Hiroshi Kato: Adventures of a Japanese haiku poet in Singapore


By Zafar Anjum

Hiroshi Kato
Hiroshi Kato

Haiku is a globally popular literary form. The earliest westerner known to have written haiku was Hendrik Doeff (1764–1837). He was the Dutch commissioner in the Dejima trading post in Nagasaki, during the first years of the 19th century. However, haiku entered the English language through Ezra Pound in 1913. Since then, it has become a global phenomenon in poetry, transcending barriers of geography and language.

30 years ago, as a kid growing up in India, I would often come across haiku written even in my mother tongue, Urdu. Interestingly, it was Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore who contributed a great deal in introducing haiku to India. In the early 20th century, he composed haiku in Bengali and also translated some from Japanese.

Clearly, this quintessential Japanese form of poetry has had a great influence on global literature. In Singapore too, where poetry is a very popular form, we find a Japanese haiku poet Hiroshi Kato who is devoted to the genre and actively promotes it in this part of the world.

Meeting Hiroshi Kato

It was a rainy afternoon in November when I met this tall and lanky Japanese poet and art dealer in his gallery, Kato Art Duo (http://katoartduo.com/) in the Raffles Hotel Arcade. He had just moved into that office space and the décor of the room was still incomplete. A pile of cartoons was lying in a corner of the room. Large picture frames wrapped in newspapers stood by the wall.

Kato San was seated beside a young interpreter behind a rectangular desk. After formal introductions in Japanese, I wanted to know his background, about his early formative years that had made him bend towards composing haiku.

Kato San was born in 1949 in Tokyo, Japan. He was raised in the company of artists and developed his passion for the arts during his growing years.

In the 1950s, he was introduced to Japanese poetry, haiku, and Kabuki theatre by his grandmother, Kato Moto. She was a refined and cultured Japanese lady who painted, mastered the tea ceremony and played old Japanese folk songs on the shamisen (Japanese guitar).

Kato’s mother, Ryoko Kato, graduated from Seishin Women’s College in 1941 with a major in Japanese Literature. An award-winning artist, Ryoko loved to spend her time painting detailed imageries of flowers and landscapes inspired by her childhood. The arts was more than just a hobby in the Kato family, who bonded through their common love for art.

Kato completed his studies in Art History at Keio University in 1971. He studied Greek drama in college (the topic of his thesis was“Greek Tragedy in Kabuki”, Kabuki being a classical Japanese dance-drama). In his thesis, he examined the process of how Hippolyutus, an ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, was trasmitted via India and China and evolved into “摂州合邦が辻”(Sesshuu Gappougatsuji), one of most renacted Kabuki plays. At the same time, the thesis also referred to French classic drama, Phèdre by Jean Racine starring Melina Mercouri.

After graduating from college, he joined Kobunsha, a Japanese publication where he was involved in distributorship. In 1973, he returned to the family business of manufacturing car parts. During his 35 years there, he also contributed to the expansion of new factories in Japan as well as Hong Kong and Shenzhen. While working in the company, Kato devoted his spare time in researching Astrology and Feng Shui. Since 2004, he has been supporting the graduate students in Chinese Calligraphy department in Capital Normal University in Beijing, China.

In 2012, he was finally presented with the opportunity to return to his first love and interest, the arts. He now has a retail space in the iconic and prestigious Raffles Hotel Arcade known as Kato Art Duo, which is dedicated to the promotion of abstract art.

Kato’s world of haiku

Besides contributing to his family business and pursuing interests in astrology and calligraphy, Kato San has been writing haiku for many years.

Haiku is an ancient form of Japanese poetry often containing a total of 17 syllables shared between three lines, arranged in a pattern of 5-7-5, he explains to me. The lines rarely rhyme. A haiku does not tell the whole story, but leaves it to the imagination of the readers. “Haikus are capable of expressing a range of emotions,” he said. “They mostly depict emotions such as love, sadness, and memories of the past. Earlier, haikus have even expressed political thoughts.”

Traditionally, haiku emerges from emotions such as love and hate. But for Kato San, the motivation to write haiku comes from events and people living around him, as well as past memories. “Haikus are most often leavened by a seasoning of emotion and depict aspects of human behaviour,” he said.

In the 17th century, two masters arose who elevated haikai to new levels of popularity: Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694) and Ueshima Onitsura (1661–1738). Kato San counts Bashō as his most favourite haiku poet, the shorthand for classical Japanese literature in the world today. Bashō is credited to have raised the haikai genre from a playful game of wit to sublime poetry. He is globally revered as a saint of poetry in Japan.

The best-known Japanese haiku is Bashō‘s “old pond”:

古池や蛙飛び込む水の音

ふるいけやかわずとびこむみずのおと

It could be roughly translated as the following:

old pond . . .

a frog leaps in

water’s sound

However, Kato San’s favorite haiku by Basho is:

五月雨を集めて速し最上川

Gathering the rains of May,

How swiftly it flows,

The Mogami River

Haiku and the world: The Future of Haiku

Haiku has been so popular in the world that in February 2008, the World Haiku Festival was held in Bangalore, gathering haijin (haiku poets) from all over India and Bangladesh, as well as from Europe and the United States.

However, because of the constant cultural evolution, there is a need to change the strict rules around haiku. In a speech delivered at the National University of Singapore (NUS) last year, Kato San argued that with globalization, we have to rethink the future of haiku. “Should haiku still be strictly bound to its traditional structure and rules?” he questioned. “Haiku has reached the height of its popularity in our contemporary culture and we should now explore what the new world can offer to our haiku adventures,” he added. “Haiku can be about scorching deserts or freezing cold tundra. I hope that we are able to focus on more adventures that we explore rather than restrictions of traditional haiku.”

That’s why Kato San has launched a blog, Lyrical Haiku (http://lyricalhaiku.blogspot.sg) in Singapore featuring his personal collection of haiku that explores themes of love, joy, pain and hope. A blog combining both visual and literary art, the blog publishes new content weekly in Japanese and English.

When I asked him why started his haiku blog, he said, “I started the blog to encourage haiku writing and also to show my haiku to the public.”

“In my blog, I have chosen to elaborate the background and the story behind each haiku in the form of a prose as well as with a photo,” he said. “With this new format of haiku, I hope that more people can appreciate Haiku as a form of expression. Today, I am pleased that several haiku masters such as Ishi Kanta are here with us to see my haiku blog come to fruition.”

Renowned author and haiku poet Ishi Kanta came to Singapore to celebrate the launch of the blog. “We are glad to be here to celebrate Kato’s haiku blogsite launch,” he said. “Haiku is one of the shortest form of poetry and it is gaining popularity around the world. In fact, haiku can now be found in the textbooks of English, French and German speaking primary schools. We are entering a rapidly changing era that is so wonderful and yet complicated. This is not an era that we can convey our feelings to others in a long and leisurely manner. The manner that conveys one’s thoughts in the shortest way is very much in trend. From this point of view, haiku is the best fit for this era and can be called the literature of the era.”

By the time our interview got over, the rains had stopped. I said goodbye to Kato San. He stood up and offered me his hand with a smile. I left the place with the memories of his long, artistic fingers and his warm smile. Outside, dusk was gathering and the white walls and corridors of the Raffles Hotel looked like priests and nuns in white robes hurrying into their chambers for a spiritual reverie.