Photo:すしぱく on Pakutaso

What is a Japanese Haiku and How to Write One

If you grew up in the West, you’ve probably heard about haiku. This poetic form is inseparable from the image of Japanese culture, but writing a haiku is not too common. I remember once reading a book of different poetic forms describing the haiku as, and I’m paraphrasing here, a fun-experimental poetic form not used very often or seriously outside of Japan. That seemed like a casual way to toss haiku out as a valid poetic expression just made me more interested in how to write them. I knew that there was a 5-7-5 syllable structure, but that was all I knew.

Last year, I joined a Kukai (句会), a kind of club that gathers once or twice a month to share haiku the members have written. Via this Kukai, I’ve learned the basics of how to write haiku in Japanese. There are three main elements that make up a haiku:

1. 季語 - Seasonal Words

My Beginner’s Seasonal Dictionary

A Kigo (季語) is a word that indicates which season the haiku was written in and they can also hold deeper meanings. These deeper meanings can help convey a meaning that cannot be expressed easily in only a few syllables or words. There are hundreds of words for spring, summer, fall, and winter (also New Years), and each season is further subdivided into a beginning, middle, and end. These unique words, uncommon in daily speech, are recorded and arranged in seasonal word dictionaries called Saijiki (歳時記).

Traditionally Kigo were recorded in these volumes, but thanks to the internet there are now online databases with thousands of entries. These entries can help one find a seasonal word that conveys the emotion and meaning a poet wishes to express in their haiku. The Kigo is the HEART of the haiku and may be the most important of these three elements. It’s unfortunate that English doesn’t really have these seasonal words (at least to the extent of Japanese), but they are crucial for writing a good haiku. Oh, and only one Kigo per poem (I’ve made the mistake of putting two kigo in one haiku). Here are some examples of Kigo:

Spring : 鳥の巣、山吹、木の芽、林檎の花、海苔

Summer : 初夏、暑し、短夜、虹、梅雨

Fall : 文月、秋の暮、秋深し、天の川、青北風

Winter : 小春、悴む、霜、吹雪、山眠る

2. 語数 - Syllable Count

Photo by yuukokukirei on Wikimedia Commons.

This element is the most famous outside of Japan possibly because this is the simplest to reproduce in English. There are three lines in a haiku, the first line has five syllables, the second has seven syllables, and the third has five syllables. The total syllable number is 17. Incidentally, not all haiku follow the 5-7-5 format as there are some historical examples where the structure was 8-7-5. Nowadays the final syllable count is always 17 and the 5-7-5 structure is always preserved. When counting syllables, the small 「ゃ」,「ゅ」,「ょ」, and「っ」characters are not counted while full-size characters are counted.

3. 切れる - End Form

Photo by Unknown author on Wikimedia Commons.

There are three types of end forms, the way one ends a line of a haiku:

「かな」(kana) - This end form is added to the last line of the haiku and indicates that the writer is wondering about something. Here’s an example:

さまざまの事おもひ出す桜かな (松尾芭蕉)

「や」(ya) - This ending (usually on the first line) indicates a poet listing/comparing different things, like in the example below:

菜の花や月は東に日は西に (与謝蕪村)

「けり」(keri) - The 「けり」form can be made by taking the verb stem and adding 「(に)けり」(the 「に」here is optional depending on the verb class) to the end of a verb. This form particularly brings to mind the past as its reminiscent forms used in Heian poetry. Here’s an example:

作り滝止み照明の残りけり (凡茶)

Interestingly, there are several other end forms used in Japanese poetry that are not always used in haiku. For example, in Tanka (短歌), poems of the poem 5-7-5-7-7, there’s 「し」an end form of a verb (ie 入れし) that indicate the past tense.

Now, having used these elements, you’ve written five haiku and you’re ready to go to the Kukai, but what happens at a haiku gathering? There are four basic things that happen at a Kukai in the following order:

1. 清記 - Seiki (Copying) - Each member hands in a sheet with a copy of their poems and hands this to the group organizer. Each sheet is given a number, and passed person to person. Each member writes every other members haiku on a separate "master-sheet" of paper.

2. 選句 - Senku (Selection) - When everyone has copied all the different haiku, they select their personal favorites.

3. 被講 - Hiko (Reading) - The group leader reads everyone’s haiku and makes comments and suggestions.

4. 感想 - Kanso (Discussing the Best Haiku) - In turns, every member talks about their favorite haiku from that day and their impressions. 

Here’s a haiku I wrote for a kukai:

晩春の Ba-n-shu-n-no

天道虫に Te-n-to-u-mu-shi-ni

噛み付きた Ka-mi-tsu-i-ta

"I got bit by a ladybug at the end of spring."

This haiku...isn’t great, but its a start. Writing a wonderful haiku will take time, practice, and collaboration or at least that's the impression I got. Poetry is the medium of highest expression and beauty of a language, and writing a good poem expresses that love of the language. For those who love the Japanese language, give writing a haiku in Japanese a try. There are many local Haiku Gathering clubs in Japan, so check with your local community centers and city halls for meeting times. There are also many Tanka clubs too, and Tanka are way simpler than haiku (no kigo, freer end forms, more syllables to work with) and are also fun to write. Below are some links that may aide you on your Haiku-poetic journey:

Site on How to Write Haiku

Good Kigo Website

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