Japanese Poetry

I welcome feedback and suggestions to this blog. A reader asked if I had anything to say about Japanese poetry. This entry is my response.

I am a beginning student of the Japanese language, so my ability to read and write Japanese is too limited to allow me read poetry or anything beyond extraordinarily simple sentences, with limited vocabulary and only when written phonetically. My ability is mostly confined to very simple spoken words and phrases. But as a student of many languages, I can describe one aspect of the Japanese language and how it shapes Japanese poetry, even if I cannot read or write a Japanese poem.

First, a very basic primer on the written Japanese language. Japanese has three writing systems, hiragana (平仮名, ひらがな), katakana (片仮名, カタカナ), and kanji (漢字). Kanji are the non-phonetic characters that were adopted from the Chinese written language. Kanji characters can be pronounced in multiple ways, depending on the meaning. So, whereas someone might be able to learn how to pronounce German or Spanish and read aloud those written languages without any idea what they are saying, in Japanese you might be able to look at Kanji, know what you are reading about, but have no clue how to pronounce it!

Hiragana and katakana are phonetic syllabaries. Rather than alphabets, which in Western languages are individual sounds that come together to create syllables and then form whole words, hiragana and katakana are collections of syllables. Hiragana is used to write Japanese words phonetically, and often used to teach kanji. Language learning books may present a kanji with small hiragana above it to indicate pronunciation. Katakana is used to write foreign or adopted words phonetically. So a written sentence or paragraph may contain kanji, hiragana, and katakana all at once. In general, hiragana is written with a more flowing, curving script, and katakana is more straight and angular.

Two paragraphs up, where I introduced “hiragana,” the parentheses that follow the word contain three kanji characters, followed by four hiragana syllables for pronunciation. Similarly, after “katakana” above, there are three kanji characters (note that 2 of the 3 kanji are the same as those for “hiragana”), and then the katakana pronunciation syllables.

The sets of sounds represented by the two syllabaries are identical. 

The basic syllable sounds are:
A, I, U, E, O
“ah”, “ee”, “oo”, “eh”, “oh” 
In hiragana, these 5 syllables are written: あ い う え  お
In katakana, these same syllables are written: アイウエオ

Subsequent syllables consist of the same five vowel sounds preceded by a consonant, sometimes with slight modifications to the initial consonant sound. There are:

Ka, Ki, Ku, Ke, Ko
Ta, Chi, Tsu, Te, To
Sa, Shi, Su, Se, So
Na, Ni, Nu, Ne, No
Ha, Hi, Fu, He, Ho
Ma, Mi, Mu, Me, Mo
Ya, Yu, Yo
Ra, Ri, Ru, Re, Ro
Wa, Wo
Ga, Gi, Gu, Ge, Go
Za, Ji, Zu, Ze, Zo
Da, Ji, Zu, De, Do
Ba, Bi, Bu, Be, Bo
Pa, Pi, Pu, Pe, Po

There are no diphthongs in Japanese, so in reality, there are only 5 vowel sounds to be had. That being the case, writing poetry with the goal to rhyme is so easy that it’s almost completely pointless.

Furthermore, unlike most western languages, there is no variation in rhythm or accent of syllables in Japanese. This variation in other languages can cause a rather sing-song feeling at times, and is employed for that purpose by poets and lyricists. For example, in English, it sounds funny to put the accent on the wrong syllable: e.g., “To put the acCENT on the wrong sylLAble.” In Japanese there no accent, except possibly a slight one on the final syllable. So another pigment from the aural palette common to the poetry of Western languages doesn’t really exist in Japanese.

One key that can be used is simply the number of syllables. The well-known haiku poetry form follows the pattern of three lines: the first and third containing 5 syllables; the second, 7. Rhyme and rhythm do not matter.

I am told (but cannot verify due to my limited language proficiency) that allusion and symbolism play major roles in Japanese poetry. Also, I imagine visual allusions and maybe visual puns may be employed using the kanji. Experts in the Japanese language will no doubt be able to verify and expand on this topic much more than I can. They may also find errors or omissions in my very rudimentary foray into the topic. I gratefully welcome their comments.

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