Haiku’s format and rules in English and Japanese

(Last Updated On: 02/05/2019)

Matso Basho

The statue of Matsuo Basho

How to do a “haiku” poem?

The rules for haiku is so simple. But do you know how to write haiku poems is different between Japanese and English? 

What is a “haiku”. It’s structure in Japanese and in English.



The format of Japanese 

  • 5-7-5 syllables (17 syllables in all)
  • Must use a seasonally word(phrase), “kigo“(read below)



The strucure of haiku is basically 5-7-5, 15 syllables. It is a poem that place value on the rhythm of sound, so it is better to keep 5-7-5 as possible. It is like a samba rhythm for Brazilians. The Japanese settle down somehow by listening to this syllable.


However, as an exception, there are also haiku such as an extra syllable “ziamari” or conversely less “zitarazu”.


In addition, Taneda Santoka(1882-1940) is a poet who dared to begin haiku poems free from 5-7-5 structure.


The format of English 

  • Three lines and a preferably 5-7-5 syllables
  • Kigo is unnecessary. It’s okay to have just sense of season
  • Using a mark of dash(-) or colon(,) as “kireji”(read below)
  • A theme is not a thought or concept but a matter
  • Avoiding a description and prose





NHK TV program site





What does haiku mean?


The haiku’s history started from “haikai”(俳諧) which focused on funny themes. Haikai and “renga”(連歌, more elegan than haikai) started with “hokku”(発句), 5,7,5 syllables and next person consider another 7,7 syllables like fit to hokku, then the third person thinks 5,7,5 syllables for following.


So haiku originally meant a hokku(start) of haikai and the words joined.


Renga and haikai



First person(hokku): 5,7,5 

Second person:7,7

Third person:5,7,5

Forth person:7,7



Comparing to haikai, people enjoyed sensibility and feelings in renga. Renga and haiku were played by two or more performers unlike tanka, 5-7-5-7-7 or 7-7-5-7-5 syllables by a single person. Hokku literally means starting phrase and is a part of kaminoku(the first part of a poem) in tanka.

Then, people in Edo Period made hokku independent and that is the style of haiku, 5-7-5 syllables.


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It is said that  5-7-5 or 5-7-5-7-7 syllables are the most suitable rhythms for Japanese. And the other reason that English haiku doesn’t have 5-7-5 syllables, is the issue of languages. English syllable may have one vowel with some consonants. But Japanese syllable doesn’t have plural consonant. So it’s difficult to apply Japanese to English.






Seasonally word:kigo

Types of kigo widely cover the range of plants and animals, time of year, events, astronomy, life.

Also about kigo, the weather of Japan has clear four seasons and each kigo stir imagination of Japanese who live there. The countries have their own condition of the climate and the culture.  It is impossible to compel kigo to others.


The example of kigo



spring moon, spring dark, spring rain, spring river, spring sky, warm, tranquil, be perfectly clear, thin ice, laughing mountain, soap bubble, turban shell, the first day of spring, the vernal equinox, cherry-blossom viewing, the Dall’s Festival, swallow, silkworm, kitten, ume (plum blossoms), cherry blossoms, Japanese butterbur scape…



hot, cool, summer rain, summer sky, summer mountain, summer Fuji, ice cream, iced coffee, iced tea, rice‐planting, early summer rain, rainy season, early summer, morning cloud,  firefly, cicada, cicada born, catfish, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, the summer solstice, carnation, young leaves, crape myrtlean, green chili…



fresh, chilly, autumn pond, autumn river, autumn rain, autumn day, autumn mountain, dewdrop, moon, the Milky Way, crescent, midnight moon, fireflower, the lingering summer heat, locust, bell cricket, good harvest, bad harvest, rice harvesting, autumn leaves, the autumnal equinox, autumn eggplant, gentian, orchid…



winter water, winter sea, winter field, oden, yakitori, fire, stove, catch a cold, north wind, sleeping mountain, snow, Orionthe Hunter, jacket, coat, globefish, yellowtail, rabitt, fox, mandarin orange, carrot, daikon(Japanese white radish)…




Pause:kire(切れ), kugire(区切れ)

Japanese haiku has two types of the pause in its short 17 syllables. When you want to emphasize the touched feeling and use a technique of “kire”. Using “kireji”(切れ字) including, ya, kana, and keri, you can express your delight or sadness strongly in same way of exclamation mark. It also has an effect of omitting the words and leaving the readers with an allusive feeling.



On the other side, “kugire” is a break of meaning in a haiku poem. There are four kinds of the pause, first line break(shoku-gire 初句切れ), second line break(niku-gire 二句切れ), no break(kugire-nashi 句切れなし), and mid-flow break(chukan-gire 中間切れ). 




Examples of haiku poems


Matsuo Basho

Four seasons haiku



Famous Poets





Four seasons haiku


There were three famous poet of haiku in Edo Period, Matsuo Basho(松尾芭蕉), Yosa Buson(与謝蕪村), and Kobayashi Issa(小林一茶)






Such as…


Even in profusion

I prefer the first cherry blossoms

Rather than peach




咲き乱す 桃の花より 初桜

Sakimidasu/ Momo no hanayori/Hatsuzakura





The mayfly land

On the paper jacket

Of my shoulder




かげろうの わが肩に立つ 紙子かな

Kagerou no/ Waga kata ni tatsu/ Kamiko kana



Yosa Buson


Spring ocean

Swaying gently

All day long.


Translated by Miura Diane and Miura Seiichiro



春の海 ひねもすのたり のたりかな

Haruno-umi Hinemosu-Notari Notarikana


Kobayashi Issa


“Gimme that harvest moon!”

Cries the crying



Translated by David G. Lanoue



名月を 取ってくれろと 泣く子哉

Meigetsu-wo Tottekurero-to Nakuko-kana





Books about Haiku

The Haiku Handbook#25th Anniversary Edition: How to Write, Teach, and Appreciate Haiku (Paperback)

The Haiku Handbook is the first book to give readers everything they need to begin appreciating, writing, or teaching haiku. In this groundbreaking and now-classic volume, the authors present haiku poets writing in English, Spanish, French, German, and five other languages on an equal footing with Japanese poets. Not only are the four great Japanese masters of the haiku represented (Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki) but also major Western authors not commonly known to have written poetry in this form, including Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and Richard Wright.

With a new foreword by poet, translator, and author Jane Reichhold (Basho: The Complete Haiku), this anniversary edition presents a concise history of the Japanese haiku, including the dynamic changes throughout the twentieth century as this beloved poetry form has been adapted to modern and urban settings. Full chapters are offered on form, the seasons in haiku, and haiku craft, plus background on the Japanese poetic tradition and the effect of translation on our understanding of haiku. Other unique features are chapters on teaching and sharing haiku, with lesson plans for both elementary and secondary school use; a seasonal word index of poetic words; a comprehensive glossary; and a list of enduring classic resources for further exploration. By any standard, The Haiku Handbook is the defining volume in the genre.

New From: $14.99 USD In Stock
buy now

How to Write a Haiku (Paperback)

How to Write a Haiku provides a concise introduction to the art of the haiku and takes the beginner through the process of capturing the fleeting moment or a high point of experience. This practical guide gives examples of haiku newly translated from the Japanese, as well as original haiku in English, and illustrates how the raw material of experience and recollection can be shaped into both formal and informal versions of the traditional haiku.

New From: $10.00 USD In Stock
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