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Summer 2006, vol 4 no 2

A column by George Swede

Who Really Wrote the First Western Haiku?

History is constantly being re-written and the history of the haiku in the West is no exception. For years, the first Western haiku have been attributed to several French poets who, on a visit to Japan, sometime between late 1890s and early 1900s (Fabre April 6, 2006), wrote a number of haiku and in 1905 published them in an anthology (Higginson, 1985). On his website Haiku Spirit, on a page titled "Western Haiku," Gilles Fabre has posted his translations into English (but without the original French) of some of the 72 haiku in Au fil de l'eau (Going with the flow). They are described as "the first Western haiku." According to Fabre (March 28, 2006) these three haiku were collaborations by Paul-Louis Couchoud, Albert Poncin and André Faure:

Sleeping town.
A prison warden passing.
A shutter opens.
  In the balmy evening
we look for an inn
Oh! these nasturtiums!
All proud, the little cat
having scared
the old cockerel.

Then in 2001, the historical record changed when Ty Hadman reported that Jose Juan Tablada had written a haiku sequence while visiting Yokahama in the autumn of 1900. It later appeared in a collection Musa japonesa (The Japanese Muse) in 1904-one year before Au fil de l'eau. Here is Hadman's (p. 1) translation of the last poem in the sequence (again, without the original language version):

A white peacock
opens its crystalline fan-

This new information, however, did not circulate enough to change the well-established notion of the French as the first pioneers-witness the Haiku Spirit site. No matter-a few weeks ago, while cruising on the Internet, I found evidence of a much earlier Western haiku poet than Tablada-a Dutchman, Hendrik Doeff, who between 1798 and 1817, worked at the trading post for the Dutch East India Company on Deshima (an artificial island in the harbor of Nagasaki). Doeff had taught himself Japanese (Trafford, 2006; Verhart, 2005) and, according to Max Verhart (April 1, 2006), published two haiku (in Latin letters) in Japanese publications. The first appeared in Misago-zushi, an 1818 anthology compiled by Oya Takuzo (1788-1850), who as a poet, went by the name of Shiyu (Verhart, April 1, 2006; and in a 2001 article by Henri Kerlen (cited by Verhart, April 2, 2006). The two haiku which follow were translated into Dutch by Frits Vos and then by Verhart into English (as cited by Verhart, April 1, 2006):

harukaze ya
amakoma hashiru
  Een lentebriesje-
her en der reppen ze zich:
de zeilscheepjes.
a spring breeze
hither and tither they hurry
the sailing dinghies

Information on where the second poem was published in Japan was not available, but it did appear in a 1963 book by Teramoto Kaiyū and also in the article by Kerlen (both cited by Verhart, April 2, 2006):

inazuma no
kaina wo karan
  Laat mij je armen
snel als bliksemschicten, lenen
als hoofdkussen op mijn reis.
lend me your arms
fast as thunderbolts,
for a pillow on my journey

Verhart suggests that this haiku probably refers to "a young lady he [Doeff] saw slicing tofu very fast (p.1)." Why has Doeff's place in Western haiku history been largely ignored? According to Verhart (2005), "he played no role in spreading haiku outside of its country of origin (p. 1)." Also in Doeff's autobiography, he makes no mention of having written any haiku (Verhart, April 2, 2006).

Since Doeff published at least one of his two haiku at least 82 years prior to those by Tablada, the issue seems finally to have been settled. Nevertheless, I have grown wary. One reason is that the Dutch were not the first Europeans to have contact with the Japanese. In 1542 a Portuguese merchant vessel bound for China was blown off course by a storm to the island of Kyushu. The Japanese welcomed the Portuguese and, of course, showed great interest in the muskets that were on board (The History of the Jesuits, 2006). Seven years later, in 1549, the famous Jesuit St. Francis Xavier and others arrived from India and stayed for over two years, forming several Christian communities (The History of the Jesuits, 2006; Christianity in Japan, 2006; St. Francis Xavier, 2006).

Like other missionary orders, the Jesuits became involved with the people of the diverse cultures they hoped to convert, learning their languages and customs, but unlike the others, they were trained to deal with ruling classes (History of the Jesuits, 2006). In the 1500s, the renga was the dominant form of poetry practiced by the nobility (Miner, 1979) and undoubtedly the Jesuits knew about these poetic forms from their frequent contacts with the elite and perhaps one or two of the priests got involved in a renga and even wrote a hokku (the first stanza which evolved into the haiku).

Such a notion is not far-fetched because the Jesuits had a number of recognized poets in their order from around the world: the Englishmen Robert Southwell (1561-1595) and Gerard Manley Hopkins; the Chinese Wu Li (1632-1718); the Brazilian Domingos Caldas-Barbosa (1740-1800) and nineteen Jesuit Latin poets of the 17th and 18th centuries (Jesuit Latin Poets, 2006). Obviously, the Jesuits did not discourage the writing of poetry. Perhaps one day in the Vatican archives, an intrepid scholar will unearth a manuscript with three-line poems that subsequent research confirms are hokku written by poet-priests a century or two prior to those by Doeff.


Christianity in Japan. Catholic Encyclopedia [Web site].
< > Accessed March 12, 2006.

Christians in Japan. History World [Web site].
< >. Accessed March 18, 2006.

Domingos Caldas-Barbosa. Catholic Encyclopedia [Web site].
< >. Accessed March 12, 2006.

Fabre, G. (Ed. & Trans.). Western Haiku. Haiku Spirit [Web site].
< >. Accessed March 2, 2006.

Fabre, G. (2006). Email correspondence, March 28th and April 3rd.

Gerard Manley Hopkins. Catholic Encyclopedia [Web site].
< >. Accessed March 12, 2006.

Hadman, T. (2001). (Ed. & Trans). "AHA poet of the month: José Juan Tablada (1871-1945)." AHA Poetry Web site.
< >. Accessed March 11, 2006.

Jesuit Latin Poets of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers [Web site].
< >. Accessed March 12, 2006.

Kaiyu, T. (1963). Namban: Jibutsu, jiku zakku. Tokyo: Nagasaki Hakkősho. (Information provided by Max Verhart, email correspondence, April 2, 2006)

Kerlen, H. (2001). Een Chinees, een Hollander en haiku (2). Vursteen, Autumn, 95-101.
(Information provided by Mar Verhart, email correspondence, April 2, 2006)

St. Francis Xavier. Catholic Encyclopedia [Web site].
< >. Accessed March 18, 2006.

Trafford Publishing: Recollections of Japan by Hendrik Doeff [Web site].
< >.

Venerable Robert Southwell. Catholic Encyclopedia [Web site].
< >. Accessed March 12, 2006.

Verhart, M. (2005). Haiku in the Netherlands and Flanders. Dewutche Haiku Gesellschafft [Web site].
< >. Accessed March 2, 2006.

Verhart, M. (2006). Email correspondence April 1st and April 2nd.

Wu Li, painter, poet and Jesuit, in the Church of the Early Qing. Asia News [Web site].
< >. Accessed March 12, 2006.