Ordinarily, I do not dwell much on specifically Japanese cultural aspects of the hokku, because my primary purpose in talking about hokku here is to teach how to write good new hokku in English, and in a non-Japanese environment. But it might be interesting for readers to see some of the problems inherent in translating old Japanese hokku, particular those with cultural elements that may be unfamiliar to people in other countries.
Buson, in addition to a few good hokku and a number of mediocre hokku, also wrote some rather peculiar fanciful hokku based on Japanese folklore. If one does not know anything about that subject, it is very easy to misunderstand or misinterpret these verses.
There is, for example, this one:
Aki no kure hotoke ni bakeru tanuki kana
Autumn ‘s nightfall Buddha into changed tanuki kana
We could translate it as:
The autumn evening;
It has turned into a Buddha —
Most translators usually render tanuki as “badger,” but the tanuki is not really a badger. It is actually an odd member of the dog family (Canidae). An English term sometimes used for it is “raccoon dog,” but that is a bit long, though the tanuki really does look somewhat like a cross between a raccoon and a dog. My personal opinion is that when one is translating hokku about tanuki, it is likely best to just use the Japanese term, because chances are one is going to have to explain the hokku anyway, as I am about to do here.
Now if you looked at the translation I gave above, you are likely still wondering what the hokku means. Is Buson saying the tanuki has become a Buddha, like in some old Zen story? Or does it mean something else?
It might help a bit to tell you that in Japanese folklore, there are two animals noted for being able to change their form, to “shapeshift,” to take on the appearance of something completely different. The first shapeshifting animal is the fox, but even better at shapeshifting than the fox is the tanuki. So when Buson says the tanuki has “turned into a Buddha,” does he really mean that it has transformed itself — shapeshifted — into the appearance of an image of the Buddha? Hotoke in Japanese means “Buddha,” but its secondary meaning is “Buddha image.”
Before we decide, I would like to give a slightly different translation, now that you know what a tanuki is and does in folklore:
The autumn evening;
It has transformed into a Buddha! —
By “Buddha,” in this case, Buson would have meant a Buddha image.
In the Japanese version given at the beginning of this posting, I loosely translated bakeru as “changed,” but it really means to transform one’s appearance, to change one’s form, even to disguise one’s self.
Knowing that, we could try a third translation:
The autumn evening;
Disguised as a Buddha —
I think I like that one best of all, so far.
Now what inspired this odd hokku? We might keep in mind that stone or pottery images of tanuki standing on their hind legs, from about one to three feet in height, were (and are) quite popular in Japan, and were often to be found outdoors, including in gardens and near temple sites.
We might then think that Buson was in such a place as the evening darkness was coming on, and that as he walked in the growing shadows, he saw a dark image that he thought at first to be an image of a Buddha, but on getting closer, he was amused to see that it was actually just a tanuki image.
Conversely, we could suppose that Buson perhaps saw the dark shape of a standing Buddha image outdoors near dusk, and fancifully imagined that a tanuki was trying to fool him by taking on that form.
Either interpretation is possible. Of course it is also very possible that Buson just created the whole scene in his mind for the fun of it, for the effect. He rather liked to create what he thought were “artistic” verses out of his imagination.
Fact is, however, that Buson left a story connected with this particular hokku. He tells how he was spending a night on his own at a large, shrub-surrounded house in town, and had just pulled the quilt over himself and gone to sleep when there was a frightful banging and pounding that went on repeatedly. Buson got up and toddled to the door, but no one and nothing was there.
He had barely gotten back to his bed when the pounding began again. So once more he got up and checked the door, and once more no one was there.
At this point Buson was so unnerved that he found the caretaker of the place, who told him it was a tanuki, and that if the noise began again, Buson should quickly open the door and chase the tanuki, while the caretaker would be waiting in the shrubs. But when the noise began again and Buson hurriedly opened the door and the caretaker ran out from the shrubs, not even a shadow was to be seen.
Now the bothersome thing is that this pounding went on for five nights. Buson, with bloodshot and bleary-eyes from lack of sleep, had just decided that enough was enough and he and was going to leave the place when a servant of the owner of the house appeared and reported that an old tanuki had been killed in Yabushita village — and that it was probably the one who had been making all the night noise.
And indeed there was no more pounding and banging that night. But Buson began to think of the unfortunate tanuki that had come to him for five nights, and began to feel compassion for him. So he called a priest named Zenkubo and paid him to perform a ritual so that the spirit of the tanuki might have peace.
Then, after giving this little story of his experience, Buson presents the hokku we have been discussing.
Knowing this additional information, should we decide that our very first thought that the tanuki might have become a Buddha in some religious or Zen sense was correct? In that case, we could just translate it as:
The autumn evening;
It has become a Buddha —
Of course the notion that just a ritual could make a tanuki into a Buddha is unrealistic, so perhaps what Buson really intended was a kind of hyperbolic euphemism in which “become a Buddha” really meant “has died.”
Now do you see how tricky translating unclear hokku can be? A hokku should never require a “backstory” to be understood. And we should never have to sit and ponder to figure out the meaning of a hokku. We should be able to grasp it immediately. That is why, as hokku, Buson’s verse is lacking. Even knowing all that we know at this point about the tanuki in folklore and about Buson’s experience of pounding in the night, we still are not quite certain what he intended with this verse.
In any case, now you know several possibilities for what the hokku means, and also what a tanuki is. But the most important things you should take away from this discussion are:
1. Never write a hokku that requires additional information to be understood.
2. Never write a hokku that cannot be quickly grasped by the reader.
Given that we cannot determine for certain what Buson meant by this verse, we can safely move on to a more important question: Which of the possible translations we have seen makes the best hokku?
That is easy. It would be one based on the notion that Buson either saw a tanuki statue and mistook it for a Buddha image in the twilight, or he saw a Buddha image and imagined that a shapeshifting tanuki had taken on that form to trick him.
So my favorite, with one small change, is still:
The autumn evening;
Disguised as a Buddha image —
It is a playful verse, nothing serious, but to understand it, a reader would still have to know that in Japanese folklore a tanuki is a notorious shapeshifter.
If for some reason you have been intrigued by the tanuki and want to know more, here is a link to a very useful page explaining the evolution of its folklore and representation in Japan over time: