There is a very simple but highly suggestive hokku by Bonchō :

In the town,
The smells of things;
The summer moon.

That is the form in English.

As you know, a hokku expresses a season, either spring, summer, fall (autumn) or winter.  It is not difficult to tell that this is a summer hokku, because the word “summer” is included.  But not all Japanese hokku are that simple.  Different seasons traditionally had their different topics, and these became so complicated that a kind of “season word” or topic guide called a saijiki was used, so writers and readers could make sure what topics were appropriate for a given season.  In modern English hokku, however, we make the seasonal connection by simply labeling a hokku with its season, thus avoiding the needless complexity of season words, which took years to properly learn.

So that is the first characteristic of a hokku: a seasonal context.

The second characteristic of a hokku is a separation between the two parts.  Every hokku has a long part and a short part.  The long part may be at the beginning or at the end.  The two parts in Japanese hokku are separated by a so-called “cutting word.”  If we look at Bonchō ‘s hokku in transliterated Japanese, we can see an example:

ichinaka wa mono no nioi ya natsu no tsuki
town-center wa thing ‘s smell YA summer’ s moon

The cutting word here is ya, which has no real meaning in itself, but instead emphasizes what precedes it, giving the reader time to experience it.  And what the reader is experiencing here is the town and its smells, which in this case form the longer part of the hokku.  Then comes the separating ya, what we call in English the “meditative pause.”  After seeing and smelling the first part of the hokku, we then see that it is all taking place under natsu no tsuki — under the summer moon.

In English-language hokku, our equivalent of a cutting word is a punctuation mark.  Punctuation indicates the length and nature of the meditative pause.  The most common separating mark in hokku is the semicolon (;),  but other marks are used when appropriate.

In the town,
The smells of things;
The summer moon.

Note that in English-language hokku, there may be several punctuation marks in a verse, but only one is the real separating mark between the two parts, in this case the semicolon.  Every English-language hokku ends with appropriate punctuation as well.  This was of course not the case in old Japanese hokku, which did not have punctuation, though modern everyday Japanese has adopted it.

The thing to remember, then, is that modern English-language hokku uses punctuation for the separating mark, as well as when helpful elsewhere in a hokku.  And all hokku end with a suitable punctuation mark.

You probably noticed that each line of the hokku in English begins with a capital letter.  This was not the case in Japanese hokku, because Japanese had no upper and lower case letters as we know them.  Instead, it was written in a mixture of characters borrowed from Chinese with Japanese phonetic symbols.  A Chinese character could have more than one syllable, like the word ichi (“town”) in Bonchō‘s hokku.  Japanese phonetic symbols made one phonetic unit each, like na, ka, wa, and so on.  In Japanese, n could also be considered a separate phonetic unit if it ended a word.  So these phonetic units are not precisely the same as syllables in English.

Given that the standard length of a hokku was seventeen phonetic units (though some were a bit more or less), people made the mistake of thinking that they should have seventeen syllables in English.  But that was impractical, because Japanese and English are very different languages.  In English-language hokku, we simply keep our verses brief and very simple, and that fits our language much better than a strict number of syllables.

A very obvious difference between old Japanese hokku and modern English-language hokku  is the lineation — how a verse is arranged in lines.  Old Japanese hokku were written and printed in one vertical line for general purposes.  But in English we separate them into three short lines.  This fits our horizontal writing system far better, and has a more pleasing appearance.

Here is what Bonchō‘s hokku would have looked like in printed Japanese.   I have added a transliteration and further information to the right of the characters and phonetic symbols.
ichi   (town) Chinese character

naka  (center)  Chinese character

は wa   (grammatical particle) phonetic symbol

mono (thing) Chinese character

no possessive word;  phonetic symbol

に ni-  phonetic symbol

 o-    phonetic symbol

 -i   ni-0-i = nioi (smell)

ya  cutting mark

夏  natsu  (summer) Chinese character

no possessive word; phonetic symbol

tsuki (moon) Chinese character

So that is a Japanese hokku.  As you see, there was a contrast between the borrowed Chinese characters, each one of which might be pronounced in Japanese with more than one syllable, and the Japanese phonetic symbols (hiragana), which could be joined in sequence to form multi-syllabic words.

Let’s look again at the verse in transliteration:

ichinaka wa mono no nioi ya natsu no tsuki

Ichinaka is actually two words written in Chinese characters:

ichi normally means “market.”  When followed by the character 中 naka (center) , it is generally understood to mean “town” — in a town, in the center of a town.  If we wanted to, we could use the “market” meaning, in which case we could read the verse as:

In the marketplace,
The smell of things;
The summer moon.

Or we might want to rearrange it as:

In the marketplace,
The smells of everything;
The summer moon.

I actually prefer the “marketplace” reading to the “town” reading.

Notice that in the first alternate translation, I wrote “smell,” but in the second it is “smells.”  Japanese hokku makes no such distinctions, because it did not have a plural form.  so nioi can be translated either “smell” or “smells,” whichever seems appropriate.

I constantly repeat here that hokku have as their subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  So in hokku, humans are found in the wider context of Nature.  In Bonchō‘s verse, we have the very human town or marketplace, but it is seen beneath “the summer moon,” which shows that the human activities are set in the context of Nature, even though we are in a town.  Keep in mind also that a town in Boncho’s day (he died in 1714) would have been free of the smell of car exhaust fumes.  Everything would have been much more natural smelling, a mixture of many kinds of faint and strong odors, whether pleasant or unpleasant.

Most people know about modern haiku, which developed out of hokku, largely as a Western misunderstanding of its nature and aesthetics.  As such, modern haiku is very recent.  I hope you have noticed the differences between hokku and most everything that is called “haiku” today.  Because haiku is often also written in three lines, many people think they are the same, but they are not.  Though many writers do it, it is important not to mislabel hokku “haiku.”  Haiku as it is practiced today is largely the result of Western writers misunderstanding the hokku in the middle of the 20th century, while hokku is centuries older.

Most modern haiku does not express a particular season (there are a few that still use a seasonal connection, but they are greatly in the minority).

Modern haiku does not necessarily have Nature and humans as a part of its subject matter.  Haiku can be written about anything, including modern technology, romance, sex, violence, strong emotions, personal thoughts and ideas, politics, etc.   Hokku, by contrast, avoids modern technology, violence, sex, romance, and in general things that disturb the mind.

Most modern haiku do not have a definite system of punctuation.  Some use a perfunctory hyphen, others use no punctuation at all.

Most modern haiku avoid capitalization at the beginning of lines.

Most modern haiku permit abstract thinking or intellectualization.  Hokku stays with things, rather than ideas about things or using things as symbols or metaphors.  In general one can say hokku prefers the concrete, while haiku permits the abstract.

Hokku in general is non-egocentric, avoiding emphasis on “I,” “my,” or “me.”  Modern haiku often emphasizes the individual — “my boyfriend,” “my girlfriend” — as well as personal emotions and views.  Hokku treats the individual the same way it treats a bird circling in the sky or a smooth stone in a river — objectively rather than subjectively.

Those are a few of the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  It is important to know the difference, because hokku has a definite aesthetic approach that one must follow if the verse is to be a hokku, while in modern haiku, the aesthetics vary greatly from individual to individual, with each person deciding what a haiku should be and how it should be written.  Consequently, “haiku” today is a vague umbrella term for many kinds of brief verse, while hokku describes a particular kind of verse in English, with a particular form and a definite aesthetic.  On this site I deal with hokku, mentioning modern haiku only to avoid confusion.






About a week ago, we reached and passed Harvest Home — Lughnasa[dh] by its old Celtic name.  Harvest Home, the holiday which takes place on August 1, marks the beginning of Autumn.  And Autumn begins at approximately the same time in the old Chinese and Japanese calendars — the first week of August.

It always reminds me of  these lines from Natalie Babbit’s bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.

In my region, Nature seems to closely follow that old calendar.  Right on time, the days have cooled and there is a sudden hint of Autumn in the air.  Of course it is just beginning, but one feels it nonetheless.

Autumn, in hokku, is the time when the active Yang energy of summer begins to wane.  One feels the first hints of the passive Yin energy that gradually replaces it until Yin becomes the dominant force in Winter.  So the Wheel of the Year continues to turn.

Autumn is a very good time for hokku experiences, because Autumn is the time when we most feel the transience, the impermanence, of life.  And impermanence is not only a fundamental principle of Buddhism, but also of hokku.  Everything changes, nothing remains the same.  That becomes very obvious as we see the plants begin to wither and watch the leaves turn color and start to fall from the trees.  Autumn is the time when the energies of Nature begin to withdraw, to “return to the root” as the old saying goes.

Some five years ago I posted an article on the differences between hokku and the modern haiku — how the latter essentially began as a misunderstanding (see

In it I wrote:

One of the most damaging aspects of this re-invention of the hokku as “modern haiku” was that many people thought the haiku should be a “personal expression,” which of course is another mistaken notion picked up from Western poetry and misapplied to the hokku. Consequently people began writing haiku about love affairs, emotional entanglements, sex, war, and various manifestations of violence.”

One should not be confused about this.  The purpose of hokku is not to “express yourself,” but rather to express Nature, and all things — you included — as a part of Nature.  Hokku expresses Nature through your experience of it, but that is not at all the same as expressing your “self.”

One gets a good idea of what it means to express Nature through your experience, rather than “expressing yourself,” by looking at this landscape painting by Fan Kuan (c. 960-1030), a Daoist artist of the Song Dynasty:


It depicts “mountains and water,” which two words together are actually the Chinese term for a landscape.  It is an impressive painting.  We see the massive, rocky hills and trees growing here and there, and a waterfall plunging from the heights.  But it is only when we look closely that we see a little group of travelers moving through the landscape at lower right:


There they are with their pack horses — a very small part of the landscape, and not really felt to be separate from it.

Compare that with our modern world of busy freeways, strip malls, traffic lights and omnipresent cars and trucks.  Our modern world is out of perspective, which is precisely why our climate and environment are now endangered.  Humans do not see themselves as only a small part of Nature any more, and that is at the root of many of the problems we face today.

Hokku, however, restores the proper balance.  Humans are placed in their appropriate context.  Hokku is about Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.  Modern haiku, by contrast, tends to put the emphasis on the “self,” which from the old hokku view is putting it in precisely the wrong place.

Do not misunderstand.  That does not mean hokku never talk about the writer, but when they do, it is within and as part of a larger context.  For example, Bashō wrote:


Going out the gate,
I too become a traveler;
The autumn evening.

Kado wo dereba   ware mo yuku hito   aki no kure

Bashō, by placing himself in the context of the season, places himself also in the wider context of Nature, in which autumn is a time of migrations.  The wild geese fly south for the winter, deer seek lower elevations.  And Bashō mirrors this characteristic of Autumn by just going out his gate and becoming a traveler too.

Much of the modern haiku community has abandoned this essential connection between hokku and the seasons, and by doing so, they have created a different verse form outside the wider context so essential to hokku.  By simply mentioning the season of a hokku, all sorts of possible associations are raised in the mind (like the traveling wild geese), and these are essential to the way hokku works.  It works in a much wider context than that of modern haiku, and that is why a seasonal setting and a connection with Nature are essential to it.