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“The New Year,” R.H. Blyth once wrote, “is a season by itself.”  That was nowhere so plain as in the world of haiku, where saijiki, large collections called of ku illustrating hundreds, if not thousands of briefly explained seasonal themes, generally comprised five volumes, one for each season. Yet, the great doyen of haiku gave this fifth season, considered the first season when it came at the head of the Spring rather than in mid-winter, only a tenth of the pages he gave to each of the other four seasons (20 vs. 200).  Was Blyth, Zen enthusiast, not enamored with ritual?  Or, was he loath to translate the New Year with its many cultural idiosyncrasies (most common to the Sinosphere but not to the West), because he did not want to have to explain the haiku?  With these poems for the re-creation of the world, Robin D. Gill, aka “keigu” (respect foolishness, or respect-fool), rushes in where even Blyth feared to tread to give this supernatural or cosmological season – one that combines aspects of the Solstice, Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, July Fourth and the Once Upon a Time of Fairy Tales – the attention it deserves.  With G. K. Chesterton’s words, evoking the mind of the haiku poets of old, the author-publisher leaves further description of the content to his reader-reviewers.       

“The man standing in his own kitchen-garden with the fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas. His mind creates distance; the motor-car stupidly destroys it.” (G.K. Chesterton: Heretics  1905)



A Summary of the Significance of each of the Twenty New Year Themes explored.


 ● Toshi-no-uchi-no-haru, or “[old]Year-within- Spring” occurs when solar spring antedates the start of the New Year and is usually considered a winter theme. Casting light on the nature of the Luni-solar New year and the role of wit in traditional Japanese poetry, it serves as the perfect prefacing chapter.

Junishi, or the Twelve Year-Animals/Animal-of-the-Year, is usually slighted as a juvenile theme. By drawing a distinction between mere nominalism and felicitous synchronicity, the we may have to re-appraise the worth of early haiku called haikai, of which Teitoku’s slobberel (icicle-as-cow-druel) is the most infamous.

Kozo-kotoshi, or, “That/last year that/new year,” is a term, both philosophical and poetic, that makes us aware of how a new year creates an old one and other leftovers from the past and, so doing, encourages us to think about time itself and consider the role of logic in poetry.

Hatsu-hinode, or “sunrise” is Englished (for the chapter’s name at least) as “Up and Adam” because it was hard for many to remain awake for, or get up early for the same, as was proper. Sunrise ku give us a peek at the nature of ritual in a culture where belief tended to be more  ambiguous (and cheerful) than in the religious absolutism of Judeo-Christian-Islamity.

●  Tama-no-haru, or “Gem-Spring,” where “Spring” means “The New Year” and “gem” means something precious and pure gives rise to radically idealistic haiku, though some are expressed crudely (such as Issa taking care how he makes water on the first morning). 

Ganjitsu, the “Original Day,” when the past is present and the present past, and the world is re-created bears some resemblance to aboriginal Dreamtime. This and the last chapter are both among the most purely conceptual, or abstract themes in haiku, and the most magical.

Gyokei (& Nenga), “New Year’s greetings” (and the modern [New] Year’s card) give us a view of relationships outside of the family, reminding us that civility is at the heart of culture.

Hôrai, the Mountain of Youth, is a New Year Decoration, an abstract parlor model of the Chinese mountain-island Feng Lai where Xu Fu and 500 youths went to live forever. Some would locate that mountain in Japan, so this is a theme where haiku and ethnology merge.

Hatsu-gasumi, or “First-Mist,” was long considered an important sign of the arrival of spring, which was equated with the New Year.  Haiku poets also turned it into a prop for the changing of the years, a curtain between, a cover over the sleeping goddess Saho-hime, etc.

Toshidama, or “Year-gem” are New Year’s gifts.  The practice is interesting partly because of the parallel with Christmas giving, partly because many haiku on this subject either treat children or are by children and partly because Issa brought in so many animal recipients.

Hana-no-haru, literally “Blossom-Spring,” but meaning Felicitous and Beautiful Spring, is a collective celebration of the birthday of individuals and the nation. This theme is marked by a patriotic and egoistic quality common in celebratory long poems but rare in haiku.

Fukujusô, or “Prosperity & Longevity Plant” is a small yellow flower that doesn’t even open fully – fitting the minimalistic haiku form – but it was noted for blooming on the New Year and the poet’s take on it tells us a lot about his or her character.

● Hatsu-yume, or “first-dream,” is fascinating for being simultaneously conventional, for certain dreams were deemed lucky and people bought treasure boat paintings to sleep on, and personal, for poets really did dream and tell about it.

Kiso-hajime, or “First Dress” is also first dress-up, for Japanese wore special New Year’s Dress as Christians did for Easter.  If the Earth is clothed in the first-sky, our rainments are cloth.  This is perhaps the most basic first this or that of the year for human’s after waking.

Waka-mizu or “Young-water” was considered to be good for the health, though cold to draw, much less wash with, early in the morning at this time of year.  Its reflective nature links to awareness of aging and the mirror of Shintô.

Kagami-mochi  are mirror-shaped sweet-rice cakes stacked with the sun on top of the larger moon that also can stand for the boulder in front of the cave where the sun-goddess hid, thus bringing back ancient myths while being a charm for long life for punning reasons.

Mochibana, or artificial sweet-rice flowers are more a winter theme than a New Year theme, but the author against his better judgment allowed them to remain for they brought out the fairy-tale like atmosphere of the season very well.

Yome-ga-kimi, a taboo term (one used for good luck instead of the usual name) for mice at this time of the year, literally means Bride-ruler, and the idea of a mouse wedding procession and nuptials in the first week of the New Year delighted children and 19c haiku poets. Needless to say, tasty items on the New Year decorations encouraged their presence. 

Wakana-tsumi, or “Plucking Young Greens” to cook in a soup for good health (and wash water for newly cut fingernails) was a popular activity that originally had been an Imperial Court Activity associated with romance, so the theme is fine for linking haiku to past poetry.

●  Nanakusa-tataki, or “Beating the Seven Herbs” is the sequel to the plucking.  The greens were chopped up (and perhaps actually beaten) while singing an odd old song and at certain times, so we can imagine that din spreading from valley to valley throughout the land. And then, they are eaten.  The Spring, the New Year has been incarnated.

A second volume with the Kadomatsu, or “Gate Pine,” plum-as-calendar and eighteen other themes will be completed and published if the first volume sells or funding can be found.




 The author-publisher’s bookcase with blooming plum on the right side, New Year 1998 in Ikuta, Japan.
I put this and more fun illustrations in The Fifth Season, though I have yet to see if they printed well!   -rdg