Introduction to Japanese Poetry

Excerpt from Kokin Wakashu (Gen'ei edition, 1120)

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It's not just the haiku!

When we think of "Japanese poetry", we mainly think of haiku, this very short form known for capturing the present moment in three lines, sometimes so concise that they become enigmatic, especially for those who do not read or speak Japanese. Today, haiku has traveled the world and even won over non-Japanese poets. However, Japanese poetry is far from being reduced to this single form. Here are some keys to discovering Japanese poetry.

Les poètes Boncho, Basho et Kyorai

Poets Boncho, Basho and Kyorai

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Did Matsuo Basho write haiku?

Without going into the complexities of the evolution of Japanese poetry (there are many), we can mention its major milestones. At the very beginning, as in many literate cultures, poetry appeared not in written form, but oral form. The poems were first songs or stories with a particular rhythm. Then, with the writing and influence of Chinese civilization, a new phase began for written poetry.

Until the 17th century, the most widespread form of poetry was renku (a form also known as haikai ) which consists of a long poem – 17 successive verses of 14 syllabic feet – written in several hands. Matsuo Basho excelled in the art of producing haikai and often got together with other poets to compose. So how come he is best known as a great haiku poet?


Read also: 7 famous haiku places

Matsuo Basho Yamagata

Statue of the poet Basho in Yamagata, one of the stops on his journey north.

Junya Ogura

The collaborative writing of Japanese poetry

In Japan, it is not uncommon for poets (of haiku or otherwise) to get together for some sort of "composition" meeting. This practice dates back to an old tradition among Japanese poets: collaborative composition. This gives rise not only to an exercise in style but also to creative emulation between the participants.

This practice also stems from an even older tradition, which made poets confront each other in a sort of competition. They then had to compose around a given theme under the gaze of judges. The same principle applies today in these composition meetings, at times without a judge. There is no winner or loser either, but the pleasure of friendly artistic composition.

Sakura fubuki

A storm of cherry blossoms.



At the heart of Japanese poetry: the kigo

When it comes to writing haiku, each poet must come and present a poem on a theme defined in advance: the kigo. Here is another technical term: it is an expression, a group of words, a concept, relating to the change of the seasons.

Japan is known for its very marked seasons and a culture where nature is central, it is not surprising that the passages between seasons inspire literature and poetry. For example, the moment when cherry blossoms lose their petals, which then blow away in the wind creating pink squalls in the sky, has a name: sakura fubuki (cherry blossom storm). This is a kigo that can end up at the heart of a haiku.


Les saisons : sources d'inspiration des poètes japonais

The seasons: sources of inspiration for Japanese poets


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