Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Spring 2006, vol 4 no 1

An Interview With J. Thomas Rimer
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: Haiku, senryu, and tanka are popular Japanese short form poetry genres enjoyed by people throughout the world. Too few people, however, are familiar with the root from which the three genres emanate: waka. What is waka? And how did waka influence the aforementioned genres?

TR: A good question, and a complicated one to answer quickly. It all starts, I suppose, with the fact that the Chinese writing system of characters came to Japan in the fifth century, or before, along with Buddhism and other aspects of Chinese culture. In the Heian period, when waka poetry first developed into a major verse form [although there are of course some verses we might identify as proto-waka in the great early collection the Man'y˘shű], the form developed in contradistinction to kanshi, or poems written in more or less what we would now term classical Chinese. The two characters for the term waka mean Japanese+poem; the alternative word used at that time and since, tanka, means short+poem, as opposed to the longer forms used in the composition of Chinese verse. The waka form is divided into 31 syllables, usually in the pattern 5-7-5-7-7. As time went on, the rules for composing these poems became more and more arcane and required both skill and an excellent memory of precedents and cultural references.

In the early Tokugawa period, about in the 1650s or so, the impoverished court nobility began to teach some of their poetic traditions and heretofore private or hidden traditions as a means of earning money, thus sustaining themselves financially because of a hunger for high culture by the increasingly affluent merchant classes. These teachers thought that teaching waka was too difficult for beginners, so they taught units of 5-7-5, which required a simpler diction. This, plus the genius of such poets as Saikaku [a brilliant poet, although it's now his prose we read] and Bash˘, and so forth, to transform the somewhat lowly haiku into a form that showed great poetic potential. Haiku did indeed turn out to be quite a "democratic form," in fact, far easier to compose than the waka. Nevertheless, waka continued to be a preferred form of composition for many poets right down to the present day. Makoto Ueda's recent and excellent anthology of modern waka, Modern Japanese Tanka, published by Columbia University Press, shows that the form is still a vital one in modern and contemporary Japan. And it seems to me, a bit paradoxically, that the continued health of the waka in contemporary times can be attributed at least to some degree to the fact that the older form has received in turn some influences, in tone and subject matter alike, back from its more "mundane" offshoot, the haiku.

Sorry for this long explanation, but the forms are actually quite closely connected to each other. To answer your second question, it seems to me that the waka bequeathed to the haiku a certain tone of elegance - Bash˘ insisted on this - as well as the form of its 17 syllables. For me, the best place to obtain an overview of this long interaction is to look at the anthology of Japanese poetry edited by Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson called From the Country of Eight Islands. It is one of my favorite books, and it was an honor for me to write the Introduction.


RW: And going even deeper, what influence did Chinese poetry have on the development of waka?

TR: As I said above, it seems to me that, in one respect at least, Chinese poetry served as a counter-model, representing in terms of length, rhetoric, etc. a model of what Japanese poetry, because of the nature of the Japanese language itself, could not be. But on the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, Chinese poetry, from Po Chu-I in the Heian period to Tu Fu for Bash˘ and others in the Tokugawa period, suggested an ideal for Japanese poets as to how poetry might function as a means to express elevated philosophical ideas and emotions, even in the brief space of a waka or haiku. Chinese poetry thus contributed subject matter, tone, and a heightened sense of interiority, certainly, to the developing Japanese tradition. In a sense, Japanese poetry developed in a kind of extended conversation with Chinese poetry, responding and growing as it went along. I'm not competent to make more than a few suggestions along the following lines, but I think it might shed light on these questions to observe, say, the importance of poetry in Latin as an example for the poets working in their own vernacular languages during the Renaissance and after. The existence of such connections and resulting overtones are clear in both cases, perhaps, but never so close that there is any question of simple imitation.


RW: Do you see any connection between Daoism's the Zhuangzi and Japanese waka poetry?

TR: I guess you can say that any thoughtful reader can feel some sort of connection, but I myself find my own emotional responses hard to "document" in terms of sources, which is perhaps, come to think of it, why a particular poem is successful. I was very pleased to see yesterday an advertisement for a forthcoming book from the University of Hawaii Press, Bash˘ and the Dao: The Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai by Peipei Qiu. This should help provide an answer to these questions. We have lots of scholars in this country who have looked at relations, particularly for modern poetry and literature, between Europe and Japan, but few, probably because of considerable linguistic skills required, who have done the same for China and Japan.


RW: What influence did the Wakan r˘ei shű have on Japanese poetry and related genres?

TR: I touched on this subject in the introduction to our translation of that book. Those influences are everywhere. As my wife once remarked, speaking about our first child, once you are pregnant, you see pregnant women everywhere. Having worked on that translation I see so many influences that I might never even have noticed before. One obviously involves the fact that others in later generations memorized these Chinese poems and recited them aloud. I'm currently teaching a course on The Tale of the Heike, and those particular Chinese-language poems, or others like them, turn up on page after page. Obviously the courtiers loved them, and they expected that the poems would be recognized by others when sung or chanted aloud. And they are cited again and again in the medieval plays. In addition, the subjects chosen for the Chinese poems are often adapted and used for tanka, and even found uses in composing haiku in later generations. So the book apparently served as a reservoir of sensibility, not just tag lines.


RW: What can we learn from Kodojin and from those who came before him?

TR: A good question and, again, a hard one to answer in a simple way. I don't write haiku myself, but it seems to me that if you approach it as a form [17 syllables, etc.] then your definition of "chaos theory" can prevail. But if you look at haiku in terms of the kind of epiphanies it can produce, the kind of spiritual atmosphere it can conjure up, then the older Japanese poets do have something to contribute. Issa, Bash˘, even Buson [who does in fact use a lot of overt Chinese references] have extracted from those classic sources an attitude towards the universe, towards the self, and towards society that owes a great deal to the Chinese classic examples, but they have internalized those convictions and made them their own. Their feelings can therefore "transfer" to modern readers, in Japan and elsewhere as well, even though they don't know or recognize the Chinese sources. Erudition on the part of the reader may help with nuances, but it's not required.

Japanese no longer read or write kanshi [poems in classical Chinese], as they did before the twentieth century. As I think I mentioned in my essay, when French, German, and English replaced Chinese in the school systems in Japan, the ability to read, then appreciate, Japan's Chinese classical heritage quickly began to disappear. So I guess it's no wonder that a writer like Kodojin was no longer at the center of things.

I don't know if these answers are helpful, but the questions are immensely stimulating, and it's a pleasure to address your readers. Thanks for asking me.


J. Thomas Rimer J. Thomas Rimer came to Japanese studies in what would be these days a rather usual way. He had been an English major in college back in the 1950s and had had no contact with the Far East at all until he was drafted into the Army after the Korean War and sent to Sapporo in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. "Talk about extended culture shock - and I assure you that I remain as fascinated, and surprised, by Japan now as I was fifty years ago," he says. Because he lived and worked there, he began to pursue the same interests he had back home - he loved music and the theatre, and literature as well. It was only after what might be called this "practical exposure" that he decided to go to graduate school and actually take up the formal study of Japanese culture. It was a very exciting surprise to discover the high quality of artistic and cultural life in Japan, which he learned to appreciate even more as he learned the language and studied literature and history, and it has been a pleasure for him to explore those avenues of understanding for several decades now.

He has published a good deal on a variety of topics, and now he is working with a colleague to put together an anthology of modern Japanese literature, the first volume of which should appear next year from Columbia University Press. He is also working on a biography of one of Japanese's most creative twentieth-century stage directors, Senda Koreya. So much to do and so little time!

Rimer received a PhD in Philosophy (Japanese Literature) in 1971 at Columbia University, New York. His thesis: "Kishida Kunio and the Modern Japanese Theatre"

Recent publications include: A translation of the play The Emperor of La Mancha's Clothes, by Yokouchi Kensuke. Included in the Japan Playwright's Association, ed. Half a Century of Japanese Theatre, Vol. III. Tokyo: Kinokuniya, 2001; (with Marlene J. Mayo) War, Occupation, and Creativity: Japan and East Asia 1920-1960, University of Hawaii Press, 2001; Japan Editor and contributor for Peter France, ed., The Oxford Guide to Literature in Translation, Oxford University Press, 2000; A Reader's Guide to Japanese Literature (Revision), Kodansha International, 1999; Translation of Senda Akihiko, Voyage of Modern Japanese Theatre, translator, University of Hawaii Press, 1997; (with Jonathan Chaves) Poems to Sing: The Wakan R˘eishű. Columbia University Press, 1997; Nara Encounters, Weatherhill, NY, 1997; (with Keiko McDonald) Editor, The Blue-Eyed Tar˘kaja. Columbia Univ. Press, 1996; Editor, Kyoto Encounters, Weatherhill, NY, 1995.

Awards: The Chancellor's Distinguished Research Award, University of Pittsburgh, 1999; Poems to Sing: The Wakan R˘eishű was awarded The Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, a yearly translation prize administered by the Donald Keene Center of Columbia University, 1998; Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, from the Consul General of Japan, December 1997.