On Autumn in Japan

Here, Autumn starts in August, rather than the September Equinox. It’s September now, but the temperatures still hover in the 80s, thunderstorms still threaten my daily sushi pickup, and cicadas still squawk through the trees like tortured squirrels.

What do the haiku meteorologists have for us this season? As mentioned before, haiku is often written by way of the seijiki, a book containing lists of seasonal motifs. Now that we’re in the fall, our Poetic Meteorology Association posts have come full-circle.

The Moon
Something that came as no surprise to me, but seemed to astonish many haiku poets, is that the moon continues to orbit the Earth between the summer and winter. Its presence seems to delight haiku poets enough that it is now the dominant image of the season, tied, perhaps, with the changing colors of the trees.

Every day that the moon appears in September is so surprising that the Japanese language has special names for the moon each time it shows up in the first week: The first moon in September is hatsuzuki, the second moon is futsukazuki, and so on. Throughout the fall the moon becomes the aki no tsuki, or the “autumn moon,” distinct from other moons, and the autumn ends with the “chestnut moon” (azukizuki?).

Another moon fun-fact: The word in Japanese also means “wine cup,” so sitting and drinking wine in the autumn (coincidentally, sake season) is a common past time:

The smell of sake,
and the waves,
and the wine-cup (moon)

One famous moon poem is from the poet Ryokan, whose name just happens to be the same as the traditional Japanese style of hotel, who was robbed during the night:

The thief left it behind:
the moon
at my window.

Our Galaxy
I’m not sure why the galaxy our planet resides in has been deemed “seasonal,” but, much like the moon, it seems included because Autumn is lacking in short-term charms. As a New Englander, Autumn is my favorite season, so maybe these poems are merely lacking my enthusiasm, but perhaps pumpkin spice coffee isn’t big enough in Japan.

Faintly, faintly!
And even so, clearly
the Milky Way.
– Kiyozaki Toshio

This poet sees a waterwheel reflecting the nighttime sky:

The water wheel spins
holding up the milky way,
and then spills it out.
– Kawasaki Tenkō

Voices of Autumn
Another common motif in this season’s haiku is the wind, sometimes called “the voice of autumn,” the sound of crunchy leaves rustling in the distance, or “autumn music,” the sound of rain falling on those leaves. “Autumn wind” seems to be the favored choice for translators, though, which can make for some monotonous haiku.

A great waterfall
its steady roar joined
by autumn’s voices
– Shinoda Teijirō

Autumnal voices
in which of the windows
are there more?
– Aioi Gakikajin

Bird Clouds vs Bird Clappers
Passing flocks of migratory birds, when grouped together in the sky, are “bird-clouds” in Japanese. Bird Clappers, far from being men in fields who cheer the winged ones on along their journey, are noise-making devices fashioned to keep pesky birds away from the crop. Both are a frequent haiku theme.

As is the scarecrow, whose enormous white gloves and drooping posture has inspired Japan’s elderly for generations, and this poem from Buson, which is one of my favorite haiku in any season:

The owner of the field
goes to see how his scarecrow is
and then comes back.


And this poem in which famed Japanese novelist Natsume Souseki gets in some bird’s face and taunts it:


I’m the scarecrow now
ain’t I, ol’ passing sparrow,
scared Mr. Sparrow!

Or this one, by Issa, concerned with a nest of baby crows:


That scarecrow seems like
a good guy, turning his back
to the rook like that.

Another guy doesn’t get the same treatment from Issa as he comes back home from traveling:

Don’t know about the people,
but all the scarecrows here
are crooked.

The spirits return to visit families during the Obon holiday, which takes place at different times throughout the country, though always in autumn. It is one of the major holidays in Japan – though not a national holiday – and so people actually use a vacation day to travel to their hometown and pay respects to the ghosts that return.


All the honored ghosts –
polite, but surely wanted
better drinking games.
– Issa

Deer start dating in autumn, and the lonely ones make a forlorn mating call that has become associated in Japan with lust and yearning.


Still with antlers, still
with love, the male deer —
— dashes!
– Kaneko Mukanshi

Here’s one of mine:

Hey! Deer! Don’t be sad.
Growing velvet on your horn
must feel pretty suave.

In the haiku world there’s a poem worth mentioning, because it has the same notoriety as the “Old Man from Nantucket” limericks from New England and probably should be anthologized in a book of ribald poets. The poem isn’t all that gross, but it’s kind of a notable achievement in elaborate puns.

Buson is staying at a temple and is frightened by what he thinks is the ghost of a badger. When he screams, a monk enters the room to check on him. But the monk’s robe is open, and he’s dangling about, as Buson writes, “like rice bags.” The “straight” reading of the poem is this description of the size of the rooms in a famous Kyoto temple:

Autumn again,
Camphor wood of eight mat size,
Golden Pavilion Temple!

But the poem’s words in Japanese all have a dual meaning, particularly relevant to the priest – so the poem quite literally can be read as,

Hanging down,
a badger’s balls,
a badger’s itchy balls.

Buson, you card!

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