WHR January 2010

Volume 8 Issue 1, January 2010


Here is a reprint of my early paper which I present in this issue in lieu of Editorial in the hope that it would still be useful especially for haiku beginners. The paper has subsequently been included in my book: Kyoshi - A Haiku Master, Ami-Net International Press, 1997.

The Development and Nature of Haiku in Japan


Susumu Takiguchi

( A companion to “The Nature of English Haiku” )


If you ask the question “What is haiku in a nutshell?” then you already have the answer. Haiku is the shortest form of Japanese poetry, whereby poetic ideas and feelings are compressed within an extremely small space, like the inside of a nutshell. The nutshell in haiku terms is only seventeen syllables long. It is because of these limits within which a haiku poet must compose that certain beneficial devices have evolved, making the writing of a haiku poem possible without losing any depth or scope of expression.

These devices include seasonal references, e.g. kidai (season themes), kigo (season words), or kikan (seasonal feelings) which give the reader an instant sense of common experience and perception associated with each seasonal reference. Also, there is the device known as kireji (cutting words), which may best be described as punctuation. They give a haiku poem a sense of completeness as well as accentuation and articulation. Kireji can also single out a part of the haiku, separating it from the rest and emphasizing it, thus creating a dramatic effect.

The seventeen syllables which fall naturally into a 5-7-5 rhythm, a seasonal reference and the use of cutting words are the three most fundamental factors of haiku without which, some assert, haiku is not haiku.

As we have seen, these devices facilitate the composition of haiku rather than restrict it. For physiological and diachronic phonological reasons, five and seven syllables have an innate appeal for the Japanese speaker. They give a natural, comfortable and even pleasurable length of articulation and breathing. Such has been the case since before the very first anthology of Japanese poetry, the famous eighth century Manyoshu, that to speak in phrases of 5 or 7 syllables has become a part of the mental faculty for the Japanese(1).

Similarly, the seasonal references and cutting words cause no problem to a Japanese poet, for virtually every Japanese is keenly sensitive to all elements of the seasons, especially the transition from one season to another. He or she also knows all the cutting words by heart (there are only about eighteen) even if they are now archaic after the inevitable but sad modernisation of old Japanese in late 19th century.

Compared with the complicated prosody and metre of English poetry, haiku rules are surprisingly simple. It would be a poor excuse of the lesser poet to assert otherwise. There are no bad haiku rules, only bad haiku poets.

Armed with the devices mentioned above, haiku can be a profound and sophisticated form of poetry in spite of, or perhaps because of, its brevity. Complicated human thoughts and feelings can often be reduced to a few words. These words, however, must be the very best words and must be put in the best order. This is why it is easy enough to write a mediocre haiku and yet it is so extremely difficult to write a good one. Deduct the number of syllables needed for a seasonal reference and for cutting words from a haiku and you are left with an even smaller number of syllables with which to express all your perceptions and emotions. For this reason it is the quality and originality of your perceptions and the choice of right words put in the right order that will distinguish good haiku from the mediocre.

In this creative tension lies the secret which can give a haiku incredible power and profound meaning and enable it to reach eternity “through the evanescent”(2), realise universality through the specific, and to grasp providence “through the commonplace”(3). This is not confined to Japanese haiku, for William Blake could see “a World” and “a Heaven” in “a Grain of Sand” and in “a Wild Flower”, and hold “Infinity” and “Eternity” in the “palm of your hand” and in “an hour”, respectively(4) and Hamlet bantered he could be “…bounded in a nutshell…” and could count himself “…a king of infinite space…” (Hamlet Act II Sc.2)

Haiku, then, is an art, as Donald Keene succinctly puts it, “… expressing much and suggesting more in the fewest possible words.” A good haiku is a demanding and conscious form of poetry, positioned somewhere nearer to silence than to speech. Moreover, by ostensibly presenting a microcosm, a good haiku can actually depict a macrocosm. It is a rare art form, whereby the bare essentials of a poem are expressed “before” rather than “after” all is said and done, making the “saying” and “doing” a rather superfluous and even harmful activity. If talking is needed, the haiku in question cannot amount to much.


Modern Japanese haiku began in the middle years of the Meiji era (1868 ~ 1912) with the reform of traditional haiku by Masaoka Shiki (1867 ~ 1902). His reform began to take effect in the early 1890s. Until then traditional haiku had slipped back again to a low ebb and was in no way capable of dealing with the changing requirements of the modern era, still less with the strong Western influence which was fast engulfing this young and eager nation. Helped by his closest friends and followers, Shiki set about elevating the status of haiku from a vulgar level to the status of proper literature. This proved a formidable task, not only because Shiki and his fellow haiku reformers had to make sure that this old-fashioned form of poetry made sense in the changed and changing condition of modern Japan, but also because, for the first time, it was necessary to divest haiku of its connections with renga, or linked verse. Right up to Shiki’s time it is the renga that had been the mainstay of the past haiku masters, of which Basho is a supreme example, and commonly haiku had first been conceived as the opening verse (called hokku) of a renga, and only later come to have a separate existence. With the advent of modern Japanese society the renga had all but vanished as a viable poetic form. Haiku now had to stand on its own.

Freeing haiku from its previous tendency of subjective indulgence and decadence, Shiki advocated the importance of objectivity and the modesty with which the haiku poet should “sketch” what is out there in nature rather than exercising poetic licence subjectively.

In forming his poetics, Shiki drew inspiration from Buson (1716 ~ 1783), whose paintings and haiku he admired. Although Shiki could not complete the haiku reform because of his early death in 1902, subsequent developments of modern haiku in Japan have revolved around his initiatives. For the rest of this century haiku has been progressing along many avenues. However, even the most bigoted and most avant-garde haiku poets have been unable to ignore the orthodox movement which was promoted by Shiki and his prominent followers, most notably Takahama Kyoshi (1874 ~ 1959).

The scope of this paper does not allow us to follow the haiku movements after Shiki in any detail, nor the numerous personalities who led them. Broadly, however, we can see a division between traditionalists and anti-traditionalists. The former uphold the haiku rules we have already seen and poetic values of a traditional nature such as poetic sincerity, love of nature and man’s involvement with all that happens in the universe. The latter, on the other hand, regard the traditionalists’ way as being too restricted and stifling. They see it as killing the free spirit and broader inspiration of the poet, struggling to liberate haiku so that it may become something more than the strictly traditional form of poetry. They often deny the 5-7-5 format, seasonal references and other grammatical rules like kireji. Instead, they advocate free-verse, subjectivity more than objectivity, human-orientated rather than nature-orientated viewpoints. They add thought and inspiration derived from sources other than nature. These might include broader literary movements such as naturalism, political creeds, human conscience and psychology, or metaphysical and religious quests.

Kyoshi led the traditionalists, who form the mainstream of modern Japanese haiku to this day. Based on haiku clubs and associations, they publish their works and views on haiku in various haiku magazines. The most notable of these are the Hototogisu, or common cuckoo, and the Tamamo, or sea-weed. Apart from a few poets who broke away, such as Shuoshi (who ran the magazine Ashibi) and Kusatao (who ran the Banryoku), the traditionalists have kept their solidarity, which has led to their unprecedented popularity. An imposing array of talents have sprung from the Kyoshi School. Among these were Toshio and Tatsuko, Kyoshi’s own children. Also, there arose such distinguished followers as Seishi, Seison, Bosha, Dakotsu and Teijo, all of whom started their own schools, spreading Kyoshi’s teachings still further afield. Two outstanding students already mentioned, Shuoshi and Kusatao, became great modern haiku masters in their own right, spawning their own followers, such as Hakyo and Shuson. The Kyoshi school has been the most stable and consistent of all the modern haiku schools. His disciples and descendants are numbered in their millions. His own great grand-children are in the front line of these.

The anti-traditionalist movement was started by Kawahigashi Hekigodo (1873 - 1937), Kyoshi’s friend, who was with him another follower of Shiki. His movement came to be known as Shin Keiko, or New Trend but soon collapsed, partly because of its too rapid and radical departure from tradition, but more importantly because of the internal divisions which imploded, creating various splinter groups. Some of these groups, such as Seisensui and Ippekiro succeeded in creating their own schools. Among Seisensui’s many well-known pupils, Santoka was unique.

The Haiku poets who followed this anti-traditionalist line are too numerous to deal with here but one name, that of Kaneko Tota (1919 -) should not be ommitted. He belongs to the Shuoshi School and studied haiku under Shuson but his greatest contribution has been to generate the “avant-garde” haiku and as a leading figure in today’s haiku circle in Japan he is helping to foster contemporary haiku, influencing its future direction.


Let us look at some of the criteria for composing and appreciating Japanese haiku by quoting actual works by modern Japanese haiku poets. The criteria reflect traditional practices but there are now different schools of haiku which do not follow them. The following sections are presented as an introduction to the former and not as a denial of the latter.

[ 1 ] The 5 - 7 - 5 Format (seventeen syllables)

(a) Examples following this rule

n Ka-ki ku-e-ba/ ka-ne ga na-ru-nari/ ho-u-ry-u-ji

5 7 5

(Eating a persimmon/ temple bell is ringing/ from Horyuji-temple = Shiki)

n Ki-ri hi-to-ha/ hi-a-ta-ri-na-ga-ra-/ o-chi-ni-ke-ri

5 7 5

(A single leaf of paulownia/ Has fallen:/ catching the sunlight/ As it went = Kyoshi)

n Tsu-bo-ni shi-te/ mi-ya-ma no ho-o no/ha-na hi-ra-ku

5 7 5

(Arranged in a vase/ deep mountain magnolia/ blossoms open = Shuoshi)

(b) Examples slightly breaking the rule (hacho)

These are called jiamari (excessive syllables) and jitarazu (insufficient syllables). They have been seen since before Basho’s time.

n A-ka-i tsu-ba-ki/ shi-ro-i tsu-ba-ki to/ o-chi-ni-ke-ri

6 7 5

(Red camellia blossom, then/ White camellia blossom,/ Both fell to the ground = Hekigodo)

n Ya-ma no i-ro tsu-ri-a-ge-shi a-yu ni ugo-ku-nana

5 8 5

(The colours of the mountain move as I fish out the ayu-fish that I’ve just caught. = Hara


n Su-mi-re ho-do na/ chi-i-sa-ki hi-to ni/ u-ma-re-ta-shi

6 7 5

(I wish I could be born again a person as small as a violet. = Natsume Soseki)

n Ya-ku-so-ku no/ka-n no tsu-ku-shi wo/ ni-te ku-da-sa-I

5 7 6

(Please cook for me the winter horsetail as you have promised. = Kawabata Bosha)

n U-sa-gi mo/ ka-ta-mi-mi ta-ru-ru/ ta-i-sho-ka-na

4 7 5

(Even a rabbit’s ear is bent, what heat! = Akutagawa Ryunosuke)

(c ) Examples completely ignoring, or denying the rule

n Na-tsu-a-sa hi-n-mi-n no ko ga hi-ki-ka-ka-e-ta-ru hi-to-tsu-no ky-a-be-tsu (26 syllables)

(Summer morn a child of the poor/ tugging and hugging/ a head of cabbage = Ippekiro)

n Se-ki wo shi-te mo hi-to-ri (9 syllables)

(coughing, even: alone = Hosai)

n To-ma-to wo ta-na-go-ko-ro ni, mi-ho-to-ke no ma-e ni, chi-chi-ha-ha no ma-e ni (26


(with a tomato on the palm of my hand, my only offering, do I pray in front of Buddha, and in front of my dead parents = Santoka)

n Wa-n-ky-o-ku-shi ya-ke-do-shi ba-ku-shi-n-chi no ma-ra-so-n (20 syllables)

(Bent and burnt/ the atomic-bomb site/ a marathon race = Tota)

[ 2 ] Season words

There are more than ten thousand season words and average haiku poets are estimated to use 500 to 1, 000 of them regularly. In the following examples, the underlined season words correspond with the underlined part of the English versions.

(a) Season words expressly mentioning a particular season itself

n Are kuruu umi wo wasurete fuyugomori (winter)

(Oblivious to the raging sea I am keeping indoors for the winter. = Ikeuchi Takeshi)

n Endai ni ushirode wo tsuki aki no kumo (autumn)

(Sitting on a long stool and leaning backwards with my hands placed behind me, I look at

autumn clouds. = Tomiyasu Fusei)

n Kamogawa no mizu no kokoro no dokoka haru (spring)

(Somehow the soul of the water of Kamogawa River tells me that spring seems to be with us

somewhere. = Nomoto Eikyu)

n Aiida wo kikite Roma no natsu no tsuki (summer)

(Listening to Aida, I look up the summer moon over Rome. - Nishikawa Hiroko)

n Ikko no hitori ga kakuru nisshabyo (summer)

(One person is missing from our group, sun stroke = Bojo Toshiatsu)

n Waga koe no fukimodosaruru nowaki kana (autumn)

(My voice has been blown back by the strong autumn wind. = Naito Meisetsu)

(b) Season words as a symbol of a particular season, or events during that season

n Furu yuki ya Meiji wa tohku narinikeri (winter)

(Falling snow/ Ah, the Meiji era is now far behind! = Nakamura Kusatao)

n Hisho no ko ni uma yo bohto yo pinpon yo (summer)

(My daughter is enjoying riding a pony, rowing a boat and playing pingpong,

summer holiday. = Inahata Teiko)

n Tsuku tsue ni ho wo sasowaretsu ume biyori (spring)

(My steps are enticed by the walking stick towards plum blossoms on a [spring] day. = Ogata Kukyo)

n Himosugara sagiri nagaruru tani momiji (autumn)

(All day long thin fog flows along the red and yellow leaves of the valley. = Kawamura Saishu)

(c ) Season words inducing associations and inspiring imagination

n Usumetemo hana no nioi no kuzuyu kana (winter)

(Even thinned by hot water the arrowroot starch gruel has the smell of cherry blossoms. =

Watanabe Suiha)

n Toku obi no ashi ni matsuwari hanazukare (spring)

(Undoing the sash that coils round [my] legs, I am weary having been to a cherry blossom viewing. = Mihara Sokyushi)

(d) Season words which are concrete “things”, or objects

n Hito taki ni kikuna no kaori iya tsuyoku (spring)

(The smell of chrysanthemum coronarium becomes even stronger as I give it a boil. = Takahama Toshio)

n Uchiwa tome nani ka kokoro ni todometaru (summer)

(Waving of a fan stopped, something has occurred to me. = Mashimo Masuji)

(e) Historically well-established season words

n Ichi no yana, ni no yana Hida no akifukashi (autumn)

(Going from one weir to the next deeper into Hida mountain the autumn is ending. = Saito Hachiro)

n Yukuharu no mado ni taretaru tamoto kana (spring)

(Spring is ending, someone’s sleeve is hanging across the window. = Nomura Hakugetsu)

(f) Season words with double meaning

n Basu ware wo kareno ni hitori nokoshi saru (winter)

(The bus has dumped me and gone, leaving me standing all alone in the withered field. = Iwakiri Tessho)

The withered field, being a winter season word, also represents the feeling of loneliness, desolation and decay in Iwakiri’s heart.

n Banshu no hei no tsukitaru hitorigoto (autumn)

(End of autumn, end of the stone wall, too, I talk to myself. = Kimura Shigeo)

Here, end of autumn also indicates the end of the wall, and in turn the end of the poet’s linkage with his fellow human beings.

n Mizubana ya hana no saki dake kure nokoru (winter)

(It has all become dark except the tip of my dripping nose. = Akutagawa Ryunosuke)

This haiku has a zensho (or, brief foreword), saying “self mockery” and is regarded as the jisei no ku (or, death poem) of this talented but tragic novelist. The drip sitting on the tip of his nose is the winter season word but Akutagawa, soon to commit suicide, compares his desperate and meaningless self to it, sitting useless on the useless nose which is malfunctioning like his life itself.

Some of additional points on season words

· Other functions of season words are universality, commonality, depicting broader meanings in a compact way.

· Kigasanari = using more than one season word in a single haiku, which is to be avoided. If there are two, one becomes the leading season word.

· Kichigai = using words of different seasons in a haiku, which also should be avoided.

· Muki = using no season word, either by design or by default

[ 3 ] Kireji (cutting words)

Since kireji is purely a Japanese practice based on the linguistic and grammatical features, there is practically no way of demonstrating it by trying to find the English equivalent. There are, however, ways of gaining similar effects in English, such as the use of commas, semi colons, dots etc. but this is not within the scope of this paper. (For basic understanding of kireji, see Higginson (4).)

[ 4 ] Other features of haiku

(a) Nouns, verbs, adjectives etc.

The general point to observe is to secure concreteness and immediacy and to avoid abstraction and conceptualisation. Nouns are much more important than verbs or adjectives. Avoid abstract nouns expressing such notions as beauty, happiness and honour. Names of actual flowers, birds and places give immediate impact. Adjectives are a problem. Rather than “sad”, use concrete things to express sadness.

(b) Particles, or “te-ni-wo-ha”

Japanese particles play an important role in haiku, clarifying direction, relationship, tense, spatial positioning, subject/object articulation and all other grammatical inter-relationships. They therefore play the same role as English prepositions, and word order. Being short, normally just one syllable (e.g. ha, ga, ni, te, wo), the Japanese particles are ideal for haiku and are sometimes critical for the success of a haiku.

(c ) Rhythms

The main source of haiku rhythm is the 5 - 7- 5 syllable format already discussed. It can be grouped in one or other of two ways, i.e. either 5 + 12, or 12 + 5, but even then there is a notional pause between 7 and 5, or 5 and 7 within the 12 syllables.

(d) Sound properties

The sounds in Japanese are simpler and less varied than those in English. They also have much less accent, stress and intonation, giving a somewhat monotonous, soft and flat impression. There are only five vowels and in theory consonants are always followed by a vowel. Certain English sounds are absent in Japanese, such as v, f, di as in dim. Other English sounds, most notably r and l, are bundled together in a single sound.

The five vowels, a, i, u, e, o, are said to have the following “feelings”: -

a: grand, rich, bright and positive

i: light, sensitive

u: calm, melancholic

e: mild, elegant, sharp

o: bold, majestic

The rest of the fifty plus one sounds, which form all Japanese sounds, are created by adding these five vowels to consonants, k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r/l, w. The last sound is a soft, nasal version of n. They are said to have the following feelings: -

ka, ki, ku, ke, ko: strong, clean

sa, shi, su, se, so: sharp, soft

ta, chi, tsu, te, to: heavy, thick

na, ni, nu, ne, no: sticky

ha, hi, ju, he, ho: light, open

ma, mi, mu, me, mo: rich

ya, yi, yu, (ye), yo: cloudy, closed

ra, ri, ru, re, ro: fluid, smooth

(la, li, lu, le, lo)

wa, (wi), (wu), (we), wo: loud, open

(e) “Rhyming”

Rhyming in haiku is neither as prominent nor as important as in English poems. Its abuse could even make a haiku gimmicky and artificial but used well it can help create a sophisticated and dramatic haiku. Its position is not restricted to the ends but frequently found within the lines. In this sense haiku rhyme is more like refrain explained in the next section and perhaps should not be called rhyme at all in the sense used in English or Chinese poems.

n Yama mata yama yamazakura mata yamazakura

(Mountain after mountain, mountain cherry trees after mountain cherry trees = Awano Seiho)

n Ikikawari shinikawari shite utsu ta kana

(generation after generation cultivate these rice fields = Murakami Kijo)

n Chiru sakura umi aokereba umi e chiru

(Falling cherry flowers fall into the sea - that sea which is blue = Takaya Soshu)

n Koineko no koisuru neko de oshitohsu

(Cats in love will persist as cats in love = Nagata Koi)

n Ajisai ya ao ni kimarishi aki no ame

(Hydrangea has settled its colour to blue; autumn rain = Shiki)

(f) Refrain

n Yuki naran sayo no Nakayama yoru naran

(It must be snowing at Sayo no Nakayama, it must be night. = Hekigodo)

n Samukaro, kayukaro, hito ni aitakaro

(You must be cold, you must be itching and you must be wanting to see other human beings. = Shiki)

n Kono aki no uragareno yuku karenoyuku

(This autumn I am crossing the desolate fields and going across the desolate fields. = Kyoshi)

n Uragaeshi mata uragaeshi taiga haku

(Sweeping a big moth, it turns one side up and then the other side up. = Maeda Fura)

n Kanbotan sakishiburi shiburi keri

(Winter peonies, reluctant to flower, very reluctant to flower. = Hino Sojo)

n Monono me no hogure hogururu asane kana

(Buds are opening and opening; I am still in bed in the morning. = Matsumoto Takashi)

n Tsuki ichirin toko ichirin hikariau

(One moon, one frozen lake, shining at each other. = Hashimoto Takako)


Last but not least, some useful guidelines can be gleaned from the various teachings and advice given by three centuries of haiku masters and practitioners, from Basho to Kyoshi.

n Try to write a haiku only about what actually happens to you (i.e. avoid fictitious, or imaginary renderings).

n Try to write a haiku, only when you have been deeply moved, strongly inspired and poetically touched by the subject matter (i.e. do not “fake” poetic feelings).

n Try to write a haiku immediately after the haiku feeling has hit you and do not leave it for too long. Alterations and changes are an essential part of haiku-writing process but do not linger or elaborate. If it does not write easily, leave it and do something else.

n Try to reject clichés, hackneyed expressions and words, or even deep feelings if they have been used time and time again by countless haiku poets.

n Try not to use embellishment, or lay it on thick, even if you have hit on a brilliant idea. Be honest, simple, clear, straightforward and modest.

n Try not to “explain”. Haiku is not science and should need no explanation if it is good.

n Try not to “conceptualise”, “intellectualise”, “philosophise”, “moralise”, or “theorise”.

n Try not to “report”. “Express” it.

n Try not to be “clever”, gimmicky, over-witty, artificial, presumptuous, too precious, mysterious, esoteric. Just be “natural”.

n Try not to express your raw and subjective feelings such as being “happy”, “sad”, “lonely”, “glad” in so many words. Express them by presenting some concrete actions, objects etc. (e.g. Even coughing, I do all alone.) and let the concrete image speak for itself.

n Try to keep some detachment even in the most dire circumstances and preserve always a sense of humour. Haiku is not in the business to be cold or unkind but it is not about wallowing in raw sentiments in misery either. Always remember that haiku originated from haikai no renga (or, comic renga) and the sense of humour remains a prerequisite of the haiku spirit.

n Try not to explain the minutiae but the essentials and leave the rest to the readers’ imagination. If your haiku feeling is deep your haiku will be deep. If you are deep so much more will be your haiku. Good haiku comes from your whole being like a good singing voice from the singer’s whole body and from his mind and from his entire life.

* * * * *


(1) The crucial question is whether to speak in English in phrases of 5 or 7 English syllables would equally be easy and natural for a native speaker of English. This would challenge the validity of writing haiku in English by automatically and possibly uncritically employing 5-7-5 syllable format without any regard to the linguistic differences of the two languages. Efforts need to be made to find the right length of haiku in English as well as the number of lines, which would be most natural and satisfying for the native English to say or hear. The Japanese format should serve only as a basis or guideline for such an exercise. This is why the polemics over whether haiku in English should be of three lines or four lines sometimes sound like missing the point. Maybe the best guide would be Pound’s belief “in an ‘absolute rhythm’ …in poetry which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.” For some hints, see pp. 100 - 106, particularly p. 105 of The Haiku Handbook - How to Write, Share and Teach Haiku, William J. Higginson, Kodansha International, 1985.

(2) Classic Haiku - A Master’s Selection, Yuzuru Miura, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1991, p. 7

(3) op.cit., Yuzuru Miura, p. 7

(4) The original verse by Blake goes: -

To see a World in a Grain of Sand,

And Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And Eternity in an hour.

(Auguries of Innocence, William Blake 1757-1827)

In the

January 2010 issue :

World Haiku Festival 2010 in Nagasaki

Fri 09, Sat 10 & Sun 11 April + 3 Day Trip


Best Ten


Editor's Choice


by Atene Kawasaki

by Jerry Bolick