Japan-Think, Ameri-Think, Haiku, and You

First published in a shorter form in Woodnotes #29, Summer 1996, pages 44–45. The text here has been lightly adapted from its original publication to make it more of an essay. I encourage anyone interested in better understanding cultural differences between Japan and the United States to read this entertaining book. As the Amazon description says, “Collins explores business etiquette, eating, lovemaking, child-rearing, retirement and more.”

In Japan-Think, Ameri-Think (Penguin, 1992), author Robert J. Collins offers wide-ranging comments on Japanese culture that may be of interest to haiku poets. For example, regarding the space around us, he says that “Ameri-space is something to be filled. . . . Japan-space is something to be preserved, if at all possible created, and in any event treasured” (pages 8 and 9). This is quite literally physical space (at a premium in Japan), but space in art and poetry too (the Japanese term for this is “ma”). As haiku writers, to what extent are we predisposed to have silence and space in our haiku? Perhaps we could cultivate more of this. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to take out the most important thing in a haiku so it can be implied.

       Elsewhere, Collins says this: “One problem in Japan is the tendency to institutionalize things” (page 112). This includes haiku, one would presume, thus the codification of season words in almanacs known as saijiki, and standard presumptions that haiku must rigidly follow a set rhythm, include seasonal reference, and employ other strategies—or it ain’t a haiku. Collins also writes that “Institutionalization destroys flexibility” (page 113), and that “Flexibility is an American trait, rigidity is Japanese” (page 129). Thus, the American tendency toward flexibility necessarily moves away from rigid rules, including some of those found in traditional haiku. The American tendency, however, would seem to be not necessarily a rejection of Japanese rules but a natural expression of the American psyche—a penchant that seems inadequately understood on both sides of the Pacific.

       Nevertheless, what can we learn from each other? For example, American haiku poets could learn better from the Japanese how to suggest rather than state, to hint at rather insist. Indeed, Collins says that “the Japanese have managed to elevate the art of indirectness to levels unsurpassed (or unimagined) in the rest of the world” (page 154). While haiku is a poetry of controlled directness, a fundamentally assertive sort of poetry, the best haiku always seem to offer a layer of indirectness, a layer of suggestion and reverberation, equivalent to the implication of a mountain range made by a single stroke from a sumi brush. How can we do that with our haiku? If it is not in our culture to be naturally inclined or able to do that, then it’s something we might practice, might strive for.

       And consider this observation: “Japan is a ‘closed’ society, and instead of breadth of views there is depth of views” (page 184). I think we can observe this trait in haiku too. And also note this, with obvious haiku relevance: “Japan-think recognizes a ‘season’ for everything. ‘Rainy Season,’ for example, is when the man on television says it is. If it rains the day before the man on television says it’s ‘Rainy Season,’ it’s just rain. Several years ago it only rained in Japan a half dozen times during the two-month ‘Rainy Season,’ but people dragged their umbrellas to work every day. The day after the man on television said Rainy Season’ had ended, it rained. Everyone got soaked to the skin—the umbrellas were home that day” (page 185). So, what are Americans to make of Japanese season words? Why is the codification seemingly more important than reality? If it seems that way, perhaps we can be reminded that common sense prevails, that even in Japan the reality of nature always trumps the supposed dictates of a season word almanac, but Japanese haiku still faces this tension.

       And finally, this perception: “‘Form over substance’ is an observation of things in Japan made by more than one non-Japanese” (page 192). In other words, the bucket you are seen to be filling may seem to matter more than what you’re filling it with, or that your method of filling that bucket needs to be “proper.” Literary haiku writers in other countries, such as America, do not emphasize a set form as much as the Japanese, thus the natural de-emphasis of form is another reason why the traditional 5-7-5 sound pattern that’s natural in Japanese need not apply in American haiku. The form is traditionally maintained in Japan because the culture is suffused with formality, but should world haiku necessarily be equally formalized?

       Whatever the differences between Japan and the United States, we do share many things in common, and these commonalities—and our differences—should be celebrated. They are part of what make haiku interesting.