IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT JAPANESE HOKKU WAS LIKE….

By chance I flipped open a book to the Japanese original of a hokku by Onitsura, one of the two “patriarchs” of our kind of hokku.  Though it is out of season, it gives me a good opportunity to show you exactly what old hokku were like, and how they are translated into English-language hokku form.  An old hokku would have been printed vertically, like this:

鶯      Uguisu   nightingale / bush warbler  (Chinese character)

や     ya           (cutting word — Japanese phonetic hiragana symbol)

梅    ume         plum  (Chinese character)

に   ni             on, at  (Japanese hiragana)

と    to-           (hiragana)

ま    ma-         (hiragana)

る    ru –         tomaru = perch, stop (hiragana)

は    wa (ha) subject marker (hiragana)

昔    mukashi  ancient, past  (Chinese character)

か    ka –  (hiragana)

ら    ra –   kara from (hiragana)

    Let’s put it in horizontal form for convenience.
    鶯 梅 に とまるは 昔 か ら
    Uguisu ya ume ni tomaru wa mukashi kara
    literally,
    Nightingale ya plum on perch wa ancient from
    When a Japanese writer presented a noun followed by the cutting word ya (as here with uguisu ya), he was giving almost precisely the effect we get by writing in English
    The nightingale —
    In other words, he says, “Here is the nightingale; take a moment to experience it before we move on.”  Notice how perfectly the dash does in English what the cutting word does in Japanese.  Depending on the nature of the individual verse, we might also want to express the pause with a more definite and less connective semicolon (;).
    Having given us the setting, which here is the shorter part of the two parts of a hokku, he then goes on to the longer part.
    (It) perched on the plum
    In English the verb requires a subject, so we insert “it,” then we reverse the order because in English we say “perched on the plum” instead of “plum on perched.”  Notice that the Japanese has no “the,” because Japanese had no articles, no “the,” no “a,” no “an.”  But they are required for normal good English.  Notice also that we do not need the subject marker wa/ha, because it does not fit English grammar.  We know the perching is done by the nightingale because of the word order in the sentence.  But to convey the sense of the hokku, we should add the word “has”:
    (It) has perched on the plum
    Mukashi means “ancient,” “old,” “past.”  When we add kara it means literally “ancient from,” but in English we would say “from ancient times,” or “from of old.”  So we can end the verse with
    From ancient times.
    You can see how very clipped the structure of hokku Japanese is compared to normal English.  Nonetheless that is no obstacle in translation, because the meaning is conveyed easily in this case from one language to another.
    Notice also that the original Japanese had no upper case or lower case letters, because it did not use letters; it used a mixture of borrowed Chinese Characters (kanji) and Japanese phonetic symbols (hiragana).  Nor did hokku Japanese — or old Japanese in general — have punctuation.  In that it is similar to many ancient Western documents, which also had no punctuation, and consequently proved quite confusing.  In translating original manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, for example, scholars sometimes have to guess where one sentence ended and another began.
    Punctuation was adopted in English for precisely this reason, and for its invaluable function in enabling fine shades of pause and emphasis.  That is why we unfailingly use it in hokku, and it serves the purpose superbly — better even than the old cutting words, which were not quite as expressive on the whole.
    We now have the entire hokku:
    The nightingale —
    It has perched on the plum
    From ancient times.
    By “plum” is meant of course the tree, not an individual fruit.
    Onitsura presents us with a subject — the nightingale — and then he makes an evident statement about it.  Not a statement of opinion, but something very obvious and not requiring intellection.  There are many, many hokku that follow this pattern, and so we call this type of hokku a “statement” hokku.
    Onitsura sees a nightingale perched on a branch of flowering plum; in Japanese culture, the plum tree and the nightingale had been associated with one another in literature for a long, long time.  So Onitsura sees both the present and the past, and realizes that
    The nightingale —
    It has perched on the plum
    From ancient times.
    As Blyth said,
    We get a vista of birds and trees, in which this plum-tree is all plum-trees, this uguisu all uguisu.”
    It is very much like the lines of Walter de la Mare from his poem All That’s Past:
    Very old are the woods;
    And the buds that break
    Out of the briar’s boughs,
    When March winds wake,
    So old with their beauty are —
    Oh, no man knows
    Though what wild centuries
    Roves back the rose.
    To allay the fears of those who might think that I am going to go into such great linguistic detail every time I present an old hokku, I have no intention of doing that.  We write in English, not Japanese.  Nonetheless it is useful — at least once — to have a clear picture of just what old Japanese hokku looked like, of how it was structured, and of how it is translated into English.
    This particular example is further useful in that it shows us the inappropriateness of using a Spring verse that speaks of plum trees and nightingales at the end of summer and beginning of autumn, when we are beginning the decline of the year.  That verse was meant for the beginning of the year, and that is why we customarily read and write hokku in season, not out of season.
David
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