What Is The Cutting Word In A Haiku?

by Amy

The cutting word, known as kireji in Japanese, serves a crucial role in haiku by creating a subtle break or shift in the poem’s flow. This linguistic device adds depth, resonance, and a sense of completion to the haiku, elevating it beyond a mere description of a moment. The kireji is not merely a grammatical tool but a poetic technique that conveys emotions, contrasts, or revelations within the limited space of a haiku.

Understanding the Kireji’s Linguistic Aspect

In Japanese, the term “kireji” translates to “cutting word” or “cutting particle.” Linguistically, it functions as a form of punctuation, signaling a pause or change in tone within the haiku. While English translations of haiku often omit the kireji due to differences in linguistic structure, understanding its role enhances the appreciation of the original Japanese poems.

The kireji can take various forms in Japanese, including specific words like “ya,” “kana,” “keri,” and “nu.” Each cutting word imparts a distinct nuance to the haiku, contributing to its overall impact and emotional resonance. For example, “ya” suggests surprise or contemplation, “kana” conveys uncertainty or longing, “keri” signifies completion or emphasis, and “nu” indicates a negation or contrast.

Emotional and Poetic Significance of the Kireji

Beyond its grammatical function, the kireji carries emotional and poetic significance in haiku. It creates a moment of pause or reflection, allowing readers to absorb the imagery and contemplate its deeper meaning. The juxtaposition or contrast facilitated by the kireji often leads to insights or revelations about the human experience, nature, or the passage of time.

For instance, in Bashō’s famous haiku:

An old silent pond…

A frog jumps into the pond—

Splash! Silence again.

The kireji “—,” represented here by a dash, creates a profound pause after the frog jumps into the pond, emphasizing the suddenness of the action and the ensuing silence. This moment of stillness and renewal encapsulates themes of transience and the cycle of life, resonating with readers on a deep emotional level.

Types of Kireji and Their Effects

While the traditional kireji in Japanese haiku are distinct words or particles, modern haiku poets, especially those writing in languages other than Japanese, adapt the concept creatively. Instead of using specific cutting words, poets employ punctuation marks, line breaks, or word choices to achieve a similar effect.

Common types of kireji effects include:

1. Pause and Emphasis: A dash, ellipsis, or comma creates a pause, drawing attention to a specific moment or detail in the haiku. This pause can heighten the emotional impact or highlight the significance of the imagery.

2. Contrast and Juxtaposition: Using contrasting words or phrases within the haiku creates a dynamic tension, allowing for multiple interpretations and deeper layers of meaning. The kireji enhances this contrast, inviting readers to contemplate the interplay of elements within the poem.

3. Resolution and Closure: Some kireji, such as words indicating completion or finality, bring a sense of resolution or closure to the haiku. This closure is essential in capturing the essence of a moment or experience, leaving a lasting impression on the reader.

Examples of Kireji in Haiku

To illustrate the diverse effects of the kireji in haiku, let’s explore a few examples from renowned haiku poets:

1. Matsuo Bashō:

An old silent pond…

A frog jumps into the pond—

Splash! Silence again.

In this haiku, the dash after “pond” serves as the kireji, creating a moment of anticipation before the splash and the return to silence. The pause enhances the reader’s experience of the frog’s leap and the ensuing tranquility.

2.Kobayashi Issa:

O snail

Climb Mount Fuji,

But slowly, slowly!

Here, the repetition of “slowly” functions as the kireji, emphasizing the snail’s gradual journey and imparting a sense of patience and perseverance.

3. Yosa Buson:

Lightning flash—

what I thought were faces

are plumes of pampas grass.

The dash after “flash” serves as the kireji, marking the sudden realization that what appeared to be faces in the darkness are, in fact, the swaying plumes of pampas grass. This revelation creates a moment of surprise and wonder.

Modern Adaptations and Interpretations

In contemporary haiku and haiku-inspired poetry, poets explore new ways of incorporating the essence of the kireji while acknowledging the linguistic and cultural differences outside Japan. Some poets use punctuation marks, such as colons, semicolons, or slashes, to mimic the effect of the kireji. Others rely on line breaks and spacing to create pauses or shifts in the poem’s rhythm.

Additionally, poets writing in languages other than Japanese often infuse their haiku with the spirit of the kireji rather than adhering strictly to traditional forms. This flexibility allows for experimentation and innovation while honoring the core principles of haiku, such as brevity, sensory imagery, and afocus on moments of insight or connection.

The Kireji’s Role in Enhancing Haiku’s Impact

Ultimately, the kireji plays a vital role in enhancing the impact and resonance of haiku. By creating pauses, contrasts, and moments of realization, the kireji elevates haiku from mere descriptions of scenes to profound reflections on life, nature, and human experience. Whether through traditional cutting words in Japanese or innovative techniques in other languages, the essence of the kireji continues to enrich and inspire haiku poets and readers worldwide.


In the realm of haiku, the cutting word or kireji stands as a testament to the artistry and depth of this poetic form. Its ability to create pauses, contrasts, and revelations within a limited space reflects the essence of haiku—capturing fleeting moments of beauty, insight, and emotion. As poets and enthusiasts explore the nuances of the kireji across cultures and languages, the timeless allure of haiku continues to thrive, inviting us to pause, reflect, and find meaning in the simplest of moments.


What is a Seasonal Word in a Haiku?

In the context of haiku poetry, a seasonal word, also known as a kigo, refers to a term or phrase that conveys a specific season or time of year. These words add depth and context to haiku by anchoring the poem in a particular moment or setting within the natural cycle of seasons. Traditional Japanese haiku often incorporate kigo to evoke seasonal imagery and themes, aligning with the aesthetic tradition of capturing ephemeral moments in nature.

Kigo can include references to various aspects of each season, such as weather conditions, flora and fauna, cultural events, and human activities associated with that time of year. For example, cherry blossoms (sakura) represent spring, snowflakes (yuki) signify winter, cicadas (semi) evoke summer, and autumn leaves (momiji) symbolize fall. These seasonal words not only enhance the sensory experience of the haiku but also evoke emotions and associations unique to each season.

In modern haiku practice, poets may adapt or expand the range of kigo to reflect their cultural context or personal experiences while still honoring the tradition of seasonal references. Additionally, haiku written in languages other than Japanese may use equivalent terms or imagery to capture the essence of different seasons, maintaining the connection to nature and the cyclical rhythms of life.

Do Haikus Use Personification?

Haiku, as a form of concise and evocative poetry, occasionally incorporates personification to imbue nature or inanimate objects with human qualities or emotions. However, the use of personification in haiku is generally subtle and nuanced, often aiming to create a sense of empathy, connection, or insight rather than overtly anthropomorphizing elements of the natural world.

When personification is employed in haiku, it is typically done sparingly and with poetic restraint, aligning with the haiku tradition’s focus on simplicity and understatement. The goal is to evoke a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness between humans and nature, fostering contemplation and resonance with the natural world.

For example, a haiku might use personification to depict the wind whispering secrets, the moon casting a melancholic gaze, or a river murmuring ancient tales. These poetic devices infuse the haiku with a sense of life and agency, inviting readers to engage with nature on a more intimate and imaginative level.

Overall, while haiku may incorporate personification as a literary device, it does so with subtlety and reverence for the delicate balance between human perception and the inherent vitality of the natural world.

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