Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Say Hi to Haibun Fun


The Lesson


Japanese musician, seated, playing shakuhachi flute

Japanese musician, seated, playing shakuhachi flute

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory

In a typical high school language arts or social studies curriculum, students are asked to keep detailed narrative journals along the lines of the historical journals of Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Pepys, and Sarah Kemble Knight. They are asked to record events of their lives along with emotional responses and reflections. The objective is often to draw out student perceptions in increasing levels of specificity and to promote critical thinking and synthesis.

In contrast, the Japanese art of haibun, developed in Japan in the late 17th century by Matsuo Munefusa (Basho), focuses on objective reporting of the everyday moment and focusing the insights of that moment into a theme developed in a concluding poem. It requires critical thinking in the observation of relationships between or among objects in the recorded scenes. Details are recorded and generalities drawn, but the nature of the writing style is to condense rather than expand, to intimate rather than explain. Moreover, the Japanese concept of the essentialness of nature is incorporated into the observation of even the most mechanical scenes.

This cross-curricular lesson is designed to introduce students in language arts or social studies classes to elements of the Japanese writing style and the Japanese cultural concepts incorporated by the haibun. Students consider that each moment recorded in their journal can become elevated to a work of art because of the insights gained. By reading examples of classical Haibun written by Basho and contemporary Haibun by Jane Riechhold and others, students will observe these elements and concepts in the text After studying elements of the Japanese writing style and cultural concepts, students will compose original haibun.

Guiding Questions

  • What is a haibun, who developed it, and what writing devices are typical of the form? How does it reflect Japanese artistic or cultural values?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • experience a Japanese writing form
  • identify elements important to writing prose and poetry in the Japanese style: aware, fueki, fuga, fugetsu, kigo, kireji, kaketoba, karumi, and sono mama.
  • recognize the haibun as a combination of prose and poetry designed by Japanese poetry master Basho which examines an everyday moment in objective simplicity and reflects upon the insights gleaned from the moment.
  • analyze a haibun for writing devices typical of the Japanese style.
  • compose haibun as a form of journal keeping, approximating the Japanese style by using the present tense to make a moment more immediate, observing natural elements or using images of nature in describing non-natural elements, and focusing the theme of their prose observations in a haiku or tanka.

Preparation Instructions

In the medieval Japanese society, great value was placed on nature and its relationship to human interaction because their religion, Shintoism, recognized that all created things had a spirit. More than mere omens, the simplest natural phenomena were considered messages from the spirit realm, and even the samurai warrior or shogun warlord was expected to appreciate the beauty in nature and glean wisdom from it. For this reason, art of this period developed around the concentration on natural scenery. In poetry, the focus was on a single image in nature which held transcendental wisdom or inspired an intuitive or emotional response.

In the late 17th century, poet Matsuo Munefusa, called Basho, retreated to his hut, composing simple poetry reflecting his meditations. The resulting poetry and accompanying prose elevated the simple three-line stanza known now as haiku to an art form. Basho's focus on simplistic yet elegant language became a standard for Japanese poetic forms, establishing the formula of the incorporation of a seasonal word, kigo, and the observation of a connection between two juxtaposed images, sometimes demanding an intuitive leap, kireji, to connect the first image to the second. As Basho traveled, he maintained this simplistic elegance in his prose journals, usually using the present tense, which he would punctuate with a concluding haiku or tanka. The resultant combination of prose and poetry was named haibun. Further information on the haibun, as well as forms such as the haiku, can be found in this Guide to Verse Forms.

Key terms to know

aware—the quality of certain objects to evoke longing, sadness, or immediate sympathy. The Japanese believed some objects, especially in nature, always possess aware. For example, your country's flag always evokes poignancy; a single rose evokes romantic longings, etc. Students should try to find the aware inherent in a scene they are observing for their haibun.

fueki—the sense of some eternal truth that poets strive to convey in their works. In English, this may be understood as a theme. As students record their haibun, they should look to separate what is simply observed from what is significant to a general audience, what message can be derived from the observation, and capture the latter element.

fuga—true art. Students must understand that while journal activity may seem mundane, the Japanese strove to elevate the content of their writings to an art form, not a simple exercise. Students should be discouraged from simply listing their day's activities followed by three lines that do not really express haiku or tanka, but should strive to incorporate the artistic elements introduced.

fugetsu—natural scenery, which the Japanese considered essential to any form of art. Students must strive to find the element of nature or the natural scenery around them to weave into their haibun accounts as the anchor for their message. If the scene being considered for the haibun does not contain natural scenery, students may introduce fugetsu through metaphoric comparisons.

haiku—a terse, three-line poem intended to capture an image in juxtaposition with another image or thought, leading to an intuitive realization about the essence of that object or both objects.

kaketoba—the use of words which have double meanings. In Japanese this is very easy because most nouns also have another meaning as a verb. Examples in English include leaves / to go away; sprout/ to grow up; blossom / bloom; fall / autumn etc. These pivot words can act as the kireji, so students should consider finding words with double meanings to see how they can infuse them into their works.

Note: kaketoba is not only a double-meaning word that shifts the focus or makes the intuitive leap from one image to the next. It may also refer to the fact that the subject of the verb or verbal used in the haiku may be left ambiguous—is it the first image or the second? For example, in Basho's "Ball of Snow" haiku below, the Japanese idea of "big ball" is also the same term as the earth, or globe, and the meaning of the haiku is not just that the friend has made a large ball of snow, but that the world has become a ball of snow. So the kaketoba "big ball" shifts the focus from his friend's snowball to the world covered in snow. That's a classic kaketoba. However, consider also this haiku by Basho:

Clouds will separate
The two friends, after migrating
Wild goose's departure.

The kaketoba here is the verb "will separate"; does it mean the clouds will drift apart, or that the clouds will divide the two friends? The double meaning intensifies the comparison between the parting friends and the parting geese.

karumi—the quality in writing that Basho encouraged, especially in his later years. Here it meant the beauty of ordinary things spoken of in a simple way. Students recording their prose should keep their language light, not weighted down with the overuse of poetic devices or clever puns. Each word should count, the narrative should be terse and minimalistic, and at no time should the writer indulge in emotional heaviness.

kigo—a word that signals the season of the year. While this may be a natural image, such as a specific flower or a field of green grass, it may also be an object that signals the season. For example, "air conditioner" or "ceiling fans" might signal summer, while "heating vent" or "gloves" might signal winter; "voting booth" would signal November in the context of a presidential election, as "green derby" would signal March.

kireji—a verbal signal that the thought has ended and a second thought begins. In English, this refers to the shifting of the focus of the haiku from the initial image to the second one. English haiku can also use punctuation to signal this "turning."

sono mama—"as it is"—indicates that the writing should not describe the subject with flourish or embellishments, but that language should be immediate and plain.

tanka—a five-line poem that begins with a haiku followed by a couplet that reflects an emotional investment in the images presented in the opening haiku, whereas haiku alone should avoid asserting any emotional theme.

Analyzing Haibun

Bruce Ross's article "Narratives of the Heart" gives insights on the elements of a classical haibun, which you may use to lead student analysis. Have students read examples of the haibun, and ask students to note the tone and the word choice present in the haibun they will read. How does the writer get across his ideas? What elements are emphasized? What tense does the writer use, and what feeling does that tense convey?

Consider the following example:

Excerpt from Ki no Tsurayuki's The Tosa Diary (935)

18th February, 13th day. At daybreak the rain was gently falling but then it stopped and we all went to the nearby place for a hot bath. I looked over the sea and composed the following poem:
the clouds overhead
look like rippling waves to me;
if the pearl divers were here
"Which is sea, which is sky?"
I'd ask and they'd answer
So, since it was after the tenth day, the moon was especially beautiful. After all these days, since I first came on board the ship, I have never worn my striking bright red costume because I feared I might offend the God of the Sea.

Tsurayuki uses a light tone, without too much flourish or embellishment, even slightly humorous in his suggestion that he'd offend the God of the Sea by wearing bright red. In this passage, rain falls gently. They went to a nearby place, without details given. He looks over the sea, but he doesn't spend details describing it for the reader's sake. It is presented "as it is." Instead, he records the sum of whatever thoughts occurred to him in gazing at the sea in his tanka, observing the similarity between the sea and the rippling clouds in the sky. This kind of weaving together of poetry and prose is a component of the Japanese literary tradition.

Elements to consider:
  • light tone
  • the use of literary devices (such as parallelism and simile) to intensify the comparison of objects in the journal
  • the focus on how nature inspires the interaction between images
  • the responding tanka or haiku which extends the general theme of the writing
  • present tense (and shifts of tense though predominant voice in the 'present')
  • imagistic, shortened or interesting syntax, joining word such as 'and' limited maybe
  • a sense of 'being there'
  • descriptions of places & people met
  • brevity
  • a dense, "high"-dictioned, deep, serious style OR a simple, naive, colloquial style
Degrees of Mastery

The degree to which you wish to pursue the level of mastery of the form, or your students' mastery of the form, will probably depend upon your own comfort with Japanese culture and writing styles. At the simplest level, you can expect your students to recognize the use of nature images to convey setting or theme, an attempt at formal, poetic language, and the use of verb tenses to convey immediacy in a sample haibun. In more advanced literature or social studies classes, students should be able to analyze a sample haibun, compose their own haibun using the basic elements to some measurable degree, and explicate their own haibun.

The EDSITEment lessons on the haiku (also The World of haiku)and tanka provide excellent background material for composing the simple poems designed to capture the theme of the haibun journals. The online text of Basho's "Narrow Road to the Deep North" provides numerous haibun examples for students and teachers. Further essays by Jane Reichhold linked from the AHA Poetry website also provide helpful insights and exposure to more haibun, both classical and contemporary, for your enrichment.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Turning Japanese

Introduce the idea of journaling by asking students, "Why do people keep journals or diaries?" After initial responses, ask students, "What can we learn by reading other people's journals?" Guide student discussion toward the historical significance of diaries studied in literature classes (e.g. Anne Frank's diary, Thoreau's Walden, or Samuel Pepys's diary) as examples of discovering important historical facts and cultural details.

Introduce the concept of the Japanese haibun by distributing Basho's "The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling." Again ask students what seemed to be the purpose of the journal, and what was most important to the author. Students should observe the focus on nature and the overall message that the author seeks simplicity. Students should also remark on the inclusion of the poem at the end of the selection.

Distribute at least two more examples of haibun. Explain the importance of nature to Japanese culture dating back to before the samurai in medieval Japan. The Japanese believed that every element of nature housed a spirit; thus, to appreciate and revere nature becomes part of their spiritual lives, and children are taught at a young age to seek the spiritual messages taught by nature. Explain that Matsuo Basho left the life of a samurai at the royal court to become a poet, and his writings focus on the idea of elevating the simplest events of daily life to an art form by finding some universal truth or unique observation to express.

  • Ask students to identify the activities described in the sample haibun. Are these significant, historically important moments?
  • Have students list the nouns and adjectives used in the prose passage and decide whether these suit Basho's style of simplicity to convey a universal truth or theme.
  • Ask students to identify the universal truth, or theme, of the writing and discuss whether it truly is universal. Would they also experience these emotions or observations?
  • Ask students to generate a definition of a haibun based on their observations. Guide them toward a statement that incorporates the concepts of a prose journal recorded in a light tone using images from nature to convey some universal theme which is also expressed in a concluding poem.
  • At this point it may be helpful to introduce the terms haiku and tanka and explain the poetic form used in the haibun.
  • Inform the students that as they might collect souvenirs or send postcards of their vacations or memorable journeys, the Japanese of the classical medieval period would compose haibun, and that the haibun is again becoming a popular form of writing in the modern world. Ask students under what circumstances they might compose a haibun to record their memories.
Activity 2. Mastering Master Matsuo's Haibun

After students discover haibun in Lesson One, introduce further concepts of Japanese writing from the Glossary of Literary Terms: aware, fueki, fuga, fugetsu, kaketoba, karumi, kigo, kiregi, and sono mama. As you introduce each term, have the students identify how each is used in any of the sample haibun. This may be done as a cooperative jigsaw activity, with individual groups of three responsible for a single term in more than one haibun, then each group reporting their findings to the class to post on newsprint.

  • Distribute a new haibun and a graphic organizer for a closer reading of the work.
  • Ask students to read the text and complete the graphic organizer with words or phrases that mark the use of the Japanese literary devices.
  • Remind them that not all haibun will employ all of the devices, but that certain standards remain: elevated language, lightness of tone, universal truth, and nature imagery.
  • Have students use the graphic organizer to help them compose an essay of analysis or an extended definition of haibun.
Activity 3. Fun with Haibun Today

Have students spend ten minutes writing time recording a journal entry. In the social studies classroom, they should comment on current events. In a literature classroom, they may be permitted to record personal events. If students appear stuck for ideas, ask them to describe what is happening outside the window or describing the classroom. Encourage students to use the devices of sono mama, karumi, and fugetsu. Distribute a blank graphic organizer to help them remember these terms.

Distribute Eiko Yachimoto's "Cracker Jacks." (You may need to explain, or get students to observe, that there is a sailor on the Cracker Jack box so they make the connection with Yachimoto's memory of sailors.) Ask students to comment on the subject of the journal, and lead them to observe that the subject matter is urban and fairly contemporary. Ask students what the contemporary haibun has in common with the classical haibun. Students should observe sono mama, karumi, fueki, and the closing haiku. Lead students to observe that fugetsu, the references to nature, are metaphorical. "

  • Allow students to share their journals with a partner and peer respond. Call on a few volunteers to read a sample journal passage. Encourage suggestions for any haibun lacking one of the three basic elements, and remind them especially of the significance of the nature images. Refer to Yachimoto's nature metaphors, like "valley of sky-scrapers." "
  • Ask students if there are any kaketoba that can be used in their journals. Guide them towards substituting more active verbs with double meanings for "to be" verbs; for example, using "sits on" or "rests on" instead of "is on." "
  • Ask students to volunteer what universal observations (fueki) they've made about what is going on in their journal accounts. Do they notice a contrast, an odd comparison, a lesson, something that doesn't belong, something they find unusual and worth noting? In other words, what memory can they take away from this scene? Ask them to underline the sentence where the fueki is most clear. If they feel it isn't clear, ask them to incorporate a sentence that would point to it. If they need to, have them extend the prose entry until they feel they've incorporated all the imagery necessary. "
  • Lead students toward a concluding haiku or tanka by asking them about their nature imagery. If they haven't incorporated nature imagery to any successful degree, ask them what images in nature might also demonstrate the fueki. Try to push them toward the nature images around them, but do not discourage thinking outside the classroom. Remind them of the distinctions and requirements of the two poetic forms and encourage them to follow the guidelines of kigo, kireji, karumi, and fueki.

Extend this activity for more critical thinking by having students analyze their own haibun with the graphic organizer or in a brief essay.


At the conclusion of Activity One, students should identify at least one example of each of the component concepts from among sample haibun and suggest at least one purpose for using the haibun as a journal form.

At the conclusion of Activity Two, students should find at least one example of each of the devices for the graphic organizer; essays should demonstrate an understanding of the Japanese style and incorporate accurate examples from the text. Advanced language arts and social studies classes could be held accountable for the Japanese terms along with the concepts to be mastered, either in their essays or as a separate objective matching quiz.

At the conclusion of Activity Three, the resulting haibun should demonstrate an understanding of the focus correction areas outlined: simplistic but poetic language, use of present tense, charged nouns and adjectives conveying an emotional impact, an emphasis on natural imagery, and a theme developed with the concluding poem. The extension essay should explain the students' application of their learning. Advanced language arts and social studies classes could be held accountable for the Japanese terms along with the concepts to be mastered, either in their essays or as a separate objective matching quiz.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Foreign Language > Modern > Japanese
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Modern World
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Creative writing
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Writing skills
  • Etheljean Deal (Washington, DC)


Activity Worksheets