Three is the magic number for haiku and Japan


“The easiest to hurt are these three: The eye, the elbow and the knee.”

In his book, “The Wasp in the Mug”, the bilingual Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock adds rhyme to this English version of an Irish proverb, which makes it almost an epigram. All the form requires is three things lined up together. What is it, though, about the number three? There is poetry, as well as wit, in the traditional triple alignment:

The eagle’s eye in the mist

The hound’s eye in the glen,

The eyes of a girl on young men. The pattern here is different, since the Irish begins each phrase with the word for “eye” (suil). And again there is a bit of rhyme.

In a footnote, the translator adds: “The overwhelming popularity of the triad form in Irish greatly facilitated my introduction of the haiku form to Irish.” By which he means of course the Irish language, not just the Irish people. Today he runs a haiku column in a Gaelic newspaper.

In English, haiku has been described as “a three-line poem having something to do with nature.” In Japanese, certainly, it is a three-part poem, whether printed vertically or horizontally, but it is always in a single line. This line often becomes three in English, but still it is a basic definition.

Uneven patterns

The structure of the poem, originally, depends on the number of syllables or letters in each of its three phrases (5-7-5). Their single line may be broken into two, three, or even four parts when inscribed in the poet’s hand on a square card called a shikishi, the very shape of which belies the uneven pattern of the poem. It is not uneven, though, in Japanese, as the haiku columnist Hasegawa Kai explains in his new guide, “Ichiokunin no Haiku Nyuumon (Haiku for a Hundred Million)” (Kodansha). The number of people (ichiokunin) represents a very approximate figure of the population of Japan, and the title thus means it is a book “for everyone.” Introducing the “music” (ongaku) of the poem, the poet “Kai” (to use his haigo or haiku pen name, meaning “oar”) has to resort to roman letters. Except for the five vowels and “n,” there really are no letters in Japanese as we understand them. It is necessary to use the alphabet to distinguish consonants and vowels: It is the only way to represent them.

The greatest haiku poet, Basho (1644-94), known only by his haigo (meaning “plantain”), is the one that Kai most quotes. This makes it easier for readers of modest Japanese ability to approach the book, since there are numerous versions of that poet’s work in English to refer to.

The two main points that the writer dwells on are the necessity of cutting (kire) in the poem, and the reference to nature, or a season. The first creates some kind of break or caesura in the poem, and is most often done with one of three “cutting-words” (kireji): ya, keri, or kana. The time of year is indicated with a “season-word” (kigo) or a general seasonal theme (kidai). These are time-honored practices.

Car, cooler, color TV

The kind of language used in haiku is also deeply traditional, and not quite the language of daily life. Old adjectival forms, for instance, are quite common: Furuki instead of furui for “old”, and so on. It is rather as if “O” and “lo” and “O’er” were still being used in English poetry.

In the afterword to his practitioner’s introduction (nyumon) to haiku, Kai says there are three essentials to the poem. Two of these he has discussed in detail in the chapters of the book: the kire and the kigo already mentioned. The last of the “3Ks”, he says, is kokoro, or human feeling, the instinctive element coming from a poet’s heart that cannot be prescribed or taught.

The 3K prescription itself has an amusing history. It began with “3C” in the boom-time of the 1960s, when Japan came to the world stage as host of the Olympics, and general aspirations ran to a car, a cooler and a color television. All three elements in this triad of popular longing are pronounced as “k”, which probably explains what came after.

In the building boom that followed this dream of prosperity, “3K” (which can also mean “three rooms and a kitchen”) came to describe the working conditions on construction sites. For the low-paid laborers the job was: kitanai, kiken, kitsui (dirty, dangerous, demanding).

But among the Japanese baby boomers now starting to retire and give more time to hobbies, the haiku may be enjoying a revival. And just as the Japanese word haiku has become an English staple, so the 3Ks show the alphabet is an essential part of Japanese.