Bashō’s Frog: The Gift of Haiku

Speech presented at the second Haiku Pacific Rim conference, in Ogaki, Japan, on 19 November 2004. At the time, I was first vice president of the Haiku Society of America. Not previously published. To see the conference schedule, visit the website for Ikuyo Yoshimura [site no longer works], click the link for the Evergreen haiku group, and then scroll down to the schedule, where you can also see conference photos.

In 1987, Professor Makoto Ueda of Stanford University gave a talk at the “U.S.–Japan Conference on Haiku Poetry” in San Francisco. He referred to the frog that “swam across the ocean.” He meant Bashō’s frog, of course, and how Bashō and his famous poem had spread haiku to North America and other lands.

        Today I bring you greetings from the Haiku Society of America, one of the results of that frog’s swim across the Pacific. The HSA is the largest haiku group in the United States, with more than 820 members. Professor Jerry Ball served as president for two years, Charles Trumbull is the current president, I am first vice president, and Sosuke Kanda has served as the HSA’s Japanese regional coordinator. We have a vibrant organization that publishes a quarterly newsletter and a respected haiku journal, named Frogpond in honour of Bashō’s furuike ya.

        The Haiku Society of America holds four quarterly conferences in various parts of the country each year, and regional and local groups in most parts of the United States are loosely affiliated with the HSA. I bring you greetings, too, from one of these many smaller groups, Haiku Northwest. This group is based in Seattle, and will host the next HSA quarterly conference on December 4 this year, and will also help host the biennial Haiku North America conference from September 21 to 25 in 2005, to which you are all welcome. If you are not familiar with Haiku North America, it’s an event that began in 1991 in California, and has had up to 150 people attending from all parts of the globe.

        Indeed, Bashō’s frog is still swimming! The recent Shiki International Awards have honoured the United States (Gary Snyder), Brazil (H. Masuda Goga), and Taiwan (Kō Reishi), as well as Japan (Bansei Tukushi). Not only has the kawazu visited the United States and these other countries, he has swum to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Singapore, the Philippines, South Africa, Russia, Venezuela, Argentina, the Caribbean, and all over Europe. We have people with us this weekend who have come from many of these places. We would not be here were it not for the subtle power of haiku and the strong little kicks that Bashō’s frog has given us.

        I am also here today for a personal and more recent reason—because of this poem:


                cats in love

                making nightmares

                for baby


I and my wife, who is Japanese, have a one-year-old baby named Thomas Taiyo, and I hope he never has nightmares, but this poem has given me much pleasure because it introduced me to its author. This haiku, by Ikuyo Yoshimura, is the title poem from her book Cats in Love, published in 2000. In April of that year, I first met Professor Yoshimura at the Global Haiku Festival at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. She captured my attention when she said she lived in Gifu, which is not far from the town of Minokamo where my wife’s parents live. After I told Professor Yoshimura of this close connection, she gave me her book and I have since greatly enjoyed “cats in love” poems. Here is one of mine:


                cats in love—

                the blinds split apart

                in the neighbour’s window


        Another poet who wrote about this topic is Bashō. Here is one of his “cats in love” poems, translated by David Landis Barnhill:


                cats in love: neko no koi

                when it’s over, from the bedroom yamu toki neya no

                a hazy moon oborozuki


        As you know, Bashō is most known for his hokku and his travel diaries, the most famous of which concluded right here in Ogaki. At the end of the Oku-no-hosomichi, after his long and arduous journey through the northern interior of Japan, Bashō describes how he and the wandering poet Rotsū entered the city of Ogaki on horseback. He tells us that he was joined by his travelling companion, Sora, as well as his friend Etsujin, a merchant from Nagoya. In Ogaki, at the home of Jokō, a priest and former samurai, he also met up with Zensenshi, Keikō and his sons, and many other friends. They were all overjoyed to see Bashō after his long journey.

        Just as Bashō brought his friends together in Ogaki centuries ago, he brings us together as friends today. More than 315 years after the Oku-no-hosomichi, we gather in Ogaki, delighted to see and meet each other. I am here partly because of a poem about cats in love, and probably each poet, scholar, artist, student, or translator in attendance today has come because of a personal connection to another person here. But it all started with Bashō and his frog. We are as different and varied as Bashō’s friends, yet we have come together, joined by our common focus on haiku. Though hundreds of years have passed, we continue to celebrate Bashō’s gift of haiku.

        In addition to thanking Bashō, I wish to express my grateful thanks to Ogaki mayor Bin Ogawa and to the citizens of Ogaki for hosting the Haiku Pacific Rim conference, to Nobuo Nagasaka, the president of Asahi University in Gifu for support, to Jerry Ball for starting this event, first held in Long Beach, California in 2002, and to Ikuyo Yoshimura and the members of the Evergreen Haiku Group at Asahi University for putting together this conference here in Ogaki. I am grateful to all the organizers for their work in making this conference a success. Because of this event, we have each made new friends and learned more about haiku and its history. Many of us who have discovered haiku because of Bashō’s frog are glad to have swum back to its homeland today. We are all very fortunate to be part of the worldwide fraternity of haiku poets and are grateful to Bashō for his inspiration. Indeed, we can readily agree with William J. Higginson, who said the following, in his 1994 book Haiku Compass: Directions in the Poetical Map of the United States of America: “Bashō, you started something.” Dōmo arigato gozaimashita.