Saito Sanki (1900-1962) was a 20th century Japanese poet and short story writer who was a chronic womanizer, spendthrift, and inadvertent troublemaker.

Born Saito Keichoku in Tsuyama in western Honshu, he was the son of a school superintendent who dabbled in the arts. His parents’ only daughter had died shortly before Sanki was born, and he was revered as the reincarnation of his sister. His father died when he was six, so his eldest brother Takeo, who was twenty years older and would become a manager of the NYK shipping line, supported the family. At 18, his mother died and he moved to Tokyo to enroll at a Methodist school. He dropped out, wishing to study painting, but practicality, obligations, and the advice of his elders prompted him to enroll in Nippon Dental College. In addition to his studies, he developed a passion for dancing, eventually becoming a dance instructor.

In 1925, Sanki married Uehara Shigeko, a hometown sweetheart, but this didn’t prevent him from taking multiple lovers. Takeo, in an attempt to curb his younger brother’s licentious ways, bought a building for the couple Sanki could open a dental practice in Singapore, where he was a branch manager for NYK. Sanki thrived in the cosmopolitan Singapore, which was then in British hands, and became perhaps even less responsible and more decadent, especially after Takeo was transferred to Shanghai the next year. He had little interest in dentistry, often closing the clinic to play golf or using the building as a dance hall.

By 1929, the changing political situation, combined with his bankruptcy (mostly the latter, I’d imagine) forced his return to Tokyo. He opened another clinic, which quickly closed, and joined the staff of a hospital, becoming head of dentistry. It was there he began to write haiku. A urologist was assembling a mimeographed collection of poems, mostly collected from his patients. People from all walks of life would pen haiku while suffering their lengthy treatment (remember, this is back when penicillin was brand new) for sexually transmitted diseases. The doctor and his colleagues prodded Sanki until he finally broke down and agreed to contribute. "This is the way fate caught up with me," he wrote, "with venereal disease as its emissary."

Sanki would become a very iconoclastic haiku poet. He was alienated from Japan and Japanese culture, as he was disappointed at how his life had turned out and did not wish to be in the country. He felt no adherence to tradition and did not apprentice himself to a haiku master, as was the custom. He explored haiku with a natural sense of curiosity and employed it as a means of self-expression, bringing his cosmopolitan point of view to haiku.

In 1935, he joined Kyodia Haiku, transforming it from a Kyoto University campus literary magazine into one of the country’s leading haiku magazines and he became an established leader of avant-garde poetry. Tuberculosis confined Sanki to his sickbed for a time, and after he recovered, he quit dentistry and devoted himself to haiku. He paid the bills with a desk job at the firm of the mountaineer Mita Yukio, a friend from his Singapore days.

By 1940, the wartime nationalist Japanese government was hunting down subversives, and they investigated the avant-garde haiku movement. Though poetry was impotent in terms of political clout, it was still seen as threatening, and Sanki was one of the many poets rounded up and tossed in jail. He served 70 days and was forbidden to write upon his release.

Discouraged, Sanki gave up poetry. He left his wife and son (then 13) in 1942 and moved to the port city of Kobe, where he lived a bohemian existence in a rundown hotel. When the war came closer and air raids grew more frequent, he rented a run down, Western style house in the hills. Haiku poets began to visit him on pilgrimages and the house became known as the "Sanki Mansion".

Following the war, he threw himself back into literature. He moved to Neyagawa and resumed practicing dentistry. Once again, he took multiple lovers and teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, so when he was offered the editorship of the magazine Haiku, he eagerly took the job and moved to Tokyo. Even near the end of his life, he was an incorrigible womanizer, seducing his lover on the eve of his operation for stomach cancer.

During his career, Sanki founded the Modern Haiku Association and published four collections of haiku: Flag (1940), Night Peaches (1948), Today (1951), and Transfiguration (or Metamorphosis, 1962).

In English, a good starting point, perhaps the only starting point, is the book The Kobe Hotel, translated by Saito Masaya. It is a collection of first person short stories published in Haiku in the 1950s based on his experiences in that rundown hotel in Kobe. No doubt it was heavily influenced by his experiences, but I have no way of knowing if they are highly autobiographical or heavily fictionalized. They are a series of vignettes about characters, many of them foreign, during and immediately after the war, set against the backdrop of wartime shortages, bumbling German soldiers, and air raids. Also in the book is a large selection of haiku from his four collections.

Haiku from Sanki: "After eating whalemeat"

Sources: Introduction, Saito Masaya, The Kobe Hotel, Weatherhill, 1993.
Makoto Ueda, Modern Japanese Haiku, University of Toronto Press, 1976.

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