white fish

by Ikumi Yoshimura

A Review by Robert D. Wilson



white fish

hold a spirit of the heaven

like indigo blue

– Ikumi Yoshimura


Ikumi Yoshimura is one of Japan’s finest female haiku poets, Her newest book, white fish, is a book I highly recommend to those seriously interested in quality modern Japanese haiku. It a seasonal book, with haiku written under the headings of Spring, Winter, Autumn, and Summer. A book that illustrates the importance of kigo in haiku.

Yoshimura has composed and translated haiku for decades and served as a poet, translator and researcher for books written by R.H. Blyth and James W. Hackett. She studied haiku under Japanese haiku master, Kaneko Tohta, and is the founder of the Writing English Haiku group, Evergreen.

The white fish, a small translucent, yet pretty fish with distinctive black eyes, that keeps its distance from human and non-human predators due to its smallness, represents to me something that’s insignificant, taken for granted because of their multitude, size, and not a life form one thinks about too seriously.

Most Japanese view nature like many indigenous peoples in North America. To many, all life is sacred, each with its own spirit, purpose, and beauty, inside and out. In my interpretation, as I cannot pretend to know the poet’s mind, she sees the white fish as a brother or sister. This is not just an insignificant fish in a world Yoshimura doesn’t recognize, sees as a meal, or takes for granted. Like a human, it too possesses a spirit and is part of her deity’s scheme of life now and for eternity.

This is a poem meant to be interpreted by an informed reader. It isn’t just a description or a long sentence. It possesses yugen (depth and mystery), ma (dreaming room) at the end of line one; the unsaid throughout the poem. There is much occidental poets can learn from Yoshimura’s haiku. She has something to say, does it with an economy of words, and allows the informed reader to interpret her poem with his or her cultural memory, education, experience, and mindset. It reminds me in a way of Matsuo Bashō’s poem:



opening their black eyes

in the net of the law


Translated by Makoto Ueda
Bashō and His Interpretors


Comments Rohan (1867-1947, an eminent novelist and scholar who devoted much of his later life to studying the Bashō school of haikai) regarding Bashō’s haiku:

“What the monk [thought to be a Chinese monk named Master Shrimp] caught in his nets were shrimps. But Bashō changed them to white fish, and therein lies his haikai art. He said, ‘opening their black eyes’ because black eyes are such a distinctive feature of a whitefish. The phrase has implications of Buddhist enlightenment?”

The same can be used to describe Yoshimura’s use of the whitefish in her title haiku.

A few more examples of Yoshimura’s haiku in white fish :


eyes of the potatoes


in the old basket


Do the eyes of a potato breathe? Why the use of a potato in Yoshimura’s poem?

To most Japanese, all things are sacred, especially those that are alive. They’re thought of as equals, and because of the culture’s belief in reincarnation, they know they too could be reborn as a potato, an ant, or even a cactus, depending on their karma in a previous life. For most, the enlightenment Buddha discovered under the Bodhi tree is not something that takes a few days or a few years. It can take successive lifetimes.

To most, at least to the untrained eye, cherry petals look the same. And they are appreciated when the tree ages, the blossoms too, and the blossom’s petals fall on the ground like snowfall.


cherry petal floated tea

both elderly sisters

wear matching shoes


But upon closer look, the individual petals are like fingerprints, they have their own uniqueness, their own beauty. In many waka and tanka, cherry petals on the ground, the sign of death, are revered for their beauty. Death is understood differently in Japan. People accept it and know that death is not the end of their life, but a continuation that will last until they reach the enlightenment Buddha found under the Bodhi tree in India.

Yoshimura’s last two lines demonstrate excellent use of juxtaposition: two opposites combined to make a symbiotic message. The “elderly sisters” in the poem “wear matching shoes.” Cherry petals resemble one another, like the two elderly women wearing “matching shoes.” Much of what humankind encounters is taken for granted. It’s only when we become aware of our surroundings that we can experience the beauty inherent in whatever we look at.

This is my individual interpretation of Yoshimura’s poem about the two elderly sisters. I cannot assume to understand or fathom the poem as she did when writing it. Her job as the poet was to write the haiku and my job as a reader is to interpret it, thus ending the poem. And each reader’s interpretation is dependent upon their own individual social memory, biospherical locale, experience, education, and genetic transference.

Stated Yoshimura in an interview I conducted with her for Simply Haiku in September 2003: “I am charmed by what is not described in haiku because it gives to readers the opportunity for various kinds of imagination. This is caused by its multitude of expression. Such elements have kept me writing haiku for years. When I find a wide and deep view of life in this shortest of poetry, I feel the happiest feeling. The charming point of haiku creation is found in capturing every sensibility of the moments of sympathy between human beings and nature.”

Ikumi Yoshimura’s new book, white fish, is an important book in that it exposes us to the Japanese female haiku mind, Japanese aesthetics, and from the perspective of a professor who has traveled the globe and teaches English Language. All of the haiku in her new book were first composed in English, then translated into Japanese. I highly recommend it.


white fish

by Ikumi Yoshimura

Rainbow Press





Read Ikumi’s haiku