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A kakekotoba (掛詞?) or pivot word is a rhetorical device used in the Japanese poetic form waka. This trope uses the phonetic reading of a grouping of kanji (Chinese characters) to suggest several interpretations: first on the literal level (e.g. 松, matsu, meaning "pine tree"), then on subsidiary homophonic levels (e.g. 待つ, matsu, meaning "to wait"). Thus it is that many waka have pine trees waiting around for something. The presentation of multiple meanings inherent in a single word allows the poet a fuller range of artistic expression with an economical syllable-count. Such brevity is highly valued in Japanese aesthetics, where maximal meaning and reference are sought in a minimal number of syllables. Kakekotoba are generally written in the Japanese phonetic syllabary, hiragana, so that the ambiguous senses of the word are more immediately apparent.


Pivot words are first used in waka poetry from the Nara period. It is a technique devised to enrich the way of conveying a poem in a limited space. By finding the real meaning the poet inserted in the poem was the highest pleasure one can get from poetry at the time. The general pattern it follows is

  1. Using the context of the sentence before the kakekotoba and after it to create a new meaning.
  2. The kakekotoba is translated to two different meanings by itself. Sometimes it is also written in (懸詞) but (掛詞) is more commonly seen. Because it can be translated with different meanings, kakekotoba translations can sometimes be meaningless by themselves, and need a context to bring out their meaning, which was not considered a problem in the Heian period.


Kokin Wakashū 571 Love 2
Koishiki ni
wabite tamashii
munashiki kara no
na ni ya nokoramu
If in despair of love
my soul should wander,
am I to be remembered
as one who left
(a corpse) in vain?

This poem from the Kokin Wakashū makes a pun that is translated explicitly in the English version. Kara, here used as an auxiliary particle of causation, can also mean "empty shell" or "corpse" (since the implied narrator's soul has left his body). Spelling this out in translation is the only way to express the pun to an English reader, but doing so destroys the subtlety that makes the original so poignant [1]

Kokin Wakashū 639 {From a poetry contest/utaawase}
Akenu tote
kaeru michi ni wa
ame mo namida mo
Dawn has come-
on the path home from love
I am drenched:
rainfall swelling
my falling tears
-Fujiwara no Toshiyuki

Although the mix-up of tears and rain is a bit trite in Japanese poetry, Toshiyuki creates a new beauty from old fragments through the unusual verb "kokitarete" (drenched) and the kakekotoba on "furisohochi" (meaning both "to fall" and "to soak through"). The kakekotoba is just one way through which poets are able to make unique and beautiful works of art despite working with a rather limited set of acceptable forms, styles, and references [2]

Chikuba Kyoginshu 227-228 Miscellaneous
Shukke no soba ni
netaru nyoubou
Henjou ni
kakusu Komachi ga
Beside the monk
lies a lady
Hidden from Henjou
is Komachi's

Though from a much later period (15th century), this poem utilizes a multi-layered play on the literary term utamakura ("poem-pillow"). An utamakura is a place-name that is described with set words and associated constantly with the same scenery, season, time of day, etc...; poets often kept notes of their favorite tropes of this sort. Two of the Six Poetic Immortals of the Kokin Wakashū era were the Priest Henjou and Ono no Komachi, who were reputed to be romantically involved despite their competition. The literary term utamakura is here being used for one of its literal constitutive words, "pillow," to imply that Henjou and Komachi were sleeping together. The poem is also referencing similar scenes in the Gosenshu and Yamato Monogatari. Kakekotoba, as this poem shows, are often humorous displays of the writer's wit.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shirane, Haruo. Traditional Japanese Literature. page 161, Columbia University, New York, 2007
  2. ^ Shirane, Haruo. Traditional Japanese Literature. page 163, Columbia University, New York, 2007
  3. ^ Shirane, Haruo. Traditional Japanese Literature. page 1157, Columbia University, New York, 2007

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