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Happy Haiku Day! How a Kiwi Fell in Love with the 5-7-5 as a Medium of Storytelling

They say a picture speaks a thousand words. But when George Nelson came to Japan, he discovered that within a haiku, a few syllables can paint whole worlds.



George Nelson, pen name Haiku joji, was captivated by the playfulness of the Japanese language. (© JAPAN Forward by Miruka Adachi)

August 19 is Haiku Day in Japan. And just like many of Japan's kinenbi or "faux holidays," the designation stems entirely from wordplay. Haiku Day (haiku no hi) is on August 19 because the numbers 8-1-9 can be read as "ha-i-ku." 

Another example of a faux holiday is January 5, which is "strawberry day" (ichigo no hi), where ichi means "one" and go means "five."

Such playfulness of the Japanese language captivated George Nelson, a New Zealander who through his life in Japan found himself become a poet and illustrator. At a little cafe in Koenji, Tokyo, I had the pleasure of sitting down with him to ask why he had chosen the 5-7-5 syllable format as a medium for his storytelling. 

Although George doesn't usually translate his poems, he provided provisional translations of his poems above, from left to right:

"One hour earlier
awake one hour earlier
can reach the ocean"

"To you, only you
my heart I entrust"

A lot of the abstractness and nuance are lost when the poems are translated. For example, in the second poem above, "to you" is written in Japanese as あなたには (anata ni wa), which is another way of saying あなたに (anata ni). The subtle difference is that は (wa) adds a hint of contrast or comparison. So the emotion implied here is: "If it's to you (and nobody else) I will entrust my heart."

Friends and fans reading Haiku joji's works. (© Haiku joji)

All of George's books have a cozy, simple design — almost like a minimalist children's picture book. His poems are presented in his own handwriting, which gives them the innocence and "kawaii" style that has gained him many Japanese fans, and friends. 

Seasonality in Poetry

George, who goes by the pen name "Haiku joji," composes the majority of his poems in Japanese. Many of his creations evoke feelings of warmth and nostalgia, while others can send one into stitches of laughter.

Some might point out that his poems don't adhere to the haiku criteria. For instance, his poems lack a kire (cutting word), which serves as punctuation. Many of his poems also lack a kigo, or seasonal word.

"When I first started, I was under the impression that if the syllables were 5-7-5, you had yourself a haiku," George laughs. "I got really into writing like this, and somehow my poems resonated the way they were."

"After some internal debate, I decided to continue to write in my own simple way, which I know is not always textbook haiku. As for seasonality, I do secretly think however that my books (when read as a whole) capture a sense of crossing the many seasons of life."

Translations presented for the haikus above, from left to right:

"The things that you like
has nothing to do with age
its always the time"

"The river of life
it only takes one second
to fork somewhere new"

Why the 5-7-5 Rule?

While there are haikus that diverge from the 5-7-5 syllable rule, termed jiyu ritsu haiku, George almost always adheres to this structure. 


"While I'm not always a fan of rules, I do feel like some forms of limitation provoke creativity. Limitations force you to think laterally, dive deeper. You soon realize you can paint a big picture with just a few words," he explains.

George wrote his first poem in Japanese almost by accident. Bored in language class, he sought to do something fun with Japanese and attempted to write hip-hop lyrics. Soon realizing his sentiment was too sweet for rap, he converted it into a poem in 5-7-5. It worked, and he has been writing and publishing books in this style ever since. 

"Stars up in the sky
like the dreams of us below
we fight to make true"

George's first haiku uses simple Japanese, and it exudes a youthful and almost naive energy. This makes sense, considering he wrote it at the age of 20, during a year-long study abroad program in Tokyo. 

When I point this out to him, George says, "As my Japanese became more sophisticated, I would sometimes add kanji and difficult words. And my Japanese friends would say, 'chotto katai ne' [It’s a bit rigid]. I think people like my poems most when they are pure and simple, straight from the heart and not trying to overdo it, if that makes sense."

Haiku and Learning Japanese

George believes that the lack of proficiency shouldn't hinder one's creative pursuits in a second language. In fact, he encourages it, saying, "You can actually write with a unique freedom in another language because you don’t have to (and don’t have the ability to) be linguistically perfect."

"I was really playing around with language at this point," George reflects. "The haiku gave me an appreciation for words, and I found my pace of Japanese learning got pretty quick."

Reaching into his backpack, George retrieves a stack of well-worn passport-sized notebooks. "I use my neta-cho [idea journal] to both study Japanese and write haiku. Especially when I started, people were keen to teach me new words all the time. Putting new words and phrases into 5-7-5 helped solidify them into my brain," he recalls.

The notebooks George has used this past year. (© JAPAN Forward by Miruka Adachi)

A Working Holiday in Sapporo

But the haiku has given George more than just a creative outlet. It has given him a way to give back to the community.

"Where shall we drink?
in front of the conbini
surely we'll make friends"

An incident in Sapporo stands out vividly in George's memory. While on a working holiday, he broke his shoulder snowboarding. His injury required surgery and a month-long hospital stay. During this time, he was deeply touched by the kindness of the hospital staff. His haikus also served as a catalyst for initiating conversations and forging friendships with his roommates.

George was in the process of making a new book, and realized he could combine doing so with giving back to the medical community, as well as spread cheer among patients. This led him to launch a crowdfunding project on the platform Campfire. With each purchase of his book, he sent one to a hospital. In the end, George shipped 47 books to 47 hospitals — one for every prefecture. 

George also sent a book to the hospital in Sapporo that took care of him. (© Haiku joji)

Building Bridges

Writing Japanese poems, particularly in George's fun and carefree style, has helped him forge many friendships in Japan, which he affectionately calls his second home. 

"I'm always doing this when I write haikus," George says, counting syllables with his fingers. "People around me often look across like, 'ehhh?'"

Sitting across from George at the cafe, I can see how people would be drawn to his openness, curiosity, and eagerness toward learning more about the Japanese language. 

"I'll just be somewhere by myself, and I'll start writing a poem and people often ask me what I'm writing. Japanese people always feel warm when they find out it's haiku in their language. It's super unifying and fun, and helps me connect with Japanese friends all over the country," exclaims George.


New Directions

For his upcoming project, George is creating a picture book that uses each of his 5-7-5 poems as "building blocks" that construct the storyline.

He compares the process of creating his poetry books to how a DJ works on a set: "Poems in a book are like individual tracks. Each speaks for itself, but when you put them together you have to do so with a form of underlying coherence, a groove. I like to try create this through color, emotion, and time." 

Rather than constraining him, the 5-7-5 format has given him greater flexibility and freedom to explore new directions with his art.

George's bilingual picture book, "The Techno Kiwi." (© Haiku joji)

Being sufficiently reminded of how playful and fun the Japanese language can be, I opened my phone's note app to write a short poem about my time with George:


"Rising, I notice
My coffee and chug it down
But it has gone cold"

(© JAPAN Forward by Miruka Adachi)

About Haiku joji

Meet Haiku joji


Author: Miruka Adachi

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