Haiku (俳句 haikai verse is a very short form of Japanese poetry typically
characterised by three qualities:
The essence of haiku is "cutting" (kiru). This is often represented by the
juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji ("cutting word") between them,[a
kind of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and
colors the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related.
Traditional haiku consist of 17 on (also known as morae), in three phrases of 5, 7
and 5 on respectively.
A kigo (seasonal reference), usually drawn from a saijiki, an extensive but
defined list of such words.
Modern Japanese haiku (現代俳句 gendai-haiku?) are increasingly unlikely to
follow the tradition of 17 on or to take nature as their subject, but the use of
juxtaposition continues to be honored in both traditional and modern
haiku. There is a common, although relatively recent, perception that the images
juxtaposed must be directly observed everyday objects or occurrences.
In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line while haiku in
English often appear in three lines to parallel the three phrases of Japanese
Previously called hokku, haiku was given its current name by the Japanese
writer Masaoka Shiki at the end of the 19th century.
Syllables or on in haiku
In comparison to English verse typically characterized by syllabic meter, Japanese verse
counts sound units known as "on" or morae. Traditional haiku consist of 17 on, in three
phrases of five, seven and five on respectively. Among contemporary poems teikei (定型
fixed form) haiku continue to use the 5-7-5 pattern while jiyuritsu (自由律 free form) haiku do
not.One of the examples below illustrates that traditional haiku masters were not always
constrained by the 5-7-5 pattern.
Although the word "on" is sometimes translated as "syllable," one on is counted for a short
syllable, two for an elongated vowel, diphthong, or doubled consonant, and one for an "n" at
the end of a syllable. Thus, the word "haibun," though counted as two syllables in English,
is counted as four on in Japanese (ha-i-bu-n); and the word "on" itself, which English-
speakers would view as a single syllable, comprises two on: the short vowel o and
the moraic nasal n̩ . This is illustrated by the Issa haiku below, which contains 17 on but only
15 syllables. Conversely, some sounds, such as "kyo" (きょ) can be perceived as two
syllables in English but are a single on in Japanese.
The word onji (音字; "sound symbol") is sometimes used in referring to Japanese sound
units in English although this word is no longer current in Japanese. In
Japanese, each on corresponds to a kana character (or sometimes digraph) and
hence ji (or "character") is also sometimes used as the count unit.
In 1973, the Haiku Society of America noted that the norm for writers of haiku in
English was to use 17 syllables, but they also noted a trend toward shorter haiku.
Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about 12 syllables in English
approximate the duration of 17 Japanese on.
A haiku traditionally contains a kigo, a defined word
or phrase that symbolizes or implies the season of
the poem, which is drawn from a saijiki, an extensive
but defined list of such words.
Kigo are often in the form of metonyms and can be
difficult for those who lack Japanese cultural
references to spot.The Bashō examples
belowinclude "kawazu", "frog" implying spring, and
"shigure", a rain shower in late autumn or early
winter. Kigo are not always included in non-
Japanese haiku or by modern writers of Japanese
In Japanese haiku a kireji, or cutting word, typically appears at the end of one of the verse's
three phrases. A kireji fills a role somewhat analogous to a caesura in classical western
poetry or to a volta in sonnets. Depending on which cutting word is chosen, and its position
within the verse, it may briefly cut the stream of thought, suggesting a parallel between the
preceding and following phrases, or it may provide a dignified ending, concluding the verse
with a heightened sense of closure.
The fundamental aesthetic quality of both hokku and haiku is that it is internally sufficient,
independent of context, and will bear consideration as a complete work.The kireji lends the
verse structural support,allowing it to stand as an independent poem. The use
of kireji distinguishes haiku and hokku from second and subsequent verses of renku which,
although they may employ semantic and syntactic disjuncture, even to the point of
occasionally end-stopping a phrase with a shōjoshi (少女詩 sentence ending particle), do
not generally employ kireji.
In English, since kireji have no direct equivalent, poets sometimes use punctuation such as
a dash or ellipsis, or an implied break to create a juxtaposition intended to prompt the
reader to reflect on the relationship between the two parts.
The kireji in the Bashō examples "old pond" and "the wind of Mt Fuji" are both "ya" (や).
Neither the remaining Bashō example nor the Issa example contain a kireji although they do
both balance a fragment in the first five on against a phrase in the remaining 12 on (it may
not be apparent from the English translation of the Issa that the first five on mean "Edo's
The best-known Japanese haiku is Bashō's "old pond":
古池や蛙飛び込む水の音ふるいけやかわずとびこむみずのおと (transliterated into 17 hiragana)furuike ya
kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto (transliterated into romaji)This separates into on as:
fu-ru-i-ke ya (5)ka-wa-zu to-bi-ko-mu (7)mi-zu no o-to (5)Translated:
old pond . . .a frog leaps inwater’s soundAn alternate translation, which preserves the syllable counts in
English at the cost of taking greater liberty with the sense:
at the age old ponda frog leaps into watera deep resonanceAnother haiku by Bashō:
初しぐれ猿も小蓑をほしげ也はつしぐれさるもこみのをほしげなりhatsu shigure saru mo komino wo
hoshige nari[1This separates into on as:
ha-tsu shi-gu-re (5)sa-ru mo ko-mi-no wo (7)ho-shi-ge na-ri (5)
the first cold showereven the monkey seems to wanta little coat of strawThis haiku by Bashō illustrates
that he was not always constrained to a 5-7-5 on pattern. It contains 18 on in the pattern 6-7-5 ("ō" or "お
う" is treated as two on.)
富士の風や扇にのせて江戸土産ふじのかぜやおうぎにのせてえどみやげfuji no kaze ya ōgi ni nosete Edo
miyage This separates into "on" as:
fu-ji no ka-ze ya (6)o-o-gi ni no-se-te (7)e-do mi-ya-ge (5)Translated:
the wind of Mt. FujiI've brought on my fan!a gift from EdoThis haiku by Issa illustrates that 17
Japanese on do not always equate to 17 English syllables ("nan" counts as two on and "nonda" as three.)
江戸の雨何石呑んだ時鳥えどのあめなんごくのんだほととぎすedo no ame nan goku nonda
hototogisuThis separates into "on" as,
e-do no a-me (5)na-n go-ku no-n-da (7)ho-to-to-gi-su (5)Translated:
how many gallons of Edo's rain did you drink? cuckoo
From renga to renku to haiku
Main articles: Renga and Renku
Hokku is the opening stanza of an orthodox collaborative linked poem, or renga, and of its later derivative, renku (or haikai no renga). By
the time of Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694), the hokku had begun to appear as an independent poem, and was also incorporated in haibun (a
combination of prose and hokku), and haiga (a combination of painting with hokku). In the late 19th century, Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902)
renamed the standalone hokku to haiku.The latter term is now generally applied retrospectively to all hokku appearing independently of
renku or renga, irrespective of when they were written, and the use of the term hokku to describe a standalone poem is considered
Main articles: Matsuo Bashō and Hokku
In the 17th century, two masters arose who elevated haikai and gave it a new popularity. They were Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694)
and Ueshima Onitsura (ja) (1661–1738). Hokku is the first verse of the collaborative haikai or renku, but its position as the opening verse
made it the most important, setting the tone for the whole composition. Even though hokkuhad sometimes appeared individually, they were
always understood in the context of renku. The Bashō school promoted standalone hokku by including many in their anthologies, thus
giving birth to what is now called "haiku". Bashō also used his hokku as torque points within his short prose sketches and longer travel
diaries. This sub-genre ofhaikai is known as haibun. His best-known work, Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Roads to the Interior, is counted
as one of the classics of Japanese literature and has been translated into English extensively.
Bashō was deified by both the imperial government and Shinto religious headquarters one hundred years after his death because he
raised the haikai genre from a playful game of wit to sublime poetry. He continues to be revered as a saint of poetry in Japan, and is the
one name from classical Japanese literature that is familiar throughout the world.
Main article: Yosa Buson
Grave of Yosa Buson
The next famous style of haikai to arise was that of Yosa Buson (1716–1783) and others such as Kitō, called the Tenmei style after
the Tenmei Era(1781–1789) in which it was created.
Buson is recognized as one of the greatest masters of haiga (an art form where painting is combined with haiku or haikai prose). His
affection for painting can be seen in the painterly style of his haiku.
Main article: Kobayashi Issa
No new popular style followed Buson. However, a very individualistic, and at the same time humanistic, approach to writing haiku was
demonstrated by the poet Kobayashi Issa (1763–1827), whose miserable childhood, poverty, sad life, and devotion to the Pure Land sect
of Buddhism are evident in his poetry. Issa made the genre immediately accessible to wider audiences.
Haiku movement in the West
The earliest westerner known to have written haiku was the Dutchman Hendrik Doeff (1764–1837), who
was the Dutch commissioner in the Dejima trading post in Nagasaki, during the first years of the 19th
century.[One of his haiku:
kaina wo karan
kusamakuralend me your arms,
fast as thunderbolts,
for a pillow on my journey.Although there were further attempts outside Japan to imitate the "hokku" in the
early 20th century, there was little understanding of its principles.[Early Western scholars such as Basil
Hall Chamberlain (1850–1935) and William George Aston were mostly dismissive of hokku's poetic value.
One of the first advocates of English-language hokku was the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi. In "A
Proposal to American Poets," published in the Reader magazine in February 1904, Noguchi gave a brief
outline of the hokku and some of his own English efforts, ending with the exhortation, "Pray, you try
Japanese Hokku, my American poets!" At about the same time the poet Sadakichi Hartmann was
publishing original English-language hokku, as well as other Japanese forms in both English and French.
In France, haiku was introduced by Paul-Louis Couchoud around 1906. Couchoud's articles were read by
early Imagist theoretician F. S. Flint, who passed on Couchoud's (somewhat idiosyncratic) ideas to other
members of the proto-Imagist Poets' Club such as Ezra Pound. Amy Lowell made a trip to London to
meet Pound and find out about haiku. She returned to the United States where she worked to interest
others in this "new" form. Haiku subsequently had a considerable influence on Imagists in the 1910s,
notably Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" of 1913, but, notwithstanding several efforts by Yone
Noguchi to explain "the hokku spirit," there was as yet little understanding of the form and its history
In the early 21st century, there is a thriving community of
haiku poets worldwide, mainly communicating through
national and regional societies and journals in Japan, in
the English-speaking countries (including India), in
(mainly Sweden, Germany, France, Belgium and
the Netherlands), in central and southeast Europe
(mainlyCroatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland and R
omania), and in Russia. Haiku journals published in
southeast Europe include Letni
časi (Slovenia), Vrabac (Croatia), Haiku Novine (Serbia),
and Albatros (Romania)