What is a Japanese Haiku?


Haiku is a Japanese verse form consisting of three short lines. The first and last lines of the haiku consist of five morae or syllables while the second line is made up of seven morae. The haiku generally has a natural theme, in many cases the focus is on the season. In a way the poem ends as it started with five beats. The traditional Japanese haiku is printed in a vertical line with an emphasis on natural or seasonal themes (kigo) and a cutting word (kireji). On the other hand the haiku as it appears in English is always in three lines and may deal with any topic for its subject.

What are the special characteristics of the Haiku?

  • As opposed to the English meter in verse, Japanese verse makes use of sound units known as moras or “on”. A typical haiku is made up of seventeen on, with the first phrase having five on, the second having seven on and the third phrase consisting of five on.
  • Haiku can describe almost anything but they are seldom complex. The stress is on a main idea that predominantly appeals to the senses. Haiku has a special word called the kigo which has reference to the season. The obvious season words may be cherry blossoms that would indicate the season of spring, snow and ice would be indicative of winter, clouds may suggest rain, and so on. But the kigo may not be always obvious and the discerning reader has to sense the meaning by the poet’s clever use of words.
  • The kireji is the cutting word in the Japanese haiku which is somewhat similar to the caesura used in western classical poetry. The kireji may be used anywhere in the verse and it may function to cut a particular stream of though briefly. Depending on its position, it may suggest a parallel between the phrases of the verse or when appearing in the last line, it may provide a befitting ending to the theme of the haiku.


What is the history of the Haiku?

Haiku was originally known as hokku but later during the later part of the 19th century, Masaoka Shiki, a Japanese writer named it haiku. Basho(1644-94) was a famed Samurai Haiku poet who learned to write haikus during his service to a local lord who was also a writer. Basho used a pen name Sobo for his poems. Basho traveled widely throughout Japan and developed the haiku form. An example of Basho’s famed haiku would be‘Old Pond’:

“old pond . . .

a frog leaps in

water’s sound

How do poets in the west write Haiku?

Poets writing haiku in the west are flexible about the traditional Japanese syllable and lines. The writers in English focus more on the condensed form and preciseness used in haiku. Haiku may be the shortest poetic form originated so far in the world. Haiku is generally difficult to write as due to its brevity, the poet has to convey his spiritual understanding of nature in a brief and concise manner. All the same with a general understanding of the form and practice anyone can learn to write the haiku.


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