As mentioned previously, I will now begin a rather lengthy look at old hokku and how it relates to modern hokku and its subcategory daoku.

A frequent question from readers is, “Why do you use capitalization and punctuation in hokku when Japanese hokku had neither?” The question shows a misunderstanding of the differences between Japanese and English. To know why that is one needs to have a basic knowledge of the Japanese writing system and how it compares with the English system.

Old hokku were of course written in Japanese. Japanese was not written with an alphabet like our Roman alphabet. Instead it had (and has) a syllabary — a group of characters that are mostly the equivalent of English syllables. That used in hokku is called hiragana (平仮名 ). We can think of it as meaning “common writing” or “simple writing.” It is common or simple to distinguish it from the other generally more complex characters used in writing old hokku, which were borrowed from Chinese but given Japanese pronunciation. That more complex and extensive writing system is called kanji (漢字), meaning “Han Characters,” and “Han” here means Chinese. So odd as it may seem, Japanese hokku were written using two combined writing systems: Japanese syllabic characters and Chinese characters. As an example, here is Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” hokku in Japanese:


Out of that, these characters are kanji (Chinese characters):


The rest are hiragana:


Now why did Japanese combine the two systems? Chinese characters were inadequate for representing the grammatical nature of Japanese, so they were combined with hiragana to do so. But why did Japan not simply abandon the complex kanji for the simpler hiragana? Because kanji were considered “scholarly” and aesthetic. Several thousand Chinese characters were in use in old Japan, which meant it was a complicated system that required much time to learn. Hiragana, by contrast, was quick and easy to learn, and over time it became associated with the writing of women. The verses of aristocratic women of the Heian Period (794-1185) were written in flowing hiragana, as were novels such as the 11th century Tale of Genji, by the woman Murasaki Shikibu. Another advantage of using kanji was that they could represent more than one syllable, unlike the individual hiragana characters. For example, the first two kanji in Bashō’s hokku are in Japanese pronunciation:

Furu = old
Ike = pond

The third has three syllables:

= Kawazu

Let’s look at the whole verse again, this time with transliteration. The parts in bold type are written in kanji, and the rest in hiragana:

Furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

Literally, it means:

old pond ya frog jumps-in water ‘s sound

Ya () is a word that has no real meaning; it is used to indicate a kind of pause in thought, or to draw attention to something. In hokku it gives the reader a meditative pause before going on to the rest of the verse.

We could translate the hokku rather literally like this:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog
Jumping in the water.

Generally, though, we loosen the translation a bit, like this:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

That brings up the issue of how to translate Japanese hokku, which use a writing system and grammar quite different from that of English. One can be very literal and just translate word for word, as I did in the first extremely literal translation. That is something useful for those who want to know the precise meaning of a hokku. A literal translation, however, is generally not adequate as a verse in English, so we add the niceties of English grammar and punctuation, and sometimes we may make the translation a bit more clear than the Japanese original, as Blyth often did.

There is something else that must be noted about old hokku. I have written Bashō’s verse horizontally above, but in Japanese, old hokku were generally written vertically, like the rest of Japanese literature. So instead of appearing horizontally, it would be like this:

Let’s look at Bashō’s “Old Pond” verse again:

furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

As you can see, because it is using a writing system completely different than that of English, it has no punctuation and no capitalization. Those are characteristics of English, but not of Japanese. So now you understand why we use capitalization and punctuation in English hokku, though neither were used or even possible in Japanese hokku. Old Japanese literature did not have punctuation. When Japan was later exposed to literature in European languages, the benefits of punctuation began to be noted, and so punctuation began to appear in Japanese writing in the 19th century, though it was not officially adopted in teaching the writing of modern Japanese until 1946. Even then it was not used precisely as in English. Of course due to the nature of the Japanese writing system, capitalization is still not possible, because Japanese has no distinction possible of upper and lower case letters as we have in English.

Here, from the Dr. Moku page, is the Japanese hiragana syllabary with equivalencies in Roman letters:


  1. I’m excited that you have begun your review of old Japanese hokku. I’m old and forgetful and could use this review. One question…we tend to write hokku horizontally, today; are Japanese hokku ever written in three lines, or was that a Western invention?
    I’m looking forward to your other review posts.

    The lineation of old hokku varied. Sometimes it is in one vertical line, sometimes more, depending on the space and shape of the surface it was written upon. The three-line horizontal form is largely a Western creation, but it does the job very well.


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