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Kigo: Season Words in Haiku

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Poinsettia: Symbol of Christmas


Haiku Seasons, by Higginson

Ironically, the only rule for haiku which "everyone knows" is not a rule for haiku in Western languages.

Haiku do not have to have 5, 7, and 5 syllables in English, as we see from Vanderleelie's hub, "Haiku, Structure and Spirit."

Definition of Kigo: Cherry Blossoms to Tomatoes

Many people have read haiku with cherry blossoms (here are Issa's) or similar natural symbols, but fewer know how they fit into the theory behind haiku.

The use of a kigo (季語), or seasonal reference, a word or phrase that evokes a particular time of year, is an important feature of traditional Japanese haiku.

According to The World Kigo Database, ki (季)means "season," and go (語) means "word." This is an abbreviation of the longer term kisetsu no kotoba, which means "seasonal phrase." As the Database defines them, these words and phrases not only refer to certain seasons but allude to how the seasons change over the course of the year. A haiku by Michael Dylan Welch does this beautifully, showing spring and summer and autumn in natural contact with one another:

apple picking
a feather blows
from the empty nest

~ in Red Moon Anthology 1997

Traditional Japanese haiku may also use natural or cultural symbols that evoke a particular holiday, the way the blooming poinsettia plant evokes winter and Christmas in Central and North America.

Here is a haiku about the Japanese New Year, which once fell in early Spring, in plum-blossom season, and was celebrated with lion puppet performances.

lion puppet at the gate –
from his mouth
plum blossoms

~ Issa, trans. David Lanoue

In the practice of traditional-style haiku in Japan kigo remain very important. Haijin (haiku poets) may even carry a seasonal dictionary (saijiki). This hub, How to Write a Haiku about Nature, by DaisyMariposa also has handy lists of traditional Japanese kigo. Haijin Kuroda Momoko says that kigo, from the traditional (frog for spring) to more recent (tomato for summer) are a Japanese "national treasure," capturing "the essence of Japanese life."

Thus, for Japanese haiku poets and readers, kigo are different from anything in Western literature today. Japanese kigo carry both centuries-old literary associations, like Biblical and Classical allusions, and personal and cultural associations, like going to a country fair in late summer or celebrating Thanksgiving.

Some Western writers are also very serious about kigo in the Japanese model, in "Seasoning Your Haiku" Ferris Gilli writes, "Most haiku poets consider a . . . saijiki to be indispensable. . . . I urge writers to have access to at least one source of established kigo; however, one can write haiku without it. . . . no matter where we live, this is the bottom line: While doing our best to honor Japanese tradition, we should honor our own seasonal perceptions."

Page down in the link to the "World Kigo Database" above for a more detailed discussion of how Japanese kigo have deep traditional associations. The Wikipedia article on kigo also discusses the relationship of kigo to nature and calendar, as well as mentioning some of the alternatives to kigo, as we do below.

Cherry Blossoms

Vancouver Cherry Blossom Haiku

Four of my favorites among the 2012 Winners of the Vancouver contest.
Do you think these Western haiku are inspired by different associations than Japanese cherry blossom haiku?

old cherry tree—
a spider weaves its cobweb
between two flowers

Scroll to Continue

Cristina Ailoaei, age 14,
Botosani, Romania

missed the bus again.
cherry blossom petals
weightless in my hands.

Monica Wang
Burnaby, British Columbia


morning commute
my wipers on low . . .
cherry blossom rain

Elehna De Sousa
Salt Spring, British Columbia


cherry blossoms fall . . .
ask first graders what they love
about yesterday

Chen-ou Liu
Ajax, Ontario

Kigo in Japanese Culture

Japanese cherry blossom haiku illustrate the way that kigo can function as multi-leveled symbols while still, in good haiku, invoking a fresh experience.

As we see in "The World of Cherry Blossom Art," by Truefaith7, cherry blossoms are the essential symbol of spring in Japan. They symbolize new life but also our short time here on earth. "Every year, [the cherry tree] blossoms at springtime, produces a beautiful bloom," which soon withers and falls. Japanese thought, influenced by Buddhism, stresses how we too quickly "'bloom' and 'wither away.'"

This shared awareness of mortality in beauty makes us all kin to one another.

In the cherry blossom's shade
there's no such thing
as a stranger.

~ Issa, trans. Robert Haas

Cherry trees are also associated more directly with death in Japan. The samurai, always ready to accept death in the service of their lords, took cherry trees as their particular symbol, as did soldiers in Japan's later wars.

On a lighter note, picnicking under the blooming cherry trees has long been traditional in Japan, either informally with friends and family or as a formal social occasion. Either way, the cherry trees continue ignore human concepts of tidiness.

From all these trees –
in salads, soups, everywhere –
cherry blossoms fall

~ Basho (translator unknown)

"Kigo: Heartbeat of Haiku"

The title of this section is a now-unavailable essay by Robert Wilson published in haijinx on-line haiku journal.

In it, Wilson connects the proper use of kigo with Japanese spirituality, which comes both from Far Eastern Buddhism and from the original Japanese religion of Shinto. Shinto is an animist faith, with a strong sense that everything, even rocks, are "alive" in some sense. Both these views see the natural world as equal to the human, and as uncontrolled and unpredictable in its beauty and power.

The author may make some innacurate generalizations about Western religion: I don't find that my being a Christian blinds me to the mysterious power of nature. Still, I learned much from his essay on the Japanese artist's sense of nature's ever-shifting essence, its zoka.
"Zoka," he writes "is the transmutability of time and nature" themselves recognized as "intangible artists whose brush never stops."

For me, good use of kigo in haiku can make the reader breath a particular season. In experiencing how a haiku captures zoka, as Wilson says, our hearts open to a sense of nature's constant unfolding, a sense of living and growing, rather than admiring a static scene.

autumn wind
for just a moment
the leaf returns to the tree

~ @NJBarico on twitter

Florida Has Dry Winters and Wet Summers: What's my Kigo?


Robin Kigo Confusion

Problems with Kigo

The Cultural Artificiality
of Traditional Kigo

To me, many of the traditional Japanese kigo seem rather arbitrary.

"Rabbit," for example, is a symbol of winter in Japanese haiku. In my life, I have seen many more rabbits coming out to nibble the grass and play in summer twilight. In the winter, I only find their tracks.

In addition, the complex and technical tradition of kigo that still works for many (but not all) Japanese haijin simply cannot be translated into other cultures. As Dr. Greve describes on his World Kigo site, the traditional meaning of a kigo "contains the cultural context of the word used in Japanese poetry," and not necessarily that "found in the natural surroundings." The core meaning of a Japanese kigo is found in "poetic nature" not natural nature.

If this is true, then one traditional Japanese understanding of kigo may actually contradict another: Elegantly evoking "poetic nature" seems like the opposite of trying to capture the essence of zoka, which is precisely "natural nature" in its ever-changing flow.

In Many Places Kigo Do Not Match Seasons

Another problem is that in other parts of the world, seasons do not match the Japanese seasons. In the USA, a big country, seasons vary greatly from region to region.

I was born in New England, but now I live in South Florida. In New England, frosts come in the autumn, but here, frost comes only rarely, and always in winter. The dragonflies of a New England summer patrol our yard from February to November, and the farmers' markets run fall to spring. They sell locally-grown tomatoes from December through May, rather than from June to September, as in Vermont.

In addition, in our increasingly urban world, people may not know when flowers bloom or when birds return, even in their own farmlands, parks and neighborhoods. When they do know, some natural symbols of the seasons may simply seem like cliches rather than vivid examples of the natural cycle. See my hub Originality in Haiku for more on this issue. I for one would be reluctant to write about the first robin (the American red-breast thrush) of spring (in the North Central and Eastern US). Also, will my world-wide readers understand my seasonal reference the same way I do?

One response to this problem can be found in Localism. Write from your own experience of the natural world; write of your local celebrations and commemorations. If you do not know how the seasons work where you live, or cannot think of relevant holidays, use the World Kigo Database for inspiration: it has many local lists.
Even better, pay closer attention to the world around you, which will make you a better haiku poet.

Still, there is no denying that haiku from foreign countries or regions may either need explanation or lack richness for the reader who does not understand their kigo. Furthermore, non-Japanese haijin, no matter how traditional, will never be able to use kigo the way they can be used in Japan.

Alternatives to Kigo

Using Time of Day
or Moon Phase Instead

One alternative to kigo that still connects haiku writers and readers with zoka is to place a haiku in morning, noon or nighttime, evoking the passing of time in nature. Other poems mention phase of the moon. I have seen many successful haiku that do this, including the one below by Issa.

his shoulder aligned
with the sickle moon...

~ Issa

From a Japanese perspective, by the way, the kigo is "moon," which brought autumn to mind for pre-modern poets, as the nights were dryer but not yet too chilly to moon watch, but I only found that out recently!

Some Good Haiku
Center on the Weather

Here is one from The Haiku Anthology, chosen almost at random:

of the old logging road
flowing with rain

~ Joe Nutt

All one can say for sure about the season here is "not winter"
-- at least if it was written in a temperate climate!

Is there a kigo? Does it matter?

deserted town—
hungry war victims
feed the pigeons

~ Mile Stamenkovic

Are Kigo Still Important?

The title of the previous section, "Alternatives to Kigo" is taken from a wonderful essay by Jim Kacian called "Beyond Kigo: Haiku in the Next Millennium". In it, he describes the passionate debates over kigo at the 1999 First International Haiku Symposium in Tokyo.

Kacian begins with a well-informed and passionate appreciation of kigo. He then goes on to say that today, with people from all over the world writing haiku, there are definitely poems that are haiku in every sense of the word, but which lack a seasonal kigo. They may not even have an overt reference to time or weather. Should we call these something else, or "non-seasonal haiku"? No, he says.

Instead of a kigo, he states, they have a "key word," a word that captures the reader and focuses the poem. Here are two excellent examples he chooses, from an anthology of Eastern European haiku he edited. One is a nature poem, and the other about human experience.

river divides the forest
into two nights

~ Nikola Nilic


deserted town—
hungry war victims
feed the pigeons

~ Mile Stamenkovic

In the first poem, "moonlight" is the key word, and in the second he says it is "victims," though I would say "war victims." Such key words do not replace kigo. Rather, Kacian writes, kigo are the largest and most important sub-set of key words for modern haiku.

This is similar to the approach of the Japanese Modern Haiku Association's recent five volume collection/sajiki with one volume devoted to each season and one for "non-seasonal kigo." (You can read a review in Modern Haiku: "A New Haiku Era: Non-season kigo in the Gendai Haiku saijiki," by Richard Gilbert, Yûki Ito, et al.)

One non-seasonal example:

while waiting -
shadows tread
on shadow

~ Ichihara Masanao

For me, as an American writer of traditional and semi-traditional haiku, the approach of Kacian and modern Japanese haiku poets makes a great deal of sense.


My Own Haiku with Kigo

Writing haiku has unquestionably made me more sensitive to circle of the year.
I have become vividly conscious of the dramatic seasons of Vermont, where my parents retired.

In subtropical South Florida. where I moved six years ago, I now notice the seasons too, though I at first doubted we had seasons at all down here, other than "warm" and "hot."

Many but not all of my haiku follow the guidelines in the sections above, alluding to the movement of the passing seasons.
Re-reading a number of them, I see that the better ones also tend to focus on event or process rather than static image.

Snow reveals
that a fox has walked the path
we made in summer.

Burning noon
the cicada says
listen listen listen

Cold summer
fragrant through drizzle
July roses

Thunder! The palms point
to every direction
of the compass

You May Also Enjoy

What is a Haiga? a hub on the combination of haiku and graphics.

Some Great Haiku Blogs for more examples of fine haiku and other Japanese short-form poetry.

How to Write Haiku: Using Juxtaposition deals at length with the second key to writing good traditional haiku, the juxtaposition or "break" between two parts of the poem.


KrisL (author) from S. Florida on November 30, 2013:

Thanks, Erica. I'm so glad you liked it!

Ericajean on November 26, 2013:

Voted Up and Interesting: such a beautiful hub on an interesting topic of haiku.

KrisL (author) from S. Florida on March 30, 2013:

Thanks, Teresa!

I learned a lot myself writing this hub. I've been writing haiku on twitter since 2009, but these hubpages essays have allowed me to find out more about the form.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on March 30, 2013:

Wonderful explanation of the details and fine points of Haiku and seasons.

Very informative and very helpful. Thank you.

KrisL (author) from S. Florida on October 21, 2012:

Thanks so much, Rosemay. Haiku are deceptively simple, and yet they have so many possibilities -- both traditional and modern.

Rosemary Sadler from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand on October 21, 2012:

This is a very detailed explanation of the Haiku and much appreciated. Cherrrees are my favourite of all trees and I can see why it is chosen as a symbol, they are just beautiful.

I am in the middle of packing to move right now but look forward to reading more of your Haiku.

Voting UP and Awesome.

KrisL (author) from S. Florida on October 19, 2012:

Brett, thanks so much!

I like how you call it a look "behind the scenes." When I started the hub I thought that "seasonal references" would be fairly straightforward, but I found it was more complex than I'd imagined.

Brett C from Asia on October 18, 2012:

A very interesting look behind the scenes of this beautiful, but tricky art form.

Shared, up, useful, tweeted and pinned.

KrisL (author) from S. Florida on October 08, 2012:

Audrey, thank you so much!

KrisL (author) from S. Florida on October 08, 2012:

Vespawoolf, thank you so much. This is one of the best comments I have ever received.

I don't think of myself as a haiku master, but as . . . an advanced learner would be the best way to put it. The cool thing about twitter is that you can follow haiku poets & haiku journals, many of whom post published haiku and are generous in sharing links & advice.

I started writing and researching in 2009, but I learned a lot more in researching this hub.

Audrey Howitt from California on October 07, 2012:

This is just an excellent article! Sharing this everywhere!

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on October 07, 2012:

You really are a haiku master. Although I've often heard about cherry blossoms and the Japanese culture, I've never understood much about kigo. How fascinating that it's so heavily tied to seasons and nature. I enjoyed the childrens' cherry blossom haiku. We definitely don't associate the blossoms with such depth of meaning as the Japanese. It is sad that in our urban world we are losing our connection to nature. Your 4 ending haiku are beautiful. The haiku about cicada is especially meaningful to me as I grew up listening to their song at twilight. Thanks so much for such a well-written hub!

KrisL (author) from S. Florida on September 29, 2012:

Thank you so much, Sid. My final haiku was written about summer thunder . . . which is the commonest almost everywhere, I think.

I love your reading of Issa's haiku on the lion puppet and the plum blossoms. I'm sure something like that was part of his intended meaning.

Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on September 29, 2012:

Lovely! And very useful. I particularly appreciate the recognition that our readers may not be able to understand our seasonal references, and the notion of a key word. This frees me up to write haiku, whereas I've felt trapped by the need for a seasonal reference in the past.

Your final haiku - is that Spring thunder, or a fall hurricane coming?

The lion puppet and plum blossoms can evoke additional meanings for Zen practitioners. The lion is a guardian for Buddhist temples, and the old plum tree that looks dead but blossoms is a symbol of the ancestral Buddha and his renewal in each generation of Zen teachers. For me, the poem evokes the transformation of the violent to the peaceful through the Dharma, the words of the Buddha.

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