The Art of Concision: A Look at Haiku

Richard Medhurst [Profile]

[2015.07.08] Read in: ESPAÑOL | العربية |

Counting to 17

Many English speakers first encounter the haiku in school, learning that it is a poem of 17 syllables, divided into lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. And Japanese people are also likely to immediately think of 5-7-5 on hearing the word “haiku.”

But an immediate visual difference is that while haiku are conventionally written in three lines in English, they appear as just one line in Japanese. This would originally have been written vertically (top to bottom), but is now commonly seen horizontally (left to right) as well.

As an example, below is a haiku said to have been written by a poet called Den Sutejo (1634–98) when she was just six years old. She describes how the prints left behind in the snow by the rectangular wooden footwear geta resemble the kanji for the number two (ニ).


Yuki no asa / ni no ji ni no ji no / geta no ato

Snowy morning—
clog prints look like
characters for two

Another difference comes in the way the 5-7-5 is counted. In Japanese haiku, rather than syllables, writers count the on (sounds), which is usually the same as tallying the number of kana.(*1) For example, the word “ha-i-ku” itself consists of three kana (は・い・く), or on, although it is pronounced with two syllables.

Seasonal Connections

A further basic feature is the kigo (season word). In Sutejo’s poem, it is the snow of winter. In the following haiku by Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902), the persimmon is a season word for autumn. Incidentally, Hōryūji is the name of a famous temple in Nara.


Kaki kueba / kane ga narunari / Hōryūji

I bite a persimmon and
a temple bell rings—

The convention of including season words is based on the poem’s development from earlier forms, but the extra depth their built-in associations provide has helped ensure that the words retain their place in the standard haiku.

A saijiki, or dictionary for kigo, divides them into five lists covering the four seasons and New Year. These are then further subdivided into lists for such areas as the animals, plants, and human activities related to each period.

Season Word Examples

Spring hinamatsuri (doll festival), uguisu (bush warbler), hibari (skylark), ume (plum blossoms), hana or sakura (cherry blossoms)
Summer niji (rainbow), fūrin (wind chimes), yukata (casual robes), kingyo (goldfish), himawari (sunflower)
Autumn meigetsu (harvest moon), inekari (rice harvest), sanma (saury), shika (deer), momiji (autumn leaves)
Winter shimo (frost), tsurara (icicles), tsuru (crane), kaki (oyster), mikan (mandarin)
New Year kadomatsu (gateway pines), otoshidama (gifts of money to children), hatsuyume (first dream), hatsumōde (first shrine visit), mochi (rice cakes)

A Poem of Two Halves

One more key feature is the juxtaposition of two elements. Traditionally a kireji or “cutting-word” is used to achieve this division. Words like ya, kana, and keri highlight the juxtaposition, but due to their subtle shades of meaning, different translators treat them in different ways. The most famous haiku of them all, by Matsuo Bashō (1644–94), includes the word ya.


Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto

Old pond—
a frog jumps in;
the sound of water

In some senses, ya is just verbal punctuation that doesn’t translate into any English word; here it is represented by a dash, but some translators have used ellipsis, a semicolon, or even nothing at all.

Leaving aside the question of the best way to translate kireji—for which there is no simple satisfactory answer—Bashō’s haiku is divided into two clear images or scenes. The still, serene pond is contrasted with the action and sound of the jumping frog. This kind of juxtaposition is essential to the classic haiku. Or take the following poem by Yosa Buson (1716–1784) in which yellow flowers are set against the evening sky.


Na no hana ya / tsuki wa higashi ni / hi wa nishi ni

Rapeseed blossoms—
the moon in the east and
the sun in the west

Breaking Free From the 5-7-5

Some artists are keen to set down and follow rules and conventions, while others like to break them. This is true in the haiku world too. So while the above features—a 5-7-5 structure, a season word, and juxtaposition through cutting-words—are the elements of standard haiku, they have all been variously challenged and ignored by innovators over the years.

The term “haiku” itself was only established in 1892 by Shiki, though earlier hokku poems by Bashō and others are similar enough that they are commonly referred to as haiku today. The hokku originated as the opening section of a longer poem before gradually taking on an independent life of its own.

Since the new term was introduced, any number of experimenters have pushed at the boundaries of haiku by writing them without cutting-words or season words. One common idea has it that a haiku without a season word is actually a senryū, the more broadly humorous 5-7-5 form that emerged in the eighteenth century. Yet this is to ignore the muki (seasonless) verses, which aim to maintain the haiku tone without the need for seasonal reference.

Even 5-7-5 is not immune. The format has traditionally allowed a little wiggle room—with jiamari (extra characters) and jitarazu (a character count that falls short) being common terms in the genre—and plenty of famous haiku are slightly irregular. But the following poem by Ozaki Hōsai (1885–1926), known for his rule-breaking free haiku, adds up to only 3-3-3. It’s important not to forget these kinds of outliers when considering haiku.


Seki o / shite mo / hitori

Even coughing,
I am

(Banner photo courtesy jasonkao73. Translations by the author.)

(*1) ^ Combinations, such as しゅ (shu) and ぎょ (gyo), are made up of two kana but only count as one for haiku purposes; っ (used to indicate a short pause) counts separately as one.

  • [2015.07.08]

Translator and editor, Received a master’s degree in modern and contemporary poetry from the University of Bristol in 2002. First came to Japan in the same year and taught English for three years in Chiba Prefecture. He has also lived in China and Korea. Worked in Imizu City Hall in Toyama Prefecture for five years until 2013, when he moved to Tokyo and started full-time translation. Joined in 2014.

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