Taneda Santoka Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Santoka Taneda 1882-1940

(Pseudonym of Shoichi Taneda) Japanese poet.

Santoka is considered a unique proponent of "free-style" haiku poetry, a mode that abandoned much of the customary form and subject matter of traditional haiku in favor of a direct and unadorned depiction of human experience. A wandering poet and ascetic Zen priest for the last fifteen years of his life, Santoka emphasized many of the essential qualities of Zen Buddhism in his verse, including mujo (impermanence), the necessity of sabi (solitude), the importance of simplicity in life, and the pervasive sadness that accompanies all human affairs. Many of his poems point toward the Zen goal of overcoming this ubiquitous melancholy by achieving spiritual enlightenment and serenity. To this view Santoka added his concern with what James Abrams called "the vital necessity of movement and the partial release it brings to the anguish of the soul."

Biographical Information

Santoka was born Shoichi Taneda in 1882, the son of a wealthy landowner from Hofu in western Japan. He studied literature at Waseda University in Tokyo, and while there began writing poetry. He adopted a pen-name, as is the custom among haiku poets, choosing the name Santoka, which can be rendered in English as "burning mountain peak." Excessive drinking and a severe nervous breakdown forced him to drop out of school in 1904, however. In the ensuing years he attempted to assist his father in running a sake brewery, but this too failed in all respects and contributed to Santoka's growing alcoholism. His arranged marriage in 1909 proved yet another failure in Santoka's personal life. Still, he continued with his literary efforts, and by 1911 had produced translations of such writers as Ivan Turgenev and Guy de Maupassant. The forthcoming years witnessed the steady influence of the haiku poet Seisensui Ogiwara on Santoka. Leader of the so-called "new tendency" or "free-style" school of haiku poetry, Seisensui was also founder of the literary journal Soun, of which Santoka became poetry editor in 1916. Meanwhile, Santoka made half-hearted attempts to maintain employment and support his family when not succumbing to his addiction to sakè. In 1924 he attempted suicide by standing in front of an oncoming train. Before impact, however, the train's engineer saw him and was able to stop. After the incident Santoka was taken to a nearby Zen temple in order to recover. He stayed there for a year, studying Zen Buddhism, and in 1925 was ordained a priest and placed in charge of a small temple. But by the following year Santoka had forsaken his clerical duties and left the temple to wander as a mendicant priest. With the financial support of some friends he published his first collection of haiku poetry, Hachi no ko, in 1932. That year several of his friends also renovated an old hermitage for Santoka, which he named "Gochuan," or "Cottage in the Midst." He stayed at Gochuan only briefly, opting instead to spend the rest of his life as he had the prior six years: as an impoverished, itinerant poet-priest, begging for money and food. He made another failed attempt at suicide several years later—this time with sleeping pills—and went on to publish six more collections of haiku verse before his death in 1940.

Major Works

Santoka published seven small books of haiku poetry containing approximately 800 of the thousands of poems he composed during his lifetime. Based on his experiences while wandering Japan as a mendicant, the haiku are written in an unadorned style and rarely contain more than ten words—although Santoka often labored meticulously over each poem. Simple in form, Santoka's poems dispense with the seasonal imagery and constraining five-seven-five syllable pattern of their traditional predecessors. In them Santoka confronts manifold subjects, making observations on the natural world, Zen philosophy, the loneliness and isolation of his wanderings, art, death, and the joys of drinking sake. The last of these forms a favorite topic for Santoka, both in his haiku and his life, the drink offers him a temporary release from his feelings of guilt, which inevitably would return, accompanied by a heightened sense of remorse over his dissipated life, with sobriety.

Critical Reception

Before his death Santoka was largely unknown outside of a small group of friends who read and circulated his poetry and at times supported him financially. By the 1970s, however, his verse had reached a point of remarkable popularity in Japan and elsewhere. The mass of his writings, including his published verse and unpublished journals and diaries, have since been collected in the seven-volume Teihon Taneda Santoka Zenshu (1972), and many of his haiku poems have now been translated into English and other languages. Scholars have since evaluated Santoka's place in the Japanese poetic tradition, seeing him as among the last in a lengthy line of wandering haiku poets. Others have begun to devote closer study to his break with tradition as a writer of "free-style" haiku and examine the intricacies of what J. Thomas Rimer has called his "laconic, deceptively simple" poetry.