Tota Kaneko Passes Away – Poetry News February 23rd

In our final article of the week, we take a look at the life of the poet Tota Kaneko, who has sadly passed away at the age of 98.

Tota Kaneko, Haiku Poet Passes Away at the age of 98

We have learned that one of the leading figures in the world of the postwar haikus, Tota Kaneko passed away on 20th February. He died of acute respiratory distress syndrome. In September he would have turned 99 which is considered by the Japanese to be a very fortuitous age.

Kaneko was born on 23rd September 1919 in the Saitama Prefecture in Japan. He first came across haiku poetry when he was at Mito High School, it was here that he also penned his first poems, however, it wasn’t until much later that he wrote his first published haiku.

From high school, he went to Tokyo Imperial University where he studied under Shuson Kato, a poet who published Kanrai the haiku magazine. When he graduated from the university he went to work in the Bank of Japan (BOJ) however it was 1943 and the Pacific War was at its height. He was quickly sent to the South Pacific as a navy lieutenant. He remained there as a prisoner of war until 1946.

His experiences had a profound effect on him; he saw many of his compatriots die of starvation, he organised gatherings where he recited haikus to his fellow prisoners to keep spirits up. And when the end of the war came, and he was released Kaneko, together with other survivors, erected a simple stone marker for those who had not survived.


On the boat that was sent to bring him and the other prisoners home, he wrote a haiku on the deck. In it he lamented the dead that he was leaving behind. He made it a part of his life’s work to help create a world that is without war, in the name of those who he had left behind.

On his return, he went back to work at the bank and started contributing haiku to a number of magazines. Whilst he acknowledged the more traditional methods of composition for haikus, which included using words that reflected the season (kigo). He was one of the poets who made a more radical form of haiku popular and dropped the use of kigo completely.

Kaneko received a number of awards during his lifetime, in 1956 he was awarded the Modern Haiku Association Prize. In 20120 he received the Kikuchi Kan Prize for his contributions to Japanese Culture. 2015 saw him receiving the Asahi Prize for being one of the postwar period poets at the forefront of contemporary haiku. He continued with his work on various committees and publications until January 2018 when ill health forced him into “retirement”.

Tota Kaneko leaves behind a son Matsuchi. His wife died in 2006.

The funeral will be a private family affair and it is believed that a wake will be held at a later date.

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