Poetry Explained

The History of Haiku in Japan

Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry that has become well-known worldwide for its simplicity, elegance, and ability to convey profound emotions and images in just a few words.

Tori Gates

Haiku is a traditional form of poetry that has been part of Japanese culture for centuries and is still popular today. The form is well-known for using short lines that contain 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively, and for focusing on seasonal imagery.

Definition of Haiku

Haiku is a type of Japanese poetry that traditionally consists of three lines. The first and third lines have five syllables, while the second has seven. Haiku typically focuses on nature and the seasons and often refers to a specific time of year. Haiku writing is known for its brevity, and the best haiku are said to evoke a sense of beauty, mystery, or surprise in just a few words.

Importance of Haiku in Japanese Culture

Haiku has a long and rich history in Japan and is considered one of the country’s most important cultural traditions. Haiku has been used in various contexts throughout Japanese history, from formal poetry contests to casual social gatherings. 

Haiku is often seen as a way to connect with nature and appreciate the beauty of the world around us. Many Japanese people also view haiku as a form of meditation or spiritual practice and use it to reflect on their experiences and emotions.

Origins of Haiku 

The origins of Haiku can be traced back to the tanka poetry of the Heian period (794-1185), a form of Japanese poetry that consists of 31 syllables arranged in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. The tanka was a popular form of poetry in Japan for centuries and was used to express a wide range of emotions, from love and desire to grief and longing.

The influence of Chinese poetry on Japanese culture also played a significant role in the development of Haiku. Chinese poetry, emphasizing nature and the natural world, served as a major inspiration for Japanese poets.

Cherry Blossoms
Nature, spirituality, and the seasons are common topics in haiku

During the medieval period in Japan, a new form of linked verse poetry called Haikai no renga emerged. Haikai no renga was a collaborative form of poetry in which multiple poets would take turns writing verses to create a long chain of linked poems. 

Haikai no renga allowed for greater experimentation with language and structure. Many of the elements of modern Haiku, such as the focus on nature and the use of seasonal imagery, can be traced back to this form of poetry.

Bashō and the Birth of Haiku

Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) is considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of Haiku. He was born in Iga-Ueno, a small town in central Japan, and spent much of his life traveling and writing poetry. Basho is famous for his contributions to Haiku and is often credited with refining the form and elevating it to a higher level of artistic expression.

Matsuo Basho statue
Matsuo Bashō is regarded as the most important haiku poet in Japanese history

Bashō’s contributions to Haiku include several key innovations. First, he emphasized the importance of kireji, or “cutting words,” which create a pause or break between the two parts of a Haiku. This technique allows for a greater sense of contrast and balance in the poem.

Bashō also placed a greater emphasis on the use of kigo, or seasonal words, in Haiku. By incorporating references to the natural world and the changing seasons, Basho believed that Haiku could capture the essence of a particular moment in time and convey a sense of transience and impermanence.

Examples of Bashō’s Haiku include:

The Old Pond 

The old pond

A frog jumps in—

The sound of water

In Kyoto

In Kyoto,

hearing the cuckoo,

I long for Kyoto.

These Haiku are characterized by their simplicity, economy of language, and focus on the natural world. Basho’s Haiku remain influential today and continue to inspire poets around the world.

Matsuo Bashō's Disciples
Bashō is also remembered for his many disciples who were influenced by his poetic style

Evolution of Haiku 

Haiku continued to evolve and change over time, especially during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). During this time, haiku became a popular form of poetry among the general public, and many poets began experimenting with the form, leading to the development of several schools of haiku.

One of the most significant schools was the Shomon school, which emphasized using simple language and vivid imagery to convey a sense of emotional depth and insight. The Teitoku school, on the other hand, focused on the use of elaborate language and intricate wordplay to create a more complex and layered form of haiku.

Tori Gates
While many haiku have modern influences today, many others are still inspired by traditional Japanese culture.

As Japan underwent modernization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, haiku also began to change. Many poets began experimenting with new forms and techniques, incorporating influences from Western poetry and literature. This led to the emergence of a more experimental and avant-garde style of haiku, characterized by its use of free verse, unconventional grammar and syntax, and abstract imagery.

Today, haiku continues to be a popular form of poetry in Japan and worldwide, with many poets continuing to explore new forms and techniques while remaining faithful to the traditional elements of the form.

Haiku in Contemporary Japan

Haiku remains a beloved and widely practiced form of poetry in modern Japanese culture. Many contemporary poets continue to explore new forms and techniques while also paying homage to the traditional elements of the form, such as the use of seasonal imagery and the importance of kireji and kigo.

Haiku has also gained popularity and influence worldwide, with many poets and enthusiasts from different cultures and languages experimenting with the form. In particular, the popularity of haiku has grown in English-speaking countries, with many poets and writers producing haiku in English that adhere to the traditional 5-7-5 syllable pattern.

Haiku competitions and festivals are also popular in Japan and other countries. These events provide opportunities for poets to showcase their work and compete against one another for prizes and recognition. The largest haiku competition in Japan is the NHK Haiku Masters, which attracts thousands of participants yearly.

In addition to traditional competitions, many haiku festivals also feature workshops, lectures, and readings by established haiku poets, providing opportunities for poets and enthusiasts to deepen their knowledge and appreciation of the form.


What is the structure of a haiku poem?

A traditional haiku poem consists of three lines, with the first and third lines containing five syllables and the second line containing seven.

What is the purpose of the cutting word (“kireji”) in haiku?

The cutting word is used to create a pause or break in the poem and is often used to shift the focus or change the poem’s meaning.

What is the significance of seasonal imagery (“kigo”) in haiku?

Seasonal imagery is used to convey a sense of time and place and evoke a particular season’s mood and atmosphere.

Can haiku be written in languages other than Japanese?

Yes, haiku can be written in any language as long as the poet adheres to the basic structure and principles of the form.

What is the appeal of haiku poetry?

Haiku poetry is known for its simplicity, elegance, and ability to capture the essence of a moment or experience in a few words. It provides a unique perspective on the natural world and offers a sense of insight and enlightenment to those who read and write it.

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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