James Doolittle

November 17, 2005

Filed under: Uncategorized, Papers — jdoolittle @ 5:04 am

In seventh grade English, I was first introduced to the Japanese style of poetry known as haiku. I was to compose six “traditional” haiku in the fashion prescribed thus: three lines maintaining the traditional 5-7-5 syllabic structure while conveying a nature theme. This was a gross simplification of haiku poetry, but I doubt that in seventh grade I would have been capable of composing a poem with not only the above parameters, but also containing the idea of something unchanging and of something impermanent. A concept, for instance, like time—in all things it decays, and yet itself is never diminished. In the seventh grade I suspect that, while I might have been able to grasp that or a like concept, I would not have been able to convey it in just seventeen syllables. In addition to the need for a notion of such philosophical depth to make a proper haiku, I would need to demonstrate it through imagery implicit of the idea rather than using the language of telling. Moreover, I would need to include a word or coupling of words indicative of a season; an example for fall could be “grey tides,” or perhaps, “brown leaves.” The poetic form of the haiku is said to follow these guidelines while incorporating spontaneity of the moment, though the Friends World East Asia Center Area Studies class was told by lecturer Steve Wolfe that this is not the case. In fact quite the opposite, Wolfe told us, is true.

While Steve Wolfe spent a bit of time reviewing the history of the haiku, as well as instructing Friends World Students on the specific parameters of a haiku, mentioned above, he focused mostly on Western trans-literary interpretation. The poetic form of the haiku, Steve Wolfe explained, comes from an evolution of Japanese poetic forms. Before Haiku, there was haikai a poetic form with five-line verses of 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic measure. Similar to its later evolution, this poem was often used as a way to convey concepts inherent in nature and philosophy. Each verse was part of a longer, more epic poem while the haiku maintains its context, historically, in the midst of travel-journals by famous poet-writers in the 17th Century. Basho, the man whose grave-site we later visited, composed his most famous poems in the company of his students and peers. In his book, the title to which commonly translated as “The Narrow Path to the Interior,” Basho incorporates many of his haikus into a documentation of his travels over Daimonji-yama and other mountains, incorporating haiku in the way of refining his theses on nature along the way. As he died in the late 17th century, over three hundred years of interpretation and translations of his poetry have succeeded him. While he wrote,

natsu-kusa ya
tsuwamono domo ga
yume no ato

which translates, word-for-word, literally to,

summer grass(es)
dream(s) of ruin(s)1, 2

writers have taken liberties to such extents as changing “summer grass” to “spring flowers” and “warriors… ruin(s)” to “twice ten thousand arriors slain (Hidden)”. One author from 1955, though he or she leaves his or her name anonymous, writes in all capitals,


While this last haiku clearly misses the subtle points of the poetry form, one classmate selected this as her favorite, stating that it makes clear the complete absurdity of translating haiku. The poem is written in a foreign language, the word order of which is reverse from English, and yet translators attempt to grasp the beauty and imagery used in such sparseness; the piece above takes no such course, and even makes a mockery of the whole poetry form in its abuse not only of capitalization but also of dramatization. No where in the Japanese version of the poem above is the word “grand” or “conquest”, though the translator makes this a key aspect of the poem. To such added adjectives, Steve Wolfe drew great focus, claiming them anti-haiku in spirit. Haiku relies primarily on nouns and verbs. Such dramatic adjectives would go against the spirit of haiku since, rather than expressing the explicit, a haiku gives subtle hints to a greater meaning, leaving the reader to create more in between the lines than exists in the words chosen for the poem.

While some translations can be quite grandiose, even flower at times, there are translations that capture the sparseness of the language. In these cases, translators pay little head to form rules involving syllables; naturally, a word in Japanese cannot perfectly relate in syllabic structure to a word in English. Two examples of the sparse poem stand out amongst others especially: Hiroaki Sato’s interpretation, “Summer grass: where the wariors used to dream” and Kenneth Rexroth’s, “Summer grass/ Where warriors dream.” The two poems are practically identical save for two words–”used to.” Sato’s peom puts the dreams of the warriors into the past, whereas Rexroth’s poem leaves the dream of the warriors lingering in the future. The word for dream used by Basho, “yume,” is not in its past form, however, some would argue that, since he was overlooking ruins, remains, tombstones, or aftermath of a battle, the dreams of the warrior would have to be in the past. I would, however, argue Rexroth’s poem a better capturing of the spirit of this and general haiku; while Sato may be right as to the possibility of when a warrior dreams, Rexroth’s present-tense interpretation allows the reader to consider warriors of today dreaming, and the ghosts of warriors past dreaming, providing the reader with the essential unchanging aspect of haiku. Because he also used the word “warrior” instead of the modernization, “soldier,” his line also calls to reference change: warriors no longer exist in today’s world, and while the modern military man or woman might call himself or herself a warrior, his or her title is that of a private, sergeant, lieutenant, general, etc., not a warrior. The term is antiquated and reminds the reader of what is past, and what has changed.

Given the parameters with which Steve Wolfe presented us, I think that a “good” haiku should have more focus placed on a concise meaning, rather than on the line-by-line syllabic breakdown. Basho’s work is probably second in fame to Buson’s, though both poets have a secure place in Japanese and haiku history. Standing at his grave site, I could not help but imagine Basho sitting at his favorite temple (the temple in which he was buried) working with students on his latest poem. Not far from a 60’s beat, this poet wandered up and over the mountain on the northwestern border of Kyoto only to journey back again at his own will and pace. In his time, Basho offered many haiku, and of his own, I remember one from my seventh grade class:

Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!3

Though I criticize writers for following the exact 5-7-5 measure of haiku, I cannot help but feel nostalgic reverence for this poem; its traditions resonate within me, and despite my then-English class, I will always have a soft spot for that which reminds me of my seventh grade days.

1 Japanese nouns are taken as pluralized or singular based on the context in which they are used. In the instance of haiku, this issue is complex; since there is no context to ascertain the plural or singular state of a given noun, nouns can be translated into either singular or plural states.
2 The term, ato, in Japanese can be interpreted into marker, tombstone, aftermath, destiny, and many other words surrounding death and decay; the term “ruin” is popularized by poet Cid Corman, and I believe it to be the most accurate interpretation for this poem, given its context. On this subject, there is much debate as to whether or not Basho used this word with so many meanings to intentionally force readers to consider many meanings, instead of only one.

3Unfortunately, I cannot recall the translator’s name who left this haiku in my seventh grade literature textbook. I remember this form of the poem especially because of an assignment to memorize the poem in its measure.

September 29, 2005

The Rough Life

Filed under: Papers — jdoolittle @ 10:11 pm

“Around half of estimated 12,000 rough sleepers covering the area of Osaka City seem to have had experience as day laborers in Kamagasaki.”1

The numbers are shaky–the quote above reports 12,000 in Osaka City, while other sources project 20,000 in just the 0.7km2 stretch of Kamagasaki2, a small slum-district in Osaka. The number of homeless3 is often combined with day laborers, shooting the figure somewhere beyond 30,000. At nine in the morning outside the Airin Labor and Welfare Center, already the day’s laborers had gone to work. What remained behind were the real shit-jobs, paying as little as 9,000 yen for a day’s work–approximately ninety dollars for ten hours of hard labor–hardly a living wage in the modern world. White vans with job descriptions in Kanji that marked what was likely construction and demolition work are scattered about in sparse density compared to the population of unemployed and unemployable homeless laying about the center’s tile ground floor. When I look at these old men, I wonder if they do not take the jobs simply because they pay too little–if it’s related to pride–or if they simply do not care. While both might be true, the main reason, Bryan Cloud explained, was that you had to qualify to work through the Airin Center; according to the center’s standards, most of these men were too old, too sick, or too injured to do a day’s work. And as soon as Bryan Cloud mentioned this to me, it became obvious: some of these men were missing fingers, arms, legs; their old hair marked their decaying years; and many of them had vacuous expressions of insanity. The choice jobs go straight to the healthiest, youngest workers–the ones with real muscle–and these older men, the few who qualify, are forced to take up low-pay positions. The jobs themselves are mostly in construction, and injuries are abundant–creating a catch-22 for these day-laborers. The apparent irony in these men’s lives reflects the attitude towards the homeless in Japan: no one wants them, and few are willing to help.

Having grown up in California, the concept isn’t foreign to me: poor sons of families that illegally emigrated from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, some from as far south as Ecuador or Bolivia, pooling together on the corner of 3rd and Delaware in downtown San Mateo hoping to get picked for whatever job so that they can feed their families for the night. There is no government agency directly monitoring these workers or their pay–no registration and no qualification. The despair and frustration of not getting picked is apparent in the mid-day eyes of ten or fifteen men lingering around for the faint hope of a new job that might arise before five, when most contractors stop working. Maybe it’s not hope, but that there’s nothing else for them to do but wait for a job. Maybe they’re afraid of going back to their families and telling them that they didn’t spend the whole day at least trying. Because they are illegal immigrants, these people, no matter how destitute, cannot receive any federal aid as income.

The story in Kamagasaki is similar, but has different twists: these people are legal immigrants and citizens, most of them from Osaka’s rural surroundings, and many of them as native as any other Japanese. Most of them are second or third sons in their families and have no claim to inheritance, so, knowing they will live the poor life, they come to Osaka for a shot at a little more. But all of them invariably get old, sick, and injured, keeping them from eligibility. Many of them become alcoholics, and, so dependent on alcohol, they cannot function without it in their systems.

There is a welfare system at work here for the working poor. People who work twenty-eight days every two months get to collect. One day short of the twenty-eight, however, and they’ll have to weight until the next sextile.

Littered about the Airin Labor and Welfare Center, aside from countless men sleeping mid-day, there are pools of vomit, beer cans, sake jars, and coffee drinks, marking the lifestyle these men have: always trying to get out of whatever state they’re in. Sake and beer to escape the pain from living so poor, and coffee to sober up for the job. I should point out that this is not the case for all of the laborers here–while most of these men are alcoholics, some abstain. In the giant room that serves as a lobby to the pay counter–the trucks I mentioned earlier, waiting outside for people to employ, they stamp this book the laborers have, and on Fridays, the laborers bring their stamped books to the pay counter to redeem cash. Inside this room, a group of men play cards, three or four men sit up on their cardboard mattresses reading newspapers. Some of these readers even have glasses. Some have wildly long hair, some have beards, others are clean shaven with sharp hair-cuts. All of them are in the same reality, doing the same thing every day for the same result of barely scraping by.

Underneath the Airin Center, on the other side of the building from where the vans park and pick up workers, a small hospital takes in injured homeless and day-laborers, but only a maximum of 127 people at one time. Out of somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 people, only 127 of them can be injured at one period of time and get medical attention. Consequently, there’s a maximum two-week stay attached to all patients, regardless of injury or illness. It’s still the best health care these people can hope to get–other hospitals will turn them away, because they know the poor cannot afford the bill.

The hospital is government run, but most charity work done in this area is by private non-profit organizations. The NPO’s run project-housing, senior centers, centers for alcoholics, day-care facilities, orphanages, soup kitchens, and out-reach programs. The government won’t fund them, and they cannot obtain private grants because they won’t gain donators a tax rebate since all of these NPO’s are religious affiliates. Japan is, apparently, too secular to allow private companies to donate to parochial charities and get away with a tax break.

There’s a government-run senior-work center just down the road from the Airin center. Those too old for most jobs can come here and earn unstable careers in waste-disposal management. It sounds like a crap job, but almost a solution at best–one catch: the city doesn’t need more than 250 senior garbage men and other custodial professionals in a given day, while there are 2,700 registered jobless in need of work. __________, who runs a local over-night shelter, commented on the situation: “Because there are so many people working here, most people only get one job in ten days–that’s 5,000 yen for ten days.”4 I asked him about the set-up, and he tells me there’s a rotation system, so everyone gets to work. Because they’re only eligible to make 15,000 yen working three days a month, these elderly cannot afford to live on this job alone.

__________’s the onsite manager of an NPO that provides over-night housing for Osaka’s homeless. The facilities at his shelter house around four-hundred people on each night in six two-story buildings. The shelter provides its occupants with the bare bones and decency: clean sheets, blankets, pillows, a bunk bed, and the proof that someone cares. With forty-four beds to a floor, twenty-two “rooms” face a central hallway and are partitioned only by a respect for privacy. Between _________’s shelter and one other, they house a little over a thousand homeless a night, but only in the winter. In the summer the temperature is as hot as 37°C inside these plastic ovens. In this temperature, the homeless would rather sleep the night on the street.

While it may be a more luxurious option in the summer time, danger in recent years has emerged surrounding homeless in the streets: Teenagers, firebombs, and anger at a declining economy. The three put together make a deadly combination, especially for the homeless, whom the Japanese high school students have firebombed and beaten on several occasions for being in the way, for being too drunk, for being too old, for being a drag on society.

That’s how it ends for a few in the streets. Between three and four people froze in the winter of 1999, creating public outcry against such a preventable way to die. One winter a man went to sleep against a wall brandished with sprinklers, to discourage homeless from sleeping against them. He was found dead, frozen, the next day. At a Lutheran-run retirement community, the memory of 149 souls takes its residence in a special room on the second floor. The markers are spread out across two walls. Set up on a grid, each with its own shoebox-sized cubby, the details of each deceased cannot go unmissed. Some shoeboxes with ashes, some without, most with pictures, all with crosses and the names of those who died in Kamagasaki. In shoebox F-10, a photo from the 50’s or 60’s of a young man in the military. In shoebox H-10, a posthumous photo of a fat man on a pillow. In shoebox D-4 a hideous photo of a scrunched-faced man with a tumor on his forehead. The dead hold no earthly burdens, no worry for starvation or winter’s chill, and no need for money, but in the room with the rows of shoebox graves, you can only feel the warmth radiating from wall to wall in this sanctuary.

Is there a solution to the homeless issue in Japan? Like all things political, it’s somehow more complex than turning Japan’s community awareness toward these people. More than simply caring about the weak or the fallen or the strong, upright poor. Relative to the standard of living in the rest of Japan, the conditions of Kamagasaki mark the gap between compassion and action. Its classism prevents Japan from giving aid to these tens of thousands of homeless men and day laborers. People beneath the dignity of those who can afford to live. Kamagasaki has some things going for it, but longevity and a high quality of life are not among them. To save these people or at least ease their pain, the practice of resenting and then ignoring needs to end, and Japan needs to demonstrate a level of human decency.

The cynic inside all of us must face the reality of the situation and ask, “On the other hand, who cares about the deaths of thousands in the way of progress, thousands who are too old and too big a drag on society? Is it Japan’s place to damn itself, economically, to save ineffective human beings?”

In going about the business of progress, Japan’s citizens, and especially youth, must remember: Alcoholics can rehabilitate, the elderly are a window into our past, and the drag is only going to grow if the system creating it is not changed.

1 http://www.kamagasaki-forum.com/en/overview
2 Anonymous, “Introduction of Kamagasaki”.
3 It’s hard to say because of the mixed definition–Americans use the word homeless in reference to people who are living in dilapidated houses, in houses from which they are to be evicted, or impermanent housing, in addition to those living on the streets, in parks, and in tents. In Japan, the term is used in reference to only those who live on the streets, in parks, and in tents.
4 __________ Interview September 22, 2005

September 14, 2005


Filed under: Papers — jdoolittle @ 10:38 pm

To a Northern Californian acclimated to my educational disposition–one particularly inclined to meditation, yoga, Sufi dancing and chanting, and many other “new age” activities–the concept of Shodo, the art of Japanese calligraphy, intrigued me for two reasons: first, as a writer and an art fanatic, the aesthetic quality of the brush strokes in combination with the meaning of the words written held a certain idea of mystic beauty–I have always viewed the fusion of writing with art with accolades. Second, as a horrible penmen myself, I wondered how the experience of practicing shoudo would treat me. While the subtleties of making perfect brush strokes far eluded me, I found experiencing the activity as a meditation frustrating and then beneficial before losing my ability to concentrate on the activity. But beyond personal interest in Shodo, its cultural significance is rich because its place in Eastern society differs so much from its western counterpart; the mastery of handwriting holds little value in the main stream of Western society.
With the rapid shift in the evolution of writing from analog to digital, the value of the handwritten word has dropped significantly in the west. Scribes and scholars that would have once been paid their weight in goal for the work of composing and transcribing books–especially in the reign of the Holy Roman Empire–are now hired for wedding invitation and anniversary announcements, invitations to debutant balls, and the composition of diplomas and certificates. Hand-written texts were invaluable before invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press technology, whereas now, a pirated copy of a book can be easily purchased for less than the price of a gallon of milk. In this era of multimedia, handwriting–from a Western view–serves only the aesthetic purposes of a society capable of supporting Mazzlo’s highest level of self-need, and Shodo, the art of Japanese Calligraphy, is the perfect example: it broadens one’s spiritual understanding of the world through its meditative qualities; Shodo provides an artistic outlet for those adept in their understanding of Kanji, used most in Shodo of the three alphabets, Kanji, Katakana, and Hiragana; calligraphy by famous artists and dignitaries is honored throughout the world in museums and in private art collections.
Before attending an Area-Studies class introducing Shodo, in Kyoto, Japan, I read much about using calligraphy as a meditation, for it requires, I read, discipline and concentration. What I did not expect out of the class was the essential need to leave my ego at the door: I expected people to be of varying levels of talent, varying levels as skill (as there were many students who transfered or were visiting from other Universities, with unknown interests that might encompass Shodo, or other forms of calligraphy), and varying levels of discipline. I did not, however, care to think about my own level of talent, experience, or discipline in the art. I found myself very frustrated, seated between one student who would have had amazing talent for a studied practitioner of Shodo, in spite of it being her first encounter with it, and another who, though lacking in the expert artistry of my leftward neighbor, seemed intent to compose the basic brush strokes, over and over again, before endeavoring the harder practice of writing Kanji. He accomplished clear progress with whatever stroke on which he worked before moving on to the next repetitive phase of line, after line, after line of a new brush movement. I felt angry with myself for my years of slopping handwriting in English, and for my lack of ability to simply visualize what I was working on, and apply myself to doing it. My attention darted from place to place, examining the work of others in the room, finding the need to stand and stretch from my seated position frequently, and occasionally exhausting myself with the application of a short stint of concentration. It became evident by the end of the class that, although I had not thought greatly about my performance with Shodo, I realized that I had very high expectations for myself; that I could not live up to them, became a personal failure to myself by the end of the class.
In contemplating the reason for more shortcomings, I felt less discouraged by the end of the class in understanding that I had these unrealistic expectations of myself at heart–in fact, holding them and feeling so frustrated while attempting to attain the “calligrapher’s mind”–mentioned on the essay distributed before the class (4), which “must be clear and relaxed–meditative”–proved more beneficial in my experience of the meditative aspect of the practice.
The class itself consisted of a brief introduction of the materials used in Shodo, and approximately three hours of course work while Oko-sensei made her best attempt at giving every student personal attention. To a complete novice, I feel the class taught me very little, especially in technical assimilation of assembling the Kanji, as I had only two consultations with the instructor throughout the time-period of the class. Not knowing what an Area Studies course was going to be like, I came into the class with the expectation of a history lesson on Shodo rather than actually experiencing the practice; because of my lack of skill in Shodo, I resented the class for its lack of academic quality, keeping myself from appreciating the experience to my fullest potential. Although I was disappointed in the function of the class as a class, I enjoyed my time working through my own personal barriers while appreciating the artistic beauty of the kanji, as well as the thoughts it evoked about the function and aesthetics of calligraphy in the modern world.