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ABSTRACT: A haiku composed in English with one line of Japanese by U.S. President Barack Obama is analyzed and contrasted along with other modern day bilingual poems selected from haiku journals and newspapers. With a focus on developments since the latter half of the 20th century, the social motivation for using more than one language in the same poem is discussed as a contemporary literary phenomenon. A final argument is put forward showing that English haiku can be enriched by the inclusion of other languages. It is suggested that this new and creative form of haiku can give shape and meaning to the convergences of peoples, poems, and cultures across sometimes-large cultural and social distances.

Keywords: bilingual poetry, lexical borrowing, code-mixing, socio-linguistics, mixed-language


by David McMurray

U.S. President Barack Obama declared on April 28, 2015, “I am sure that I am the first President ever to recite a haiku at a state dinner.” Poets have composed haiku about presidents, and former U.S. President Clinton not only quoted a haiku by Matsuo Bashō to Emperor Akihito at a state dinner at the White House but also added the final 2 lines of a tanka for past Prime Minister Obuchi at a state dinner at the Akasaka Palace. The European Union Council President Herman Van Rompuy regularly exchanged haiku greetings at summit meetings in Tokyo and Brussels.

To recite a poem means to repeat a piece of poetry before an audience, as for entertainment. Behind the stagecraft, however, there was much statecraft. Although Obama introduced his haiku in understated fashion, as appropriate in such a setting, the usual protocol for presidential toasts includes a lot of prior work and editing by White House staff and state department officials. In his toast to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from a lectern adorned with a gold colored eagle with a backdrop of fresh pink roses, cherry blossoms and orchids at the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC the incumbent 44th President of the United States said: “today I’m going to attempt a haiku” and uttered.

Spring green in friendship
United States and Japan
Nagoyaka ni

Many language teachers have had the experience of coming across a short poem that can jolt students with its powerful imagery or triggers a tiny shock of self-recognition. It may not teach a targeted grammar form nor might its vocabulary be particularly useful for our students. We may enjoy simply reading the poem aloud to our students so that they can experience its spark, claims Gillian Lazar (15). On the other hand, the purpose of this study is to study a literary text in a more detailed way to become sensitive to its linguistic patterns and to incorporate a literary-based approach.
Conducting a multi-disciplined analysis is the intended purpose of this study on the president’s poem that was immediately and widely reported by the Associated Press. By autumn the haiku received mention by Deborah P. Kolodji at a Haiku North America poetry conference, but this article is the first to subject the haiku to linguistic and literary analyses.

The specific research problem at hand is to decide whether lexical borrowing and code-switching are a liability for or a benefit to haiku poetry. This study considers the use of diction that Barack Obama used as a literary device in an international haiku, his choice of Japanese words to embed in that representative English poem, and the style of expression employed in that work of literature. An argument is put forward to test the hypothesis that English haiku can be enriched by the inclusion of other languages. It is suggested that this new form of haiku can give shape and meaning to the convergences of peoples, poems, and cultures across sometimes-large cultural and social distances.

The loanwords Nagoyaka and ni were borrowed from Japanese and incorporated into the recipient English language haiku. A loanword is distinguishable from a calque, which is a word or phrase whose meaning is adopted from another language by translation into existing words. The president later followed his haiku by explaining the phrase Nagoyaka ni “which means harmonious feeling.” It could also be translated as friendly atmosphere. So, the final line could have been considered as a calque if the haiku had been rendered as: “Spring green in friendship / United States and Japan / Harmony feeling.”

Because the loanword was used along with the grammar particle ni to make up a phrase that was embedded in a discrete segment of a stream of speech it became an example of mixed language. Written texts and poems that use a mixture of languages that are otherwise used in the same context are identified as macaronic. The term can have derogatory overtones, and is usually reserved for works where the mixing of languages has a humorous intent. It is a matter of debate whether the term can be applied to mixed-language literature of a more serious nature and purpose. When Hans Henrick Hock and Brian Joseph claimed “languages . . . do not exist in a vacuum,” they meant that there is always linguistic contact between groups (241). The contact influences what loanwords are integrated into the lexicon and which certain words are chosen over others. References to code-mixing are less popular among researchers compared to the linguistic study of code-switching. It seems that the continuum from borrowing to code-switching is a much more complicated issue than the perceived distinction between code-switching and code-mixing.

Code-switching, the use of two languages in the context of a single conversation, is a common sociolinguistic phenomenon and accepted as normal by bilingual communities. Code-switching is found wherever bilingual speakers talk to each other. Code-switching is distinct from other language contact phenomena, such as borrowing. Borrowing affects the lexicon, the words that make up a language, while code-switching takes place in individual utterances. An utterance is any speech sequence consisting of one or more words that are preceded and followed by silence. For example, a dinner toast, or the reciting of a haiku could be considered as an utterance.

The words Nagoyaka and ni and perhaps the president’s use of the word “kanpai” at the end of his toast are not yet loanwords commonly recognized by people outside the language communities with connections to Japan. These words may later become established as permanent loanwords in the way that sushi, kimono, and haiku have, however according to Carol Myers-Scotton, it may be better to consider borrowing, code-mixing and code-switching as part of a continuum.

Code-mixing involves the use of a scattering of words from a different language. With the spread of English as a global language, just about everyone who speaks can perform code-mixing depending on the situation and setting.

Diplomacy is an instrument by which a state attempts to achieve its aims, in relation to those of others, through tactful dialogue. And haiku has been employed by ambassadors, prime ministers and presidents as a literary instrument to help foster good relations between the governments of different countries.

Haiku have been read at official summit meetings. Herman van Rompuy, the European Council President from December 1, 2009 to November 30, 2014, read his own haiku to conclude his preliminary remarks at an EU-Japan Summit on April 28, 2011 in Brussels according to Valentina Pop. The summit took place after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

The three disasters
Storms turn into a soft wind
A new humane wind

Haiku have been read at formal state dinners according to Donnie Radcliffe and Roxanne Roberts. A state dinner or state lunch is a dinner or banquet paid by a government and hosted by a head of state in an official residence in order to renew and celebrate diplomatic ties between the host country and the country of a foreign head of state. It is an opportunity to showcase the strength of the two countries’ and represents the highest diplomatic honour in the United States.

In Japan, poetry has long been enjoyed and shared by heads of state during significant events. Waka continues to be read aloud in 5-7-5-7-7
meter to celebrate New Year’s in the Imperial Palace. The Imperial Household Agency of Japan reported that Emperor Akihito expressed how he felt when visiting the Republic of Palau in 2016 to offer flowers and pay respects to those who lost their lives there during World War II:

Tatakai ni Amata no hito no Useshi to-u Shima midori nite Umi ni yokotau

In fierce battles there
Countless persons lost their lives
I now see the isle
Across and beyond the sea
Lying so green and serene.

In a toast by former US President Jimmy Carter at a state dinner in 1979 at the Bright Abundance Hall of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on June 25, 1979 he diplomatically began by quoting a waka by Emperor Akihito, and concluded by focusing on the concept of harmony and friendship.
“Drawing upon the strength and the flow of history uniting our two nations, we shall together reach the goal that Your Majesty set in a poem you wrote for the new year nearly 40 years ago, and you said then:

We pray for the time to come
When East, West and all
Making friends with one another
Will share in a prosperous future.

Your Majesty, with this goal in mind, I offer a toast to the health and wellbeing of Your Imperial Majesty, your family, the great people of Japan, and the harmony and friendship which binds us all together.”

On June 4, 2014 the EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by quoting a haiku poem originally read in Kamakura by Yamaguchi Sodo, an Edo-era haiku poet who had befriended Matsuo Bashō:

Me ni wa aoba yama hototogisu hatsugatsuo

Full greens flood your sight,
Then little mountain cuckoos,
First fresh bonito

This poem was a good selection for a dinner as it implies the green leaves please the eyes, the birdsong thrills the ears, and the freshest first fish of the season delights the palate. Herman Van Rompuy said that Shinzo Abe made the visit to Brussels in a good season, and that it was a good occasion for Japan and the EU to have bilateral meetings. In response, Abe expressed his gratitude for the pleasant time he had in the dinner meeting hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Van Rompuy at Chateau of Val-Duchesse in his previous visit to Brussels, when they had exchanged haiku for the first time. On November 19, 2013 in Tokyo against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis and complex negotiations on a free-trade agreement with Tokyo, a study by Yurie Nagura recorded that the EU president had greeted the Japanese Prime Minister with these words:

Once come May
spring ushers in life everywhere.
Laughing blossoms

Shinzo Abe then responded in kind through a Japanese interpreter, referring to the dinner hosted by Herman Van Rompuy at an ancient chateau:

Lovely spring evening,
how deeply do I appreciate
hospitality at an old castle

Haiku are words of greeting. Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi claimed “haiku were traditionally meant to be a greeting or dialogue with the world and nature, in Chiyo-ni’s time, the greeting aspect of haiku was highly revered” and suggested, “The spirit of aisatsu on the whole has been lost to the modern world, with poets writing more objective, individualistic, art haiku, which is more of a monologue than an engaged dialogue with the world” (70).

Seven relevant findings and discoveries concerning the president’s haiku have been made during the course of this research study. First, it is suggested that the application of code-switching in the haiku functioned to foreground Japanese culture. Strikingly, this mixed-language haiku contains vocabulary borrowed from the Japanese language meaning a “harmonious feeling.” One third of the poem is in a language other than English, an indication that it successfully integrated two languages. The president’s marked choice — to call attention to the Japanese trait of harmonious feeling by using the Japanese phrase resembles the function of foregrounding. Foregrounding is the use of a poetic device in such a way that this use itself distracts attention and is perceived as uncommon, such as a live poetic metaphor.

Aware that haiku in English does not need to be structured with 5-7-5 syllables, nonetheless Obama diplomatically chose to share the 17-syllable form as well as the foreign language, the season word, and arrange them on 3 lines to not only welcome but to accord with his guest’s expectations. The 3rd line could very have been rendered completely in English as “harmony feeling” to still maintain 5-7-5 syllables, but a mixed-language haiku was offered instead.

The reference to spring green is an accepted season word, a kigo in Japan. The final line in the aforementioned waka uses the adverb form: “Lying so green and serene.” The color can also create synesthesia, rhetoric that describes one sensory impression in terms of a different sense, for example “green friendship.” The diplomatic color green helped to advance the green agenda of Obama and Abe as leaders in green manufacturing and sustainable energy development that is a common goal. Synesthesia technique using green has often been used. In “Pop” a previously published poem by Obama, his grandfather colored him as being green, meaning inexperienced. Obama had likely been inspired by reading the Beat poets and writers like Gary Snyder.

Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken
In, sprinkled with ashes
Pop switches channels, takes another
Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks
What to do with me, a green young man

In Japan this haiku has been praised and republished in various media but at a Haiku North America conference held in 2015, Deborah Kolodji spoke on “Understanding the Larger Pond: Haiku in the Mainstream Poetry Community,” noting in her abstract, “Haiku has been appearing more frequently in the mainstream, from President Obama’s ‘haiku’ ” (her emphasis with single quotation marks served to qualify his haiku as not being a real haiku according to the standards of the attendees perhaps) and she raised a doubt in the mind with the queries, “How is haiku perceived outside of the haiku community? What can we do to change it?”

A master at oratory, the president’s haiku was well received by the audience. These findings [shown in square brackets] were made by observing a video of the president’s delivery filmed by Emily Heil and Helena Andrews-Dyer.

“Spring” [one syllable word stressed loudly, then paused. A short but definite pause used for effect within a line of poetry.] “green in friendship” [said while smiling] “United States and Japan” [moving head side to side to see audience] “Nagoyaka ni” [pronounced Nagoya then stressed fourth and fifth syllables loudly with a practiced elite closure by consciously pronouncing borrowed items as closely to the originals as possible.]. . . which means, “harmonious feeling.” [softly added] That’s certainly how I feel. I am sure that I’m the first President ever to recite a haiku. [Laughter] Basho has nothing to worry about. With that, let me propose a toast, with some sake. Be careful, people. [Laughter] To our guests, Prime Minister Abe and Mrs. Abe, to the friendship between our two peoples, and to our magnificent alliance. It does so much not just for our two countries, but for peace and prosperity in the world. May it endure for all seasons and all time. Cheers! Kanpai!”

He effectively integrated two languages to convey a message. The president clearly enjoyed sharing the haiku and the Japanese words with his audience. Obama’s goal in reciting a haiku was to express gratitude toward Abe by sharing a part of Japanese culture with the American people.

The haiku is an example of core borrowing. Some topics might seem more appropriate to one language than another, which is perhaps why Obama may have retained the Japanese phrase for harmonious feeling intact. The feeling of harmony is a virtuous trait in Japanese culture.

Obama’s welcoming speech in English that ended in a toast containing Japanese words was more than word borrowing, it could be classified as code-switching in literature where a monolingual text was embedded with a few words thrown in for cultural flavor and meaning. It does not presuppose bilingualism, although biculturalism is clearly assumed. The use of Japanese encouraged listeners to situate themselves in the frame of the poem, and to bring them closer together.

The principal languages that have been embedded in the textual matrix of English poetry are French, German, Greek and Latin. Examples of modern day mixed-language haiku, code-switching and haiku composed with loanwords published in journals and newspapers such as the Asahi Shimbun include the following recently shared works such as Gexter Ocampo Lacambra’s juxtaposition of a line derived from Greek.

Flags and anthems
bronze, silver and gold
podium versus stadium

On the first line of the next haiku by Azim Khan he wishes the Japanese Olympians a good morning from Peshawar in Pakistan.

Ohayo gozaimasu . . .
the rising sun at
the Olympic Village

An American writer, Karen O’Leary composed a bilingual haiku using the Latin word in the Olympic motto that means faster. Other haiku contained in her on-line journal Whispers continue borrowing Latin words such as altius and fortius from the motto.

Olympic torch
flame transfers from hand
to hand . . . citius

An Indian composer, Angelee Deodhar often embeds one line of Hindi into her haiku, in the following example the noun used to celebrate a Hindu festival in honor of the elephant-headed god, Ganesha.

Ganesh Chaturthi —
the immersed idol re-surfaces
amidst sand and debris

The diplomatic and social motivations for code-switching poetry, that is, Obama’s use of English and Japanese languages in the same poem includes: in-group solidarity, discussion of Japanese concepts, respect for Japanese culture and people, richer schema activation, habit, efficiency, comic effect, realism and dramatic effect, framing, and emphasis.

The juxtaposition of both the English and Japanese languages within the poetry is not only an example of linguistic code-switching, it is also a dualistic use of language that results in the dialectic separation of culture and knowledge and the creation of a dialogue between the American and Japanese cultures. Through code-switching, the author asked his audience to participate in a cultural exchange. In the pink-lit, cherry blossom-bedecked East Room, Obama waxed lyrical about his childhood in Hawaii where “Japanese culture was woven into my upbringing.” And he asked his audience to join him in understanding Japanese culture. This meant that, in order for a more thorough understanding of his poetry, one must enter into this dialogue with some awareness of the two cultures; otherwise the works become dialectic in the sense that the reader is left on the outside of one culture, namely the Japanese culture, without the knowledge that enables participation. Because the author wanted to tell a story about the relationship between the peoples of Japan and the United States, code-switching was a natural and authentic way to establish a setting.

Borrowing and code-switching are phenomena at either end of a continuum. An established loan-word is a historically transmitted word that has been integrated into English, while code-switching is a more or less spontaneous, bounded switch from a line of English to a line of Japanese that affected all levels of the poetic structure simultaneously.

The third line of the president’s haiku allows us to draw a distinction between cultural borrowings and core borrowings. Sometimes the translation is near impossible when a certain concept doesn’t exist in the other language. One language may convey an idea better. Code-switching means going back and forth between two languages depending on which one best expresses what the poet is trying to say. Literary translators have two options when translating poetry. They can either translate the work for accuracy, thus losing much of the beauty of the language (the “poetry”), or they can translate the poem for beauty, thus losing much of the accuracy. This is why so many translations of Bashō exist.

A cultural borrowing is a lexical item that is new to the recipient language culture, for example the words: kimono, sushi, sake, washoku, haiku, tanka, and waka. But nagoyaka ni translated as a harmonious feeling or friendly atmosphere is an example of a core borrowing, its lexical form has viable equivalents in the American English language, and hence, do not really meet any lexical need in the base language. It is only this type of borrowing which Carol Myers-Scotton and William Ury considered to be part of a continuum involving lone other-language items in code-switching.

Moreover, the haiku seems to reveal a case where the language of the core borrowed item has a higher symbolic value when describing the concept of harmony to that of American English (that values individualism), the social prestige associated with the Japanese language motivates the non-integration (e.g., phonological) of any type of borrowed item.

In conclusion, katakana forms of English words have increasingly appeared in Japanese haiku since the time of Masaoka Shiki. But the use of the Japanese language by the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Harvard Law School educated presidential poet who speaks English and basic Indonesian, having learned the language during his four childhood years in Jakarta, in his haiku could represent a new path for modern English haiku to experiment with. Whether it’s a sixteen-line rap verse, fourteen-line sonnet, six-line stanza of a sestina, or the tercet of a blues poem or haiku, each poet has to figure how to find and employ the weapons that offer each poem its truest voice.

In the deepest sense, a haiku is a greeting to the world. Therefore, aisatsu and its gift of spontaneity should not disappear from the practice of composing modern haiku. In this global age of increased human mobility and cross-cultural contact, code-switching is one of poetry’s most visible and audible ways of giving shape and meaning to the convergences of peoples, texts, and cultures across sometimes-large cultural and social distances. Since haiku is a genre of communication that diverse peoples can understand and welcome each other even through haiku that mix languages, perhaps international haiku could be useful for building world peace.

Poets intercept, reshape, and torque language and in doing so can bring new multilingual forms into the world, therefore, since haiku are now published in 56 languages, with some flexibility in thinking by language mavens who abhor borrowing terms, perhaps international haikuists can begin exploring how to embed words from other languages.

Works Cited

Asahi Shimbun. “Asahi Haikuist Network.” 5 August 2016.

Associated Press. “State Dinner Fare: Haiku, R&B and chopsticks.” CBSNews, 28 April 2016.

Carter, Jimmy. “Tokyo, Japan Toast at the State Dinner, June 25, 1979.” The American Presidency Project, 1979.

Clinton, William. J. “Remarks at a Dinner Hosted by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi of Japan in Tokyo, November 19, 1998.” Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

Donegan, Patricia. and Yoshie Ishibashi. Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master. Singapore: Tuttle, 1998.

Heil, Emily. & Andrews-Dyer, Helena. “State Dinner Recap.” Washington: Washington Post, 29 April 2015.

Hock, Hans Henrich & Joseph, Brian. D. Lexical Borrowing. In Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics (2nd ed.). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2009, pp. 241–78.

Imperial Household Agency. Waka Poems by Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress. Tokyo: The Imperial Household Agency, January 1 2016.

Kolodji, Deborah P. Understanding the Larger Pond: Haiku in the Mainstream Poetry Community. Haiku North America Blog, September, 2015.

Lazar, Gillian. Some First Steps Towards Training Teachers to Use Literature in the ELT Classroom. Special Interest Groups Newsletter vol. 1, 2003 pp. 15 – 18.

Myers-Scotton, Carol. Social motivation for codeswitching: Evidence from Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Myers-Scotton, Carol, & Ury, William. Bilingual Strategies: The Social Functions of Codeswitching. Journal of the Sociology of Language. 13, 1977, pp. 5-20.

Nagura, Yurie. Haiku — A Multicolored Bridge Connecting Japan and the European Union. Japan’s Diplomacy Open to the Public. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan Diplomatic Bluebook 2014 Summary, 2014.

Obama, Barack. “Pop.” Feast Journal of Short Poetry and Fiction. Occidental College. 1981, pp. 1 – 51.

O’Leary, Karen. Whispers.

Pop, Valentina. “‘Haiku Herman’ Quietly Leaves EU stage.” Euobserver 2014, December 1 2014.

Radcliffe, Donnie. & Roberts, Roxanne. “For the Emperor and Empress, A Bit of Haiku in Hollywood.” Washington Post, 14 June 1994.


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