Basho Haiku in Japanese

It’s amazing what you learn from children’s TV shows sometimes, especially in a foreign language. ;) Recently, while watching TV with my little one, we watched one of her favorite shows, nihongo de asobo, which has a brief skit periodically that covers a famous haiku by Basho. I’ve heard the haiku before:

The old pond-
a frog jumps in,
sound of water.

Or some variation of the translation. The skit mentioned above (which I couldn’t find a Youtube clip for), teaches the haiku in Japanese:



For all you Japanese language nerds out there, this is a nice opportunity to learn a great haiku (I do enjoy this one a lot), but also try to figure out what he was saying by understanding the native Japanese.

The first line is straightforward enough except for the や at the end. This is a frequent technique used in haiku to indicate a pause or end of sentence.

The first word of the second line, 蛙, reads as かわず not the standard word かえる. This seems to be an alternate reading or possibly archaic. Not sure about this one.

The third line seems to have the most variation among translations. It literally means “the sound of water”. So, some translators try to fill in a word like “splash” or “plop”. For my part, I think a more literal translation is more appropriate so the reader can use their imagination.

As to the meaning of the poem, I think it speaks to the pricelessness of each moment, not to be repeated. To add a more Buddhist spin, I think it also is good to reflect on the sheer culmination of causes and conditions that lead to something like this, however brief.


Namo Kanzeon Bosatsu

7 thoughts on “Basho Haiku in Japanese

  1. When I was translating Basho, this is one of the poems I was stuck on longest, I guess it is probably the most translated Haiku in existence. One commentary I found particularily interesting was the usage of frogs in poetry up till that point. Poems traditionally comment on the sound of frogs croaking, often at night, unseen. Haiku rarely contain verbs, they are a picture, a moment in time. Tobi-komu is quite a large action, even sounding a little violent in Haiku. So in the context of Japanese poetry it starts of very classical image, followed by a complete surprise as the frog generally known for its sound is replaced by the sound of water.
    Just another veiw point that interested me.

  2. I wonder if the simple present ‘tobi komu’ is really an implied future? (1) That would delay the real action until the third line, or even the last word. A lot of haiku have a kind of tension that can build up to a climax.

    (1) Like English, Japanese doesn’t have a fixed form for the future. We can say ‘tomorrow I go to Chicago’ or ‘tomorrow I am enrolling in Japanese class’ using the simple present or continuous present as a future meaning. So the second line of the poem might be an abbreviation for ‘kore kara tobi komu’ or something like that. Or, I might be full of prunes, I don’t know.

  3. Haiku threads generate a lot of piling on, so I am going to pile on my favorite haiku (1), which is by Masaoka Shiki 正岡子規, who died in 1902. It is not difficult in terms of language, so I will see if anyone wants to try a translation:



    (1) This is not to imply I know a lot of haiku. This is one of the few I have memorized, and I had to google to find the author (I *thought* I remembered it…)

  4. The language is easy, which goes to show why Haiku are difficult to translate! If you didn’t know Japanese enter hot-springs naked as a norm what be the image you would form? In the Haiku it does not state who is naked, the author or the Milky Way, the ability to read it both ways makes the poem, but that is not really possible in English. There is a play on words の上に means above, but also “on top of” as in “as well as”. Enough talk maybe,

    Mountain spa
    On top of my nakedness
    The Milky Way

  5. Thanks for the translation, Stephen! I hadn’t thought about the Japanese acculturation to naked mountain spa bathing.
    But I like the sweep of this one, from the mundane to the galactic in one fell swoop!

  6. Gentlemen, I can’t tell you how much I’ve been enjoying the conversation here. :) I wish I had more time to reply but I’ve been reading the thread nevertheless. Cheers!

  7. Johnl: It was this poem by Basho that got me thinking to the importance of cultural acclimatisation. Even as children – I played leapfrog, my Japanese wife sung かえるの歌 the frogs song… In haiku with such limitations on language a simple phrase must carry a loaded image, which may not be the same in a different culture. The first line 古池や means “old pond/lake”. The image of “old” has such different connoctations in the East and West. One is history, lineage, depth, the other unpopular, un-used, dilapidated. If I where to go back to my friends in New Zealand and say lets go to here it has an old pond, they would probably bring their fishing gear.

Comments are closed.