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Japanese poetry as we know it today can be summed up in haikus which are small three-line Japanese poems often linked to nature. They aim to capture an ephemeral moment in our life that may have made us happy, or simply marked us for a particular reason, by leaving written traces of this same moment. Haikus are short and concise and are increasingly referred to in the West as part of poetry in general. They especially appeal to students because of their brevity and teachers find that it is indeed an interesting parallel with the classical poetry that we are used to studying. Additionally, the study of haikus provides insight into Zen philosophy and what Japanese culture has to offer us.

The emergence of poetry in Japan

If poetry emerged in Japan in the 8th century, it is above all because the Japanese court wanted to translate Chinese Buddhist writings into the subtleties of the Japanese language. Buddhism having been imported two centuries earlier in the 6th century, it continued to develop massively in the country, hence the particular interest in translating these religious writings. However, it was a long and laborious work because the two languages ​​did not have much in common at the time. Whether on the syntactic level or on the semantic level.

The first writings that emerged from this craze for poetry and which mentioned it for the first time are the Kojiki manuscripts (712) and Nihon shoki (720). These books were originally intended to keep track of the mythological stories propagated by orators who were sanctioned by the court. But we find within it an important place given to poetry and this is how poetry began to become popular throughout the territory of the Rising Sun.

The craze for poetry in Japan during the Heian period (794-1185)

The Heian period marks a decisive turning point for poetry in Japan because it is at this time that poetry will fully integrate into Japanese culture and customs. The imperial court and the aristocracy will then begin to flourish in literacy thanks to familiar relationships with Chinese scholarship. There is an important literary heritage from this period today.

The Tale of Genji is a very good example; it is still today a major work of Japanese literature, but also of literature on a world scale. It was written in 1008 and it will lay the literary and poetic foundations of future genres that will subsequently emerge in Japan. It is a psychological novel which tells the story of a prince in the Heian period and which highlights all the problems that can be linked to human relations in the imperial court. It was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese aristocrat, and is also the oldest novel in human history that we know of to this day.


The Tale of Genji will therefore establish a literary style focused on poetry called monogatari and will at the same time determine the style of setsuwa style stories (popular tales based on an oral translation), gunki-mono (war tales) but also zuihitsu (free prose style).

The development of short poetry

Waka , or yamato uta, is one of those poetic genres that emerged during and following the Heian period. It is composed of two distinct styles of poems called chōka for long poems and tanka for short poems. It was the tanka that developed more than the chōka and subsequently gave birth to the haikai.

The haikai are poems divided into three parts, the first of which is called hokku and is made up of a triplet of 5.7 then 5 syllables. Although the entire haikai structure fell somewhat into disuse due to its complexity, the hokku, on the other hand, found many followers, of whom Bashô (1644-1694) was the main one. They were subsequently popularized in the 19th century under the name haikus under the leadership of the poet Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902).

The appearance of haikus

Haikus therefore appeared in the 17th century under their first name hokku. Bashô will be the main initiator, himself a samurai converted into a poet following the death of his master in 1666, he will become famous in Edo where he resided in 1769 for his numerous haikus which remain, even today, the most popular. Here are some examples:

Few people in this world

notice the flowers of the chestnut tree

above the awning


In the late cherry blossoms

spring going away



What silence!

permeating the rock

the cry of the cicadas


The one that flashes

did not illuminate

it must be rented


Haiku can be seen as a way to capture a fleeting moment in life and reconnect with nature. Poets, and even samurai who were great fans of poetry themselves, used haikus to capture a fleeting moment in life that might seem mundane and keep a written record of it.


Of all forms of poetry, haiku is perhaps the most demanding of the reader. It indeed requires an effort of imagination from the latter to glimpse the moment that the poet tried to capture despite the smallness of the details present in only three lines. Without a sensitive audience it will be difficult to glimpse the magic of haikus.

However, Bashô was not the only one to master the haiku pen. Two other poets succeeded him and still remain particularly popular today for their haikus. Issa (1814–1823) who over the centuries knew how to transmit to us his mourning of solitude (he lost his mother at the age of two, his children when they were still very young then finally his wife) then Shiki (1867-1902) who gave new impetus to haikus by renaming them in the 19th century. Here are some of their haikus:

my late mother

every time I see the mother

every time I see the mother


Autumn wind

she always wanted to snatch

red flowers


Without you in truth

too big

are the groves



Taking my meal

The summer winds


In the winter river

of a dog that was thrown away

the corpse


Sponge squash blooms

phlegm thickens

so it's death


Towards the railway

low flight of wild geese



The spider that we kill

loneliness after

coldness of the night

Haikus today

Since the time of Bashô, the history of haiku reflects the Zen ideal that the poet tends to achieve by capturing a small moment of life and bringing his personal poetic perspective to it. Despite its changes and the evolutions that haikus may have undergone over the centuries, those that we find today are very similar to those that already existed in the Edo period that Bashô popularized.

For those who are interested and would like to go further, do not hesitate to go to the website of the Association francophone de haikus which tends to popularize in our modern era these little Japanese poems which allow those who try to let the poet who is hidden in each of us speak.


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