A foreigner’s thought on “HAIKU” and “Japanese haiku”
By Chiau-Shin NGO (Taiwan)
(Translated by Chiau-Shin
NGO and Anthony WU from Japanese version)
( http://oobooshingo.blogspot.tw/2012/07/blog-post.html )
It is always the question for a foreigner who is going to learn Haiku for the
first time might encounter. At the same time, it might also occasionally cross
the minds of a part of Japanese haiku poet (haijin) who used to consider the
haiku more deeply.
It has been over 100 years since the Haiku was introduced to foreign countries,
and the problem on composing the haiku has occasionally become the topic, but
at the same time it has never become a kind of formal academic study. It has
been handled as any one like to do and ended without any definite conclusion.
Since the internet, so convenient but dissolute media has come to daily use for
16 or 17 years, 「HAIKU」 and 「Japanese haiku」 have become the object of being able to
express anyone’s own opinion freely without stopping, regulation, censorship,
and complaint, irrespective of age, gender, social standing, occupation, party,
and education. Nowadays, we can observe and hear various kinds of thoughｔ which one can
not think of solely by oneself, and begin to be able to consider the future of
A 「HAIKU」 means the so-called haiku which is composed in
foreign language including 「kango haiku」 (Chinese
haiku), and a 「haiku」 means the commonly known Japanese
short poem of fixed-form which should include a seasonal word.
However, the trouble appears on a problem on the word 「haiku」. The word 「haiku」 was originally named by Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902) in the middle of
Meiji era (Japan). It has been meant to indicate the sentence 「hokku」，(a sentence for the first position
of linked verse (renku)，when read separately and independently, and the inclusion has gone back
up to Basｈo‘ｓ independent hokku （starting verse）.
The haiku separates to two main stream, one stream is called 「traditional haiku」 which must be read in 575
fixed-form and accompanied with seasonal word, and should be limited to the
rule of Shiki’s description or Kyoshi’s objective description or Kacｈyohuuei (the
beauties of nature) as the key poetic theme, and the other stream is the haikus
not composed along with the above-mentioned conditions. In fact, the other
haikus are usually called as: “free style haiku” and “no seasonal word haiku”,
or according to its content, feature, character, social back ground as: “new
trend haiku”, “social haiku”, “avant-garde haiku”, “proletarian haiku”, “war
haiku”, “human being search haiku”, “root haiku”, “popular haiku”, “molding
haiku”, “art haiku”, “international haiku”, and “world haiku” etc.
Recently, for “HAIKU” or the other “haiku”, there are some new names like:
“haiku ni nita mono” （what is like haiku）, “haiku sou bou haiku” (haiku
imaging haiku), …etc. Furthermore, there is a fact that the Haijin Association
sent a request to provider of elementary and middle school textbook to obey
strictly to the rule of kigo and 575 fixed form concerning the selection of
haiku examples in the textbook.
For a foreigner to learn the haiku, the first thing to learn is a fixed-form
and kigo, the so-called 575 syllables and season related word promises. This is
not only for a foreigner, but also for a Japanese to learn haiku in elementary
and middle school and social haiku group.
Then the problem occurs. Although it is advocated that haiku composition must
obey to the rule of fixed-form and relate to the season, many famous haikus
that are not according to fixed-form nor including seasonal word have appeared
in the textbook and haiku books. However, in kessya (group of haiku
composition), the master usually edits the works of pupils with the comment of
“jiamari” (too many character), “jitarazu” (short of character), “no seasonal
word”, and “overlapped seasonal words”.
On the other hand, as long as it was the work of a famous haiku poet, it would
be OK, with or without seasonal word, or free style of without 575 fixed-form,
and they would usually be interpreted or appreciated as you like. And if it was
a work of an obscure poet, not only no attention would be paid but also might
be severely criticized. For instance, you can see the famous work of Shiki‘s
“keitou no zyu si go hon wa …”, because of a work of Shiki, although it was not
appreciated at first, but afterward it was appreciated particularly with
special interpretation (although some people will not agree with). I have
noticed on the net, that a father complained that “my son always got award in
the contest of haiku in the middle school and high school days, but after
joining the kessya after his graduation from high school, he had always been
criticized severely by the master, and finally he was left in despair and
finally gave up to compose the haiku”. This is a real scene of the haiku world
in Japan. Isn’t it natural and certain that a foreigner would get confused?
The standard of a haiku taught by the master or at the school is different from
that which is to be evaluated. The haiku learned is a “traditional haiku” and
if not, it will not be admitted as a haiku, however, as long as you have got
the fame of haiku expert, your haiku work will be appreciated with any reason
even if it was not a traditional haiku. Although, it was an old story that the
professor Takeo Kuwahara’s “the haiku is a second art” talking had proved it.
The impression and perception of a phenomenon is different between a composer
and a reader. The experience of human life is usually completely different
between a composer and a reader, thus it is not agreeable to criticize other’s
impression carelessly. One year ago, there aroused a social movement called
“mammoth judge” by students in Taiwan. Its meaning is somewhat different from
that of “mammoth parent” in Japan, but it occurred in order to reject a wrong
judgment caused by the different experience of human life.
How and why the HAIKU, but not tanka (short poem with syllables of 57577 in
Japanese) nor senryu (another short poem of 575 without kigo in Japanese) ,
spread worldwide and welcomed and composed with all kinds of languages have
long been discussed, however still no conclusion seems to be obtained.
From the point of view of a beginner, I’d like to express my opinion. The HAIKU
is an extremely short poem with the style of concentrated to its extremity and
unable to make it a bit shorter, and it can not express its entire picture
because of its shortness, therefore leaves blank like that of a drawing in
Indian ink, and the reader may appreciate it with his own impression as he
likes by reader’s own experience in his life.
By the way, 1. the shortest poem, 2. uncompleted integrity, 3. leaving blank to
be appreciated by the reader according to his/her own experience, these three
conditions are surely a feature not to be owned by other form of poems,
therefore it must be a poem welcomed by both moody poets and general publics
and will be most easily composed with any languages. At the same time, the
appreciation of the haiku is left free to the reader’s own thinking. With all
these conditions, it is natural and certain that the HAIKU will be welcome and
By the way, let’s think about the situation of the haiku in Japan. There is no
problem concerning a shortest form of a poem. Japanese is a flat language, so
each tone has the same length, an isochronic language. Therefore, Japanese has no rhyming nor pitching of those in
Chinese, and nor the accent of those in English.
The 575 fixed-form really is the most suitable rhythm for Japanese, but there
is also no reason for its absolute necessity. Concerning the musicality of a
poem, there are some selections such as: rhythmical, rhyming, pleasant to ear,
easy to speak and etc. The count of rhythm in Japanese is expressed by mora (a
short syllable). One Japanese kana tone is counted as one mora, and 5 and 7
mora are the most comfortable rhythm to speak and pleasant to ear. It is as
like as the fixed 5 and 7 word in Tang poem of China.
Each piece of poetry or song in Japan and China has its own rhythm of “internal
rhythm”, therefore it is not necessary to follow strictly to “external rhythm”.
The only problem is that the internal rhythm is not so outstanding and also
different between each piece of poem and readers, that to follow generally to
plain and easy to understand 575 fixed-form is reasonable. However, to follow
strictly to the fixed form is questionable too. I think whether it is the haiku
or Chinese poem, as long as it is easy to speak or pleasant to ear, then it has
its root of musicality. If it has rhyming or correspondence it will be better.
The 575 fixed-form for the haiku, as mentioned above, is the problem of the
musical rhythm of Japanese. As all the languages of the world have their own
musical rhythm for their own languages to be pleasant to ear, so it is good
enough just to be suitable to musicality of each language and not always to
agree with Japanese 575.
Kigo (season word in haiku) is the word of greeting of the Japanese custom, so it is usual to be
present in Japanese haiku, but it is also not peculiar when it is absent.
Therefore, there have been many excellent haikus without kigo.
Thinking of the above mentioned three conditions: 1. to make it as short as
possible, 2. being uncompleted perfection, and 3. to leave blank, are no
problem for any language to compose a HAIKU.
Then, the 575 fixed-form haiku is for the Japanese haiku, so there is no
necessity for all languages of the world to follow. As for the kigo, it also is
a particular greeting custom and culture background of the Japanese. The
similar greeting words in English “how do you do?” or “how are you?”, and in
new Chinese word “ni-hau” (are you OK?), and in Taiwanese “chia-bah-bue?” (have
you finished meal yet?) all are the same daily custom greeting words in
different languages when you meet an acquaintance. As a result, the use of the
kigo usually in Japanese haiku is understandable, but for the foreigners with
different customs, they may feel somewhat queer and difficult for
Therefore, the “HAIKU” may accept all the above-mentioned conditions of 1, 2,
and 3, and the presence of the 575-fixed-form and kigo might be better, but if
not it does not matter too. On the contrary, sometimes the absolute obedience
to the rule will become a problem. For instance, in Chinese haiku, if you
follow strictly to the 575, there will give rise to “kanpai” with the amount of
content equal to that of “tanka”. That amount is too much for haiku and is
against the first rule of the “shortest” of the haiku. If it is composed in
343, 234, or 334, then you may compose a beautiful Chinese haiku with Chinese
rhythm and also may translate excellent Japanese haiku into Chinese haiku. In
fact, there are many such excellent Chinese haikus translated from Japanese.
When you translated according to the rule of 575 Japanese haiku into Chinese,
they will give rise to so-called “kanpai” with the Chinese adverbs of
“excessive flowers on elegant clothe” or “draw feet on snake”, not a real
Chinese haiku. However, “kanpai” is a short and simple rule poem as compared to
old Chinese poem, so it has been accepted and welcomed by the general public in
recent 20 years in China. In fact, the “kanpai” is not a “HAIKU”, just a new
type of short Chinese poem.
The poetry begins in impression. The impression is an emotional reaction to
phenomena which happens in every day life of human being. An animal may express
its emotion in a variety of behavior, but it can not express it in symbols like
human beings. If an impression is the reaction to all phenomena (natural
circumstance, humanity and duty), the poem should include all the human
feelings (visual, auditory, touchy, taste, and olfactory) and personal,
esthetic, logical, and philosophical feelings, and should also include both
subjective and objective views, but not limited to only visual feeling.
In the earlier era, the traditional haiku is composed in written language. On
the other hand, the use of Japanese kana is standardized by the Ministry of
Education as “new kana use”, and the style of the use of kana in pre-war era
was disused as “old kana use”. Afterwards, the use of spoken language has
become common in composing writings, and the modern Japanese has developed
largely toward katakana foreign language (Japan-made katakana coin words), and
so on. This phenomenon proves that in actuality, even the language and the
traditional haiku as the art of a language, are unable to go against the change
in the stream of the era. Every thing on the earth is changing eternally
without rest, certainly the culture and thinking are also unable to be out of
this rule. Isn’t this phenomenon a supporting evidence for the impossibility of
the adherence to the customs and traditions? Therefore, is not it quite natural
to compose haiku in foreign languages?
Why does only the haiku among many types of poem get the interest of all human
beings? Why does only the haiku spread into all kind of languages? After all,
couldn’t it be ascribed to the shortness of the work, easy composing of the
matter occurring in daily life, and the blank left for the imagination?
Concerning the easy composing of the haiku, even the children and the
elementary school students can compose it. There are only difference between
the “easiness” and “difficulty”, and “simplicity” and “deepness” of the content
of the work. There is no complicated rule so that even the elementary school
pupils can use the simplest words and phrases in composing what he/she saw or
met in their daily lives, and the grown-ups can compose the haiku according to
their own life experiences and inherited sensitivities of different depth, and
enjoy and appreciate it.
Nowadays, the elementary school children learn HAIKU in school in the U.S. A.
However, in Japan, the origin of the haiku, there are still some people who
reject this glory of national culture, and insist on what is not traditional
haiku is not a haiku, I feel deeply confused about it.
Concerning the rules, Shiki has sorted those haiku works which were composed
not according to the rule to the miscellaneous group, but still included it in
the category of the haiku. However, some of posterity pretend not knowing of
The “objective description” of Kyoshi is a rule for getting around the
difficulty of understanding of “subjective impression” for the general public
and not a meaning of forbidding to compose the haiku with subjective feeling.
In fact, Kyoshi himself has composed many haikus with subjective phenomena, and
many of the other haiku composers have done the same too. Therefore, this
explanation is said to be for the sake of defending Kyoshi’s assertion of
All the rules are “artificial” and are under the situation of variability.
Moreover, when we consider about whether Shiki did or did not, or could or
could not anticipate present progress of the haiku, we could not but consider
about what Shiki had really intended and developed to do on reforming of the
haiku. I doubt if Shiki has not been so short lived, who would dare to say,
with Shiki’s smart and reforming character that he would adhere to these rules
forever and would not reform the haiku furthermore.
Recently, Zyunnosuke Imaizumi indicated in his newly published writing 《What did Shiki bury?》 (2011.9) that Shiki’s discourse:
“There have been none good haizin in the era from Edo to the middle of Meiji,
after Buson and Issa, and the haiku works composed in this period were all 〈fairly conventional〉” is incorrect. And, thinking of
another fact that Kazuo Ichikawa has also said the same opinion in his writing 《the dawn of modern haiku》 in 1975, but it was neglected
because of his assertion of none-season, free-type and colloquial haiku under
the big circumstances of traditional haiku supremacy, we can not but admit the
misfortune of the influence of the adherence of habit on the culture. When we
know that the winner of the Nobel Literature prize in 2011 is Thomas
Transtoroma who is a good composer of a short poem, HAIKU, how should we
consider about it?
As long as the HAIKU is in agreement with the above-mentioned substances of the
haiku, it is really a haiku itself, and it can be composed with all the
different kinds of languages. Therefore, as the haiku works composed are the
shortest, impossible to be condensed more, responding to momentary impression,
and leaving blank to allow the readers to explain or decipher by themselves, I
think they are all haikus whatever they are subjective, objective, concerning
to great nature, personal, or social poems. Every language has its own style or
form, for instance, Japanese has a “575-style”, a phonetic language has a
“three line poem”, Chinese has a “kango haiku” (Chinese haiku), and free style
is one of the other styles of them.
The “kire” marks the end of a sentence, and is the way of an expression in
Japanese. Every language has its own way of expressing an end of a sentence,
and every language may use its own method of expressing the end of a sentence.
There is no any problem, I presume.
Then, as the rules of 《season
word centralism》, 《objective description》, and 《kachohuuei》 (the beauties of nature as the key poetic theme) are rules by one
person’s assertion, it should not become an obstacle for the development of the
haiku. Everything has its creation, development, and reform stages, so that
nothing could limit and obstruct the development and reformation of all the
things. They are rules of an inner circle limited within a small range, and
also a temporary ruling. Accordingly, in the field of haiku we could not add
any rule of a group to the whole haiku field too. We respect the rules of the
traditional haiku, however they are after all the rules of the traditional
haiku only in its field.
Originally, the poetry is a composing of the impression, and the impression is
different by the social background of the times. I don’t think that it is good
to compose poem only on the things concerning the nature. There was a good
example in China. It was the famous event of “54-culture reformation movement”
occurred about 90 years ago. Before that time, most Chinese poets composed only
poem concerning nature and love daily. They were attacked by the students who
want social reformation as only “moaning without sickness”. Afterwards, the
poem in China has changed to the thriving of a colloquial language modern poem
without any complicated rules. However, so many modern poets have composed the
poem of too “flight of idea” that difficult to be understood by the general
public, and finally, the poem composing has left the general public away.
Although, it is still a mess at present, it seems that the colloquial language
modern poem is the form of a poem which would be most accepted by the general
Surely, the impression of visual sense can flight to the thinking of the
philosophy. Then what about the impression by other senses, composing with
blank left, and let the readers to appreciate it deeply and fascinated by their
own impression obtained from their own experiences. The impression of the
composer and the reader are not always the same. Isn’t it good enough? It is
truly a case of killing two birds with one stone.
Every one has their different experiences of lives. One person’s experience is
not the same as others. A haiku composed by one person is not always fully
understood by others. Particularly, an impression obtained by a person with
special sense or particular experience is not easily understood by others.
I would like to leave narrow-meaning of “haiku” for Japanese haiku to express
respect for it, and mean to include all of “traditional” and so-called not
traditional: “non-seasonal”, “free style”, “social”, and “exploring human
being”……. Then, the name “traditional haiku” will be left solely for those
haikus that strictly obey Kyoshi’s three rules. It is a sub-group under “haiku”
item, on the same level as: “without season”, “free style” or “human nature
exploring” etc. Any comment?
The origin of haiku is from Japan, therefore, concerning the substance of
haiku, we ought to follow died young Shiki’s reforming spirit, respecting the
old but developing the new. Japanese ought to explore actively to accomplish
the great haiku reforming work of Shiki.
The above description might be an immature thought of a foreign beginner of the
haiku, and might be laughed down or taking an action.
The above writing is a
summary of my original writing “《haiku》, 《world haiku》, 《kango haiku》”, with 80,000 words. If you have interest in
details you may go over to it (Japanese).