THE STATE OF JAPANESE HOKKU IN 1907

In 1907 an English-language article about the hokku appeared in — of all places — The Reformed Church Review, published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  It was written by a Japanese — Professor J. K. Maeda — apparently a teacher at the Protestant North Japan College (Tohoku Gakuin) in Sendai at that time.  It shows us that the name hokku was then still in general use, before it was overtaken — as the years passed — by Shiki’s promotion of the eventually confusing term “haiku.”

It also reveals a major factor in why Westerners had difficulty appreciating the hokku for what it was.  There was a strong tendency — still prevalent in the later writing of Harold Henderson — to present the hokku to Westerners in (often abysmal) rhymed form, no doubt to make it recognizable to them as a kind of poetry (as poetry was still then generally understood), which did it great damage.  The “translated” examples in the article often distort verses nearly beyond recognition.  We also see the use here of the “5-7-5 syllables” description, which did not help the future of hokku, because Japanese phonetic units are not precise equivalents of English syllables.

Nonetheless, the article is revelatory about the state of the hokku at that time.  The magazine Hototogisu is mentioned, which of course was Shiki’s primary platform for his supposed “reform” of the hokku.  By the time of the article, its editorship was under Shiki’s follower Takahama Kyoshi.

Note, on page 386, the brief list of English-language publications featuring hokku.

It is noteworthy that the author ends by saying:

“There are many masters among the educated class of people, and they are making efforts to save the Hokku from becoming dry and prosy.  Something is being done in the way of improving this kind of composition; but there is reason to doubt whether it has much of a future.”  Professor Maeda is somewhat deprecating of the hokku, which reflects a tendency in late 19th-early 20th century Japanese culture — overwhelmed at that time by influences from Western art, literature, and technology — to see itself as not measuring up to that of the West.

In any case, here is the article in full from the Reformed Church Review of 1907:

 

 

 

 

 

 

David

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