Volume 39.2
Summer 2008

featured essay


Kato Somo, the First Japanese Haikuist
to Visit the United States

Ikuyo Yoshimura

Katô Somo (1825–1879) was born in 1825 in Hida Shimohara-go (present-day Gero city, Gifu prefecture), the second son of Katô Saburoemon Masafumi, a village headman. On Feb. 9 (Jan. 28 by the Japanese calendar), 1860, Somo, then 36 years old, left the port of Shinagawa as part of the delegation that made up the 77-member mission of the shôgun to America. The task of Japan’s first diplomatic mission to the United States was to oversee the ratification of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the U.S. and Japan. It is interesting to note that in 1860 the U.S. was just one year shy of being embroiled in the Civil War.

Sailing on the American warship Powhatan, Somo and the shôgunate mission traveled via Hawaii, San Francisco, Panama, and New York. They returned safely to the port of Shinagawa nine months later by way of Java and Hong Kong. Until that time no Japanese had completed such a trip around the world, and Somo’s travels became the talk of the nation.

A talented writer and artist, Somo recorded his observations of the foreign lands he visited in his journal entries as waka, haiku, Chinese writings, and sketches. The first Japanese to document in haiku his impressions of the world outside of the Asian region, Somo can be considered the father of international haiku. He was also an admirer of art and brought home with him a sketch of the impressive shôgunate mission parade in New York that appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on June 6, 1860. With the aid of his sketches Somo was able to articulate his American travels, and his stories became very popular throughout Japan. Somo served as his day’s foreign cultural correspondent, and he was the first of several Japanese poets of the late-Tokugawa to Meiji periods to document their overseas travels.

The haiku selected below are prefaced by the date and location of composition and Somo’s introductory remarks in italics. The translations and the notes following the poems are my own.

totsukuni no yo mini asu no kadode kana

To enlarge my experience
I sail for a foreign country
tomorrow morning

Somo included this haiku at the end of a letter to his parents in Hida written on Feb. 8, 1860, the night before the sailing of the Powhatan to the United States. This haiku was infused with Somo’s great desire to see America and his enthusiasm for embarking on a long journey.

The verses that follow are from Kôkai shibun (“Voyage Poems”).

February 9 [1860], Shinagawa, Japan
We left the port of Shinagawa, together with the shôgunate mission to America, aboard the U.S. warship Powhatan.

shukuho no oto mo isamashiki funade kana

Our ship sails
for America
guns salute bravely

February 13, Yokohama, Japan
Sailing from Yokohama.

wagakuni no haru ni kokoro no nokori keri

My heart
still remains in my country
in spring

February 13, Off Izu, Japan
Seeing a fire on a fishing boat.

ima mieshi fune izukata to kamumi keri

Clearly seen
In the next moment
a ship in the haze

February 14, Off Ezo, Japan

koka kumori yatto hanarete haru no tsuki

From northern wind
the cloudy sky already clears —
the spring moon

Koka is an error by Somo; kosa, might be correct. Kosa means that the people of Ezo in northern Japan can rid themselves of sickness by exhaling.

February 18, Pacific Ocean
A typhoon beset us and we were almost shipwrecked.

umi arete itodo kokoro mo oboro kana

A rough sea
my body and spirit
become faint

February 23–27, Pacific Ocean
Watching a huge water bird on the sea.

onore nomi haru no kokoro ka umi ni tori

Me alone
spring feeling fills my heart
a water bird on the sea

March 6, Honolulu
Landing in the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii], well known in Asia.

kotokuni no noyama mo haru no sugata nari

Hills and fields
in the height of spring
even in a foreign land

March 6–18, Honolulu
It was warm here in this island and I felt as if it were May.

Kisaragi no kaya mo hitotsu no hanashi kana

Using a mosquito net in February—
one of funny stories
of my travels

Mosquito nets were widely used in summertime in Japan. Kisaragi is February in the old Japanese calendar.

March 6–18, Honolulu
Looking at the mountain, which glowed with sweet-smelling trees.

yama yori mo niou asahi no deshuiho kana

Sweet smell of trees glow
from the mountain—
morning sun is rising

March 6–18, Honolulu
Seeing donkeys for the first time.

nodokasa ya yagai no koma no mimi nagashi

Long spring day — 
wild horses
have long ears

March 30, San Francisco
We met our companion ship the Kanrin Maru; her captain was Rintarô Katsu.

harukaze ni fune no yukue no hanashi kana

To the spring wind
we are talking
about the whereabouts of the ships

The Kanrin Maru arrived a little earlier than the Powhatan but had been damaged in a storm and laid over in San Francisco.

March 30, aboard ship
Hina-doll festival.

momo ni nita hana wa nakika to sagashi keri

Looking for
some blossoms
they look like peach

Momo — peach blossoms are displayed for the Girls’ Festival on March 3 in Japan.

April 26, Panama
Landing at Panama harbor, which is at the border between North and South America. We rode for two hours on the American train, which briefly attained a speed of 112 mph.

sakuru hodo kuruma no oto mo atsusa kana

Hot steam
the bursting sound of locomotive
like thunder

April 26, Aspinwall Bay, Panama
One of our colleagues told me that he heard the a cry of tiger in the night.

shika narade tora no koe kiku fumoto kana

Not deer
the howl of tiger
we hear on the foot of the mountains

[No date. Honolulu]
I watched a cuckoo flying in Hawaii toward Japan.

hinomoto e watari kake kamo hototogisu

Toward Japan—
I might think
the cuckoo is going to fly

The Japanese mission that left Shinagawa on February 2 arrived in San Francisco via Hawaii on March 30. Along the way, because of the stormy weather and lack of fuel, Somo’s ship was rerouted and arrived in Honolulu by way of the Sandwich Islands. The envoy remained in Honolulu for two weeks, during which time they were able to obtain permission to visit the islands. There, Somo composed haiku and, upon his arrival in San Francisco, mailed a letter to his parents. It included this haiku, which was written in Hawaii about the scenery of the islands. Although it is out of chronological sequence, Somo placed it here in the manuscript of Kôkai shibun.

May 3, Off San Antonio, Cuba
Passing into the Atlantic Ocean, we saw a big island named Cuba.

shimayama wo terashi te mise yo haru no tsuki

Shine the figure of island above
to show us
the spring moon

May 10, Sandy Hook harbor (off New York)
Lying at anchor off New York, we watched thousands of ships from various nations and realized that New York was a flourishing place.

kazoe tsuku shi kasumi nokose shi fune no kazu

Counting up
the number of ships —
the mist prevents it

May 14, Monroe Battery
At the mouth of Potomac River we watched the Monroe Battery and were stupefied by hundreds of artilleries.

ozutsu ni kagerô no tatsu amema kana

Over the cannon
the heat haze is shimmering
in the rain

May 15, going up the Potomac River
We took a river boat upstream to Washington, the capital. Many houses were to be seen on both sides of the river, many fishing boats were sailing, and I could not count the number of boats going up- and down-river. There were some small green islands. I felt like I was viewing Matsushima in Japan.

Matsushima wo meguru kokochi zo haru no kawa

I feel like going
around Matsushima
spring river

May 15, arriving in Washington
We landed at Washington. We had a splendid parade with a lot of carriages, a 6,800-member guard, and 500 horse soldiers. We stayed at the Willard Hotel, which had 700 rooms and a staff of 300. The scale was beyond description.

wagakuni no kaze ni nabiku ya ebisugusa

American bean plants
are streaming
in Japanese-like wind

May 23, Washington
The Japanese diplomatic mission visited the State Department to sign the mutual ratification of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Japan.

takadono ya kogane sirogane kirabiyaka

Shiny and bright
gold and silver

May 24, Washington
We visited the national museum [the Smithsonian Institution] and were surprised by the rare articles such as stuffed specimens of birds and animals.

airashiki mono ikubaku ya Doyôboshi

Some pretty articles
are displayed
on the Dog Day

Doyôboshi — traditionally at the time of the Dog Day, a date derived from the Chinese lunar calendar, clothes and books are aired and dried out to prevent mold.

May 26, Washington
The emissaries were invited by Pres. James Buchanan to a banquet at the White House. Many ladies and gentlemen were dressed up and wearing their best jewelry, and about 500 people attended the ball to celebrate the conclusion of the treaty between the U.S. and Japan.

mezurashi ya ikoku buri no mai odori

Wonderful dance
different from
the Japanese one

June 15, Philadelphia
We watch a hot-air balloon rising at the Point Pleasant Gas Works. An American rode on this thing called a balloon, and we watched it rise in the blue sky. He was going to fly to New York by balloon.

tsuki narade fusen takashi yumagure

Not the moon
a hot-air balloon rising up
at twilight

In the introduction to this haiku Somo wrote “When I was in Washington D.C., in the United States of America, an American boarded what is called a hot-air balloon. I saw him fly high up in the air. After returning to Japan, I asked a Zen master Shimpo to make a painting of it for me. I wrote a haiku to complement the woodblock print and sent it to my friends.” Somo titled the woodblock print “The Great Distant Sky.” (See illustration, over.) The inscription says that Somo saw the balloon in Washington, but in fact the haiku describes the flight on June 15 in Philadelphia. The hot-air balloon, the Constitution, was flown expressly to commemorate the U.S.-Japan treaty, but no one in the mission was apparently aware of this fact.

June 16, Philadelphia
A thousand soldiers in uniform setting off fireworks passed the hotel where we were staying in a parade to welcome us.

machinami no garasu ni utsuru hanabi kana

Firework displays
reflected on
the glass of each house

June 17, New York
Arriving in New York harbor.

Tango kato omou ya machi no hatajirusi

Reminding me of Boys’ Day
many city and national flags

Tango — Boys’ Festival in Japan, May 5. Walt Whitman described the parade for the shôgunate mission vividly in his poem “A Broadway Pageant. (Reception Japanese Embassy, June 16, 1860),” first published in the New York Times and included in later editions of Leaves of Grass.

June 30, New York
We embarked at New York for Japan on the warship Niagara.

suzushisa ya kikoku sonahi no ikusa bune

our military ship prepared
to head for our nation

August 9, arriving at Luanda, Portuguese Kongo [present-day Angola]
Landing at Luanda harbor, there were some poisonous weeds that resembled the Japanese rose. The locals believe that the sap kills people.

kirawaruru kusa wa shigerite ran wa mizu

Despised grass flourishes
orchids not to be seen

August 26, at sea south of Cabo da Boa Esperança
Sailing off Cabo da Boa Esperança we experience high waves and wind.

akikaze ni fune no kemuri no yukue kana

Riding on the autumn wind
the ship smoke
is streaming

September 27, At sea off Sumatra
Viewing some islands off southern Sumatra.

tenjiku wo harukani kiri no harema kana

I am here
far from Japan and China
sunshine in the mist

September 30, Batavia [now Jakarta] harbor, Java
We enjoyed moon viewing on Batavia harbor on Java, Dutch East Indies.

imo no na mo okashiki kuni ya kyo no tsuki

name of potatoes
in this country — strange
full moon this evening

In Melanesia and Polynesia taro is a root vegetable somewhat similar to potato; it is called sato imo in Japanese. “Taro” is a Japanese boy’s name. At the autumn moon viewing in Japan it is customary to offer sato imo to the full moon. Somo was struck by the strange custom on Java, potatoes named after boys being offered to the moon.

October 26, Hong Kong
Dropping anchor in Hong Kong, China, on September 13 (Chinese calendar).

aa mita ri morokoshi ni shite nochi no tsuki nagara

Ah, there
the harvest moon
over China

November 1, off Taiwan
Examining Taiwan closely.

tora no sumu yama kuroguro to aki fuka shi

Tigers live
in the dark green mountains
autumn deepens

November 4, off Ryukyu (Okinawa)
Observing the Ryukyus closely; they consist of three big and small islands.

mushi tateru Ryukyu imo no ka mo chika shi

Smell of steamed
Ryukyu potatoes
coming closer to me

November 10, Yokohama, Japan
When we arrived in Japan on September 28 (Chinese calendar), the people in Yokohama told us the date was the 27th. I thought there was one day difference between Japan and other countries.

sanmanri megurite ichijitsu môke keri

Traveling abroad over
many miles
we can gain one day

November 11, Edo, Japan
After I returned from my world voyage, many friends visited me to inquire about my travel experiences.

tou tomo ni ikoku banashi ya fuyugomori

Friends visit
I enjoy talking about my travels—
my winter days

Katô Somo created haiku during his stay in the United States and throughout his ocean journey and upon returning to Japan published the poems of his travel experiences in the collection Kôkai shibun (“Voyage Poems”). Somo’s father assisted in the editing. Today, with all the advances in transportation technology and the introduction of the Internet and other modes of communication, we have little trouble traveling abroad or communicating across distances. As the number of Japanese travelers has increased, so too has the number of Japanese composing haiku about foreign places, but because he was the first Japanese to write haiku about his foreign travels in the last days of the Tokugawa shôgunate, approximately 150 years ago, Somo is unarguably the founder of foreign-travel haiku. In a daguerreotype portrait taken on May 21 in Washington D.C., most of the members of the Japanese delegation were facing straight forward, Somo, however, was captured holding a tanzaku (an oblong strip of fancy paper for composing haiku) and a writing brush, as if to emphasize his literary accomplishments. Somo later became what we might now call a diplomatic correspondent, reporting on overseas events. He died in 1879 at the age of 54.

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