Kireji are a particular kind of word, often used in Japanese poetry, such as haiku. Kireji, which roughly translates to “cutting word” is often seen as an essential component of traditional Japanese poetry. In addition to its presence in haiku, kireji is also found in the opening verse (hokku) of classical renga and renku.

One aspect of a kireji which often hampers translation is that there’s no direct equivalent in English. Instead, these part-grammatical, part-lexical and part-cultural tools of Japanese traditional poetry, including traditional haiku, need to be replicated, where possible, with intelligent word choice, pacing and, controversially, even punctuation. These cutting words an in important tool in both traditional and modern Japanese poetry,and can seriously impact how the phrase preceding the kireji is read and understood.

Whether they’re used in the middle or at the end of a verse, kireji and cutting words are extremely powerful, and understanding how, and why, they are so powerful can have a real impact on the quality of your own poetry, whether you’re writing Japanese classical haiku, or haiku poetry in English.

What Does Kireji Mean?

Kireji translates to “Cutting Word”. It is a grammatical and lexical tool used in Japanese poetry. However, it is also partially cultural, meaning it can be extremely difficult to replicate in English. The literal translation is actually an effective way of explaining what a kireji is, particularly when we’re dealing with mid-verse kireji which splits the haiku poem or other form of Japanese poetry.

What’s A Cutting Word?

A cutting word is a punctuation mark of sorts, used to indicate the start or end of a line in Japanese poetry. Depending on where they are placed, kireji can indicate changes in thought, emotion or sentiment within a haiku poem. They act as an interruption when writing haiku, creating a pause and conveying a range of emotions from joy to sorrow.

Do Cutting Words Impact the Syllable Count of Haiku?

Well, yes and no. Cutting words, in Japanese, are a kind of punctuation mark and a word all rolled into one. So, in terms of their usage in Japanese haiku, yes, they do contribute to the syllable count. However, it’s also worth noting that this syllable count isn’t a hard and fast rule, as I’ve argued many times – particularly in terms of translation.

Mid-verse kireji are usually more likely to be sounded rather than written punctuation. In English-language haiku and hokku, as well as in translations, kireji may be represented by punctuation (typically by a dash or an ellipsis), an exclamatory particle (such as ‘how…’), or simply left unmarked.

What Is The Role of Kireji?

Kireji’s main purpose is to provide structure to a poem, such as haiku. When kireji is placed at the end of a verse in Japanese poetry, it cements the end of a concept or point.

When used in the middle of a verse, or at the end of a haiku line, it is intended to cut into a stream of thought. This has the effect of essentially splitting a poem, with the text before and after the kireji treated as two thoughts independent of each other.

From a technical, or rhythmic perspective, the kireji indicates a grammatical pause. It causes the reader to briefly stop in their progress, giving them time to reflect on the preceeding words.

Kireji can also give a particular emotional experience or twist to the preceeding phrase.

What Are The Different Kireji?

There are 18 classical kireji you’re likely to find in traditional Japanese poetry. However, Basho – the most famous Japanese poet – told his students that all 48 mora of the Japanese could be used as kireji.

Some of the most common kireji you might encounter in a haiku or other traditional poem include:

  • ka: this typically emphasises the previous term; when at end of a phrase, it indicates a question.
  • kana: another form of emphasis; usually can be found at a poem’s end. This kanji typically indicates wonder or amazement.
  • keri: this is an exclamatory verbal suffix.
  • ramu or –ran: this is a verbal suffix, often used to indicate probability.
  • し–shi: this adjectival suffix; usually used to end a clause.
  • tsu: verbal suffix; which is often used in the present tense.
  • ya: emphasises the preceding word or words. Cutting a poem into two parts, it implies an equation, simultaneously inviting the reader to explore their interrelationship.
  • keru: The “keru” kireji conveys a sense of realization or conclusion. It is often used to express a sudden insight or memory that emerges in the poet’s mind.

Where Are Kireji Used in Japanese Haiku?

In traditional Japanese haiku, the kireji will often appear after either the 5th or 12th onji, to create a pause between ideas. Kireji are rarely used after the end of both onji, as that would often overwhelm a poem as delicate and minimalist as haiku.

While exploring kireji in Japanese poetry, particularly traditional Japanese haiku, is something I’ll never get bored of, it doesn’t exactly help us when we’re writing haiku in English.

Can We Use Kireji in English Language Haiku?

Kireji have no direct equivalent in the English language. That makes using them in English Language haiku extremely difficult. However, if you want to include a kireji-like effect in your haiku, you can achieve this through punctuation.

In English language poetry originating from Japan, such as haiku and hokku, kireji is often represented through word choice following by punctuation, an exclamatory particle or pronounced while reading the poem aloud, without being presented in the written form.

What Punctuation Can Be Used To Show Kireji in English?

While I’d normally advise against punctuation, it can be used to create a kireji in English Language haiku. A dash or elipsis can often be used to create the same pause in haiku or hokku.

Basically, English kireji can be presented using punctuation such as “. : ; – … ? !“. While the concept might make a haiku purist or fundamentalist cringe, there isn’t (and has never been) an authority on English haiku to say whether it is correct or not.

I had a period of believing that punctuation wasn’t necessary in English language haiku. I would have argued that “haiku should be as simple as possible, with a focus on the complete removal of ego and the concealment of complexity within simplicity and concrete imagery” or something to that effect.

However, I must admit that my attitude has changed on this matter. If we see one of the main purposes of kireji to signify the turn in a poem, the twist between two visual images or however you choose to phrase it, then I suppose why wouldn’t you use something that is, effectively soundless to explore that divide? Of course, that’s when we start getting into the realm of “well, why wouldn’t you just write them as separate lines rather than sticking to this arbitrary format”, but that’s a question for better poets than me – or at least, a question that anyone looking to write “haiku” in any other language besides its natural Japanese should ask themselves.

Anyway, I know it’s a little bit of a disappointment not to have a clear answer on how to use kireji effectively in English haiku. However, the one benefit of not having a clear answer is that it is up to you to go and decide on how to achieve the same impact as kireji in your own haiku.

If you’ve got any opinions on kireji in English, or even if you don’t think it carries over, culturally, into English creative writing, let us know!

J.W. Carey
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