Friday, March 18, 2011

Nature in Japanese Art

Japan is situated in a major earthquake zone. The country suffers from earthquakes and natural disasters frequently. In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed 70% of Tokyo and 80% of Yokohama. The death toll was 140,000. We have yet to find out the magnitude of the loss of lives and properties in the recent 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami.

I wonder if the precariousness of life is one of the reasons that Japanese artists and poets display such attention and love for nature and its beauty.

The tsunami reminded me of “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai, created in the 1820s. This is the first in the series of his woodblock print Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Although it depicts not a tsunami, but an open big wave of the sea, it captures the power and ferociousness of the water.

The impermanence of nature and beauty features prominently in Japanese art: ikebana (生け花 living flowers or the way of flowers), tea ceremony, and poetry.

One of the Japanese poetic forms is haiku (俳句), consisting of 17 moras, in 3 phrases of 5-7-5 moras respectively. The moras are not the equivalent of syllables, but English writers use syllables as their guide. Traditional haiku focused on aspects of the natural world.

The most famous haiku poet was Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). The best known of his work is “The Old Pond”

古池や 蛙飛込む 水の音

fu-ru-i-ke ya (5)
ka-wa-zu to-bi-ko-mu (7)
mi-zu no o-to (5)

Translated as

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

After the tsunami last week, people wrote haiku and circulated on the Internet to express their feelings and to remember the dead. Here are a couple of them and some are taking poetic license to change the form.

Enraged Pacific
Fire, water, endless destruction
Hope and hopelessness collide

Big tsunami wave
Washing over everything
Wish it wasn't there
(Alexander Hopkins)

Unanchored ships
Tossed in chaos of
Tsunami’s raw power
(Walterrean Salley)


  1. thank you for sharing this beautiful poem!

  2. Thank you for including "The Great Wave of Kanagawa" print and "The Old Pond" haiku. Both are lovely! I admire the clarity and focus of both artists.

  3. A beautiful selection of poems. Love all of them. And thanks for sharing.

  4. "Unanchored ships tossed in...."
    An accurate description of the heart-rending event. A Powerful reminder of what nature could and would do. Pray for Japan.

  5. As an avid anime viewer, there is a long tradition of Japanese influence on Western art. Of course, if you did indeed learn this tidbit from watching anime, it is clear proof that someone forgot to pay attention during art history class with their School Teachers or their Private Teacher.