On Writing About Rain in Japan

It’s tsuyu, rainy season, a designation determined by a group of experts without regard to actual rainfall. It rained once on the day after they had declared the end of rainy season, and that rain was designated non-rainy season rain. It was just rain.

For poetic purposes, the tsuyu is part of the summer season in the Haiku Handbook (saijiki), which dictates which terms belong in which poems about which season. Summer haiku have the odd flexibility of being about cool rain or scorching heat. In America, we might consider rain haiku to fall exclusively within the spring category, but that’s because we are embarrassingly lax in our categorization of rainfall.

Tsuyu rain is a sweat from the sky that permeates a humid day before ascending to heaven and collapsing back to Earth in a backwash. If it feels like the collective slime of a thousand sweaty foreheads is being spit in your face by an irrational God, that’s tsuyu rain.

Rain Poems
The poet Matsuo Basho visited Saga Prefecture in 1691. That prefecture digs into mine, so I’ve enjoyed re-reading “The Saga Diary” since living in Fukuoka, for its observations about local wildlife and its contemplation of loneliness:

In the mountain village,
who are you calling, yobuko-bird?
I thought you lived alone.
– Saigyo

Basho writes about the rains in Saga:

The rainfall in June –
the poems I’ve pasted to walls
peel off, but leave traces.


In Spring rain
a pretty girl

Leading up to the tsuyu, there’s the “bacterial rain” of May, nicknamed for its perturbing ability to make stinky black fungus appear on any surface not coated in bleach or fire. I can’t find any haiku about the black fungus.

With the rain comes the lightning, which the saijiki allows in poems for the entire duration of summer.

Basho’s poem about lightning is one of the most famous, because it forces Western scholars to find a translation for Zen’s satori, an epiphany about emptiness.

The gist of it is in the Roland Barthes translation, of all places:

How admirable he is,
the one who doesn’t think, “life is ephemeral”
when he sees a flash of lightning.

Barthes says this poem is kind of a sarcastic rebuttal to the ways Westerners read haiku, and luckily for our sakes, he uses a water metaphor: “The West moistens everything with meaning.” Haiku isn’t intended to be assigned with “poetic emotions,” he writes, and yet, “Not one feature [of a haiku] fails to be invested by the Western commentator with a symbolic charge.” (Such as Barthes’ interpretation of the lightning haiku).

Indeed, the satori element of haiku – intended to capture a moment of insight into our fleeting and empty self – is lost when we inscribe it with meaning, and best relished when we use it to connect to Buson, or Basho, or Issa’s moment of similar insight. A haiku is not a symbolic, metaphorical art like Western poetry, it’s an image – something that is, that now once-was.

When Buson writes:

In the summer rain
the path
has disappeared

We’re tempted to see it as a metaphor for losing one’s way.

But Basho writes, “The secret of poetry lies in treading the middle path between the reality and vacuity of the world.” Maybe some undergraduate poetry student could write a decent 5-point essay about the rain making the middle path disappear. Maybe it’s true. But that’s not how you’re supposed to be reading a haiku.

The intention, really, isn’t even to read them. Basho says, “Haiku exists only while it’s on the writing desk. Once it’s taken off, it’s just a scrap of paper.”

In the summer rain
even the nameless stream
becomes frightening.
– Unribo (via Buson)

It’s just what happens. It’s a snapshot of a realization, conveying the same fundamental insight every time. It was here, now it’s gone; something has changed and will change again.

The Umbrella, Fulfilled
Haiku is uniquely Japanese because it mixes elements of Zen with the animist spirit of Shinto. Basho writes:

“Every form of insentient existence – plants, stones, or utensils – has individual feelings similar to those of men. When we observe calmly, we discover that all things have their fulfillment.”

Having dealt with that, we can better enjoy a bunch of haiku poems slagging off birds.

The cuckoo is the official bird of summer, belligerently immortalized in several haiku by Buson. One, loosely translated, reads as follows:

The mountain cuckoo?
I have no idea what’s up
with that fuckin’ bird.

The other is a comparison to another bird of frequent scorn:

The behavior of the pigeon
is beyond reproach,
but the mountain cuckoo?

Speaking of pigeons, Issa has a poem with a foreword, “Advice from a pigeon.”

Oh, owl!
Make some other face.
This is spring rain!

Issa also has fighting words for the mountain cuckoo:

No doubt about it,
the fucking mountain cuckoo
is a crybaby.

Issa’s father died in the early summer, surrounded by rain and, presumably, the cry of the mountain cuckoo. He mentions it in his 1801 “Journal of My Father’s Last Days.” His father collapses on “a clear, calm, cloudless day, filled with the first song of mountain cuckoos.”

I can see Issa,
but Buson? What’s your problem
with mountain cuckoos?

The fleeting nature of arbitrary annoyance at a bird. What’s your favorite rainy-season haiku, Internet?

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7 Responses to On Writing About Rain in Japan

  1. Didem Aydin says:

    I was never quite interested about haiku, but after reading this brilliantly written article (like all your others), I think I might check it out.

    • owwls says:

      I find the secret is to not take them very seriously. Because they’re an old art form from Asia, a lot of people approach them as if they’re super mystical. Some of them are pretty intense, but a lot of them are just meant to be funny or what we’d call “quirky” these days.

      Let me know if you find any you like!

  2. I love how a group of experts determines the dates for the rainy season in Japan. One year, a weather forecaster announced on TV “The rain you are now experiencing is not the rain season rain – the rainy season rain will start as soon as this rain finishes”. Very funny stuff :)

  3. Pingback: On Forgetting Your Umbrella in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  4. Pingback: On Turning on the Japanese Air Conditioner | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  5. Theodore says:

    Who did this illustration?!?!?

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