Today in Japan, Jan 20 ~ The Lonely Poet

in OCD2 months ago

And here is your daily almanac for Friday the twentieth of January 2023. I was scanning the listing of events in my notes database today (yes, I keep all this stuff in my own notes) and noticed there are a number of notable birthdays today. But there is one in particular I want to talk about.

Today, in 1885, Ozaki Hōsai was born.

If you've been following me over the years in my haiku adventure, you know Hōsai is one of my favorite poets. Let's look at his life a little bit.

He was born in what is now Tottori City and his interest in haiku started early. He submitted some haiku to Hototogisu while still in high school, the major poetry magazine in Japan, but the very conservative editor, Takahama Kyoshi, rejected them for not being traditional enough. This led him to embraced free-form haiku and he became a student of Ogiwara Seisensui who was the most influential free-form haiku poet at the time.

He was a brilliant student, but unfortunately love did him in. He proposed marriage to a long-time friend but her elder brother opposed and blocked the marriage. This rejection led to Hōsai becoming a heavy drinker and an alcoholic, a problem would would plague him all his life. We might assume he already had problems with depression and this marriage rejection just proved a bridge too far.

He would go on to get a good job but was fired for incompetence. He got another job and seemed to be successful there for a time. He was said to come in to work drunk and reeking of alcohol everyday, but he had connections that allowed him to stay. However he quit the following the year anyway for unknown reasons.

He then decided to give up on life and joined a Buddhist temple as a monk in training.

Being a monk didn't help his drinking, but it did help him find a little peace, or at least more than he had had previously. In 1926 he was sent to live in a small temple on the island of Shōsoshima in Kagawa Prefecture and he lived here until he died later that year.

He was a part of the Shinshisha (New Poetry Society) movement, which sought to break traditions and completely reform haiku by getting rid of all remnants of the past including season words and syllable count and blending it with Western influences. This movement led to Gendai haiku (modern haiku) which are very popular today.

During his final years he wrote some 4000 haiku, most of them very very short. How short? Here is one of his most famous ones:

Seki o shite mo hitori

even coughing,
I'm alone

That's only 9 syllables! The traditional haiku length of 12 syllables is already very short, much shorter than 12 syllables in English (as I detailed here), and here he is going even shorter.

But as that haiku hints at, his last years were very lonely. He was far from happy and blamed himself for all his problems in life. At least he found some degree of solace in his haiku. Here's another expressing his loneliness and depression:

sabishii karada kara tsume ga nobidasu

from my lonely body
my nails start growing

In the years since his death, the very similar Santōka has become very well thought of and one of the more popular haiku poets in Japan's history, but Hōsai still hasn't achieved that level of recognition. He'd probably be fine with that, but I hope more people do discover him in the future.

He died at age 41 in 1926.

This was also the birthday of Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Yoshimasa was very interesting because while he was a failed shogun, in many ways he gave birth to many of the things we consider traditional Japanese culture today. But... I try to limit these Today in Japan posts to just one person, so we'll cover Yoshimasa at a later time

Today is Butsumetsu (仏滅), one of the rokuyō, the Buddhist horoscope. This is the most unlucky day of the rokuyo. I suppose Hōsai would find it fitting that it falls on his birthday. He'd probably mutter in a very Eeyore-like voice, "That figures. It doesn't surprise me. I kind of expected it."

(Read more about the rokuyō here)

On the old calendar, today would have been the twenty-ninth day of the twelfth month. It is the first day of fukinohana saku (ふきのはな さく, "Butterburs Begin to Sprout"), the first microseason of Daikan (大寒, "big cold"), which in turn is the final miniseason of the Japanese almanac before the entire cycle starts over again on Feb 4th.

This is said to be the coldest time of the year. But that makes it the perfect time to begin the brewing process for miso, soy sauce, and sake, because the coldest water is said to be the cleanest. I live next to one of the oldest miso factories in Japan and they are very busy this time of year.

It may be the coldest time, but there is also a hopefulness as spring is right around the corner. Soybeans and oni (demon) masks are being sold everywhere as people start to prepare for Setsubun which is the first day after Daikan finishes.

Here's a haiku from Hōsai:

jitsuto ko no te o nigiru ōkina wagate

carefully holding
a child's hand
in my big hand

Even in his loneliness, he found some joy and hope. I love this poem here. It's such a perfect image of holding a child's hand. I don't have big hands but when I hold one of my son's hands, I dwarf them.

Have a good day everyone. Watch out for bad luck today. Be careful!

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Hi there! David LaSpina is an American photographer and translator lost in Japan, trying to capture the beauty of this country one photo at a time and searching for the perfect haiku.

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