Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2003

Ryan M. Jones

Yatsuka Ishihara

Ryan M. Jones

Ryan's Haiku



Yatsuka Ishihara and
Introspective Shaping

How should a haiku be formed? What is the role of nature in haiku as opposed to human intuition? What is the role of the kigo seasonal word? These questions drive at the core of the haiku experience. In reality, there are many ideas on how to write haiku. Some poets believe that a person should write what they have directly experience; to do otherwise is to write from the desk and not from a position immersed in the world. Others believe in the "sketch" method pioneered by Shiki in which the world is essentially copied as is; this method is very similar to Zen notions of haiku that call for the absence of human thoughts or feelings from a haiku. Basho offered a variety of ideas as well, ranging from humorous haiku-the word "haiku" means playful verse, after all and was often humorous-to austere Zen haiku to haiku that were more of a synthesis and which were designed to capture a layered world.

Yatsuka Ishihara, a contemporary Japanese poet, believed that the key to writing a good haiku was through his method of "introspective shaping." This method contrasts the sketch and Zen methods because it acknowledges and even requires the human intuition that is present in all activities. Haiku do not spring from the world to our pens to be written onto paper; instead, they must pass through our minds, and even if we attempt to remove our perspective, it is still there. For Ishihara, the reality of this human perspective should be embraced. Introspective shaping, after all, is a practice in which we use "haiku glasses" to look into our hearts, where "the landscape of truth exists." Kristen Demming in Red Fuji writes that Ishihara wants "to bring human feeling and thought into his haiku." She continues by saying that introspective shaping means ... shaping the scenery of the human mind." Kigo, seasonal words, are windows to the mind, and as such, Ishihara believes that haiku poets should not just see nature. Instead, they should be cognizant of the reality that the trees, birds, rocks, and water that they see is being viewed through the kigo window. "'Everything," Ishihara said, exists within the mind to begin with. In haiku the subject is always 'I,' but the 'I' is implied, not directly expressed. Whatever the subject, whether you, he, she, or it, it is always I," (Red Fuji, 21-22)

Thus, haiku poets should embrace feeling, intuition, and the humor of haiku. As Patrick Gallagher writes in his essay on Ishihara, "What I believe Ishihara means is that haiku should be more than inscriptions of natural scenes, that the best haiku will go beyond and in a humorous way exaggerate the literal truth." That is, they should be more than sketches, as would be the method under the Zen poets. Humor is essential for Ishihara 'in his haiku, and it is humor that is representative of human intuition and presence within haiku. Humor exaggerates, and for Ishihara, the best haiku are those that play with reality, with the literal, and go beyond. As Ishihara said, "Through the expression of truth with humor, a rich space is created to enjoy a wider meaning. I think this is true not only in Japan but in the West" (

This exaggeration—hyperbole can be seen in Ishihara's work as well. It is indicative of his treatise: "tell about the truth as if it were false." Instead of just reporting the truth, just sketching it, we should instead bring our perspective to bear on the truth, shape within, and find the truth there. Thus we have haiku such as these two famous examples of Ishihara's work:

pulling light
from the other world . . .
the Milky Way

pg. 73, Red Fuji

burning withered chrysanthemums
I stirred up
the fires of Hades

pg. 82, Red Fuji

In both examples, we can see the effect of introspective shaping. In the first example, we have the stellar images of light coming from another world. A journalistic haiku in the sketch method would stop there, just describing the pale fight of Jupiter or Mars. Instead, Ishihara takes the ultimate step by invoking the Milky Way. In this way, he exaggerates the content of the haiku beyond simple observation-he has added his own thinking to the matter. The second example is even more pronounced. As he stirs the burning flowers (themselves vivid haiku images), he imagines the fires of Hades in the smaller flames he is tending. Hades is not a real place (at least for those of us still living!) and its place in the haiku is entirely due to internal thinking. There is a truth there though in the hyperbole, and it's impact can be felt in addition to the aesthetic feeling we get while reading about the burning flowers. Again, we see the humor, the slight grin or impish laugh, and the room that the humor creates allowing us deeper and fuller understandings of the haiku.

A third example will more clearly show the human element, as well as the hyperbole in his work:

Tatsuji dies
and afterwards the swing

pg. 49, Red Fuji

The image of the somersaulting swing is very vivid and aesthetic-we see the swing violently swinging and jolting, as if in a great wind, but there is something beautiful about this image as well. Nature is seen in this sketch as the essence which causes the swing to move. However, when the first portion of this haiku is added, we find the human connection. It is the death of his beloved master TatsuJi that causes the swing to somersault—Ishihara is hit with the news of the death or perhaps the realization, and he finds himself blown about like a somersaulting swing in the wind. Ishihara is not the subject of this haiku, but he is present, and he makes no effort to remove his presence. Instead, his presence is implied in the movement of the swing, which also signifies his powerful and strong emotion towards hearing his master had died. And finally, hyperbole is found in the word somersaults-it seems a bit too much, a bit unreal, since it is plural and therefore means it is happening again and again. This, however, is a more subtle use of hyperbole and humor than the previous two examples.

Now, for comparison, I will evaluate three haiku in terms of their Zen and natural characteristics, followed by an explanation of the introspective shaping used in them.

napping under blossoms
the tumbling blossoms
seem an avalanche

pg. 75, Red Fuji

Blossoms is the kigo word in this poem, and it invokes images of spring. A scent fink is present between the feeling of being weighted down with blossoms and napping under the blossoms. Weight is present in both cases, as expressed and implied in words like "tumbling" and "avalanche." A content link is also found with the continuation of the blossoms. We find a pleasant juxtaposition in this haiku between the weight of an avalanche-the use of hyperbole—and the softness and lightness of cherry blossoms. In terms of Zen, the haiku is wordless, and contains suchness—the reality of the blossoms falling on a spring day in large numbers could seem to be an avalanche-but is not selfless, as the human connection is clearly shown. It is here, in this last line, that we find more of the introspective shaping. The word "seem" implies perspective on the part of the author, and suddenly, we see a writer composing this haiku as the blossoms fall about him. The overall effect of the haiku, that of weight and its juxtaposition with lightness of blossoms, would not be as pronounced without the introspective shaping as we would only be describing something that was seen and would not feel the weight as we are made to do with the last line.

The second example is also a splendid haiku.

into the deep
dark sky ascend
floating lanterns

pg. 51, Red Fuji

In terms of Zen, this poem is excellent—it is not wordy, it is simple, it describes a scene just as it is, and the image of the lanterns and the dark sky convey images of stars that imply a oneness of the universe. It is a clean and vivid image. But we have the added significance again of the introspective shaping. The lanterns are being used for a festival honoring the dead; now, they are floating away, much as the souls of the dead are returning to the deep, dark heavens after the festival. Here again, we find the humor in the moment, that added recognition and understanding given to us by the shaping. By putting this haiku through the scrutiny of internal thought, we find new truths in it than we would find in plan description. The image itself is magnificent; the added meaning given to the poem by the shaping and context makes it even more delicious.

And now we have the third example.

bumped against
the confession booth—
the end of the year

pg. 72, Red Fuji

This haiku again has many Zen characteristics. It is simple, wordless, nothing special-as it describes an event that could happen easily—and it describes the situation just as it is. I see a scent link here as well—we see the image of the person bumped against the confession booth, and we might think this person is religious. However, the end of the year is also here, the last line tells us, and that is usually a time of revaluation of lifestyles and lives in preparation for the coming new year. The bumping then takes on a new feeling here, as if it was meant to be or as if there is guilt surrounding the experience. It almost seems as if the person has not been to confession for a while. Again, we see these human layers on the poem because of the shaping. Any other time of the year would not invoke these images, and a sketch could easily not focus on the kigo of the end of the year. However, with the shaping, we feel this haiku even more poignantly than we would if another time period was used or the haiku was not shaped. We find humor in the incident and then the deeper understanding and irony of bumping into a confessional booth near the end of the year when values are being reconsidered anyway. Actually, another scent link can be seen between the shaping itself and human quality of confession. Human perspective makes this haiku work; without it, it would be dry and clinical.

It is very clear that Ishihara regards human insight and experience valuable to haiku writing. Even though the 'I' is not the subject of the haiku, it is implied, and it is implied because of the shaping required to form the haiku. By acknowledging the 'I', Ishihara helps readers understand haiku by prodding them to see the haiku from their own perspective, just as we should do. We put ourselves into the haiku, and introspective shaping, therefore, is a lucid way to achieve this objective of haiku. Thus, we find a new take on the questions regarding the human role in haiku and the difference between haiku and senryu. A question remains: how far can human emotions seep into the haiku poem?

Another example shows the prominence of introspective shaping and challenges the traditional notion of haiku. This haiku goes further, beyond conventional thinking, into a realm of greater understanding through its juxtaposition.

on the sailing ship
there is a face by Munch
the white night

pg. 71, Red Fuji

This haiku utilizes a kigo about mid summer in Arctic and Antarctic regions where the sun does not set. A poem could be written simply about this experience that expresses the presence of a white night or the insomnia it causes. Instead, Ishihara gets to the instability these nights cause in a person's psyche-he invokes the familiar image of the white-faced individual screaming in Munch's famous painting. A scent link is found there in the color white, and it continues with the insomnia of the white nights and the horror/madness of the individual who is screaming in Munch's painting. Munch's work is unsettling, and we feel unsettled by the face, by the white nights, by being trapped there on a sailing ship with no way to escape the light.

In this way, Ishihara took what was real, namely the white nights and a sailing ship, and pushed it beyond by adding the exaggerated line invoking the images of Munch. Obviously, reality does not look like the swirled fines of a Munch canvas, but through introspective shaping, we feel more clearly the impact of this haiku because of the presence of this second line and the context of the white nights it so powerfully supports. And in a way, this poem feels to false to have many Zen-qualities. It is not simple or ordinary, it is not self-less because of the feelings it invokes, and it is hard to believe that anyone could be one with the paintings of Munch. Only the face and the white nights seem to be connected in some sort of oneness. Yet, despite the lack more Zen-like qualities and more pronounced natural elements at the expense of the human element, this is clearly a powerful haiku. Another example more exemplifies Ishihara's use of the exaggerated.

faintly white
it sticks to my face
the autumn wind


This poem clearly shows the hyperbole concept key to Ishihara's poetry. He exaggerates, almost humorously, the effect of the wind blowing against a person's face as something that can stick to a face in some sticky white substance. Now, we know that this is not a real situation. Perhaps, there is dust in the air, or some other substance, but a literal reading of this poem leaves us feeling unfinished confused. This is where the hyperbole comes in-the wind is interacting with the author, and it is sticking to him. Human perspective and intuition have now entered, and we wonder why the wind is sticking to the person in something white. How can a wind stick to someone's face? Clearly, this is not possible, but when viewed through the shaping method, we find deeper meaning and ask questions relevant to the haiku.

It should be noted that not all of Ishihara's poems follow introspective shaping in this pronounced manner or in the same ways as the examples above. Some early poems seem more conventional, but they too are beautiful. An example:

As a baby carriage
passes by        the swaying
baby's breath

pg. 35, Red Fuji

This poem is a clever example of his work. A word link between the baby carriage and baby's breath could lead us, on first reading, to assume that the season is winter and that we are seeing the shifting steamy breath of a baby on a cold day. However, this same link can instead be read to be one between a baby and the plant baby's breath that is shifting in a breeze, meaning we are in spring or summer. There is also a scent link between the concepts of the first line to the break of the second line and then from that break to the conclusion in the motion of both the carriage and the steamy breath or plant. I see animation in this haiku, not exaggeration, and this is an example of a play on words that adds greater meaning to his haiku and more opportunities for finding meaning. "Writing haiku is a process of knowing yourself better. You will know your true self by reading your own haiku. Compose haiku, then read them, and you will know who you are," Ishihara said in Red Fuji, pages 21-22. He continued: "It usually takes about fives years for a haiku beginner to really understand that you don't cling to poetry expression, but you should go straight to the kigo concept. Through kigo, you look inside yourself. Trust yourself to the kigo."

It is fitting, then, to conclude briefly with examples from Ishihara's work that places prominence on the kigo. Examples include

a big yam
pulled up      a tree frog
jumps aboard

pg. 46, Red Fuji

faring over the lake
drawing the light
an autumn butterfly

pg. 47, Red Fuji

dried up
come to live in my chest
the insect of rage

pg. 48, Red Fuji

In the first example, the kigo is the tree frog (and possibly the yam), a summer seasonal word. This is clearly a humorous haiku, as it would be a delight and worth a laugh if while digging yams a tree frog jumped onto one that a person was holding. In contrast, the second example is more ephemeral and soft, more Zen in its approach. The words are simple and seem to be devoid of humor. Instead, we see the seen simply, clearly: the autumn butterfly (the seasonal word) over a lake catching light. This is a very simple poem described just as it is, the concept of suchness in Zen haiku. The final example contrasts the other two. In it, we more clearly see his feelings again, just as we did with the haiku about the somersaulting swing. "Dried up" is actually the seasonal word in this haiku, eliciting a sense of a barren winter. Ishihara seems to be containing his rage as a dried, crusty remnant of an insect in his chest. It is not flowering, bursting forth anymore. This is a bitter, lonely poem. Together, these poems show the breadth of his work in many ways-we see humor, intense description, powerful feeling, and the use of his beloved introspective shaping.

Ishihara's philosophy on haiku is fresh and worth further exploration. Not simply satisfied with detached writing about the world in the journalistic sketch method, Ishihara believes that we must bring our intuition to bear and find the meaning of things within ourselves. This is a very profound concept that points to his recognition that we cannot escape our senses and our own thinking, and, ultimately, all we perceive is colored by our own perspective. In true haiku form, however, Ishihara did not become discouraged by this reality. Instead, he used humor and hyperbole as vehicles to take his haiku a step further than other haiku so that they stood out and offered the opportunity for a richer, deeper experience that wasn't solely based on description and the experiences of the reader. It is there, in the confluence of humor, hyperbole, description, and intuition, that haiku are born, and it is in this confluence that Ishihara. believes we will find the truth we are searching for in writing haiku-the truth about ourselves.

The lotuses all
withered     the wind
stops laughing

pg. 56 Red Fuji

—Ryan Jones

©2003 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors