What are Haiku, Senryu and Tanka?


What are Haiku, Senryu and Tanka?


To help you get started, here is a short introduction to Japanese poetry styles.


What are Haiku?


Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry, consisting of 17 morae (or on), in three metrical phrases of 5, 7 and 5 morae respectively.  Haiku typically contain a kigo, or seasonal reference, and a kireji, or verbal caesura (cutting word).

English-language haiku poets think of haiku as a Japanese form of poetry generally (but not always) consisting of 17 syllables, usually within three lines, with 5, 7 and 5 syllables.

In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line, while haiku in English usually appear in three lines, to parallel the three metrical phrases of Japanese haiku. The essential element of form in English-language haiku is that each haiku is a short one-breath poem that usually contains a juxtaposition of images.

Most haiku writers prefer poems that refer to nature and social events, but some of them don’t always place an exacting seasonal word in the poem. Furthermore, a few of them write haiku composed on one or two lines in less than 17 syllables.  Currently the majority of haiku are written in 11 short syllables in a 3-5-3 format.


And Senryu?


Senryu is a Japanese form of short poetry similar to haiku in construction: three lines with 17 or fewer morae (or on) in total.  However, senryu tend to be about human foibles while haiku tend to be about nature, and senryu are often cynical or darkly humorous while haiku are more serious. Unlike haiku, senryu do not include a kireji or verbal caesura (cutting word), and do not generally include a kigo, or seasonal word.

It is often said that both haiku and senryu can be funny, but that if it’s funny, it’s probably senryu.  Both haiku and senryu can be about nature, but if it’s about nature, it’s probably a haiku.  In addition, both haiku and senryu can be about nature or human nature.  Both haiku and senryu can be serious or humorous/satirical.  A serious poem about nature is certainly a haiku.  And a funny/satirical poem about human nature is certainly a senryu.


So what about Tanka?


Tanka consist of five units (often treated as separate lines when transliterated or translated), usually with the following mora pattern: 5-7-5-7-7.

The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku (“upper phrase”), and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku (“lower phrase”).

47 thoughts on “What are Haiku, Senryu and Tanka?

  1. …there are so many opinions about haiku/senryu.
    _I tend to agree with the above, keeping my three lines minimal, and in (with me) an essential ‘incomplete sentence structure,’ leaving, I hope, a hole through which a reader’s mind can wander; the only punctuation I use… an ellipses. I am so often wrong in defining thr differance between haiku/senryu.
    _Once I had an Akita… we called him Seki. The Akita dog must have come from the ‘Akita’ area.

  2. Yes, Magyar san
    _really it’s sometimes difficult or impossible to tell haiku from senryu, so I usually enjoy both of them as s beautiful short form of poetry. maybe it’s OK for haiku poet to call his or her poem ‘haiku’, or for senryu poet to call his or her poem ‘senryu’.
    _your way of composing haiku or senryu keeping three lines minimal is nice, and it’s also nice to leave a hole in your structure, so your readers can imagine in their own ways,enjoying what they have in their mind
    _yes, Akita is very famous for the handsome Akita dogs. your dog must have been beautiful and clever.
    Hidenori Hiruta

  3. I disagree that haiku may encompass human nature. Traditionally, haiku are observations of nature. They are single moments of observation wherein the poet is moved on some level, but the poet is never introduced to the poem. There is no “I” or implication of “I” except that it is an image that is understood by the reader to be from the perspective of the poet. Senryu encompasses the human element and that is how it is differentiated from the haiku. Any suggestion of humanity or a singly person turns the poem instantly into a senryu. Of course, we all like to break the rules, but that is the traditional understanding of the forms.

  4. Eileen San,
    thank you very much for a nice comment.
    I really appreciate your viewpoint about the differences between haiku and senryu.
    Basically and traditionally, as you say, haiku is about nature without any implication of “I”.
    By the way, some Japanese haiku poets sometimes say,“I write senryu-like haiku.”
    And recently in Japan, short forms of poems such as haiku, senryu or tanka, have become more popular among people, and it seems to me that they enjoy expressing themselves through their favorite form of short poetry.
    In their cases, they begin writing haiku or senryu in their own ways, and enjoy them as they like.
    They seem to put an emphasis on expressing what they feel or think about nature or human affairs and what they have in mind.
    Last of all, we’re looking forward to appreciating your haiku or senryu in the near future.
    Would you please send them to us?
    We’d like to share haiku or senryu with each other on our website. Thank yu again. Hidenori Hiruta

  5. The smell of sugi
    Permeates the library –
    The columns have cracked!

  6. Peter Hook-san,
    thank you very much for your nice poetry in English and Japanese too.
    This is Senryu,isn’t it?
    I’m very sorry not to have replied to your comments through your poetry so long,but I’d like to express a lot of thanks for your contribution to our website.
    I sincerely hope that you’ll teach us more about poetry, giving us comments.
    Thank you again.
    With my best wishes,
    Hidenori Hiruta

  7. Hidenori-san, hello! I’ve really enjoyed reading these comments and the most recent poems on the blog. I’ve been writing too, so I hope to have more haiku finished soon. All good wishes from London – Helen

  8. Dear Helen-san, thank you very much for your comment! We are looking forward to your latest poems. I sincerely hope that you are enjoying your poetic life as usual. Best regards from Akita – Hidenori

  9. It’s always good to get a grounding in haiku, but there are so many styles and developments both inside and outside Japan over the years.

    wedding party
    a mother carries a heart
    on her handbag

    Alan Summers
    With Words

  10. Dear Alan-san, thank you very much for your nice remark. Thanks a lot for your nice haiku too.
    I am planning to study about the styles haiku is most written in, and to speak about the results of my study in the symposium whose theme is ‘Haiku in English’, held at Akita University on November 27 in Akita. Then I am willing to tell you about my report. Best regards from Akita – Hidenori

  11. I just discovered I have been writing Senryu for the past two years. Thank God the format is the same as Haiku. I could have sustained serious emotional damage

  12. Hello there,

    I really enjoyed reading your definitions. Thank you! I do have a question, however.

    You wrote: “The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku (“upper phrase”), and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku (“lower phrase”).”

    Can you elaborate a bit more on these terms, since I do not speak Japanese? I thought the upper phrase was originally called a “hokku,” … which Shiki coined a “haiku” when that 5-7-5 section was extracted from the longer 5-7-5-7-7 form called “haikai no renga.”

    I have never seen the “hokku” called a “kaminoku.” I am very interested in learning more about this! Thank you!


  13. Thanks so much for the information! I found haiku late (in 10th grade) and fell in love. Just recently saw some haiku that had “too few” syllables…but now I understand why! Thanks again.

  14. Hiruta-san,

    Thanks for your excellent explanations of these verse forms and their differences! Most informative.

    Writing about Tanka, you said: “The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku (“upper phrase”), and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku (“lower phrase”).” I seem to remember that “kami” is used to mean “gods” in Japanese folk religion – is that right? That could imply a division into divine and mundane.

    Recently I’ve been reading about one-line haiku, and came up with this:

    Pacific black duck … under water.

    I’d explain it, but it takes all day to convey context in an idiomatic way!

    Domo arigato, Hiruta-san!


  15. Yahya-san, thank you very much for your nice question.
    “kami-no-ku” is written 「上の句」 in Japanese.
    “kami” is 「上」in this phrase, which means “upper.”
    “gods” is also pronounced “kami” in Japanese, but is written 「神」. So, that could not imply such a division.
    One-line haiku is written, but your case is very difficult to understand. What the writer wants to express is difficult to grasp.
    Thank you again, Yahya-san!

  16. Hiruta-san,

    Thank you for your kind answer to my question!

    I noticed that you used the same character 「上」 for Japanese “kami” meaning “upper” as the Chinese “上 shàng” also meaning “upper”. And the 「下」character for Japanese “shimo” meaning “lower” is also another Chinese character “下 xià”, also meaning “lower”. These two words are sometimes used in Chinese as metaphors for heaven and earth, which is why I thought that Japanese might use them similarly. However, from what you wrote, I guess they only have a literal meaning. Besides, many writers assure us that haiku are very much based on realistic observation of the physical world through the senses, some even going so far as to ban every kind of metaphor! (Which is a very strange restraint on poetry, don’t you think?) So perhaps tanka is also a very concrete, non-metaphorical style of poem?

    kami-no-ku (“upper phrase”) 「上の句」 and
    shimo-no-ku (“lower phrase”) 「下の句」

    As for understanding the “duck” haiku I mentioned, that does require knowing its specific context. May I draw a parallel? Many poems from cold northern lands use the image of snow. And in those places it’s familiar, a commonplace. Yet living here in sunny Australia, some of us have never seen snow; for others it’s something they might experience only once or twice in a lifetime; and only the dedicated sportsperson will make annual trips to enjoy snow. So for us, it’s mostly an alien concept; and a writer seeking to communicate through familiar images will quite naturally choose the scenery of the cities, roads, bush and beaches instead. Indeed, in our ever more urbanised world, some of the most universal images are becoming those of city life; we feel this even here on the edge of the desert and the oceans (we boast of having three!)

    There are those who claim that a work of art needs no explanation; this is arrant nonsense. People don’t know what they don’t know! Only when we know everything will every context be immediately available to our understanding, so that we can then explain the artists’ work even better than the artists themselves can ;-). Until that wonderful day, we still need each other’s help. If you wish, I will try to give the background information necessary to understand the duck ku. But it will take time.

    Again, thanks for reading and commenting.


  17. Dear Yahya-san,
    Thank you very much for your nice comments.
    I am going to answer in the near future.
    Best regards,
    Hidenori Hiruta

  18. Hello Sir Hiruta, I just saw this article on the web, had no idea this is yours, glad finding this. I want to learn more about Japanese poetry.
    Hoping you will share some of your writes in World Union of Poets Japan.
    I made you Admin so you can post and edit at anytime , just that.
    We need the contributions of Japanese poets,
    and hoping too that you will invite Japanese Poets to WUPJapan for one main objective
    Uniting all Poets advocating World Peace through Poetry.

    Manuelle Augustine
    World Union of Poets Japanl
    Quotes Words Poetry
    Hall of Poets

  19. Dear Manuelle Augustine san,
    Thank you very much for your invitation. Akita International Haiku Network is a volunteer group, so we have no list of members. Any readers are free to join our activity if they are willing to. And of course, we are non-profitable association. Volunteers can send and share their poetic works of art, poetry without paying any. As a result, all I can do is to write my haiku for WUP Japan. I am sorry that I cannot do much. Lastly, please ask some members at Haiku International Association.
    Hidenori Hiruta

  20. I guess the following is senryu rather than haiku, if either, since it is people-oriented. This was something I said in conversation, and only then realized it fit the five-seven-five format. Since the form seems to require a seasonal reference, at least for haiku, I did in a title.

    Autumn Senryu

    I can’t wait until
    Senility, when it all
    Will be new again.

    First time poet

  21. A good debate. Certainly the rules appear to change constantly – which I think is a good thing. It prevents stagnation and allows new thinking, while keeping in touch with the original traditions:

    the homeless boy’s hand
    stretched out under Christmas lights
    collecting raindrops

    floating over the schoolyard fence
    laughter º º º º

  22. I have been going by senryu haiku and been in more than one discussion of the subject ~ haiku is a haiku is a haiku.

    Here is my question to make my thinking clear on the discussions I’ve been in. Haiku is a genre, is senryu a separate genre than haiku?

  23. the old snow melted
    alone on the island shore
    children given up
    these dark waters are still cold
    and only the pearl divers knew

  24. Please tell me what form of poetry this is, if any.

    undulating waves
    intimacy rising high
    bursts of fulfilment

  25. Dear Gita,

    undulating waves
    intimacy rising high
    bursts of fulfilment


    As you correctly suggest, I don’t think it’s a poetic form as such, but could be made into a poetic stanza perhaps? As it’s three lines, it’s a tercet, just as two lines is a couplet etc…

    It feels like a positive statement of joy, a type of exultation. It just needs a couple of pieces of grammar such as an article (a, an, the) and a preposition (e.g. in)


    undulating waves
    an intimacy rising high
    in bursts of fulfilment

    or with a personal pronoun it could become part of a tanka?

    undulating waves
    our intimacy rising high
    in bursts of fulfilment
    [add another
    two lines]

    If you run an internet check on this title:
    “The definite and indefinite article – how a house passes along the train of haiku” by Alan Summers at Area 17 blog
    you’ll find useful information about when to add an article in haiku.

    With tanka (often five lines when written in English) I would keep the language and words simpler:

    only inches
    away from midday
    in the heat of the sun
    I trail the tracks
    across your skin

    Alan Summers

    warmest regards,

    Alan Summers
    co-founder, Call of the Page

  26. | Destitution |

    Parents are crying
    Children are slowly dying
    The night ends too slow

  27. Sick children sleeping
    Parents watch, waiting, weeping
    For all that they know

  28. haikujourney asked:
    2018/12/15 at 10:11 pm

    “Here is my question to make my thinking clear on the discussions I’ve been in. Haiku is a genre, is senryu a separate genre than haiku?”

    Both haiku and senryu have origins from the group of poets activity called renga (and renku). Both renga and renku are forms, and possibly the most complicated and complex type of poetry there is, too! Hokku was the first verse that would start a renga or renku and it had its rules, so whether as a haikai verse starting renga or renku, or as a standalone poem, I’d say it’s a form and not a genre, although it can continue to evolve to a certain extent as can many poetry forms.

    Haiku was very close to hokku, but successive world wars changed its stance, so that it included more social issues, as well as science and engineering, and other modern developments arising from the Industrial Revolution and the technological revolutions we see happen almost daily.

    Senryu also came out of renga and renku, and was also a device of poets to poke fun at hokku and haiku poets, as well as politicians of course.

    Senryū- An Application to be a) human:

    Click to access Senryū-An-Application-to-be-a-human-by-Alan-Summers.pdf

    warmest regards,

    Call of the Page

  29. I write in Finnish and after translation (in most cases to English), I cannot keep my counting fit.
    Is translating consider haiku still?

    White swan breaks the blue surface, revealing his muddy feet.

  30. Hiruta-san, thank you for your article. I have attempted to create something using the guidelines laid out.

    The Autumn wind plays. Chasing falling leaves away on a journey home.

  31. Thank you for your creative haiku, Lisa-san,
    Your haiku reminds me of the following haiku: Autumn winds / leaves flutter upon / the narrow road
    This was written in October, 2004, while I was reading “The Narrow Road to Oku” (Oku no Hosomichi) by Matsuo Basho(1664-1694) as translated by Donald Keene. I composed it to keep cozy, when the nights were getting longer and chillier. Thank you again.

  32. Dear Heikki,

    If you don’t know about this feature on haiku from Finland, enjoy!

    This article covers haiku written by poets living or working in Finland, by Finns abroad, or by poets working in one of the languages of Finland, i.e., Finnish and Swedish (the two official languages), Romani, Karelian, and variants of Sami.

    warmest regards,
    Alan Summers
    co-founder, Call of the Page

  33. Attemp of senryu:

    Retroacting waves.
    Wind moving still. Horizon
    has been painted. Sea.

    In harbour, workers never
    stop for swearing their work load.

  34. For the person who believes that Haiku is about nature and only nature, there’s Issa’s most famous poem on the anniversary of his child’s death: “The world of dew/is a world of dew/and yet, and yet. (Robert Haas translation)l or this haiku: even a woodpecker/wouldn’t crack the tea hut/in the summer grove. Use nature, but capture a more profound truth about human nature. They can be loved at face value, or pondered on, for more. “Onto my face/falling and scattering/pear blossoms (Basho, translated). Basho’s poems are often self-mocking ones about his drinking too much.

  35. half asleep in class
    counting up the sylables
    of the poem I dreamt

    stumbling through forest-
    the tree that marked my shortcut
    held a robin’s nest

    without morning dew
    the rake of dawn reveals
    no gossamer web

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