Kokkei and Humor



The 3rd World Haiku Association Conference (Sofia, Bulgaria, 15-18 July, 2005) 

My speech is about kokkei, which means humor in English. Kokkei is the resource of laughter. It is an important key word to think about within our theme of "haiku East and West", because sometimes we share laughter in the WHA, laughter that transcends cultural differences. It is important that world haiku appreciates the commonality of laughter. There may be a common pleasure for mankind in it.
I have one more reason to speak about kokkei and humor. Japanese haiku started as a kind of poetry for laughter in the medieval period.
Until the 14th century, there were two ways to make poetry in Japan. One was to make a Chinese poem. Another was to make a Japanese poem called waka. The vocabularies used in each style were different. And the vocabularies used in normal life weren't adopted in both styles.
But haikai, which was born from waka in the medieval times, used both Chinese poetic vocabulary and vocabulary from everyday life. It was a joke in those days. Actually, in ancient China, a word of haikai meant kokkei. Haikai is an ancestor of haiku. For such a reason, haiku is literature of a laughter.
Haiku was born as a poetry of laughter from the international exchange of different cultures. It was the start of a tide which tried to catch the truth by free expression which deviated from the external orthodox.
Teitoku Matsunaga was a haiku poet from the 16th century to the 17th century. His famous haiku is the following.

Shioruru-wa nani-ka annzu-no hana-no iro

Withering is
something to worry
the color of apricot blossoms

An apricot often appeared in Chinese poetry. But it didn't appear in Japanese waka poetry, because anzu, which means apricot, has a Chinese-like pronunciation. Teitoku purposefully used an apricot in Japanese poetry. This was kokkei in itself.

Moreover, there is another example of kokkei in this haiku. Anzu, which means apricot, has another meaning. In ancient Japanese anzu is the verb which means "to worry". So the poet succeeded in giving anxiety to the pretty blossoms which look like cherry blossoms. Though this is a mere pun, I feel it becomes a good haiku to appreciate the prettiness of apricot blossoms.
After that, in the age of Basho, haikai became the poetry which suggests the consciousness of delicate beauty and the inner world, and haikai seemed to leave kokkei. However, I think haikai didn't leave kokkei, but it actually deepened kokkei.
There are many kinds of laughter: a pun, pathos, wit, laughter of discrimination, humor and so on. Basho produced symbolic kokkei. The following is his famous haiku.

Michinobe-no mukuge-wa uma-ni kuwarekeri

Blooming by the road
mallow flowers
eaten by the horse

This is a light laugh. Oh! it was eaten. Here is surprise and transience. And the vital force of the horse is described, too. There are no explanations. But this is one complicated scene if you sharpen your sense of humor.
When he read the haiku, it became world literature. Because what Basho produced in haiku was the same thing as humor based on the humanism which was discovered by Westerners. Basho was not angry at the horse. Nor does he cry for the mallow flowers. He felt sympathy for both, and he was also smiling at the world in which such a thing can happen. At that time, the laughter which Western humor understands was born in Japan. So Basho's haiku is understood all through the world.

Next is a modern haiku by Shiki Masaoka who was called the reformer of modern haiku.

Hechima sai-te tan-no tsumari-shi hotoke-kana

Loofah flower blooming
Hotoke's phlegm
stuck in his throat

means Buddha. But it also means a person who is dying. This haiku is famous as his last poem. Hotoke is Shiki himself who is about to die. Here is a poet who tries to understand even his death by his kokkei spirit. He tries to smile at his death.
This spirit doesn't belong only to eastern people. Even in the Hollywood movie, there are men who make a joke in a situation in which they surely die. Not only does it make the movie interesting, but also human truth is expressed. This is the ideal attitude with which to face death and one's destiny.
Some may believe it is like the comprehension of Zen. North American haiku poets take the influence of Zen strongly. Their method is very radical. We Japanese know Zen and haiku are different cultures, though there is a point of contact between the two.
This is the one point of contact, in my opinion. They find a crack in daily life and try to look at the other side of the world through the crack. This is the spirit of kokkei. It is important for haiku that we can see the world a little different.
Next, I will state my thought on the question: Why does a person laugh? So far, the cause of laughter was thought to be a misunderstanding, logical contradiction or a mistake. However, these can produce other emotions such as anger or sorrow.
They are not the sufficient condition for laughter.
Then, what produces laughter? They are "understanding" and "sympathy" between the expressing person and the receiver. In another words, it is a form of communication.
Therefore, an infant laughs when he finds his mother. Or the unfair people wink and laugh when the object of the discrimination is discovered.
Then what kind of communication does the kokkei of haiku have?
We have to understand this communication beyond common knowledge and from different point of view.
In short, we have to express the relationship of meanings different from ordinary ones. When it was received, laughter was produced. Therefore, from the side of common sense a deviation was laughed at. The other way around, the present system was laughed at from a "meta-level". The true meaning of kokkei is to rejoice in the recognition of understanding situations from a deeper level.
There are many forms of kokkei. By what you laugh at, and how you laugh, your personality is judged by the surrounding people. For this reason, you must be careful of kokkei. Haiku has the element of kokkei strongly and it challenges ordinary worldviews. It is not confused about the present world, but rather acquires a deeper world view.
During the 20th century, western philosophy became popular in Japan. So humor based on humanism spread in Japan, and western humor connected to kokkei very smoothly.
The person who theorized about modern kokkei is a haiku poet, Shimei Nakagawa, who played an active part in western Japan in the beginning of 20th century. He was a teacher of aesthetics. He classified a haiku by the Western standard such as wit and pathos. And he said "humor" is the best among many kinds of laughter. He used the German word, "humor".
Nakagawa's humor is laughter with the consciousness that the person who sees and the one who is seen are the same human being. That is laughter at one's self. Even if you laugh at others, it means to laugh at the funniness of human beings, including yourself. It is never discriminatory. It is communication to understand each other from various points of view. Nakagawa thought the haiku of Shiki Masaoka had humor, too. After Nakagawa's study, Japanese kokkei and western humor have come to be considered having relationship.
Perhaps, Hosai Ozaki, famous for free rhythm haiku, understood Nakagawa's theory.

sabishii karada kara tume ga nobidasu

A nail begins growing
from my lonely body

What he says may be commonplace. But it has a deep insight. Though I'm so lonely, nails grow as they like. He laughed at the vitality of his body without relation to his mind. It is a lonely laugh, but every human being has this loneliness and that is beyond borders. Here is the point of agreement between a deep mental state and laughter.
Western humor and Japanese kokkei are not always the same. What is considered funny is different in every culture. German "humor" and English humor are different. Not to mention, there are only a few Japanese who can understand American jokes.
But as part of its basis, the Japanese tradition of kokkei accepted Western humor. And Japanese kokkei was accepted by western countries. So haiku spread through the world. For instance, one of the directors of W.H.A., David Lanoue, translated some thousands of haiku written by Issa.

In the end I'll introduce some Japanese haiku.
Den Inoue continues to make colloquial haiku:

Huyu-shibai aa touchan-wa shima-yaburri

The play on the winter stage
Oh! my darling is
a prison breaker

Here, tradition of humor breathes.
Last year I enjoyed "Flying Pope", a haiku series written by Banya Natsuishi. At first the motif of these works was the irony of existence having absolute status. The next example shows this clearly.

howaito-hausu-e sora tobu houou kage utsusu

To the White House
the shadow cast
by the Flying Pope

However, these are not mere irony. An excellent point of this haiku series is expressing the humanity of the man of power. This is kokkei humor. So in some works, the Pope seems to be Mr.Natsuishi himself.

Sora tobu houou konsui shita mama chakuriku-su

Flying Pope -
in a coma
he lands

This shows the writer was tired out by the work of WHA. What I have found is that this series has pathos, humor, joke, irony, and all kinds of kokkei. Natsuishi's haiku replaces the powerful, simple kokkei of original haiku with a complicated, modern kokkei.
Like this, kokkei begins from laughing at the mismatch of words and grows, deepening its contents, having the power to relativize the existing cultural outline. This power of haiku is succeeding now.
In traditional Japanese haiku there is a form of 5-7-5 sound units. But in western haiku there isn't a form of 5-7-5. So many people say western haiku isn't haiku in Japan. Such people stick to the formalities and miss the essence of haiku. The essence of haiku is to destroy their square recognition and show the truth by kokkei.
In fact, your haiku expand and dig deep into my inner world. I'm deeply grateful to you for that. Thank you for listening to my speech to the end.