return to research page    

          Ban'ya Natsuishi

Second Sight

Richard Gilbert




Published in Frogpond: Journal of the Haiku Society of America, XXIV: 3 (2001) pp. 71-78 .



  Ban’ya Natsuishi. A Future Waterfall: 100 Haiku from the Japanese . Translated by Stephen Henry Gill, Jim Kacian, Ban’ya Natsuishi, Susumu Takiguchi. (Red Moon Press, PO Box 2461, Winshester, VA 22604, 1999.) ISBN 1-893959-04-X. 64 pp., $12.00 from the publisher.


We are fortunate to receive in English translation a recent selection of some of the best haiku composed by Ban’ya Natsuishi, a poet mentioned as “one of the most outstanding contemporary haiku poets breaking new ground in haiku form and expression in Japan” ( Japanese Haiku 2001, Modern Haiku Association). Ban’ya has not only integrated both classical and modern haiku perspectives, but has produced truly insightful, pioneering haiku. These are poems that reawaken us to the power of the image and provide fresh approaches to haiku expression. Tohta Kaneko writes in his foreword to Future Waterfall :


The one hundred haiku in this anthology were selected from Natsuishi’s eight volumes already in print. Some of them are delicate, others are bold and vast as the universe. Some are melancholic, still others are cheerful and enjoyable. Some are sympathetic with fellow human beings, yet others are bitterly cynical about them. These . . . with their rich variety have all come through the very heart and center of Natsuishi as a human being.


The book contains two short essays, “The International Nature of Contemporary Haiku,” and “Composing Haiku in a Foreign Country,” which will introduce the reader to Ban’ya’s efforts to overhaul the kigo concept in haiku and promote international haiku expression. The translations, by a group of notable haiku poets, possess a taut muscularity, poetic power, and elegant concision, and are faithful to the sense of the originals. Clearly, the work of the translators was to retain as much as possible of what Philip Rowland has termed the “poetmeat” of each of the works. It is a unique opportunity to co‑translate with a living Japanese haijin also acquainted with English. I have worked with the poet, and find Ban'ya to be sensitive to the poetic possibilities of the English haiku; he has made the selections in this book and approved the translations.  

Ban’ya often presents unique, almost paradoxical combinations of metaphysical insight and concrete sensation. An example is the signature haiku below (now to be found in a number of Japanese anthologies and textbooks). In a commentary elsewhere, Ban’ya urges readers not to consider the haiku from a kigo perspective, though the poem contains traditional season words. While this is not the place to argue the ‘keyword’ approach, it surely is spurious to analyze Ban’ya’s haiku in terms of kigo (as was recently done in a review in Modern Haiku XXXII:1), when the poet has explicitly detailed his ‘keyword’ method in several essays and extensively in his Keyword Dictionary [ki-wa-do jiten, 1990]. In the following, the keyword “future” allows the poet to create a locus larger than ‘season’:


Mirai yori taki o fukiwaru kaze kitaru


From the future

a wind arrives

that blows the waterfall apart


What kind of wind is it? It is ordinary wind. Ordinary water. And yet? . . . Reading this haiku, I was reminded of a scene witnessed at Bridal Veil Falls, in Yosemite — nicknamed ‘the falls to nowhere.’ The falls continuously divide, first into veil-like sprays, then droplets, and far above the ground the falls seem to disappear. A droplet of water at the top will meet its future wind, to be annihilated. In a zone of invisible transition, space becomes time. Yet in that section of the waterfall cascading over the rock at the summit and out into space this future never quite arrives. The future annihilates the identity of the instant, yet the standing wave of presence affirms it.

There is also a metaphoric resonance with consciousness: the moment of awareness launches out into space, and the future arrives, blowing the waterfall (identity) apart. This is a haiku that reknits time and awareness — present and future are neither entirely juxtaposed, nor merged. Hovering on the lip of this resonance is a vibrant image — a pure source of vital existence.

Ban’ya’s haiku draw upon mythological or shamanic realities, often through literary association:


Ko no mara o suu haha ya koko kuwa no umi


A mother sucks

her baby’s cock

amid a sea of mulberry leaves


Of the selections in A Future Waterfall, this haiku is most in need of commentary. On first impression, the subject of incest shocks, while ‘sea of mulberry leaves’ is a bit mysterious. Ban’ya draws on several literary references in the haiku, all of them stemming from ancient times. The haiku has parodistic elements, similar to those parodistic haiku of Buson (and others), based upon classical Chinese literature. The haiku originally appeared in a collection of 50, which won the prestigious yearly usho prize (1981) given by the haiku journal, Haiku Research [haiku kenkyu]. ‘Mulberry [kuwa]’ was one of the names for ancient Japan used in China [as: fukuwa], so mulberry symbolizes Japan. The mulberry leaf is also the sole food of the silkworm; themes of metamorphosis and transformation are implied by the image. Ko no mara [baby’s penis/cock] is a classical literary reference, indicating Gendai (modern Japanese) haiku lineage; mara has appeared in Tohta Kaneko’s haiku (written in free-meter):


mara furi arau hadaka kaijyou roudou sumu

cock swaying
washing naked, his work
finished on the sea

                                 (trans. Natsuishi and Gilbert)


The classical reference to ko no mara is found in the Nihon Ryoiki compiled around 822 CE by Kyokai. It is the earliest Japanese collection of setsuwa bungaku, Buddhist moral tales. What Kyokai did in many cases was to take popular legends from the Japanese oral tradition of strange, ‘miraculous,’ or seemingly bizarre occurrences in the phenomenal world, and then recast them in Buddhist terms . Ban’ya did not provide a commentary to his ‘mulberry’ haiku, nor the set of 50. However, the title provided, Ryoujouki  [a collection of ordinary stories], parodies the Ryoiki, while at the same time providing an indication of the literary reference. The Buddhist message of karmic retribution is a unifying theme in the Nihon Ryoiki .

The relevant story, “The Woman who was Raped by a Serpent and Saved by Medical Care,” has several parts. Briefly: the daughter of a wealthy family had climbed a mulberry tree to pick some leaves, when a huge serpent in the tree was seen by someone below. The girl panicked and fell to the ground. The serpent then coiled around her and raped her. As she was later being healed/purified, she gave birth to baby serpents, woke up and exclaimed, “It seems to me that I was dreaming, but now I am healed.” Three years later, following a similar incident, she announced to her family, “I believe that I was the wife of the serpent in a previous life. I love the serpent — in the next life I wish to be married to the serpent.” Two anecdotal stories are next related; both are told by the Buddha. In the first anecdote the Buddha sees a woman weeping at a grave, and says: “That mother, in a past life, adored the spirit of her only child, a baby son. She did not want to become separated from him. She sucked her baby's penis, wishing that after her death she be reborn as his future wife. Then she died three years later, after performing this same ablution. She was next reborn as the neighbor to her son, and later married him.” The Buddha continued with a final anecdote: “There was once a father who had a son he loved and admired, who was an excellent runner. The father exclaimed, ‘My son runs as swiftly as a wolf!’ The son was later reborn as a wolf.” (With appreciation to Prof. Hori, Kumamoto Gakuen University, for his translations.)

As the translator Hiroaki Sato has written, “ In translating poetry, no one is wrong , except when the literal deciphering is.” A recent review of A Future Waterfall   (Modern Haiku , XXXII:1 ), critiquing the phrase ko no mara, argued that "baby" for ko, and "cock" for mara were incorrect translations . Observing that the mother performed her ritual both with her baby, and three years later with her (then) child, it is significant that the word ko in ko no mara in English translation, refers to “baby,” as opposed to “child,” just as is indicated by the setsuwa text. It seems that the reviewer, William J. Higginson, had found the standard definitions for the Japanese terms, but was unaware of the literary reference providing the raison of the haiku, and was likewise unaware that mara, when used to refer to the male organ, has no negative cultural connotation . (It was suggested that mara be translated as “devil stem”!)

We confront several possible interpretations. The setsuwa stories were composed at a time in which a pre-existing female‑centered shamanic culture had been displaced by Confucian and Buddhist precepts that incorporated and “rewrote” the previous culture values, maintaining women's inferiority and reinforcing a shift toward patriarchal structure. There are a number of images of union in the stories that involve women, through these roles sometimes appear shocking or perverse. Beneath the overlay of the main Buddhist parable of the serpent tale, there is the outline of a woman shaman — a shaman in union with her serpent-ally. A similar theme is discerned in the Izanagi and Izanami origin myth presented in the Kojiki (712 CE), where “a shift from matriarchal to patriarchal institutions may have found expression in the story” ( Cambridge History of Japan, Vol.1. e.g., Izanami gave birth to a disfigured baby because she spoke first at the marriage ceremony). Japanese women from pre-historic times have had an unusually prominent role in dealing with the supernatural. Shinto’s principal female deity Amaterasu probably evolved from the concept of a shamaness mediating between humanity and supernatural beings. A case in point is the legendary 3rd century Shaman-Queen Himiko (considered the first ruler of Japan by some scholars), who enjoyed a great following due to her mastery of kidou “ the way of the demons.” From shaman-queens to inferiors in authoritarian, male-dominant social orders — the setsuwa stories reveal traces of an epic power struggle.

The mother who sucked her baby’s penis committed a bizarre act. Notwithstanding, her karma was the fruition of her love-desire: a marriage to her son (and later, weeping at his grave). Should the story be taken literally? It is hard to imagine that the setsuwa anecdote of a mother’s incest, at the very least, is set in its original cultural context. A devoted father, with seemingly the best of intentions, causes his son to be reborn as a fox (a rebirth in the animal realm is not propitious), via an overtly literal thought-form. These stories (apart from the question of women’s demonization) attempt to shed further light on the bond between woman and serpent through the karmic travails of additional dyadic relationships .

Through its provocative images of metamorphosis on a number of psychological and historical levels, the haiku challenges us to resist the literal, posing the question: can any poetic image be accepted naively? The shocking ‘present-tense’ image of the haiku subject moves us, through literary association, into ancient allegory and a usurpation. This haiku, at first glance shockingly blunt, acquires a barbed irony as it addresses the roots of belief.


Aozora o suikomi semi no ana wa kiyu


Sucking in the blue sky

a cicada hole



As in the above juxtaposition of a disappearing hole with the blue sky, that we will confront the shifting nature of fundamentals is a given in Ban’ya’s haiku. Perhaps this is their genius, to find within the essence captured by haiku form and expression new conceptual locations of presence and consciousness. The publisher, Red Moon Press, aware of these qualities in the haiku, has included a book cover/footer design, “Fylfot Flipflot”, a design which at first appears static but which shifts into a coruscating array of shifting patterns and forms; a fit complement to the intention of many of Ban’ya’s haiku. Likewise, “Futura,” a san‑serif typeface popularly used for its clean and futuristic style represents a creative departure.

Throughout the past century, Japanese haiku culture has undergone a kind of reverse-mirror process to that in the West: a national, classical poetic form has been reformed, abandoned, rediscovered, and extended numerous times, as poets brought together their classical tradition with modernity. Through his journal Ginyu, essays and lectures, volumes of haiku, and most recently by co-founding the World Haiku Association, Ban’ya has been reaching out cultural boundaries. It is clear that such acts are not always met with good will or appreciation, threatening as they are to established norms. But it is most certainly a way forward, and for that we should at least grant him the honor of a close and informed reading.

return to research page