History of Haiga

Haiga are the merging of the Japanese poetic forms of haiku or senryū and an image inspired or derived from the poem. Both haiku and senryū have a similar architectural structure as their base. They both follow the 5-7-5 syllabic count you likely recall from grade school. There are, however, some more subtle distinctions which you may find of interest.

The haiga art form was made popular by the 18th Century Japanese poet and painter Yosa Buson. This article will get into the history and stylism of this strict poetic artform. We'll explain the difference between a haiku and senryū, and then discuss how the rise of artificial intelligence in the realm of image creation has rekindled an interest in this form of poetry.

What's the difference between a Haiku and a Senryū?

a short history of haiku

Definition of haiku

: an unrhymed verse form of Japanese origin having three lines containing usually five, seven, and five syllables respectively

also : a poem in this form usually having a seasonal reference


It is generally accepted by poetic scholars that Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) is the creator of what we now call haiku. His most famous haiku is his "old frog" one, which is so simple yet complex, there are at least thirty-two different translations of it and everyone agrees, none are quite right.

A haiku originally was referred to as hokku. They were the first verse of a longer poetic form, which was a series of collaborative linked verse between poets. The structure of a hokku was 5-7-5 syllables (or the Japanese equivalent, which are phonetic sounds). The hokku portion was eventually separated completely from the other two lines. As the Poetry Foundation has described it:

Not popularized in Western literature until the early 1900s, the form originates from the Japanese hokku, or the opening section of a longer renga sequence. In this context, the hokku served to begin a longer poem by establishing a season, often with a pair of seasonal images. Unlike the rest of the renga sequence, which was composed collaboratively, the hokku was often created by a single poet working alone, and was subsequently used as an exercise for students. Over time, the hokku began to be appreciated for its own worth and became distinct as a poetic form, formally mastered by poets such as Basho and Yosa Buson. [Bold added.]

In 1890's poet Masaoka Shiki started referring to hokku as haiku and separated them. He was of the belief that the haiku itself was an independent poem, complete in itself. At the start of the 20th Century, western poets and authors such as Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, James Joyce, and William Carlos Williams began experimenting with the haiku. Then, in the late 1940's and 1950's, the Beat poetic movement of Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac, embraced it. Kerouac even suggested a change in the haiku form given the use of it in non-Japanese languages:

"A 'Western Haiku' need not concern itself with seventeen syllables since Western Languages cannot adapt themselves to the fluid syllabic Japanese. I propose that the 'Western Haiku' simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western Language."

Over the decades since there has continued to be an interest in haiku, particularly amongst children. Haiku are usually written in the present tense, which is rare in poetry and prose. It gives an immediacy which other poetic forms don't have. Traditional haiku have a connection to nature or a season. They often have a kigo, which is a seasonal word or reference to a specific time of year.

Haiku also try to evoke an snapshot of an image in the mind of the reader or listener. At the same time, the image can be understood in a completely different way. This is done by using a "cutting word" called a kireji to separate the images or thoughts. Where in the haiku the kireji is placed, is one of the stylistic aspect of haiku studied by scholars.

Here are some examples of the common ones listed on the kireji wiki page:

  • ka (か): emphasis; when at end of a phrase, it indicates a question

  • kana (哉/かな): emphasis; usually can be found at a poem's end, indicates wonder

  • -ramu or -ran (〜らむ/〜らん): verbal suffix indicating probability

  • -ya (や): emphasises the preceding word or words. Cutting a poem into two parts, it implies an equation, while inviting the reader to explore their interrelationship

As one might expect, there is some tension between the haiku traditionalist and those who prefer the more modern style of haiku. But the one thing they can agree on, is that haiku and senryū are two different things.

a short history of senryū

Definition of senryū

: a 3-line unrhymed Japanese poem structurally similar to haiku but treating human nature usually in an ironic or satiric vein


Senryū share the same syllabic structure as haiku (5-7-5), but they lack both a seasonal reference and the typical cutting word. Instead, they are about different aspects of humanity and often are cynical, sarcastic, or somehow humorous. Senryū are also unique because they are named after the poet who popularized them.

His pen name was Karai Senryū (1718 - 1790). He was a well-known judge of poetry competitions in Japan and after reading thousands of haiku each year, he began writing his own version which were said to reflect his sense of humor and style. This uniqueness was enough to allow senryū to develop on its own, and stand apart from haiku. Practically speaking, however, many modern day "haiku" are actually more senryū than haiku.

a short history of haiga

The mixing of a Haiku or Senryū with an image, the joinder creating something new.

During the Edo period (1602–1869), a new visual poetry form was born, called Haiga. Haiga is a haiku/senryu poem combined with a painting or drawing. Haiga blended the poem with a picture that showed the essence of the poem, or commented upon it in same way. Creating haiga is thought to be a type of Buddhist meditation. There is a good article in Tricycle about the practice.

The Japanese painter Yosa Buson, is widely considered second only to Bashō as a master of haiku, and is considered the father of haiga. Modern haiga often combines a poem with a photograph or painting.

Mike Rehling gives a great history of Haiga in his presentation: