How to Write a Haiku: 14 Beautiful Examples for Inspiration

Have you ever heard about haiku? If you haven’t, this article will guide you through this popular type of Japanese poetry that has been enjoyed for centuries. 

First developed in Japan, this poetry has now become popular worldwide, translated into many languages, and included in different used forms of contemporary art such as cinema, music, and visual arts.  

How to Write a Haiku

Haiku (俳句) are short unrhymed poems composed of only three lines and seventeen syllables. In its traditional form, there are five syllables in the first and third line,  while the second line contains seven syllables. These poems also often include a “cutting word,” or kireji, that divides the verse into two parts and adds a particular contrast to the verse. This genre is known for its focus on subjects around nature and time. The changing seasons are also a  constant source of inspiration, marked by using a kigo word, or “seasonal reference.” 

Basically, there are three rules of haiku:

  • There are no more than 17 syllables.
  • It is composed of only 3 lines.
  • Every first line has 5 syllables, the second line has 7 syllables, and the third has 5 syllables.

What Makes Haiku Different from Other Poetry?

Haiku poems emphasize simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression. A haiku poem usually represents a single and concentrated image or emotion. Because of their structure, brevity, and syllabic pattern, these poems are generally allusive and suggestive, encouraging the reader to interpret the significance of the words and phrases used. Thanks to their shortness and simplicity, readers can often easily remember verses, which has helped to propagate the genre across the globe. 

The Origin of Haiku

To find the first trace of the poetry we have to go back to the 9th century in Japan, where similar verses, known as hokku, were used as the opening stanza of a longer poem called renga. Renga poetry was a collaborative poetry form that involved multiple poets working together to create a 

poem. The first verse, or hokku, generally written by the lead poet, set the theme and tone for the rest of the poem.  

Over time, hokku verses began to evolve to take life on their own. A group of four poets, known as the “haiku masters,” began focusing more on the hokku itself as a standalone poem and experimenting with different styles and themes. These verses began to be appreciated for their own worth and became distinct as a poetic form, popularized by poets such as Matsuo Basho (1644–1694) and Yosa Buson (1716–1783). 

Basho, called by some the father of haiku, was known for using imagery and metaphors that evoked a sense of the natural world. Basho’s poems were also known for their strict syllable count and lack of rhyme, which added to the poems’ sense of simplicity and elegance.  

古い池 や蛙飛びこむ⽔の⾳
Furu ike ya kawazu tobikomumizu no oto. 

The old pond! 
A frog jumps in— 
the sound of water

By Matsuo Basho 

This poem by Basho, presumably written sometime in the 1680s, paints a vivid picture of an old pond and the sound of a frog jumping in, is one of the most famous haiku ever written.

Basho, Buson, Kobayashi, and Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902), the four haiku masters, helped popularize the genre during the 18th and 19th centuries when many amateur and professional poets began to write haiku. It also began to be used in other art forms, such as painting and woodblock printing. 

Here are some popular poems by Shiki, Buson, and Kobayashi, each of them dedicated to a  different season.  

酔って寝て夢で泣いていた⼭桜
Yotte nete yume de naiteita yamazakura. 

I got drunk, a sleep.  
And wept on the dream.  
A wild cherry blossoms.  

Spiring haiku, by Masaoka Shiki. 

菜の花や/⽉は東に⽇は⻄に
Na-no-hana ya tsuki ha higashi ni hi wa nishi ni 

The canola flowers. 
The moon in the east. 
The sun in the west

Summer haiku, by Yosa Buson 

⽜の⼦が/ 旅に⽴つなり/秋の⾬
Ushi no ko ga tabi ni tatsu nari aki no ame 

The baby cow 
Goes on a trip. 
The autumn rain. 

Autumn haiku, by Kobayashi Issa

At the end of the 19th century, hokku was renamed haiku by Shiki. Haiku began to appear in western literature, and in 1905, Paul-Louis Couchoud became one of the first European translators of the form, converting many short Japanese verses into French. Today, haiku is applied retrospectively to all hokku verses written in the past. 

The genre then spread to other countries worldwide, particularly in the 20th century, as many poets and writers worldwide began to write and adapt the form to their own cultures and styles. Haiku societies and organizations were formed, and contests and journals were established.  Though the genre originated in Japan, it later also became a significant element of English poetry, as it influenced the Imagist movement in the early twentieth century. 

10 Famous Haiku Poems by Japanese Poets

Haiku poems are known for their ability to paint a vivid picture in just a few words. Their minimal nature forces writers to only include the essentials — making each word count. Here are 10 well-known haiku written by Japanese poets and translated into English.

春の海ひねもすのたりのたりかな
Hana no umi hinemosu notari notari ka na

Spring ocean
Swaying gently
All day long.

By Yosa Buson

閑けさや岩にしみいる蝉の声
Shizukesa ya iwa ni shimiiru semi no koe

Oh, tranquility!
Penetrating the very rock,
A cicada’s voice.

By Matsuo Basho

やがて死ぬけしきは見えず蝉の声
Yagate shinu keshiki wa miezu semi no koe

The cry of the cicada
Gives us no sign
That presently it will die.

By Matsuo Basho

目には青葉 山ほとゝぎす はつ松魚
Me ni wa aoba yama hototogisu hatsu gatsuo

The green leaves for eyes
The little cuckoo in the mountain
The first bonito of the season

By Yamaguchi Sodo

朝顔に 釣瓶とられて もらひ水
Asagao ni tsurube torare te morai mizu

The well-bucket is
Taken by the morning glory
Going to a neighbour for water.

By Kaga Chiyome

寒月に木を割る寺の男かな
kangestu ni ki wo waru tera no otoko kana

The old man of the temple,
Splitting wood
In the winter moonlight.

By Yosa Buson

行な行なみなうそよびぞはつ蛍
Yuku na yuku na mina uso yobi zo hatsu-botaru

Don’t go! Don’t go!
All their calls are lies
First firefly

By Issa Kobayashi

痩蛙 負けるな一茶 是にあり
Yase gaeru makeruna Issa kore ni ari

Skinny frog,
Don’t get beaten!
Issa is here

By Issa Kobayashi

五月雨や色紙へぎたる壁の跡
Samidare ya shikishi hegitaru kabe no ato

Long summer rains—
poetry cards peeled off,
traces on the wall

By Basho Matsuo

 繰り返し麦の畝縫ふ胡蝶哉
Kurikaeshi mugi no une nu kochou kana

Back and forth
Through the rows of wheat
A butterfly weaving!

By Kawai Sora

Key Japanese Vocabulary Related to Haiku and Japanese Poems

TermJapaneseMeaning
Kigo季語A word or phrase that indicates the season.
Kireji切れ字A “cutting word” used to separate phrases or ideas in a haiku.
AshiThe number of syllables in a line. 
Yuugen幽⽞A feeling of mystery or depth in a haiku. 
SabiA sense of loneliness or quietness in a haiku. 
WabiA feeling of simplicity or humble beauty in a haiku. 
ShioriしおりAn index of the kigo used in a haiku collection. 
Kansou感想The expression of emotions or feelings.
MakuraThe use of a preface or introduction in a haiku. 
MaThe use of negative space or “empty” elements in the poem. 
Shasei写⽣The use of direct observation in writing a haiku. 
Shasei-ga 写⽣画A painting or sketch made as part of the writing process.

Books to Learn More about Haiku 

To learn more about haiku, there are several books and online resources about this form of poetry.  To start, “Haiku: The Complete Collection” by Matsuo Basho, is a compilation of all the known verses written by Basho. The book also gives insight into his life and poetic vision. 

Another valid book is “The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology” by Faubion Bowers. The work is a comprehensive collection of haiku from traditional Japanese masters such as Basho, Buson,  and Issa, as well as other contemporary poets. The publication includes Japanese texts and  English translations, as well as a historical and cultural context for each poem. 

Finally, if you also want to start writing, “The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku” by William J. Higginson offers valuable lessons to start writing, sharing, and teaching the poem, with tips and exercises that help readers understand the form and improve their writings.  This work covers the traditional rules and structures of haiku, but also provides an overview of how it has evolved and how it is written today. 

Online Resources to Enjoy Japanese Poems 

Masterpiece of Japanese Culture is an extensive online library of haiku poems and other genres divided by genre and author. Similarly, ModernHaiku.org is an online journal that publishes poetry and essays on haiku from around the world, with a focus on contemporary ones. 

The Haiku Foundation is a non-profit organization that provides a wide range of resources for haiku poets and enthusiasts. The platform has an extensive online library of the poem, as well as a  blog, a podcast, and a series of educational videos. 

If you want to be in the community, the Haiku Society of America is a national organization for poets and enthusiasts in the United States. The organization publishes an online journal called the “Frogpond Journal” with poetry and essays about it. World Haiku Association is an online community where poets can share their work and receive feedback from other poets. 

Finally, Haiku News by the Mainichi is an online platform that publishes haiku poetry and essays from around the world. 

Haiku Poetry in Today’s Society 

Haiku continues to be a well-appreciated poetry style in Japan and around the world. In Japan, the genre counts with many traditional societies and organizations that promote the study and its practice. Local poets often participate in competitions and events, with the best poems usually published in books, anthologies, and journals. The genre is still taught in Japanese schools as part of the Japanese literature curriculum, and students learn about the history and techniques of writing the poem, as well as the works of famous poets such as Basho, Buson, and Shiki. 

Haiku is taught not only as a literary form but also as a way to appreciate nature’s beauty and cultivate the ability to observe and express one’s feelings. Haiku education is considered by many an essential part of Japanese traditional culture education. 

The internet has also played its role in spreading this poetry style across the world, with many poets and enthusiasts sharing their work online through social media and blogs. The genre has also gone mainstream on social media platforms, as many online users have been sharing original poems on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Conclusion

Want to learn more about Japan? Check out our blog articles for more tips and guides! If you’re thinking of writing Japanese poems, it might be a good time to learn Japanese, too.

Luckily, Coto Academy offers fun, Japanese classes ranging from beginner to advanced! Plus, you can choose between part-time, intensive or private courses, which allows you to figure out the best study plan that works for you.

Check out course options here, or fill out our contact form for a free level check and consultation!

What is a haiku?

Haiku are short unrhymed poems composed of only three lines and seventeen syllables

What are the rules for structuring a haiku?

  • There are no more than 17 syllables.
  • It is composed of only 3 lines.
  • Every first line has 5 syllables, the second line has 7 syllables, and the third has 5 syllables.

Who are the famous haiku poets in Japan?

Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki are known to be haiku masters.


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