Haiku, a poem typically consisting of 17 syllables in three lines of five, seven and five syllables, has spread beyond the boundaries of its country of origin. Lovers of this form of poetry have now launched a campaign aiming to help get this Japanese tradition added to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
The movement indicates how much haiku is loved both at home and abroad regardless of the language. English compositions of haiku date back to the Meiji era, when British scholars and diplomats introduced the form overseas. Haiku became known abroad particularly after the end of World War II, thanks to books by people such as Japanese culture expert RH Blyth.
The Arakawa Ward Office in Tokyo held its first workshop on haiku in English for junior high school students in November last year. The programme’s purpose was to encourage them to enjoy learning the language while also becoming interested in this poetic form that originated in Japan. Eight children tried their hand at composing their own poems, referring to a handbook.The poem that won the top prize went as follows: Snowdays, warm kotatsu, many dreams.
The poem, which describes a typical snowy day scene of using a kotatsu table with a heater underneath and a quilt over top, was featured in the January issue of the ward office’s newsletter.
“The students seemed to find composing haiku in English easy as they can be made just by arranging words,” said Yasuko Tsushima, a haiku poet who instructed the children. “They all enjoyed the workshop.”
When Ito En Ltd. launched a haiku contest in 1989, the manufacturer of green tea products was surprised to receive many submissions composed in English, even though the competition had no category for such works at the time. That prompted the Ito En Oi Ocha New Haiku Contest to set up an English category the following year, which attracted 673 entries.
In the 28th year of the prize this year, the results of which were announced last month, the English haiku category received 18,248 entries – the highest ever – and the top spot went to Gracie Starkey of England, who was 13 at the time of her submission. Starkey became the first non-Japanese to win this category.
Last year’s top prize-winner was also a teenager, a Japanese high school student. “We receive an increasing number of submissions from junior high and high school students who have studied [haiku] at school,” said Adrian Pinnington, a British professor at Waseda University who also serves as a judge for the annual contest. “The Japanese have a culture that appreciates daily life.”