Missing the Moon: Haikuless Haibun

First published in Contemporary Haibun Online 14:4, January 2019. Originally written in November of 2018. See the new postscript at the end. See also Jeffrey Woodward’s “Haibun Minus Haiku” blog post on Haibun Today from November of 2007.

In July of 2013, Minako Noma published An Introduction to Haibun (privately published in Matsuyama, Japan). The book is short, only 64 pages, and its primary purpose is to showcase a new translation of Tsukiyo Sōshi (Sketches of Moonlit Nights), a ten-part moon-themed haibun by Chodō Kurita (1749–1814). The book includes not only the original text in Japanese, written in 1798, but also a version in a modern Japanese translation by Takeshi Imamura. The English translation by Patricia Lyons celebrates an extended haibun of extraordinary and disarming beauty that unfolds with the phases of the moon, written at a time when Japan used the lunar calendar rather that the current solar calendar, thus a time when the moon served as civilization’s timepiece—or, as Imamura puts it, “In those days, the moon was the calendar, and people could not live their lives without looking at it” (52). In her afterword to An Introduction to Haibun, Noma writes that she wanted to publish this content because she thought “it would be a good book for those who only think of haibun as a travel diary” (58).

Aside from providing a fine translation of a lesser-known early Japanese haibun, the book may be of particular interest to haibun aficionados for its brief commentary, “What Is Haibun,” by Imamura, who is vice president of the Matsuyama Shiki Society and coauthored There Is Today: Chodō Kurita and His Writings. Imamura begins by saying “A haibun is a short prose piece written in haikai style,” and then briefly explains the history of haikai poetry, a common sort of literary amusement to which Bashō “added feeling and emotion derived from a deep observation of nature and human life, in an attempt to fuse elegance with the commonplace” (5). He then discusses Bashō’s reverence for karumi, or lightness, and presents a Kurita haiku that exemplifies this shared perspective. Imamura states that “In haibun . . . a state of ‘lightness’ is surely the ultimate” (7).

On a more practical level, Imamura states that “A haibun can act as a preface to a haiku and, at the same time, can be seen as a kind of essay. But even though it is a prose piece, it should possess poetic sentiment and rhythm” (7). In regard to convention, Imamura says that “In the orthodox form, a haiku follows the haibun, but one should not be shackled by this convention. The haiku may be placed where it is most appropriate given its content. The ideal is that the haiku and the haibun will enhance each other” (7). Perhaps more surprisingly, Imamura adds that “if the haibun itself bears haiku characteristics, a haiku need not be attached” (7). Indeed, two of the ten parts of Sketches of Moonlit Nights lack a haiku, presenting just a short prose paragraph with no verse at all. Here is one example, titled “The Nineteenth Day Moon,” in its entirety (33):

Since when has it been called the “lie down and wait moon” or the “sit down and wait moon”? Such delightful names. Is it because one must wait during the night in discomfort, in the cold autumn wind, until the moon appears? In any case, the moon has no way of knowing.

Although the preceding text includes no haiku, it is still considered a haibun. Perhaps it is easier to accept this choice in a sequence of haibun such as Sketches of Moonlit Nights, where most of the haibun do have haiku, but might we too consider writing haibun, at least occasionally, with no haiku at all?


Chodō Kurita mentored Issa in haiku. As quoted in Sketches of Moonlit Nights, Shiki said that Chodō “was the most skillful haikai poet in Matsuyama until now” (49). Here is a sample poem by Chodō Kurita (51):

                raining off and on

                the loaded horse

                under the eaves

A further thought to this essay’s proposal is that I doubt a haibun would be identifiable as a haibun on its own without including a haiku, or at least some identifier, such as a subtitle, that claims the piece to be a haibun. Perhaps a haikuless haibun therefore works only in the context of a set of haibun, as with the Sketches of Moonlit Nights example. And yet I also think of passages in Jack Kerouac’s fiction that have been referred to as haibun, even when no haiku appear. The possibilities are intriguing.

        —2 January 2019