Composing an English Haiku Contest

Ian Willey, Kagawa University; Susan Antolin, Haiku Poets of Northern California

In this issue’s Teaching Assistance the authors describe the challenges of organizing and judging a haiku contest for Japanese university students and non-Japanese teaching assistants. The contest helped to generate student interest in a university language center with teachers who provide conversational guidance as well as international students who participate in classes and community events. Ian Willey is a professor of English at Kagawa University with a passion for writing poetry. His haiku have been published in the Asahi Shimbun and The Heron’s Nest. Susan Antolin encountered haiku when she lived in Japan in 1988 and began composing the literary form in 2002 at a creative writing workshop. Now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she is an accomplished haikuist, edits Acorn: A Journal of Contemporary Haiku, and is newsletter editor for the Haiku Poets of Northern California.

Kagawa University holds various international events open to its community. The idea for an English haiku contest emerged in a meeting between English teachers and staff of the International Office at Kagawa University in the summer of 2019. An English essay contest was one option, but no one really enjoys writing essays (or for teachers, reading them); the prospect of an English haiku contest was raised and received with enthusiasm as something students and teachers might enjoy. Therefore, it was decided that a contest could rally student interest in the newly named Global Café, an on-campus language center.


Ian Willey agreed to teach a few orientation classes to introduce English haiku to students and to judge the contest. Susan Antolin was invited to join the project as a judge. A bilingual application page for entries was set up using Google Sheets, and once the application period opened, students could submit one or two English haiku. Winners would receive toshoken (book coupons) at a ceremony held after an English presentation contest. In addition, David McMurray, editor of the Asahi Haikuist Network, agreed to include the winners in upcoming columns. Everything was set. Next came the hard part.

Orienting Students

English haiku is markedly different from Japanese haiku. When writing in English, haikuists tend not to follow the conventions of Japanese haiku, such as the three-line, five-seven-five syllable count and the requisite kigou, or seasonal word. Also, the distinction between haiku and senryu (haiku-like poems that satirize human society) is less clear-cut in English (Willey, 2016). To introduce students to the style and substance of English haiku, two lunchtime orientation classes were held in the Global Café in October, one month before the submission period opened. However, attendance for these classes was sparse, partly because of the time and partly because students from certain faculties, such as medicine, had classes at different campuses on those days.

Fearing that few students would enter the contest, English haiku was added to the syllabus of several classes to announce the contest and present examples of English haiku to students. It quickly became apparent that few students were interested in haiku, neither in English nor Japanese, several indicating that haiku were things that elderly people wrote after getting together to gaze at cherry blossoms or the moon. Talking about examples of haiku on PowerPoint slides put many students to sleep. A more effective technique was giving each student a haiku journal from the teacher’s own collection and having students find one or two haiku that they liked and writing about why they liked them. All students could then write their selections on the white board for class discussion. To further ready them for the contest, students were then assigned to write two English haiku for homework, and their efforts were shared in class in a similar fashion.

Student Efforts

Like anyone writing haiku for the first time, the greatest struggle for students was in finding an authentic voice. Their haiku sometimes had an artificial, often moralistic feel to them. The best haiku, we emphasized, arose spontaneously from a genuine moment of experience. Of course, this advice offered little assistance. Students were often able to set up an intriguing haiku but struggled to find an effective line to tie together their feelings (this is true for anyone who writes haiku!). Students were advised to stop struggling and let their ideas sit for a while, a common tactic for any writer but one that may not come naturally to students in today’s social media-saturated world.

Upon viewing students’ haiku before submission to the contest, it was necessary to help them to recognize how their haiku could be improved while not saying so directly. The poem should be the student’s creation, whereas the teacher’s role was to guide students towards improving their writing without direct intervention. Some students, on the other hand, wanted their work “fixed.” This resulted in some frustration on both sides. However, with some encouragement—and promises of extra credit points for entering the contest—a total of 130 students submitted haiku to the contest, far more than expected (such is the power of extra credit!). The contest also generated responses from international teaching assistants, including an author of a previous article in this column. Their enthusiasm for this contest was a pleasant surprise. Overall, the quality of entries was excellent—far higher than what is typically received in haiku contests by students in North America. Difficulty with use of the English language in students’ haiku was the only prominent problem.

For the most part, it was possible to overlook minor errors and focus on the content of each poem. The results were often dazzling. English haiku journals are typically filled with the writings of middle-aged English-speakers about topics of concern to the middle-aged. These students wrote about their own youthful concerns and experiences. Themes included the difficulties of waking up early, the ups and downs of young love, a cracked iPhone, and a father’s fatty liver. Some especially moving poems took something mundane and tapped into a wellspring of human emotion, as the haiku below illustrate:


Covered in sunlight

Reminds me of mother

—Sana Kawai (First year, Medicine)

Tomato soup

An autumn evening

Feels like home

—Alim Bican Çoban (International Office)

Takeaways for Teachers

Injecting English haiku into university English classes may hold benefits for students and teachers. Study of poetry in general has been claimed to be an excellent way to boost learners’ empathy (Ofri, 2013)—an essential ingredient of successful communication (Alda, 2018). The advantage of haiku is that students in Japan are familiar with it, so the teacher does not have to spend much time explaining how to write one in English. Poets cringe when people talk about finding meaning in poems. A more productive task would be to give writing and discussion assignments that ask students to probe the feelings of haiku writers and how the haiku affect the students personally. Having students write their own haiku is also a great way for teachers to see a different side of their students and to get a feel for the things bubbling beneath the surface of their classes. A little more empathy on both sides cannot hurt!


Alda, A. (2018). If I understood you, would I have this look on my face? New York: Random House.

Ofri, D. (2013). What doctors feel. New York: Beacon Press.

Willey, I. (2016). Fun with “student senryu.” The Language Teacher, 40(1), 24–25.