The Narrow Road to UNESCO

Haiku lovers welcomed “Haiku Herman” back to Japan in March as lobbyists paused to reflect on the long road to haiku’s inscription as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


Spring is passing by!

Birds are weeping and the eyes

Of fish fill with tears


Portrait of Matsuo Basho by Hokusai.

This verse (trans. Donald Keene) by Matsuo Basho was the first the poet composed away from home in his travel diary The Narrow Road to Oku (Oku no hosomichi), today considered one of the major texts of classical Japanese literature. As Basho bid a tearful goodbye to his friends and embarked on that most famous of literary journeys in 1689, he can scarcely have imagined the impact his writing would still have on readers almost 330 years later. Basho’s work has echoed down the ages and continues to inspire—not only in Japan but around the world.

The short form of poetry with which Basho is most closely associated, haiku, may indeed have greater resonance today than ever before. While the work of the master haiku poets continues to be enjoyed in Japanese as well as translations in many languages, haiku’s great attraction to most is its accessibility as a form of creative expression. Simple and universal, haiku can provide sanctuary in a complex world. People everywhere are writing haiku.

Accordingly, efforts are under way to have haiku inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. Text of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, Article 2 (Definitions), UNESCO

The launch meeting of the “Haiku for UNESCO” council was held on July 22, 2016 in Iga, Miyagi Prefecture, the birthplace of Basho. Convened by Haiku International Association (HIA) President Arima Akito, the former Minister of Culture, and engaging the presidents of the three major haiku associations—the Association of Haiku Poets, the Modern Haiku Association and the Association of Japanese Classical Haiku—the meeting set in motion a process that is now gathering pace.

On March 6, 2018, a large crowd of haiku lovers gathered at the Embassy of Belgium in Tokyo to welcome Haiku Ambassador for Japan-EU Friendship Herman van Rompuy back to the capital. Affectionately known as “Haiku Herman” for his skills as a haiku poet, the former Prime Minister of Belgium and first President of the European Council is a key player in the “Haiku for UNESCO” campaign.

Van Rompuy was in Japan on the invitation of the Mayor of Matsuyama to attend ceremonies including that marking 150 years since the births of two more stellar haiku poets, Matsuyama native son Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902) and his close friend the novelist Natsume Soseki (1867–1916), as well as to visit the home of Basho on the invitation of the Mayor of Iga City. Most importantly, van Rompuy had been invited to toast the next stage of haiku’s journey to Paris and UNESCO recognition.

Haiku International Association (HIA) President and former Minister of Culture Arima Akito speaks at the Embassy of Belgium in Tokyo, March 6, 2018. JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO

In his opening remarks at the reception, HIA President Akita gave thanks to van Rompuy for his role in deepening friendship between Japan and the EU, and called on all assembled to redouble efforts to promote haiku’s cause. Noting that the “Culture of Belgian Beer” is inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2016), Arima mused that it may be timely for him to write a haiku on the subject.

Speaking in place of former Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio, who serves as chair of the supra-partisan parliamentarians’ group backing the bid for haiku’s recognition by UNESCO, former Deputy Minister for Justice Moriyama Masahito noted  to laughter that whereas debate in Dietary budget committees is often confrontational across party lines, no such arguments occur when the topic turns to haiku, and on the contrary discussions are harmonious and friendly. Attesting to the cross-party support for haiku’s cause was the presence at the reception of Miyamoto Takeshi from the Communist Party of Japan and Mutai Shunsuke, who like Moriyama is a representative of the Liberal Democratic Party. Other speakers at the reception included Ambassador of Belgium to Japan Gunther Sleeuwagen and Ambassador of the European Union to Japan Viorel Isticioaia-Budura.

Haiku Ambassador for Japan-EU Friendship Herman van Rompuy JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO

All ears, however, were on the eloquent Van Rompuy, a master moderator at the highest level of international politics for many years.

Why is haiku still resonant today? What is its appeal?

“In today’s sophisticated, complicated world, the simplicity of haiku—that very contradiction, in fact—for many people is attractive. Haiku poets start with an observation from nature, or in the seasons, and translate directly into words what they have seen and felt. So there is authenticity in haiku—in good haiku. This is in opposition with [the present] culture of post-truths and lies. Haiku is therefore sometimes perceived as ‘naive’; but if it is naive, let it be naive.

“And then there is the human dimension. The same reality in nature or in the seasons can be interpreted in different ways; it depends on the person. But [the haiku poet] always reacts with serenity. And each time [the haiku] is an attempt to create something beautiful. In the brutal and aggressive world in which we live, this longing for harmony—this anti-poison—is part of the attractiveness of haiku poetry.

“I spent my whole life as a politician, so you can say I am not naive! I am convinced that to create stable and more harmonious societies you need more than just a political language; you need a spiritual dimension.”

Van Rompuy advised that the road to UNESCO recognition for haiku would be a long one requiring first and foremost “patience.” There was indeed a sense at the March 6 reception that participants were taking a hard-earned breather.

Dignitaries at the Embassy of Belgium on March 6 included (from left) Herman van Rompuy (Haiku Ambassador for Japan-EU Friendship), Arima Akito (partly obscured) Miyamoto Takeshi (Japanese Communist Party), Moriyama Masahito (LDP) and Mutai Shunsuke (LDP). The HIA has been successful in garnering high-level cross-party support for its bid to have haiku recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage.

While visiting Matsuyama, van Rompuy composed the following haiku, which he shared with the audience at the Embassy of Belgium. The haiku captures the mood and the moment perfectly.


the sea is silent

the old poets speak softly

even camellias listen


The journey continues.

Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal

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