Some books touch our lives in unexpected ways, changing the way we look at life. The Haiku Master by Japanese American author, Takiko Morimoto, is one such book. Based on the life of Japan’s most famous poet in the Edo Period, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), Morimoto’s historical novel brings to life the unrecorded early years that shaped his emergence as a haikai poet.
When we first meet Kinsaku (Basho’s birth name), he is thirteen years old with dreams of becoming a samurai warrior. In seventeenth-century Japan, with its strict class structure under the feudal lords, the young Kinsaku could never realize his dream. He’s the son of a poor farmer and former gunnery soldier.
On his father’s death, Kinsaku obtains work in the kitchen of the Iga Castle. Given the new name, Hanhichi (seven and half), his main duties are fetching water from the well, cleaning the kitchen, and serving meals to the room of the Head Samurai. After three years of faithful service, he is transferred to the Head Samurai’s residence to serve as page to the lord’s young son, Sengin, two years his senior.
As page and companion to the samurai prince, Hanhichi trains in martial arts, studies classical literature, and learns to compose haikai no renga, a form of collaborative poetry composition that his master enjoyed. Sengin calls him Sobo, his pen name as a new haikai poet.
When his master and companion dies, Sobo’s life is turned upside-down. He not only loses his closest friend, but also his chances of developing as a haikai poet.
Haikai was introduced to him almost accidentally, but now it is part of him. Without it, he cannot live. After his inner world welcomed him as a young Haikai poet, Sobo has found Haikai to be his most important resource for dealing with life. Haikai offers humor and freedom from restrictive traditional values. When linking his Haikai verses with verses by others, he feels connected, sharing the sweetness and sourness of their lives. (The Haiku Master, p.79)
While showing Sobo’s struggles to achieve his new dream of becoming a haikai poet and master, Morimoto also explores the bisexual poet’s intimate and adventurous relationships with the men and women he loved and lost.
In linking some of Sobo’s haikai to events in his life, Morimoto gives new meaning to his poetry. His grief in losing Sengin is expressed in the following poem (p.84):
The autumn wind howls
through the open sliding door
with a piercing voice.
Years later, when the first woman in his life leaves him, he writes his farewell haikai verse (p.113):
Over the high cloud
Far from a friend, a wild goose
Morimoto’s Basho does not forget his humble origins and his familial obligations. As in his poetry, he gives his all in love and friendship, oftentimes at great cost to himself. His sensibility and tenacity touched my soul.
Born and raised in Japan, Takiko Morimoto graduated with a philosophy degree from the Tokyo University of Education, specializing in Japanese thought in the Edo period. After earning a Doctorate in Education from the University of California Los Angeles, she taught Japanese language and literature at universities and colleges for twenty-five years.
The Haiku Master, published in the USA in September 2014, is the result of ten years of research and the author’s actual retracing of Basho’s famous pilgrimage to Japan’s Deep North.
In 2014, Takiko Morimoto’s Japanese language novel about Basho was nominated the finalist of the 14th Historical and Romantic Novel Literary Award in Tokyo.