In hokku, as said many times here, one looks for a harmony of the elements included.  But the technique used to create it varies.  Two main types are:

1.  Harmony of Similarity:
We find this in Chiyo-ni’s excellent verse that lets us feel the desolation and silence of winter:

In field and mountain
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

The snow, the stillness — both express the deep Yin (cold and inactivity here) of the season.

2.  Harmony of contrast:
There is a verse by Issa that gives us the contrast between extreme cold (Yin) and extreme heat (Yang):

Scattering out
On the morning frost —
The blacksmith’s sparks.

The frost and the sparks are quite opposite, yet when joined in this winter verse they form a harmonious unity — fire and ice.  The blacksmith in the original is a nokaji (野鍛冶 )literally a “field” blacksmith — but the term means one who makes agricultural tools like scythes and hoes, etc.  That is too specific to convey in an English language hokku, and it is not really necessary to be so specific in translation.  We get the essential meaning of the verse as it stands in English.

There is a hokku by Buson from the opposite season — summer — that shows us a similar contrast of Yin and Yang, yet it has quite a different feeling because of the seasonal difference:

Clear water;
The stonemason
Cools his chisel in it.

The metal chisel becomes hot from the friction of cutting stone, so the mason places it in the flowing water to cool it.

The hokku of summer and those of winter have this in common — that those using harmony of contrast correctly often give a strong sensory impression, which in hokku is good.  It is a common effect that we all easily recognize, like coming in out of winter’s finger-numbing frost to a hot bowl of soup.




In traditional hokku, dew was a subject for autumn.  The female writer Chiyo-ni wrote:


It is only water;
Safflower dew.

It looks one way when on the colorful safflower blossom with its “cosmetic” reputation, but when it spills from it, it goes back to being simply water.

I have noticed that a number of Internet sites seem confused about this verse — or rather about the flower involved.  When Blyth translated it, he did so as “rouge-flower,” and indeed that is technically correct.  In Japan the safflower has been used for centuries to make a red cosmetic.  But the word “rouge” has misled various people into thinking that it must be dew on a deep-red blossom, and that is not the case.  The safflower, in its natural state, is actually more yellow than red, though one may see ruddy hints near the base of the petals.  Through a special process, its 1% of red coloring is concentrated and made usable.

Because we in the West know the plant more through its use in cooking oil, we are likely to let that color the impression the verse makes on us, whereas in Japan the beni flower — benibana or beni no hana — has centuries of association with red dye and cosmetics valued by the upper classes.

Chiyo-ni’s verse is reminiscent of a verse from another season by Aon:


When night ends,
It becomes an insect —
The  firefly.

The essence of these verses is change.  In one circumstance the dew and the firely are one thing, but in another circumstance they are another, neither being better nor worse than the other.

Blyth emphasizes that from a “Zen” perspective, that is how to understand them.  One could read them as:

When it is spilled,
It becomes just plain water;
The dew on the safflower.


When night ends,
It becomes just an insect —
The firefly.

But the correct perspective — Blyth tells us — is to see things equally, whether the dew is on the safflower or off, whether the firefly is glowing by night or dull by day.

Was that the perspective of Chiyo-ni and Aon?  Perhaps not.

Here’s Chiyo-ni’s verse in transliteration:

koborete wa   tada no mizu nari   beni no tsuyu
Spilled wa ordinary’s water becomes safflower ‘s dew

And Aon’s:

Yo ga akete mushi ni naritaru hotaru kana
Night ga brightens insect to becomes firefly kana




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.





Today is that very ancient holiday Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice.  It is the day when the sun reachest its highest point in its yearly arc across the sky, and it is the longest day of the year.  After this day, the hours of light begin to shorten.

Here is a hokku by Kyoroku that must be translated rather loosely:


Above white cloth
Spread out in the sun —
Billowing clouds.

If you are a long-time reader here, you will recognize the technique used in writing this.  It is harmony of similarity.  Two similar elements are combined, and the pleasure of the verse is in the combination.  Here the elements are very visual:  1.  white cloth; 2. billowing clouds.  The brightness of the sun brings out the whiteness of both, thus joining the two elements.

Here is the transliterated original:

Teritsukeru sarashi no ue kumo no mine
Sun-shining-down bleaching-cotton ‘s above cloud ‘s peaks



A hokku by Kyoroku:

A cool breeze;
Cloud shadows passing
Over the green fields.

This rather reminds one of a scene from a Hayao Miyazaki animated feature, with the wind blowing the grasses in waves.

Where I live, this would be a hokku for early summer, because later the fields turn yellow-brown.  But in the original, the fields are not fields of grass, but rather rice fields — rice paddies — which are green from irrigation.

Here is the transliterated Japanese:

Suzukaze ya aota no ue no kumo no kage
Cool-wind ya  green-field’s over ‘s cloud’s shadows

Given that there is no differentiation between singular and plural in the original, we might also translate it:

The cool wind;
A cloud shadow passes
Over the green field.

In either case, it gives us a pleasant sense of movement in wind and shadow, a harmony between the coolness of the wind and the coolness of the shadow.

In form, this is very much a setting/subject/action hokku:

Setting: The cool wind;
Subject: A cloud shadow
Action: passes over the green field

As I have said many times, that form is an easy way to write a hokku, and such hokku can be very effective.  This pleasant verse is good to read on a warm summer’s day.

There is a difference between the effect of the first and second translations given here.  The first — with multiple cloud shadows — gives us a stronger sense of the passing of time than the second translation.



May Winds

May Day;
The warm wind fills
with whirling seeds.

Today  — May Day — Bealtaine/Beltane by its old Celtic name, is the day in the old agricultural calendar when summer begins.  It certainly feels like summer has begun where I am.  The sky is a robin’s egg blue, and the air is warm and soft.

Happy May Day!