Author: Lafcadio Hearn


A small selection of hokku (1) on butterflies will help to illustrate Japanese interest in the aesthetic side of the subject. Some are pictures only,— tiny color-sketches made with seventeen syllables; some are nothing more than pretty fancies, or graceful suggestions;— but the reader will find variety. Probably he will not care much for the verses in themselves. The taste for Japanese poetry of the epigrammatic sort is a taste that must be slowly acquired; and it is only by degrees, after patient study, that the possibilities of such composition can be fairly estimated. Hasty criticism has declared that to put forward any serious claim on behalf of seventeen-syllable poems "would be absurd." But what, then, of Crashaw’s famous line upon the miracle at the marriage feast in Cana?—

Nympha pudica Deum vidit, et erubuit. [1]

Only fourteen syllables — and immortality. Now with seventeen Japanese syllables things quite as wonderful — indeed, much more wonderful — have been done, not once or twice, but probably a thousand times... However, there is nothing wonderful in the following hokku, which have been selected for more than literary reasons:—

Nugi-kakuru [2] Haori sugata no
Kocho kana!

[Like a haori being taken off — that is the shape of a butterfly!]

Torisashi no Sao no jama suru
Kocho kana!

[Ah, the butterfly keeps getting in the way of the bird-catcher’s pole! [3]]

Tsurigane ni Tomarite nemuru
Kocho kana!

[Perched upon the temple-bell, the butterfly sleeps:]

Neru-uchi mo Asobu-yume wo ya —
Kusa no cho!

[Even while sleeping, its dream is of play — ah, the butterfly of the grass! [4]

Oki, oki yo! Waga tomo ni sen,

[Wake up! wake up! — I will make thee my comrade, thou sleeping butterfly. [5]]

Kago no tori Cho wo urayamu
Metsuki kana!

[Ah, the sad expression in the eyes of that caged bird! — envying the butterfly!]

Cho tonde — Kaze naki hi to mo
Miezari ki!

[Even though it did not appear to be a windy day, [6] the fluttering of the butterflies —!]

Rakkwa eda ni Kaeru to mireba —
Kocho kana!

[When I saw the fallen flower return to the branch — lo! it was only a butterfly! [7]]

Chiru-hana ni — Karusa arasou
Kocho kana!

[How the butterfly strives to compete in lightness with the falling flowers! [8]]

Chocho ya! Onna no michi no
Ato ya saki!

[See that butterfly on the woman’s path,— now fluttering behind her, now before!]

Chocho ya! Hana-nusubito wo

[Ha! the butterfly! — it is following the person who stole the flowers!]

Aki no cho Tomo nakereba ya;
Hito ni tsuku

[Poor autumn butterfly!— when left without a comrade (of its own race), it follows after man (or "a person")!]

Owarete mo, Isoganu furi no
Chocho kana!

[Ah, the butterfly! Even when chased, it never has the air of being in a hurry.]

Cho wa mina Jiu-shichi-hachi no
Sugata kana!

[As for butterflies, they all have the appearance of being about seventeen or eighteen years old.[9]]

Cho tobu ya — Kono yo no urami
Naki yo ni!

[How the butterfly sports,— just as if there were no enmity (or "envy") in this world!]

Cho tobu ya, Kono yo ni nozomi
Nai yo ni!

[Ah, the butterfly! — it sports about as if it had nothing more to desire in this present state of existence.]

Nami no hana ni Tomari kanetaru,
Kocho kana!

[Having found it difficult indeed to perch upon the (foam-) blossoms of the waves,— alas for the butterfly!]

Mutsumashi ya! — Umare-kawareba
Nobe no cho. [10]

[If (in our next existence) we be born into the state of butterflies upon the moor, then perchance we may be happy together!]

Nadeshiko ni Chocho shiroshi —
Tare no kon? [11]

[On the pink-flower there is a white butterfly: whose spirit, I wonder?]

Ichi-nichi no Tsuma to miekeri —
Cho futatsu.

[The one-day wife has at last appeared — a pair of butterflies!]

Kite wa mau, Futari shidzuka no
Kocho kana!

[Approaching they dance; but when the two meet at last they are very quiet, the butterflies!]

Cho wo ou Kokoro-mochitashi

[Would that I might always have the heart (desire) of chasing butterflies![12]]

* * *

Besides these specimens of poetry about butterflies, I have one queer example to offer of Japanese prose literature on the same topic. The original, of which I have attempted only a free translation, can be found in the curious old book Mushi-Isame ("Insect-Admonitions"); and it assumes the form of a discourse to a butterfly. But it is really a didactic allegory,— suggesting the moral significance of a social rise and fall:—

"Now, under the sun of spring, the winds are gentle, and flowers pinkly bloom, and grasses are soft, and the hearts of people are glad. Butterflies everywhere flutter joyously: so many persons now compose Chinese verses and Japanese verses about butterflies.

"And this season, O Butterfly, is indeed the season of your bright prosperity: so comely you now are that in the whole world there is nothing more comely. For that reason all other insects admire and envy you;— there is not among them even one that does not envy you. Nor do insects alone regard you with envy: men also both envy and admire you. Soshu of China, in a dream, assumed your shape;— Sakoku of Japan, after dying, took your form, and therein made ghostly apparition. Nor is the envy that you inspire shared only by insects and mankind: even things without soul change their form into yours;— witness the barley-grass, which turns into a butterfly. [13]

"And therefore you are lifted up with pride, and think to yourself: ’In all this world there is nothing superior to me!’ Ah! I can very well guess what is in your heart: you are too much satisfied with your own person. That is why you let yourself be blown thus lightly about by every wind;— that is why you never remain still,— always, always thinking, ’In the whole world there is no one so fortunate as I.’

"But now try to think a little about your own personal history. It is worth recalling; for there is a vulgar side to it. How a vulgar side? Well, for a considerable time after you were born, you had no such reason for rejoicing in your form. You were then a mere cabbage-insect, a hairy worm; and you were so poor that you could not afford even one robe to cover your nakedness; and your appearance was altogether disgusting. Everybody in those days hated the sight of you. Indeed you had good reason to be ashamed of yourself; and so ashamed you were that you collected old twigs and rubbish to hide in, and you made a hiding-nest, and hung it to a branch,— and then everybody cried out to you, ’Raincoat Insect!’ (Mino-mushi.) [14] And during that period of your life, your sins were grievous. Among the tender green leaves of beautiful cherry-trees you and your fellows assembled, and there made ugliness extraordinary; and the expectant eyes of the people, who came from far away to admire the beauty of those cherry-trees, were hurt by the sight of you. And of things even more hateful than this you were guilty. You knew that poor, poor men and women had been cultivating daikon (2) in their fields,— toiling under the hot sun till their hearts were filled with bitterness by reason of having to care for that daikon; and you persuaded your companions to go with you, and to gather upon the leaves of that daikon, and on the leaves of other vegetables planted by those poor people. Out of your greediness you ravaged those leaves, and gnawed them into all shapes of ugliness,— caring nothing for the trouble of those poor folk... Yes, such a creature you were, and such were your doings.

"And now that you have a comely form, you despise your old comrades, the insects; and, whenever you happen to meet any of them, you pretend not to know them [literally, ’You make an I-don’t-know face’]. Now you want to have none but wealthy and exalted people for friends... Ah! You have forgotten the old times, have you?

"It is true that many people have forgotten your past, and are charmed by the sight of your present graceful shape and white wings, and write Chinese verses and Japanese verses about you. The high-born damsel, who could not bear even to look at you in your former shape, now gazes at you with delight, and wants you to perch upon her hairpin, and holds out her dainty fan in the hope that you will light upon it. But this reminds me that there is an ancient Chinese story about you, which is not pretty.

"In the time of the Emperor Genso, the Imperial Palace contained hundreds and thousands of beautiful ladies,— so many, indeed, that it would have been difficult for any man to decide which among them was the loveliest. So all of those beautiful persons were assembled together in one place; and you were set free to fly among them; and it was decreed that the damsel upon whose hairpin you perched should be augustly summoned to the Imperial Chamber. In that time there could not be more than one Empress — which was a good law; but, because of you, the Emperor Genso did great mischief in the land. For your mind is light and frivolous; and although among so many beautiful women there must have been some persons of pure heart, you would look for nothing but beauty, and so betook yourself to the person most beautiful in outward appearance. Therefore many of the female attendants ceased altogether to think about the right way of women, and began to study how to make themselves appear splendid in the eyes of men. And the end of it was that the Emperor Genso died a pitiful and painful death — all because of your light and trifling mind. Indeed, your real character can easily be seen from your conduct in other matters. There are trees, for example,— such as the evergreen-oak and the pine,— whose leaves do not fade and fall, but remain always green;— these are trees of firm heart, trees of solid character. But you say that they are stiff and formal; and you hate the sight of them, and never pay them a visit. Only to the cherry-tree, and the kaido [15], and the peony, and the yellow rose you go: those you like because they have showy flowers, and you try only to please them. Such conduct, let me assure you, is very unbecoming. Those trees certainly have handsome flowers; but hunger-satisfying fruits they have not; and they are grateful to those only who are fond of luxury and show. And that is just the reason why they are pleased by your fluttering wings and delicate shape;— that is why they are kind to you.

"Now, in this spring season, while you sportively dance through the gardens of the wealthy, or hover among the beautiful alleys of cherry-trees in blossom, you say to yourself: ’Nobody in the world has such pleasure as I, or such excellent friends. And, in spite of all that people may say, I most love the peony,— and the golden yellow rose is my own darling, and I will obey her every least behest; for that is my pride and my delight.’... So you say. But the opulent and elegant season of flowers is very short: soon they will fade and fall. Then, in the time of summer heat, there will be green leaves only; and presently the winds of autumn will blow, when even the leaves themselves will shower down like rain, parari-parari. And your fate will then be as the fate of the unlucky in the proverb, Tanomi ki no shita ni ame furu [Even through the tree upon which I relied for shelter the rain leaks down]. For you will seek out your old friend, the root-cutting insect, the grub, and beg him to let you return into your old-time hole;— but now having wings, you will not be able to enter the hole because of them, and you will not be able to shelter your body anywhere between heaven and earth, and all the moor-grass will then have withered, and you will not have even one drop of dew with which to moisten your tongue,— and there will be nothing left for you to do but to lie down and die. all because of your light and frivolous heart — but, ah! how lamentable an end!"...


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Chicago: Lafcadio Hearn, "II," Kwaidan, ed. G. K. Chesterton and trans. Colbron, Grace Isabel, 1869-1948 in Kwaidan (New York: The Modern Library Publishers, 1918), Original Sources, accessed March 23, 2019,

MLA: Hearn, Lafcadio. "II." Kwaidan, edited by G. K. Chesterton, and translated by Colbron, Grace Isabel, 1869-1948, in Kwaidan, New York, The Modern Library Publishers, 1918, Original Sources. 23 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Hearn, L, 'II' in Kwaidan, ed. and trans. . cited in 1918, Kwaidan, The Modern Library Publishers, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 March 2019, from