Technique used in Modern Japanese Haiku:
Vocabulary and Structure


1. The use of words: season words, keywords, and others

What is haiku? Is it a short poem depicting scenery and things in season, as it is often mistaken both inside and outside Japan? Or, is it a mystical language evoking satori (enlightenment) in Zen Buddhism, as is commonly perceived overseas? At the least, today's contemporary Japanese haiku unfurls into boundless and deep development. Development that neither Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), who advocated free spirit for haiku during the late 17th century, nor Masaoka Shiki (1862-1902), who tried to modernize haiku during the late 19th century, would have ever imagined.
Yet, with the new expansion, why are season words still commonly used at the end of the 20th century.
Season words indicate season. Take, for example, tsuyu (rainy season) which indicates the long summer rainy season, about the time when plums ripen. The reader associates it with high humidity and discomfort on the main island of Japan from June to July. However, in countries without tsuyu, the word's meaning is empty. Additionally, in areas without much rain, such as Hokkaido in Japan and Europe, the time for tsuyu is the peak of summer: with long daylight hours, and in some areas a summer festival is held.
Seasonal words, therefore, are keywords only expressing locality. That is because the unique climate of a particular area (like Japan, the U.S., or Europe) cannot be set as a standard for the world; it is merely one aspect of the global environment and of the diverse cultures in the world.
The Japanese inclination towards season words, including words indicating small animals and plants, came from animism: respecting spirits in not only human beings and animals, but also other elemental forms like rocks, water, fire, air, and the sun. Respecting and appreciating everything existing in nature have strongly and naturally endured in the Japanese' consciousness of the 20th century.
Of course all living things including animals, plants, and things in nature are not necessarily associated with seasons. Rather, some poets find intrinsic values and universality in them. Therefore, I have asserted and now would like to stress again that the term, "keyword" should be used to refer to both kigo (season words, expressing seasons) and muki (non-season words, expressing anything other than seasons).
Here are some of the most outstanding contemporary haiku having keywords of animism.

One day
a nameless spring mountain
began to smile
Nobuko Katsura (1914-)
For the young peach tree
one light year begins
with expectation
Akira Matsuzawa (1925-)
When I can't sleep
I count winter waterfalls
in my head
Tohshi Akao (1925-1981)
Pushing and shoving
voices of the cherry blossoms
cross the ocean
Tenko Kawasaki (1927-)
the white leeks
like shafts of light
Momoko Kuroda (1938-)
To a youth
a spring bird comes to
announce himself
Nana Naruto (1943-)
Cineraria daisies--
in my very act of waiting,
Sayumi Kamakura (1953-)

The keyword of each of the above haiku comes from animism: "a nameless mountain" in spring makes its presence felt more than human beings; "the young peach tree" refers to the starting point for all creation; "winter waterfalls" comforts those having trouble sleeping; "the cherry blossoms" depict a group of the dead; "the white leeks" shine mystically; "a spring bird" suggests a spirit of the fields and mountains; and "cineraria daisies" encourage those awaiting the arrival of another at a meeting place.
These keywords happen to express a feeling for a season, though they express animism rather than kigo, the seasonal aspect.
On the other hand, there are muki haiku, non-seasonal poem, whose keywords are not connected to seasonal aspects. It is a new style of expression in contemporary haiku. Freed from seasonal limitations, contemporary muki haiku have been enriched and expanded with keywords that indicate all living things (animals, plants, and any natural phenomenon), human beings themselves and the culture created by human beings (the body, human relations, family, culture).

On twenty televisions
at the start line
only blacks
Tohta Kaneko (1919-)
I'm swimming
in darkness
keeping eyeballs clear
Murio Suzuki (1919-)
A big blue sky!
have the buffaloes eaten
all of the clouds?
Mikihiko Itami (1920-)
The iron eating
ferro-bacteria embraced
inside the iron
Toshio Mitsuhashi (1920-2001)
A dazzling sea
somebody with bleached bones
stands up
Kineo Hayashida (1924-1998)
Behind, a stillness
like my image cut out
of a forest of paper
Kan'ichi Abe (1928-)
From the boulder
smiling up at heaven
a continent begins
Ban'ya Natsuiishi (1955-)
Lower half of my body
surrounded by ocean fishes--
Takatoshi Goto (1968- )

In the haiku above, the keywords "television", "eyeballs", "buffaloes", "iron", "sea", "paper", "boulder", and "Saturday" transcend seasons. Replacing season words, these non-seasonal keywords are the center of contemporary haiku and help crystallize contemporary Japanese' diverse interests into a short poem.

2. Structure of haiku: kire (break) and a leap in viewpoint

In a short poem, haiku, it is expected that keywords of season or non-season words are effectively used to reach deeply into the reader's feelings. This way haiku can avoid ending up as merely a short poem but can fully express rich con-tent that could be equivalent to that of a long novel.
Furthermore, to overcome its shortness, a vital technique, kire (break) is used.
Contemporary haiku has teikei (fixed form) and jiyuritsu (free form). Here is one of the shortest jiyuritsu haiku.

Coughing, even:
Hosai Ozaki (1885-1926)

The haiku above, consisting of "Coughing, even" (six syllables in the original Japanese) and "alone" (three syllables in the original), has kire (break), a shift in the content and rhythm between the two phrases. In only nine syllables of haiku, kire is the key that opens the reader's heart.
Kire has been used as a vital technique since the Edo period in haiku. One can see that it was skillfully used in the classic pieces of contemporary haiku. Here are some of them. The slash, not included in the original, is used to indicate the kire.

Oh, a cuckoo!/
how far should I walk
until I meet somebody
Aro Usuda (1879-1951)
Parting and parting/
the green grasses
the green mountains
Santoka Taneda (1882-1940)
Patching up my tabi /
I am not Nora
but a teacher's wife
Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946)
Blossoming pear trees/
drifting clouds
on Katsushika plain
Shuoshi Mizuhara (1892-1981)

Kire makes it possible for recent contemporary haiku to express the leap in the poet's unique viewpoint and the shift in their poetic form. Here is another example.

Behind, a stillness/
like my image cut out
of a forest of paper
Kan'ichi Abe (1928-)

In the space of stillness behind the poet, what his poetic intuition caught was a forest of white thin paper. This leap in poetic intuition, from one moment to the other, lies in the shift occurring between the phrases.
The following contemporary haiku also include kire revealing the leap in the poet's unique viewpoint.

War stood/
at the end of the corridor
Hakusen Watanabe (1913-1969)
Infinite night sky/
stars, roses, comrades
waiting for tomorrow
Taiho Furusawa (1913-2000)
Here is a stump/
and an ox also
in its simple honesty
Onifusa Sato (1919-2002)
A youth loves a buck/
on a slope in a storm
Tohta Kaneko (1919-)
Near a tree
the mundane world:/
a crane's breast moving
Haruko Iijima (1921-2000)
The birth cry
between my thighs/
stretches into budding tree darkness
Mikajo Yagi (1924-)
Feeling unloved/
I swim away
toward the open sea
Shoshi Fujita (1926-)
Deep darkness
within me--/
firefly catching
Biwao Kawahara (1930-)
Cherry blossoms are falling--/
you also must become
a hippopotamus
Toshinori Tsubouchi (1944-)
Breaking my yellow crayon/
to draw
the barley harvest field
Kei Hayashi (1953-)

Each haiku by Furusawa, Sato, and Tsubouchi consist of two short sentences in the original Japanese. Iijima used a cutting word "ya", to signify the kire. Thus, the kire in these four haiku can be recognized grammatically. Yet, in the other haiku, the reader is expected to read carefully and thoroughly to discover the kire. Because of kire, appreciating haiku is highly intellectual work. Looking at it in another way, an excellent poet is someone who can skillfully fold the kire inside the haiku.
Ichiro Fukumoto (1943-), who specializes in haiku and literature, explains the difference between senryu and haiku, both of which are usually written in five-seven-five syllables. He denies the common belief that senryu doesn't use season words whereas haiku does, and that senryu sets the theme on human beings whereas haiku focuses on nature. According to Fukumoto, such a simplistic interpretation became invalid ever since muki-haiku, seasonless poem, appeared. Fukumoto's assertion is that the real difference is that senryu doesn't have kire, whereas haiku does.

This essay from Japanese/English JAPANESE HAIKU 2001 (Modern Haiku Association, Tokyo, Japan, December 2000, ISBN 4-89709-336-8 C0092, 3,000 yen)