The FIRST Issue of BONSAI JOURNAL: Read It Here

I was happy to be a part of this inaugural issue of “Bonsai: a journal of haiku and other small poems”!

Check me out on page 18~


“Yori” Explained …by the Bunpō Bushi!

Spring time is a gentle time of year. New flowers, newborn wild life, and other things around us remind us  of this fact. Spring time is also the season for cherry blossom viewing–originally a Japanese tradition that is now celebrated all over the world! Here’s a spring-esque haiku by Kagami Shikō 各務支考 (1665-1731) in which I’ll examine his use of the particle yori より:


kasho yori mo gunsho ni kanashi Yoshino yama

My translation:

Not reading poems,

but reading war tales is sad.

Yoshino mountain

The poet, supposedly 2nd from the right.

There isn’t a seasonal word (kigo 季語) in this haiku, but Yoshino is famous for it’s cherry blossoms, so there is a definite connection to spring.

Yori より has three main uses, it 1) indicates the place of origin, 2) indicates a comparison, and 3) denotes the means or method of something–basically the same as in modern Japanese. In this haiku it is clear that two things are being compared: [volumes of] poetry (kasho 歌書) and [volumes of] war tales (軍書). Many people are already aware of Japan’s rich poetry tradition, but not as many know that “war tales” was a popular literary genre, too, from the 13th century and on. So while poems were often sad, or emotional (think love poems and the like) it’s war tales that are more sad.

In this grammar construction the particle yori follows the lesser of the two things being compared. Here’s a similar usage of the particle in a waka poem from the Kokinshū:


iro yori mo ka koso aware to omōyure ta ga sode fureshi yado no ume zo

Poem #33, by Anonymous

I will not translate the whole poem here, just the top part of the waka:


iro yori mo ka koso aware to

The flower’s scent, not

its fragrance, is more poignant

In this waka, color (iro 色) and scent (ka 香) are being compared as being more or less poignant or of causing a sense of pathos (aware). Note: I wrote the flower’s scent and the flower’s fragrance, but I’m not all too convinced that the author is referring to flowers, but is probably writing about people! As in a person’s scent (perfume, cologne, etc.) conjures deep emotions as opposed to the color of their fine clothes, etc.

What do you think? Are war tales sadder than poems?

Does a person’s fragrance stir your emotion more than their appearance?

A recent article: “Understanding ‘Silence'”

While I was home in Philadelphia for the holidays, I want to see Martin Scorsese‘s new film “Silence.” The novel “Silence” (Chinmoku 沈黙) by Shūsaku Endō is quite well known to English speaking readers, both the casual reader and the Japanese lit-ophile. I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I had not read the novel until only last year. Countless people had recommended it to me, but I had just never gotten around to it. Then, while I was perusing the shelves of a Sapporo bookstore on a snowy afternoon, the title jumped out at me and I bought it. It made for good reading while I was stuck in the airport on the way back to Akita!

Image result for silence movie

The author, Shūsaku Endō 遠藤 周作 (1923-1996), was in a unique position for writing this novel: not only was he a Japanese author writing a novel about Japanese history, but he was also a Catholic writing about the Catholic experience in Japan. I’m not sure a non-Catholic Japanese author could have written such a wonderful book on the same topic, nor do I think a non-Japanese author could have accomplished such a vivid telling of this dark history.  Being in the middle, Endō handled both the topic of this brutal Japanese history and the earnestness of Catholic missionaries with great sensitivity.

I saw the film with my father. He read both “Silence” (before I did!) and another of Endō’s novels, “The Samurai” (Samurai 侍). He is also a devote Catholic, whom I’d characterize not just as a blind sheep following the flock, but as someone who truly understands the deeply rooted philosophy behind his faith. After watching the film in Old City together, we had a nice conversation about the film. Although I’m back in Akita, he’s keeping the dialogue going by sending me this article written by James Martin, S.J.,:

Martin brought up many nice observations that I had not considered, and thus has added to my enjoyment of the film/novel. I’m grateful for that.

I am thrilled to see yet another Hollywood movie based on Japanese literature! I hope this film opens up more cross-culture dialogue and piques people’s interest in Japanese culture.

Oh yes, and the film is a MASTERPIECE.

2015 in review

These stats were generated by WordPress. I have nothing other to add!

I understand how important it is to have an ‘online presence’ but blogging is really hard for me to get into. Maybe I’ll try to give my posts a better focus in 2016…

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 540 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 9 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Akita – the Land of Poetry vol.7 『詩の国秋田第7号』(3)

Here’s an updated blog post about the haiku contest I entered back in the summer. Two of my students (Delia and Takuno) are listed as having received “JAL Foundation Award Honorable Mention.” You can read their poems down towards the bottom of the post.

I was so happy to hear this! Theirs were chosen out of 495 entries from 50 countries!

Akita International Haiku Network

“Akita – the Land of Poetry “ vol.7  『詩の国秋田 第7号』(3

The yearly pamphlet Akita – the Land of Poetry Vol.7 ,  『詩の国秋田第7号』, features prize-winning haiku, honorably-mentioned haiku, and fine works in the 4th Japan-Russia Haiku Contest in 2015 .

Here are haiku special on haiku written in English.

English Section(495句)

495 haiku were sent for the English haiku section from 50 countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Columbia, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece,  Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malaysia, Montenegro, New Zealand, Nepal, Netherlands, Norway, Palestine, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovenia, South Sudan, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Tunisia, UK, USA, and Vietnam .

The theme: “lake”, but any theme is OK 

Judges: David McMurray, Satoru Kanematsu, Hidenori Hiruta  

英語語部門  (English Section)

Akita International University President’s Award

Ben Grafström(USA)

Full moon in summer—

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Teaching Haiku and Haiku Composition to English Language Learners

The Akita-JALT post about my presentation the other day…


AKITA – December 2015 –Teaching Haiku and Haiku Composition to English Language Learners – Ben Grafström, Akita University.  The presenter teaches an English immersion-style course titled “Journey to the Interior” at Akita University. This presentation introduced the two-pronged approach that he took to the planning and preparation of the course. The first approach he took was to make the English language-course content-based: the course is an in-depth study of the haiku poet Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi. The second approach he took was to design class activities that fostered active-learning vis-à-vis a writer’s workshop.

During the presentation the presenter introduced the course materials that he uses as well as guided participants through some of the writing exercises that he did with his students. This included writing haiku and English to Japanese and Japanese to English translating. An enjoyable time was had by all.

Reported by Stephen Shucart

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