Santoka, Seisensui, and Non-traditional Haiku

adapted from a text by Hiroaki Sato

Taneda Santoka (1882-1940) was born Taneda Shoichi, in 1882, a son of a landowner with large holdings in Yamaguchi, at the southwestern tip of Japan’s main island, Honshu. When he was ten years old, his mother, Fusa, committed suicide by throwing herself into a well. The sight of her corpse pulled out of the well apparently reverberated throughout his life. While studying literature at Waseda University, Tokyo, he had "a nervous breakdown" and dropped out.

Back in Yamaguchi, he started a sakè brewery at the age of 25, and married Sato Sakino at the age of 27. A son, Takeshi, was born the following year. About that time, he acquired the habit of drinking heavily and recklessly. When he was 34, the Taneda family went bankrupt, and he moved to Kumamoto, in the middle of the southern island of Kyushu, with his wife and son, and started a secondhand bookstore. In 1918, when he was 36, his younger brother committed suicide by hanging himself in the woods. The following year he went to Tokyo, alone, and worked part-time at a cement laboratory. He was then employed at a library for a while, then as a city clerk. At 38, he was legally divorced, and Sakino took custody of their son and the book business.

In 1923, in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake, he was arrested as a possible Socialist and gaoled. (Police used the disaster, in which 100,000 people perished, as a pretext for rounding up and killing many Socialists, while mobs killed a great number of Koreans). Released, he went back to Kumamoto. In 1924, while drunk, he brought a streetcar to a screeching halt, and was arrested. The incident led him to a Zen temple of the Soto sect, which seeks enlightenment in carrying out daily chores.

The following year he was ordained a Zen monk. For the rest of his life he was mostly on the road as a mendicant monk—in practical terms, a beggar—traveling throughout Japan, in an old-fashioned priestly black outer robe, a large hat, a staff, and an alms bowl. When he was 53, he attempted suicide. In April 1940, he assembled seven haiku chapbooks in a single volume and published it under the title of Somokuto (Grass and Tree Cairn). He dedicated it “to my mother / who hastened to her death when young”. He then hit the road again, to hand out the book to his friends. One October night, after a haiku meeting, he went to bed, drunk, and, while asleep, died of a heart attack. He was 58. It is said that one of his two goals was korori oujou, “dropping dead.” He fulfilled that goal.


Taneda Shoichi acquired the nom de plume Santoka (fire on the mountain-top) in 1911, when he joined the local literary magazine Seinen (Youth) and started publishing pieces such as a translation of a passage from Turgenev’s Smoke. That year he also became a member of the local haiku group Yayoi Ginsha (March Haiku Society, later Mukudori Kukai : Starling Haiku Meeting), and for the haiku he employed a different pen-name : Denji-ko, Lord Mud-Snail. Before long, he was using Santoka almost exclusively. His haiku surviving from that period largely conform to the traditional requirements of yuuki teikei : the inclusion of a seasonal indicator and the syllabic pattern of 5-7-5. Among them:

Wagimoko no hada namamekashi natsu no cho
My beloved’s skin sensuous a summer butterfly.

Santoka’s conversion to non-traditional haiku, when it came, was swift, and was largely due to Ogiwara Seisensui—a nom de plume meaning “well water”— who had started writing haikai at elementary school, and was thoroughly versed in traditional haikai by the time he joined the Shin-Keikou Haiku Undo, New Trend Haiku Movement, while studying German at the Imperial University of Tokyo. He claimed to have been influenced by the epigrams of Goethe and Schiller's couplets.

The movement seems to have begun with an article written in 1908 by Ousuga Otsuji (1881-1920) emphasising the importance of suggestiveness in haiku

Seisensui (1884-1976), was among the leaders of the movement to reject traditional approaches and write very elliptical haikai. He accepted the first of Santoka's haikai for publication in the March 1913 issue of his magazine Soun (Cumulus) - a magazine still going strong. By that point, Santoka had found his 'voice'. For a while from the latter half of the 1920s, his was among the most attractive voices in the pages of Soun. With the rise of fascist imperialism in Japan, he lost favour entirely, and it was not until around 1960 that his popularity was restored.

He was an inveterate scribbler. Though he is known to have burned some of his writings and lost some - at least once by leaving them in an eatery - his surviving works required seven sizable volumes when an attempt was made, in the first half of the 1970s, to assemble his “complete works”: Teihon: Santoka Zenshu, published by Shun’yodo, in 1976. Five of the volumes are devoted to his diaries, one to his letters and such, and one to his haiku. One estimate puts the number of haiku he wrote at 15,000. But when he compiled Somokuto, really the only full-length book he published while alive, he selected a mere 701 pieces, all taken from his mature period. He was a rigorous editor of his own works.