One application of the Imperfective Verb Form… by the BUNPŌ BUSHI!

In the last post I wrote about the Attributive Verb Form (rentaikei 連体形). This post is about the Imperfective Verb Form (mizenkei 未然形) and it’s application to forming the Passive Voice. 

I can’t believe how many “kitten and snail” images there are on the internet! Truly a universal haiku… Bravo Saimaro!

This post’s example poem comes from an Edo period (1600-1868) haiku poet, Shiinomoto Saimaro 椎本才麿 (1656-1738). Also, the haiku features a kitten, so I’m hoping this post gets a lot of hits~!

Saimaro is a contemporary of the famous Matsuo Bashō 松尾芭蕉 (1644–1694), but which one have YOU heard of before? I’m guessing not Saimaro.

Here’s Saimaro’s poem:

猫の子に 嗅がれてゐるや 蝸牛
neko no ko ni / kagarete-iru ya / katatsumuri

My translation:

Aww… it’s getting
sniffed by a kitty cat!
A land snail

I could only get to 14 syllables with this translation. It’s hard to get it to 17 syllables without taking too many liberties with the interpretation. I stretched the ya や into “aww,” which I count as two syllables; was able to turn kitten (2 syllables) into “kitty cat” (3); and snail (1) into “land snail” (2).

Passive Voice:

Imperfective verbs on their own indicate that the action has “not yet been realized,” as the kanji for “imperfective,” or mizen 未然, suggests. However, the root of the verb in Imperfective Form also gets us to the passive voice.

The main verb in this haiku is kagu 嗅ぐ (to sniff/ smell/ get a whiff of something). In order to make this a passive situation you must put kagu into the Imperfective Form, then attach the Passive Voice suffix -ru ~る. This will give us “the snail is being sniffed by the kitten” rather than, “the kitten is sniffing the snail.”

To do this, first kagu needs to be changed to the Imperfect Form by inflecting the ~u sound to an ~a sound, making it kaga 嗅が.  Now, the Passive Voice suffix –ru can be joined to it making the Passive Voice kagaru.

If it were at the end of the sentence, then this would be all you need to do. But, as you can see, it appears as kagarete-iru in the haiku, not as kagaru. The reason for this is that it is in the Passive Voice and Present Continuous Tense, which can be a topic for a later post. For now, just identify the fact that the Imperfective Form (mizenkei 未然形) is needed to make a verb passive.

Translator’s notes:

I was surprised to find that the kanji for the name of the snail (katatsumuri 蝸牛) is also read as kagyū and is the name of a part of the inner ear, the Cochlea. If you Google-image it or click here, you can see that the part of the ear looks snail-y.

Also, I wrote “land snail” because there are thousands of species of snails, hundreds just in Japan alone. So many things in Japanese culture are connected to the sea, so this very well could be a sea snail (think: the cat is by the sea or on a dock), however, katatsumuri specifically indicates a land snail not a sea snail.

The Seasonal Word (kigo 季語) is snail!

The Attributive Form of Verbs explained… by the BUNPŌ BUSHI!

Verbs are the essence of language. This is true for all languages. In languages like English, a noun (or “the subject”) proceeds the verb in a sentence. Because of this people mistakenly assign greater weight to nouns/the subject of sentences. For example, when people begin learning languages, they often make a list of items (that is, “nouns”) and then try to learn them in the target language before tackling verbs.
Image result for 鷺

Today’s topic is the attributive form (rentaikei 連体形) of verbs in classical Japanese. There are six inflected forms in classical Japanese, but to me, the attributive form is very easy to spot, and easy to translate!

The inspiration for today’s grammar point comes from a haiku by Fukagawa Shōichiro 深川正一郎 (1902-87):

(I put the attributive form in BOLD)

Tatsu sagi ni
arawarete ori
gogatsu fuji


This haiku was really a challenge to translate into 17 syllables, but here it is:

A grey heron in
flight appears–Mt. Fuji in
the 5th lunar month

This haiku starts with the verb tatsu 立つ. The verb appears in the dictionary as “tatsu” so it’s already in the attributive form! (The common, or “dictionary form,” of the verb is the rentaikei/ attributive form.) As if this wasn’t easy enough to identify, it is immediately followed by a noun, sagi 鷺 (heron). The attributive form acts as a type of adjective or descriptor, basically like a verb participle, just like in English. Think of examples like “the sleeping cat” or “the rolling clouds.” In these examples, the verbs (sleeping & rolling) appear before the nouns. The attributive form is just like these examples!

The attributive form is pretty flexible when translating into English. You could just as easily say “the cat that was sleeping” or “the clouds that were rolling [in]” and the image in the reader’s mind wouldn’t change. This flexibility is convenient when the number of syllables is important, such as in haiku:

the sleeping cat = 4 syllables
the cat that was sleeping = 6 syllables


Translation notes:

  1. tatsu 立つ has a few meanings, not only “to stand,” as it is used in modern day Japanese.
  2. Figuring out which type of  sagi 鷺 the author is talking about is a real mystery. Does the author not know? Did they intentionally not write it? Sagi can refer to both herons and egrets. There are many species of both in Japan. Another type of heron is the night heron (mizo goi ミゾゴイ) but it’s dark colored. A grey heron has a white chest that I think would have stood out more and caught the poet’s attention. That’s why I went with “grey heron.” Just “heron” would have made me a syllable short!
  3. I haven’t researched it, but I’d bet $100 this haiku is an allusion to Saigyō‘s 西行 poem about the snipe. In it he also use the verb tatsu 立つ to describe it not standing  but rather lifting off. Therefore I think that you could also say, too, that this haiku delivers a sense of yūgen 幽玄 (mystery). Saigyō’s poem is a fall poem though and this one is clearly summer one~