About Haiku

In The Tales of the Ninja Coder, I occasionally post haiku. (I also post them a bit more often on my Twitter feed.) Most Americans think of haiku simply as “A poem having 3 lines, with syllable counts 5-7-5”. But classical Japanese haiku have two other important characteristics: a kigo and a kireji. There’s also some debate about just how many syllables an English haiku should really have.

(For the “tl;dr” version, you can skip down to the rules I’ll be using in my haiku.)


A kigo is a seasonal reference, such as “cherry blossoms” (which bloom for roughly a week in spring) or “cicada” (which chirp in the summertime) or “apples” (which ripen in autumn). There are entire lists of words that are used as standard seasonal references, in books called saijiki and kiyose that are basically the haiku poet’s equivalent of rhyming dictionaries or thesauruses.

You can simply refer to a season by name in a haiku, as in:

Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.

Notice how this haiku uses the word “wintry” instead of just plain “winter”; that’s okay. (It’s not the best haiku in the world for other reasons, but we’ll get to those later.)

The names of months, and even of certain major holidays, also work as kigo. For example:

The nights are still cold
like the icy white faces

Doll Festival, or Hina Matsuri, happens on March 3rd, and involves setting up many porcelain dolls that represent the Heian-era imperial court. Referencing Doll Festival in this haiku is as specific as mentioning Independence Day to an American reader or Halloween in nearly any English-speaking country, and certainly fixes the poem at a definite point in the seasons.

However, there are other kigo that are much subtler, less obvious in their connection to a given season. For example, the Moon is considered an autumn kigo. Sure, the Moon is visible all year round, but in autumn, the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, giving more hours of darkness in which one can clearly see the Moon. Also, in the climate of central Japan, the autumn is still warm enough for people to be outdoors, and the nights are often clear of clouds. (Winter may have even more hours of darkness, but people are more likely to be indoors, and hence not seeing the Moon, or the lunar view may be blocked by clouds.)

So a haiku that references the Moon is an autumn haiku. For example:

My love and I walk
in a quiet garden while
the Moon shows the way.

In Japanese-language haiku, one is only supposed to use the kigo that are listed in standard saijiki. Of course in an English-language haiku, it makes no sense to use the actual Japanese word; instead, we use the most direct translation possible (e.g., “cherry blossom” for sakura, or “frog” for kawaru). For my own part, I may occasionally use seasonal references which are clear and unambiguous:

Walking in the forest,
I drop the note she sent me
in fallen, brown leaves.

There’s no doubt when that poem is set, but there’s also no single word that you can point to and call the kigo. It’s the final three words as a group. This is probably legitimate: In Japanese, there are certain classical kigo that are actually phrases, like “momiji katsu chiru” (“leaves start(ing) to fall”). (And note that, as a seven-syllable phrase, “momiji katsu chiru” would have to occupy the poem’s entire second line).

However, this haiku is still not quite finished, because it has no kireji.


In Japanese, a kireji is a “cutting word” or a “cut marker”: a word or suffix that acts to break the flow of the poem, and divide it into two separate thoughts or images. Different kireji suggest different ways that the two parts of the poem can relate to each other. None of them are easy to translate into English, whose grammar is almost completely unlike Japanese’s, so the following English examples are only loose parallels.

Consider the differences in the English sentences:

Rain drips from leaves. I sigh.
Rain drips from leaves, and I sigh.
Rain drips from leaves while I sigh.
Rain drips from leaves, but I sigh.

Note the differences between the first two lines: The version that splits thoughts with a period suggests more distance between them, as if the correspondence between the rain and my emotion is a mere coincidence. The second one has much more of an implication that I’m sighing because of the rain.

In the third version, it’s possible that I was sighing before the rain even started, for some other reason entirely, and the rain simply makes a nice counterpoint to my already-existing emotions.

Then consider the last line. The use of “but” suggests that the rain is a positive thing, not a depressing one… and this is a common view among farmers and people who enjoy rain, instead of being depressed by it. (Consider “There Will Come Soft Rains“, or the triumphant attitude of the last few lines of Midnight Oil’s song “Blue Sky Mine”.)

This juxtaposition of two things (referred to as “toriawase” in Japanese poetic circles) is one of the main purposes of the kireji, and sits at the very heart of haiku. In an interview with Udo Kiyoko, President of Japan’s Gendai Haiku Kyōkai (“Modern Haiku Association”), she says of kireji (here translated as “cutting”):

So, though it is said that “cutting” is really omission, I think that “cutting” is at the same time the essential proposition of haiku.

And, if asked about what haiku is, there are a variety of aspects of haiku — that is, as a seasonal verse, or as a form of poetry consisting of “five-seven-five” — but the essence of haiku is “cutting,” in my opinion.

Kireji are too important to leave out of a haiku.

Kireji in English

There are 18 accepted kireji in Japanese, but they are all defined in terms of Japanese-language suffixes, verb forms, and other features of Japanese grammar. For example, it would be as if there were an English poetic form that specified that “the first and fourth lines of each stanza must begin with ‘a’ and ‘the’, in either order”. This rule would be impossible to translate into Japanese, which has no articles at all — there is no distinction between “a cat” and “the cat” in Japanese; you just say “cat” in all cases. (There are many other article-less languages, including Chinese, Hindi, Russian, Persian, and Latin.)

Similarly, the Japanese kireji rules can’t be directly translated into English (or any other language). Instead, we denote the kireji and its juxtaposition using the English language’s native tools for putting things side-by-side: punctuation such as the dash, the ellipsis, or the semicolon. There is also one kireji that almost exactly equals the English question mark, though it isn’t used very often. You can see it in this haiku by Issa:

Red sunrise
Don’t you think it’s delightful,

Note also that it’s okay for the kireji to be at the very end of the poem.

There are two other kireji that might be rendered using an exclamation point. One of them serves to intensify the mood of the piece. The other essentially directs the reader to reconsider an item with one’s full attention. It could be represented by using a colon, or a dash, but is also sometimes represented with an exclamation point. This kireji is the one used in Bashō’s famous “frog jumping into a pond” haiku, which could be rendered in any of the following ways:

Old pond —
a frog jumps in,
sound of water.
Old pond:
a frog jumps in,
sound of water.
An old pond!
A frog jumps in,
sound of water.

Of course, there’s no sense in just sticking a kireji into a poem if it only has a single image. (Some of the master poets have gotten away with it, effectively juxtaposing their poem with the rest of creation… but I am nowhere near that level.) My first two haiku in this article have, really, only one image apiece, in addition to having no kireji. (In fact, those two flaws are related.) To improve the first haiku (winter wind in leafless trees), here are a couple of possibilities that introduce contrasting ideas:

In winter forest,
angry winds shake bare branches.
When will snow begin?
In winter forest,
angry winds shake bare branches…
My fire seems so small.

By using a dash as a kireji in the “icy white faces” poem, and changing one word to increase the break between the ideas, we can split the poem’s single image into two:

The nights are still cold —
see the icy white faces

Now, the cold nights and the white faces are separate, yet parallel each other.

Going back to my “walking in moonlit garden” haiku (the third one in this article), it turns out to be very easy to add a kireji. The poem already consists of two images: my love and I in a garden, and the Moon shining down. The word “while” links them and blends them together, but by changing the punctuation (and adding a new syllable into the second line, to keep the syllable count), we can make a haiku with a proper kireji:

My love and I walk
in a warm, quiet garden —
the Moon shows the way.

As for the fourth haiku, the problem is that the two images are intermingled. One image is the forest, including its brown leaves; the other is the falling note. The lines will have to be re-ordered:

I walk on forest’s
carpet of fallen, brown leaves…
drop the note she sent.

Number of Syllables

Different languages take more or less space and time to convey the same information. (You can see this most clearly in a multilingual manual or warranty card, such as the kind that often come with software or computer components. The English text will be one of the shortest; German and/or Dutch will be roughly the same size as English. French will be a little longer, Spanish longer still, and the Italian text will take up quite a bit more room than the English.)

When comparing Japanese and English, many commentators agree that English delivers more information-per-syllable than Japanese. Many of them suggest that the 17 Japanese syllables would equal about 12 English ones, and suggest a 3-5-3 format for English haiku. Balanced against this, Japanese has a much “freer” grammar that allows words to be placed in varying positions without altering the meaning. Japanese also doesn’t require articles (“a”, “an”, and “the”), which can free up a useful number of syllables in short sentences.

Some have suggested a 4-6-4 format as a compromise. Others have suggested that an English-language haiku should be “three lines, with a maximum of 17 syllables total.” (This would theoretically allow for more than 5 syllables in the first or last line, or more than 7 in the middle line, such as 6-6-5, or 4-8-5. Such things strike me as quite awkward.)

Taking 5, 7, and 5 as hard limits, and aiming for 4, 6, and 4, it’s possible to trim my earlier haiku a bit, yielding the following:

In winter woods,
gruff winds shake bare branches.
When will snow come?

This version is slightly more spare than the previous; its starkness matches well with the topic.

Nights are still cold —
see the frost-pale faces

There’s no way to get that last line any shorter; “Doll Festival” is the name of the holiday, and so can’t be changed any more than “Thanksgiving” could, and the word “at” is grammatically required. Note that you can’t just link the second and third lines with a colon or dash, because that would constitute a second kireji, which is absolutely not allowed.

Stroll with my love
in warm, quiet gardens —
Moon lights our way.

Note how “Moon” can now be seen as a proper name, making Moon almost a third person in the scene. Unfortunately, aside from that minor improvement, I feel like this one has been compressed a bit too far. It no longer has the easy, calm feel of a stroll with one’s lover on a warm night.

Walk on forest’s
floor of fallen, brown leaves…
drop the note she sent.

As in the second poem, the third line can’t get any shorter without losing crucial information. The second line could have become “brown, fallen-leaf carpet” — or even “fallen-brown-leaf carpet” in the hands of someone willing to write in a more modernistic style — but after the “frost-pale faces”, I didn’t want to rely on hyphenated compounds too much.


In Japanese-language haiku, most of our typographical conventions are completely irrelevant. There are no capital or lowercase letters in Japanese writing; haiku are generally set on one line (not three lines, as in English); the dashes and ellipses we’ve been using to represent kireji simply don’t exist.

As such, many English-language typesetters prefer to lay out haiku as if they were lowercase fragments — no capitals at the beginnings of lines, and no closing punctuation unless it’s required as a kireji at the poem’s end. So Bashō’s classic poem generally looks like this:

the old pond —
a frog leaps in,
and a splash

However, I prefer to think of the haiku as forming a single sentence of its own, and set it with one capital at the beginning of the first line and a period at the end of the poem. (Unless kireji require any changes, of course.) So:

The old pond —
a frog leaps in,
and a splash.

Other Haiku-Related Terms

Technically, nobody during the Sengoku Jidai would have been writing “haiku” at all; that term is a modern invention. The poetry of the day included the form we now consider haiku, but the terms people used were haikai, hokku, rengaA collaborative poem consisting of alternating verses of haiku (and similar short Japanese poetic forms) written by two or more authors. Similar to the Western “Exquisite Corpse“, but the Japanese considered renga an example of high literature and group effort.A collaborative poem consisting of alternating verses of haiku (and similar short Japanese poetic forms) written by two or more authors. Similar to the Western “Exquisite Corpse”, but the Japanese considered renga an example of high literature and group effort., and tanka — all of which had specific meanings, some of which changed slightly as time went on.

With the exception of occasionally mentioning renga, I’m skipping all that complexity in The Tales. It’s more detail than I suspect any of my audience wants to deal with.

The Rules I Follow

To sum up, here are the rules I hold myself to when I post haiku:

  • Every haiku must have a kigo. Preferably one from the list of kigo on Wikipedia, but other unambiguous specifications of season are okay.
  • However, names of months are not okay (despite being listed on Wikipedia), because Japan didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1873, centuries after The Tales take place. Similarly, references to holidays must be ones that were known in Japan prior to 1600.
  • Every haiku must have a kireji. Given the slipperiness of English kireji, this mostly means that the poem must include a colon, semicolon, dash, ellipsis, question mark, or exclamation point, at the end of a line. Note that only one kireji is allowed, not two or more!
  • Every haiku must have three lines. The first and last line may have no more than 5 syllables; the middle line may have no more than 7. (Ideally, I aim for 4-6-4. I rarely hit that mark. Hopefully, I’ll improve with practice.)
  • Words may not break across lines (no hyphenation, ever!).

In the modern day, many international haiku writers are working out appropriate kigo (and saijiki) for areas outside Japan. (For example, the World Kigo Database has saijiki for Ireland, India, Europe, Australia, the Chesapeake Bay, the Philippines, and New England, among many other places.) Since The Tales of the Ninja Coder are set in the area around Kyōto, of course the kigo to be followed in my haiku are the classical, standard ones.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply