2023 Japan Fair Haiku Contest

First published on the Japan Fair website on 16 July 2023. Commentary originally written in June 2023.

The 2023 Japan Fair haiku contest in Bellevue, Washington, for poems in English, received 417 adult entries (a great gain over the previous year) and 25 in the youth category. The following selections have been guided by expectations learned over decades for what makes most haiku succeed. I have been drawn to entries that capture (and release) a clear moment of personal experience. It’s also valuable for haiku to employ chiefly objective sensory imagery and seasonal reference, with each poem juxtaposing two parts together, creating a leap between those parts that motivates contemplation. These are disciplines that matter more than counting syllables. In haiku it is also effective to write about what caused your emotions, rather than the emotions themselves. This way the reader can have the same emotional response that the poet had, and in this way the poem creates an empathetic connection between writer and reader. We see these techniques in the following poems, often with fresh expression and sharp focus. I invite you to consider each poem mindfully, opening yourself to its vulnerable offering of what it means to be alive. Thank you to everyone who entered, and congratulations to the winners.

—Michael Dylan Welch, judge

First Place


     one book left
     in the little free library
     plum blossoms

         Ann Magyar, Brighton, Massachusetts


The neighborhood where I live has a little free library where you can help yourself to any book that grabs your fancy and leave books as well. This practice brightens and connects the community, providing a way to see books that you might not otherwise know about. But what sets this poem apart is the juxtaposition of the first two lines with plum blossoms. Just as the blossoms seem to come and go quickly, so too do the books. Spring has also brought neighbors out of their houses, so no wonder there is just one book left—for now.


Second Place


     cherry petals . . .
     I leave my sorrows
     in the breeze

         Daniela Misso, San Gemini, Italy


How does this happen? Whatever sorrows one might have amid the challenges of life—an illness, a lost pet, a dying loved one—they can be momentarily lost when one sees beauty in the world. As these cherry petals drift in the breeze, they take the poet’s sorrows with them. A key word here, though, is “leave.” Those sorrows aren’t just taken. Rather, the poet chooses to leave those sorrows behind. This is an active choice, not passive, and suggests a brighter future with diminished sadness.

Third Place


     folding silently
     into myself

         Jay Friedenberg, Sleepy Hollow, New York


The contemplative and exacting pastime of folding origami brings us to silence, not just in concentration but in devotion and attention. Paper-folding can be both an escape from ourselves and into ourselves. Writing and reading haiku can do this too. As poet Mary Oliver once said, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”


Adult Honorable Mentions (in order)


     cherry blossoms . . .
     the seasons
     between us

         Daisy Sclater, Ditchling, England


At the ephemeral moment of seeing cherry blossoms, perhaps falling in the breeze, the poet here may well be thinking about a loved one—the years and even physical distance between them. This haiku suggests loss, yet also respect and honor. It’s perhaps not so much about difference but about timing. An older person, implied in this poem, was once young themselves. The blossoms will fall, and some of the tree’s seeds will become new trees to bloom in the future.


     wisteria blooms
     the young girl rings
     her bike bell

         John Pappas, Brighton, Massachusetts


How beautiful, to see wisteria in full bloom. No wonder the young girl rings her bike bell in an act of joyful participation with the beauty around her. The Italian actress Eleanora Duse once said, “If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things in nature have a message you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive.”


     dandelion fluff
     the strange coincidence
     of being alive

         Stefanie Bucifal, Konstanz, Germany


In a way, every person alive has won a huge lottery—to be alive at all. That we are born when others have never existed is perhaps chance rather than coincidence, but this poem asks us to consider coincidence. If we blow on dandelion fluff, where will the seeds go? Will any of them survive and grow? Chance governs each seed’s survival, just as unknown factors may affect our own existence. But coincidence brings different chances together.


Youth Honorable Mentions (in order)


     garden snails
     on each fallen leaf
     an autograph

         Luca Bobeica, Botosani, Romania, age 12


These have been busy snails, adding traces of their existence to the fallen leaves. We can’t see the snails anymore, and soon those fallen leaves will disappear too. Which leads us to wonder—in the ongoing march of time, where have each of us left our mark?


     moving day
     a support group
     of rag dolls

         Iasmina Butnarescu, Botosani, Romania, age 14


This is a youth poem, but it could easily have been written by an adult. Regardless of our age, moving can be stressful, and we could all do with a support group to help us through its challenges. That this support group is one of rag dolls is a reminder of how stressful moving can be on children and teenagers.


     horseshoe crabs heading
     for the ramparts

         Gian-Luca Niculcea, Botosani, Romania, age 12


This castle is under siege! And this seems to be perfectly fine with the poet, or perhaps unavoidable. It’s easy to imagine a long summer day, and as the sunlight wanes, surely the tide will turn and take the sandcastle. But first, horseshoe crabs will have their go. We all come from dust and return to dust—or sand. This is a poem of acceptance, and of close observation.

About the Judge

Michael Dylan Welch is the founder of National Haiku Writing Month (www.nahaiwrimo.com) and cofounder of the Seabeck Haiku Getaway, the Haiku North America conference, and the American Haiku Archives, webmaster for Haiku Northwest (www.haikunorthwest.org), and president of the Redmond Association of Spokenword. He was keynote speaker for the 2013 Haiku International Association conference in Tokyo and has been teaching haiku for thirty years. His haiku have won numerous prizes and have been translated into at least twenty languages, and he has published 75 books. Michael’s website, devoted mostly to haiku, is www.graceguts.com.