Haiku in Death and Rebirth

David McMurray, The International University of Kagoshima

There is a limit to the number of syllables allowed in the creation of haiku, yet the meaning expressed by this shortest poem in the world can be vast and timeless. It is fitting, therefore, that the first winner of the scholarship to honor a president of JALT who passed away while serving in office chose to speak about haiku. Two other presidents who have died also had close ties to this form of literature. Originally composed in Japanese, the literary form is penned in 56 languages today. It is so popular that a former minister of education suggested that haiku should be listed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage (Nojima, 2014).

Kevin Michael Cleary served as president of JALT from 2010 until he died January 16, 2014 at the age of 51. Having traveled extensively in Europe, North America, and Asia to fulfill his duties as president of JALT, it seems appropriate that the first winner of the scholarship that bears his name was invited from the Philippines. It was prescient that Milagros Carreon Laurel chose to speak on haiku as the inaugural Kevin Cleary Invited Speaker to the JALT International Conference. The professor at the Department of English and Comparative Literature of the University of the Philippines decided to talk on Haiku as Life, Life as Haiku, noting that greater student mobility has turned the 21st century Asian classroom into a multicultural setting where students can share cultural treasures such as haiku. Laurel (2000) suggests that haiku allows for occasions to reflect, and these meditative qualities enhance intercultural communication. Laurel (2014) claims that the succinct form of literature engages students “in both creative and critical thinking and expression—skills that language learners must develop to become effective participants in conversations that transcend borders.”

Gene Van Troyer was a former president of JALT (1996-2000) who died July 17, 2009 of cancer at the age of 58. He often introduced himself as a poet and science fiction writer, though he worked as an English teacher in Gifu and Okinawa. Van Troyer’s (2007) science fiction poems were composed of haiku-like stanzas. This is the third stanza of “Falling Astronauts.”

Shall we fall forever? The Earth

falls forever, night skies snared

with starlight! She is never lost.

Van Troyer (2007) sub-titled his poem “Dancing on the great void,” a haiku sequence.

What is it, this dream

turning in me like the clouds

blazing with moonbeams?

Shigeo Imamura coined the name “Japan Association for Language Teaching” while serving as JALT president from 1991 to 1993. He taught English at Himeji Dokkyo University until he passed away on December 24, 1998 at the age of 76. Imamura’s (2001) posthumously published memoirs contain references to learning haiku while he was an elementary school student and to translation work as an associate professor at Ehime University in Matsuyama from 1962-63. Notes from the editor (Imamura, 2001, p. 170) cite Keene (1984, p.106) on how the writer Soseki Natsume commemorated his association with his colleague Masaoka Shiki with a haiku he captioned, Hearing in London the News of Shiki’s Death.

See how it hovers

In these streets of yellow fog

A human shadow

Akito Arima, a veteran haikuist and former education minister, guided poets, academics, and students from Russia, England, Canada and Japan on a haiku walk during the 29th National Cultural Festival held in Akita. The following haiku is translated from the haikuist’s original in Japanese: rakugoka no shi ga katasumi no fuyu no rai.


storyteller’s name

winter thunder

The president of the Haiku International Association lectured an audience at the Akita International University in an effort to convince them that haiku should be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Arima reassured students in the audience that haiku can be composed by everyone, from the man in the street to the likes of Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, the Nobel laureate of literature in 2011, who penned this haiku:

Hear the swish of rain,

to reach right into it

I whisper a secret.

By stressing that haiku can deepen mutual understanding between those people who read or compose it, he garnered support for his idea that haiku can help make the world peaceful: fuyu fukaku haka horu mono wa teishosu. Translated by Miyashita and Gurga (Arima, 2000), this poem embellishes the idea that haiku is a grassroots opportunity for students to keep the world’s treasures alive. In its own quiet way, haiku does reach out across borders to different cultures.

Deep winter—

the gravedigger sings

in a low voice


Arima, A. (2000). Einstein’s Century Akito Arima’s Haiku. Decatur, Illinois: Brooks Books.

Imamura, I. (2001). Shig: The True Story of an American Kamikaze. Baltimore, Maryland: American Literary Press.

Keene, D. (1984). Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era (Poetry, Drama, Criticism). New York: Holt.

Laurel, M.C. (2014). JALT2014 Conversations across borders conference handbook. Retrieved from <http://jalt.org/conference/jalt2014>

Laurel, M.C. (2000). The Haiku as Occasion for Reflection. Philippine Journal for Language Teaching, 18, 1-4.

Nojima, J. (2014, Jan. 26). EC chief backs bid to make haiku intangible cultural heritage. Asahi Shimbun. Retrieved from <http://ajw.asahi.com/article/cool_japan/style/AJ201401260007>

Van Troyer, G. (2007). Poem Hunter. Retrieved from <http://www.poemhunter.com/gene-van-troyer>