JAPANESE poets usually adopt a pen-name, and when they become famous they are often referred to not by their family name, but by the name they have chosen. Shuson Kato was born Takeo Kato, but this revered and deeply loved figure of the haiku world was always referred to as Shuson.
His father worked for the railway, and this meant that the Kato family was always changing house as its head was promoted to other posts. They were in Tokyo when their first son, who was to become one of Japan's most celebrated modern haiku poets, was born in 1905. The parents became converted to Christianity, and when the father was station-master at Ichinoseki in Twate-ken their son was baptised at the age of 13.
Takeo Kato began working as an assistant teacher at Kasukabe Chu-gakko (Junior High School). Kasukabe is a small town renowned throughout Japan for its centuries-old wisteria vine which has a trunk measuring about nine metres at its base: it is a government-protected plant whose flowers reach a length of two metres in mid-May, the season of the poet's birth, when his haiku are recited beneath the blossoms. Last year a museum was opened devoted to the poet's work.
But at that time, when he was only 16 or so, Takeo despised haiku, for he was interested in the rather loftier 31-syllable form, the tanka. However, while he was teaching at the school, the local hospital was visited twice a month by a doctor who was also a famed haiku poet. This was Shuoshi Mizuhara. Kato and his colleagues at the school approached Mizuhara, who encouraged their writing, and Kato, falling under the older poet's spell, became his lifelong disciple, while Mizuhara helped him financially and in other ways: for example, he introduced him to the haiku magazine Ashibi whose poets were noted for their delicacy of tone and beauty of rhythmic effects. Kato soon became recognised as a haijin (haiku poet) of exceptional talent, and after only one year of haiku-making won the magazine's prize in its second year.
Shuson (as we should now call him) had married in 1929, and had three children. With Shuoshi's generous help, he entered Tokyo Bunrika Daigaku (the present ultra-modern Tsukuba University) as a freshman student of Japanese literature. In 1939, at the age of 34, again with Shuoshi's encouragement, he published his first collection of haiku, Kanrai ('Winter Thunder'), and in the next year, with the success of this first book, he started his own haiku magazine which bore the same name as his collection, Kanrai, and in it he was to print the early work of some of the most admired contemporary haiku poets like Kaneko Tota and Ando Tsugio. Shuson also became well- known for his scholarly and poetic appreciations of the great classic haijin, notably Matsuo Basho.
In 1957, Kadokawa Shoten issued a first collected edition of Shuson's works. But the poet fell ill in 1960 and underwent chest operations, presumably for tuberculosis. Yet he continued writing haiku. As he said: 'Without my haiku I am nothing. It is only haiku I live for, and only haiku that keep me alive.' His faith in the healing power of poetry was such that he gradually recovered. It was in the Sixties that Shuson became identified in the popular mind as a poet who wrote in order to explore 'how human beings should live'.
From 1970, he was engaged by the Asahi newspaper to be one of the judges of the submissions for the weekly haiku page, which every week attracted thousands of entries from all over Japan. Shuson also won many prizes for his work, including the Japan Art Academy Prize and the Asahi Prize for Poetry. His life's work was crowned by the publication of his Complete Collected Works by Kodansha (1980-82).
In April this year, he fell sick, but again recovered and started the arduous task of choosing the weekly poems for the Asahi. Alas, on 20 June he lost consciousness: the 11 July issue of the Asahi poetry page was his last. It was said that even while he lay unconscious he was moving his fingers in the typical syllable-counting fashion of every haiku poet, bending the fingers inwards towards the palm, then releasing them again one by one.
The even more venerable haiku master Seishi Yamaguchi, who still chooses poems for the Asahi page, even at the ripe age of 91, paid tribute to his fellow poet and newspaper colleague in the pages of the newspaper, regretting that his 'junior' (by three years) had died before him. Just before dying, haiku poets usually compose a 'death haiku' reverently written down by disciples. There has so far been no announcement of such a poem in the press, but there is one well-known haiku by Shuson, carefully using the 'season word' frost, which may take its place here for the moment:
Six feet of soil in
the frost of earth becomes room
enough for the dead.