Implications for teaching haiku in ESL and EFL contexts

Atsushi Iida


Outreach visits with Atsushi Iida in the U.S. to examine rhetorical differences between Japanese and English haiku anddiscover how he uses haiku poetrycomposedin Englishto teachwriting courses at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.His current interest is to determine how the shortest poem in the worldhelpsstudents to improve their second language writing skills (Iida, 2008).

Implications for teaching haiku in ESL and EFL contexts

While some researchers have reported on the practical use of haiku writing in classroom settings and how to enhance the understanding of Japanese culture by studying haiku at the secondary level in English classrooms in the U.S.(National Endowment for the Humanities, 2000; Ediger, 1993) few studies have indicated the theoretical rationale for applyinghaiku writing in the English language teaching context.Haiku uses specific rhetoric. First written in the 16th century, it is now used in discursive contexts all over the world for a variety of purposes: writing haiku for meditation therapy in self-healing in Finland (Sky Hiltunen, 2005); reading and writing haiku as a study of Japanese literature in fourth grade in the United States (Stokely, 2000);and writing haiku as creative writing in English classrooms in the United States (Cheney, 2002).

This study addresses two questions: What different syllable patterns do English haiku use? What different seasonal references do English haiku have?

To examine the rhetorical patterns of English haiku written by native speakers of Japanese, poems were taken from the Asahi Haikuist Network website <>. Contributors have been submitting haikufor publishing in the newspaper for 15 years, whichallows for longitudinal studies. One of the prominent features of this website is that not only native speakers of English but also native Japanese speakers are contributors. Data were collected on 10 November 2009 from among 222 published haiku (19 January–7 November 2008). For this study, 74 poems written by 34 Japanese writers were chosen.The 74 poems were analyzed depending on how many syllables were used in each line to examine the different patterns of haiku organization (see Table 1). Each haiku was analyzed in terms of kigo, which are seasonal references, or more specifically the kind of seasonal words used in English haiku.

Twenty-sevendifferent syllable patterns of English haiku can be categorized into five models: A-B-A model, A-B-C model, A-A-B model, A-B-B model, and A-A-A model.


Table 1. Syllable patterns of haiku in English published on the Asahi Haikuist Network


Number of haiku (N=74)

27 syllable patterns



3-5-3 (34); 3-4-3 (1); 3-6-3 (3); 3-7-3 (1); 4-5-4 (1); 2-6-2 (1); 5-2-5 (1)



2-4-3 (2); 2-5-3 (2); 2-7-4 (1); 3-2-6 (1); 3-5-4 (2); 3-5-6 (1); 3-6-2 (1); 3-7-1 (1); 3-7-4 (2); 4-5-3 (3); 4-7-5 (1); 7-5-3 (1)



3-3-1 (1); 4-4-2 (1); 4-4-3 (2)



2-4-4 (2); 2-5-5 (2); 3-5-5 (3); 3-6-6 (2) 



4-4-4 (1)


The A-B-A model uses the rhetoric similar to the traditional haiku. This model refers to the following pattern: the first and third lines have the same number of syllables, and the second line has the greatest number of syllables. It includes the 3-4-3, 3-5-3, 3-6-3, 3-7-3, 4-5-4, and 2-6-2 patterns. One of the common features which many Japanese writersof English haikushare is the 3-5-3 syllable pattern.


Watching soaps

in shiny red shoes

spring doldrums

(Noriko Yoshida)


Spring mid-day

the bus passengers

all seniors

(Satoru Kanematsu)


In addition to the 3-5-3 pattern, some Japanese writers compose haikuin which the second line has the most syllables rather than considering thenumber of syllables or thebalance of each line.


New inpatient

career hidden by

blue pyjyamas

(Kiyoshi Fukuzawa)


White ship

looms on the horizon

spring breeze

(Tatsuko Toshima)


The A-B-C model refers to haiku in which writers don’t follow the traditional rhetorical form at all. In this freestyle modelofcomposing haiku,the writer’s attention is drawnmore tocontent thantoform.The freestyle model consists of very different arrangements depending on the writer’swhim: patterns such as 2-4-3, 2-5-3, 2-7-4, 3-2-6, 3-5-4, 3-5-6, 3-6-2, 3-7-1, 3-7-4, 4-5-3, 4-7-5, 7-5-3.


Spring songs

from the hospice


(Murasaki Sagano)


Summer moon

listen to its tale--


(Noriko Yoshida)


The A-A-B model refers to haiku in which the first two lines share the same number of syllables and the third line has fewer syllables than the first two. There are three patterns: 3-3-1, 4-4-2, and 4-4-3 syllables.


Heavy snow



(Junko Yamada)



shrimp living only

on light

(Toshio Matsumono)


"The word of God"

so begins class

autumn term

(Shiro Ogawa)


The A-B-B model indicates poems in which the second and third lines use the same number of syllables and the first line includes fewer syllables than the last two lines. This model includes four patterns: 2-4-4, 2-5-5, 3-5-5, and 3-6-6 syllables.


Spring breeze

Audrey Hepburn

on a scooter

(Shoichi Kuroda)



up through my bowels

spring melancholy

(Sosuke Kanda)


Tree wrapping

removed on the day

school building complete

(Shizuka Suzuki)


Marx vs. Keynes

now just history

cherry petals scatter

(Sosuke Kanda)


The A-A-A model refers to haiku in which each line consists of the same number of syllables. 4-4-4 wasthe only such patternfoundin this study.


Difficult dream

grandmother twists

red nandina

(Mayu Takai)


English haiku written by native speakers of Japanese were categorized into five models. The only model which followed the traditional form of haiku was the A-B-A model, though there was a difference among writers in the number of syllables used. Other models didn’t follow the rhetorical haiku form. This result indicatesthat some Japanese writers didn't apply the traditional rhetoric to their English haiku.

Almost all the published haiku include season words or expressions. The use of these words is categorized into six patterns: season, month, climate, animals, plants, and events. One of the typical uses of seasonal references is the direct use of seasons or the usage of words combining with seasons. A word such as springorsummer is used inthehaiku.


Spring water

on the bridge belly

lights glimmer

(Satoru Kanematsu)


On the road

small sign of summer

rain season

(Yuka Komaki)


Some haiku include a specific month to clarify what season the poem refersto.


A June bride

pure white training ship

leaving port

(Yutaka Kitajima)



without the World War

is a month

(Kiyoshi Fukuzawa)


Climateis another concept of a season word.This concept includes not only weather but also temperature. This type of season word is used as a technique for illustrating a season without directly telling readers what it is. In the following examples, snowy refers to winter, blazing sunlinksto summer.


I can see

without prejudice

snowy rose

(Junko Yamada)


Blazing sun

a white cane searches

the pavement

(Satoru Kanematsu)


The animal season word category includes mammals, birds, fish, worms,andbugs. Cat is a season word for summer whilejasmine is also a word for the same season. The second example demonstrates howants areused to describe summer.


Jasmine night

gleam of a cat's eyes

in fragrance

(Satoru Kanematsu)


Two ants

struggle to carry a bug

Olympic cheers

(Tatsuko Toshima)


Words relevant to plants are frequently used in English haiku. This categoryconsists of trees, flowers, herbs, bushes,andgrasses. The following four examples illustrate the usage of a plant asaseason word. Cherry blossoms indicatespring, and so doplum blossoms. Hydrangea is used as a word referring to summer and bush clover is used as one of the typical plants representing fall.


Trip abroad complete

I bask

in cherry blossoms

(Nobuko Shimizu)


Dentist’s chair

lying face towards

plum blossoms

(Shoichi Kuroda)


'I am here'

dad's hydrangea

in full bloom

(Mieko Sueyoshi)


My birthplace

A deserted home--

Bush clover

(Nobuchika Wakabayashi)


Another categoryis events, more specifically cultural events. The first example refers to bon festivals,one of the most important traditional cultural eventsin Japan, and the second haiku also illustrates a big event in winter, Christmas.


Grave washing

as if it were dad

Bon visit

(Satoru Kanematsu)


Aged couple

opening a dusty box

Christmas lights and stars

(Shoichi Kuroda)


Instead of using a specific season word, some haiku represent the season. In the first example, a specific season word is not used in the haiku, but the first two lines can allow readers to understand that the poem is about winter. The second example also provides readers with a scene in autumn without a season word.


No flowers

nor chirping

poems inconvenience

(Tatsuko Toshima)


Reds and yellows

tumble down the hills

to village

(Shiro Ogawa)


Compared with traditional haiku rhetoric, published English haiku do not strictly follow the format in terms of syllables pattern. No English haiku written by native speakers of Japanese followed the traditional 5-7-5syllable pattern. However, this doesn't mean that Japanese writers ignore the rhetorical pattern in composing English haiku. Research results indicate that while there are many different patterns of English haiku, most writers tried to maintain a balance of three lines in haiku using A-B-A models. The closest form to the traditional haiku which most of the Japanese writersemployedwas the 3-5-3 pattern. This result may be connected to the different ways of counting syllables in the two languages. The 3-5-3 pattern in English haiku may be the pattern which is equivalent to the 5-7-5 pattern in composing haiku in Japanese.

Research results also indicate that there are some patterns inthe application of season words in English haiku.One of the prominent patterns which Japanese writers share when composing English haiku is the direct usage of a specific season (e.g. spring, summer, autumn, or winter) or the use of words combinedwith a season (spring water, spring morning, etc). The use of thesedirectkinds of season words is something Japanese writers want to avoid whencomposing haiku in Japanese. Much Japanese literature, in general, is comprised of indirectly making an argument and inviting readers to read between lines. Likewise, Japanese haiku is expected to allow readers to freely interpret the content and leave the reader wondering (Blasko & Merski, 1998). However, published English haiku written by Japanese writers didn't follow thisconvention. This may be partlybecause these writers consider their audience to benative speakers of English, and thus they modify their haiku approach to fit English-speaking culture. This approach may seem to ignore the traditional rhetoric of haiku poetry, but the arrangement which Japanese writers made by directly using a specific season word can enable native English readers to more easily interpret their English haiku.

The research results provide some educational implications in the application of English haiku to English writing classroom. First of all, the 3-5-3 syllable pattern can be considered as one fundamental model of English haiku. In this study there were 27 different patterns in 74 published haiku written by native speakers of Japanese.No English haiku followed the traditional 5-7-5 pattern. This means that English haiku allows forflexible patterns inthe number of syllables, but at the same time, two important issues which writing instructors need to consider arise: what English haiku is; and what the differences between English haiku and other types of English poems are. In order to maintain the concept of haiku, a similar syllable pattern should be applied to English haiku. In addition, writing instructors also need to consider is which types of words can be accepted as seasonal references.

College studentswho take creative writing coursesin the U.S.may be expected to develop arepertoire of Japanese seasonal words. International students who take ESL writingcoursesmay be expected to use allpossible season words extending beyond the original Japanese concept in order to gain cultural awareness as they share their haiku with their classmates. In this way, English haiku can be applicable to many contexts. Writing instructorscan encouragestudents to gain a greater awareness of audience. Developing audience awareness can enable writers to choose appropriate seasonal references in haiku and to communicate more effectively with their readers.

In this study, the rhetorical differences of published Japanese and English haiku written by native speakers of Japanese are uncovered. While traditional Japanese haiku strictly follows rhetoric patterns, English haiku are more freely composed. Syllable patterns in English haiku vary, althoughamodel consisting of the first and third line sharing the same number of syllables and the second line having the greatest number of syllables is the most common. The 3-5-3 syllable pattern is the format closest to following traditional Japanese haiku rhetoric. Seasonal references are categorized into six groups that include seasons, months, climates, animals, plants, and events. The first three categories are universal and can be readily understood by readers around the world. In contrast, thecategories ofanimals, plants, and events are culturally oriented andare not always understood in the same way bythose who have different languages and cultures. A prominent feature in English haiku written by Japanese writers is the reliance on referring directly to seasons, months, and climates. This is partly explained because the readers of the haiku may be native speakers of English or speakers of English as a second or foreign language. Hanauersuggests “Reading and writing poetry is an approach to literacy that promotes literacy activities as a means of exploring the relationship betweentheinternal and external worlds of the individual” (2004, p. 88). Haiku can be used as literacy practice and can provide language learners with opportunities to develop their language proficiency while giving them chances for self-discovery through a series of writing processes.



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