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Globalizing Haiku

Over the past 25 years or so, the Japanese art and literature form haiku has grown in popularity from its humble beginnings as an appendage to tanka poetry.

As a student of haiku, I have studied the styles of the four great masters Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki.

But in attempting to write haiku in English in the 5-7-5 syllable format, I have found it difficult to find the sense of balance associated with the traditional poems.

Why is it difficult to write English haiku in the 5-7-5 format? I will share my thoughts and findings on why, plus the thoughts of other haiku commentators.

The world is changing rapidly, and the delivery of haiku to the world also is changing. While conducting research over the Internet, I was astounded to find thousands of websites about haiku in Japanese, English, German, Russian and other languages. I even found an American website that teaches haiku to third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students in the U.S.

Indeed, haiku is truly Japan’s gift to the global community and a “green” literature for its emphasis on natural themes.

But the question remains: Does haiku have to meet the 5-7-5 standards of the Japanese language to be a “global” haiku?

A comparison of Japanese haiku and American baseball may help us understand this. Both are practiced in the two countries and exported around the world, and both have had to adapt to survive in their new culture.

American baseball, for example, plays each game until one team wins no matter what time it ends. The longest game ran for eight hours or so. In Japan, however, games are scheduled for a little over three hours and end on time so people can catch the train home. It is the same game but the rules have been modified in Japan to accommodate the cultural differences. Robert E. Garrity has had a 50-year love affair with Japan. He is the Tokyo Journal’s Editor-in-Chief, founding President of the Japan-America Marketing Institute, professor on Japanese business, management and marketing, and an authority on Haiku. He is a member of the International Haiku Association, and the first American to present at the Association’s convention. He has written two books and published over 30 articles in Japanese. For a number of years he was a regular contributor to magazines in Tokyo including “Bonjour” magazine, in which he was published monthly. He is a student of the writings of such renowned Japanese poets as Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki. Japanese haiku is characterized by the 5-7-5 format due to the uniqueness of the Japanese language structure. English haiku, on the other hand, now generally follows the 2-3-2 format, primarily because of the structure of the English language.

Lets begin with a discussion of the structural influences of the Japanese language.

First, when composing a haiku Japanese poets count what is called “ON.”

For years, foreigners considered “ON” to be syllables, but now they are called “sound units."

There is a great difference between Japanese sound units and English syllables. Japanese “ON,” when written in English, can be as short as one letter (a, i, u, e, o, n) or consist of two letters: a consonant and a vowel (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko). In Japanese, all “ON” end in a vowel except “n,” which is an individual sound unit.Take the word “haiku.” For English writers, it has two syllables: “hai” and “ku.” But there are three sound units based on the Japanese way of counting: “ha”, “i” and “ku.”

Second, we have the matter of total sound units: 17. There are 17 onji to a traditional haiku, but trying to write an English haiku in 17 syllables can create confusion and perhaps lose the meaning of the haiku due to the structural differences in the two languages. Several western haiku poets and commentators have suggested different ways of resolving this.

William Higginson, a noted haiku author, has recommended writing English haiku in 2 beats/3 beats/2 beats (2-3-2). Others have suggested that haiku be written as “one exhaled breath,” noting that an exact syllable count is not necessary. And yet others have said that approximately 11 English syllables are equivalent to 17 onji. I am inclined to agree with this latter view, and perhaps stretch it further. I do not see the 5-7-5 as absolutely essential in English haiku. Because the language is structured so differently from Japanese it is possible to include a lot of meaning and a lot of words into seventeen syllables, which is sometimes more than is necessary in a haiku. What matters more than the syllabic form is the precision, clarity and emotion of the moment you are capturing. If too many -- or too few -- words take away from this moment, then it should be appropriate to alter the form slightly to suit the work. After all, Basho and other Japanese poets did not write in 5-7-5 all the time. Of course, this does not mean that writing a book and calling it a haiku is appropriate. But a syllable or two here and there may be necessary to balance the poem.

When American poets started writing haiku in the 1950s, they used the traditional Japanese format of 5-7-5 on the belief that it created a similar condition for English-language haiku. This style is called “traditional” English haiku.

Over the years, however, American haiku poets have become aware that 17 English syllables convey a great deal more information than 17 Japanese onji. This sparked a movement to write haiku in fewer syllables by following a “short-long-short” format without a rigid structure. This style is called “free-form” haiku. The 5-7-5 onji rhythm in Japanese haiku is not a matter of choice by Japanese poets. Various combinations of 5-7-5 onji have dominated the Japanese literary scene for centuries, with tanka (5-7-5-7-7) the most prominent example.

Because of the “rhythm” structures, Japanese haiku and tanka can be memorized with little effort, which may be why they have lasted so long. By comparison, there is no “rhythm” quality to 5-7-5 English haiku, and hence it is harder to memorize or remember.

There also is a great deal of difference in the length of English syllables from one letter (a) to several letters (plough). Simply put, more can be said in 17 English syllables than in a traditional Japanese haiku.

Many bilingual poets and writers in the American haiku scene agree that 11 English syllables is a suitable approximation of the 17 Japanese onji for conveying about the same amount of information while maintaining the brevity and fragmented quality of Japanese haiku.

As to form, some American poets support writing in 3-5-3 syllables or 2-3-2 accented beats. Such structuring of shorter English haiku may have the effect of imposing more stringent rules on English haiku, and perhaps limiting its potential.

Two major linguistic factors make the Japanese language more flexible, and hence easier to fit into the 5-7-5 form. Both factors stem from the fact that grammatical units in Japanese are largely independent, meaning they are relatively free to move around within a sentence. The first factor concerns the “relative freedom of word order.” English owes much of its grammatical simplicity to the fact that word order plays an important role in determining the relationship between words and phrases. A simple word order in English is subject-verb-object. In such a language, words and phrases cannot be moved about freely without changing the meaning of a sentence.

Japanese is different. Given that grammatical particles (joshi) are suffixed to nouns, words can become independent and be moved around more freely within a sentence without changing its meaning. Thus, having a multitude of alternative expressions allows Japanese haiku poets far more freedom within the 5-7-5 structure than is available in English.

The second factor involves the “relative ease in segmentation.” Because of the independence of grammatical components, it is relatively easy to divide a phrase into 5-7-5. There are more places where a Japanese phrase can be divided without disrupting its meaning.

Since Japanese haiku are written on one line with no spacing between the segments, there is no danger of disrupting the flow.

American poets face a harder situation. To achieve the brevity and fragmented quality of Japanese haiku in English, 17 syllables are too long. But if a rigid structure is desired, 11 syllables are too short. The choice is between the two, and this depends on which of the two factors a poet considers more important to the haiku. Most contemporary English haiku poets have chosen the “free form” and brevity to develop mainstream English haiku. And so the discussion continues.

As haiku becomes more global, we can expect to see similar discussions coming from European, South American, Asian, Middle Eastern, and African haiku poets as they try to incorporate the “rules” of Japanese haiku into their own languages and cultural writing styles.

Like the Americans, who saw their baseball game transformed around the world, the Japanese should take great pleasure in watching and reading the literary efforts of poets around the world who have adopted haiku as their own pattern of expression, no matter what the form or word count. With all of this uncertainty, one thing is for sure - Haiku has gone global. tj

rhythm” structures, Japanese haiku and tanka can be memorized with little effort.


This story appeared in Issue 270 of the Tokyo Journal.

To order Issue 270, click here.

Written By:

Robert Garrity

Robert E. Garrity has had a 50-year love affair with Japan. He is the Tokyo Journal Editor-in-Chief, founding President of the Japan- America Marketing Institute, professor on Japanese business, man- agement and marketing, and an authority on Haiku. He is a member of the International Haiku Association, and the first American to present at the Association's convention. He has written two books and published over 30 articles in Japanese. For a number of years he was a regular contributor to magazines in Tokyo including Bonjour magazine, in which he was published monthly. He is a student of the writings of such renowned Japanese poets as Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki.



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