The History of Haikus

In the twilight rain these brilliant-hued hibiscus A lovely sunset

Does this writing style look familiar to you? This poem by Matsuo Basho is a modern example of what we know as a haiku. We can distinguish this Japanese art form by identifying the poem’s separation and order of syllables. This haiku, like most we see in modern times, is separated by three lines and follow the 5-7-5 syllable format. But how did it get to this set up? Where do these poems come from?

Haikus aren’t just a way to nail down how to count syllables. They stem from ancient Shinto songs that consist of short lyrical stanzas that are strung together. These utas, as they used to be referred to as, came in a variety of forms and lengths. The most popular form of these poems was the waka which included 35 syllables broken up into lines of 7 or 5. We know this format to be the beginnings of the modern haiku. Waka poetry was so successful amongst writers and readers alike that it was widely practiced for years and years, and are still written today. They can be considered the haiku’s predecessor.

The modern form of the haiku really began to take shape in the 17th century, when poetry master Matsunaga Teitoku shared his passion for verse poetry with then fledgling poet Matsuo Basho. Teitoku taught about renga poetry, in which writers collaborate to form a sort of chain poem. Inspired by what he learned from Teitoku, Basho spread these teachings throughout Japan. Basho’s teachings would reach thousands and his books would serve as inspiration for Japanese poets. It would take 200 years of practice, and use of the haiku in different contexts for it to be revised into its current form.

The haiku was given its name and finally ordered into the modern 5-7-5 structure by literary icon Masaoka Shiki in 1827. A while after (about a century), this reform in Japanese literature, the haiku became an international sensation. Western writers noticed the haiku could take on any context and remain subtle and impactful. From fantasy, to sorrow, to romance, the haiku became a mold for any story could fit into and make an impact.

It’s a simple thing, the haiku. Just three lines long, it still holds a world of history and passion.