Pre-war Japanese American Haiku


Violet Kazue de Cristoforo

Kaiko, the modern, free-style haiko, was developed by the Tokyo poets Ippekiro Nakatsuka and Kawahigashi Hekigodo in 1915. For these masters, the substance of haiku is that it reduces a thought-picture to its most beautiful essence with a minimum number of words which seem to flow "from heart to heart."  Nakatsuka (1879-1946), its founder, stressed the importance of fulfilling human nature through direct expression of the poet's emotions and giving circumstances enthusiastic attention in order to satisfy the creative drive. Two years later Ippekiro published the first Kaiko magazine.

Kaiko means crimson sea. It was named after the crimson-colored flowering quince (boke) , which grew in abundance around the inn where Nakatsuka lived. His love for the crimson-colored flowers was used to illustrate his intense abstract feeling, and was used for the cover of his monthly haiku magazine to advocate the revolutionary new style haiku.

In the early 1930s, a group of Japanese avant-garde haiku poets who considered the traditional haiku style (such as Hototogisu) suitable primarily for the gentle elderly, established a free-form group using the Kaiko style which allowed them to deviate from the restrictive expressions of scenery and objective subtleness associated with the earlier classical haiku.

These new rising forms of haiku stimulated the emergence of a free, intuitive expression of one's state of mind. Love and observation of nature, vivid and youthful expression of detail and elegant usage of words correlated with the season were to become the focal points. The free-style Kaiko haiku spread quickly among the dissatisfied young poets.

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Two of the California free-verse haiku kais (poetry clubs), the Delta Ginsha of Stockton and the Valley Ginsha of Fresno, owe their existence to the aesthetic and intellectual leadership of the pioneering poets Neiji Ozawa and Kyotaro Komuro. The Delta Ginsha was founded in 1918 by Neiji Qzawa and when he moved to Fresno, it continued under the leadership of Kyotaro Komuro. Ozawa organized a second haiku club, the Valley Ginsha, which held its first meeting in 1928. . . . Ozawa, who had previously founded the Delta Ginsha Haiku Kai, following his graduation from University of California at Berkeley, also established the Valley Ginsha Haiku Kai in Fresno. Its members met monthly and submitted their haiku to the master of the month, who was usually the host or hostess for the evening. They submitted for consideration as many poems as they desired. The poems were then read and discussed and a vote was taken to determine the best haiku. There were usually 15-20 members at these meetings, and their dues were nominal—just enough to purchase refreshments for the evening.

By the time the meeting convened, the Master would have already copied the haiku, concealing the author's identity, and made enough copies for distribution to each attending member. If necessary, use of more symbolic words, or enhancement of feeling were proposed and agreed upon before final corrections were made. This procedure was followed for each haiku presented.

Finally, votes were cast for the best haiku of the evening and only then would the Master reveal the name of each poet. It was an evening anticipated by the members—grape growers, onion farmers, teachers, housewives, bankers, pharmacists, and others—who had assembled for an enlightening cultural and social event.

At the outbreak of hostilities, fearing reprisals, the majority of Japanese Americans, including Central California haiku poets, destroyed most of their collections, including all forms of Japanese literature. Their forced evacuation and ongoing relocation from camp to camp resulted in many of the poems written during that period never being recovered. . . . The passing of the once energetic free-style Kaiko groups, especially the Delta Ginsha Haiku Kai and the Valley Ginsha Haiku Kai (which had been known for their international flavor and capable women poets), was a tragedy to the ethnic Japanese communities.

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Below are some of the haiku written by the Valley Ginsha Haiku Kai members at their last meeting prior to the War. These poems were published December 8, 1941 by the Shinsekai Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese-Amencan newspaper in San Francisco, California:

AKIBI KOKOROYOSHI HITORI ENDO O MAITE IRU ASA

Pleasant autumn sun
I am sowing green peas
alone in the morning
                                (Shizuku)

HANA KIIRO TO HAKKIRI MIETE KITE AKINO AKERU

The flower is yellow
I see it clearly now
dawn on autumn field
                                (Reiko )

TAGAI NI OKI NI TSURU SHITASHISA SHIO O HEDATE MONO IUU

Fishing on the ocean
talking to one another
in friendship across the distance
                                (Sho)

NISHIBI MADA ATUSHI DARIA KIRU BOKU NI TONBO TOMARI

Westering sun still hot
I am cutting dahlias
dragonfly alights on me
                                (Shokoshi)

WARERA YONIN NO KO TO ITE AKI NO SORA SUMI

We are with four children
clear autumn sky
                                (Bisho)

AKI NO HI KURURU KEN-BO KENGEKI O OBOE

Autumn sun setting
Ken-bo learning
sword fighting skills
                                (Hekisamei)

TOMATO SHIMO NI ITAMARE CHI NO AKAI MI AOI MI

Tomatoes damaged by frost
red and green fruit
on the ground
                                (Miso )

KIKU MO SAKI TAREKARE NI KOE O KAKETAI OTENKI TSUZUKU

Chrysanthemum also in bloom
continuing fair weather
wish to chat with people
                                (Kazue )

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In contrast with the poets’ pre-war haiku, what was written in the camps reveals the internees' dejection, the oppressiveness of their lives behind barbed wire, and the sadness caused by this tragedy which daily faced them.

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Like a comet, some of the wartime haiku writers emerged only momentarily from obscurity, flashed across the literary firmament and, when the war ended and the infamous concentration camps closed, vanished into oblivion.

from May Sky: There is Always Tomorrow--An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1997. Copyright 11997 by Violet Kazue de Cristoforo. These excerpts are taken from a much longer introduction by Violet Kazue de Cristoforo. Readers are urged to consult the original.


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