Kireji – Cutting Words


Kireji (“cutting word”) is the term for a special category of words used in certain types of Japanese traditional poetry. It is regarded as a requirement in traditional haiku, as well as in the hokku, or opening verse, of both classical renga and its derivative renku (haikai no renga). There is no exact equivalent of kireji in English, and its function can be difficult to define. It is said to supply structural support to the verse. When placed at the end of a verse, it provides a dignified ending, concluding the verse with a heightened sense of closure. Used in the middle of a verse, it briefly cuts the stream of thought, indicating that the verse consists of two thoughts half independent of each other. In such a position, it indicates a pause, both rhythmically and grammatically, and may lend an emotional flavor to the phrase preceding it. In Japanese haiku, the kireji usually appears after either the 5th of 12th onji, to create a pause between ideas.

There are 18 classical Kireji, though Matsuo Basho once told his students that all 48 mora of the Japanese alphabet can be used as kireji. Below I have listed the most common ones:

  • ka: emphasis; when at end of a phrase, it indicates a question
  • kana: emphasis; usually can be found at a poem’s end, indicates wonder
  • keri: exclamatory verbal suffix, past perfect
  • ramu or –ran: verbal suffix indicating probability
  • shi: adjectival suffix; usually used to end a clause
  • tsu: verbal suffix; present perfect
  • 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.

While interesting and good to know just for the sake of knowledge, it doesn’t help us in writing English-language Haiku. Nevertheless, if we want to stick by the traditional rules, and be “Haiku Fundamentalists “, we still need to include a Kireji-like grammatical option. This is where punctuation comes in.

Kireji have no direct equivalent in English. Mid-verse kireji have been described as sounded rather than written punctuation. In English-language haiku and hokku, as well as in translations of such verses into this language, kireji may be represented by punctuation (typically by a dash or an ellipsis), an exclamatory particle (such as ‘how…’), or simply left unmarked.

So, to sum it up, English “kireji” are basically (if not left unmarked): “? . ! : ; – …” and so forth. Due to English haiku being foreign language haiku, there is no ultra-traditionalist authority in which to properly judge our “kireji grammar”. It might irk some people, but we get a pass on this one. Still, proper English grammar rules apply if you want to put it under a microscope. There’s also differentiating between Haiku and Senryū, but we’ll discuss that at a later date. Thank you for reading, I hope this was helpful.


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