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The Rules of Haiku

What are the Rules of Japanese Haiku?

Short poems that originated in Japan, Haiku (俳句) are now written across the world and in many languages. 

The rules of Haiku

English haiku and those written in languages other than Japanese tend to incorporate some aspects of the traditional Japanese poems but have their own rules and conventions. However, haiku never feature rhymes.

What rules do Japanese haiku adhere to and how did these poems evolve?

Origin and evolution

Haiku evolved from a form of Japanese collaborative poetry known as Renga (連歌). Poems of this genre are comprised of alternating stanzas known as ku that are written by multiple poets. Each stanza boasts a prescribed number of sound units per line called mora(拍). Renga originated in the 8th century and the first anthology of the poems was produced in 1356 by which time the writing of these poems was considered an artform. The most celebrated renga master was Sōgi (宗祇, 1421–1502). 

Matsuo Bashō Haiku

Haikai (俳諧) is a derivative of renga that appeared in the 16th century. It was initially a genre of informal linked verse that featured satire and puns. By the time of the haikai master Matsuo Bashō (1644 – 1695) haikai had become a more serious literary genre.

The opening stanza of a renga or haikai is known as the hokku. As the opening verse it is the most important element of a poem. By the 17th century hokku had started to appear as independent poems and in the 19th century, Masaoka Shiki renamed these standalone poems, calling them haiku. 

Elements of traditional Haiku

If you are familiar with English or European haiku, you might be surprised to see the extent to which many of these poems differ from traditional Japanese compositions.

Units of sound

English Haiku usually feature three lines containing a total of 17 syllables with the first and last line each having 5 syllables and the middle line having 7 syllables. Traditional Japanese Haiku also boast 17 units of sound in a  5-7-5 pattern. These units of sound are known as on (音) or mora(拍). While the term on is often translated as “syllable”, it is a more nuanced concept. Elongated vowels and double consonants are considered to contain two on and an n at the end of a word is an additional on.

5 7 5 Haiku Rule

For instance, the word “on” itself would be a single syllable in English but in Japan is viewed as having two units of sound because it ends in an n. There are also Japanese words that English speakers would think of as having two syllables, but which are, in fact, a single on.

As a rough guide, 17 syllables in Japanese would typically have the same duration as 12 syllables in English.

Haiku masters haven’t always adhered to the 5-7-5 pattern of on but most haiku are structured in this way. Similarly, some English haiku are now shorter than 17 syllables. Rules can be broken!

It is interesting to note that while English haikus are almost always presented as three line poems, traditional Japanese Haiku are not. They contain the three prescribed phrases but can be written as a single line or over two lines.

Cutting words

Crane Haiku

Traditional Japanese haiku include a kireji (切れ字) or cutting word, often at the end of a phrase. Kireji are like words and punctuation marks rolled into one. Their function may be to briefly interrupt the stream of thought or to provide a definitive sense of closure at the end of the poem. 

There is no direct equivalent of kireji in English. For this reason, English haiku often include punctuation marks such as dashes and ellipses in place of kireji. These inclusions lead the reader to consider the relationship between different portions of the verse.

Japanese haiku are difficult to translate because they feature elements that have no equivalents in other languages. 

Examples of kareji include:

  • Ka - emphasises the previous term or when placed at the end of a phrase indicates a question.

  • Kana -  also a form of emphasis that indicates amazement.

  • -Keri – an exclamatory suffix.

  • –ramu or –ran – suffixes that indicate probability

  • shi -  an adjectival suffix

  • –tsu - a suffix used in the present tense.

  • Ya – used to emphasise the preceding word or words to invite readers to explore the relationship between the different portions of the verse.

  • Keru – used to convey a sense of enlightenment or conclusion. 


A kigo (季語) is word or phrase included in a Haiku that implies the season to which that poem refers. Writers often draw these words from saijiki. These are books like dictionaries that contain lists of appropriate words together with examples of their use in verse.

Kigo Haiku

In categorizing kigo, each of the four seasons is divided into early, middle, and late periods. For instance, sakura (cherry blossom) is a kigo that implies late spring.

International haiku poets have adapted the idea of kigo and may use words that reflect their local conditions and culture. Many natural phenomena such as the spring migration of birds are similar across the world and so universally understood. But climatic conditions vary dramatically and so some references used in Haiku may not be recognised in all cultures.

What is the most famous Japanese haiku?

Old Pond by Matsuo Bashō is perhaps the most celebrated and best known Japanese haiku ever written:



Furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

This translates as:

old pond

frog leaps in

water's sound

Old Pond features 17 on:

fu-ru-i-ke ya (5) ka-wa-zu to-bi-ko-mu (7) mi-zu-no-o-to (5). The kigo is “frog” and the kireji is “ya”.

In summary

Traditional Japanese haiku feature three phrases rather than three lines. Those phrases are comprised of 5, 7 and 5 sound units respectively. Each haiku also includes a cutting word (kireji) and a kigo that is indicative of the season. But the writing of haiku is an artistic pursuit and artistry doesn’t always conform to rules. You will find examples of poetic license in haiku, a literary form that will continue to evolve.


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