"Submit to nature, return to nature," wrote the seventeenth-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, thus capturing the beauty and simplicity of the haiku—a seventeen-syllable poem traditionally depicting a fleeting moment of a given season. The same can be said of the haiku’s more visual cousin, the haiga, which unites a haiku poem, written in calligraphy, with a simple painting. Some of the early masters of this art were Morikawa Kyoroku, Sakaki Hyakusen, Takebe Socho, and Yosa Buson. In the latter part of his career, Basho practiced haiga as well.

Haiga paintings, like the haikus accompanying them, are usually restrained, with minimal ink brush strokes and light color. In his book, Haiku Painting, Leon Zolbrod writes that haiga paintings are characterized by "free and flowing line work and elimination of unnecessary detail." Zolbrod further states that the paintings often have "a light or frivolous touch suggestive of irony or amusement, even when the subject of the painting is serious." Susumi Takiguchi, founder of the World Haiku Club, concurs that simplicity and irony are quintessential traits of the traditional haiga. In his article, "A Brush With Poetry," in the World Haiku Review, he writes, "haiga is unromantic, down to earth (unpretentious) and humorous, dealing with unremarkable, day-to-day subjects and objects." Haiga’s etymology confirms this: "Hai" means comic and "Ga" means painting.

While the haiku and the painting in a haiga share the same space, they are meant to complement, and not explain, one another. In fact, in some cases the haiku and the painting have nothing to do with one another, because, explains Takiguchi, "if the painting and haiku are [similar], it would mean that one has been added because the other is not adequate." This would not only be redundant, he says, but could even be perceived as rude.

The third element of haiga—calligraphy—determines the look of the poem on the page and communicates its essence. Good calligraphy, explains Takiguchi, makes use of "bokashi (wash-shading), sae (smooth lines), nijimi (run) or kasure (broken or glazed line)," all of which require mastery from the calligrapher and a trained eye from the reader and viewer.

Haiga was traditionally produced in a variety of formats, including hanging scrolls, hand scrolls, folding screens, and fans. Today, in Japan, it is commonly produced on handmade paper (known as shikishi or tanzaku). "Modern haiga" allows the use of photography, as well as digital or graphic images.

Image: "Banana tree and gate to the banana tree hut," Matsuo Basho (1644-94), Idemitsu Museum of Art