Images of Chiyo-ni Woman Haiku Master (1703-1775)
Text from catalogue of exhibition held at 76 Portland Place, London W1, 1 September — 28 October 2004
This exhibition was dedicated to Reverend Shokei Steffens, Nichiren Shu Buddhist Priest, tireless worker for peace through dialogue.

Suzanne with Snow painting

Chiyo-ni was probably Japan’s most famous woman haiku poet, but, until fairly recently, there was very little information available on her in English, unlike her male counterparts Basho, Buson and Issa.
Not only did Chiyo-ni write 1700 haiku, but she published two collections, an unusual feat for a woman of 18th century Japan. Unlike most other woman poets, she was a celebrity in her own time, almost as well known as Basho. Chiyo-ni was apparently so well known and respected because she lived ‘the Way of Haiku’; for her it was an awareness practice, an integral part of her everyday life.

The translations for the haiku in this exhibition are taken, as are the notes on each of them, from Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi (Tokyo, Boston, Singapore: Tuttle Publishing 1998). In their preface, they write:
We have tried to keep our translations as faithful to the original as possible, taking out nothing, adding nothing; however, what may make perfect sense in Japanese often needs too much explanation in English and loses the poignancy and magic of the original. Because we want to be clear, but not destroy the elusive, we relied on notes only where clarification was necessary; yet it was our intention to make each haiku translation able to stand on its own…
… [H]aiku is not a sentence, but rather a fleeting yet eternal moment captured in only a few words (Donegan and Ishibashi 1998:18).

Something very similar could be claimed for the paintings in this exhibition, which invite the viewer into the ‘fleeting yet eternal moment’ of Chiyo-ni’s haiku.

Atsuko Kato with the butterfly painting, oil on canvas 214cm x 183cm

a butterfly
in front and back
of the woman’s path

chōchō ya
onago no michi no
ato ya saki

Seasonal word: chōchō butterfly

Traditionally, the butterfly in East Asia is often a symbol for women. Chiyo-ni frequently used this image to create a delicate, sensual feeling. Michi (path) could be literal as well as figurative, as a life path (Donegan and Ishibashi 1998: 114).

Fireflies, oil on canvas 96cm x 214cm

clear water is cool
fireflies vanish—
there’s nothing more

shimizu suzushi
hotaru no kiete
nani mo nashi

Seasonal word: hotaru fireflies

One of Chiyo-ni’s two jisei or death poems, the last haiku she wrote in her own hand a few weeks before she died. She often used the firefly image to represent the ephemeral. There are 4 versions of this haiku, which shows her dedication as a writer despite being physically weak, as well as her clear and detached state of mind, even as death approached (Donegan and Ishibashi 1998: 134).

Irises, oil on canvas 214cm x 122cm

purple cloud—
isn’t it the same colour
as the iris?

kumo no yukari
soreka to bakari

Seasonal word: kakitsubata iris

Said to be a mourning haiku for Chiyo-ni’s mother. The purple cloud represents cremation smoke. In some sects of Buddhism, it is said that if a dying person chants the name of the Buddha, he will descend on a purple cloud to take the person to an enlightened state (Donegan and Ishibashi 1998: 153).

Poppies, oil on canvas 214cm x 122cm

floating flower—
the red poppy

sono wakare
ukigusa no hana
keshi no hana

Seasonal word: keshi no hana red poppy

The red poppy can symbolise woman’s sensual beauty; Chiyo-ni probably wrote this for the death of a prostitute poet friend (Donegan and Ishibashi 1998: 242).

Wild violets, oil on canvas 153cm x 107cm

woman’s desire
deeply rooted—
the wild violets

ne o tsukete
onago no yoku ya

Seasonal word: sumire wild violets

An unusually powerful, direct and sensual haiku for a woman of her time (Donegan and Ishibashi 1998: 118).

Kimono, oil on canvas 122cm x 214cm

the coolness—
of the bottom of her kimono
in the bamboo grove

suzushisa ya
suso karamo fuku
yabu tatami

Seasonal word: suzushisa coolness

(Donegan and Ishibashi 1998: 134)

Snow, oil on canvas 183cm x 107cm

plum flower scent—
where has the snow woman’s
ghost blown to?

ume ga ka ya
doko e fukaruru
yuki onna

Seasonal word: ume plum flower

A yuki onna, snow woman, is a figure from Japanese folk legend. She is the ghost of a beautiful woman who only appears when it snows, and is both seductive and terrifying because her victims usually die after being seduced (Donegan and Ishibashi 1998: 106).

Full moon, oil on canvas 153cm x 107cm

full moon—
keeping it in my eyes
on a distant walk

meigetsu ya
me ni okinagara

Seasonal word: meigetsu full moon

In this poem, the moon is a symbol of realisation. Chiyo-ni is walking on the spiritual path in the light of the moon, which symbolises compassion and the cooling of desire (Donegan and Ishibashi 1998: 160).

Tatami, oil on canvas 168cm x 214cm

unfinished dream—
a chrysanthemum blooms
in the tatami room

yume samenu
tatami ni kiku no
sakishi kyō

Seasonal word: kiku chrysanthemum

There is a story that, while Chiyo-ni slept, someone put a flower by her pillow and when she awoke from a dream and was startled to see the flower, she felt incomplete in her dreamlike world, but then her heart became calm (Donegan and Ishibashi 1998: 186).

Floating World, oil on canvas 153cm x 198cm

one must bend
in the floating world—
snow on the bamboo

naranu ukiyo ya
take no yuki

Seasonal word: yuki snow

In Edo times, the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo or ukinoyo) referred to everyday life as both a world of instability or transiency, and a world of sensuality and pleasure. Closely related is ukiyoe, colour woodblock prints from the Edo period, which feature kabuki theatre scenes, samurai, geisha, pleasure quarters, birds, flowers and landscapes (Donegan and Ishibashi 1998: 207).

Butterfly, oil on canvas 168cm x 168cm

what’s it dreaming
fanning its wings?

chōchō ya
nani o yume mite
hane tsukai

Seasonal word: chōchō butterfly

A reference to a classical Chinese story of a Taoist philosopher who wondered if he were a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man (Donegan and Ishibashi 1998: 113).

Further reading:
“Chiyo-ni Woman Haiku Master” by Chiyo-ni, translated Yoshie Ishibashi and Patricia Donegan 1998
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