Waka ~ Japanese Poetry


If you’re like me and have read a lot of books, essays, blogs, etc on haiku and still find yourself confused about the interchangeability of the terms Waka and Tanka, then this post is for you. While I’m at it, I’ll also discuss other types of Japanese poetry.

Waka (literally “Japanese Poem”) originally encompassed a number of differing forms, principally tanka (“short poem”) and chōka (“long poem”), but also including bussokusekika (“Buddha Footprint poem)sedōka (“memorized poem”) and katauta (“poem fragment”). These last three forms, however, fell into disuse at the beginning of the Heian period, and chōka vanished soon afterwards. Thus, the term waka came in time to refer only to tanka.

Name Form Description
Katauta 5-7-7 One half of an exchange of two poems; the shortest type of waka
Chōka 5-7-5-7-5-7…5-7-7 Repetition of 5 and 7 on phrases, with a last phrase containing 7 on. Mainly composed to commemorate public events, and often followed by a hanka or envoi.
Numerous chōka appear prominently in the Man’yōshū, but only 5 in the Kokinshū.
Tanka 5-7-5-7-7 The most widely-composed type of waka throughout history
Sedōka 5-7-7-5-7-7 Composed of two sets of 5-7-7 (similar to two katauta). Frequently in the form of mondōka (“dialogue poem”?) or an exchange between lovers
Bussokusekika 5-7-5-7-7-7 A tanka with an extra phrase of 7 on added to the end; 21 of these “Buddha Footprint” poems are inscribed on a monument at Nara, Japan.

It is also interesting to note that before the introduction of kanji from China, the Japanese had no writing system. At first, Chinese characters were used in Japanese syntactical formats, and the result was sentences that look like Chinese but were read phonetically as Japanese. Chinese characters were further adapted, creating what is known as man’yōgana, the earliest form of kana, or syllabic writing. So, in some of the older Japanese haiku, some poets (such as Bashō, Buson, & Issa) used Chinese characters in lieu of their Japanese counterparts to add more subtleties and, perhaps double-meanings or cultural references.

Kanshi literally means “Han poetry” and it is the Japanese term for Chinese poetry in general as well as the poetry written in Chinese by Japanese poets. Kanshi from the early Heian period exists in the Kaifūsō anthology, compiled in 751.

Waka (and it’s forms) is described above.

Renga (collaborative poetry) is a genre of Japanese collaborative poetry. A renga consists of at least two ku or stanzas. The opening stanza of the renga, called the hokku, became the basis for the modern haiku form of poetry.

Renku (“linked verses”), or haikai no renga (“comic linked verse”), is a Japanese form of popular collaborative linked verse poetry. It is a development of the older Japanese poetic tradition of ushin renga, or orthodox collaborative linked verse. At renku gatherings participating poets take turns providing alternating verses of 17 and 14 morae. Initially haikai no renga distinguished itself through vulgarity and coarseness of wit, before growing into a legitimate artistic tradition, and eventually giving birth to the haiku form of Japanese poetry. The term renku gained currency after 1904, when Kyoshi Takahama started to use it.

Utaawase (poetry contests or waka matches) are a distinctive feature of the Japanese literary landscape from the Heian period. Significant to the development of Japanese poetics, the origin of group composition such as renga, and a stimulus to approaching waka as a unified sequence and not only as individual units, the lasting importance of the poetic output of these occasions may be measured also from their contribution to the imperial anthologies: 92 poems of the Kokinshū and 373 of the Shin Kokinshū were drawn from utaawase.

And, of course, Haiku.

Thank you for reading.


Masaoka Shiki ~ Selected Haiku


Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) was a Meiji era writer and poet. During his early life, the old forms of poetry, such as Haiku and Haikai, were waning due to incongruity with the Meiji period and there were no great living masters to help keep the traditions alive. It was Shiki, through his writings and enthusiasm, who was responsible for rekindling the public’s interest.

In the coolness
of the empty sixth-month sky…
the cuckoo’s cry.

the tree cut,
dawn breaks early
at my little window

scatter layer
by layer, eight-layered
cherry blossoms!

at the full moon’s
rising, the silver-plumed
reeds tremble

entangled with
the scattering cherry blossoms—
the wings of birds!

wheat sowing—
the mulberry trees
lift bunched branches

in the coolness
gods and Buddhas
dwell as neighbors

I turn my back
on Buddha and face
the cool moon

fanning out its tail
in the spring breeze,
see—a peacock!


rice reaping—
no smoke rising from
the cremation ground today
old garden—she empties
a hot-water bottle
under the moon
spring rain:
browsing under an umbrella
at the picture-book store

Kobayashi Issa ~ Selected Haiku


Kobayahi Issa (1763-1828) was a well-educated Haikai poet and renowned for his haiku. He suffered much in his life and became a lay Pure Land Buddhist monk. He is known for his use of the common tongue and slang, as well as composing very intellectual haiku. Issa is viewed more as a common everyman (though classically trained and educated in Edo) more so than Bashō and Buson. His popularity owes much to veneration by Masaoka Shiki.

Hey! Don’t swat:
the fly wrings his hands
on bended knees.

Don’t kill that poor fly!
He cowers, wringing
his hands for mercy

A man, just one —
also a fly, just one —
in the huge drawing room.

I’m going out,
flies, so relax,
make love.

Now we are leaving,
the butterflies can make love
to their hearts’ desire

From the bough
floating downriver,
insect song.

Silverfish escaping –
fathers, children

The cricket
proudly pricks up its whiskers
and sings

I’m going to roll over,
so please move,

grasshopper –
do not trample to pieces
the pearls of bright dew

These sea slugs,
they just don’t seem

Even with insects–
some can sing,
some can’t.

House burnt down –
dance in embers

For you too, my fleas,
the night passes so slowly.
But you won’t be lonely.

So many flea bites,
but on her lovely young skin
they are beautiful

issa… you have survived to feed
this year’s mosquitoes

What good luck!
Bitten by
this year’s mosquitoes too.

A giant firefly:
that way, this way, that way, this –
and it passes by.

the first firefly…
but he got away and i…
air in my fingers

softly folded fawn
shivers,shaking off the butterfly…
and sleeps again

The distant mountains
are reflected in the eye
of the dragonfly

O flea! whatever you do,
don’t jump;
that way is the river.

Under my house
an inchworm
measuring the joists.

The distant mountains
are reflected in the eye
of the dragonfly

you are just too late
to help me with the lamp… my moth

The toad! It looks like
it could belch
a cloud.

gazing up at the mountain –
a toad

Frog and I,
to eyeball.

The old dog listens
intently, as if to the
worksongs of the worms

After a long nap,
the cat yawns, rises, and goes out
looking for love

Goes out,
comes back–
the loves of a cat.

The winter fly
I caught and finally freed
the cat quickly ate

At the cat mewing,
She made faces and kept on
Bouncing the ball.

The spring rain;
a little girl teaches
the cat to dance.

The kitten
Holds down the leaf,
For a moment

Despite the morning frost –
a child
selling flowers

The season’s first melon
clutched in its arms –
the child sleeps

Heat shimmers –
clinging to my eyes
is that smiling face

The mother eats
the bitter parts –
mountain persimmons

Counting flea bites
while she nurses
her baby

The child lulled to sleep,
she washes its clothes –
summer moon

She’s put the child to sleep
And now she washes clothes
Under the summer moon.

Washing the saucepans –
The moon glows on her hands
in the shallow river.

First kimono –
may you quickly grow to
a naughty age

Garden butterfly –
as the baby crawls, it flies
crawls close, flies on

Today too!
today too! Kites
caught by the nettle tree

The toddler –
as he laughs
autumn evening

“Give me
that harvest moon”
cries the child

Exhausted by
the crowd of children –
a sparrow

The young sparrows
return into Jizo’s sleeve
for sanctuary

An exhausted sparrow
in the midst
of a crowd of children.

Young sparrows get out of the way!
get out of the way!
A great horse is coming!

From the Great Buddha’s
great nose, a swallow comes
gliding out

The woodpecker —
Still drilling
As the sun goes down.

Shielding an infant
from the autumn wind –
a scarecrow

Spring rain –
a child teaches its cat
to dance

Asked his age
he holds up one hand –
summer clothes

A good world –
The dewdrops fall
By Ones, by twos.

The dragonfly,
Dressed in red,
Off to the festival.

Ducks bobbing on the water –
Are they also, tonight,
Hoping to get lucky?

The evening clears —
On the pale sky
Row on row of autumn mountains.

Windy fall —
These are the scarlet flowers
She liked to pick.

Pissing in the snow
Outside my door –
It makes a very straight hole.

Hey, sparrow!
Out of the way,
Horse is coming.

One human being,
One fly,
In a large room.

Flopped on the fan,
The big cat

In my deserted home village
The old cherry tree
Now in bloom.

Spring rain —
A thrown-away letter
Windblown in the grove.

A night boat
Sails away
Illuminated by a wildfire.

Don’t know about the people
But all the scarecrows
Are crooked

In spring rain
A pretty girl

Face of the spring moon —
About twelve years old,
I’d say.

The spring day
In the pools.

Visiting the graves,
The old dog
Leads the way.

From the end of the nose
Of the Buddha on the moor
Hang icicles.

Even considered
In the most favorable light
He looks cold.

Not yet become a Buddha,
This ancient pine tree,

Deer licking
First frost
From each other’s coats.

I’m here —
the snow falling.

Moon, plum blossoms,
this, that,
and the day goes.

Wild goose, wild goose,
At what age
Did you make your first journey?

One bath
after another –
how stupid!

her row veering off,
the peasant woman plants
toward her crying child

Once in the box
every one of them is equal –
the chess pieces

Sprawled like an X –
how carefree,
how lonely

My empty face,
by lightning

all creeping things –
the bell of transience.

What a misty day,
The angels above must be bored
Even unto death.

A hazy day —
Even the gods
Must feel listless.

A woman dozing —
The breath from her nostrils
Stirs a cool breeze.

In the beggar’s tin
a few thin copper coins
and this evening rain

Stillness –
clouds peak
in the lake.

By lightning,
I creak
across the bridge.

A faint yellow rose
almost hidden in deep grass
and then it moves.

Mother, I weep
for you as I watch the sea
each time I watch the sea

From that woman
on the beach, dusk pours out
across the evening waves

In my hidden house,
no teeth left in the mouth,
but good luck abounds

Just to say the word
home, that one word alone,
so pleasantly cool

Napped half the day;
no one
punished me!

That gorgeous kite
from the beggar’s shack.

My dear old village,
pierces like a thorn
every memory of home

My old home –
wherever I touch,

Back gate opens
itself –
how long the day.

Buddha Law,
in leaf dew
plumes of pampas grass –
the helpless tremblings
of a lonely heart

What’s the lord’s vast wealth
to me, his millions and more?
Dew on trembling grass

A world of dew,
and within every dewdrop
a world of struggle

This world of dew
is only a world of dew –
and yet
*written after the death of one of his children

A world of grief and pain:
Flowers bloom;
Even then …

We humans–
squirming around
among the blossoming flowers.

In this world
we walk on the roof of hell,
gazing at flowers.

In the midst of this world
we stroll along the roof of hell
gawking at flowers

blooming lotuses
in this world…

Just simply alive,
Both of us, I
And the poppy.

Early spring –
stream flows
toward my door

In spring rain
A pretty girl

Face of the spring moon —
About twelve years old,
I’d say.

The spring day
In the pools.

The tree will be cut
Not knowing the bird
Makes a nest

As the great old trees
are marked for felling, the birds
build their new spring nests

Seeming as though
this must be the last of it —
so much spring snow!

A day of spring —
wherever any water is,
in darkness lingering.

Plum blossoms:
My spring
Is an ecstacy.

Thus spring begins: old
stupidities repeated,
new errs invented

With this rising bath-mist
deep in a moonlit night,
spring finally begins.

This year on, forever,
it’s all gravy for me now –
now spring arrives

My spring is just this:
a single bamboo shoot,
a willow branch

O owl!
make some other face.
This is spring rain.

Moist spring moon –
raise a finger
and it drips.

In my old home
which I forsook, the cherries
are in bloom.

Blossoms at night,
and the faces of people
moved by music.

in the shadow of the cherry blossom
complete strangers
there are none…

A sheet of rain.
Only one man remains among
cherry blossom shadows

A flowering plum
and a nightingale’s love song
he remains alone

A world of trials,
and if the cherry blossoms,
it simply blossoms

ours is a world of suffering
even if cherry-flowers bloom

The blossoming plum!
Today all the fires of hell
remain empty

Moon, plum blossoms,
this, that,
and the day goes.

Not very anxious
to bloom,
my plum tree

New Year’s Day–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

I am envious
Of him who is being scolded:
The end of the year.

The new year arrived
in utter simplicity –
and a deep blue sky

snow melts
and the village floods
with children

The snow having melted,
the village
is full of children.

People working fields,
from my deepest heart, I bow.
Now a little nap.

My noontime nap
disrupted by voices singing
rice-planting songs

Before I arrived,
who were the people living here?
Only violets remain.

why did the pink break,
oh why did it break?

How comfortable
my summer cotton robe
when drenched with sweat

Summer night –
even the stars
are whispering to each other.

A day of haze;
the great room
is deserted and still.

“The peony was as big as this,”
Says the little girl
Opening her arms.

The peony
Made me measure it
With my fan.

the peony
it had to be measured
with a fan

Summer shower –
naked horse
naked rider.

on a naked horse
in pouring rain!

A sudden shower falls —
and naked I am riding
on a naked horse.

the young girl
blows her nose
in the evening glory

Cool breeze,
in a grass-blade.

Heat waves –
his smile still
before me.

Step by step
up summer mountain –
suddenly the sea.

The holes in the wall
play the flute
this autumn evening.

O autumn winds,
tell me where I’m bound, to which
particular hell

Before this autumn wind
even the shadows of mountains
shudder and tremble

The evening clears —
On the pale sky
Row on row of autumn mountains.

Autumn wind –
mountain’s shadow

the puppy
completely unaware that
autumn has come

The puppy that knows not
that autumn has come
is a Buddha

Windy fall —
These are the scarlet flowers
She liked to pick.

Cries of wild geese,
spread about me.

Wild geese murmuring–
are they spreading
rumors about me?

Passing wild geese,
lightening night
mountains of Shinano.

Dawn – fog
of Mt. Asama spreads
on my table.

Wild geese, homing
once more through smoke
of Mt. Asama

The buddha on the moor;
From the end of his nose
Hangs an icicle.

The dogs
kindly get out of the way,
in the snowy road.

The puppy too
they pelt with snowballs
till he scampers off!

Just beyond the gate,
a neat yellow hole
someone pissed in the snow

The winter season;
a young harlot
scraping the soot from a saucepan.

Winter seclusion;
listening, that evening,
to rain in the mountains.

Give me a homeland,
and a passionate woman,
and a winter alone

Just by being,
I’m here –
in the snow-fall.

Gratitude for gifts,
even snow on my bedspread
a gift from the Pure Land

Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.

Hailstones –
into the fire

Brilliant moon,
is it true that you too
must pass in a hurry

Like misty moonlight,
watery, bewildering
our temporal way

Here is Shinano
are famous moons, and buddhas,
and our good noodles

I wish she were here
to listen to my bitching
and enjoy this moon

What a moon –
if only she were here,
my bitter wife.

My grumbling wife,
if only she were here —
This moon tonight…

Under this bright moon
I sit like an old buddha
knees spread wide

In this mountain village,
shining in my soup bowl,
the bright moon arrives

The moon and the flowers,
forty-nine years,
walking around, wasting time.

Full moon:
my ramshackle hut
is what it is.

Bright moon,
welcome to my hut –
such as it is

Crescent moon–
bent to the shape
of the cold.

Great moon
woven in plum scent,
all mine.

onto Mt. Kiso,
the Milky Way.

Lost in bamboo
but when moon lights –
my house

Faint, over the moonlit
slope, a frozen
temple gong.

A lovely thing to see
through the paper window’s hole,
the Galaxy.

The vanity of men
they would like to retain
this passing winter moon

at the beauty spot
the cranes alight
on litter

Reed warblers
sing the great river

Cuckoo singing:
I have nothing special to do,
neither does the burweed.

Children imitating cormorants
are even more wonderful
than cormorants.

Even on a small island,
a man tilling the field,
a lark singing above it.

My old village lies
far beyond what we can see,
but there the lark is singing

When the wild turnip
burst into full blossom
a skylark sang

Singing skylark –
that narrow path
leads to the sea.

Ah, the sad expression
in the eyes of that caged bird –
envying the butterfly!

katatsuburi soro-soro nobore fuji no yama
Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.

O summer snail,
you climb but slowly, slowly
to the top of Fuji

inch by inch, climb
Mount Fuji!

o-tabisho wo waga mono-gao ya katatsuburi
imperial inn–
acting like he owns it
a snail

ashi moto e itsu kitarishi yo katatsuburi
Right at my feet —
and when did you get here,

at my feet
when did you get here?

yoigoshi no cha mizu akari ya katatsuburi
glimmer of tea water
left out overnight…
a snail

asayake ga yorokobashii ka katatsuburi
does the red dawn
delight you

Red morning sky,
Are you glad of it?

katatsuburi chô wa ikiseki sawagu nari
the butterfly in a mad

Like some of us
he looks very important –
this snail

The snail gets up
And goes to bed
With very little fuss

Snail – baring
to the moon

in moonlight
going bare-chested…

Yosa Buson ~ Selected Haiku

Yosa Buson, (1716-1784) a favorite of Masaoka Shiki, was the second most well-known hokku & renga poet of the Edo period. He was a fan of Matsuo Bashō, as well as a superb painter and lay monk. His style differs from that of Bashō in that he included scenes from his imagination into his work, whereas Bashō was renowned for observatory haiku.
The old man

The old man
cutting barley–
bent like a sickle.

White blossoms of the pear

White blossoms of the pear
and a woman in moonlight
reading a letter.

The willow leaves fallen

The willow leaves fallen,
the spring gone dry,
rocks here and there.

The spring sea rising

The spring sea rising
and falling, rising
and falling all day.

The winter river

The winter river;
down it come floating
flowers offered to Buddha.

Washing the hoe

Washing the hoe–
ripples on the water;
far off, wild ducks.

Early summer rain

Early summer rain–
houses facing the river,
two of them


fish the cormorants haven’t caught
swimming in the shallows.

Lighting one candle

Lighting one candle
with another candle–
spring evening.

He’s on the porch

He’s on the porch,
to escape the wife and kids–
how hot it is!

Before the white chrysanthemum

Before the white chrysanthemum
the scissors hesitate
a moment.


the sound of the bell
as it leaves the bell.

The behavior of the pigeon

The behavior of the pigeon
is beyond reproach,
but the mountain cuckoo?

Listening to the moon

Listening to the moon,
gazing at the croaking of frogs
in a field of ripe rice.

Blow of an ax

Blow of an ax,
pine scent,
the winter woods.

Evening wind

Evening wind:
water laps
the heron’s legs.

A bat flits

A bat flits
in moonlight
above the plum blossoms.

Harvest moon

Harvest moon–
called at his house,
he was digging potatoes.

Variations on ‘The short night

Below are eleven Buson haiku
beginning with the phrase
‘The short night–‘

The short night–
on the hairy caterpillar
beads of dew.

The short night–
washing in the river.

The short night–
bubbles of crab froth
among the river reeds.

The short night–
a broom thrown away
on the beach.

The short night–
the Oi River
has sunk two feet.

The short night–
on the outskirts of the village
a small shop opening.

The short night–
broken, in the shallows,
a crescent moon.

The short night–
the peony
has opened.

The short night–
waves beating in,
an abandoned fire.

The short night–
near the pillow
a screen turning silver.

The short night–
shallow footprints
on the beach at Yui.

Not quite dark yet

Not quite dark yet
and the stars shining
above the withered fields.

My arm for a pillow

My arm for a pillow,
I really like myself
under the hazy moon.

The end of spring

The end of spring–
the poet is brooding
about editors.

His Holiness the Abbot

His Holiness the Abbot
is shitting
in the withered fields.

Ploughing the land

Ploughing the land–
not even a bird singing
in the mountain’s shadow.

Calligraphy of geese

Calligraphy of geese
against the sky–
the moon seals it.

Buying leeks

Buying leeks
and walking home
under the bare trees.

Straw sandal half sunk

Straw sandal half sunk
in an old pond
in the sleety snow.

They end their flight

They end their flight
one by one—
crows at dusk.

Blown from the west

Blown from the west,
fallen leaves gather
in the east.

Old well

Old well,
a fish leaps–
dark sound.

Sparrow singing

Sparrow singing–
its tiny mouth

Matsuo Bashō ~ Selected Haiku


Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) Japanese poet-saint and a lay Zen monk. Some would argue, although not Masaoka Shiki, that he is the greatest master of Hokku and Renga to have ever lived. He is also my personal favorite.

Scarecrow in the hillock
Paddy field —
How unaware!  How useful!

Passing through the world
Indeed this is just
Sogi’s rain shelter.

A wild sea-
In the distance over Sado
The Milky Way.

The she cat –
Grown thin
From love and barley.

How wild the sea is,
and over Sado Island,
the River of Heaven

Morning and evening
Someone waits at Matsushima!
One-sided love.

Wrapping dumplings in
bamboo leaves, with one finger
she tidies her hair

On Buddha’s birthday
a spotted fawn is born –
just like that

On Buddha’s deathday,
wrinkled tough old hands pray –
the prayer beads’ sound

I like to wash,
the dust of this world
In the droplets of dew.

With dewdrops dripping,
I wish somehow I could wash
this perishing world

Won’t you come and see
loneliness? Just one leaf
from the kiri tree.

moonless night…
a powerful wind embraces
the ancient cedars

Behind Ise Shrine,
unseen, hidden by the fence,
Buddha enters nirvana

This ruined temple
should have its sad tale told only
by a clam digger

in my new clothing
i feel so different, i must
look like someone else

low tide morning…
the willow skirts are tailed
in stinking mud

A green willow,
dripping down into the mud,
at low tide.

a clear waterfall —
into the ripples
fall green pine-needles

overhanging pine…
adding its mite of needles
to the waterfall

The pine tree of Shiogoshi
Trickles all night long
Shiny drops of moonlight.

Culture’s beginnings:
rice-planting songs from the heart
of the country

Singing, planting rice,
village songs more lovely
than famous city poems

Spring air —
Woven moon
And plum scent.

Heated spring air
In tiny waves of an inch or two –
Above wintery grass.

Fresh spring!
The world is only Nine days old –
These fields and mountains!

A nameless hill
in the haze.

it is spring!
a hill without a name
in thin haze

Oh, these spring days!
A nameless little mountain,
wrapped in morning haze!

Spring too, very soon!
They are setting the scene for it —
plum tree and moon.

From all directions
Winds bring petals of cherry
Into the grebe lake.

Under the image of Buddha
All these spring flowers
Seem a little tiresome.

The leafless cherry,
Old as a toothless woman,
Blooms in flowers,
Mindful of its youth.

That great blue oak
indifferent to all blossoms
appears more noble

The oak tree stands
noble on the hill even in
cherry blossom time

Spring rain
conveyed under the trees
in drops.

Spring rain
Leaking through the roof,
Dripping from the wasps’ nest.

In this warm spring rain,
tiny leaves are sprouting
from the eggplant seed

The sun’s way:
hollyhocks turn toward it
through all the rains of May.

Spring departs.
Birds cry
Fishes’ eyes are filled with tears

No blossoms and no moon,
and he is drinking sake
all alone!

Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!

A little girl under a peach tree,
Whose blossoms fall into the entrails
Of the earth.

By the old temple,
peach blossoms;
a man treading rice.

Unknown spring —
Plum blossom
Behind the mirror.

With plum blossom scent,
this sudden sun emerges
along a mountain trail

Very brief:
Gleam of blossoms in the treetops
On a moonlit night.

From among the peach-trees
“Blooming everywhere,”
The first cherry blossoms.

A lovely spring night
suddenly vanished while we
viewed cherry blossoms

From every direction
cherry blossom petals blow
into Lake Biwa

Kannon’s* tiled temple
roof floats far away in clouds
of cherry blossoms
(Bodhisattva of Compassion)

From all these trees –
in salads, soups, everywhere –
cherry blossoms fall

Cedar umbrellas, off
to Mount Yoshimo for
the cherry blossoms.

On a journey,
Resting beneath the cherry blossoms,
I feel myself to be in a Noh play.

in the blossoms’ shade
as in the noh drama
a traveller sleeps

Clouds of cherry blossoms!
Is that temple bell in Ueno
or Asakusa?

The temple bell stops.
But the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.

all the more I wish to see
in those blossoms at dawn
the face of a god

Searching storehouse eaves,
rapt in plum blossom smells,
the mosquito hums

Bush clover in blossom waves
Without spilling
A drop of dew.

the moon still is
though it seems far from home
Suma in summer

Taking a nap,
Feet planted
Against a cool wall.

In morning dew,

Wet with morning dew
and splotched with mud, the melon
looks especially cool

The old pond:
a frog jumps in,-
the sound of water.

Frog pond —
A leaf falls in
Without a sound

The old pond;
the frog.

At the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water

Summer moon –
Clapping hands,
I herald dawn.

Mogami River, yanking
The burning sky
Into the sea.

Yellow rose petals
Thunder –
A waterfall.

Cold white azalea –
Lone nun
Under thatched roof.

Three months after we saw
Cherry blossoms together
I came to see the glorious
Twin trunks of the pine.

I felt quite at home,
As if it were mine sleeping lazily
In this house of fresh air.

June clouds,
At ease on
Arashiyama Peak.

Octopus traps –
summer’s moonspun dreams,
soon ended.

Summer in the world;
floating on the waves
of the lake.

in your summer-room…
garden and mountain going too
as we slowly walk

Ugoku ha mo
Naku osoroshiki
Natsu kodachi
Even leaves don’t move
Awesome is the
Summer grove

The summer’s grass!
all that’s left
of ancient warriors’ dreams.

Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers’
imperial dreams

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams of ancient warriors.

All the rains of June
it brings together, and it is swift —
the river Morgami.

Summer zashiki
Make move and enter
The mountain and the garden.

This hot day swept away
into the sea by the
Mogami River

A lightning gleam:
into darkness travels
a night heron’s scream.

Along the roadside,
blossoming wild roses
in my horse’s mouth

The farmer’s roadside
hedge provided lunch for
my tired horse

My horse
Clip-clopping over the fields–Oh ho!
I too am part of the picture!

All day in grey rain
hollyhocks follow the sun’s
invisible road

An ivy spray
Trained up over the wall
And a few bamboos
Inviting a tempest.

How many priests
How many morning glories
Have perished under the pine
Eternal as law?

along the mountain road
somehow it tugs at my heart—
a wild violet

Traveling this high
mountain trail, delighted
by violets

looking carefully,
a shepherds purse is blooming
under the fence

petal by petal
yellow mountain roses fall—
sound of rapids

Petals of the mountain rose
Fall now and then,
To the sound of the waterfall?

The petals tremble
on the yellow mountain rose –
roar of the rapids

Long conversations
beside blooming irises –
joys of life on the road

The lilies!
The stems, just as they are,
the flowers, just as they are.

The bee emerging
from deep within the peony
departs reluctantly

Slender, so slender
its stalk bends under dew —
little yellow flower

For those who proclaim
they’ve grown weary of children,
there are no flowers

Exhausted, I sought
a country inn, but found
wisteria in bloom

Morning glory trailing —
All day the gate-
bolt’s fastened.

Breakfast enjoyed
in the fine company of
morning glories

The morning glories
bloom, securing the gate
in the old fence

bush-clover flowers —
they sway but do not drop
their beads of dew

under harvest sun – stranger
To bird, butterfly.

without turning
into a butterfly, autumn deepens
for the worm

Deep into autumn
and this caterpillar
still not a butterfly

A caterpillar
this deep in fall
still not a butterfly

With every gust of wind,
the butterfly changes its place
on the willow.

On the white poppy,
a butterfly’s torn wing
is a keepsake

butterflies flit…
that is all, amid the field
of sunlight

butterflies flit
in a field of sunlight
that is all

Will you turn toward me?
I am lonely too,
This autumn evening.

As firmly cemented clam-shells
Fall apart in autumn,
So I must take to the road again,
Farewell, my friends.

Farewell, my old fan.
Having scribbled on it,
What could I do but tear it
At the end of summer?

kono aki wa nande
toshiyoru kumo ni tori
this autumn
as-for why grow old
cloud to bird

this autumn
why am I aging so?
to the clouds a bird

this autumn
as reason for growing old
a cloud and a bird

the whole family
all with white hair and canes
visiting graves

souls’ festival
today also there is smoke
from the crematory

lotus pond
as they are unplucked
Souls’ Festival

Buddha’s Death Day
from wrinkled praying hands
the rosaries’ sound

not to think of yourself
as someone who did not count —
Festival of the Souls

all night
autumn winds being heard
behind the mountains

so clear the sound
echoes to the Big Dipper
the fulling block

taken in my hand
it will vanish in hot tears
autumn frost

bright red
the pitiless sun
autumn winds

autumn wind
broken with sadness
his mulberry stick

autumn winds
in the sliding door’s opening
a sharp voice

autumn wind:
as thickets in fields are
Fuwa’s barriers

people no longer live
at the Fuwa Barrier
in a house with wooden eaves

weathered bones
just thinking of the wind
it pierces my body

in the world outside
is it harvesting time?
the grass of my hut

for one touched by monkey cries
how is it when a child’s abandoned
in autumn winds

speaking out
my lips are cold
in autumn wind

autumn wind
in Ise’s shrine cemetery
even more lonely

walking on and on
even through I fall down sick
in fields of clover

from this very day
erase the inscription with dew
on the bamboo hat

autumn colors
without a pot
of red-brown soup

turn this way!
I too feel lonely
late in autumn

Stone Mountain
whiter than the stones
autumn wind

borrowing sleep
from the scarecrow’s sleeves
midnight frost

I would like to use
that scarecrow’s tattered clothes
in this midnight frost

along this road
going with no one
autumn evening

autumn deepens
the man next door
how is he doing?

saying farewell to people
farewell being said to me brings
autumn in Kiso

I didn’t die!
the end of a journey
is autumn nightfall

autumn nears
my heart is drawn
to a four-mat room

autumn night
striking and making it crumble
our small talk

blowing stones
flying from the volcano Asama
autumn gale

chrysanthemum’s scent
in the garden a worn-out sandal
just the sole

rainy day
the world’s autumn closes
Boundary Town

banana plant in autumn storm
rain drips into tub
hearing the night

departing autumn
with hands spread open
chestnut burs

Kiso’s chestnuts
for a person of the floating world
a souvenir

Over the ruins of a shrine
a chestnut tree
still lifts its candles

I’ll take these back
for the city slickers –
sour chestnuts

The Chestnut by the eaves
In magnificent bloom
Passes unnoticed
By men of this world.

though autumn winds blow
it is still green
bur of the chestnut

The winds of fall
are blowing, yet how green
the chestnut burr.

also green
it should remain a thing
the pepper pod

at Nara
the fragrance of chrysanthemums
ancient Buddhas

drinking morning tea
the monk is peaceful
the chrysanthemum blooms

while growing thin
without a reason
the chrysanthemum bud

white chrysanthemum
catching in one’s eye
nary a speck of dust

flowers blooming
in the stones

autumn coolness
hand and hand paring away
eggplants — cucumbers

don’t imitate me
we are not two halves
of a muskmelon

ear of the pine tree
mushroom on a strange tree
with a leaf stuck to it

the village so old
there’s not a single house
without a persimmon tree

autumn begins
sea and sprouting rice fields
one green

failing health
chewing dried seaweed
my teeth grate on sand

grabbing at straws
the strength to bear
our parting

on this mountain
tell me of its sorrow
wild-yam digger

after the flowers
all there is left for my haiku
wisteria beans

The beginning of autumn;
The sea and fields,
All one same green.

In the bitter radish that
bites into me, I feel the
autumn wind

Will you turn toward me?
I am lonely, too,
this autumn evening.

Unknown to birds and butterflies
A flower blooms
The autumn sky

a strange flower
for birds and butterflies
the autumn sky

Autumn approaches
and the heart begins to dream
of four-tatami rooms

Wild boars and all
are blown along with it —
storm-wind of fall!

A autumn wind
More white
Than the rocks in the rocky mountain.

kono michi ya yuku hito nashi ni aki no kure
this road go
person nonexistent
with autumn’s evening

On this road
where nobody else travels
autumn nightfall

All along this road
not a single soul – only
autumn evening comes

Along this way,
no travellers.
Dusk in autumn.

My way –
no-one on the road
and it’s autumn, getting dark

The first day of the year:
thoughts come – and there is loneliness;
the autumn dusk is here.

Cold as it was
We felt secure sleeping together
In the same room.

Chilling autumn rains
curtain Mount Fuji, then make it
more beautiful to see

The winter storm
Hid in the bamboo grove
And quieted away.

Should I hold them in my hand,
They will disappear
In the warmth of my tears,
Icy strings of frost.

Glancing off the rocks
At Stony Pass.

Awake at night,
The lamp low,
The oil freezing.

Winter rain —
The field stubble
Has blackened.

Crossing long fields,
frozen in its saddle,
my shadow creeps by

Awakened at midnight
by the sound of the water jar
cracking from the ice

Water-drawing rites,
icy sound of monks’ getas
echo long and cold

On the cow shed
A hard winter rain;
Cock crowing.

The winter leeks
Have been washed white —
How cold it is!

Winter downpour –
even the monkey
needs a raincoat.

Winter solitude–
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.

I’m a wanderer
so let that be my name –
the first winter rain

Winter seclusion –
sitting propped against
the same worn post

On New Year’s Day
each thought a loneliness
as winter dusk descends

Along my journey
through this transitory world,
new year’s housecleaning

Year’s end, all
corners of this
floating world, swept.

This first fallen snow
is barely enough to bend
the jonquil leaves

The first snow
the leaves of the daffodil
bending together

The first snow,
Just enough to bend
The leaves of the daffodils.

Tethered horse;
in both stirrups.

First snow
On the half-finished bridge.

On the polished surface
Of the divine glass,
Chaste with flowers of snow.

The crescent lights
The misty ground.
Buckwheat flowers.

Come out to view
the truth of flowers blooming
in poverty

New Year’s first snow — ah —
just barely enough to tilt
the daffodil

Polished and polished
clean, in the holy mirror
snow flowers bloom

Watching for snow,
the boozers’ faces –
a flash of lightning

fragrant orchid—
into a butterfly’s wings
it breathes incense

Wake, butterfly –
It’s late, we’ve miles
To go together.

Butterfly –
Wings curve into
White poppy.

Heard, not seen,
the camellia poured rainwater
when it leaned

Misty rain;
Today is a happy day,
Although Mt. Fuji is unseen.

Even a wild boar
With all other things
Blew in this storm.

The wind from Mt. Fuji
I put it on the fan.
Here, the souvenir from Edo.

Tremble, oh my gravemound,
in time my cries will be
only this autumn wind

shaking the grave
my weeping voice
autumn wind

Sleep on horseback,
The far moon in a continuing dream,
Steam of roasting tea.

where’s the moon?
as the temple bell is —
sunk in the sea

The moon about to appear,
all present tonight
with their hands on their knees.

Black Cloudbank broken
Scatters in the night…Now see
Moon-lighted mountains!

Husking rice,
a child squints up
to view the moon.

a peasant’s child
husking rice, pauses
to look at the moon

The clouds come and go,
providing a rest for all
the moon viewers

Clouds come from time to time —
and bring to men a chance to rest
from looking at the moon.

All the fields hands
enjoy a noontime nap after
the harvest moon

Whore and monk, we sleep
under one roof together,
moon in a field of clover

Now I see her face,
the old woman, abandoned,
the moon her only companion

A cuckoo cries,
and through a thicket of bamboo
the late moon shines

This bright harvest moon
keeps me walking all night long
around the little pond

the moon:
I wandered around the pond
all night long

the setting moon
the thing that remains
four corners of his desk

In the moonlight a worm
drills through a chestnut

All my friends
viewing the moon –
an ugly bunch

Among moon gazers
at the ancient temple grounds
not one beautiful face

viewing the moon
no one at the party
has such a beautiful face

The moon is the guide,
Come this way to my house,
So says the host of a wayside inn.

occasional clouds
one gets a rest
from moon-viewing

hair shaved in a moon-shape
with their hands on their knees
in the early hours of night

buying a measure box
now I feel differently
about moon-viewing

sleeping in the temple
the serious-looking face
is moon-viewing

the full moon
seven story-songs of a woman
turning towards the sea

the farmer’s child
rests from husking rice
then sees the moon

famous moon!
circling the pond all night
even to the end

the moon so pure
a wandering monk carries it
across the sand

harvest moon
northland weather
uncertain skies

full autumn moon
to my gate comes rising
crested tide

thin from the Kiso trip
and still not yet recovered
the late harvest moon

blue seas
breaking waves smell of rice wine
tonight’s moon

Autumn full moon,
the tides slosh and foam
coming in

Mii Temple
knocking on the gate for a wish
today’s moon

your hermitage
the moon and chrysanthemums
plus an acre of rice fields

flower of the harvest moon?
it only looks that way
a cotton field

butt of the tree
see in the cut end
today’s moon

on a bare branch
a crow has settled
autumn dusk

A solitary
crow on a bare branch-
autumn evening

Kareeda ni
karasu no tomari keri
aki no kure
On dead branches
Crows remain perched
At autumn’s end.

The voices of plovers
Invite me to stare into the darkness
Of the Starlit Promontory.

Dark night –
Plover crying
For its nest.

Sparrow, spare
The horsefly
Dallying in flowers.

in blossoms
a horsefly plays… don’t eat it

In rape-field,

Sparrows in eves
Mice in ceiling –
Celestial music.

Baby mice in their nest
squeak in response
to the young sparrows

Where cuckoo
Vanishes –
An island.

higher than a skylark
resting in the sky
on a mountain pass

above the moor
not attached to anything
a skylark singing

though a skylark sings
beating inside
the pheasant’s sad cry

All the day long-
yet not long enough for the skylark,
singing, singing.

Do the tea-pickers also,
hidden in the bushes,
hear the hototogishu?

Skylark on moor —
Sweet song
Of non-attachment.

Over skylark’s song
Noh cry
Of Pheasant

resting higher
than a lark in the sky
a mountain pass

Even these long days
are not nearly long enough
for the skylarks to sing

By a singular stroke
Of luck, I saw a solitary hawk circling
Above the promontory of Irago.

Unknowingly he guided us
over pathless hills
with wisps of hay

My eyes following
until the bird was lost at sea
found a small island

A mountain pheasant cry
fills me with fond longing for
father and mother

The lightning flashes
And slashing through the darkness,
A night-heron’s screech.

O bush warblers!
Now you’ve shit all over
my rice cake on the porch

the sea darkens —
the voices of the wild ducks
are faintly white

Seas slowly darken
and the wild duck’s plaintive cry
grows faintly white

very exciting
yet after awhile so sad
cormorant fishing

a sick wild duck
falling down with the dark cold
to sleep overnight

cloud-parting friend!
temporarily this wild goose
must go away

With a warbler for
a soul, it sleeps peacefully,
this mountain willow

The warbler sings
among new shoots of bamboo
of coming old age

Delight, then sorrow,
aboard the cormorant
fishing boat

But for a woodpecker
tapping at a post, no sound
at all in the house

Even in Kyoto,
how I long for Kyoto
when the cuckoo sings

Lead my pony
across this wide moor to where
the cuckoo sings

The shallows –
a crane’s thighs splashed
in cool waves

A dragonfly, trying to –
oops, hang on to the upside
of a blade of grass

temple bell
also sounds like it is
cicada’s voice

forgetting sounds with its cry
by the fireplace

in the cow shed
mosquito’s voice darkens
lingering heat

bagworm’s place
it seems to be inside
the cherry blossoms

to hear their songs
come to my hut

spiders have a cry?
well, what is chirping
autumn’s wind?

secretly at night
a worm under the moon
bores into a chestnut

With what kind of voice
would the spider cry
in the autumn wind?

Firefly viewing –
Drunken steersman,
Drunken boat.

The dragonfly
Can’t quite land
On that blade of grass.

Dying cricket,
how he sings out
his life!

Gray hairs being plucked,
and from below my pillow
a cricket singing

Ungraciously, under
a great soldier’s empty helmet,
a cricket sings

how piteous!
beneath the soldiers helmet
chirps a cricket

a terrible sound –
the gilded helmet’s
trapped cricket

Yagate shinu
Keshiki wa miezu
Semi no koe
Cicadas singing —
No sign
Of dying soon.

soon to die
yet no sign of it
in the cidada’s chirp

Nothing in the cry
of cicadas suggests they
are about to die

Shizukasa ya
Iwa ni shimi-iru
Semi no koe
Calm and serene
The sound of a cicada
Penetrates the rock

piercing the rocks
cicada’s shrill

Lonely silence,
a single cicada’s cry
sinking into stone

How still it is!
Stinking into the stones,
the locusts’ trill.

Eaten alive by
lice and fleas — now the horse
beside my pillow pees

at my poor hovel
there’s one thing I can offer —
small mosquitoes

The usually hateful crow:
he, too — this morning,
on the snow!

Even that old horse
is something to see this
snow-covered morning

What luck!
The southern valley
Make snow fragrant.

Hello! Light the fire!
I’ll bring inside
a lovely bright ball of snow

to Kyoto
still half the sky to go—
snowy clouds

Only half the way I came
To the ancient capital,
And above my head
Clouds heavy with snow.

Crossing half the sky,
on my way to the capital,
big clouds promise snow

Not even a hat —
and cold rain falling on me?
Tut-tut! Think of that!

A cold rain starting
And no hat —

under my tree-roof
slanting lines of april rain
separate to drops

The banana tree
blown by winds pours raindrops
into the bucket

How admirable,
He who thinks not, “Life is fleeting,”
When he sees the lightning!

How very noble!
One who finds no satori
in the lightning-flash

Shake, oh grave!
The autumn wind
Is the voice of my wailing.

Ill on a journey,
all about the dreary fields
fly my broken dreams.


Sick on my journey,
only my dreams will wander
these desolate moors

A weathered skeleton
in windy fields of memory,
piercing like a knife

Thank you for reading, I hope you have enjoyed these masterful haiku.

Haikai no Renga & the 4 great Haiku poets


It doesn’t seem quite fair to only recognize four individuals in the entire history of Haiku, but these four men have earned their spots in the pantheon of Haikuism (In the case of Bashō, he actually was deified). Before we begin, however, I would like to introduce and define a new term: Haikai no renga (“comic linked verse”, as it was a game of humor and wit). It was also known as Renku (“linked verses”) and Renga (“collaborative poetry”).

Haikai (for short, which actually meant “sportive/playful”) was a popular genre of Japanese linked verse, which developed in the sixteenth century out of the earlier aristocratic renga (long 100, 1,000, or 10,000-verse collaborative poetry games). It often derived its effect from satire and puns, though under the influence of Matsuo Bashō, the tone of haikai no renga (which had adopted a 36-verse format called a kasen) became more serious. At Renku gatherings participating poets take turns providing alternating verses of 17 and 14 on/morae (plural of Mora; phonetic unit measuring syllable weight. For example, in the two-syllable word mōra, the ō is a long vowel and counts as two morae). The first verse of a Renku/Renga was called the Hokku (later, Haiku). In English, the standard Haiku syllable count is 17 (5-7-5). To branch into Renku/Renga, someone starts with a Hokku and another builds upon it by linking to it two lines of 7 syllables each, for a total of 14 (7-7). From that 7-7, another repeats those 2 lines and adds another three (5-7-5). So, 5-7-5 + 7-7, 7-7 + 5-7-5, 5-7-5 +7-7, etc. Other rules include that the seasons change with every new verse, the subject changes, it cannot tell a story, the autumn moon must be referenced twice, the spring rains 3 times, etc. Also, just for reference, a stand-alone poem of 5-7-5-7-7 is called a Tanka (waka).

A sample starter Hokku for Renku/Renga might be:

“Breathe in the cool air
for the night is so gorgeous.
the bright Autumn moon.”

The next participant would repeat those 3 lines and add 2 more lines of 7 syllables each, following the rules:

“Her hair flowing in the wind
a fox scurries through the brush.”

The next participant would repeat those 2 lines and add another 3 lines of 5-7-5. The chain would repeat, subjects & seasons would continually change.

Now, onto the Great Four…

#1: Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)

Born Matsuo Kinsaku, Bashō (banana tree) was the most famous poet during the Edo period in Japan, as well as a lay Zen monk. During his lifetime, Bashō was recognized for his works in the collaborative haikai no renga form; today, after centuries of commentary, he is recognized as the greatest master of haiku (then called hokku). Matsuo Bashō’s poetry is internationally renowned; and, in Japan, many of his poems are reproduced on monuments and traditional sites. Although Bashō is justifiably famous in the West for his hokku, he himself believed his best work lay in leading and participating in renku/renga (he was a famous Haikai master). He is quoted as saying, “Many of my followers can write hokku as well as I can. Where I show who I really am is in linking haikai verses.”

Hokku (as Haiku was known in Bashō’s time) is the first verse of the collaborative haikai or renku, but its position as the opening verse made it the most important, setting the tone for the whole composition. Even though hokku had sometimes appeared individually, they were always understood in the context of renku. Bashō’s school promoted standalone hokku by including many in their anthologies, thus giving birth to what is now called “haiku” (a term promoted much later by 19th century poet Masaoka Shiki). Bashō also used his hokku as torque points within his short prose sketches and longer travel diaries. This sub-genre of haikai is known as haibun (a combination of prose and haiku). His best-known work, Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Roads to the Interior, is counted as one of the classics of Japanese literature and has been translated into English extensively.

Bashō was deified by both the imperial government and Shinto religious headquarters one hundred years after his death because he raised the haikai genre from a playful game of wit to sublime poetry. He continues to be revered as a saint of poetry in Japan, and is the one name from classical Japanese literature that is familiar throughout the world.

#2: Yosa Buson (1716-1783)

Yosa Buson, born Yosa Taniguchi, was a Japanese poet and painter of the Edo period, and a lay Buddhist monk. Along with Matsuo Bashō and Kobayashi Issa, Buson is considered among the greatest poets of the Edo Period. Around the age of 20, Buson moved to Edo (now Tokyo) and learned poetry under the tutelage of the haikai master Hayano Hajin. After Hajin died, Buson moved to Shimōsa Province (modern-day Ibaraki Prefecture). Following in the footsteps of his idol, Matsuo Bashō, Buson traveled through the wilds of northern Honshū  that had been the inspiration for Bashō’s famous travel diary, Oku no Hosamichi (The Narrow Road to the Interior). He published his notes from the trip in 1744, marking the first time he published under the name Buson.

After traveling through various parts of Japan, Buson settled down in the city of Kyoto at the age of 42. It is around this time that he began to write under the name of Yosa, which he took from his mother’s birthplace. Buson married at the age of 45 and had one daughter, Kuno. From this point on, he remained in Kyoto, writing and teaching poetry at the Sumiya. In 1770, he assumed the haigō (haiku pen name) of Yahantei (Midnight Studio), which had been the pen name of his teacher Hajin. He found his distinct voice partly from association with two dissimilar poets, Tan Taigi and Kuroyanagi Shoha, both of whom helped him develop his personal style.

#3: Kobayashi Issa (1773-1828)

Kobayashi Issa was a Japanese poet and lay Pure-Land Buddhist monk known for his haiku poems and journals. He is better known as simply Issa, a pen name meaning Cup-of-tea (lit. “one [cup of] tea”). He is regarded as one of “the great four” haiku masters in Japan, along with Bashō, Buson and Shiki.

Issa wrote over 20,000 haiku, which have won him readers up to the present day. Though his works were popular, he suffered great monetary instability. Despite a multitude of personal trials, his poetry reflects a childlike simplicity, making liberal use of local dialects and conversational phrases, and ‘including many verses on plants and the lower creatures. Issa wrote 54 haiku on the snail, 15 on the toad, nearly 200 on frogs, about 230 on the firefly, more than 150 on the mosquito, 90 on flies, over 100 on fleas and nearly 90 on the cicada, making a total of about one thousand verses on such creatures’. By contrast, Bashō’s verses are comparatively few in number, about two thousand in all.

Reflecting the popularity and interest in Issa as man and poet, Japanese books on Issa outnumber those on Buson, and almost equal in number those on Bashō.

#4: Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

Masaoka Shiki, pen-name of Masaoka Noboru, was a Japanese poet, author, and literary critic in Meiji period Japan. Shiki is regarded as a major figure in the development of modern haiku poetry. Indeed, he was the man responsible for renaming Hokku. He also wrote on reform of tanka (short poem of 5-7-5-7-7) poetry.

Contemporary to Shiki was the idea that traditional Japanese poetic short forms, such as the haiku and tanka, were waning due to their incongruity in the modern Meiji period. Shiki himself, at times, expressed similar sentiments. There were no great living practitioners, although these forms of poetry retained some popularity.

Despite an atmosphere of decline, only a year or so after his 1883 arrival in Tokyo, Shiki began writing haiku. In 1892, the same year he dropped out of university, Shiki published a serialized work advocating haiku reform, Dassai Shooku Haiwa or “Talks on Haiku from the Otter’s Den”. A month after completion of this work, in November 1892, he was offered a position as haiku editor in the paper that had published it, “Nippon”, and maintained a close relationship with this journal throughout his life. In 1895 another serial was published in the same paper, “A Text on Haikai for Beginners”, Haikai Taiyō. These were followed by other serials: Meiji Nijūkunen no Haikukai or “The Haiku World of 1896” where he praised works by disciples Takahama Kyoshi and Kawahigashi Hekigotō, Haijin Buson or “The Haiku Poet Buson” (1896-1897) expressing Shiki’s idea of this 18th-century poet whom he identifies with his school of haiku, and Utayomi ni Atauru Sho or “Letters to a Tanka Poet” (1898) where he urged reform of the tanka poetry form.

Sample work of Bashō:

“Felling a tree 
and seeing the cut end –  
tonight’s moon

Sample work of Buson:

In pale moonlight
the wisteria’s scent
comes from far away

Sample work of Issa:

“In spring rain
A pretty girl

Sample work of Shiki:

“The tree cut,
dawn breaks early
at my little window”

*Note: If you’re wondering why these Haiku don’t follow the 5-7-5 rule, remember that these are not only translations of the original Japanese (which uses a different grammar system completely) but in Japanese, Haiku are written in a single vertical line of 17 on.

What is Haiku?


Haiku is an ancient Japanese form of short poetry. Originally it was called Hokku until renamed by 19th century Japanese writer, Masaoka Shiki (technically, it was called Haiku [a portmanteau of Haikai & Hokku] in the time of Kobayashi Issa {1763-1828} but Shiki is most famous for elevating the term). The plural of Haiku is Haiku. Traditionally, it is characterized by these three main qualities:

  • The essence of haiku is “cutting” (kiru). This is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (“cutting word”) between them, a kind of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colors the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related. In English, we have no such grammatical equivalent, so punctuation marks and such are used to create the aural pause.
  • Traditional haiku consist of 17 on (also known as mora/morae), in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5 on respectively in one vertical line. In English, we translate on as ‘syllable’ and have 3 lines of 5-7-5.
  • A kigo (seasonal word), usually drawn from a saijiki, an extensive but defined list of such words. In English, we do not have a saijiki (though I’ve seen a few lists online). Instead, we use words that allude to a particular season or directly reference it (snow is a winter reference, as is New Years, etc). These are known as kidai.

Modern Japanese haiku (gendai-haiku) are increasingly unlikely to follow the tradition of 17 on or to take nature as their subject, but the use of juxtaposition continues to be honored in both traditional and modern haiku.There is a common, although relatively recent, perception that the images juxtaposed must be directly observed everyday objects or occurrences. In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line while haiku in English often appear in three lines to parallel the three phrases of Japanese haiku (although there are alternative formats, such as a single horizontal line, circle, one word, or a 15 syllable two line ‘fixed form’ ).

Below is a Haiku written by American writer, Richard Wright –

5 syllables – “Whitecaps on the bay:”

7 syllables – “A broken signboard banging”

5 syllables – “In the April wind.”

Notice how the colon takes the place of a kireji. The seasonal reference, traditionally (at least in the days of Matsuo Bashō), is never in the middle (7 on/syllable) line and rhyming (whether unintentional or intentional) was considered bad form and frowned upon.

Now that we have a little background on traditional Japanese Haiku, let’s discuss English-language Haiku. A haiku in English is a short poem which uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition. It is a development of the Japanese haiku poetic form in the English language. As with Japanese haiku, the stock practices for composing haiku in English are near identical:

  • use of three lines of up to 17 syllables, traditionally in “5–7–5” form. (Japanese haiku are single vertical line poems).
  • allusion to nature or the seasons.
  • use of a caesura or kireji represented by punctuation, space, a line-break, or a grammatical break to compare two images implicitly.

Some English haiku poets do not adhere to the strict syllable count found in Japanese haiku, and the typical length of haiku appearing in the main English-language journals is 10–14 syllables (many have argued that, for English-language haiku to better mimic Japanese haiku, the syllable count should be around 10-12, as the standard. This would change the ‘5-7-5’ format and reinvent haiku in the West). These haiku poets are concerned with their haiku being expressed in one breath (there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that if you don’t want to be a purist) and the extent to which their haiku focus on “showing” as opposed to “telling”, i.e., describing rather than explaining. Haiku uses an economy of words to paint a multi-tiered painting, without “telling all”. As Matsuo Bashō put it: “The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.”

Personally, I stay true to the ‘original’ English version of the Japanese style of 5-7-5, kigo, and kireji. Not following these rules would render my Haiku as a Senryū or Zappai. More on that later. This was but a brief description for those unfamiliar with Haiku, to give a general idea. There is so much more to Haiku, much of it deeply rooted in Japanese culture and language (double meanings, cultural references, etc) that I will discuss in future posts. Thank you all for reading. I hope I was of some help.