Thursday, October 10, 2013

Defining Haiku: The Truth About Counting Syllables

Here's a short article I wrote a while back for the haiku magazine I was running, Berry Blue Haiku. Thought it might interest some of you out there.

Many people today define haiku as a three-lined poem comprised of 17 syllables. It is true that traditional Japanese haiku followed the form of 5-7-5 sound units, but in Japan, sound units (called kana) are shorter and counted differently than English syllables.

For example, in English, the word London is counted as two syllables, but in Japanese, the word would be broken down in the following way: lo/n/do/n. (See Stalking the Wild Onji
by Richard Gilbert, PH.D.)

This means that if an English language haiku comprised of 17 syllables was translated into Japanese, it would be counted as having more than 17 Japanese sound units. This is why English language haiku that follow the 5-7-5 form can sometimes end up feeling wordy.

Another issue that can affect the syllable count is the use of cutting words (called kireji in Japanese), which is a category of words that indicate pauses or emphasis at the end of a line.

Kireji are written/spoken punctuation and were included in the sound unit count. This could ultimately take up to two or even three sound units. Since punctuation in English language haiku is not included in the syllable count, this also causes another sound unit/syllable imbalance.

Most modern haiku experts today agree that approximately 11 - 14 syllables is a closer equivalency to the 17 sound units found in traditional Japanese haiku.

But instead of counting "syllables" when writing haiku, many believe that a good rule of thumb is to try to keep to the form of a short line, then long, and then short line. 

Another option for teachers who would like to use haiku in relation to teaching syllables would be to go with a 3-5-3 syllable form.

When writing haiku, one should also remember to focus on the simple beauty of everyday moments. By using specific and descriptive vocabulary, poets can create vivid imagery that will come alive for the reader.  

In the end, this is what the true essence of haiku is all about!


  1. Eek! I knew it was complicated. I didn't realize it was THIS complicated.

    Great post, Gisele.

  2. Thanks, Stina! And yes, most people think haiku are these cutesy little poems, when it reality there is probably no other poetry form that has been more debated. There are many haiku "rules" that have come and gone over the years and many have their own definition of what haiku is or isn't. :)

  3. I never knew that there was a dissonance between English syllables and Japanese sound counts, nor did I know that Japanese contained spoken punctuation. No wonder people find it tough to translate the rules of writing haiku! Very interesting. :)

    1. Yeah, I think there is a lot that has been lost through translation--I think it also accounts for a lot of the misconceptions surrounding haiku. And, when it comes to the Japanese language, it gets even more complicated because there is kanji, which are symbols/characters, and kana which are the syllabic scripts. Fun, fun, fun! lol

  4. Wow! This makes sense broken down like this. Adding it to my toolkit.


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