is a form of Japanese poetry. Previously called hokku, it was given its current name by the Japanese writer Masaoka Shiki at the end of 19th century. Shiki suggested haiku as an abbreviation of the phrase "haikai no ku" meaning a verse of haikai. A hokku was the opening verse of a linked verse form, renku (haikai no renga). In Japanese, hokku and haiku are traditionally printed in one vertical line (though in handwritten form they may be in any reasonable number of lines). In English, haiku are usually written in three lines to equate to the three metrical phrases of a haiku in Japanese that consist of five, seven, and five on (the Japanese count morae, which differ from English-language syllables; for example, the word "haiku" itself counts as three on in Japanese (ha-i-ku), but two syllables in English (hai-ku); writing seventeen syllables in English produces a poem that is actually quite a bit longer, with more content, than a haiku in Japanese). Because Japanese nouns do not have different singular and plural forms, "haiku" is usually used as both a singular and plural noun in English as well. Thus, practicing haiku poets and translators refer to "many haiku" rather than "haikus". Senryū is a similar poetry form that emphasizes irony, satire, humor, and human foibles instead of seasons, and may or may not contain a kigo or a kireji.

Kireji and kigo

Main articles Kireji, Kigo
In Japanese haiku a kireji (i.e. a cutting word) appears at the end of one of the three phrases. In Japanese, there are actual kireji words, which act as a sort of spoken punctuation (for example, the "ya" in Bashō's "furuike ya" poem is a kireji). In English, kireji has no direct equivalent. Instead, English-language poets often use commas, dashes, ellipses, or implied breaks to divide the three lines into two grammatical and imagistic parts. Such a division is usually placed at the end of either the first or second line; very rarely they can be found in the middle of the second line. The purpose is to create a juxtaposition, which creates space for an implication as the reader intuits the relationship between the two parts.

A haiku traditionally contains a kigo (season word) which symbolises or intimates the season in which the poem is set.

Among traditionalist Japanese haiku writers, both kireji and kigo are considered absolute requirements for the form, yet, as noted above, kireji are not in use in English. Season words (kigo), although considered by many to be essential to haiku, are not always included by modern writers of Japanese "free-form" haiku and some non-Japanese haiku.

Syllable or "on" in haiku

While English verse is typically characterized by meter, which counts "beats", Japanese verse instead typically counts sound units (morae), known in Japanese as "on". The word on is often translated loosely (and somewhat inaccurately) as "syllables", but there are subtle differences between an "on" and a "syllable". The traditional haiku consisted of a pattern of 5, 7, and 5 on.

The Japanese word on, literally "sound", corresponds to a mora, a phonetic unit similar but not identical to the syllable of languages such as English. (The word onji (音字; "sound symbol") is sometimes used in referring to the Japanese syllable units in English although this word is archaic and no longer current in Japanese.) In Japanese, the on corresponds very closely to the kana character count (closely enough that Moji (or "character symbol") is also sometimes used as the count unit). One on is counted for a short syllable, an additional one for an elongated vowel or a doubled consonant (i.e., a glottal stop), and one for an added "n" at the end of a syllable. Thus, the word "sign", though one syllable in English, would be counted as three sounds if said in Japanese (sa-i-n).

Because most Japanese words are polysyllabic, with very short sounds (like the syllables in the three-syllable English word "radio", but unlike the one-syllable words "thought" or "stressed"), the seventeen sounds of a Japanese haiku carry less information than would seventeen syllables. Consequently, writing seventeen syllables in English typically produces a poem that is significantly "longer" than a traditional Japanese haiku. As a result, the great majority of literary haiku writers in English write their poems using about ten to fourteen syllables, with no formal pattern.


  • Possibly the best known Japanese haiku is Bashō's "old pond" haiku:

This separates into on as:

furuike ya
(古池   や)
(fu/ru/i/ke ya): 5

kawazu tobikomu
(蛙       飛込む)
(ka/wa/zu to/bi/ko/mu): 7

mizu no oto
(水    の  音)
(mi/zu no o/to): 5

Roughly translated:
old pond
a frog jumps
the sound of water

  • Another example of classic hokku by Matsuo Bashō:

fuji no kaze ya oogi ni nosete Edo miyage

the wind of Mt. Fuji
I've brought on my fan!
a gift from Edo

  • And yet another Bashō classic:

hatsu shigure saru mo komino wo hoshige nari

the first cold shower
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw
(At that time, Japanese rain-gear consisted of a large, round cap and a shaggy straw cloak.)

Origin and evolution

From renga to renku to hokku

Main articles Renga, Renku
Hokku is the opening stanza of the orthodox collaborative linked poem 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, although this approach has been challenged.

Basho and the appearance of hokku as independent poems

Main article Hokku
In the 1600s, two masters arose who elevated haikai and gave it a new popularity. They were Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694) and Ueshima Onitsura (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 hokku had 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 for his short prose sketches and longer travel diaries which combined prose and what we now know as haiku. This sub-genre of haikai is known as haibun. His best-known book, Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Roads to the Far North, 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 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.

The time of 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 attempted to revive the values of Bashō, and rescue hokku and renku from the stultified condition into which it had sunk since Bashō's day.

Buson is recognised as one of the greatest masters of haiga (an art form where painting is combined with haiku or haikai prose). He was better known in his day as a painter than as a writer of haikai, but today that is reversed. His affection for painting can be seen in the painterly style of his hokku.

Kobayashi Issa and a humanistic approach to hokku

No new popular style followed Buson. However, a very individualistic, and at the same time humanistic, approach to writing hokku as standalone poems 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 for wider audiences.

Shiki and his revision of hokku to haiku

After Issa, haikai entered a period of decline, in which it reverted to frivolity and uninspired mediocrity. The writers of this period in the 19th century are known by the deprecatory term tsukinami, meaning ‘monthly’, after the monthly or twice-monthly haikai gatherings of the end of the 18th century. But in regard to this period of haikai, it came to mean ‘trite’ and ‘hackneyed’.

This was the situation until the appearance of Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902), a reformer and revisionist. A prolific writer even though chronically ill during a significant part of his life, Shiki not only disliked the tsukinami writers, but also criticised Bashō. Like the Japanese intellectual world in general at that time, Shiki was strongly influenced by Western culture. He favoured the painterly style of Buson and particularly the European concept of plein-air painting, which he adapted to create a style of haiku as a kind of nature sketch in words, an approach called shasei, literally ‘sketching from life’. He popularised his views by verse columns and essays in newspapers.

Some authors state that hokku up to the time of Shiki, even when appearing independently, were written in the context of renku. Shiki formally separated his new style of verse from the context of collaborative poetry. Being agnostic, he also separated it from the influence of Buddhism, with which hokku had very often been tinged. And finally, he discarded the term "hokku" and called his reformed verse form "haiku". His revisionism dealt a severe blow to renku, as well as to surviving haikai schools. Though the word hokku is still in use, it is now used solely in its original sense, of the opening verse of a renku, or sometimes as a reference to poems written before Shiki's time, e.g. to poems by Basho, Buson and Issa.


Main article Haiga
Haiga, the combination of haiku and art, is nearly as old as haiku itself. Haiga began as haiku added to paintings, but included in Japan the calligraphic painting of haiku via brushstrokes, with the calligraphy adding to the power of the haiku. Earlier haiku poets added haiku to their paintings, but Bashō is noted for creating haiga paintings as simple as the haiku itself. Yosa Buson, a master painter, brought a more artistic approach to haiga. It was Buson who illustrated Bashō's famous travel journal, Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior).

Today, artists combine haiku with paintings, photographs and other art.


The carving of famous haiku on natural stone to create poem monuments known as kuhi (句碑) has been a popular practice for many centuries. The city of Matsuyama has more than two hundred kuhi.

Haiku in the West

Although there were attempts outside Japan to imitate the old hokku in the early 1900s, there was little genuine 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, hokku 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 just 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.

An early translation of a haiku book to a western language, in this case, to Spanish, was realized by the Mexican poet and Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz with the collaboration of Eikichi Hayashiya. In 1956, they published "Sendas de Oku," the famous book by Matsuo Basho, "Oku no Hosomichi." Octavio Paz wrote an essay about this translation work, and published it in the book "El signo y el garabato."


R.H. Blyth was an Englishman who lived in Japan. He produced a series of works on Zen, haiku, senryu, and on other forms of Japanese and Asian literature. In 1949, with the publication in Japan of the first volume of Haiku, the four-volume work by Blyth, haiku were introduced to the post-war world. This four-volume Haiku series (1949-52) described not only pre-modern hokku but also the works of Shiki. Blyth's History of Haiku (1964) in two volumes is regarded as a classical study of haiku. Today Blyth is best known as a major interpreter of haiku to English speakers. His works stimulated the writing of haiku in English.


The Japanese-American scholar and translator Kenneth Yasuda published The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English, with Selected Examples in 1957. The book includes both translations from Japanese and original poems of his own in English, which had previously appeared in his book titled A Pepper-Pod: Classic Japanese Poems together with Original Haiku. In these books Yasuda presented a critical theory about haiku, to which he added comments on haiku poetry by early twentieth-century poets and critics. His translations apply a 5–7–5 syllable count in English, with the first and third lines end-rhymed. Yasuda's theory includes the concept of a "haiku moment" based in personal experience, and provides the motive for writing a haiku. His notion of the haiku moment has resonated with haiku writers in North America, even though the notion is not widely promoted in Japanese haiku.


In 1958, An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Bashô to Shiki by Harold G. Henderson was published by Doubleday Anchor Books. This book was a revision of Henderson's earlier book titled The Bamboo Broom (Houghton Mifflin, 1934). After World War Two, Henderson and Blyth worked for the American Occupation in Japan and for the Imperial Household, respectively, and their mutual appreciation of haiku helped form a bond between the two.

Henderson translated every hokku and haiku into a rhymed tercet (a-b-a), whereas the Japanese originals never used rhyme. Unlike Yasuda, however, he recognized that seventeen syllables in English are generally longer than the seventeen morae of a traditional Japanese haiku. Because the normal modes of English poetry depend on accentual meter rather than on syllabics, Henderson chose to emphasize the order of events and images in the originals. Nevertheless, many of Henderson's translations were still in the five-seven-five pattern.

Not as dogmatic as Blyth, Henderson insisted only that a haiku must be a poem, and that the development of haiku in English would be determined by the poets.

Contemporary English-language haiku

Main article Haiku in English
Today, haiku are written in many languages, but most poets are still concentrated in Japan and in the English-speaking countries. Haiku has already had a significant influence on western poetics, but the extent to which the "haiku movement" will become integrated into existing literary canons remains to be seen.

While traditional haiku focused on nature and the place of humans in nature, modern haiku poets often consider any subject matter suitable, whether related to nature, an urban setting, or a technological context. While old haiku avoided some topics such as romance, sex, and overt violence, contemporary haiku often deal specifically with such themes.

It is impossible to single out any current style or format or subject matter as definitive. Some of the more common practices in English are:

  • Use of three (or fewer) lines of 17 or fewer syllables
  • Use of a season word (kigo)
  • Use of a cut or kireji (sometimes indicated by a punctuation mark) to contrast and compare, implicitly, two events, images, or situations

This gradual loosening of traditional standards, encouraged by such poet-critics as Bob Grumman, has resulted in the word "haiku" being applied to brief, mathematical "poems," ("mathemaku") and to visual poetry by Scott Helms. This attempt at stretching definitions of haiku can be considered excessive, but Grumman attempts to defend his position by pointing to an alleged blurring of definitional boundaries in Japan. Those cognizant of Japanese and the haiku scene in Japan dispute this claim.

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, in Northern Europe (mainly Sweden, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands), in the Balkans (mainly Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania), and in Russia.

Haiku in India

Indian languages that follow Indic (abugida) alphabetical system interpret 5-7-5 structures counting CV, CCV, CCCV or CCCCV clusters , irrespective of length of syllables. In early 20th century Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore composed haiku in Bengali. He also translated some from Japanese. In Gujarati, Geena Joseph 'Sneharashmi' popularized haiku and remains a popular haiku composer. In the traditional syncratic spirit of Gujarati literature, poets like Bhagavatikumar Sharma and Bhushit Joshipura have composed ghazals with shers formed as haiku. This type of poetry is called Haiku Ghazal. Urdu (which is written in abjad alphabetical system) interprets 5-7-5 structures counting long syllables. Dr. Rehmat Yusufzai has composed a number of haiku in Urdu.


Online journals that exclusively publish haiku poetry (see the list in Haiku in English) and haiku sites owned by various haiku writers can be found online, as well as scores of pseudo-haiku (also known as zappai) on some other sites.

Famous writers

Pre-Shiki period

Shiki and later

See also



  • Blyth, R. H. A History of Haiku. Vol. 1, From the Beginnings up to Issa. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1963. ISBN 0-89346-066-4
  • Suiter, John. Poets on the Peaks. Counterpoint, 2002. ISBN 1582431485; ISBN 1-58243-294-5 (pbk)
  • Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams, Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the poetry of Bashō. Stanford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8047-3099-7 (pbk)
  • Sato, Hiroaki. One Hundred Frogs, from renga to haiku to English. Weatherhill, 1983. ISBN 0-8348-0176-0
  • Higginson, William J. and Harter, Penny. The Haiku Handbook, How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. Kodansha, 1989. ISBN 4-7700-1430-9
  • Ueda, Makoto. The Master Haiku Poet, Matsuo Bashō. Kodansha, 1982. ISBN 0-87011-553-7
  • Lowenstein, Tom (editor). Classic Haiku. Duncan Baird, 2007. ISBN 1-84483-486-7
  • Lowenstein,Tom.Haiku Inspirations Duncan Baird 2006. ISBN 1-84483-296-1
  • Yasuda, Ken. Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English. Tuttle, 1957. ISBN 0-8048-1096-6
  • Sieffert, René.Bashô et son école Haïkaï. Les éditions Textuel, 2005.ISBN 2-84597-140-0
  • Henderson, H G. An Introduction to Haiku. Hokuseido Press, 1948.

External links



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