How To Make a Japanese-Style Haiku

Recently my wife and I were talking with our daughter, “Princess”, about haiku poetry. Princess learns both Japanese and English so she is aware of haikus but didn’t really know how to make one. So we talked about the rules behind haiku.

A haiku (俳句) is a kind of short poem that started out as the opening lines of “linked-verse” poems called renga (連歌). However by the 16th century they became poems of their own, and were popularized by Matsuō Basho and Kobayashi Issa.

Normally when Westerners think of haiku, they think of poems with 5-7-5 syllables. This is true, but haikus also have traditional styles, techniques and rules to follow. You could ignore the rules, but your poem might have less impact. There are good English-language resources on haiku, but I felt like researching in Japanese for language-practice and “getting to the source”.

I found one particularly good webpage, written for young adults (easier for me to read ;-p ) that provided very helpful explanations. Here’s what I learned.

Haiku have a few things to note:

  • Syllables – As mentioned above, the syllables are usually 5-7-5. Sometimes you can have poems that are one syllable too many, or too few. These are called jiamari (字余り) and jitarazu (字足らず) respectively.
  • Seasonal words – Haiku almost always allude to a particular season using certain words. For example, plum blossoms can be mean early spring or end of winter, cherry blossoms for late spring, plover birds for winter, and so on. These seasonal words are called kigo (季語). Nowadays, it’s not strictly necessary to have them, but it’s still the most popular form. For Westerners, you can probably use seasonal words that match your culture instead like lemonade for summer, Christmas trees for winter, etc.
  • Hanging ending – Many haiku have a kind of “hanging” ending for extra effect. You’re leaving it open to the reader, in other words. Japanese haiku use kireji (切れ字) or certain punctuation words to do this, but they usually don’t exist in English. But you can still make the same effect in English though without them. You just have to be more creative.

Also, as for composing haiku, the website had some great advice. Imagine a story like so:

Yesterday, I went to the park with my friends. It was a very sunny day. I saw lots of people in the park playing with their dog, cooking barbecue, and throwing frisbees. We stayed until sunset and then went home.

Now here’s another version:

It was a sunny day, when the man went to the park with the sounds of people playing with their dogs and throwing frisbees. The smell of barbecue wafted in the breeze. By sunset it was time to go home.

And finally:

Wafting in the breeze,
Warm charcoal and barbecue;
A mid-summer’s day.

The first version is something you might read in a journal or blog. The second version is more like a novel, and the last version of the same story is poetic. I wrote these in a hurry, so they’re terrible, but it shows how to express the same story in different ways.

This is a good exercise for writing haiku too, I think. I’ve been trying it lately. 🙂

So anyhow, that’s some tips on writing haiku in a more Japanese-style. Good luck and happy writing!


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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