Here’s a haiku by the 20th century poet Takahama Kyoshi 高浜虚子 (1874-1959):
あまのがわのもとに てんじてんのうと おみきょしと
Beneath the Milky Way–Tenji tennō and his retainer Kyoshi
When I started to translate this poem, the first thing that I noticed was that there is NO VERB! I read it a second time, and yup, sho nuff, there’s no action word. Instead it’s basically a prepositional phrase and a couple of names linked by conjunction-like-particles.
The haiku can be broken into three phrases:
- under the Ama no gawa 天の川のもとに
- Tenji tennō and 天智天皇と
- retainer Kyoshi and 臣虚子と
Even those just starting out learning Japanese will recognize the particle ni に. Three common ways that ni is used are to indicate 1) the place of an action, 2) the time of an action, and 3) destination or direction of an action. Moto もと can mean “beneath,” “base of,” “bottom,” etc. So in the case of Takahama’s poem, the particle ni indicates the place of the action (“action” in the existential sense).
Moto ni もとに is found dozens of times in the Kokinshū 古今集. The expression is not in the poems themselves, however, but in the descriptive prose introducing many of the poems. A few examples are:
#57 beneath the cherry blossom petals (sakura no hana moto ni さくらの花もとに)
#119 beneath the wisteria petals (fuji no hana no moto ni ふぢの花のもとに)
#305 beneath the tree with autumn leaves falling (momiji no chiru ki no moto ni もみぢのちる木のもとに)
The lack of a verb brings a sense of stillness to Takahama’s haiku. This may be useful to keep in mind when writing haiku en inglés.