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December 2, 2009
New EU leader inspired by traditional Japanese haiku

A ceramic frog dedicated to the Haiku poet Basho, at Basho Inari Shrine in Tokyo. Photo: Flickr user Maynard

Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer at Worldfocus, is a news editor at the “China Times” in Taipei.

With all eyes on the Wall Street crisis and China’s rise, it’s rather refreshing to see the first EU president being elected — not to mention that he is also a haiku poet.

Herman Van Rompuy, the future head of the EU, is probably best known for his low profile. However, his passion for haiku has helped him build up a reputation in Japan.

Described as the “EU’s gentle leader” by the Japanese media, Van Rompuy’s charisma seems to lie in both his discreet political philosophy and his pleasant personality. In his personal blog, Van Rompuy played a little joke with himself by writing about his baldness:

Hair blows in the wind / After years there is still wind / Sadly no more hair.”

Not as welcoming as the Japanese media, the Europeans are more critical about Van Rompuy’s leadership. The Independent, ridiculed him in an article “Meet Haiku Herman, Will Europe make him a very famous Belgian?

The newspaper also held a friendly competition on Brussels-themed haiku. Although the satire is truly funny, somehow I felt that people have a misconception of haiku and take it as doggerel or merely as a practice of broken grammar. Look at the works by the Independent staff and you might agree with me:

He writes poems! / That should cheer dull hours / Of talks on iron ore tariffs.”

Vintage wine at lunch: / Expensed. At least it’s not / American, you claim.”

To better understand Van Rompuy, I’d suggest that we begin with haiku — the traditional wisdom of Japan. Consisting of 5/7/5 syllables respectively in three metrical phrases, each haiku attempts to reveal a moment of insight.

Such a moment was best illustrated in a famous haiku written by the 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho:

Old pond / A frog leaps in / Water’s sound.”

(Original: 古池 や furuike ya / 蛙 飛込む kawazu tobikomu / 水 の 音 mizu no oto)

This haiku was carefully created so as to lead to a splash that sets off ripples of thought for the reader. In addition, you can probably feel the late-summer nostalgia here–which is why each haiku contains a kigo, or seasonal reference, to touch off the seasonal miracle of mother nature. In the case of Basho’s haiku, the kigo is “frog”.

What haiku shares with people, in my opinion, is appreciation of the present. Unlike the Christian tradition of questioning our lives “out there,” haiku focuses on “just this” — just this moment, no more nor less. In times of turmoil, it might help people slow down, take a deep breath and start out once again.

While some haiku followers try to engage the material life as little as possible, others argue that a true haiku mind is oriented to the world and people must learn how to work in harmony. Now, does it sound more like an idea the world leaders can apply in the Copenhagen Summit?

Whether Van Rompuy can borrow haiku’s wisdom in political affairs remains unclear. Perhaps not surprisingly, he had already made a first step. At a press conference in October, Van Rompuy read one of his haiku works that explained how Belgium, Spain and Hungary will cooperate on EU policy issues in 2010:

Three waves, / Roll into port together, / The trio is home.”


1 comment


Traditional or not it sounds like a fun challenge: one eyed seer/past cassandra gone awry/rising sun celebrates PS.Enjoyed the read,thanks

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