Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Summer 2007, vol 5 no 2

Taneda Sant˘ka: A Selection of His Haiku, with Commentary
by Sean Somers

sukkari hagete hotei wa waraitsuzuketeiru

                the Hotei statue:
                rubbed rather bald, but laughing still.

(SZK 238)


yoi o-minori no sayasaya o-tsuki-sama

                A great harvest,
                sighs, the moon content.

(SZK 574)


nonbiri shito suru kusa no me darake

                Roadside, taking a piss,
                soaking the scrub-grass.

(SZK 87)


fuyu ame no ishidan o noboru santa maria

                Winter's rain, I scale the
                            slick stone steps . . .
                Santa Maria.

(SZK 22)


tsuki no akarusa wa doko o bakugeki shite iru koto ka

                The moon so luminous —
                                       and showing where
                                       the bombs will fall?

(SZK 105)



General Introduction

As a man of complex yet converging pursuits, Sant˘ka presents variations of mood and personality which lead his English translators in varying directions as to understanding his distinctive poetic voice. The highlighted portraits reveal different aspects: a loveable ruffian, a tough-soled Zen wanderer, a contemplative drunkard. And so, Sant˘ka may one day approach Bash˘ as to the number of differing portraits commentators have fashioned according to their own conceived images.

Biographers do tend to agree that the catalyst of Sant˘ka's poetic maturation occurred near the end of 1924. While sauntering and stammering along a railway — Stevens suggests a possible suicide attempt, while ďyama describes a less dramatic wino's stroll — a taxi driver took pity on the apparently aimless Sant˘ka and drove him to a nearby Zen monastery for shelter. There, the abbot, Mochizuki-osh˘, showed no judgment toward the wayward poet; instead, he welcomed this forty-two year man — who was without a stable source of income and separated from his wife — and offered him a place of residence and study. The temporary night of shelter became a year-long period of repose. Under the osh˘'s tutelage, the spirit of Zen — through the forms of chores, chanting, and reading — took hold of Sant˘ka and the next year he was ordained. Sant˘ka had published unorthodox haiku previously, but unquestionably after this point a new flourishing in his style ensued, and with it those characteristic qualities which distinguish his verse. He innovated a style of free-form haiku method which was sporadic in meter yet spiritually rigorous in thought, naturalistic but aware of technological change, moralistic without becoming didactic.

Robed in simple monk's attire, begging bowl in hand, Sant˘ka set forth in the tradition of the poet-pilgrim, in the footsteps of such legends as Li Bai, Bash˘, and others. The fertile creativity of Sant˘ka's poetry was a combination of this conversion experience extended through extensive marathons of journey. All the while, he never gave up the drink, and the Augustinian confession never puts a shade of regret into his poetry. Lengthier biographies have imparted the many almost hagiographical anecdotes concerning his behaviour, stories of generosity and simplicity that have the makings of Zen parables. Sant˘ka was indeed devout, both to the dharma as well as to poetry. Murakami's maps demonstrate just how lengthy Sant˘ka's travels across Japan were: an equivalent would be if the entirety of On The Road had taken place on foot, with Wordsworth's mountain climbing thrown in for good measure.

It is possible to see in his verse the many inclinations of his character, often acting in harmony rather than competition. Thus, the chartered wanderer, vagabond, monk, and drunk, each partially describes the dedicated enterprise of his later life, of the poet as pilgrim in a rapidly modernizing society. Sant˘ka's unity of literary purpose is that, regardless of whatever worldly fame did or not come, he was, to paraphrase Blyth, a man who wrote the poetry of his life, as he surely lived the poetry that he wrote.

Commentary to the Poems

(1) Hotei is the laughing deity, one of the shichi fukujin, or seven lucky Gods. In this verse, Hotei implies a statue of the Hotei, one that might be found in many locations, as Japan is studded with religious figurines enshrined by natural settings. Exposed to the elements, the weather has eroded his stony scalp. Or perhaps Hotei could actually be about a human person, whose physical likeness is reminiscent of the robust divinity, and time has been plucking away at his hairline.

Sant˘ka intentionally will confuse what exactly is the point of view, as in who or what is the object/subject relationship of perception. For such a reason, English translators have struggled with Sant˘ka's famous poem,

Ushiro-sugata no shigurete yuku ka

which depicts the silhouette of a figure departing, even vanishing, into the mists with no explicit destination. Who is looking at whom and from where? Is Sant˘ka wondering about his own appearance, drenched with rain, as he departs, imagining how he must appear to others? Is this an anonymous figure, a third-person perspective of one looking and one departing? Sato emphasises that translations must account for this ambiguity in perception, that Sant˘ka is envisioning himself as an externalized witness, an element of parody in self-reflection. The hazy view from behind, of you or me or nobody in particular — to go even farther, it is entirely possible to translate this poem with no personalized subject at all: From behind, going: shape soaked in winter-rain. The figure becomes apparitional as the mists and clouds overtake the form. The Hotei representation is a Godform contained in the capriciousness of human feeling. Perhaps he is laughing at himself, in the mirror of his features, being looked upon while also looking outward.

Hagete describes both someone going bald, but also the process of erosion to natural surfaces. The verb hagate might also refer to bake no kawaga hageru: a Japanese idiom that means to 'peel off the skin' — the disguise or costume — and reveal the true person. Hotei, in his joviality, would sometimes take on the guise of the beautiful Miroku-Bosatsu, to play pranks on lecherous men and the like. His ruses were inevitably spoiled by an out-of-character remark or gesture.


(2) This poem is distinguished by the use of honorific forms — o-minori, and the particularly reverent o-tsuki-sama — appellations which seem all the more grand in this context of great fertility and abundance amidst the rice plains. "O-tsuki-sama" personifies the moon, combining the noble prefix with the highly polite suffix sama, reserved normally for humans but used in cases when astronomical or geological features are said to be imbued with a unique personality. This is something more personable and profound than the western sense of the man in the moon. Sant˘ka portrays a lunar being, the breath of the moon, as a soul viscerally experiencing the pleasure of the landscape. Sayasaya is Japanese onomatopoeia for such effects as the wind moving among the reads, susuki no ho, or the breeze across the rice field. Sayasaya here is syntactically positioned between the moon and the earth, connecting heaven and field, a sigh of pride from them both. This poem acts as an ode to shizen no kami-sama, the force of nature, the process of water-mountain-land-sunshine that becomes the reality of rice. As a beggar who literally depended on the charitable handouts of strangers, Sant˘ka had very good reasons to be grateful alongside the moon for a bountiful harvest. This poem expresses appreciation for not just result, but the process, and its many contributing stages. As Sant˘ka himself is part of this cycle, this poem expresses a feeling not unlike Dylan Thomas's The force that through the green fuse . . .


(3) A wandering beggar must heed the call of nature in the most humble of places. Sant˘ka renders this daily obligation into an unpretentious contribution to an ecological cycle, humorously demonstrating the concept of mottainai, of waste not/want not. Much as selected poem #2 introduced an agricultural portrait of fruitfulness and fecundity, of the elements of nature co-participating in the production of food for living beings, this poem comically shows Sant˘ka paying back the favour by contributing to the cycle, with his own urine, a devotional scatology.

One particular anecdote describes Sant˘ka using a single bowl of water to wash his rice, clean his bowl, scrub the floors, and the remainder poured out to water the front garden. A Japanese proverb says, ame futte ji katamaru: the rain falls and the land firms up — which is to say, yesterday's problems can become today's opportunities.

Weeds were a favourite subject of his. Sant˘ka may also here be making a punning allusion to an autobiographical novel by Natsume S˘seki entitled Michikusa [Grass by the Roadside] (1915).


(4) Nagasaki, a steep city stretched around a long harbour, is a place which has long been keen on Western influences, being one of the initial sites of Portuguese and Dutch trade and missionary efforts. A city of many churches, ďura Tenshud˘ is Japan's oldest Gothic-style, found in an area concentrated with Europeania, the Dutch Slopes district. A peculiar layout of ishidattami, cobblestones strikes an imitation of Amsterdam. Ishidan refers to the stone staircase, inside the church's precinct. Santa Maria is a little ambiguous, referring to the ďura Cathedral itself, as most translators indicate, but more likely one of the famous Marian statues nearby. Having been without an umbrella on occasion, Sant˘ka sympathizes with the wet sculpture. Sant˘ka was very fond of icons from all religions.

Consider this poem against Shiki's

kaki kueba kane ga narunari H˘ryű-ji

which is a classic of Japanese verse, perfect in form, balance, and subjects. From H˘ryű-ji, an enormous wooden temple in Nara, a bell intones . . . just as the poet bites into a crisp persimmon, one like those to be found in the famous H˘ryű-ji orchards. The taste and crispness of the kaki, at a particular seasonal ripeness, contrasts with, as well as compliments, the coldness of the bell's ringing.

Sant˘ka, instead, has arranged the sobriety of typical Japanese themes but combines with cultural irregularities, creating scenes reflective of change and transformation which have a distinct aesthetic in their contradictory mix of ethnic emblems. Here, the classical fuyu-ame falls on the apparitional Mary in the church's entryway. Sant˘ka was among the first poets to incorporate foreign objects and influences into haiku poetry — not merely as invasive presences, but new-found artifacts which have become incorporated into the changing Japanese landscape. For example, he wrote one of the first haiku about jazz, comparing the music to sutra chanting. This technique of juxtaposition, making striking combinations between the native and the imported, is now a much used effect in contemporary Japanese tanka and haiku.

There is also a Santa Maria Church in █beda, in Sant˘ka's home prefecture of Yamaguchi.


(5) Nagasaki's historical relation to foreign influences climaxed in the second atomic bomb. St. Mary's Cathedral [Urakami Tenshud˘], another prominent landmark in Nagasaki, was destroyed on 9 August, 1945; a replica was built in 1959.

While in this poem the site of the explosion is not made clear, this verse is a strong example of Sant˘ka's war-haiku, being neither elegiac nor nationalistic in its tone. Witnessing violence and destruction assume the stature of an event such as the annual cherry-blossom viewing had in classical verse. The moon is not personified in the honorific way as in selection #2: the remote sphere has the agency for potential sympathy, but is a blind bystander to the destruction itself, being aloof from the mechanisms of technology. The moon has none of the honour and inter-connectedness in the previous poem; it cannot co-operate in any meaningful way. Instead, the vague anonymity of delivery, target, and magnitude subdues this poem to a rhetorical question which presses upon any assumed sense of common humanity.


Sant˘ka Studies in English and Japanese

Translators have had particular appreciative emphases of Sant˘ka: for Stevens, it is Zen; and despite the decreasing regard for religiosity in haiku poetry, Sant˘ka is unquestionably one of the sincerest expositors of Buddhism in verse, and Stevens's commentary helpfully explains many of the poet's religious allusions. Abrams, one of the earliest expositors, describes a Sant˘ka who carries a begging bowl, but maintains the ways of a carefree vagrant: a Homeric journey only slightly concerned with an eventual Ithaca. More recently, Sato's collection is perhaps the most comprehensive portrait: a poet detached but enveloped by a society in a period of historical crises. The most recent translator, Burton Watson, gives much needed attention to Sant˘ka's diaries, which importantly document Sant˘ka's belief in walking as a form of meditation.

Sant˘ka, immersed as he was in a rapidly altered Japanese landscape, would increasingly offer a sense of environmental anxiety in his verse. Current scholarship has yet to address the crucial influence to both Snyder and Sakaki: the wandering mendicant haiku poet, Taneda Sant˘ka. Sant˘ka established a Buddhist model of eco-sensitive verse, based on poetic meditations. Sant˘ka's pilgrimages across Japan were as a love affair with the natural world, an environmental testimony. His haibun frequently address the virtue of mottainai — the avoidance of what is wasteful. Sant˘ka embodied the way of environmental conservation, as a necessary dimension of Buddhist practice. In echo of his example, both Snyder and Sakaki repeatedly state that sound environmental awareness is fostered through religious poetry. He would influence a new generation of free-style poets including Nanao Sakaki, also a wandering pacifist and ecological activist. Sakaki was friend and mentor to the likes of Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. Thus, Sant˘ka, as an eventual inspiration for Beat poetry, is an interesting site for research, as twentieth-century Japanese writing continues to be debated and considered by Westerners.

Japanese scholarship on Sant˘ka has been eclipsed by the larger critical heritage which covers the two of the major haiku poets of his time, Masaoka Shiki and Wakayama Bokusui. Nonetheless, several biographies and biographical commentaries of the poetry have been published recently. As a folk hero, Sant˘ka's haiku feature prominently in the advertisements of a Kyűshű sake brewery. Tamura Toru composed a piece for piano entitled Wanderings, based on the writings of Sant˘ka.

The most complete and authoritative edition of Sant˘ka's poetry is Sant˘ka zen kushű [SZK] (Shun'y˘d˘ 2002). All poems cited here are from this source. The same publisher has also released an 8 volume companion set entitled Sant˘ka zen nikki, a collection of his diaries, which offer illuminating reflections on the circumstances of the poems.

1-I have selected these poems on account of their varied subject matter, that they be suggestive and introductory in their representative choices. As such, I have not followed any particular sequences or arrangement from the Sant˘ka anthology.

Select Bibliography

In Japanese

Iwakawa Takashi. D˘ shiy˘ mo nai watakushi [There is Nothing Else I Can Do]. Tokyo: K˘dan-sha, 1989.

Kaneko T˘ta. Hy˘haku sannin: Issa, H˘sai, Sant˘ka. Tokyo: Iizuka-shoten, 1983.

Murakami Mamoru. H˘r˘ no haijin: Sant˘ka [The Wanderings of a Haiku Poet]. Tokyo: K˘dan-sha 1997.

           ---. Taneda Sant˘ka: ushirosugata no shigurete yukuka. Tokyo: Mineruva Shobo, 2006.

Onozawa Mamoru. Inochi hitori [Life Alone]. Tokyo: S˘gen-sha, 1975.

ďyama Sumita. Bash˘, Buson, Sant˘ka. Tokyo: Shun'y˘d˘-shoten, 1985.

           ---. Haijin Sant˘ka no sh˘gai [The Carreer of Haiku-poet Sant˘ka]. Tokyo: Yayoi Shob˘, 2002.


In English

Abrams, James. "Hail in the Begging Bowl: the Odyssey and Poetry of Sant˘ka." Monumenta Nipponica. 3: 269-302.

Blyth, R. H. A History of Haiku. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1952. 2 vols.

Corman, Cid, tr. Walking into the Wind: Poems by Sant˘ka. Tiburon-Belvedere, CA: Cadmus Editions, 1997.

Sato Hiroaki, tr. Santoka: Grass and Tree Cairn: Taneda Sant˘ka. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2002.

Stevens, John, tr. Mountain Tasting: Zen Haiku by Sant˘ka Taneda. Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1980.

Watson, Burton, tr. For All My Walking. New York: Columbia, 2003.

Sean Somers is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia, in the Department of English. He will be defending his dissertation in August 2007. His main areas of research include Akutagawa, amongst other Taish˘-era writers, who translated Yeats and Irish literature. He has a forthcoming article on the reception history of Lewis Carroll in Japan, which will be a part of a collection entitled The Spaces of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland (University of Iowa Press). He has also published and presented work on End˘ Shusaku, Kitamura T˘koku, and Nanao Sakaki.