Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2006, vol 4 no 2

A column by Robin D. Gill

Which Side of the River?
or, How Japanese Vizualize a Famous Haiku by Buson


I Monsoon Rain, a River & Two Houses

samidare ya taika o mae ni ie ni ken    Buson (d.1783)
(fifth-month-rain:/! big-river[+obj.] before-at house/s two[+counter])

Monsoon rain!
Facing the swollen river,
two houses.

I replaced the "big/large" with "swollen." The "monsoon rain" is written "fifth-month-rain." Today, that suggests late Spring, but the fifth-month used to be early-mid-summer: we are talking about the monsoon.

A Japanese website that suggests foreigners who cannot pronounce Japanese (which is to say, people who have not mastered the vowels of romance languages, for Japanese is more or less the same) might read this ku as "Some darling yeah, tiger on my knee, year nickel," and explains, with the help of Nifty (a company) on-line translation: "The river which early summer rain fell and continued and rose is flowing. Two houses build in front of the big river. It is the spectacle pushed at any moment." A glimpse at the original Japanese shows the last sentence means that there is a danger lest the houses be carried off at any moment.

This reading of the poem is fairly standard. Many critics have compared Buson's ku to Bashô's famous Mogamigawa ku, starting the same way with the monsoon rain, where the river which has gathered all that rain is cool (the best version for the ku as a gift to a host, as nothing is more highly valued than coolness in mid-summer) or fast (better observation-wise). If Bashô's is panoramic if not cosmic, Buson's is detailed and realistic. Depending on the reviewer, the two - and neither one nor three - houses are celebrated as just perfect, reflecting the fact that Buson was a talented painter, or (more rarely), conversely, are deemed so specific that the ku seems pushed if not artificial.

If the reader would like to see other translations of Buson's ku, there are any number out there. Since the summer volume of Blyth's Haiku is lost in my room (since the hurricanes will return and I rent a place with no shutters, much remains in boxes until I can escape), I can only offer two here: Yuki Sawa and Edith M. Shiffert's "Early summer rain -- / facing toward the big river, / houses, two of them" (1978); and Robert Hass's "Early summer rain -- / houses facing the river, / two of them" (1994). My only observation on the translations is that the original had an adjective: "before (the big river)," but the grammatical indicator "o" suggests a verb. All four of us (and I wrote my translation before checking the others) used the English verb "to face," which makes "before" implicit. I bet Blyth did, too.

We are not going to discuss the meaning of the ku (as we did for Chiyo's moon-snore ku last fall) anymore. I am interested in something different: what people see when they read the ku. In early 1998, I made a survey to find out just that in Japan. In order that you will enjoy reading the results of that survey, I want you to stop for a minute now and focus on the scene depicted by Buson. If you have pen and paper nearby, you might even sketch it. If the scene you sketch is not what comes to the eye of the poet, please include an x showing Buson's position.



In order to increase your enjoyment of this article, I beg you:

Please do not read ahead!

Stop now, with Part I. Do not proceed until you have clearly imagined the scene described by Buson’s famous ku. Pay close attention to the position of the houses and the river, so you will be conscious of your own mind’s eye before being introduced to others.

ps. The line through the W has nothing to do with this article; it is political voodoo. If MS Word has a way to put a diagonal line through a letter, I want to know it!


II Train, Haiku Picture Book, Barely Old Man and Me

Riding in a car, one can sometimes see strange and interesting sights, such as the bicycle on the expressway I saw recently in Miami. In a car it is dangerous, but in a train it is usually amusing. There was the man with a four or five foot rocket in the subway in London 2000. There was another man wearing spikes and a studded collar, in the same on a different day, who squatted with a foot on each arm pad. No one sat within ten feet of him -- like Japanese, London folk tend to be timid -- so I walked over and asked him a question: Did you know that in Japan, this is how people go to the toilet? His scowl quickly disappeared and we laughed together.

In Japan, returning from an award ceremony (not mine: my only reward of any type to date is a red blossom dropped by a Parrot from a Kapok tree, which I caught and put in my hatband) one evening - after having a few drinks - I showed a family who happened to sit next to and across from me one of my many inventions that was scribbled into my small notepad for my One-string experiment. It was a glove with towel-like fabric which I wore on one hand. My fingers stuck through my wet hair. The idea was to dry hair faster, encouraging people who use hair-dryers (I never have had one) to throw them away, saving energy and the peace of a house in the morning. Not having time to pursue the invention myself, I suggested to the family to do it themselves -- for in Japan, at that time (I do not know about now), it cost practically nothing to apply for a patent. And, I suggested, you could do it as a family, for any number of names can be put on an application. Later, some day, if I succeeded in my endeavors, we might meet again and . . . In 2000, in London, when I checked on another patent application I had made, I saw they had actually done it, applied! Because an application must be followed up by a search and exam to finalize the patent within seven or eight years (I forget the exact date), and that costs a lot, by now, the patent should be dying, like mine already did, unless they found corporate backing.

Another night on a train, I recall equally well or even better, for I had drunk less. After finding much to amuse me in one book of illustrated haiku intended for children, (*1) I checked out another from the library. I was reading it in the train when I came across Buson's "houses, two" ku and was surprised to find the picture very different from the one in my head. Was the artist odd, or was I? "Sumimasen," I said, when the 50 or 60 year-old sarariman, which is to say white-collar worker, seated next to me paused in his newspaper reading, "what do you think of this illustration of Buson's ku?" After he got a good look at it, he told me that it looked fine to him and that Buson, being known for his fine composition, every Japanese knew that this was exactly how it should look. While I agreed that Buson was a good artist, I also knew that there was more than one way to compose the picture and that this made the man's reply to me illogical. I also knew that I had asked him for his opinion and it would not be polite to argue. So I thanked him and resolved to ask more people the same question, this time, without showing them the picture. That is, I had them read the ku and then sketch what they saw. After only a handful of people -- also captured on the train -- I knew that not all Japanese saw alike and some even saw what I saw.


III The University of Tokyo (Komaba) Cafeteria Survey

When I read Buson's ku, I found myself standing slightly behind and off to one side of two houses, with the river flowing in front of them. With the rain and whatnot, I could barely see across the river! While I did not feel the homes were in danger, I did hear the river eddies sucking and the ground seemed to tremble. The illustration the man was so sure of in the children's book had the two houses sitting on the far-bank of the river. I had long wanted to survey university students about their understanding of and feelings for haiku and senryu anyway, and now decided to do it, adding a request to draw this ku in order that I could find out exactly what was what. I told myself that it mattered because the any-Japanese-would-see-that attitude was bad (I wrote books against national stereotypes [*2]) and I thought visual proof of its falsity would be nice to have. I also thought that it would help me to think about the nature of this hyper-short poetry called haiku.

At Georgetown University 1971 or so, I did my own surveys for a statistics course and learned that students from Illinois earned about three times as much per hour as I had in Florida. Student aid failed to take this into account, and that was one reason I worked up to 52 hrs/wk in the cafeteria, which was the place I handed out the surveys, which I could pick up when I bussed trays. Having learned in this way that a cafeteria is a fine place to get people to fill in surveys (an 80-90% completion rate!), I decided to try the same at the cafeteria at Komaba campus of the University of Tokyo where I often ate on my way to work for a publisher. Unlike Georgetown, where I found glasses stuck under tables with butter and a firecracker that was lit by a smoldering cigarette (clever, huh!), the worst behavior encountered at Todai, as the university is called, were some silly answers. After throwing out some such, I was left with a hundred surveys, which earlier experience taught me would be very convenient when calculating percentages.

62 of the respondents drew two houses on the far side of the river.
2 drew three houses on the far side of the river. In one case, a house was set back.
1 drew one house on the far side of the river, with its reflection.
30 drew the houses on this side, i.e., the foreground, of the river.
3 drew one house on each side of the river.
1 drew two houses on a small island within the river
1 drew a blank but the rest of the survey was well filled in.

So, the artist of the children's book and the man in the train did have the majority viewpoint, but I was far from alone. Since two respondents among the 65% who drew the houses on the far side of the river also drew the viewing subject on that side, it is safe to say that at 30~32% of Japanese, or at least elite university students, saw it my way. Later, I was to find another children's book, one with black and white pen-drawings of far better taste, which had it almost exactly as I imagined it!

There were other unexpected delights incidental to this, my first survey with a sketch. I had not thought much of the angle of the river. As it turns out, fully 50% of the students had the right side of the river higher than the left, while 29% had the river level (horizontal) and only 15% had the left side higher. I knew that faces are generally drawn facing left, but I had not expected this much handedness in rivers, and unfortunately did not include questions about handedness, eye-dominance, etc. The neighborhood girl I paid (at the time I had a salary, now I cannot even pay myself) to add these things up did not calculate the percentage of straight rivers to curved ones for I did not ask her - it is hard to tell where curves and straight lines part way. But I would say that most are straight as the river is large, but twenty or thirty percent are curved.

I was also impressed with the style exhibited in not a few sketches. The way homes, water current, rain and trees were depicted. If you are curious, go here for twenty examples (It cost me four hours of work to do it with my weird scanner arrangement, so you better look!). [ ]


IV Image and Purity

The survey reminds me that my study of haiku to date has been almost entirely concept rather than image-centered. At the time I did the survey, I had barely started my study of haiku and it is embarrassing to think of how little thought I have given to this matter since. I can joke and blame it on my spending excessive time with the sea cucumber, a creature with eyes so rudimentary they can only barely "see" light and dark; but that would not work, for the sea cucumber also has not even a ganglia, and without a conspiracy or gang of nerve-cells, we have no brain, and without that, precious little conceptualizing can go on.

It goes without saying that many if not most haiku conjure up some image. Perhaps by the time these essays are ready to be compiled into a book I will be able to gather together a selection of various types of images. At this time, all I can say is that, in the course of my work translating, most of my time spent imagining scenes is spent under duress, for the reason I must do so is that the original is ambiguous as to the identity of the subject (poet, third-person or anyone) and number of objects. Since Japanese generally does not indicate these things while English tends to insist upon them, the translator is forced to choose and in order to do so, visualizing is one aid.

If one asks Japanese about these ku, one often finds they, too, do not know. This is not because they lack curiosity but because, in Japanese, they do not need to know. But those who say they do know often seem like that man in the train, a bit too sure of themselves (odd, for Japanese are more commonly proud about not being sure of themselves -- a good trait shared with most scientists, I might add), and I would like to test this comprehension in the future using two types of surveys, one asking questions about the interpretation and the other asking for a sketch that would reveal it, to see if the results differ. But let us go back to the "slobberal" ku by Teitoku introduced in my first H.I.C. article (Pissing on the New Year: Winter-Spring 2004-5) for a moment, as that provides the best example of one problem with images, or rather our creation of images, that has been overlooked.

Many critics hate the ku that finds cow slobber in dripping icicles on the Year of the Ox. They say the ku has no heart, as it is a mere play upon a nominal thing, the name of the Year. I argue that the ku is charming if you are delighted to discover synchronicity, and an additional treat if you realize it chuckles at older waka with their teardrop icicles likewise melting at the coming of spring; but, as far as I know, I am the only person to have ever stood up for this ku! Why? Is it not possible that people who are less conceptual than Teitoku or yours truly get hung up on the image of a cow standing there with a strand or two of slobber hanging to the ground?

I only see a flitting image of the drool. I do not allow it to take over the ku. Instead, I imagine Teitoku noticing the icicle dripping on New Year's of the Year of the Cow and saying Eureka! So I say that Bashô was wrong. Teitoku committed no sin. The sin is in the mind's eye of those who get fixated on the cow slobber as an image. I do not know the vocabulary of semiotics, but, to me, this would be an example of the misplaced concrete, if cow slobber can be so called. (More on Year-Animal-centered haiku and Teitoku's infamous ku may be found my LYNX article of the same year.)

This disconcerting image has a parallel in disconcerting background information, a related problem brought out most forcefully by the great Korean essayist Lee Oh Young (I O'ryon), in respect to Issa's how-hot! ku featuring a red pinwheel, where he felt the knowledge that this pinwheel was beloved by Issa's recently deceased daughter destroyed the purity of the ku for him. (*3) I suppose that there are two issues here. One is whether or not a haiku should be appreciated as more than just an image, by which I mean a bare perception (landscape, soundscape, smellscape, touchscape). Personally, I think they should. The other, is whether information must be thought of as polluting or overpowering a ku or not.

In my case, the answer is clearly no. Additional knowledge allows me to feel a ku on a different level, one similar to that of tasting a wine with a complex bouquet - though, as a poor man, I seldom enjoy that opportunity -- while I can still enjoy the ku as pure image when I wish to. But, I cannot speak for others. For some, information may indeed "ruin" the ku in question. Gazing upon that red pinwheel through the dazed eyes of a grieving father they are mesmerized and zoom in until it is lost and they are lost. Or, worse yet, they cannot shake off the ghost of little Sato sitting behind that pinwheel.

But, why should that detract from the haiku? I apologize, for it is clear that I cannot shake my bias, based on the way my mind works. If I am combative on this matter, it is because of what has not been said by critics. I have yet to see criticism of the information always found accompanying Bashô's ku about a variety of thoughts/memories experienced under a blossoming cherry, where we learn he is revisiting a location where he viewed blossoms with his Lord and friend so-and-so who died twenty or so years earlier. If the principle of pure haiku and its corollary of no additional information is adhered to, the criticism must go right back to the "Saint" Bashô.

This is a subject deserving of more study. Doubtless, it has been studied, too. I do little reading about haiku theory, and would welcome a heads-up from readers on this subject. I vaguely recall googling across an analysis of types of images in haiku, perhaps by Richard Gilbert (if he hasn't done it, I'm sure he will) but recall little more.


V Image and Perspective

Sleeping on the above, I recalled that when I first studied haiku seriously by reading all of Issa's journals from start to finish I occasionally drew pictures in the book. Most are of my cats, but every now and then I drew Issa's ku; and, this being the summer issue of Simply Haiku, I will take up one about the summer moon. To my mind, Issa's best summer moon ku was written when he was still a lowly clerk for other poets:

natsu no tsuki akichi ni sawagu hito no koe
(summer-moon clear-land-on/in clamoring people'/s' voices)

The summer moon: / in empty lots the voices / of excited men.
The summer moon: / what a clamor of voices / in the clearing!
Men agog: / in the clearings, voices - / the summer moon!

At first, I saw this as a view from the sky - an imagined image - of people all over Japan outside of their hot houses enjoying the cool air and the moon. Eventually, I came to settle on Issa's hearing such people at a clearing near his flat. I mostly imagined them braving mosquitoes, to my mind, implied by the "clamor" which also has the connotation of "swarming." Though the clearing would help, as mosquitoes prefer thickets even at night, I felt part of the noise was people shouting "ouch!" On second reading, I got poetic and now prefer to think of people who have just noticed the moon rise and are astounded by its large size and reddish hue due to volcanic ash or mosquito smudge. Yet, another side of me imagines people out there drinking the night away as Issa gamely sticks to his books. Some day, I want to survey Japanese familiar with Issa's time as to their reading of the ku. At this point, all I can be sure of is that the sawagu or "clamor" is what differentiates this moon from the mid-Autumn moon which was viewed with great respect and even veneration (The most magical picture of moon-viewing I know of is a simple sketch you may find at the yet underdeveloped haiku page of, where it is used as the page background. One day, I will use it as the cover of a book on moon-viewing. See it here: ).

This was not, however, the ku I drew, for as I have just explained, I am not sure how to read it and do not wish to commit. I only gave it because to jump right into the next ku, the one I drew, might make me seem too salacious.

nemushiro ya shiri o makura ni natsu no tsuki     issa
(sleeping-mat: -- buttock[obj.] pillow-as summer-moon)

my mat, my bed
with her ass for a pillow
the summer moon

This was written by a happily married Issa in his late 50's. I recall shouting out when coming to it and frightening my cats. This type of ku is why one must read entire collections of a poet's work rather than selections. Summer is about heat and the cool we seek as a result of it. Japanese are not noted for their derrieres, but Issa had a number of buttock-noting ku (mostly the rumps of butt-proud men and horses, but also the ass-print left by a beauty who left a blossom-viewing). That, and the high frequency of intercourse he had with his wife (Issa sometimes recorded things), tells me that Kiku had meat on her bones, if I may borrow an expression from the part of Usania that appreciates such things. (*4) Five times a night is not bad for a man in his fifties (granted, Issa only records that once), and suggests she was irresistible. Unlike solid muscle, which, giving off heat, is best not touched or even approached on a hot and humid summer, a rump such as I imagine on Kiku, has a thick layer of fat and tends to be as cool as a dog's nose.(*5) Issa had his old white-haired head resting upon a soft air-conditioner. Talk about heaven! Here is my picture:

drawing (79K)

While Issa does mention his loincloth in some ku, I now see him in a light robe or naked inside of a mosquito net. For the whole page of the book, please check this link. ('s_ass.htm )


My translations, with that picture, though done in my forties, can only be called juvenilia:

My head on her butt / I lie in bed looking up / at the summer moon
A butt for a pillow / i look out the window / at the summer moon
Lying bare / my head upon her derriere / the summer moon
[A Dog Days Night ] My pillow / her derriere / Looking at the moon / up there
Her butt my pillow / out the open window / summer moon

I am afraid I simply ignored the inconvenient straw mat in all the translations, most of which are AAB rhyme schemes. Or, to put it differently, I sacrificed that detail to have the freedom to create a rhyme or add something that supported the image I held: a window. Not yet ready to pay close attention to all of the ku, I neglected to ask myself what the mildly exclamatory cutting syllabet "ya" meant for that straw mat. Today, with greater experience in reading haiku, I have learned to slow down and try to figure out such things. Here is the mat explanation: In Japan, like the Southeast coast of the USA, summer nights often do not cool down. Without an electric fan, a futon would heat up too fast to allow good sleep, so the mat is an indirect indication of the temperature. Because, even with some help from the tatami mat, home of a million fleas, below, a mat is pretty hard for a bed, it also provides a fine foil for that soft "pillow." A good reader can feel both the hard mat below his back and the soft rump under his head while not losing sight of that moon.

More important, respecting the concern of this article, i.e. point of view, I confess to embarrassment at not depicting Issa, a short-necked round-headed guy, but a thin guy with whiskers . . . me! Was I, all alone in my apartment, jealous of Issa? I do not recall, but I can say that I cannot read Issa's ku without recalling an evening with an amply-rumped lover one summer over thirty years ago! So, we have the overlay of images even without obtaining information from the poet. It just happens. But, that is not why the ku excites me in the context of this article. It stimulates my curiosity because reading it, I wonder how - in what way - other readers imagine it. The fact I made Issa look like me means less than the fact that I drew the picture from the elevated bird's-eye view of the omniscient reader-god. After ten years, I am pretty sure I felt that soft rump under my head, but I cannot recall if I saw the moon from Issa's eye. I am curious whether or not other readers did, and whether or not there is an order to understanding a poem - I suspect there is as it bears upon our manner of perception - where we first paint a picture of the entire scene and, then, see through the eyes of the poet.

And, I wonder, further, how many women, identifying with the pillow, recalled or imagined a head resting on their ass (on your ass, if you are a woman) rather than resting their/your head on someone else's ass. And I wonder what effect, if any, this may have had whether or not the moon was imagined. Could some women think of the poet viewing the moon but not see it themselves, except in-so-far as it was visible as light upon the straw mat visible inches from their eyes?

These questions also make me uncomfortable with the translation. It is possible that Japanese readers would split differently between men and women than my English readers because no clear "my" is found in the original and, theoretically, at least, one could even argue that the poet's buttock was the pillow. Or, because the word shiri can sometimes include the sides of the rump between the hip and thigh, some might imagine Kiku sleeping on her side facing away from the moon and its light, rather than prone, as I imagined. Some day, if I return to Japan, this will be one of the first ku I'll ask students to draw. (If you have not viewed the drawings of Buson's ku, please do, for it will give a hint at the diversity of readings possible for Issa's ku as well.)


Caveat: Until I can survey a large number of Japanese who are experts in the literature and life of past centuries, I cannot know how much of the variety found in the images of my respondents is based on the ambiguity intrinsic to a short literary form and how much is due to sheer ignorance. This is also true for all of my translations.



*1. Amusing Children's Haiku. I was most amused to find a ku by Issa attributed to a third-year middle-school student in an illustrated collection of children's haiku. That ku (kangetsu ya kuitsukisouna onigawara) has a picture of a frightened moon next to a gruff-looking demon-faced tile at the end of a roof's ridgepole saying, "Hey, I'm not a senbei (a type of thick crisp cracker)!" In other words, the moon is saying "So don't bite me!" I showed it to the librarian in charge and said "Did you know this is really by Issa?" And the librarian replied, "Interesting. That makes sense. Issa was a lot like a child, always thinking of food." After that, I had to explain that the ku had nothing to do with food, that the tile-devil did indeed seem to have teeth sharp enough to bite us or anyone, but that was because of the frightingly cold light of the winter moon in which it was reflected. Issa, who feared the cold, evidently noted that the clear days and nights when the moon was most likely to be visible were cold and hence attributed it to the moon. I thought the editor of the book (head of a huge organization that had Issa festivals and whatnot) was doing this as a joke to see if anyone noticed; but, he responded to my question by admitting that, after reading my letter, he checked a large collection of Issa's poetry and learned that it was indeed Issa's ku and was ashamed about what happened. Why ashamed? He was ashamed because the cold moon as victim made little sense. Any old moon would have served as food for a tile. And, if he had managed to ascertain the meaning of the ku, some more thought would have told him that it was very unlikely that a young student would have managed to create a ku using the winter moon as a winter word (something demanded because the winter moon was set off by a cutting character emphasizing it) in this way. Let me confess that I included a poor autumn equinox ku of my own in the letter, and after apologizing, the editor wrote a second page cautioning me about forcing a season word. At the time, I knew Issa far better than I knew haiku. I mention no names because I have no desire to embarrass anyone.

*2. Anti-stereotype books. Information about the books may be found in the about robin d. gill page at All are in Japanese except for Orientalism and Occidentalism, which is described elsewhere at the site.

*3. I O'ryon's book. I forget the exact title (lost in my apartment), but it had something to do with Bashô's famous frog ku. I O'ryon argued that a singular frog would make the poem a mere copy-cat of plenty of Chinese poems where single-event noises enhanced silence, so it has to be about something happening many times.

*4. Embonpoint (*1) Kiku? I am not alone in my impression of Issa. The prolific novelist Tanabe Seiko writes that she preferred buxom women in her huge novel Hinekureta Issa (warped issa). (*1) Unfamiliar with this adjective? Read Peter Pan. That is how Tinkerbelle is described.

*5. Dog's nose? I know that is an odd word to describe a pretty ass, but I had dog-nose on the mind today. Look at the following words from an essay (Josh Billings' splendid defense of Fashun) I read while sitting on my own this morning:

A grate menny folks ced that whoops [hoops] was a failure, but tha held their own, and grew nisely; tha are realy evra thing in a hot da [day]. I shud like tu set in one thru Juli and August; a feller wud be as cool as a dog's nose in a wire muzzel.

These words will eventually end up in a book written with the intention of once and for all ending the tyranny of bifurcated clothing (males have no choice) called Redressing the World. If a large publisher would give me a million dollar advance, I'll call a time-out on my haiku for a few years, finish that book (started over thirty years ago) and start a revolution. If you love the odd quotation, you will enjoy my 740-page Topsy-turvy 1585, typos and all!

About robin d. gill. The Fifth Season, with 2000 old ku about the New Year and the Cherry Blossom Epiphany, with 5,000 old ku about cherry-blossom viewing will (finally) be published this year, hurricanes and empty pockets allowing. As was the case with Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! and Fly-ku! the original Japanese, pronunciation, gloss and multiple translations are included.