Haiku (俳句)

Haiku is Japanese poetry structured in the set form of 5-7-5 syllables. It is the shortest form of poetry in the world. A person who composes haiku poems is called a "haijin" (a haiku poet).

Haiku poetry is a form of modern literature that evolved from haikai-renga, haikai for short, which developed in the early modern ages. Renga, which was popular during the Muromachi period, evolved to include more word play and was popularized among the commoner, and this marked the beginning of the new form of poetry known as haikai. Basho MATSUO, who appeared during the 17th century, then elevated haikai to a new level of artform. In particular, he composed many jihokku, i.e. independent hokku (the opening verse of the haikai and the renga) that are praiseworthy in their own right. This later became the origin of haiku poetry. During the Meiji period, Shiki MASAOKA emphasized creativity within the individual and ultimately established haiku poetry as modern literature. Shiki criticized haikai of the late Edo period for its mediocrity. In order to elevate haikai poetry to a more modernized form of literature, he began a literary movement and successfully created a new form of poetry known as haiku. Some believe that the hakku composed by Matsuo and others ought to be retroactively be called haiku as well, since those hakku were of the same essence.

Haiku includes muki haiku (haiku without seasonal reference) and haiku without any fixed patterns; however, there are arguments against having these included in haiku poetry.

Additionally, three-line poems in non-Japanese languages, such as English, are also called 'Haiku.'
In these haiku poems, there is no 5-7-5 syllable constraint, and in many cases there are no kigo (seasonal references).

Recently, the non-Japanese have even begun to create haiku poems in Japanese. Currently, such non-Japanese haiku poets include Seigan MABUSON (Laurent MABESOON), ドウ-グル and Arthur BINARD.

Established on the tradition of the Japanese shika, haiku poetry, though short in length, has the characteristic features of expressing images and emotions through the use of rhythm based on the 5-7-5 syllabic sounds, 'kigo' (seasonal references), and 'kire' (cut).

What is haiku?

There are many answers to the fundamental question of 'What is a haiku?'

Kenkichi YAMAMOTO, a haiku critic, cites three things that are essential to haiku poetry in his essay, 'Aisatsu to Kokkei' (Compliments and Humor).
These are the well-known 'Haiku is humor. Haiku is a compliment. Haiku is improvised.'

Toyojo MATSUNE, in response to Emperor Taisho's question regarding haiku poetry in 1914, answered 'just like an astringent persimmon.'
Like an astringent persimmon,' definitely expresses one of the key essence of haiku poetry. Based on this phrase, MATSUNE named the magazine he was editing 'Shibugaki' (Astringent Persimmon).

Other prominent haiku poets
Haiku is a 'kyakkan shasei' (an objective portrayal) and 'kacho fuei' (beauties of nature and the harmony between nature and man).

Haiku is a pearl of the East.'
Haiku is a poem that expresses 'morobito akekure' (the everyday life of people).
(Sojo HINO)

Haiku is to be 'human.'

Among others.

Kibutsu Chinshi'
Haiku is also called the poetry of 'kibutsu chinshi.'
It has the denotation of 'expressing one's feelings through the use of objects' as cited in 'Manyoshu' (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves).

(From: 'Book of Haiku: Haikai and Haiku,' edited by Tsuguo ANDO and Ryuta IDA, Chikuma Shobo Publishers; 'A Basic Knowledge of Haiku Terms,' edited by Kokyo MURAYAMA and Kazumi YAMASHITA, Kadokawa Sensho; and 'Evidence: Haiku in Showa Period,' edited by Kokyo MURAYAMA and Kazumi YAMASHITA, Kadokawa Group Publishing Co., Ltd.)
In 'Daini Geijutsu' (Second-Class Art) ('Sekai' Magazine, 1946), Takeo KUWABARA, a scholar of French Literature, denounced haiku as being 'a hobby enjoyed by the members of a special world they create themselves. It is merely a second-class art that is incapable of distinguishing the experts from the amateurs.'


Haiku has the following characteristics.

It is a poem structured in the set form of 5-7-5 syllables.

A 'kigo' (seasonal reference) is oftentimes included.

There is always a single point of 'kire' (cut).

And it leaves the reader with an allusive feeling.

Rhythmic pattern

Haiku employs a rhythmic pattern used in conjunction with the 5-7-5 syllable structure. This rhythmic pattern is something that inevitably formed from the characteristics of the Japanese language called 'kaionsetsu' (open syllable), and it should not be considered as a restriction or rule that exits solely for the haiku. When there is an extra syllable(s) in any of the three parts of the 5-7-5 structure, it is referred to as jiamari (literally, extra characters).

For example, 'Basho hears the storm at night through a basin' by Basho MATSUO, is a case of jiamari with 8-7-5 syllables.

There are other works that do not fit into the 5-7-5 form, such as those with less than the fixed number of syllables and those with overlapping verses. Furthermore, there exist 'jiyuritsu-haiku' (rule-free haiku) whose proponents argue that haiku does not have a set form and that each verse should have its own rule.

Perhaps it is a tradition from the era of waka (a traditional Japanese poem of thirty-one syllables), jiamari is oftentimes allowed for a vowel or a hatsuon (the 'n' or 'm' sound). This is probably due to the fact that vowels and hatsuon were considered a bit too short to be counted as a separate syllable. For example, the tradition of representing 'hon-i' as 'ho-i' signifies that the hatsuon was not treated as a separate and distinct syllable. Also, verbs such as 得 (u) that are of a single vowel with no consonants may have been insufficient to be considered a syllable within the haiku as well.


Kigo plays a major role in haiku. Various views exist concerning seasonal references, such as the necessity of a kigo insisted by the uki (kigo zettai) (absolute inclusion of seasonal reference) school, the importance of a 'kikan' (sense of the seasons) backed by the kikan school, and the tolerance of muki (no seasonal reference) by the muki school who believe that the muki haiku can create a far stronger sentiment than the traditional haiku.

Hiromu MATSUDA says in "Introduction to Haiku: Pleasure of Writing for Sixteen Weeks" (Shinsei Publishing Company), 'Is is alright for a haiku to not include a kigo? No. I believe that it should have a kigo. In haiku, the "kigo" plays an important role. The kigo creates a symbolic image. You can call this the power of evocation. It also has a role in greatly expanding time and space.'

Sunao HASHIMOTO made a keynote presentation called 'Kigo's Present - Transition and Generation of the Original Meaning, and Its Future' at the Youth Workshop of the Modern Haiku Society in March, 2006.
There, he reached out to audience and asked them to think about the role of the kigo by stating, 'The original role of the kigo and the kidai (seasonal theme) is to draw out the diachronic or synchronic functionality of the poem, and not to act as a yoke to constrain freedom.'
It appears as though the poets who emphasize the muki style and are free from the traditional fixed style are, in general, more deeply interested in studying the role of the kigo when compared to those of the fixed style, uki school.

However, it is the complacency of those who believe in the absolute inclusion of the kigo or the kidai that detracts from the potency of the poems.
The hokku of a haikai showed respect toward the moment in time and space in a condensed form.'
However, modern-day haiku poetry has developed into something that is different from 'the hokku of a haikai.'
Therefore, using the argument of the contemporary haiku being the hokku of a haikai is unpersuasive.

As for whether the kigo actually represented the sense of the seasons, according to the haikai of the danrin school, there was an aspect to them in which a sense of humor was created by separating the kikan from the kigo.

Kigo and Kidai

The terms, kigo and kidai, though similar, imply different things. Tota KANEKO, who support 'kigo,' and Teiko INAHATA, who support 'kidai,' often hold a heated debate on the BS channels of Japan Broadcasting Corporation.

Originally, words such as kigo or kidai did not exist during the Edo period. According to the words of Basho, 'searching for even one thing that is related to the seasons is a legacy for the future generations' (Kyorai's Notes). The word 'season' here refers to kigo and kidai. Basho used the word 'ki' (ki no kotoba) (words of the seasons) in other occasions.

In short, those who take the position of composing poems with a seasonal theme belong to the 'kidai' school. And those who are self-indulged with kidai belong to the 'kigo' school.


In haikai, since the hokku is the first verse, it requires a motive for the verses that follows, such as the wakiku (a reply to the hokku) and other parts of the poem. Therefore, the hokku was required to be wholly independent of the wakiku. To make that possible, the technique called 'kire' (cut) was created.
The hokku with a beautifully placed cut is highly rated as having a 'nice rhythm.'

For example, in the famous verse by Basho, 'An old pond-- a splashing sound of a frog jumping in,' there is a cut after 'an old pond' to allow for a momentary pause. During this momentary pause, the reader is allowed to imagine the environment that surrounds the composer as well as his/her thoughts, emotions or pathos, and history.
This technique is called 'kire.'
It has the effect of giving form and texture to the words though they have the limit of seventeen syllables. This, in conjunction with the kigo, adds an allusive feeling to the verse.

Even in the modern-day haiku, 'kire' is thought to be one of the most important techniques used in the composition, and verses without the 'kire' are considered to be haiku.


Kireji (cutting word) is used to forcefully add a kire to a verse.
Some of the kireji used in the modern-day haiku are 'kana,' 'ya,' and 'keri.'
In the era of the renga and the haikai prior to the haiku, a total of 18 types of particles and auxiliary verbs were used such as 'mogana,' 'shi,' 'zo,' 'ka,' 'yo,' 'se,' 're,' 'tsu,' 'nu,' 'he,' 'zu,' 'ikani,' 'ji,' 'ke,' and 'ran,' including the three mentioned above.

A cut can be added to a verse without employing a kireji.

Basho's disciple, Kyorai, mentioned the following words of Basho in his "Kyorai's Notes."

A kireji is used to pause a verse. However, a paused verse does not have to be paused by a kireji. The number of kireji is specified in advance for the beginners who are still unable to tell if a verse is paused or not. If these specified syllables are used, then seven or eight out of ten can be naturally paused. However, the rest of the two or three, are hopeless verses that cannot be paused even by using kireji, but there are good verses that are paused even without using kireji. In that case, all 47 syllables can be considered kireji.'

What Basho wanted to say was that a kire depends solely on the verse's content, and not on the presence of a kireji.

An example of a verse having a kire without a kireji is 'Being tired of a journey-- dream runs amuck in a barren field' by Basho.

There is a pause after 'being tired of a journey.'

Kyakkan Shasei

This term was coined by Kyoshi TAKAHAMA. However, it is one of the characteristics of the haiku whose origin can be traced back to Basho's verses.
Basho's disciple, Toho HATTORI, described this kyakkan shasei in "Sanzoshi" (The Three Books on the opinions of haiku) as 'creating a poem just as the composer feels either through sight or sound, that is the truth of haikai.'
During the Edo period, there were no such term as kyakkan or shasei. However, the truth of haikai means to eliminate subjectivity and falsehood, observe the subject well, listen attentively, and make the best effort in describing it using seventeen syllables.

An example can be seen in the following verse, 'Rocks are blown away-- Mt. Asama's storm' written by Basho. Here, there is absolutely no mention of Basho's sentiment about climbing Mt. Asama. However, by describing the force of the storm that blows around Mt. Asama as 'blowing away even the rocks' the readers can fully feel and imagine, along with the desolate scenery, the humor within Basho's character in selecting such an expression.

Difference between Senryu (humorous haiku) and Haiku

Just as in the haiku, the senryu also is poetry with the fixed form of 5-7-5 syllables whose origin is in the haikai. However, unlike the haiku, which is the hokku at the beginning of a haikai-renga that became independent, the senryu is a form of poetry that appreciates the tsukeku (hiraku) independently from the previous verses. For this reason, the senryu did not inherit the characteristics of the hokku, and explains for the dramatic difference between the senryu and the haiku.

There is no 'kigo.'

There is no 'kire.'
(one verse, one form)

It completely states the composer's thought in a direct manner, and it leaves no 'allusive feeling.'

Six considerations, Eight taboos

There are six things to consider and eight things to avoid when composing a haiku, according to Shuoshi MIZUHARA in "Making Haiku." Since it is well organized, beginners to haiku can refer to them when composing haiku poems.

Six considerations

Six things to consider when composing a haiku

Understand the purpose
Have a sense of size
Use omission in a clever manner
Be creative with groupings
Use understandable words
Compose a verse with respect


In a haiku, you need to express yourself within the limit of seventeen syllables. Therefore, the omission of unnecessary words is emphasized. It is common to use taigendome (placing a noun at the end of a poem) to allow the omission of the following verbs or particles, and to use particles at the end of the verse to allow the omission of the following verb.
This enables the creation of an allusive feeling or the expression of temporal 'space.'

Eight taboos

The eight things that should be avoided upon composing haiku poems (according to Shuoshi MIZUHARA's opinion, although there may be disagreements, particularly regarding muki verses).

Do not compose a muki verse
Do not compose a verse with multiple seasons
Do not compose a verse that is imaginary
Do not compose a verse that use both ya and kana
Do not compose a verse with jiamari
Do not compose a verse with an overt display of excitement
Do not compose a verse that exaggerates excitement
Do not compose a verse that imitates others


This is a technique in which words are taken from famous, existing haiku and tanka poems, and using them to implicitly bring forth the imagery of the original verse. For example, the phrase 'mist at the foot of the mountain' from the poem 'Perusing the landscape, there is mist at the foot of the mountain and Minase-gawa River' is used to imply 'Minase-gawa River' without the explicit mentioning of it.

Overlapping verses

This is a technique in which a variation is added to the rhythm by placing a semantic cut in a location different from what is commonly used for the 5-7-5 structure.

[Original Japanese]