The Built-in Approachability of Culture in “Well-Versed: Exploring Modern Japanese Haiku,” A Haiku Anthology Edited by Ozawa Minoru, Translated by Janine Beichman

By Spencer Thurlow

I have always wanted to be able to suggest a book of poetry for my friends when they ask if I know of any good Japanese haiku, besides the legendary 17th-century Japanese haiku poet Bashō. It has been difficult to answer them, however, as my knowledge of formal Japanese haiku ends abruptly after, well, Bashō. Ozawa Minoru, the haiku poet and critic who edited Well-Versed: Exploring Modern Japanese Haiku, affirms my suspicion that I’m not alone in his preface to the English edition. He writes: “In my travels to America, Canada, Russia and Poland I have met many people who are interested in haiku, including those who write haiku in their own languages. As we chatted, the conversation would often turn to the seventeenth-century haiku master Matsuo Bashō, and I was gratified to see that he held a special place in their hearts, for he does in mine too. But it always struck me that modern haiku and haiku poets were almost never mentioned” (6).

Haiku in Japan suffered a decline in popularity with the Meiji restoration, a social and political revolution in the late 1800’s that disposed of the ruling samurai government. At the turn of the 20th century, the poet Masaoka Shiki revitalized haiku as a respected art form. Well-Versed captures everything that has happened since, with 300 haiku written from around 1900 to the present day. The haiku are grouped into spring, summer, fall and winter themes, and also a special category for the new year, with each section marked by a set of stunning seasonal photos. A unique feature of Well-Versed is that only one haiku appears per page, the extra space used for informative commentary by Ozawa, the original poem in romanized Japanese, a direct translation, as well as an author bio. I feel that Ozawa’s choice to present this bulk of information as part of the text, as opposed to a footnote or appendix, allows the casual reader to appreciate each work within the context of broader culture. With this supporting data, the translator Janine Beichman, a professor of Japanese literature and also a skilled poet, is more free to present the haiku themselves as they appear in Japanese: as clear, masterful poetry that is both meaningful and not too complicated. To illustrate, the following is the full page 228 of Well-Versed, in the “Autumn” section:

Everyone waiting together

                                    for the typhoon—

                                                             that feeling

Nakata Yoshiko

A big typhoon is coming. The weather forecast predicts that peoples’ homes will be buffeted by fierce wind and rain. Their lives may even be at risk. As everyone waits together, they are busy preparing as best they can by boarding up their windows and so on. Perhaps “everyone” is a family or fellow students at a school. Or it could even mean the entire country.

            Please note that this is not a scene of everyone waiting together for a typhoon. This is the feeling of that waiting. The poem is not about one particular experience but rather a feeling that has developed through accumulated experiences. It describes the intense communal feeling all share when confronting something overwhelming. Perhaps this is how people felt in earlier times during war.

            And what are we awaiting now? 

                 Taifū o / minna de matte / iru kanji

                 Typhoon / everyone waiting / feeling

Nakata Yoshiko (b.1959) first studied haiku with Katsura Nobuko and contributed to Sōen. After Katsura’s death she joined Sōju, led by Uda Kiyoko. In 1998 she cofounded quatre, and she currently runs the magazine. This poem is from her first haiku collection, Wakusei (2002).

Ozawa’s commentary helps the reader understand a few of the Japanese cultural connotations in this poem. For example, a reader may not know that typhoons are frequent enough in Japan so that preparing for them is a shared cultural experience across the country, or that the notion of feeling and presence is nuanced in this poem, It is also significant that Ozawa notes the poem is evocative of war. His commentary adds to the reading experience. For example, as an American who grew up on the east coast of the United States, I am familiar with typhoons (hurricanes) but I have different associations than Ozawa does, so I am grateful for a culturally native haiku expert to help unpack the meaning. The commentary is of course, the opinion of Ozawa himself, and the original text is open to interpretation. However, Janine Beichman’s translations, which are excellent English-language poems, become richer in meaning when a reader can begin to see the myriad culture the source poem is resting on without having to flip to the back of the book or look terms up online.   

I find this approach to be refreshing. Having had some experience translating Japanese poetry, I know that the challenge of presenting cultural minutia from the source poem while retaining lyricism in English can feel impossible. In the example haiku from page 228, it might be easy enough to communicate the fear of natural destruction that hurricanes elicit, but how to get that feeling across to an English-speaking reader without some kind of supporting content? To put it more generally, how do you communicate something in one culture that has not been felt in another? It is a great question, but one that can also derail a translation project. Perhaps the commentary in Well-Versed helps sidestep this issue. Additionally, the direct translation and romaji text may help tie down some anxieties about truth and faith to the original for non-translators. Overall, I feel that the inclusion of the commentary, the Japanese original, direct translation, and biographical information give a reader with no knowledge of Japanese a better chance to understand the poem as Ozawa might— first as a beautifully written piece of poetry, then as art with deep cultural context, and then as professional work produced by a member of the literary community.

This format works for Well-Versed in part because haiku are so short to begin with. There is also precedent in Japan for commentary like Ozawa’s regarding traditional poetry, stemming from the fact that many haiku are written using rare words and grammatical forms. One of my favorite editions of the Hyakunin Isshu, a popular anthology of 100 poems written between the 8th and 13th centuries, even has accompanying photos just like Well-Versed. I do not know whether a book like this would be feasible for longer poems, prose, or even other language pairs. I do know that productions of this quality do not happen in a vacuum. I had the pleasure of interviewing Janine Beichman about this project earlier in 2021, and she made a point to mention the many others who had been involved in various aspects of the project, including Award-winning translator Meredith Mckinney, Lisa Wilcut and Yuiko Kimura who helped with the prose sections, and Rico Komanoya, the project manager on the Japan Library side. We are certainly all fortunate to have an English edition that has been brought to us under such a skilled team.

Minoru, Ozawa. Well-Versed: Exploring Modern Japanese Haiku. Translated by Janine Beichman. Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture (JPIC), 2021.

Spencer Thurlow is the current Poet Laureate of West Tisbury, Massachusetts, USA, where he leads community readings, workshops, and more.  His poetry or translations have appeared in The Georgia Review, Granta, Cincinnati Review, Worcester Review and others. With Eric Hyett, Spencer co-translated “Sonic Peace,” by Kiriu Minashita, (Phoneme Media, 2017), which was shortlisted for the American Literary Translators Association’s 2018 National Translation Award, as well as the Lucien Stryk Prize for Asian Translation.

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