Who Wrote the First Haiku?

by Amy
Matsuo Basho

The haiku, a form of Japanese poetry, is renowned for its brevity, evocative imagery, and ability to capture the essence of a moment in just seventeen syllables. Composed of three lines with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, haikus have fascinated poets and readers alike for centuries. But who wrote the first haiku? This question takes us on a journey through the history of Japanese literature, exploring the origins of this beloved poetic form.

The Evolution of Japanese Poetry

To understand the origins of the haiku, we must first delve into the broader history of Japanese poetry. Traditional Japanese poetry, known as waka, dates back to the 7th century and includes various forms such as the chōka (long poem) and tanka (short poem). The tanka, consisting of 31 syllables in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern, was particularly influential in the development of the haiku.

The Birth of Renga

In the medieval period, a collaborative poetic form called renga (linked verse) emerged. Renga involved multiple poets contributing alternating verses to create a longer poem. The opening verse of a renga, known as the hokku, followed a 5-7-5 syllable structure and set the tone for the poem. The hokku’s significance and popularity eventually led to its evolution into an independent form, which we now recognize as the haiku.

Matsuo Bashō: The Master of Haiku

While the hokku existed long before the haiku, it was the poet Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694) who elevated it to an art form and is often credited with writing the first true haiku. Bashō, a wandering poet and Zen Buddhist, infused his hokku with deep philosophical insights, nature imagery, and a sense of impermanence, characteristics that define haikus today.

Bashō’s Early Life and Influences

Bashō was born Matsuo Kinsaku in Ueno, Iga Province (now part of Mie Prefecture). He was introduced to poetry at a young age and studied under the renowned poet Kitamura Kigin. Bashō’s early work was influenced by the Danrin school of poetry, which emphasized wit and wordplay. However, he soon grew disillusioned with this style and sought a deeper, more contemplative approach to poetry.

The Journey and Transformation

In 1680, Bashō moved to Edo (now Tokyo) and adopted the pen name Bashō, after the banana plant (bashō-an) that grew near his modest hut. He began to travel extensively, drawing inspiration from his experiences and the natural world. These journeys led to the creation of some of his most famous haikus, which combined simplicity, depth, and a profound connection to nature.

Famous Haikus by Bashō

One of Bashō’s most celebrated haikus is:

Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

An old pond
A frog jumps in—
The sound of water.

This haiku captures a moment of tranquility and sudden action, evoking a sense of timelessness and stillness. Bashō’s ability to convey such profound emotion and imagery in just a few words set the standard for future haiku poets.

Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa: The Next Generation

After Bashō, other poets continued to develop the haiku form, adding their unique voices and perspectives. Among the most notable were Yosa Buson (1716–1784) and Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828).

Yosa Buson

Buson was not only a poet but also a skilled painter, and his haikus often reflect a painterly attention to detail and visual imagery. He brought a sense of elegance and beauty to the haiku, as seen in this example:

Nanohana ya tsuki wa higashi ni hi wa nishi ni

Rapeseed flowers—
The moon in the east,
The sun in the west.

Buson’s haikus often depict serene landscapes and delicate natural scenes, blending his artistic sensibilities with his poetic craft.

Kobayashi Issa

Issa’s haikus are characterized by their empathy, humor, and focus on the everyday struggles of life. Having faced numerous personal tragedies, including the loss of his children and wife, Issa’s poetry often reflects his resilience and compassion:

Yare utsu na hae ga te wo suru ashi wo suru

Don’t swat it!
The fly rubs its hands,
Rubs its feet.

Issa’s haikus bring attention to the small, often overlooked details of life, imbuing them with significance and tenderness.

The Haiku in the Modern Era

The haiku continued to evolve into the modern era, with poets experimenting with the form and introducing new themes and styles. One of the key figures in the modernization of haiku was **Masaoka Shiki** (1867–1902).

Masaoka Shiki: The Innovator

Shiki played a crucial role in redefining the haiku for contemporary audiences. He advocated for a more realistic and less formulaic approach to haiku, emphasizing the importance of personal experience and direct observation. Shiki’s influence helped ensure the survival and relevance of haiku in the modern literary landscape.

The Global Influence of Haiku

Today, haiku is a global phenomenon, with poets from around the world embracing its concise form and meditative qualities. Translations and adaptations of haiku have introduced this Japanese poetic form to diverse cultures, enriching the literary traditions of many countries.

Haiku in the West

In the early 20th century, Western poets began experimenting with haiku, incorporating its principles into their work. Imagist poets such as **Ezra Pound** and **Amy Lowell** found inspiration in the haiku’s focus on clarity, precision, and economy of language. This cross-cultural exchange has led to the creation of a vibrant, global haiku community.

Contemporary Haiku

In contemporary poetry, haikus continue to be a popular and respected form. Modern haiku poets explore a wide range of themes, from nature and seasons to urban life and social issues. The flexibility and adaptability of the haiku form allow poets to express their unique perspectives while adhering to the traditional 5-7-5 syllable structure.


The question of who wrote the first haiku leads us through a rich tapestry of Japanese literary history. While the hokku, the precursor to the haiku, existed long before Matsuo Bashō, it was Bashō who transformed it into the art form we recognize today. His profound influence, along with the contributions of poets like Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, and Masaoka Shiki, shaped the haiku into a timeless and universal form of poetry.

From its origins in the collaborative renga to its evolution into a global literary phenomenon, the haiku continues to captivate readers and writers with its simplicity, depth, and beauty. As we appreciate the haiku’s history and the poets who have contributed to its legacy, we gain a deeper understanding of the power of words to capture the essence of a moment and the enduring appeal of this remarkable poetic form.

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