Interview with Michael Emmerich.

This comment by Bathrobe (on the recent Hexabook post) linked to an interview so interesting I had to give it its own post: Hope Leman’s Interview with Michael Emmerich, Author of “The Tale of Genji.” I won’t quote the lengthy description of A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji (Nise Murasaki inaka Genji), because Bathrobe did so in that comment, which I urge everyone to read. Instead I’ll select some earlier bits and encourage you to click through to the whole interview:

You write, “Genji is literature that can only ever be read again.” What do you mean by that?

Certain works of literature are so famous and have been discussed so much, and cited so often in popular culture, that it is almost impossible to approach them without being quite strongly guided by certain expectations about what the work is like, or about how much it matters, or more to the point how much it has mattered.

To some extent, of course, we always have certain expectations about the books we read: knowing that a work belongs to a particular genre, for instance, changes the way in which we read it. I remember reading a book by Donald Barthelme for a class as an undergraduate, and being stunned to learn that one of the students in my discussion section had ended up with a sort of freak copy – halfway through, the novel’s pages had gotten mixed up with the pages of a cowboy novel. Presumably there had been some kind of accident at the bindery. The thing that really impressed me, though, was that the woman who had this copy didn’t even realize there was anything wrong with it – she just assumed the sudden switch was more of Barthelme’s postmodern weirdness. […]

This is a fascinating passage, “The global community of Genji’s readership, and of its non-readership, is ultimately linked – translingually, transnationally, transhistorically – by something its members do not hold in common: Genji.” Could you elaborate? What do you mean, for instance, by “non-readership?”

This goes along with the notion that particularly famous books, books that occupy a preeminent place in a particular literary canon, can only ever be read again. Even people who have never read Hamlet, for instance, may well be familiar with certain phrases from the script or images from film versions. These people, non-readers of Hamlet, nonetheless participate in what has conventionally been called the play’s “reception.” Hamlet can be thought of, then, as a sort of node that connects people all around the globe who have very different takes on or images of the play or its characters, and are even reading or watching it (if they are reading or watching it) in translations into different languages. In 1875, the popular Japanese writer Kanagaki Robun began serializing a version called “Western Kabuki Hamlet” (Seiyō kabuki hamuretto). Very few people in the U.S. have any idea that this soon-aborted translation ever existed, but as one version of Hamlet, it can still be thought of as contributing to the creation of a sort of community centered on the play. Its readers knew Hamlet, readers today know Hamlet. But the Hamlets these two groups knew or know are not the same. The community of Hamlet’s readers is linked by something they do not share.

And I heartily agree with him that “it’s much less interesting and instructive to talk in abstract terms about this issue than it is to actually dig into the specific history of the replacement of a particular work”:

My instincts tell me that the sort of story I tell about The Tale of Genji in my book isn’t at all uncommon – indeed, David Damrosch has noted a wonderful irony in his book What Is World Literature: Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe, which recounts Goethe’s coinage of the term Weltliteratur (world literature) in 1827, is itself “an interesting example of a work that only achieves an effective presence in its country of origin after it has already entered world literature; in a movement that would hardly have surprised Goethe, the book’s reception abroad set the stage for its subsequent revival at home” (32).

Emmerich’s book The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature sounds so interesting (and gorgeously produced, with many illustrations from Nise Murasaki inaka Genji) that I’ve added it to my Amazon wishlist. (M. A. Orthofer has a pretty detailed discussion of it at The Complete Review, which points out that in Japan itself “the Genji monogatari-as-we(and especially the Japanese)-now-know-it really only finally crystallized in Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s translation into modern Japanese — Tanizaki being one of the two writers Akutagawa cited [in 1927] as having actually read the book.”)


  1. Your final sentence was rendered very confusing by the presence of “the complete review” in lower case. I assumed that the first link was to an excerpt of the review and the second to the (perhaps paywalled) complete review, but no, “the complete review” is the name of the journal in which the review appeared. Or rather it is the logo of that journal, as we can see by clicking on the second link. I feel quite strongly that the style of the logo should in such cases be ignored in favor of the standard style of running text, viz. The Complete Review. I don’t want to read about “Yahoo!”.

  2. A fair point, and I’ve emended accordingly.

  3. One of my takeaways from Emmerich’s book (although it wasn’t the main point of the book) was that what we call “Japanese literature” (and the Japanese call 国文学 kokubungaku ‘national literature’) didn’t really exist before the end of the 19th century. It’s something I should have realised, of course. Like the “fundamental distinction” between the 寺 tera (Buddhist temple) and 神社 jinja (Shinto shrine) that everyone learns when studying Japanese culture, it was actually a later remoulding for ideological reasons.

  4. Boy, I love that stuff. Invented traditions!

  5. Great interview! Thank you!

    Re the “Japanese literature” thing, it’s really more about line-drawing than anything else IMHO. There definitely were people before the end of the 19th century who believed in a tradition of Japanese literature, even if they didn’t use that word and even if they saw it as a bunch of disparate strands rather than a single stream beginning with Genji (slash Kojiki slash Manyoshu, whatever). And it wasn’t like Genji was unknown among the populace until Waley/Suematsu/Tanizaki/whatever. For example, Kitamura Kigin’s Kogetsusho (an annotated Genji) was pretty popular from its publication in the 17th century onwards (I believe that’s the edition Waley worked from, even). It’s not like every household had a copy, but I think the majority of people who considered themselves educated in belles-lettres would at least have paid lip service to Genji, whether they’d actually read it or not (just like Ulysses, or the Odyssey for that matter).

    What happened at the end of the 19th century, I would say, was more of a reassessment, reorganization, and recanonization to make the tradition more compatible with Western literature’s way of doing things. This obviously changed a lot of priorities and had a big effect going forward. But I’m uneasy with denying the very existence of any analogous (if not isomorphic) ideas before that (even just as rhetorical flourish) because it seems to be walking into the very same trap: the idea that a nation doesn’t REALLY have a national literature unless it looks sufficiently like an approved recension of the French or German or Russian tradition.

  6. This inspired me to read some about Waley. I found this essay, by Josh Billings, which mentions Waley’s process for translating Genji:

    “He described to me once how he had translated The Tale of Genji,” writes Donald Keene. “He would read a passage over until he understood its meaning; then, without looking back at the passage, he wrote out an English assimilation.” His version of Genji is hundreds of pages longer than the versions produced by Edward Seidensticker and Royall Taylor. “So much is inevitably lost in the translating of Oriental literature that one must give a great deal in return,” he said.

    His freedom with the original did not prevent his translation from becoming a favorite of Japanese readers, though—a fact that seems strange until we remember that the language of Genji is itself different enough from modern Japanese that it has been translated into the latter multiple times.

    And there’s more.

    I learn from Wikipedia that Waley was Jewish, né Schloss, but de-Germanized his name during WWI.

  7. Yes, it was a rhetorical flourish, firstly because I was in a hurry and didn’t have time to elaborate, and more importantly because I was hoping that Matt would bring his inestimable experience to the fray.

    a reassessment, reorganization, and recanonization to make the tradition more compatible with Western literature’s way of doing things is basically what happened. But what a reorganisation it was! It wasn’t just Genji, Kojiki, Man’yōshū; it was the whole kit and caboodle: waka/tanka, military epics told by blind itinerant storytellers (Heike, etc.), various mediaeval tales and Buddhist tales, Noh, haiku, and most importantly the various kinds of popular literature of all sorts, often regarded as ‘low-class’, that flowered in the Edo period (kabuki, jōruri, yomihon, etc.). In my understanding, these disparate strands weren’t drawn together until the imperative of having a ‘national literature’ prompted the rewriters to throw them all in the same bag. These disparate works were all reclassified as expressions of the “Japanese spirit”.

    But there was a problem: what to do with all the Chinese stuff? Kanshi (Chinese poems written by Japanese) were out the door, orphaned because they were (largely) disowned by the Japanese and never taken much notice of by the Chinese. The old classics of Confucianism and other kinds of other literature that were accessible to and part of the essential intellectual baggage of literate Japanese were suddenly reclassified as “Chinese”. This redrawing of lines was nothing more than a paradigm shift and has had profound repercussions until the present day. It brought together what had previously been a motley assortment of unrelated works, and rent asunder what had previously been part of a grander whole. Someone like Matt who is comfortable with the old literature as well as the Chinese stuff is, I might suggest, somewhat of a rarity today, whereas he would have been the norm amongst literate Japanese in pre-modern Japan.

    I’m quite conscious of the trap that Matt warns of. For a long time the Japanese continued the habit of referring to and copying Chinese models, seemingly with a consciousness that theirs was a local version of the main body. Even the first chapter of Genji refers to 楊貴妃 Yōkihi / Yáng Guìfēi as a model for local events. Of course the portents and cleavage lines were already there, but it was a long time before the distinction from Chinese models began to become crystallised into a more structured opposition. This is what makes the history of 国学 kokugaku (‘nativist studies’) so interesting. Motoori Norinaga was one of the most prominent figures to try and delve back into the “Japanese spirit”. It was also Norinaga who helped retrieve Genji from the realm of women’s stories and make it part of the nativist canon, alongside Kojiki and mediaeval poetry. The movement continued in more extreme forms as time went on. (Not all kokugakusha were steeped in narrow nativism. My favourite, Ueda Akinari, who was born to an Osaka prostitute and adopted by a wealthy merchant, grounded many of his works in stories from China. Unfortunately, the narrower strand embodied in Norinaga’s thought became the mainstream.)

    But it was the wholesale adoption of the Western thought, with its various national literatures, that prompted the reorganisation of Japanese culture along these new lines, which gradually solidified into the concept of “Japanese literature” that we have today. It was indeed a redrawing of the lines, but it was also a profound paradigm shift.

  8. I am in total agreement with Matt’s comment. I especially like “reassessment, reorganization, and recanonization” as a way to characterize the Meiji-period shift in particular, which was definitely all about answering the (often themselves recent) national canons of the West.

    Which is to say, we are not talking about invented traditions in the case of Japan. It’s true that if you took the modern classical Japanese canon as a map to the actual terrain of literary history, you’d quickly find yourself quite literally mis-guided, but you would never be completely lost. I’d say the degree of canonical continuity is pretty remarkable, to be honest. If pressed to explain its development briefly, I would probably give something like the following broad sketch:

    (1) Limiting ourselves mainly to the classical-classical canon (i.e. works from the earlier Heian era (9-12c) and surrounds, not later medieval and early modern works that have today become classics for us), you head into the medieval period (13c-16c) with a core Japanese canon of: (1) classical waka poetry, (2) the Tale of Genji, and (3) the Tales of Ise, in that order of precedence.

    (2) Over the first century or so of the early modern period (17c), when woodblock printing just explodes, you get a rush of other early works coming into their own and joining these at the core, the most famous of which are probably the Manyoshu, the Pillow Book, and Essays in Idleness, and (a little later) the Kojiki. (To varying degrees, all of these had been “around” before, but probably the biggest mistake modern readers make is to project the canonical centrality of such works, so familiar today, back beyond this into the medieval period.)

    (3) The big change you get when you hit the Meiji period–apart from a real rise in status for the Kojiki and the Manyoshu–is the addition of what are often called “war tales”, particularly the Tale of the Heike but also others before and after it. This is where “reassessment” and “reorganization” are very apt: many of these works had been constantly, wildly popular, spreading across the archipelago through oral performance in the medieval period long before literacy. In a descriptive sense they had long been as canonical as you could get, only (mostly) not as objects of high-literary curation. Now they were. (There was some de-emphasis of martial tales after the “Pacific War”, with a compensatory rise in the canonical stock of, e.g. peaceful court diaries of the Heian period by aristocratic women, though looking at popular culture it’s hard to say how successful this was.)

    At any rate, while there is lots this doesn’t cover, most glaringly the not-in-the-slightest-degree-peripheral Buddhist and Sinophone classics (whether from China proper or homegrown), I hope it conveys this: the story is basically one of constancy and slow (then faster) accretion. Premodern Japan has left more than enough documentation to demonstrate, I think, that an “invented” canon in the Hobsbawmian sense is at best dubious. The relative valuation of various works has certainly changed, and a lot of what was “low” has now migrated to “high” culture, but even if respectable Edo burghers might scoff at the veneration we accord to the coarse kabuki today, they will definitely know what future time-traveling tourists are talking about.

    With the Tale of Genji you could, without doubt, take that back several centuries further.

  9. …and that’s the problem with over-long comments. By the time you post, you’ve missed several frames in the picture.

    It was also Norinaga who helped retrieve Genji from the realm of women’s stories and make it part of the nativist canon, alongside Kojiki and mediaeval poetry.

    I have other qualms, but this in particular. There was certainly no retrieving to be done. Setting aside its central place in medieval letters, Genji was so widely read that the whole thing was printed in insane semi-cursive moveable type multiple times at the start of the Edo period, and again in woodblock several times after that, before the ultimate Kogetsushō edition/commentary by Kitamura Kigin that Matt mentioned above, which itself was published almost 60 years before Norinaga was even born.

    I’m not sure what you mean by medieval poetry, but if it’s the poetry of the Heian anthologies, that was–and always had been–the most central part of the Japanese-language canon as long as such a thing had existed.

    (On a larger level–though I kind of want to defend Norinaga against a bad rap as narrow!–I do think that maybe we exaggerate their importance in their own day, however influential they have become with us today. As in all things, when in doubt, I blame Meiji.)

    I wonder about the canonization of Edo period prose works. Maybe you’re right. I think there’s no question that ultimately need for something like the Western novel helped elevate “genres” like the yomihon, gōkan, etc., and famously rescued the forgotten Saikaku. (Though Meiji period authors often explicitly rejected Bakin etc., as being too moralistic and didactic, so it’s not a simple thing.) On the other hand, for late Edo some of these genres were still pretty recent or even contemporary, so I hesitate to read too much into pre-Meiji non-canonization of them. What would have happened in an alternate timeline where Edo ran another 50-100 years longer?

  10. I didn’t actually use the term “invented”. There was undoubtedly already something there — a canon — to build on. What you describe is a canon of literary works that the Japanese prized and which they knew belonged to them, not to the Chinese. But whether it could be described as a canon of “Japanese national literature” is another question. It seems to me that what was cordoned off, if not cast off, during the Meiji period is just as significant as what was included. It is this split that, as Matt said, “changed a lot of priorities and had a big effect going forward”. I see this as fitting the definition of a paradigm shift.

    What strikes me about pre-modern literature (which I admittedly have not read a lot of) is how intimately connected it is to the Chinese tradition — for instance, the opening words from Bashō’s “Narrow Roads to the Deep North”* (奥の細道 Oku no Hosomichi) are straight from Li Po (李白). The links are so rich and deep that it seems like an act of violence to suddenly cut “Japanese literature” adrift and proclaim (as is now the practice) that Japanese literature was “influenced” by the Chinese.

    Something similar goes for the writing system. My impression of pre-modern writing in Japanese (again, I can really only read the modern language) is how exuberant it was, how intimately it was connected with Chinese, and at the same time how much it jumped back and forth over boundaries between the two languages and revelled in different kinds of writing devices.

    This seems to have been all tidied up after Meiji. Suddenly the on-yomi and kun-yomi were cleaned up into the serried rows that we have now, as were kana usage and the rest. The umbilical cord was cut and Japanese was suddenly turned into a ‘national language’ with its own rules of usage, dictionaries, etc., pretending that all that Chinese stuff is in the past and that Japanese can be neatly treated as an independent entity.

    This is now solidly entrenched in perceptions of Japanese, and yet this still seems to me to be a sanitised view, like the Shinto-Buddhist split that left everything so neat and unassailably tidy, when it was anything but. I wholeheartedly agree with your comment: when in doubt, blame it on Meiji. Whatever was there before, Meiji recast it in a new mould.

    As for Norinaga, I don’t think he was narrow, but he was definitely a man with a mission. It was he who set the course that was to be adopted by later people who were much narrower than him.

    * Richard Flanagan has purloined the title for his own novel.

  11. Man, I’m learning a lot here. So what about puppet theater? Was Chikamatsu Monzaemon always regarded as highly as he is now, and if not, when did his plays start being regarded as Real Literature?

  12. I think Elessorn is the man to answer your question, but the fact that he is described as Japan’s “Shakespeare” speaks volumes.

  13. Edo-period stylistic universe is an inverted triangle, with two very distinct high linguistic-stylistic ideals (Chinese and the Heian elegant language), with a third, vulgar tradition slowly accumulating at the bottom. Treating both the elegant and the vulgar as “Japanese”, in opposition to a foreign “Chinese”, might be a modern invention, but the distinctiveness of the elegant tradition seems have never have much changed. Edo-period people might have different perceptions than us, but what we consider today as wabun or kobun must have an equally reified boundary for us than for them.

  14. A tangent (and I think I may be repeating myself on LH here), but since Bathrobe has touched on Bashō’s allusions toward Chinese literature (and that’s the tip of the iceberg; one can hardly open the Oku no Hosomichi without stumbling upon some Chinese reference)—it may be argued that Bashō’s school of haiku was an attempt to juxtapose and unite (contemporary term: toriawase) the three points of minus273’s triangle. The language weaves together ga and zoku, Classical code and contemporary vernacular, in this way revitalizing the fossilized courtly tradition while simultaneously elevating present-day commoner’s culture. And the whole thing is thoroughly spiked with Chinese quotations, poetic allusions and cultural references.

    A shame Bashō, and by extension the haiku form itself, got popularized worldwide as a sort of minimalistic Imagist sketch, a photograph of a moment in the “eternal present”, detached from tradition. The photograph is important, but it’s just half of the equation. Haiku in the style of the Bashō school are photographs of the present which connect it to the cultural, literary past, through the clever use of poetic language and tropes.

  15. An important point, well worth repeating if you have in fact made it before.

  16. @hat
    Wildly off topic, but could you clarify the name of an author on your book list? Is it AndoPov or AndroNov (Tamil D (Andropov))?

  17. It’s Andronov, which is ultimately from the Greek name Andronas. The surname Andropov has an interesting history; it’s based on the given name Atrop (itself ultimately from the Greek name Eutropios), but it’s gotten an intrusive -n- and been remodeled after names beginning Andr-.

  18. Yes, I was somewhat surprised reading Bashō to find how incredibly “literate” he was. Haiku and Chinese poetry don’t sound like a very likely combination if you think haiku is just ‘frog jumps in old pond’, but Bashō was extremely well read in Chinese poetry.

    Minus273’s summation is a masterful one. He said in one paragraph what I tried (unsuccessfully) to say in something like ten. The uniting of 雅 ga ‘elegant’ and 俗 zoku ‘common or vulgar’ in a new standard national language through 言文一致 genbun’itchi ‘unification of the written and spoken languages’ and the delineation of a purely ‘national literature’ (国文学 kokubungaku) were all momentous steps undertaken in Meiji that rearranged the linguistic and cultural landscape, with effects that are still visible today (and not just in Japan). The banishing of the third leg, Chinese, to the “foreign” category was similarly momentous, although in cutting that particular umbilical cord the Japanese didn’t actually expel Chinese from the vocabulary; instead they incorporated it in its own special compartment.

    I think that what was interesting about Emmerich’s book for me was the fact that it spans that whole period of momentous change. You start with the thriving late Edo literary scene and end with Japan as we know it today. Each step on the way from Bumpkin Genji to the positioning of Genji as a world classic is part of a breathtaking evolution from pre-Meiji Japan to the present day.

    Finally, while I think Emmerich’s book presents a unique and interesting perspective, as Elessorn’s comment makes clear, it captures only one part of a much longer story.

  19. Chikamatsu was hugely popular while alive, even as a uniquely “literary” playwright (first known one to make a living doing just that without acting, iirc). And of course he is blamed for the shogunal ban on double-suicide plays, which shows that he was taken seriously as an inciter of human emotion. (Although, I believe that his work, his type of work, fell out of favor towards the end of his life and never really recovered until the Great Reevaluation… certainly a lot of the music for his work was lost, i.e. there came a generation where no-one bothered to learn it).

    But no, I don’t think anyone at the time would have said that his work was part of “the same thing” as Murasaki’s, or even Zeami’s. Undoubtedly, declaring all the genres part of one glorious whole was an paradigm shift. You see a similar thing in music–you can buy a CD of 邦楽 or “(this-)country music” which will have rice-planting songs, Buddhist chanting, geisha songs, Kabuki background music, solo koto performances, etc. etc. when the idea of grouping all these things together would have been just absurd before the need was felt to present a unified cultural front. (One difference is that in music there’s virtually no cross-pollination, whereas of course waka appear in Genji, Genji appears in Noh, Noh appears in koto lyrics…)

  20. Oh, I should correct that: There’s an interesting tradition of inserting gagaku-style interludes in koto music when the lyrics/theme fit. But I would call that more mimesis than cross-pollination, in all but the most inspired cases, and of course there was no reverse flow from popular koto music to gagaku.

  21. I should also acknowledge that Elessorn was correct about Norinaga. My characterisation was hasty and inaccurate, particularly concerning Genji. To say that he retrieved Genji from women’s literature was distorted to the point of parody. He did, however, wrest it from the grip of moralist judgements (Confucian or Buddhist) and validate its place in the canon.

  22. I like minus273’s inverted triangle (and by the way, what a trip it must be to come at Japanese literature from the Chinese tradition!). I also agree that kobun was definitely a marked style of elegance by the Edo period, a century or so after the spoken language (iirc) is thought to have arrived at the early stages of what we can meaningfully put on a continuum with Modern Japanese.

    And speaking of “Japanese,” I couldn’t agree more with everything Bathrobe says about the Sinophone component being thoroughly integral to pre-Meiji literature in the archipelago. If the opposite seemed implied, I offer the (lame) defense that it does get a little clunky to always add “-language” after “Japanese.” On the other hand, while “Japanophone” would avoid the confusion, it perhaps goes a little too far in the direction of scrupulous neutrality (i.e. Japanese wasn’t just “one of the languages” of Japan). No really great solution, sadly.

    About what Norinaga did for the Genji, though–if you’ll allow a little more friendly medieval pushback–that still doesn’t seem quite right. Pace the narrative of the book mentioned in the interview, excepting waka, you really can’t get more canonical for Japanese(-language!) texts than the Genji by the time we arrive at Norinaga: it’s like validating Dante’s place in the canon in 20th century Italy. As for moralism, I associate that more with Norinaga’s Confucianist competitors in the Edo period. Looking at Muromachi Noh, clearly Genji was read against a Buddhist thematology, but then it was probably written with one. If anything on this point he does kind of represent a narrowing. And for all his supposed influence, Edoites seem to have kept on reading their pre-Norinaga Kogetsushō right past him without a pause all the way up till they were Meijians, and later.

    I guess we’re running into the problem Leo identified with Bashō: once a plausible-sounding narrative gets out there, it hangs on like the Log’s Eskimo hoax, its grain of truth hooking it to the canvas-sack fabric of the universe almost invincibly.

  23. It’s interesting to think about what changed with Meiji. On the one hand, it certainly was an actual reassessment. At the same time, it also seems to me to represent a revision of what canonicity means (and requires). If “canonical” means “has an organizing, root-important status in the literary field” (to get all Bourdieu about it), then war tales like the Heike were always canonical. But they weren’t objects of scholarly study in the way waka or the Genji, or even Edo-period Tsurezuregusa were, and the distinction seems important. So on the one hand, it’s a reevaluation. On the other, it’s also a change in what literary curation means–not just venerable study traditions for given texts, but a scientific philology that can be applied to anything, theoretically.

  24. Leoboiko says,“ I was somewhat surprised reading Bashō to find how incredibly “literate” he was.”

    Basho naturally studied Heian waka and linked poetry (renga/renku), Here’s a quote of Basho from Matsuo Basho:The Master Haiku Poet by Makoto Ueda. “One thing permeates Saigyo’s tanka (waka), Sogi’s linked verse, Sesshu’s painting, and Rikyu’s tea ceremony. That is the spirit of the artist who follows nature and befriends the four seasons.”

    Becoming Basho meant spending years studying Chinese and Classic Japanese poetry, which came before him. After all, haiku came from the hokku, the first verse of linked verse from that formally began in the Kamakura Period. It wasn’t until Meiji that Shiki chose the name haiku, and freed the hokku to have to a purpose beyond the first verse so as to add it to prose (haibun) and also allow it to be considered alone. The Heian and Kamakura Period poetry influenced Basho. Thus, quoted Basho, “The habit of writing travel journal began with Tsurayuki, Kamo no Chomei, and Nun Abutsu. Their followers, however, all look imitative and fall short of improving the models.”

    As for the poets Basho mentioned they were not only from the Heian Period: Tsurayuki (872 – 945) Heian Period, Saigyo (1118 – 1190) Heian and Kamakura Periods, Nun Abutsu (1222 – 1283) and Kamo no Chomei (1155–1216) Kamakura Period, and Sogi (1421–1502) Muromachi Period.

  25. It wasn’t until Meiji that Shiki chose the name haiku

    Huh, I didn’t know that. What was the motivation for the new word? (Unhelpfully, the OED has, s.v. haiku, “Forms: Also haikai, hokku.” Guys, those aren’t all the same thing.)

  26. In 1868, Japan went through enormous changes during the Meiji Restoration. The Tokugawa Shogun was deemed obsolete, and a democratic monarchy led Japan into its modern age. During this time, Western literature, including poetry, was suddenly available, and Shiki and others feared that Japanese poetry would not survive because it had become frivolous, outdated, and limited by its rules and flowery language. Therefore, Shiki decided to reform haiku so it could stand alone.

    Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems, translation by Burton Watson 1997
    Matsuyama Municipal Shiki-Kinen Museum, 2001

  27. “Haiku” actually had a prehistory meaning something like “haikai (no) ku”, e.g. one “verse” from a work of comical linked verse (haikai renga). Shiki apparently adopted it (or independently reinvented it, perhaps) because he wanted a word that specifically meant an “atomic” poem (thus, not a “linked” form) that also did not imply that a linked form would or should follow it (thus ruling out “hokku”, which etymologically implies this even though it was very common to write hokku without any expectation that someone would follow them up — i.e. hokku that were functionally no different from what Shiki defined as “haiku”).

    I say “apparently” and “perhaps” because although it’s common wisdom that “Shiki invented the word haiku”, I’ve yet to come across a piece of writing from Shiki that says “I propose we name [or “rename”] this form ‘haiku'” (let alone “… for the following reasons”). Even accounts of what Shiki did tend to be vague, often saying that he invented the word “in the 1890s,” i.e. as part of his whole haiku reevaluation project. So I personally am a bit wary of the that Shiki “created” the idea of haiku in a single stroke — I suspect it was more of the same “reorganization and recanonization” discussed throughout this thread, with a smidge of renaming too.

    More important than the word itself, I think, was Shiki’s insistence that haiku were — yes — Literature. Check out the very first assertion in “Haikai Taiyo 俳諧大要” (and let me note in passing that although the title uses “haikai”, the work is closely focused on haiku specifically — more evidence that, at the very least, Shiki allowed aesthetic considerations [“Sino-Japanese for titles!”] to override whatever commitment he had to “haiku” as a word):


    “Haiku are part of literature (文学). Literature is part of art (美術). Therefore, the standards of beauty (美)
    are the standards of literature. The standards of literature are the standards of haiku. In other words, paintings, sculpture, music, theater, poetry and novels must all be critiqued according to identical standards.”

  28. Thanks, both of you! I am now more educated than I was.

  29. More important than the word itself, I think, was Shiki’s insistence that haiku were — yes — Literature.

    I think this really gets to the heart of the difficulties involved in understanding non-Western literary systems from a post-Westernization standpoint. On the one hand, I totally understand what you’re getting at here. On the other, I admit that phrasing like this stimulates in me a kind of reflexive, methodological nervous twitch.

    It reminds me of the question of the Tale of the Heike‘s canonicity. Indisputably it was a shared cultural touchstone, and a chief source text (or provider of source material) for countless later works, high, middling and low, from the medieval period on down. Yet just as clearly it was not the focus of the kind of professional literary curation we associate with canonical texts under modern (Western/post-Meiji) literary conditions–and even in premodern times never received the kind of attention given to the Genji. Thus if we choose to say “The Tale of Heike wasn’t canonized until the Meiji period!” we will in one sense be on very firm ground. But we also run a very good chance of being unintentionally misleading, inadvertently underselling the text’s pre-Meiji importance.

    To Edoites, Shiki-style haiku would have been, just as you say, hai(kai) (ignoring traditional canons of poetic diction, if not necessarily “comic”) hokku (verses that might have headed a linked-verse sequence). Was Shiki the first to treat such verses as literature? True enough, during the Edo period they were never elevated to the status of, say, waka. But they certainly could be the object of particular aesthetic veneration, and some degree of literary curation. I wouldn’t want to imply that Shiki started that. (For non-haikai hokku (i.e. classicizing renga) we see it as early as the Muromachi period.) It’s the same problem: trying to communicate plainly while heading off potentially mistaken corollaries.

    I’m by no means an expert, but what always strikes me most about post-Meiji haiku is its novelty as a genre, in the way it effaces traditional categories of relative markedness (haikai vs. classicizing diction, linked-verse vs. independent waka). From a premodern standpoint, what seems really weird is how even 5-7-5-form poems of the strictest orthodoxy in their diction can still be counted as “haiku.”

  30. For those of us completely illiterate in Japanese, could someone give a basic morphological/historical breakdown of the confusingly similar words haiku, haikai, and hokku?

  31. You asked for it!

    ku – in terms of poetry, a structured segment of a Chinese or Japanese poem, a “verse.”

    和歌 waka (lit. “Japanese (wa) song (ka)”) – the classical poetic form par excellence, with a moraic structure of five segments of respectively 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 morae. On occasion, each of these five segments might be called a ku, but the great majority of the time, a single waka is usually thought of as breaking in half, into an “upper verse” (kami no ku, 5-7-5 morae) and a lower verse (shimo no ku, 7-7 morae)

    連歌 renga (lit. “linked (ren) songs*) – linked verse; a genre of cooperative poetry that takes advantage of this two-verse (ku) structure of waka. At its simplest, with only two poets, taking equal and regularly alternating turns:
    (1) poet1 reads what looks like the first half of a waka (the upper verse, a ku with 5-7-5 morae),
    (2) poet2 “links” to that with what looks like the second half of a waka (the lower verse, a ku with 7-7 morae),
    (3) poet1 links to that with another upper ku (5-7-5)
    (4) poet2 links to that with another lower ku (7-7)
    …and so on. Theoretically you could go on like this forever, with an infinite alternation of 5-7-5-mora ku and 7-7-mora ku.

    発句 hokku (lit. start-off (hotsu, here hot- > hok- by contraction) + verse (ku)) – this is just the first ku in a renga series (and thus has the structure of the “upper half” of a waka: 5-7-5 morae). Because this sets the mood and starts the whole linked-verse session off, it was often seen as the most important, and ideally fell to the most senior personage and/or the most skilled poet present. It’s also the only verse in a renga session that can always be written in advance (ghost-writing for under-skilled guests of honor was a big thing). For all these reasons, it was an object of special training, appreciation, and sometimes collection.

    俳諧 haikai (lit. comic, silly) – generically this refers to “comic” poetry (not necessarily of the laugh-out-loud kind), written in traditional meter but in violation of traditional poetic diction and canons of expression. As a technical term it refers to poetry written in such non-standard diction, sometimes even when not very comic at all. In other words, it’s a style, so you can have haikai poetry in waka or renga.

    俳句 haiku (lit. hai[kai] verse (ku)) – as mentioned above, originally this refers to haikai renga, i.e. linked-verse using non-standard diction, often for comic effect. It can refer to the individual verse, or the practice of haikai renga as a whole.

    So, haiku in the modern sense is: the first-verse (hokku, 5-7-5 morae) to a linked-verse sequence (renga) in non-standard poetic language (haikai renga), frequently cut away from and appreciated outside of a linking context, and eventually repurposed as the template for a new poetic genre. Considering that haikai is more a style-descriptor, while I don’t know the details, it makes sense to me that–at whatever point–the more concrete haiku won out as the genre name.

  32. Thanks very much! I hope someone at the OED is paying attention…

  33. It reminds me of the question of the Tale of the Heike‘s canonicity

    Perhaps a kind of parallel can be found in music in our culture. Classical music enjoys the kind of high status, veneration, and serious cultivation of the sort that older literary genres enjoyed in Japan. By contrast, jazz and rock (and maybe in future rap) are culturally influential and cultivated and appreciated by many, but have never been elevated to the status of Classical music. They occupy a very different niche from Classical music, even as they live in the same musical universe.

  34. Arguably jazz is there in some circles. They don’t call it “America’s classical music” for nothing!

    It’s the same problem: trying to communicate plainly while heading off potentially mistaken corollaries.

    Yes, I guess I should have been clearer—I specifically meant that Shiki’s contribution was explicitly insisting that “haiku” be included in the category of “literature” 文学 in the new sense borrowed from the west). Note that he puts it alongside “shika” (poetry) and “shōsetsu” (novels) rather than, say, “waka” (5-7-5-7-7 Japanese poetry) and “monogatari,” not to mention “chōkoku” (sculpture) and so on. I don’t think that haiku’s inclusion in the category was as foregone a conclusion as it was for Genji and Heike and Noh and so on, despite haiku’s undeniable popularity and history of being taken seriously, so this is somewhere I can accept a certain amount of Great Manism.

  35. One thing not mentioned is that the hokku and haiku have something else in common, the importance of the cut, also known as cutting word. The original Japanese words are kire or kireji. Renku expert, John Carley stated, “The kireji—cutting word is a kind of verbal punctuation mark that emphasizes the pause, and colors of the nature of the turn.” He also adds. “A haiku, like a hokku, is a poem in itself—a quality sometimes described as free-standing.” In a renku, only the hokku has a cut. Therefore, it includes two parts while the other verses do not stand alone. Notice that the other verses are only phrases, clauses or a sentence rather than a poem. Clearly, this side of haiku is often ignored.

    Let’s see an example: The following is the first four verses of a memorial renku, Peace with the Moon, in honor of John Carley. The pause in the hokku (as well as haiku) most often occurs between the first and second lines. This pause is between the second and third line: sitting by the fire / I make peace with the moon / softly, softly night. This is a verse of the poet who has cancer and has very little time; therefore, he adds ‘softly, softly night’ as if a plea saying, Do not go too fast.

    Peace with the Moon

    sitting by the fire
    I make peace with the moon
    softly, softly, night John Carley

    pen to parchment
    behind frosted windows Carole MacRury

    the lads strip off
    and jump into a pool
    of hot spring water Paul Conneally

    a shell far inland
    holds the song of the sea Sheila Windsor

    sabaki: eiko yachimoto, Yokosuka City, Japan
    renju: Carole, Carmen, Claire, Sheila, Sosui, Chris, William, Paul, and Norman.

    Carley, John. Renku Reckoner, South Africa and Ireland: Darlington Richards Press, 2013

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