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Japanese haiku poetry isn’t quite 5-7-5 like you think

Japanese haiku poetry isn’t quite 5-7-5 like you think

Haiku (俳句) is a well known style of short Japanese poem that has become popular among English and other speakers.  We’re taught that haiku has three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables.  An argument can be made that 5-7-5 isn’t exactly correct and that haiku can’t be the same in English as it is in the original Japanese.

古池や      furui ike ya       At an ancient pond
蛙飛び込む   kawazu tobikomu   the frogs go bounding into
水の音      mizu no oto       the sound of water

by Matsuo Bashou, 1686, translation W. Milberry*

Haiku was originally first stanza of a style of old Japanese collaborative poetry called renga (連歌).  These short first stanza’s became popular themselves and became their own short poems, haiku was born from them.  They were written in the specific style of 5-7-5.  However, ‘syllable’ means something a little different in English than it does in Japanese which throws the necessity of the 5-7-5 pattern into question when haiku are written in English.

The entirety of the Japanese language consists of a finite set of vowel or consonant-vowel combination sounds.  There is a total of only 139 sounds in the enirety of the Japanese language and they can all be spelled out using the Japanese Hiragana alphabet seen below.

Japanese Hiragana table

(Click here for a high resolution version of the Hiragana table for printing or classroom use.)

All Japanese words, including those which are written with complex Chinese kanji characters (漢字), can be spelled out with the Hiragana alphabet characters above.  Haiku’s 5-7-5 pattern derives from how many Hiragana sounds are needed to write out each line.

Where Japanese phonetics differ from English is that adjacent sounds never combine and each Hiragana is pronounced with the same time duration making it not quite line up with the way English speakers see syllables in words.  For example, the word ‘haiku’ is spelled out with three Hiragana sounds:  ha-i-ku (はいく) but only two syllables (hai-ku), to English ears.  Other well known Japanese words that we miscount syllables on are the city names of Tokyo and Sapporo.  We hear these as three syllables (To-ky-o and Sap-po-ro) but they are both actually four Hiragana sounds (とうきょう  or To-u-kyo-u and さっぽろ or Sa-p-po-ro.)  In Sapporo you can see the effect of the small ‘tsu’ (っ), which doubles the following ‘p’.  This is a distinct sound to the Japanese but one that English ears are blind to.

Because of this difference in the way the two languages interpret their basic units of sound (Hiragana for Japanese and syllables for English), you can ask if it is really meaningful to adhere to a strict 5-7-5 syllable pattern when writing haiku poems in English?  Perhaps it’s better to focus on the other distinguishing characteristics, namely their invocation of natural imagery and simplicity which invites the listener to imagine.

Final rays …
still reason
to hum

Marion Clarke/UK, NHK Haiku Masters

Japan’s national broadcast station NHK has a series called Haiku Masters where they invite people to submit haiku in English.  Above is the haiku of the month for 12/2016.  It, like many others, doesn’t follow the 5-7-5 format but instead focuses on the more meaningful aspects of haiku.  Phonetic pattern, rhythm, and rhyme in poetry is something the English world focuses on somewhat more than other languages.  The frequent explanation of haiku being 5-7-5 syllable poems above being described as the invocation of natural imagery and the reader’s imagination speaks to this.

If you’ve ever wanted to write haiku but have difficulty adhering to 5-7-5 give it a try without being so strict about the form and you might create something small but full of beauty like the haiku by Marion Clarke above which makes us think about bees and how they live their short lives to fullest.

* The haku by Matsuo Bashou at the very top of this post is a well known haiku and has been translated hundreds of times.  The Japanese language doesn’t apply a plural form to nouns so it’s linguistically not specified if the author was thinking of one frog or many.  Haiku is meant to invoke images of nature and is intentionally simple to invite the reader to use their imagination.  Only about one out of every two dozen or so translations of this haiku uses plural “frogs.”  To me plural “frogs” invokes a stronger feeling of being in a place full of nature.  It reminds me of a frog filled lake outside of my hometown that my departed grandmother and I used to visit during summers when I was young.  Since I placed this haiku early in the article prior to any explanation I did stick to 5-7-5 syllables but would have preferred to have written the second line “a frog goes bounding in” rather than “into” if I wasn’t adhering to 5-7-5.

 

Little White Cloud Over Aso – William Milberry

Little White Cloud Over Aso – William Milberry

A little white cloud hovers over the volcanic landscape of Mt. Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan.

William Milberry

Hikaru Utada – Keep Tryin’ translation

Hikaru Utada – Keep Tryin’ translation

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Hikaru Utada has long been one of my favorite JPOP artists.  Her voice is more dynamic than many other Japanese female signers and her lyrics are a little more metaphoric and deep than typical JPOP.  She has a history of making very unique and creative music videos as well, and this one is no exception.

Translations are provided for educational purposes only and to provide analysis and deeper understanding of the artists work.  If you are interested in Hikaru Utada at all please purchase her work.

If video stutters or stops, pause it for a minute until it has a chance to buffer.

(Japanese/English lyrics via Google Docs embedded PDF)
http://www.aluminumstudios.com/media/articles/translation/Hikaru_Utada-Keep_Trying.pdf

 

 

Landscapes from Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture Japan (熊本県の阿蘇山の風景)

Landscapes from Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture Japan (熊本県の阿蘇山の風景)

Mt. Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, is one of the most beautiful places William Milberry has ever been to.  I’ve been there four times, two of which on scooter, and the landscape awed me each time.  It is one of the largest volcanic caldera in the world.  In ancient times a massive volcano erupted there causing the entire surrounding area to sink.  The land is twisted and rippled with lots of natural countryside.  Only soft-looking, short shrubs and grasses grown on some of the volcanic hills due to the nutrient poor soil which is mostly volcanic ash.  If you ever visit Japan’s Kyushu region, Aso should definitely be put on your list of places to go.

Photographing landscapes is a challenge for me because it’s tough to capture the awe that amazing places inspire and their grand scales in a single image, especially with a DSLR.  Landscapes demand a much larger imaging surface such as medium or large format.  Landscapes also demand a very careful, technical, methodical approach.  I’m very capable of this and engaged in such work a lot in the past, but in recent years I’ve been finding my inspiration in a more Japanese style wabisabi aesthetic which is a very different mindset.

Kome Zuka (lit. ‘Rice Mound’), is a volcanic cone found in the Aso caldera – William MilberryAso, Japan by William Milberry

Mt. Aso, Japan by William Milberry

Centuries of erosion cause deep grooves in the volcanic hillsMt. Aso, Japan by William Milberry

Mt. Aso, Japan by William Milberry

Sparse vegetation on the rocky, volcanic, landscapeMt. Aso, Japan by William Milberry

The sulfurous, boiling, active crater “Nakadake”Mt. Aso Nakadake crater, Kumamoto, Japan by William Milberry

Sunset on Kome ZukaMt. Aso, Japan by William Milberry

忘れられた思い出 (Forgotten Memories)

忘れられた思い出 (Forgotten Memories)

A while ago William Milberry went to a flea market in the Hakozaki district of Fukuoka city.  Like all flea markets the places was full of old and interesting things from the past.  I found an old roll of Fuji 35mm color film in a box of junk.  It wasn’t in a canister and was fully rewound, so it seemed as if it had been used.

I couldn’t resist the curiosity and struck up a conversation with the old man running selling the stuff.
William Milberry:  「この古いフィルムはどんな写真が入っているかな。。。」 (I wonder what kind of photos are on this film?…)
old Japanese man:  「さあ、分からん。」  (I don’t really know.)William Milberry:  「気になるから、百円はどう?」  (I’m curious, how about 100 yen?)
old Japanese man:  「(笑)いいよ。」  ((laughing) Sure. )

I took the film home and decided to develop it as black and white in HC110 – a developer which is pretty decent at cross-processing as well as working on really old or damaged film.  The film itself was out of control curly, it had obviously been wound up inside the 35mm canister for years if not decades.  It came out of the developer almost jet black.  I was able to scan two images off of it …

Forgotten Memories 01 (found film) - by William Milberry
Forgotten Memories 01 (found film) – by William Milberry

Forgotten Memories 02 (found film) - by William Milberry

Forgotten Memories 02 (found film) – by William Milberry

These photos are very intriguing because they offer a little window into a past, forgotten time.  I’m very much a follower of the wabisabi aesthetic and accept and enjoy the deterioration in these photos because it was imparted by time.  It invites me to imagine the film’s history and journey from some Japanese person’s camera, to the flea market, and now around the world to my home in America.

The Japanese Aesthetic of Wabisabi (侘寂) by William Milberry

The Japanese Aesthetic of Wabisabi (侘寂) by William Milberry

Much of William Milberry’s photography is influenced by the Japanese aesthetic sense of wabisabi (侘寂).

Wabisabi is a guiding aesthetic that can be found across all areas of Japanese culture, art, design, and even in traditional performing arts.  It’s marked by an appreciation and acceptance of imperfection and transience.  Author Richard R. Powell says “Wabisabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities:  nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”  The origins of this line of thought can be traced back to Buddhism (a dominant religion in Japan), which stresses similar concepts.  So it’s somewhat natural that people who live with a Buddhist world view would find objects that match these ideas as “beautiful.”

Common traits found in the wabisabi aesthetic are simplicity, modesty, and austerity.  In terms of manifestation of wabisabi, you see a lot of asymmetry, roughness, and a lack of complex design or pre-planning.  This aesthetic is applied by the Japanese to many things such as ceramics, paintings, photography, architecture, and even traditional music and theater.

Japanese sake flask exhibiting wabisabi aesthetic
Japanese sake flask exhibiting wabisabi aesthetic

As a westerner, I would say that many western aesthetics view things that are carefully designed, perfectly crafted or that have an eternal quality as “beautiful.”  (Perhaps this is influenced by many monotheistic western cultures’ ideas about the eternity and perfection of God  and heaven?)  Wabisabi, on the other hand, embodies an appreciation for things despite their imperfections.  Imperfections include wear acquired by time (like weathered wood or patina on metal), or artifacts leftover by the process that something was created by. Beyond just imperfection, in line with Buddhist thought, things that are transient and impermanent are also seen as especially beautiful.  Expression of this focus on transience can be seen in arts like Japanese Ikebana (flower arranging), where the beautiful arrangement will be short lived due to the nature of flowers.  Also a preference for transience can be seen in the choice of subject matter in art (short lived cherry blossoms, fleeting moments in life, etc.), and even key elements in stories and movies (particularly in period pieces such as samurai movies.)

The sake flask in the photo to the left is an example of wabisabi aesthetic.  It’s one of my personal favorite items which I found at a flea market in Fukuoka.  It is uneven and worn, yet still elegant and balanced.  I see it and appreciate it’s creation and long history rather than feel put off by it’s sunken in sides and heavily worn, uneven glaze.

Not every uneven, crooked, or imperfect thing is admired under the idea of wabisabi.  It must garner a sense of tranquility or almost spiritual thoughts.  The “defects” as it were, are often quite intentional or allowed to be there as a testament to an objects creation or history.  There is an art to imperfection.  There is an intuitive understanding and something intangible communicated in a perfectly uneven teacup made by one of the respected ceramic artists of Arita, Japan, which, is probably not present in a crooked teacup made by someone who simply doesn’t know what they are doing.  There is a deep sense of presence in dark, grainy photos taken by Moriyama Daido which probably isn’t present in a photo snapped by someone who doesn’t actually see the world in line with this aesthetic.

[slider id=’772′ name=’Japanese Photographers’]

In what ways does wabsiabi relate to Japanese photography?  At first glance the photos of many of the noted Japanese photographers like Moriyama Daido, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Shomei Tomatsu are not “beautiful” in the typical western sense I was used to.  They are not carefully composed, don’t have pinpoint focus, and are often not well exposed.  Their subjects seem to have little setup and are fleeting moments that would be impossible to go back and catch again.  Contrast this is with noted western photographers like Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz whose works are carefully planned, composed, focused, and executed.  While these may be arbitrary examples that illustrate my point, I think they do demonstrate the general preference for and pattern of wabisabi ideas in Japanese photography/art, and the preference for a “clean” more “carefully crafted” style of western photography/art.

Shinjuku Plus - Moriyama Daido
Shinjuku Plus – Moriyama Daido

When I lived in Japan I wanted to learn more about Japanese photographers.  I would browse photobooks (of which there are many), in the local book stores.  I was disappointed at first and thought that the Japanese had failed to master photography techniques.  Still, I wanted to buy a few books for my collection, so I bought Moriyama Daido’s book Shinuku Plus.  When I slowly looked through it, I slowly began to understand.  The photos together told a story without words, they drew you into the time and place where they were taken.  After feeling this for the first time I started to appreciate the individual images because I no longer focused on what they weren’t (clear, sharp, detailed), but I learned to focus on what they offered.  I had discovered, at least in part, the aesthetic of wabisabi.

While I enjoy a well executed photo, I feel more free to look beyond the surface now.  Japanese photographers often seem to look into their subjects and reflect what they feel more than focusing on capturing the subject to present to your eyes.  It’s a very different way of appreciating the world.

I plan on writing more articles about Japanese culture and Japanese photography.  It’s something that I have fallen in love with and think that English speakers have had limited exposure to.

by Moriyama Daido
by Moriyama Daido

Article by William Milberry.
Click here to see additional posts tagged with wabisabi

Fukuoka Sunset

Fukuoka Sunset

I went to Fukuoka to see a friend who was returning to the U.S. the next day off. Before meeting him I was walking around a bit and there was a beautiful, orange, sunset. I only had my little point-n-shoot camera, but I used it’s manual controls to capture it as best I could.

Fukuoka Sunset Streetlight by William Milberry
Fukuoka Sunset Streetlight by William Milberry
Fukuoka Sunset Fisherman by William Milberry
Fukuoka Sunset Fisherman by William Milberry

 

南無妙法蓮華經

南無妙法蓮華經

I’ve always been a fan of Buddhist art.  I would often go on long scooter rides through the countryside and every time I saw a temple I’d stop to explore and photograph it.

(c)2013 - William Milberry

The Temple Gate

The Temple Gate

To the southwest of the town I lived in there was a Buddhist temple that always caught my attention when I passed it.  The side of the road dropped off steeply and about 2 stories down was the temple with a cemetery next to it.  The day I took this photo I stopped by with one of my vintage cameras (I can’t recall which one, it might have been my Super Ricohflex).  While walking around the temple grounds, an old Japanese lady saw me.  I politely asked her if it was OK for me to be there and shoot photos?  Rather than asking me what country I was from as so many from my rural area impulsively did, the old lady smiled at me and started telling me about the history of the temple.

According to her the temple burnt down a long time ago and was rebuilt.  The gate was the only original part that survived.  She suggested that I take a picture of the gate, which turned out to make a nice photo:

The Temple Gate - William Milberry
The Temple Gate – William Milberry