My Younger Brother Spreads His Palms, Maple Leaves: Yukio Mishima’s Haiku


Arts & Culture

Yukio Mishima.

Many are likely to be surprised to learn that Yukio Mishima—yes, the writer who chose to die by dazzlingly public disembowelment and decapitation in 1970—wrote haiku. When you think of it, though, if you go to school in Japan, you will automatically be asked to compose haiku in grammar school or, at any rate, in junior high school. Also, sometimes, but not often, your parents will meticulously preserve every scrap of your school compositions or the school magazines printing your stuff. Both happened to Mishima. As a result, we have about a hundred eighty of his haiku collected among his complete works.

Mishima was a literary prodigy. With haiku, it also helped that his Japanese-language teacher in the Middle Division of the Peers School was Kurō Iwata. Iwata didn’t just encourage his students to write. After the war, he established his reputation as an authority on Edo haikai. He published, among other things, a large compilation of commentaries on all of Bashō’s hokku.

One of Mishima’s earliest haiku dates from when he was seven years old, and it reads:

Otōto ga o-tete hirogete momiji kana
My younger brother spreads his palms, maple leaves

The “younger brother” here is Chiyuki, two years old at the time. He went on to become a diplomat, serving as ambassador to Morocco and Portugal.

Now in English translations, Mishima may not be known too well as a playwright, despite Donald Keene’s translation of Madame de Sade and Ingmar Bergman’s famous staging of it, my translation of My Friend Hitler and Other Plays, and a few others. But he wrote more than seventy plays, beginning with the ones he wrote in his early teens, and most of them were staged in his lifetime. In fact, as Donald Richie observed, “life was but a stage” to Mishima, his staging of his own seppuku the most meticulous construct he pulled off. 

His first commercial success in theater was a grand costume drama, Rokumeikan, in 1956, and it had to do with a political and familial intrigue set around the building of the same name—the British-designed, Renaissance-style social center that the Japanese government built at great cost in 1883. The sole purpose of the large building was to encourage social intercourse between foreign dignitaries and members of the Japanese aristocracy. Japan had opened itself to Western nations only about two decades earlier.

The Rokumeikan, named after a phrase from the Confucian Odes, survived for half a century until 1933, when Mishima was eight. By then, though, it had long been a fading social club for Japan’s high society, a phantom reminder of “the age of the Rokumeikan,” when copycatting Westerners represented the height of sophistication and social achievement.

Mishima wrote a set of five haiku referring to the Rokumeikan and its age. He was sixteen, and he was prompted to write them, one is tempted to imagine, when he saw a Western dress and some paraphernalia—remnants from the youthful days of his grandmother Natsuko among the clothes taken out to air for mushiboshi, a seasonal word for “summer.” Natsuko famously, or infamously, influenced Mishima as a child, monopolizing him until well into his early teens. But as Takeshi Muramatsu has suggested in his perceptive literary biography of his friend, it is highly unlikely that Natsuko attended any of the balls at the Rokumeikan. She was simply too young for that and not aristocratic enough. Here are Mishima’s haiku, preceded by the heading “About the Rokumeikan and Such”:

Kōsui no shimi ari furuki butōfuku
Here’s a stain of perfume on an old ball gown


Mushiboshi ya butōfuku nomi hanayaka ni
Airing clothes only the ball gown elegant


Enrai ya butō kaijō basha tsudou
In distant thunder horse carriages gather for the ball


Hotaru amata niwa ni hanachite butōkai
Numerous fireflies released in the garden then the ball


Butōkai Roshia miyage no ōgi kana
At the ball a souvenir from Russia a fan

Other than mushiboshi, each of the four other haiku contains a summer kigo: kōsui, “perfume,” thought to help dispel the smell of perspiration; enrai, “distant thunder,” because there’s more thunder in the summer than in other seasons (there are about ten kinds of thunder listed as kigo); hotaru, “fireflies”; and ōgi, “fan.”

The fan here is obviously of a decorative variety, and that prompts me to add that before Japan defeated Russia in the 1904–1905 war during the period of global imperialistic expansion—has it ever stopped?—or even before the Russian revolution, Japan’s high society looked up to the Russian aristocracy like the aristocracy of any other European country, and treated things from that country as admirable exotica, although I must also add that those decorative fans may well have been made in Japan and exported.

In the fall of 1968, Yukio Mishima took time out to write an appreciation of the haiku of Hatano Sōha when asked by Haiku magazine. Mishima had completed serializing his extended essay Sun and Steel (Taiyō to tetsu), which made unmistakably clear his intent to kill himself with a blade sooner or later. He also made official the formation of the paramilitary Shield Society, one member of which would help him in his seppuku as decapitator. In the meantime, his life remained as full and intense as ever—or, as he put it, “murderously busy.”

Yet when Haiku solicited an essay on Sōha, Mishima obliged. Even though Sōha had published just one book of haiku, The Flower on the Road (Michi no hana), in 1956, he was Mishima’s upperclassman at the Peers School, where he formed the haiku group Magnolia Society, which he managed with Mishima. In addition, he had sent Mishima every issue of Blue (Ao) after starting it in 1953. The magazine was based on the haiku group he had started with some students of the University of Kyoto, which he had attended. In 1948, he had become the youngest member of Hototogisu, though in less than ten years, he made comments critical of the magazine.



Yukio Mishima and a cat.


Mishima agreed to Haiku’s request because he was punctilious and courteous to a fault in such respects. One might imagine, too, that he may have wanted to relive the genre he had given up nearly three decades earlier. Mishima wrote in his essay:

A junior-high-school student, I tagged along with [Sōha], taking part in kukai [haiku sessions] and going on ginkō [haiku excursions]. Mr. Kyōgoku Kiyō, a Peers School alumnus and a haiku writer of the Hototogisu group, greatly loved him for his talent, which may have been one reason he approached the group. The haiku sessions in Viscount Kyōgoku’s residence were elegant and classical, as they were held in the guest room with its floor covered with a ceremonial scarlet carpet, even in wartime. Finding myself seated at the end of the honored guests, cowed by the atmosphere, I made myself small.

Sōha, at any rate, wasn’t particularly productive as a haiku writer. Mishima wrote his appreciation with the manuscript of what was to become Sōha’s second book years later. In fact, the book still hadn’t been published in the late seventies when Rippū Shobō planned a six-volume set of modern haiku, asking each poet he included, Sōha among them, to make a selection of four hundred pieces plus the writer’s own comments on a dozen or so of them. Those comments—called jikai, “self-explications”—are often at once revealing and confusing, even as they remind you that reliance on them is a clear violation of the New Criticism’s “intentional fallacy.”

Sōha’s self-explications reveal, for example, that the reading of the Chinese characters 舗道 in the title of his first book is not the standard hodō but michi. The title derives from the following haiku, he said, casually adding that the last phrase is in five syllables, not six as one might have thought:

Kingyodama toriotoshinaba michi no hana
Should I drop the goldfish bowl: a flower on the pavement

The parenthetical “it would shatter into” could be added after the colon for clarity. In the summer, goldfish vendors at street fairs used to sell ball-shaped glass bowls tied with a string to carry your purchase (though later, plastic bags replaced the glass bowls). Sōha explains that even though he wasn’t quite sure about this haiku when he submitted it along with a group of other haiku to Hototogisu, the manuscript came back with a double-circle (A++) approval on the piece from the magazine’s founder and editor, Kyoshi Takahama. So he decided to use the phrase michi (“road, path, pavement”) as the title of his book. One consequence of doing this was the impression among readers that this was his representative haiku, which prompted some to point out the structural weakness of the haiku.

Sōha’s self-explications also cast into doubt both “shasei,” recreating faithfully what you see, an approach Shiki Masaoka advocated, and “objective shasei,” an approach Kyoshi Takahama advocated as head of the Hototogisu group. In the sixties, Sōha started associating with avant-garde haiku writers. Take these two pieces:

Sakuragai nagaki tsubasa no umi no hoshi
Cherry clam: its long wings among the stars of the sea


Yo no umi no kuraki o nagare kiri hitoha
Flowing in the dark of the night lake a paulownia leaf

Sōha says he wrote the first by the sea and the second by a lake, both at night, but he also makes it clear that there is really no way of seeing a “cherry clam,” a small pink bivalve (Nitidotellina hokkaidoensis), moving about in the sea, or a paulownia leaf afloat on a lake. He explains that the first was a fanciful description of a particularly bright star, and the second a description of what he imagined might be afloat on a lake off the beach.

In writing his appreciation, Mishima divided Sōha’s haiku into four categories: (1) refreshing pieces that had initially impressed him as a member of the students’ haiku group at the Peers School; (2) those representing a kind of symbolism he discerned Sōha gained in haiku; (3) those that are demonic or scary; and (4) those expressing the bleakness of life. Let’s look at one haiku from each of Mishima’s categorizations.

Refreshing haiku

Doresu no se ni tsukimatou ka yo tōi tsuki
Around the back of her dress a mosquito clings: distant moon

This falls into 6-7-5, though syntactically the first thirteen syllables form one unit. Sōha wrote hypersyllabic haiku often enough.

Haiku containing symbolism

Takeha furi koinu mo kataki mari o suru
Bamboo leaves falling a puppy too issues solid droppings

As we’ve already seen, reading Chinese characters when used in Japanese is often problematic. 竹葉 is here read takeha simply because take no ha chiru 竹の葉散る is a kigo; otherwise, it can easily be read chikuha or even chikuyō. In the original, mari, given in a Chinese character meaning “shit” or “manure,” is so read because Sōha specified this reading with a ruby; otherwise, 糞 is likely to be read kuso. Etymologically, mari originally referred to the Japanese equivalent of “potty,” and it is a euphemism. Some argue that Sōha made a cute picture even cuter by specifying the reading for “shit.” What kind of symbolism Mishima saw in this haiku is anyone’s guess.

Demonic or scary

Kani aruki nakihito ate ni mada kuru fumi
A crab walks and letters still addressed to the deceased

This haiku hints that the letters appear in a horizontally written foreign language because a language so written is called kaikō-monji, “crab-walking letters.”

Bleakness of life

Ame no mozu shoshin no nure o kanashimeba
A rainy shrike as I sorrow over an epistle that’s wet

The shrike is a kigo for autumn. Was Sōha echoing the following haiku by Katō Shūson?

Kanashimeba mozu konjiki no hi o oi ku
As I sorrow a shrike flies in against the golden sun

Shūson’s piece reminds us that Mishima famously associated the moment of death, violent death, with the word kakuyaku (kakueki) 赫奕, “brilliantly,” “glitteringly,” as when he described the moment of disembowelment of the young terrorist Isao Iinuma at the end of Runaway Horse (Homba), the second volume in his tetralogy. He had planned to end his life upon completion of the project, and he did. In this respect, Mishima’s imagination may have been closer to Shūson’s than to Sōha’s.


Born in 1942, Hiroaki Sato is a celebrated translator and author who has lived in New York City for fifty years. New Directions published his translation of Sakutaro Hagiwara’s The Iceland.

Excerpted from On Haiku, by Hiroaki Sato, published by New Directions on October 30.