Stephen Rojcewicz, MD




Review by Stephen Rojcewicz, MD

Brought back to Life via Haiku - the Artistry of Hisajo

A Review of “Hisajo in the Light of English Haikai Movement” by Eiko Yachimoto.

Eiko Yachimoto has accomplished a labor of love and a significant contribution to the history of Japanese and world literature in elucidating the life and writings of Sugita Hisajo, and by translating her haiku into English verse for the benefit of non-Japanese speakers. Hisajo (1890-1946) was a remarkable woman, a master of the arts of haiku, haiga, essay, and calligraphy, who created lasting beauty despite excommunication, family stresses, and the limitations proceeding from illness.

Hisajo, the wife of an art teacher, was a writer and teacher of haiku to women. She also wrote an early novel and even reviews on women haijin (haiku poets) in Edo period. She was the leader of a women’s haiku club, and the editor of the magazine Hanagoromo, for which she also created the artistic covers. Hisajo achieved early recognition with this haiku in 1919:

hanagoromo nuguya matsuwaru himo iroiro

blossom kimono—
on untying the obi
assorted strings now cling

Non-Japanese speakers should note that the name of Hisajo’s magazine, Hanagoromo, means “blossom kimono” or “flowered kimono”, and derives from this poem. This haiku was one of two haiku by Hisajo that were translated into English and included by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi in their influential anthology, Women Poets of Japan (Rexroth and Atsumi, 1977, p. 79). Their translation is less concrete than the translation Yachimoto uses, and it generalizes the specific Japanese references to kimono and obi into a non-specific “garment”, as well as making it more difficult to see the connection of falling blossoms clinging to a kimono to the fabric strings clinging to it. Perhaps the translation does hint at problems or issues coiling around and sticking to Hisajo. Here is their translation:

O flower garment!
When I take it off,
various strings coil around me.

This haiku brought her to the attention of a famed haiku master, Takahama Kyoshi, the editor of the magazine, Hototogisu, and the leader of the most prominent school of haiku at the time. The word “leader” might be too mild a term; in an account combining literary history with psychological analysis, Eiko Yachimoto details the interactions between Hisajo and Kyoshi, with the result that Kyoshi appears almost as a dictator. In 1932 Kyoshi had chosen Hisajo to be a dojin, an honorable member of Hototogisu. In October 1936, however, Kyoshi publicly disgraced and excommunicated her utilizing a full page of his magazine Hototogisu to list her name and that of two other writers as being purged from the official dojin list.

Yachimoto carefully analyzes personal letters, official Japanese literary history and reference works, and other written documents, to understand what led up to this purge, and to portray the effect of this public humiliation on Hisajo’s art and her life. Hisajo has often been portrayed in a distorted fashion as bitter, insane, schizophrenic. Rexroth and Atsumi, for example, summarize her life with these words: “She was dismissed from her school for her eccentricity, and later became insane and died in a hospital” (1977, p. 153). Yachimoto’s work in “Hisajo in the Light of English Haikai Movement”, clarifies the record, delineates the dynamics, misunderstandings and power plays that led Kyoshi to dismiss her unfairly, and shows that Hisajo often had a sad life, but was unlikely to have been schizophrenic. Indeed, the organization and sustained excellence of her work may show her to be depressed at times, but also demonstrates that, from a clinical standpoint, she was certainly not schizophrenic.

Hisajo continued to write after her public humiliation, though she gave up teaching. She continued to publish haiku in a few magazines. But she only published individual haiku in magazines during her lifetime, not a book of selections. While still alive, she had prepared her ku-shu (a selection of her best haiku), but ku-shu publication only came in 1952, several years after her death. She had wanted Kyoshi, the haiku master who first accepted and then publicly rejected her, to write the introduction to her book. Kyoshi never agreed to do so during her lifetime, but eventually did so in 1952, when he was more influential than ever. In Yachimoto’s words which were supported by several books published in Japan, Kyoshi cunningly mixed the truth and “some” fiction into this introduction,.

Hisajo was unique among writers of her period through her early exposure to non-traditional Japan and her intellectual approach to Japanese literary history, as seen in her keen interest in Manyo-shu, the oldest tanka anthology, also seen in her meticulous research for old season words and her reading of haikai no renga , or linked verses in Edo period. Okinawa and Taiwan where Hisajo spent her formative years were not part of traditional Japan and the climate in those sub-tropical islands is totally different from the climate of Kyoto or of Tokyo . She was also influenced by European literature in translation, as seen in allusions in her haiku to Nora, the tragic wife in Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House. This 1922 haiku, in a different English translation, was the other poem by Hisajo included in the anthology edited by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi.

tabi tsuguya Nora nimo narazu kyohshi-zuma

In the translation by Eiko Yachimoto:

mending tabi socks
a teacher’s wife
has not become a Nora

Eiko Yachimoto has done a great service by describing and translating excerpts from the scholarly essays written by Hisajo. Hisajo, as Yachimoto writes, was “one of the very few haijin (haiku teachers) who read pre-Meiji books and learned the long tradition of haikai no renga.”

Renku requires a community of poets, influencing one another. A renku begins with a three line, 5-7-5 syllable haiku-like stanza, which is answered by a two line 7-7 syllable verse. The poem then alternates long and short verses; each stanza is linked to the preceding one through some association, but then shifts to a new focus. The first renku that we have dates to the years 740-744, and is written by two poets, Otomo no Yakamochi and a female nun. From its start, linked verse allowed autonomy and freedom as well being firmly rooted in tradition, and demonstrated equality of male and female poets. The oldest extant renku guidelines, by Nijo Yoshimoto (1320-1388) state that the essence of linked verse lies in making everyday things look fresh.

Hisajo did not have a chance to meet any renku poets in her lifetime but exemplifies the above characteristics of renku in her haiku writing; she was free and autonomous, yet respected tradition, and even continued to respect Kyoshi, who publicly humiliated her. She continually kept striving.

Yachimoto includes an excerpt from Hisajo’s essay, “For Beginners”, published in Hanagoromo in 1932: “... I would like to recommend haiku composition especially to those housewives who are preoccupied with daily chores and those gentlemen who have to work everyday to support their family. Unlike a tanka through which you let your emotions freely flow out of you, a haiku requires restraint: you first have to have mother nature in your mindset. Even a complex issue in human life is supposed to be taken as another natural phenomenon if it is included in your haiku. To do that your mind has to be serene and composed as if like a mirror. As you create a genuine haiku you will find the fire of your emotion subsided and your spirit recharged with courage. You can return to your busy life with positive mental attitude. By all means secure yourself any little time to be with Nature.”

In 1926, based on her walks and attention to nature, Hisajo wrote an essay titled “Brought back to Life via Haiku”. In examining the numerous haiku translated by Yachimoto, one finds that Hisajo certainly lived up to her teachings. She is precise in her imagery from the natural world, and her spirit does seem recharged after this encounter with nature. Even when she is in great turmoil or depression, or in the midst of personality conflicts, the focus on nature and the resulting haiku does bring her back to life. I would like to focus on several haiku.

wareni tsuki ishi satan hanarenu manjushaka

satan stuck onto me
has left —
red spider lilies

I do not know if the line “Satan stuck onto me” refers to interpersonal problems religious issues (Hisajo was a Christian for several years), or her existential anguish. What makes the haiku memorable is the image of the spider lilies. Spider lilies often have long, somewhat awkward stalks, but a beautiful flower at the end. They reproduce easily, and are difficult to eradicate. When a gardener has dug them out of one location, he often finds them growing again in the same place the next year, because a portion of the root has remained. The spider lilies stick to you. The concreteness of “red” adds to the impact of the poem. Hisajo may have had serious problems, but she is attuned to nature, and can see beauty.

A second set of haiku that deserves special attention in this regard is her poems about the pomelo, written in 1934, and published as “Kagoshima, My Birth Place”. Here is one such haiku, as translated by Yachimoto:

zabon saku gogatsu to nareba hi no hikari

in awesome sunlight
May comes with the bloom
of a pomelo-orange

The pomelo is a citrus fruit, resembling a grapefruit, but usually slightly larger. The pomelo tree has very beautiful white petals, which most people, but not Hisajo, ignore. I wonder if the pomelo, in many ways, can symbolize the historical literary reception of Hisako. The pomelo is much sweeter than the grapefruit, without the grapefruit’s bitterness, but it has a larger rind and much larger membranes surrounding the edible segments; these membranes are bitter if eaten, but the segments themselves are delicious. Eiko Yachimoto has described the bitter membranes surrounding Kyoshi’s treatment of Hisajo, and has allowed the beauty of Hisako’s writings to stand forth.

Hisajo’s essay, “Brought back to Life via Haiku”, is prophetic. Hisajo brought herself back to life through the discipline of writing haiku. Hiroshi Tamura and Kinya Asano (1997) have described the therapeutic benefits of haiku and renku. As Tamura has summarized (1998), haiku and renku are reality oriented, employ ambiguity, depend on the association of words and images, and carry multiple meanings through metaphor; these characteristics allow personal growth and healing. Hisajo was deeply disappointed. But she was not Nora, the Ibsen character who killed herself. Instead she created poetry. In her writings, she was reality oriented, employed ambiguity, depended on the association of words and images, and wrote poetry with multiple meanings through metaphor. Hisajo was “brought back to life via haiku”.

Eiko Yachimoto has emulated Hisajo in this respect. She has brought Hisajo back to life for us, through her description of her life and writings, and through her sensitive, accurate and poetic translations of Hisajo’s poetry.


Rexroth, Kenneth and Atsumi, Ikuko, editors (1977). Women Poets of Japan. New York: New Directions.

Tamura, Hiroshi (1998). Therapeutic functions of poetic language in schizophrenia. In G. Roux and M. Laharie, editors, L’Humeur: histoire, culture at psychologie, pp. 386-390. Biarritz, France: La Société Internationale de Psychopathologie de l’Expression et d’Art Thérapie.

Tamura, Hiroshi and Asano, Kinya (1997). Renku as psychotherapy: Japanese traditional poetic forms adapted to poetry therapy. Arts Medicine: 132-140.



About Stephen Rojcewicz, MD


Stephen Rojcewicz, MD, a Past President of the National Association for Poetry Therapy, is Board-certified in both psychiatry and forensic psychiatry. Steve has always been fascinated with the relationship of mental health to the creative arts and the humanities, and has published numerous articles in this field. He has created haiku and other poetry, has participated in renku, has translated poetry, and is the co-author of a textbook on psychotherapy, published by the American Psychiatric Association. In addition to his practice of psychiatry in Maryland, Steve is currently a graduate student in ancient Greek and Latin at the University of Maryland.









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