Matsu Bashō’s Summer Haiku

Translated by Steven J. Willett

Utagawa Hiroshige ( 歌川広重) 797 ~ 12 October 1858), was a Japanese ukiyo-e artist, considered the last great master of that tradition. His best known collection of block prints in horizontal format is One Hundred Famous Views of Edo and in vertical format The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaidō. This print depicts a sudden summer rainstorm at Shōno (庄野) in print No. 46 from The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaidō.

Here in my hometown of Hamamatsu City our rainy season or tsuyu (梅雨) has started a bit early and will continue for three weeks. The typical rainy season runs variously between May and July in different regions of Japan. I’ve included this print because I’m now enjoying constant rain, fog, sweeping clouds and occasional lightning before it all ends and the oppressively humid summer heat closes down over us. By then, however, my wife and I will be at our home in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Translation note: It’s very difficult to translate haiku into any language, but I’ve used a somewhat simplified and occasionally non-syntactical English to convey haiku’s endless ambience. The Japanese is given in linear form with a capital letter beginning each ‘central’ (if I can use that incorrect term) section of seven syllables. Slashes mark the three verbal, really speaking, stages of the haiku. At our old farmhouse in the mountains of Haruno, I’ve experienced much of the haiku in this collection. The area is still full of villages and dedicated to farming, principally green tea, plumbs, mikan (mandarin oranges) and wasabi among others. Haiku uses simple language like “water’s sound” or “moon mountain,” so beware of misleading simplicity.

旅人の 心にも似よ 椎の花
 Tabibito no/ Kokoro nimo niyo/ Shii no hana

 The mind of a traveler
    beech flowers

 清滝の 水汲ませてや ところてん
 Kiyotaki no/ Mizu kumasete ya/ Tokoroten

 From clean waterfalls
  ladling up water!
Note: Tokoroten is a gelatinous edible slime for use in food preparation.

 馬ぼくぼく 我を絵に見る 夏野かな
 Uma bokuboku/ Ware wo e ni miru/ Natsuno kana

 The horse trumps
  I see myself in picture
   summer fields

 紫陽花や 藪を小庭の 別座敷
 Ajisai ya/ Yabu wo koniwa no/ Betsu-zashiki

   In a thicket, a little garden’s
     detached room
Note: A separate tatami room has a thicket with hydrangea serving for a rustic garden. 

 瓜作る 君があれなと 夕涼み
 Uri tsukuru/ Kimi ga arena to/ Yusuzumi

  Growing a gourd
   wish you were here
    cool evening
Note: I translated 君 (kimi), a second person intimate pronoun, with ‘you’ because our language has lost thee and thou. 

 啄木鳥も 庵はやぶらず 夏木立
 Kitsutsuki mo/ Iori ha yaburazu/ Natsu-kodachi

 Even the woodpecker
  couldn’t crack the hut
   in summer grove
Note: The 庵 (iori) is a bamboo hut that serves as a hermitage for prayer or meditation. 

 己が火を 木々に蛍や 花の宿
 Onoga hi wo/ Kigi ni hotaru ya/ Hana no yado

 Their own flame
  in the forest fireflies!
    Flowers around the house.

 五月雨に 鳰の浮巣を 見にゆかん
 Samidare ni/ Nio no ukisu wo/ Mini yukan

 In early summer rain
  grebe’s floating nest
    I oversee 

 雲の峰 いくつ崩れて 月の山
 Kumo no mine/ Ikutsu kuzurete/ Tsuki no yama

 Cloud summits
  always crumbling:
    moon mountain

 どんみりと 樗や雨の 花曇り
 Donmiri to/ Ouchi ya ame no/ Hana-gumori

 Thick and dull
  chinaberries in rain
   cloudy flowers
Note: 樗 (ouchi) is chinaberry or Japanese bead tree (Melia azedarach)

 花あやめ 一夜に枯れし 求馬哉
 Hana-ayame/ Ichiya ni kareshi/ Motome kana

 Iris flowers
  all withered in one night: 
Note: Yoshioka Motome(吉岡求馬) was a kabuki actor in the Edo Period. Just before the day of his young death, Basho viewed the play.

 子供等よ 昼顔咲きぬ 瓜剥かん
 Kodomo-ra yo/ Hirugao sakinu/ Uri mukan

 Hey, you kids!
  bindweeds are blooming
   let’s peel gourds
Note: 昼顔 (hirugao) is Japanese bindweed (Calystegia japonica). You can see pictures of bindweed flowers here:

 暑き日を 海に入れたり 最上川
 Atsuki hi wo/ Umi ni iretari/ Mogamigawa

 The hot sun
  set into the sea
    by Mogami River

 五月雨を あつめてはやし 最上川
 Samidare wo/ Atsumete Hayashi/ Mogamigawa

 The early summer rains
  falling together, swift
    the Mogami River

 川風や 薄柿着たる 夕涼み
 Kawakaze ya/ Usukaki kitaru/ Yusuzumi

 River breeze!
  Wearing light brown
   the cool evening

 楽しさや 青田に涼む 水の音
 Tanoshisa ya/ Aota ni suzumu/ Mizu no oto

 How delightful!
  Cooling in the green paddy
   water’s sound

 団扇もて あふがん人の うしろむき
 Uchiwa mote/ Aogan hito no/ Ushiro-muki

 Holding the fan
  someone whips
   from the back

 南無ほとけ  草の台も  涼しかれ
 Namu-hotoke/ Kusa no dai mo/ Suzusi kare

 The Buddha statue
  on an old stand also
   cools himself
Note: 南無 (namu) refers to 南無阿弥陀仏 (Namu Amida Butsu). ほとけ (hotoke) is an old word for an image or statue. 
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11 Responses to Matsu Bashō’s Summer Haiku

  1. sova says:

    Not a comment but a note of thanks: both Mr. Willet and Mr. Lang are contributing to the currently grossly discounted dimensions of humanity. Former by bringing forth thoughts and contents of unknown spiritual values to those surrounded by ever deteriorating mechanisms of social living; latter by maintaining this platform for nowadays rarely available debate and consideration of issues hidden or forbidden.
    Thank you both indeed!

    • akaPatience says:

      Hear hear!!! In a calming, artistic way, the poetry posted here is a lovely counterpoint to the political topics discussed.

      Mr. Willett is apparently fluent in several languages. How many??? Astounding!

      I’ve hiked extensively in the Mt. Hood region of Oregon (east of the Willamette Valley) while staying at the Timberline Lodge. I don’t know if it still does, but it used to offer a delicious salmon hash for breakfast. Afterwards, we’d walk right out of the door of the lodge onto glorious trails. Truly memorable. The Cascades and surrounding areas are favorite destinations.

      • Steven J. Willett says:

        Due to wide reading in grade school–The Brothers Karamazov at 12–I keenly wanted to learn foreign languages. I started with German at 13, Greek and Italian at 16, Latin and French at 18 and continued to develop them through grad school and university teaching. I later added Japanese when my wife and I moved permanently to Japan. The next was Russian in St. Petersburg, my favorite city in the world, with a fellowship from the Governor of Shizuoka Prefecture. Just learning a foreign language is nothing, however, if one does not continuously read widely in its great heritage. To this day I constantly explore literary works in the languages I’ve learned. I have friends who started Greek, mastered it a bit, but then didn’t do what I did at that stage: read Xenophon’s Anabasis, the Iliad, many of Plato’s dialogues and all the comedies of Aristophanes in the best critical editions (three times to date). And that was just the beginning. We should teach our kids and grandkids that the work of learning a foreign language is just a prepayment for the vast emotional and aesthetic return of what awaits them in its literature. Over my later years I’ve added some Sanskrit and promised myself Arabic next.

        And to akaPatience on Oregon, it’s a wonderful place to hike. When I was working on my Classics MA at the University of Oregon, I hiked into the nearby mountains and enjoyed watching the beavers at work. When I arrived, they all flapped into the river, but as I sat quietly they slowly emerged and got to work. Now the forests are slashed and the beavers long gone.

    • Steven J. Willett says:

      Thank you very much, soba, for your comments on Pat and myself. He’s given me a platform to post translations from a wide range of poets whose work is not well known now due to the corruption and decline of US education since the 1970s. When I grew up in the 40s and 50s it was still easy to learn foreign languages like German, French, Italian, Greek and Latin in high school or even earlier in private schools. That world’s long gone. One good development, however, is the growth of Latin education, especially in the Southern states where it has a long history.

      • sova says:

        That was a heartfelt immediate reaction but it followed months of following you wonderful exposing of what we as species lack and where should we look for it! Mr. Lang being that rare but essential treasure of objectivity is definitively a hero – I do wonder for how long we’ll be left to drink from this unpolluted spring..
        Reading in 4 languages but lacking the layer of daily living where one can apply the acquired knowledge is what makes this platform and your contribution to it a gift from heaven for me.
        But for us it’s given
        Never to rest on a foothold,
        Indeed thank you both again – please endure!!

  2. scott s. says:

    I don’t know anything about Japanese, but do have an interest in typography. I take it mixing of Kanji and Hiragana is significant to the intended meaning?

    • Steven J. Willett says:

      Japanese kanji have both Chinese pronunciations (onyomi) and Japanese pronunciations (kunyomi) or both. It’s absolutely necessary to know all the pronunciations to speak, understand and write the language in a given semantic context of usage. Hiragana were derived from simplified kanji and are used to write grammatical inflections. Japanese has a highly inflected verb, adjective, adverb and pronominal system in a complex syntax. Elementary schools grades 1~6 devote nearly two-thirds of curriculum time to learning the basic kanji with their onyomi and kunyomi along with reading practice and calligraphy. For a foreigner, learning kanji is a big–to some terrifying–task. I used the huge three-volume edition of Anthony Alfonso’s The Japanese Writing System: A Structural Approach (Tokyo, 1975) to master the 2,136 kanji with onyomi/kunyomi that the government mandates as the minimum necessary for literacy. From then on, reading and reading. Please note the Japanese literacy rate from age 15 and above: 99% by government statistics. Now consider the US. Based on he 2012 edition of the PIAAC, or Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, here are the rates ages 16~65: 4% are nonliterate; 14% are below basic literacy; 34% have basic literacy; 36% have intermediate literacy; 12% have proficient literacy. The US is essentially illiterate and getting even more illiterate as the school system continues its decline.

  3. Stephanie says:

    “Moon mountain” ; the clouds crumble at the mountain of death (?)

    I too was curious about the typography.

    Thank you for these, Mr. Willett. So beautiful.

  4. Barbara Ann says:

    Professor Willett

    I profess to being utterly flummoxed by the art form and sensory experience that is Haiku. To my uncultured Western eye they read as juxtaposed simple phrases, some of which appear to have come from a random word generator. The impression of “misleading simplicity” is overwhelming.

    Could I trouble you to describe how a proper reading of “water’s sound” or “moon mountain” yields complexity, for example? Must one be familiar with the context in which each was written – with Bashō’s travels in this selection perhaps?

    Or does one need to experience Haiku (interesting that you used that word) in the spirit and environment in which they are composed to appreciate the aesthetic qualities I am so obviously missing? Is it indeed possible to appreciate Haiku in written form only, without hearing the 5-7-5 phonetic pattern, which I guess conveys the art of construction employed by the author?

    Many thanks for continuing to publish your diverse translations.

  5. English Outsider says:

    My favourite –

    The early summer rains
    falling together, swift.

    The climate must be quite different in Japan. I was reading LeMay’s account of his bombing campaign and he says it’s overcast a lot more there. But this haiku catches exactly the equivalent in England when showers fall unexpectedly in sunshine.

  6. Rodney says:

    Today my wife and I spread 3 cubic meters of crushed concrete in the front of our new house we’ve gutted and remodeling ourselves 100%. Tamping it tomorrow. We’re in a small one road rice growing valley in Shiwacho which is about 30 kilometers east of Hiroshima. Have you ever experienced that slimy weed/fungus that grows out of the ground and looks like seaweed? Nasty stuff to walk on.

    The rice farmer toils
    Birds today trapped in my house
    Frogs singing

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