The Japan series: the gold of small things

Haiku is treated with reverence in Japan and its practitioners number around 8 million within the country alone. Outside of the country, haiku has its fans, but like many non-Japanese who encounter it, I lacked an awareness of the complexity and history behind this three-lined poetry.

In visiting Japan, I sought to redress this. I took advantage of my journalistic credentials to conduct some interviews and visit some important sites relevant to haiku; a process which led me to speaking to the President and a Director of the Haiku International Association. The former, Dr Akito Arima, served as a Minister for Science and Education from 1998-99. Dr Arima began his career as a nuclear physicist, showing that a strong love of the arts and the sciences are not at all incompatible.

The Director of the HIA who I spoke to was Kiuchi Toru, a Professor of English as Nihon University. After a couple of false starts, I managed to arrange a meeting with him at the Museum of Haiku Literature in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Our conversation, recorded at the museum and aired on ArtSound FM, is below.

As part of my research, I also paid a visit to the Basho Memorial Museum, which commemorates a leading light in haiku’s history, Matsuo Basho. Built on the general site where the poet once lived, the vast majority of the displays were in Japanese, but fortunately I had with me a trusty translator – a girl who worked at the guest house where I was then staying.

Prior to exploring the artefacts, my Japanese friend and I intruded on the last half hour of a haiku class that was in session in a meeting room of the museum. It was a scheduled intrusion, so all was well.

We took our seats at one of the tables that had been arranged into a large circle bordering the room. My friend translated bits and pieces of what was going on as the class resumed, and through her I enjoyed a conversation with the student I sat next to; a man in his 60s who had been learning the art of haiku for decades.

He was far from being the oldest in the class. That honour went to a 90-something year old woman who had also studied haiku for much of her life. And still, he said, they had much to learn.

On my last night in Japan, I wrote up my experiences and what I had learned about haiku into an article for the ACT Writers Centre magazine. Deadlines are deadlines! I’ve adapted it and featured it below; publishing it under a revised title.

Interview with Professor Kiuchi – listen now:

The Gold of Small Things

Haiku, the shortest of poems, is a slippery beast. We learn about it in high school and think that because we have met the syllabic criteria that we have mastered the form – but as I learned from my recent trip to Japan, the haiku is so much more than its three lines betray.

During my trip, I had the great fortune to meet the former Japanese Minister of Education, Science, Sports and Culture, Dr Akito Arima, who is the current President of the Haiku International Association (HIA). I also caught up with one of the Directors of the HIA, Professor Kiuchi Toru, who helped to fill the gaps of my knowledge about haiku.

Dr Arima generously gave me an hour of his time at the Musashi Gakuen (a school system consisting of a university, junior and senior high school), or which he is the chancellor. He started by giving me an overview of the history of haiku, which is important to understanding why haiku exists in the form that it does today.

`The history of haiku is about four hundred years,’ Dr Arima said. ‘Before that, even now, we had a slightly longer poem which had 31 syllables, called ‘tanka’. ‘Tan’ meaning short, ‘ka’ meaning poem. This tanka, shorter poem, were called Japanese poems in the 7th and 8th century.’

After having written and adapted Chinese forms of poetry for many centuries, forms of poetry established by the Japanese in the 8th century began to gain traction – namely, tanka and renga; a collaborative poetry that is the result of three or more poets’ contribution (‘ren’ meaning ‘continuing’).

Tanka poems consist of 31 syllables. It comprises three lines with a 5-7-5 syllabic structure, then a final two lines of 7-7 syllables.

In explaining how haiku came about, Dr Arima described how tanka was favoured by high society and intellectuals, but from the 16th century, ordinary citizens such as merchants and farmers became richer and better educated and they wanted poetry of their own.

‘They wanted to have new poems with jokes, humour, wit,’ he affirmed.

‘In creating a new form of poem, they chopped the tanka into two parts, taking the first part (5-7-5), so that it became independent. And this new poem is called Haiku. ‘Hai’ meaning joke, or wit, or humour.’

With the rise of this new form, fuelled by a different ideology, there were the inevitable critics.

‘The citizens all enjoyed it, but they compared those poems with humour with classic tanka, which are written by intellectuals,’ Dr Arima said. ‘[Haiku was] interesting, but very light. Forgettable. [Critics] started to criticize new haiku, newborn haiku.’

Enter the acclaimed 16th century Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho. Basho’s role in re-inventing the haiku cemented his place in history – his new haiku combined the humour of haiku with the richness of classic tanka and Chinese poems, which the intellectuals of his time appreciated, to create new and improved haiku. His famous haiku about a frog leaping into a pond became the archetype for the haiku we know today. It reads:

Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto
The old pond / a frog jumps in / the sound of water.

At the Museum of Haiku Literature in Tokyo, Professor of English at Nihon University and Director of the HIA, Toru Kiuchi, explained to me the layers of Basho’s haiku about the frog and the pond.

‘The old pond and the frog are not beautiful things to traditional poets from the 7th century onwards,’ Professor Kiuchi said. ‘But haiku poets found a new beauty in the frog and old pond.’

Professor Kiuchi likened the frog jumping into the pond to the discovery of a new world. The new traditions starting from haiku is the frog, and classic tanka is the old pond.

These layers of meaning are part the beauty of the haiku. Because of the shortness of its form, anyone can write haiku, but haiku is by no means simple. The three-lined, 17 syllable haiku manages to convey a litany of ideas and contexts – so extensive that some say a lifetime of accumulated literary, historical and worldly knowledge is required to fully understand and appreciate it.

A haiku can also give rise to a multitude of interpretations, as Matsuo Basho’s famous frog pond haiku demonstrates. Academics, students and lovers of poetry alike have differing opinions on what the old pond represents and what Basho was saying about the sound the frog makes upon breaking the water’s surface or the the significance of the image of ripples that is created by this act.

When I asked Dr Akito Arima why he writes haiku he replied, ‘Very simple. I like nature. So anytime, if I go to your country, especially in Canberra, I go to your beautiful botanical garden.’

‘I enjoy writing haiku to remember how beautiful a landscape was, and how kind the people are. I write many haikus about your country.’

He shared with me a haiku he had written when he visited Melbourne, as well as its its backstory.

‘When I went to Melbourne almost 20 years ago, I went to the beach to see penguins,’ Dr Arima said. ‘I waited and waited, to be told that many penguins will come back in evening. And we wait two hours or three hours, drinking the coffee or wine.’

‘Then finally, the sun set. Then there was an announcement: “Penguins are coming back from the waterfront”. We rushed onto the beach, and in only one minute, they came in, and rushed into the bushes. Except one.

‘That evening, a full moon was in the sky. The last penguin [finally came in]. I made a poem about this.’

pengin no ichiwa okureshi haru no tsuki

one penguin
falls behind the flock—
spring moon

This poem was included in Dr Arima’s collection of haiku titled Einstein’s Century: Akito Arima’s Haiku. Dr Arima’s haiku was translated for this book by Lee Gurga and Emiko Miyashita.


How Dr Arima finds inspiration for his haiku (i.e. through nature) dovetails neatly with the three main rules for writing a traditional haiku. These include the three-line, 5-7-5 syllable formation, and the use of a season word, or ‘kigo’.

Professor Kiuchi stated though that modern, non-Japanese haiku writers consider capturing a moment in time to be more important than it having a ‘kigo’.

‘Haiku poets outside of Japan do not concentrate on season words in haiku,’ Professor Kiuchi said.

‘Instead, they are always thinking of the ‘haiku moment’ when they are trying to write haiku.’

Professor Kiuchi went on to explain that the ‘Haiku moment’ was invented outside of Japan and that it is about the here and the now.

‘You write haiku based on what is right in front of you. This is the ‘haiku moment’, and when you catch that haiku moment, the haiku is very beautiful and very good.’

He added, ‘Contrarily, [Japanese haiku writers] are always thinking about season words like cherry blossoms and snow and mist. But the climate and weather are different internationally, like Australia is completely different from Japan.’


According to Professor Kiuchi, there are about 8 million people in Japan who write haiku and numerous haiku societies in Japan, all of which publish haiku journals. Internationally, he estimates there to be a further half a million more writers of haiku and haiku societies in Europe, Australia and both North and South America. Through his experience of acquiring haiku-related material for the Museum of Haiku Literature, he knows of at least 70 countries that publish journals and anthologies and collections of haiku.

The Haiku International Association’s aim is to promote haiku around the world and encourage more people to write the short, beautiful poems. While Professor Kiuchi feels that the HIA’s promotion of haiku amounts to educating and increasing appreciation of Japanese culture overseas, Dr Arima expressed wider views on what writing haiku can achieve.

‘I believe basically that human beings like to love each other, and that they like to conserve and appreciate the beauty of nature.’ Dr Arima said. ‘They don’t want to destroy nature; they don’t want to fight each other. But, sometimes it’s not easy to keep the peace.’

Dr Arima highlighted the importance of countries talking to one another, eating and drinking together, and exchanging their own poems.

‘Particularly short poems,’ he emphasised. ‘Because haiku is short, all people can write short poems to express their own feelings. We can exchange our poems. Then we will start to understand each other.

‘Therefore, I hope that through haiku, we can make world peace.’

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