptionally attentive to seasonal festivity.

Third, because of the above, and because of Japan’s high degree of historical continuity, the number of seasonal events and things belonging to the New Year is large enough to fill a book. (I realize that high school students in the USA filled a book with Christmas, for I helped get the Foxfire Christmas Book translated into Japanese, but we are talking about a tradition that is ten times richer). Each day of the first couple weeks of the year features one or another celebration and the things involved far out-number “our” New Year’s Eve, Xmas tree, wreath and manger (and I would guess Hanukkah, too).

So why did Blyth give the New Year only 20 pages, which is to say only about 5% of what he gave each of the other seasons?


hôrai ni jôfuku to mosu nezumi kana   —Kyoshi (1874-1959)
(h ôrai-in/on “Jôfuku” [it is] called mouse ‘tis)

and, who are you?
the mouse
on mt hôrai spoke
“i’m jôfuku!”

I believe Blyth short-changed the New Year because too many of its themes are unfamiliar to non-Japanese. Introducing New Year themes requires the translator to invent words, carry Japanese ones into English and explain far more than Blyth (or anyone else, for that matter) wanted to. For example, to properly introduce Kyoshi’s humorous masterpiece about a mouse peeping out from a Hôrai saying he was Jôfuku, one would have to explain the significance of mice on the New Year (auspicious for coming with plentiful harvests and having a day when their name is taboo’ed etc.), the legend of the magical mountain island of youth pronounced Hôrai and its significance and appearance as a New Year’s decoration, and the legend of the Chinese regent Jôfuku (including the Chinese pronunciation of his name) who left China with 500 beautiful young people to find such a place and supposedly ended up in Japan where he is claimed by a number of places today.

The only way to introduce the New Year is to treat each of its major themes at enough length to do them justice. I am now trying to do just that in a book to be published some time this year called The Fifth Season. The magical mountain just mentioned gets 30 solid pages with scores of haiku. So does the idea of Spring as a gem, and so forth. Such length allows the reader to get into the subject deeply enough to read the haiku somewhat like a haiku poet would, that is as one ku in a large body of ku on the same theme.

In other words, it is not enough to simply explain a poem. For maximum enjoyment of one poem, the reader needs to know many poems and size it up against them. We all do this type of thing in whatever areas of the arts in which we truly enjoy ourselves. But, unless we study and write about it we are not conscious of it. This is, perhaps, more obvious with music or with wine. For this reason, I am afraid that even this Haiku In Context belies its title, for an article of this size cannot offer sufficient context for the ideal appreciation of translated haiku. Time and space limits make it haiku in some context. This is more than is generally provided, but far from satisfactory.


A New Year Starts

even pissing
is a matter for concern
this morning

When I mentioned the scores of synonyms for the New Year, I meant synonyms in the loosest sense of the word, for the kesa no haru (this-morning’s-spring) used in Issa’s careful pissing ku and, say, tama no haru (“gem-spring,” which Issa would not have used in that poem for tama also suggests the male genitals and would have vulgarized the poem despite it describing the fine weather we imagine), ganjitsu (original-day) and shougatsu (correct/upright-month) all have different nuances and tend to cover different aspects of the New Year. Because Japanese poets, like our rhymsters but less obviously, may chose words for the sound and/or length, the strict meanings of the words are often overlooked. Englishing New Year’s haiku, the choices are different. My biggest problem was the length of the phrase “New Year’s morning.” While only three syllables, two are much longer than Japanese syllabets* and give three solid beats. This is too long for the first or last lines (generally 2-beat) where it usually must go. So I tend to drop the “morning” for “dawn” or “day,” or separate it from the New Year by resorting to a title as I did above.


But, it is one thing to translate, or read freely and it is another to know what you are doing. If one wishes to translate from the original, it is necessary to recognize all the synonyms. When I first read Issa’s careful pissing poem about ten years ago, I assumed kesa no haru meant just what the words said: “this morning’s spring." Here are a couple of my benighted (mis)translations:

spring is here
on a day as clear as this
i pause
before i piss

I see that not only did I not recognize the New Year, but I very cleverly skirted the heavy word, morning.

early spring

one hesitates
to take a piss
on a fine morning
like this

With the “fine” before it, “morning” improves, doesn’t it? But the first of the mistranslations is still better. It also brings up an interesting fact known to all translators. Mistranslations can be very instructive.

I am not sure why Issa’s haiku is not found in the standard 2000 ku collection (Iwanami: 1990). I am sure it is not because of the body function, for the editor, Maruyama includes many of Issa’s poems about his “big-business” and “small-business” as Japanese call "number one" and "number two." It might be because Maruyama did not care much for the rather sloppy haiku of Issa’s last period, or it may be that he found the ku too direct with respect to Issa’s feelings. Had Issa not written that it didn’t do to be careless but, instead, written something like this,

i pause to think
before taking a piss
my first this year

-- perhaps Maruyama would have included it. But, my point is not to second guess Professor Maruyama. It is only to point out that trying to make sense of Issa’s poem without a full understanding of the vocabulary helped me push the envelope. Ignorance has its benefits. Always try a translation before you investigate and find out what a poem really means. You can always correct yourself, but once you know what’s what it is impossible to go back . . .


There is another aspect of Issa’s poem that deserves almost as much space as what I have given to the New Year. Body functions in haiku. One reason I had intended to begin writing about haiku with Issa – something I changed after seeing all that David G. Lanoue was doing (it is clear that Issa is taken care of) – was because I read a book of haiku satire (by someone called Oldenburg, perhaps?) which was full of pee, poo, farts and hics (drinking) high and low-ku by obviously faux poets, and thought: how ridiculous, this man apparently does not know that Issa already includes these things! Maruyama’s anthology of Issa is 2-3% such and, reading Issa’s journals, I came to the conclusion that this percentage held true for all of his 20,000 poems (you do the math!). Indeed, I blush to admit this, but I have hundreds of (unpublished) pages of examples.

The introduction of such elements into haiku is found already in the renga (link-verse) of early haikai. It can be humorous when describing the mists as the Goddess of Spring wetting her robe by pissing on her feet (a pun on Spring standing which means coming and which means the New Year, too) and gets really dirty (the type of stuff that will later be restricted to senryû) with poets pretending they would drown in their lover’s pee, or love compared to puss-filled pimples, etc.. But it is not personal. Even Bashô, who some wrongly credit for introducing it to poetry, stops at the pooping nightingale (it poops on mochi=sweet-rice-cake which makes it a New Year’s theme) and the pissing (or, rather a territorial dog’s dry-pissing = inu-no-kakebari) rain-cloud. Bashô’s contemporary (student and rival) Kikaku is the first major poet I know of who came close to personalizing (?) it, with ku asking “Who is the jerk who pissed in the snow?” (If we guess it is he, himself, it is personal) and noting that the Winter was the start of the fart-contest (he-kurabe) season.

Issa picked up on both of these poems and turned body function into clearly personal (as opposed to third-person) haiku, but I am hesitant to give him sole credit for developing this because one cannot tell who pioneered what by the books published by scholars giving us only the poems they select. To know the history of haiku one must read the full journals of many poets. Issa’s journals are the only ones I have only read because they were reprinted whole and I (a poor man) found a used collection cheap enough to buy. Others do not come cheap. History, on the whole, is a game for the rich or those with rich patrons. A penniless outsider without support cannot even get on the field.


I have been criticized for bringing money or rather my lack of it into all of my writing. I apologize if it is disconcerting, but what else can I say? It is true. The limits of my understanding and the degree to which my work may be completed or must remain incomplete, for the most part, depends upon my ability to buy access to resources and the time to peruse them.

Speaking of which, the subject next time will be the botan, the flower most associated with prosperity, happiness and nobility. The peony. Considering Issa’s poverty and the fact that once again I will start the discussion with one of his poems, it will be titled The Peony and the Peon. Because this was once a late Spring blossom and later switched to summer, it is perfect for Simply Haiku’s second issue of the year which will come out, God willing, in mid-May.

Drink a fifth to the Fifth Season, pee carefully and have a happy first quarter of the year!

~ robin d. gill

*Syllabet is a term of my coinage for the letters of the Japanese syllabary and the uniformly short sound unit they create. It is important to realize that haiku in Japanese are not 17 syllables long but 17 syllabets long. I hope readers will use the term for it is more transparent than mora or onji, and, therefore easier to remember.

p.s. – Letters with questions, criticism or suggestions are welcome. Please write well, for you might be quoted.

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku