Kaori Nomura

26 September 2018

Introduction to Traditional Japanese Poetry Haiku

Haiku is a short poem originated in the 16th century Japan. Traditional haiku is composed following a fixed format called yuukiteikei 有季定型. As a general rule, historical kana orthography, which is the old kana system, has to be used in haiku and the yuukiteikei is characterized by three features. Let’s have a look at these features through some examples below.

Example haiku

Poet: Matsuo Bashou 松尾芭蕉

閑かさや 岩にしみ入る 蝉の声

Shizukasa ya / Iwa ni shimiiru / Semi no koe

Ah, tranquility! / Penetrating the very rock / A cicada’s voice

[Trans. Helen Craig Mccallough]

A Famous Haiku by Bashou

The Rules of Haiku

#1. Kigo 季語 (seasonal words)

Haiku is like drawing a picture by words to describe the scene that impresses you. It is a cultural and casual pleasure that allows people to get familiar with nature through the use of kigo 季語 (seasonal words). A haiku poem must contain kigo 季語 (seasonal words) or kikan 季感 (a sense of the season). In the example above, semi蝉 (a cicada) is the kigo 季語. Kikan 季感 is the most important element in haiku. You can include names of the seasons, such as haru 春 (spring), natsu 夏 (summer), aki 秋 (autumn) and fuyu 冬 (winter); names of the months, such as ichi-gatsu 一月 (January), ni-gatsu 二月 (February), and so on; or names of seasonal flowers, seasonal food, and seasonal features.

#2. 5-7-5 (go-shichi-go)

Haiku has a format of san-ku juu-shichi-on 3句17音. That means it has a total of 17-on (17 syllables) and is composed of 5-7-5 (go-shichi-go) syllables. Each phrase is called ku 句 – the first phrase is called ik-ku 1句 (sho-ku 初句), the second ni-ku 2句, and the last san-ku 3句 (kek-ku 結句).

Let’s look at the 5-7-5 format using the haiku example above:

Shi/zu/ka/sa/ya (5 syllables)    ← ik-ku 1句 (sho-ku 初句)

I/wa/ni/shi/mi/i/ru (7 syllables)  ← ni-ku 2句

Se/mi/no/ko/e   (5 syllables)  ← san-ku 3句 (kek-ku 結句)

#3. Kireji 切れ字 (punctuation words)

Kireji is a punctuation word which has a function to complete the expression of the phrase in a limited amount of words. 「や ya」「かな kana」「けりkeri」are common kireji 切れ字 used in the middle of the phrase or the end of the phrase. The use of kireji brings extra meanings or special emotions of the poet so it is an essential technique in haiku composition. In English, it could be translated as “Ah!”, or the punctuation “!” or “-“.

Famous Haiku Poets and Verses

Below are some famous haiku by Japan’s most renowned haiku poets.

  • Poet: Matsuo Bashou 松尾芭蕉
    古池や 蛙飛び込む 水の音
    Furuike ya / Kawazu tobikomu / Mizu no oto
    Old pond / Frogs jumped in / Sound of water
    小泉八雲 = Lafcadio Hearn]
  • Poet: Yosa Buson 与謝蕪村
    菜の花や 月は東に 日は西に
    Nanohana ya / Tsuki wa higashi ni / Hi wa nishi ni
    Flowers of rape / The moon in the east / The sun in the west
    [Trans. R.H.Blyth]
  • Poet: Masaoka Shiki 正岡子規
    柿くへば 鐘が鳴るなり 法隆寺
    Kaki kueba / Kane ga naru nari / Horyu-ji
    Biting into a persimmon / A bell resounds / Horyu-ji
    [Trans.The Shiki Museum]
  • Poet: Matsuo Bashou 松尾芭蕉
    秋深き 隣は何を する人ぞ
    Aki fukaki / Tonari wa nani wo / Suru hito zo
    Deep autumn – / My neighbor / How does he live, I wonder?
    [Trans. R.H.Blyth]
  • Poet: Kobayashi Issa小林一茶
    やせ蛙 まけるな一茶 ここにあり
    Yasegaeru / Makeruna Issa / Koko ni ari
    Scrawny frog / Hang tough! / Issa is here
    [Trans. David G. Lanoue]

Haiku has fascinated many people in the world and many famous haiku verses have been translated into English by famous writers. The translations have been done differently and it seems difficult to convey the minute nuance in English.

It is both fun and challenging trying to apply what you have learned in Japanese language classes into haiku writing. There are many haiku competitions held regularly both in Japan and overseas. Submissions are usually available in Japanese or English, such as the International Kusamakura Haiku Competition, The Mainichi Haiku Contest, and the Ito En Oi Ocha Shinhaiku Contest.