Kimiko Hahn
The Zuihitsu and the Toadstool


Yes, a toadstool, I told her. A poet friend was keeping me company while I hemmed a skirt. It's like when I see a poem that's around fourteen-lines, unconscious expectations are set off: the poem is probably a lyric on the theme of love and probably turns like an argument--which is to say, I expect a sonnet. So--here I looked up from stitching--what expectations might be prompted when you see a zuihitsu? She replied, But a toadstool?  I said: Well, just as a fungus is not an animal or a plant--it's its own species--the zuihitsu, isn't poetry or prose. She picked up my seam-ripper and taunted, So, where does that leave you--a thousand years after Sei scribbled her random thoughts? If you leave the definition at "toadstool," how can you know if you've ever really written a zuihitsu? I decided I should look at what have passed for definitions. She handed me the seam-ripper to punctuate her point.



[A miscellany] partly of reminiscences, partly of entries in diary-form.

            Arthur Waley, The Pillow Book


Stray notes, expressing random thoughts in a casual manner.

            Makoto Ueda in Earl Miner, ed., Principles of Japanese Literature


One genre that has no European counterpart, zuihitsu, literally, ‘following [the impulses of] the brush,’ and consisting of brief essays on random topics ... 

            Donald Keene, Seeds in the Heart (Note: brackets in the original    text)


Scholars agree that coming up with a conclusive definition for the zuihitsu is challenging if not impossible. The above quotes, for example, are more description than definition and ultimately more frustrating than instructive. And so, my question continues: what makes up this quintessential Japanese genre? Determined to come up with something one might find in a dictionary of terms, I have returned to my readings from The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon, Essays in Idleness by Kenkô, and texts on Japanese aesthetics to come up with a way of thinking about the central characteristics of the genre. I have come to think of these as suggestion, irregularity, and spontaneity. And, in spite of having written what I've called zuihitsu, I might finally be closer to a definition than I was decades ago.

            The literal translation of zuihitsu, running brush or following the impulses of the brush, suggests a sense of spontaneity. This quality is taken further by the scholar Gerald Groemer: [to follow the writing brush] implies that the scribe has relegated all agency to the writing instrument. Without the word "imply," the zuihitsu sounds like automatic or free writing.  But the opposite is true. The text is composed to feel spontaneous, a quality that is integral to Japanese aesthetics. One can experience this sense of the haphazard in bonsai where a tiny wind-swept-looking pine tree is actually the result of, say, fifteen years of exacting indoor attention--and where no wind has stirred its needles.  Even in the case of an impromptu haiku, there is a great deal of compositional experience that informs the poet's improvisation. Spontaneously executed calligraphy and painting are also informed by apprenticeship and practice--to say nothing of internalized cultural preferences. What feels artless is artfully rendered. So, rather than see the genre as a kind of unrestrained writing, the real challenge for me has been to figure out how to compose a text that appears random. 


Things that Are of No Matter

            Sei Shônagon


A person both unsightly and irksome.


Rice starch gone rancid. I know some will object to writing that is about something so domestic as clothing starch, but I must be free to write about anything I want. Even funerary tongs--everyone knows they exist so why not. It is true that I did not expect this note to be see by others--which is why I jotted down anything that came to mind.


            We can find an impetuous quality in Sei's lists. The one above not only describes a kind of off-the-cuff practice, the writing feels spontaneous. Fragmentary thoughts, an aside ("I know ...") that takes up most of the entry, an odd juxtaposition, a change in tone, and a thoroughly personal attitude contribute to this sense. In another example, "Things that Have Lost Their Power" (Ivan Morris, trans., Number 80), she opens her list of seven entries with a large boat that has been beached and she ends with an angry wife who must swallow her pride. In "Things that Should Be Short" (Morris, 127), she opens her list of four entries with thread and ends with "The speech of a young girl." Speaking of length, "Splendid Things" (Morris, 57) comes in with seventeen entries: the shortest one is the phrase "grape-colored material" and the longest--in translation--amounts to a paragraph-long complaint regarding the Chamberlain's term of office. For any list, there is a two-entry minimum but no limit.  Above all, there is no logical progression as required in a Western expository framework.


Things that cannot be compared

            Sei Shônagon


Rain and mist. Summer and winter. Night and day. Youth and old age. A person’s laughter and rage. Black and white. People that one loves and others that one hates. The little indigo and the great philodendron. Rain and sunshine.


A lover who, once one no longer has feelings for him, seems like an altogether different person.


Fire and water.


People who are fat and thin. Those with long and short hair.


When crows, roosting together at night, are suddenly disturbed, they make the worst racket.  Flapping and squawking from branch to branch, they seem an utterly different bird in the day.


            The quality of irregularity is related to "spontaneity."  In the above example, the lack of uniformity in the above example creates the impression that it was jotted down on the spur of the moment. As in previous examples, one entry may be a single object, another will relate an anecdote. In other zuihitsu, there might even be a contradictory comment as if one didn't proofread and revise accordingly. There are even lists within lists. There is no sense of sequence, much less a narrative thread. But I disagree with Italo Covino who stated that, "[Zuihitsu] is a classical Japanese genre that allows a series of styles and everything can be constantly reshuffled and reordered in every conceivable way." I suggest that it seems that  order is up in the air, but in reality revision is about choices. If one unconsciously composes a draft that contains chronology, it's best to disrupt that progression for the sense of spontaneity and disorder.  

            For a more philosophical look into irregularity, I turn to Donald Keene's discussion of Japanese aesthetics. By way of example, he refers to Kenkô's Essays in Idleness, in what is the most well known zuihitsu in Japanese literature:

            Somebody once remarked that thin silk was not satisfactory as a scroll wrapping because it was so easily torn.  Ton’a replied, ‘It is only after the silk wrapper has frayed at top and bottom, and the mother-of-pearl has fallen from the roller that a scroll looks beautiful.’  This opinion demonstrated the excellent taste of the man.  People often say that a set of books looks ugly if all volumes are not in the same format, but I was impressed to hear the Abbot Koyu say, ‘It is typical of the unintelligent man to insist on assembling complete sets of everything.  Imperfect sets are better.’

            In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable.  Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth.  Someone once told me, ‘Even when building the imperial palace, they always leave one place unfinished.’  In both Buddhist and Confucian writings of the philosophers of former times, there are also many missing chapters.

                                                                        Keene, Number 82


Keene presents this passage to demonstrate that an incomplete or rough quality allows the viewer to participate; by contrast, perfection and symmetry merely "[ask] our admiration" (DK, p. 13).  For a writer who does not have the benefit of a Japanese mindset with its preference for the incomplete, how does one make a text appear incomplete or rough? Certainly "rough" is related to the general sense of a rough draft. But--as noted above--composing a zuihitsu is not first-draft-best-draft. The sense of incompleteness is a produce of deft craftsmanship.

            There are other ways to notice irregularity. The zuihitsu can visually appear in different forms or what we might consider sub-genres: from a list to a journal passage to what we would view as a hybrid text (poetry and prose) to essay-like observations. The above Kenkô classic is the best example. For Sei, "[t]o feel that one is disliked by others is sure one of the saddest things in the world ..." (Morris, 143). And often an element of the observations consists of strong opinions: Kenkô is exasperated when "discussions of poetry are devoted to bad poems" (Keene, 57) or Sei's numerous passages that open with "one should" or "one should never." Both authors do go on when it comes to what is the most prized about a certain thing, whether an abstract quality (for Sei, the splendor of the wood grains in a Buddhist statue, Morris, 57) or concrete (for Sei, "I hate seeing a dusty, dirty-looking inkstone ...," Morris, 133). 

            While a zuihitsu may take the form of various subgenres, there is also the fragmentation of these texts. Some appear as just that, a fragment from a diary, while others take the shape of a random  anecdote, scene, reminiscence, or piece of advice. My absolute favorite piece of advice is Kenkô's two-sentence zuihitsu telling one not to smell new antler horns because insects might crawl into one's brain (Keene, 149). And here is one of Kenkô's reminiscences (Keene, 62):

            When the Princess Ensei was a small child she asked someone going to the cloistered emperor's palace to relay the following poem as a message from her:

            futatsu moji                             The letter in two strokes

            ushi no tsuno moji                  The letter like an ox's horns,

            sugu no moji                           The straight letter,

            yugamu moji to zo                  And the crooked letter too

            kimi wa oboyuru                     All spell my love for you.


            The poem meant that she missed he father, the cloistered emperor.


I hasten to add that Western subgenres like the prose poem, the lyric essay, or even blog writing may have relative similarities, but they are not zuihitsu by virtue of aesthetic import.

            It is worth noting that the above Kenkô example introduces hybridity into this discussion. Hybrid texts as a subgenre is nothing new in Japanese literature. In The Pillow Book, there are a number of passages that combine prose with tanka or songs. The generic juxtaposition produces a visual interruption and potential disruptions in tone, voice, diction, narrative moment, and on. Of course, one of the best examples of hybridity is the haibun. Strictly speaking it is a form that involves prose and haiku. The prose itself can take the form of a journal (real or fictitious) or essay. At times what appears to be a mere title or heading, transforms the piece from poetry to haibun. Here is one by Ki no Tsurayuki (Burton Watson, trans.):

At the Yamagoe pass in Shiga I talked with a certain person by a rocky spring. When we parted, I wrote this:


I dip with my hands

but drops muddy the mountain spring

before I've quenched my thirst--

still thirsty for your company,

I must move on


This example begs the generic question: are haibun a form under the wider genre of zuihitsu? I am with the scholars who cast the most inclusive net.

            Kenkô's tanka also brings into discussion two obvious examples of irregularity: both the five-lined tanka (5-7-5-7-7 syllables) and the three-lined haiku (5-7-5 syllables). Other Japanese arts bear out this inclination. Basic ikebana for example, requires three flowers in an asymmetrical arrangement. There is an actual word for this quality: hacho, or "intentional unevenness." And in tea ceremony, there are instances of asymmetrical preferences and odd-numbered ritual gestures. These arts bring me to the third quality, simplicity.

            I don't mean the kind of simplicity found in the haiku when a world of grief is expressed when observing a scattered cherry blossoms. The hodge-podge-ness of the zuihitsu does not present that economy. I am referring to the related quality suggestion as when an artist paints a bird perched on a seemingly free-floating branch but of course the latter brings to mind the whole tree. (Synecdoche may be a corresponding value.) Aside from suggestion found in included tanka, Sei's lists can be especially evocative. In her "Things That Give an Unclean Feeling," I also find a rat's nest nauseating. On the other hand, I'm fine with someone who washes her hands late in the morning. (Morris, 98). Still, the list brings to mind those things I find "unclean" (shoe laces, Halloween candy dumped in someone's bag, the use of hairspray, the 45th President). Of course, experiential comparison is what lyric poetry does. The sense of the incomplete, the rough, the random all contribute to suggest the whole subject.

            Spontaneity, irregularity, suggestion. Where does that leave us in appreciating and also in trying our hand at composing a zuihitsu? Whether in catalogs such as Sei's "Annoying Things" (Morris, 62) or  Kenkô's "seven kinds of persons [that] make bad friends" (Keene, 116) or in single-subject texts such as Sei's "Clouds" (Morris, 137) or Kenkô's anecdote on why a man felt a daughter unfit for marriage because she only ate chestnuts (Keene, 40), there are overarching themes in what Linda Chance has called a "formless form." There is an organizing principle to "the aesthetics, if you will, of formlessness."

            Where does this leave my attempt at definition?

Zuihitsu, literally, “running brush”; this uniquely Japanese genre is a poetic text lacking the formal structural principles we associate with Western verse. Through a variety of techniques--fragmentation, juxtaposition, varying lengths, disparate forms (observation, anecdote, journal, catalog, ... and a hybrid text), and an organizing subject--it creates an impression of spontaneity and a quality of "imperfection."






Kimiko Hahn

Parking Lots

[a zuihitsu]



It's true: his family car, me--his colleague--and a parking lot near a midtown bar. The deluge gave us privacy. The steamy windows. The not-wanting-to-leave the moment and return to small rooms of want: theirs, not one's own. Which was okay until things like the lot, torn panty-hose, the noise.  Rain beating.


Parking the car in the motel lot after dinner, the floodlights making the night an artificial day, he spied something large and moving on the pavement. Too delicate for a rodent. It was a beetle--the kind we'd only seen in decorative displays. He scooped it up gently and we brought it inside to see in the light of the room and up close. I googled it and found 'rhinoceros beetle.'  But that was not quite it, given that they are not from the southwest.  More investigation suggested a 'Hercules' but that wasn't quite right either. We have not pinned down the name but we did let it go, back into the wilds of decorative shrubbery.


The infamous auteur was equally famous for having been a shopping cart wrangler.


get out just get the fuck out


He kept winning one-dollar scratch-offs to the point where we stayed put for half an hour. Finally, we left without cashing in the last $5 win. A Camden Twilight Zone!


broken in


"What We Know About the Death of Rayshard Brooks" by Aimee Ortiz, NYT, Sept. 10, 2020. 


According to Wikipedia (2020): "Parking lots tend to be sources of water pollution because of their extensive impervious surfaces. Most existing lots have limited or no facilities to control runoff." I wish I could include the included diagram with angled parking as seen from above.


covid19 testing, covid19 vaccines, food pantry distribution, clothing drop-off--




The former student suggesting, Try pressing a cold spoon on your neck.


Against Wellfleet Drive-in policy, the two girls snuck on the hood to watch The Perfect Storm.






When there is no attribution, I have tried my hand using the time-honored practice of comparing existing translations, looking at the original, and coming up with my own. The cited translators are as follows. Note that in my essay, the parenthetical numbers refer to the translator's order, not the page numbers.


Keene: Kenkô. Donald Keene, trans. Essays in Idleness. NY: Columbia University Press, 1967.


Morris: Sei Shônagon. Ivan Morris, trans. The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon. NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.


Watson: Sato, Hiroaki and Burton Watson, eds. From the Country of Eight Islands: an Anthology of Japanese Poetry. NY: Columbia University Press, 1981.





Because I do not have a macron symbol on my computer, I have used the Western "advanced symbol" ô to indicate the long vowel that is sometimes romanized as oo or ou.


For more examples of Japanese zuihitsu, including a contemporary translation of The Pillow Book: Carter, Steven D., ed. The Columbia Anthology of Japanese Essays: Zuihitsu from the Tenth to    the Twenty-First Century. NY: Columbia University Press, 2014.


Groemer, Gerald, ed. The Land We Saw, the Times We Knew: An Anthology of Zuihitsu Writing from Early Modern Japan. Honolulu: The University of Hawai'i Press, 2019.


Sei Shônagon. Meredith McKinney, trans. The Pillow Book. London: Penguin Books, 2006.


For a scholarly study of Kenkô:

Chance, Linda H. Formless in Form: Kenkô, 'Tsurezuregusa,' and the Rhetoric of Japanese Fragmentary Prose. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.


For a fuller discussion of Japanese aesthetics, see Donald Keene's chapter on the subject in his The Pleasures of Japanese Literature. NY: Columbia University Press, 1988.











Found In Volume 50, No. 02
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Kimiko Hahn
About the Author

Kimiko Hahn's most recent collection is Foreign Bodies (W.W. Norton, 2020). A number of her collections contain zuihitsu, most notably The Narrow Road to the Interior (W.W.Norton, 2006).  Hahn teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Literary Translation at Queens College, City University of New York.