What the Heck are “kireji” (cutting words)

Just what are “cutting words”? You do know that they are an important part of the definition of Japanese haiku, but it is very hard to find much information about what they are and why they are so important. The most often comment you read about them is that they have no equivalent in the English language. Having lived in Japan as long as I have, you run into a lot of things that you are told can’t be understood outside of Japan, but as time has goes on you realize that in most cases this is not true. So, with this attitude I will wade into the blank space of trying to explain what “cutting words” are and how they work in haiku.

First, we have to know what “cutting words” are. Haruo Shirane’s “Traces Of Dreams” (pg.100) gives a list of them:

“Kana, mogana, zo, ka, yo, ya, keri, ran, tsu, nu, zu (su), ji, se, re, he, ke, ikani, shi

Kana, mogana, zo, ka, yo, and ya are sentence-ending particles or adverbial particles, keri, ran, tsu, nu, zu (su), ji are auxiliary verb; and se, re, he and ke imperative verb endings. Ikani (how) is a speculative verb, and shi and adjectival ending.”

It’s unfortunate that Shirane didn’t offer any translations or explanations of the particles or of the auxiliary verbs, so to find out what how they might translate into English I had to go look in the classical dictionary of Japanese that I have. Even though the dictionary is in Japanese only, it is very helpful because not only does it explain the words, it also gives example of how these ancient words are now spoken in Japan.

Before moving on, it should be pointed out that the literal translation of “kireji” is not “cutting words” as generally assumed by English speakers, but rather is “cutting letters”, the list Shirane gave us actually is not of words per se, but simply alphabet letters which if used at at the right place will force a breath pause, i.e. a cut, in the diction of a sentence. Let’s start with the sentence ending particles:

“Kana” is an utterance that shows the speaker’s wonder or admiration, and works like an exclamation point does in English. (The modern Japanese equivalent is “….da naa” or “…..koto da.”) If the speaker isn’t looking at something when saying it the implication is that they are wondering if about something rather than admiring something they have in sight, which is the usage of it in spoken Japanese today.

“Mogana” is an utterance that shows the speaker’s hope or desire, the phrase of “if only….” captures the feeling it implies. (“…ga areba ii naa” is the expression used now.)

“Zo” is an utterance that adds emphasis to what the speaker has said, much like how a strong accented tone on one word can expresses one’s resolve or define what someone thinks about something. (still in modern usage.)

“Yo” is an utterance that can soften or harden the tone of expression that the speaker is using. We use soft tones in a variety of ways to add or take off implied meaning when we speak. (still in modern usage.)

“Ya” is an utterance that adds an emotional lilt to what has been said, like we do when we either speak in hushed or hurried tones to either hide or show our emotions. (still in modern usage depending on region……”da na”…….”da yo”)

Now, that we understand what these sentence ending particles are, the first thing we are confronted by is how they contradict Western ideas about haiku being objective without any subjectivity shown by the writer. All of the above are the exact opposite, they are personal utterances which clearly show the subjective emotions of the writer. And since they are utterances, they imply a first person narrative speaker. Any Japanese haiku which uses them means that the reader knows that haiku was written by an “I” speaker.

Not only does this contradict established Western ideas about the aesthetics of Japanese haiku, it also shows how the convention of writing haiku with no punctuation marks is also counter to what is in the Japanese. After all, these are sentence ending particles, and a Japanese reader understands them just as we do when reach the end of a sentence or a phrase. And, since some of them are exclamations, the Japanese reader reacts to them the same way we do when we come to an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence.

If you think of this in the context of how making “cuts” into sentences
is an integral part of writing haiku, then why did haiku in the west go off in another direction and evolve into the convention of not using punctuation at all except for the nondescript line dash? Isn’t punctuation how we cut and embellish language, building up diction to give expression an unspoken dimension? Punctuation: a tool that allows us to “cut” sentences in a variety of ways; why writers writing in such a short form would simply throw it to the wayside is so baffling, what a mystery!

Before moving on to the auxiliary verbs, it’s probably better to understand how verbs are conjugated in Japanese before understanding on how they function as “cutting letters.”

Japanese verbs are always conjugated at the end, just like we conjugate the past tense of such verbs like “walk,” where the past tense is “walked”. Of course, we also put auxiliary verbs in front the the verb to say “want to walk,” “can walk,” etc… However, the Japanese always conjugate at the end of the verb by changing the end, “aruku” is “walk”, “aruita” is “walked”, “arukitai” is “want to walk”, “arukeru” is “can walk”‘ etc… for every verb tense.

This is how the “cutting letters” that are auxiliary verbs work, they are end verb conjugations that not only cut breath pauses into phrases, they also indicate different verb tenses. Knowing this, we can proceed to explain what verb tenses they indicate. (The modern Japanese equivalents for them are in the brackets)

“Keri” has three entries in the dictionary. First it states that it indicates an action that happened in the past (…..ta, ….te ita). Second, it indicates an sudden awareness of something that the speaker now notices with admiration or wonder (da naa, atta naa), and lastly it shows the speaker expressing wonder at the recollection of a past action that someone or something else did (….ta so da, ….ta to iu koto da).

The first entry is easy enough to understand because it is the simple past tense, but since the last two also indicate recollections or reactions to things that happened in the past, it means that it would translate to using a perfect tense, and since it also implies an emotional state, it would also have to be punctuated with an exclamation mark. A perfect tense with an exclamation is generally how we express emotions to things that have happened in the past.

The similar and often used verb end of “nikeri” should also be mentioned. It indicates the memory of something that has happened in the past (…te shimatta no datta), and the admiration and wonder of some that has occurred in the past and is continuing in the present (….te kita naa, ….ta koto yo). This is what using the a perfect continuous tense indicates in English.

The dictionary entry for “ran” say that it is is a present tense speculation and is a inflection of the verb ending of “ramu” that appeared in the middle of the Heian Era. “Ramu” has four entries, the first says that it is a speculation of something that is happening which the speaker is not directly involved in doing (ima goro wa ……te darou). Next, it is noted as being a speculation about the reason why for something is now happening (….da kara, ….te iru no darou, …te iru no wa, …da kara darou). Thirdly, it is a euphemism for reporting hearsay information (….you na, ….to ka iu). Lastly, it is used the same way the verb end of “mu” is, as a simple speculative statement (…darou).

Japanese has no true future tense, rather they usually skirt around it by using the simple present tense or by attaching a speculative “perhaps” on the end of sentences to indicate that it is an action that they are not 100% sure of happening. Since none of us really knows what will happen in the future, it is hard to beat the logic behind of indicating the future in this manner. Of course, the English language is a bit less pragmatic when it comes to talking about the future, but the use of “darou” indicates the future tense with this verb ending.

“Tsu” first entry states that it indicates the completion of an movement or an action (…..ta ….te shimau), secondly it also indicates of being sure of an movement or action coming into fulfillment or realization (“kitto ……. darou). Lastly, it is used to indicate two actions following each other or happening at the same time (…..tari…….tari).

“Nu” is another ending that shows an action being completed and its entries are similar to “tsu” (…….ta ……..te shimau), (kitto…..darou), (….tari…..tari) with the only exception being that it strengthens the certainty of an action or movement being completed. In another separate entry it also can express a negative statement.

The difference between these two dictionary entries is the degree of certainty of the action being completed. To be honest about it, I’m not sure how to explain the difference. My sense of it is that “nu”‘is the simple past tense and that “tsu” is like the modern usage of “….tsutsu” (which means “while” or “under way”)
that indicates the movement of an action already started as it moves to an understood conclusion, but I could be mistaken in believing this.

“Zu (su)” is the negative verb form (….nai).

“Ji” is also the negative, but it also indicates a spectulation (….nai darou) as well as an expression of will or volition (….nai tsumori da, …..takunai), which is the future negative.

“Se, re, he, and ke” are the imperative endings for the verbs that end with “su, ru, fu and ke”.

“Ikani” is the verb modifier “how” (donna fu ni…., donno you ni)

“Shi” is an adjective ending similar to how we use the “y” to make adjectives, “sleepy, easy et al.”

As with the spoken particles we find again that what is in the Japanese is the total opposite of what is in the English. The verb usage in English language haiku is severely limited and generally only is in the present tense, and verbs are never used to express intention, recollection or speculation. Again, with haiku being such a short form, you would think that the writer would want to use all verb usages available as a way to deepen and amplify expression.

Of course, the problem with “cutting words” is that translators, both east and west, simply don’t translate them. Since they are part of the definition of what a haiku is, and add such an array of ways that the writer can express themselves, it has been a huge loss in having the convention of translations into English ignore them become the norm. This blogpost hopes to fill this void a bit so that haiku might be understood more as the poetry that the Japanese themselves enjoy with it and for the writer in English who finds value in exploring the ways that the Japanese use it to create such poetry.

Then again, the question of why you need to see what the strategies for poetry in Japanese haiku is before you write with the full abilities of your own native language is something that the individual writer must ask themselves.


6 thoughts on “What the Heck are “kireji” (cutting words)”

  1. James, could I possibly translate this page and share it with a group of French Haijin??

    sprite from Haikaitalk


    1. Hi sprite, sure if you want to translate and share it there is no problem. It’s a list for people to refer to so they can fill in some of the gaps that don’t usually get translated from the Japanese. I found something that I hope will show how the exclamation kireji work and when I get the time I’ll write it up and put it on haikai talk. Thanks! It’s an honor!


  2. Great! thanks. Have already done the first draft and shared it bit by bit on the French site. Will have to tidy it up sometime and turn it into a PDF document.


    1. Thank you, Naomi. I’ve decided to write a bit more about the ‘kireji’ with translated examples, and thanks to you I’ve gotten motivated to finish up what I had started on the meaning and usages of ‘keri’. Hopefully I’ll be able to get it up on the blog on a few days or so. Thanks again!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s