Elements and Overview

Haiku is a form of Japanese literature that follows a very strict arrangement. This unrhymed form of poetry is made up of 17 total syllables arranged in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively. In traditional Japanese haiku, the arrangement consisted of a kireji (1), 17 on (2), and a kigo (3).

Kireji, also called “cutting word” are a category of words used in certain Japanese poetry forms. While there is no English equivalent, this word is mainly used as a structural support for a poetic verse. Therefore, English haiku often use punctuation as a replacement for kireji. For example, if the kireji is placed at the end of a verse, it provides a powerful ending with a heightened sense of closure. If the “cutting word” is used in the middle of a verse, it provides a break, signaling that there are two independant thoughts within the verse. Common kireji include ka, which is used at the end of a phrase to indicate a question; kana, which is used at the end of a poem to indictae wonder; and ya, which is used to emphasize preceding words and to cut a poem into two parts (1).

On are the phonetic units in Japanese poetry, similar to English syllables. In Japanese, on means “sound”. On and syllables do not directly correlate, therefore a haiku written in Japanese may not follow the traditional English 5, 7, 5 structure. For example, the name Tokyo consists of 4 on but only 2 syllables (2).

Kigo are simply words that are associated with seasons, also called “season words”. These words are often associated with a particular season and are most used in poetry forms like haiku. These words are most effective in providing a sense of emotion for the reader. Each season is divided into an early, middle, and late period for kigo. For example, Spring consists of early, middle, and late spring (3).


Haiku began as the opening part of a larger Japanese poetic form called renga (4). This form of poetry was collaborative and consisted of alternating stanzas, or ku, following the 5, 7, 5 structure (5). Each stanza would be linked to a different poet. This form of poetry was said to have originated from a two-verse poetry exchange by Yamato Takeru (6), a prince of the Yamato dynasty in Japan in the year 700. When haiku were used as the opening sections of renga, they were called hokku (4), and after some time writers began to write them as stand-alone poems. They would eventually be named haiku by the Japanese writer Masaoka Shiki (7) at the end of the 19th century.

Haiku are not written by authors worldwide, athough haiku in English (8) and in other languages (9) have different styles and traditional elements. Non-Japanese haiku vary on how closely they follow the traditional Japanese form. For example, in Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed as a single line, while haiku in English are often printed as three (5).

Bashō (10) is one of the most recognized names from Japanese haiku. He became popular in the 17th century and ultimately allowed haiku to rise in popularity. At this time, hokku were most commonly seen in the context of renga, and were rarely seen as standalone poems. The Bashō School included standalone hokku in many of their anthologies, therefore prompting the birth of haiku. Bashō took a more playful approach to haiku, and was therefore was rejected by both the imperial government in Japan and the Shinto religious headquarters even 100 years after his death. Today, Bashō is seen as a saint of poetry in Japan and is recognized throughout the world.

Haiku by Bashō: “Quietly, quietly, / yellow mountain roses fall- / sound of the rapids”.

Social and Rhetorical Functions

Haiku is often used because of its ability to paint a vivid picture using very few words. This practice can be a difficult challenge for authors, allowing them to discover a new voice or style of their writing. Haiku’s minimalistic nature forces writers to be more intentional, making every word or syllable count. Haiku can also be written about practically anything. They can be used in a humorous way, an informational way, or an emotional way. The main idea, is to force the reader to think and feel a certain way. Some writers of haiku even use the style to praise historical events or figures. Haikus are a great way to practice concision in a way that evoke intense emotion.

The heavy use of imagery in traditional Japanese poetry also allowed writers to evoke emotion. Because of the heavy reliance on nature in traditional haiku, imagery often reflected that and allowed the author to emphasize seasonal ideas. Haiku is not necessarily about the reality of what the author is writing about, but more so about the ability of the reader to conceptualize their own meaning behind the poem. Haiku, as a rhetorical act, is about a writer and reader sharing an observation or perception of a small moment through specifically tailored language.


  1. Wikipedia (November 2022). Kireji. Wikipedia
  2. Wikipedia (April 2021). On. Wikipedia
  3. Wikipedia (November 2022). Kigo. Wikipedia
  4. Wikipedia (December 2022). Renga. Wikipedia
  5. Wikipedia (April 2022). Haiku. Wikipedia
  6. Wikipedia (March 2021). Yamato Takeru. Wikipedia
  7. Wikipedia (January 2022). Masaoka Shiki. Wikipedia
  8. Wikipedia (April 2022). Haiku in English. Wikipedia
  9. Wikipedia (April 2022). Haiku in languages other than Japanese. Wikipedia
  10. Wikipedia (March 2022). Matsuo Bashō. Wikipedia
  11. Wikipedia (April 2022). Shinto. Wikipedia

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