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Spring 2006, vol 4 no 1

Depopularizing the Popular: Tentori haikai and the Bashô Revival
by Cheryl Crowley



Haikai is not often discussed in the context of popular culture. It is typically categorized as "classical" Japanese literature. This term suggests that its objects of study are antithetical to popular culture, which is typically a designation for works outside the literary canon. However, in the first centuries of its development, haikai was decidedly uncanonical. Originally derived from the elite linked verse form renga, the comic form 'haikai' got its start as an ephemeral, expendable kind of amusement, and its transformation into a genre of literature that merited refined aesthetic appreciation was a process that took hundreds of years.

In this paper I examine one part of this process: the emergence of the Bashô Revival movement in the middle of the eighteenth century. I explore the ways that the Revival poets, who were commoners and low-ranking samurai, tried to reshape haikai into an equal to that of the elite forms waka and renga, and in doing so to raise their own status in an era that otherwise offered little social mobility.

While the first part of the eighteenth century was a period of remarkable growth in the number of haikai schools and practitioners, the Revival poets viewed their genre's success as problematic, as they equated popularization with vulgarization. Since by definition haikai relies on language and imagery that grounds itself in the popular, the Revival poets' stance would appear to be paradoxical. Although they represented only a minority in the haikai community of their day, ultimately it is the Revival poets and their successors, rather than their more popular rivals, who eventually became regarded as the central figures of haikai history. How did this happen?

To consider this question, I will discuss the characteristics of haikai that made it a part of popular culture; I will then examine the circumstances of the historical development of haikai that led to the rise of tentori 点取 (point-scoring) haikai, and finally I will show how the Revival poets' efforts to counteract what they saw as the cheapening effect of popularization as a defense not only for the dignity of haikai, but of their own as well.

The Rise of Tentori haikai

In 1751, the Kyoto haikai poet Môotsu 毛越 published an anthology, Kokon tanzaku shû 古今短冊集 (Ancient and Modern Poetry Card Anthology), a collection of exemplary hokku verses of the past and present printed in the form of reproductions of the poets' own calligraphy. Môotsu's collection aimed to reinvigorate interest in the work of haikai poets of the past - especially that of Matsuo Bashô (1655-1694) - showing it to be superior to the common type of haikai practitioner of the day. Kokon tanzaku shû was not particularly influential, but it is worth taking a look at because of its preface, which was written by the eighteenth century's most prominent haikai poet, Yosa Buson.

At the time that Môotsu asked him to write the preface, Buson was a struggling young painter, recently returned to the Kansai area in order to seek his fortune. He was not a professional haikai poet, but he had a good reputation in Edo and the Tôhoku area through his work with the Yahantei school of Hayano Hajin (1678-1742). Buson's preface, while containing the usual conventional words of praise for the anthology's editor, also included a damning indictment of the mainstream haikai poets of the day:

Nowadays those who are prominent in haikai have different approaches to the various styles, castigating this one and scorning that one, and they thrust out their elbows and puff out their cheeks, proclaiming themselves haikai masters (sôshô 宗匠). They will flatter the rich, and cause the small-minded [i.e., tentori poets] to run wild, and compile anthologies that list numerous unpolished verses. Those who really know haikai frown and throw them away. Indeed, old priest Sainen-bô 西念坊 uses their verses to patch his paper coverlet at night, and old nun Myôshin-ni 妙心尼 uses them to label her jars of miso; is this not a disgrace?

Buson's remarks here are a condemnation of practitioners of a highly commercialized form of haikai, tentori 点取 or 'point-scoring' haikai; which had become wildly successful in the early part of the eighteenth century. In tentori haikai, a tenja 点者, or verse marker, would set the verse, a go-between would distribute it to students, and then the go-between would deliver the students' responses back to the tenja, who would grade them with points. Both the tenja and the go-between collected fees for their services, and tentori haikai became very lucrative. From the students' point of view, this kind of haikai was extremely entertaining: it did not require extensive education or special training, people enjoyed competing with other members of their groups, and it even became a form of gambling as students vied with one another to gain the most points.

While tentori haikai offered a means for some people to make a living off their literary talents, other, more idealistic poets despised it. Point scoring in itself was not necessarily the problem—similar systems had been used by teachers of waka and renga as a pedagogical tool for centuries. However, competition for points became an end in itself, and quickly degenerated into an activity that was little more than a game. Also, tentori practitioners were less concerned with the craft of poetry than with writing something impressive and witty, to dazzle others and win points from the tenja. In this sense, tentori haikai strongly favored zoku 俗, the mundane or commonplace, over ga 雅, the elegant and refined.

How to balance zoku and ga in haikai was a perennial question. The early seventeenth century poet credited as haikai's founder, Matsunaga Teitoku 松永貞徳 (1571-1653), defined haikai as poetry that contained a haigon 俳言, or haikai word. By that he meant words and imagery that came from a lexicon much broader than the highly restricted one permitted to poets writing in waka and renga.

The vocabulary of waka and renga was limited to words contained in a few sources—the early imperial poetry anthologies, Ise monogatari, Genji monogatari. Haikai, however, was meant to be comic, or at the very least to include a twist of insight that brought together two disparate worlds: the sensitive, exalted realm of ga that was included in allusions to classical literature, and the ordinary, everyday realm of zoku that was contained within the haigon. Haigon referred to a wide range of language, ranging from Buddhist terms, Chinese loanwords, and zokugo 俗語, the vocabulary of everyday life. The friction between the classical and the vernacular, between ga and zoku, generated the spark that ignited haikai's humor and insightfulness.

Both ga and zoku were necessary in haikai, but the balance between them was not always easy to manage. In their eagerness to produce verses that were clever and exciting, tentori poets tended to lean heavily towards the zoku to produce effects that would win them the most points. Thus more fastidious poets felt justified in regarding their work as vulgar, and lacking in real craft.

The other aspect of tentori haikai that dismayed more high-minded poets was that haikai itself was becoming a commodity; tenja were more interested in profit than in literary quality and made little effort to cultivate taste and sensitivity in their students. Eager to increase their income and maximize the number of students, many were willing to lower their standards in order to make themselves appealing to the largest number of people possible. The growing sophistication of print culture and advances in communication and travel in the eighteenth century also contributed to the commercialization of haikai. The accessibility of haikai texts and the ease with which disciples could correspond with, and even meet, distant tenja put the practice within reach of people even in provincial towns and rural areas, and the tenja, in turn, were not slow to capitalize on this.

Matsuo Bashô and His Successors

One poet who resolved with consummate skill the problem of how to balance ga and zoku was Matsuo Bashô. After spending his early years working as a tenja, Bashô abandoned the role of a for-profit poet, and set about seeking a higher standard for haikai. Instead of asking for payment for services, Bashô came up with various ways of receiving the patronage of his disciples and friends that did not involve cash, largely by accepting lodging and gifts in exchange for his teaching. He was unwaveringly committed to the ideal of making haikai the equal of waka and renga. One of his most famous formulations was "Saigyô's 西行 waka, Sôgi's 宗祇 renga, Sesshû's 雪舟 painting and Rikyû's 利休 tea all have the same thing in common" with haikai, in other words that haikai poets had the potential to aspire to the same level of greatness of the greatest of waka and renga poets, as well as the greatest of painters and tea ceremony masters.

On the face of it, this may not seem like such a radical statement, but it is important to remember that haikai's origins were as a recreational interlude between serious bouts of renga. It is probably an exaggeration to call it pulp literature, but it might be more safely referred to as 'trash', because it was almost always discarded at the end of a renga session, even when the rest of the day's labors—the ushin 有心 or standard renga, was recorded and preserved. By calling haikai the equal of waka and renga, Bashô was making a very bold claim for the value of his genre, setting it on the same level with the elite genres of the past.

Bashô's statement also stands out because in terms of social status, the poets who wrote haikai were inferior to those who composed waka and renga. The innermost secrets of waka were carefully guarded by the aristocratic houses whose intellectual property they were; and while persons of lower status (jige 地下) could become proficient at renga; ushin renga was an elite genre. Even someone like Teitoku, whose great literary skill was acknowledged by prominent intellectuals of the day, was excluded from the highest levels of waka training because he was a commoner. Comic renga—known as mushin 無心 or haikai no renga, eventually became the genre of choice for commoners. In the early modern period, as commoners began the process of transforming this offshoot of serious renga into the independent genre haikai, their aspirations for it mirrored those that were stirring elsewhere in their lives as a product of the increased prosperity brought by the Tokugawa peace, that is to say, for greater dignity and prestige.

While Bashô and some of his contemporaries started a trend towards a more serious-minded kind of haikai, the momentum was lost after his death. Tentori haikai continued to attract increasing numbers of followers, and Bashô's disciples splintered into numerous groups. Just like the tentori poets, the schools founded by Bashô's disciples competed with one another for students, and even used their affiliation with Bashô as a selling point, each of them claiming exclusive possession of his authentic teaching.

Fifty years later, the Bashô Revival movement emerged from the haikai community's chaotic landscape of rivalry, competition, and commercialization. The movement was made up of a loose affiliation of poets, most of whom belonged to schools associated with Bashô, i.e., the Shômon 蕉門, and included poets like Buson, Takai Kitô 高井几董(1741-1789), and Katô Kyôtai 加藤暁台 (1732-1792). They were different from their contemporaries in that they advocated a return to the original ideals of Bashô, seeking an understanding of his teachings that was unmediated by adherence to factional orthodoxies; instead, they aimed to recover the true essence of Bashô's teachings through close examination of his works. They frowned on the inaesthetic excesses of tentori haikai practitioners, and viewed the tenja who catered to them as avaricious, talentless toadies.

The Bunjin Ideal

The Bashô Revival poets' hostility towards the tentori poets can be attributed to a number of factors. One of them was a development that at first glance might seem unconnected with haikai: the rise of the ideal of the bunjin, or literatus, which had its origins in the contemporary surge in interest in Sinophilic culture, particularly Chinese poetry and painting.

The Tokugawa shôguns were avid supporters of Chinese studies, particularly Confucian philosophy, as a means of maintaining social order. As knowledge of Chinese philosophy, ethics and history was disseminated, interest in other aspects of Chinese learning developed. One of the high points of this trend was the emergence of Ogyû Sorai's 萩生徂徠 (1666-1782) kobunjigaku 古文辞学 or study of ancient rhetoric school. Sorai emphasized accomplishment in a wide range of artistic pursuits, and prominent among them was poetry. He insisted on the importance of achieving a direct understanding of classical Chinese texts without the encumbrance of commentaries. For Sorai and his followers the Chinese tradition was not something to be passively memorized, but lived out in practice, and poetry was central to the well-lived life.

Sorai and his followers were just one example of a more general trend towards interest in Chinese arts. Increasing numbers of wealthy people, including many commoners, developed a great fascination for Chinese things and skills, and as they possessed great resources in terms of money and leisure they were in a position to pay for them. The ideal of the bunjin 文人, or literati, arose in this context. Bunjin (Chinese: wenren) originally referred to scholar-gentlemen who, at various points in Chinese history, withdrew from public service—either voluntarily, in protest or under duress—in order to pursue reclusive lives of artistic accomplishment. Amateurism was their hallmark; they painted, wrote poetry, and did calligraphy for purposes of self-cultivation; they looked down on professional artists who did the same for money. The bunjin ideal appealed to wealthy Japanese commoners because it championed the amateur. Financially secure through other means, they practiced poetry for pleasure, and in doing so claimed the prestige of the Chinese literatus, who disdained profit.

Many haikai poets had close affiliation with the sinophile groups that gave rise to the idealization of the bunjin, particularly those haikai poets who also wrote kanshi (Chinese verse). As a result, there were many points of intersection between the bunjin ideal and ideology of the Bashô Revival. In the first place, stress on the value of poetry - writing it as well as reading it - was important to both. In the second place, Revival poets shared with adherents of the bunjin ideal a distaste for overt competition over profit and fame. Amateurism was the hallmark of the Chinese wenren, who painted for the sake of self-cultivation, unlike the professional court painters who worked to please patrons. This had special resonance for wealthy commoners attracted to the bunjin ideal and Revival haikai alike. Denied access to real elites (i.e., aristocratic status, participation in government) and contemptuous of the excesses of commoner culture, the glorification of the amateur was a way for non-elite haikai poets to aspire to some kind of elite status, insofar as it gave them the moral ground on which to stand as they castigated popular tenja for being venal and profit-driven.

The Anxiety of Reception

A second factor that contributed to the Bashô Revival poets' hostility towards tentori haikai was can be termed an anxiety of reception; that is to say a deep sense of unease engendered by their confrontation an unprecedently large audience of readers. The anxiety of reception is a term coined by Lucy Newlin to describe the sense of crisis she observed in eighteenth century English Romantic poets, who struggled to create and defend their artistic identity and authorial integrity in an era when the relationship between writers and their audience changed rapidly as more and more people had access to books. Unlike Harold Bloom's formulation of the anxiety of influence, the theory that "strong" writers battle with the legacy of their literary predecessors in order to establish their own literary identity, the notion of anxiety of reception acknowledges the powerful effect that changes in the makeup of the reading public have on literary texts.

In eighteenth century Japan, as in Europe, a new audience of reader-writers emerged alongside the developments in literacy, advancement in publishing technology, and the professionalization of various roles related to the production of printed texts that took place in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. These developments had particularly powerful implications for haikai, whose market was drawn from precisely the group of readers that was growing the fastest--urban and rural commoners. As the number of haikai consumers grew, there were more of them whose interpretive competence was uncertain. As a result, struggles over standards, authority, and norms engendered an even greater sense of urgency.

As an antidote to tentori haikai, Bashô was a fitting choice. He stood out from his predecessors and contemporaries because of his serious approach to haikai. Thoroughly versed in the classical tradition yet innovative and experimental, Bashô infused what was still a frivolous and somewhat simpleminded genre with the profundity and dignity of waka and renga. At the same time, his verse and his teaching style was accessible to a wide range of people in the cities and the countryside. Even more importantly, though his life was relatively short, he spent a good deal of it traveling, and as a result he had a large number of followers, many of whom went on to found their own haikai school and use their connections with Bashô as a mark of legitimacy.

The successors to these Bashô disciples and their students became the core of the Revival movement. Their efforts to resist the commercialization of haikai associated with the tentori poets were extremely successful, but had a somewhat paradoxical effect. The Revival poets' embrace of Bashô's teachings as a way to confer distinction on themselves created an elite among practitioners of this commoners' genre. This was an elite which more and more poets aspired to join, and, despite the best intentions of the Revival poets to depopularize haikai, their work actually ended up doing more to popularize it than anything achieved by the tentori poets.


Originally published in the Summer, 2005 issue of Japan Studies Review.