Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3


Kigo Versus Seasonal Reference in Haiku:
Observations, Anecdotes and a Translation

by Richard Gilbert


In this essay some informal and anecdotal observations are presented along with a translation of a short discourse on kigo (“season words”) by Tsubouchi Nenten, taken from his An Introduction to Haiku, a book written for beginners in haiku composition. Some years previously, visiting my local Kumamoto bookstore to see what haiku guides for the general reader might be available, I found this slim and accessible volume by one of the great poets and scholars of modern haiku. I wish to thank my wife Keiko and Shinjuku Rollingstone for their help with the translation.

When we look for seasonal reference in English haiku, a non-season-specific nature image, such as migrating birds would likely not meet the definition, as we cannot determine a single season for migration. “Migrating birds” is however an autumn kigo, in Japan. This simple fact offers a first clue that seasonal reference in English, and kigo, as found in Japan, may not rest on the same conceptual basis. A seasonal reference in English, we find, should align with one of the four or five traditional seasons of Japan (including the new year as a season, after the three-days of shôgatsu). Our own new year is something of a party night, yet the new year spirit resonates and has largely been accepted as a haiku season, following Japanese custom. Beyond this shared concept of five seasons, there are a number of distinct contrasts between the term “kigo” as currently used in English (as “season word,” “seasonal reference”), and kigo as found and practiced in both the contemporary and classical Japanese traditions.

Parsing kigo and seasonal reference

In this essay, I would like to show how the two terms “kigo” and “seasonal reference” represent different entities, in terms of both intention and culture. The use of “season words” as a translation of “kigo” in English seems a reasonable first consideration, as “season word(s),” is the literal translation from which the idea of seasonal reference springs—although there is a leap, from “seasonal word” to “seasonal reference.” The trouble really begins when we confuse the idea of “season word/reference” as we have it in English, imagining that 1) the sense and context in English is virtually the same as that of Japanese haiku, and conversely 2) that the context of (Japanese) kigo is virtually identical to our own; in other words that the main and indeed only function of kigo in Japan is likewise to present and delimit seasons—as in English-language haiku. I would like to advance the notion that the conceptual base of kigo is its culture, rather than its season This idea is illustrated by Tsubouchi for his Japanese haiku-beginner audience when he writes that, “kigo is a culture.” The culture of kigo is the context in which Japanese kigo has arisen as a literary fundament. This dicta is basic to haiku scholarship. The culture, and cultural context, to kigo reaches to the heart of their expression, and is precisely what has not been (and is not easily) translated along with the kigo terms themselves.

In English, we do not have a kigo culture: those specific literary, metaphoric, and historic contexts in which kigo find meaning and literary relationship in Japanese literature. On a more pragmatic level, we have also no officially designated collection of seasonal references. If there were such a book it would not in itself signify the existence of a kigo culture. In order to further clarify the discussion in this essay, “kigo” will indicate the Japanese tradition (as it functions in Japan in Japanese), while “seasonal reference” will indicate the English-language tradition.

Two haiku in English lacking seasonal reference, part 1

One of the remarkable aspects of contemporary haiku circles in Japan is the prevalence of the Saijiki. The Saijiki (a kigo glossary[1]) represents the officially designated source of kigo for the reader and generally (though at times controversially) for the writer. That we have nothing definitive of this sort in English may or may not be a good thing. We do have a few published works which seem to emulate Saijiki—but you can’t make a stew without potatoes: there are no existing collections of season words that rise to the level at which a Japanese Saijiki operates in haiku culture, that is, what a Saijiki fundamentally is useful for, quite beyond indicating season. There has been a long-term debate about what kigo would be or could be in English—their importance and relationship with haiku. The question remains a relevant and unresolved issue. As an example, let’s consider the following two poems. How might we treat these haiku, in terms of a proposed kigo culture in English?

between silent moonlit hills
something waiting
to be named
                 —Leslie Giddens [2]

the river
the river makes
of the moon
                 —Jim Kacian [3]

In both poems, as a reader, I receive a powerful though secondary sense of season; my impression is subjective, as the season is not given. In Leslie Giddens’ haiku, reading the last phrase, “something waiting to be named” I reflect on origins, on seeds waiting to be born, on the origins of names, envisioning these moonlit hills as hills of deep winter or winter’s end. The first part of the haiku, “between silent moonlit hills” grounds the poem’s primary impression in the natural world (with “silence” implying a witness). Yet “moonlit hills” itself is not specific enough to yield a seasonal reference. In Jim Kacian’s haiku there are two rivers and a moon in the text—though one river is actually a metaphorical river of moonlight (metaphoric moonlight, a ‘river of the moon’).

We do not find these natural, primordial elements of “river,” “moon” or “moonlit hills” to be seasonal references in English, as they encompass our planet in time and space, extending beyond seasonal division. We might say, the power inherent in both of these haiku lies in their indication of a non-human-centered imagination—a native wildness, wilderness. In this sense they resist humanistic inclinations to connote seasonal division. This would seem an exo- or even contra-humanistic power inherent in haiku. How would these haiku be treated in the Japanese tradition?

Before discussing this point further, by way of background I would like to introduce the notion of kigo in Japan, in relation to senryu and haiku, based on the experiences of a representative general readers.

Giraffes in Yokohama in the fall

Living in Japan, there are certain moments of cultural surprise that remain vivid and memorable. Such an experience occurred during a first  college class, while presenting English-haiku composition. The students seemed nervous, even a bit frightened; an unexpected reaction. Curiosity piqued, I asked if anyone had composed a haiku in Japanese—and was observing a room of shocked faces. The answer was “no,” but some thought I must certainly be joking. I’ve asked this same question over the years, with similar responses. These same literature students, capable of enjoying Tawara Machi’s tanka, chuckling over a senryu or writing the odd short story, find haiku “impossible” to compose. I’ve been told by several students and a variety of associates, “haiku is a type of poetry best left to professionals.” In America, a teacher may hear that poetry is “difficult,” but here there exists a powerful perception of genre inaccessibility: a dramatic contrast to haiku in English.

What might the perceived challenge of haiku be? The presence of archaic kanji, grammatical issues, the creative challenge involved in approaching the philosophical and poetic depth of a centuries-old high art form? Asking a number of haiku poets the consistent answer given has been that the manner of use and necessary approach of kigo presents the greatest difficulty to potential haiku composers.[4]

This issue, the difficulty of kigo, also bears witness to the popularity of senryu, by comparison. Asking students, “what is the difference between haiku and senryu?” The ready answer is that “haiku have kigo and senryu do not.” This basic historical distinction seems a simple solution to genre separation; note that other contrasts between the genres take a back seat to the existence or absence of kigo. This same distinction between haiku and senryu has likewise been made in English; yet what has been missed in such a distinction is that Japanese senryu, lacking kigo, can and often do have seasonal reference. Senryu may also contain kigo—that is, words which are kigo in the haiku genre (found in a Saijiki), but these words not treated as kigo, in senryu.

Here is a senryu possessing seasonal indication, without kigo:

    in yokohama –
after the US election
    giraffes [5]

The mention of the US election posits November (autumn) for the senyru (giraffes are not found in a Saijiki). Since a haiku is parodied here, the poem is senryu by default; even if there were a kigo to be found, it would not be treated as such. If the poem were to end with “winter giraffes,” the season would then be overtly indicated, as the word winter (fuyu) is kigo—but here it is merely winter—as seasonal indication, because the genre is senryu. So we can see that “kigo” and “seasonal reference” are differentiated concepts—this is true not only within senryu, however. Early-modern and modern haiku often combine haiku and senryu elements, along with approaches originating from the wider field of modern poetry. Additionally, some varieties of modern haiku do not contain kigo, or may contain more than one kigo.

Two haiku in English lacking seasonal reference, part 2

Returning to the two haiku presented earlier, if Giddens’ haiku is considered as a Japanese haiku, is “moonlit hills” kigo or not? Participating socially in a Japanese haiku circle (practically a sine qua non of haiku culture), we would proceed to look it up—most members bring Saijiki to these events. Saijiki are now increasingly incorporated into electronic dictionaries; these can also be used to handily sort out archaic kanji, kanji homonym compounds, synonyms and the like. Searching for “moonlit hills,” a kigo can’t be found, though “moon” by itself indicates autumn.[6] Importantly, we wouldn’t necessarily know for sure whether “moonlit hills” has existence as kigo or not, without first checking the Saijiki; a given haiku may remain entirely unresolved by the reader prior to the lookup process. That is, the poem cannot be fully understood or even taken in, prior to consulting a separate text. This mode of reading presents a sharp contrast with that of haiku in English.

In that there is “moon(lit)” in the haiku, and “moon” itself is a kigo, autumn would be the season by default.[7] The kigo “moon” envisions the moon of autumn moon-viewing (tsukimi). So, “moon” is not just any moon: in Japanese haiku, it is a kigo moon. The bilingual Saijiki published by the University of Virginia offers this explanation:

Since ancient times, the natural phenomena favored above all by Japanese poets have been the triplet "snow, moon, blossoms" (that is, cherry blossoms). The moon appears in all four seasons, of course, but in both classical poetry and haikai it has been firmly associated with autumn, so that unless otherwise specified, “the moon” means the autumn moon. One reason for this is that as blossoms is the pre-eminent image of spring and snow is that of winter, the moon came to connote autumn. No less important a reason, surely, is that the moon seems to shine with a special clarity in the months of autumn.[8]

It seems there is a kind of symbolic, poetic culture implicit in natural phenomena, with certain phenomena assigned to certain seasons, partly for reasons of aesthetic balance, or due to historic antecedents, etc. In terms of kigo, the seen moon is related to the culture of kigo, in which the moon is part of a series of literary conventions and cultural associations—an irruption of naturalism. Such does not imply that kigo do not have depth, quite the contrary—yet at the same time, kigo is a culture, one which a naturalist would take exception to. In any case, we find that Giddens’ haiku has no seasonal reference in English, but acquires the kigo “moon” in Japanese. We are lucky that ‘hills’ is not also a kigo, as only one kigo is allowed in a (traditional) haiku; this rule is kept in mind, when composing. As well, by looking up the correct kigo, the season of this haiku is discovered.

Just to mention, “migratory birds” (wataridori) mentioned in the introduction, is an autumn kigo: migrating birds arrive in Japan from Siberia to winter.[9] They also depart in the spring, but in the culture of kigo, migrating birds migrate only one way, in one season, as far as the kigo wataridori is concerned

In Jim Kacian’s haiku, imbibing the fullness of the river and brightness of the moon, I sense a brilliant, warm summer night—the enfolded metaphoric image of the moon unwraps as if were at its fullest, brightest apotheosis. Again, the moon figures prominently, and as with Giddens’ haiku, there is no adjectival modifier for “moon,” so moon becomes the kigo in Japanese, and we have a poem of autumn—which does not seem to fit. Luckily “river” (without a modifier) is not a kigo. What I mean by a modifier is, for example, in the kigo risshun no tsuki “beginning-of-spring moon,” one finds “moon” is adjectivally modified to connote a different seasonal kigo. Since, for kigo, every named phenomena pertains to a specific season, and often a timeframe within a season (early, middle, late), modifiers are often used to locate phenomena (e.g. river, moon, rain) within that season—so, we can’t use “moon” if we mean to indicate a moon of spring, as we can with “moon” for autumn. Due to this fact, an autumn moon is a very brief word of 2-on, (tsuki), while the early-spring moon above (risshun no tsuki) is a phrase of 7-on. This is one of the ways seasonal reference becomes a conceptual sub-set or attribute of kigo culture. Within kigo culture, the moon is never a moon in the scientifically empirical sense of simply being, uncontained by the humanistic filter of “season.”

Looking at our two haiku, we might take pause and consider what could be lost by moving these haiku into a formal kigo system. It seems unlikely that their authors wished or needed to posit, overtly or suggestively, a specific season—though season may be hinted, at a distance: the precise distance of the reader’s imagination in meeting the poem. As a reader, I sense the power and purity of nature, image, natural force, life in these haiku. A sense of the purity of not-me, of nature and earth beyond seasonal division. It’s tempting to say that a seasonal reference would reduce these poems. The question of kigo or seasonal reference becomes, in such cases, entirely secondary—in either culture or language—this same argument has also been made in Japan for some decades—since the early-modern period (early 20th century). The name for a haiku lacking kigo is “muki-haiku.” But we can’t rightfully apply this term in English to haiku which lack seasonal reference. All haiku in English are muki-haiku from the Japanese point of view, as we do not have kigo culture. Rather, in English we have haiku with or without seasonal reference.  

We run into another problem in Japanese: in the case of muki-haiku, the author must either tell us they are muki-haiku, or be known to write muki-haiku. Otherwise, according to the general environment of kigo in the haiku genre, we will grab our Saijiki right off, and find autumn in both of these haiku (in Japanese now, imagine). At issue is the treatment (in a Japanese context) of a haiku which appears to have kigo—which the author does not wish to be “read” as having kigo—while still considering it as haiku, and not a senryu variant. We do not confront these issues in English, but we immediately would, if a kigo culture were implemented. Various modern Japanese poets have solutions to the problematics of kigo and haiku, witnessed in modern haiku compositions. Ban’ya Natsuishi has for instance offered a system of keywords, a revolutionizing of kigo culture into a suggested keyword culture. From our perspective of language and cultural difference, we may not sense the gravity of the problem of kigo and the consequent desire to reform, resist, transmute, reject, or otherwise alter that culture in Japan.

So, every English-language haiku is muki-haiku (haiku lacking kigo). Do you agree? Might English-language haiku seem more similar to senryu, when translated into Japanese? It’s quite possible. We do not possess a kigo tradition—does this fact “damage” English-language haiku when viewed from a Japanese perspective, with its ancient kigo tradition, so fundamental to traditional haiku? For some the answer seems to be “yes.”

Delimiting kigo

Kigo do not exist outside of the Saijiki in any real sense: if this is stated as such, in a Japanese literary context, the topic may become politically contentious. Below, Tsubouchi Nenten broaches the issue delicately when he says, “The Saijiki is only one standard of kigo; kigo are always being born and have died within the nexus of haiku poets.” Quite true, though until the new term is officially documented, selected, referenced and published in an approved Saijiki it has not yet come into definitive existence as kigo. There is a difference between being born and arriving. The “death” of a kigo may occur these days as a function of disuse, but it’s hard to shake kigo out of electronic dictionaries, especially with so much cheap memory available. I think it fair to say that in Japan kigo don’t simply exist, they must also be published—a kigo without a Saijiki is like one hand clapping.

This is part of the existential dilemma of kigo—their necessity for editorial approval, publication, and hence exclusivity, their bureaucratization; factors which have in part caused a number of modern Japanese haiku poets to reject, subvert or revolutionize kigo use. These revolutions are solutions, evolutions and new evocations of the modern and postmodern spirit of our time. Hoshinaga Fumio has made some recent relevant comments in this regard, excerpted in endnote 10.[10]

In adopting kigo and building our English-language Saijiki we may look forward to keeping our Saijiki at the ready; a revolution in our haiku practice. It could be quite an inspiration, depending on our degree of sophistication in relating with our own source points for kigo images, in relating to the culture of our own literature and literary history. Would medieval flower language be a good place to start? Might we want to focus on literary “conversations” indicative of a sensitive relationship to nature, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s 1835 “gold bug,” a fantastic, poetic insect, a type of scarab beetle (koganemushi)? Some of the oldest kigo in Japan are cross-cultural, originating in Chinese literature; should we consider multi-cultural perspectives? Further, shouldn’t the Anglo-American haiku tradition reach well beyond a Eurocentric canon? But then, for obvious reasons, kigo cannot exist in any non-local or generic sense, can they? Should we focus on seasonal references stemming from our own haiku genre? We might select haiku from acclaimed haiku writers or contest winners. There are excellent haiku and haiku writers—but as yet there is no wider Anglo-American literary consensus regarding the excellence of a body of work in the haiku genre, originating from our extensive artistic community. As well, we have no Manyôshû or Kokin Wakashû, and all that these root literary texts represent in the Japanese context, concerning the centrality of a short-form season-related poetics to a prevailing national literary culture. In Japan, the first major Saijiki collections were published in the Edo period, centuries after these early poetic anthologies, in which a primary layer of kigo had already arrived from China. Are we attempting to put the cart before the horse, in willing a glossary of official terms into being, desiring a kigo tradition of our own?

Are kigo really a good fit with haiku in English—in terms of language, and our burgeoning haiku culture? Might having just “seasonal reference” and “non-season” haiku serve us well enough? In the first magazine devoted expressly to haiku, John Bull wrote, “If there is to be a real ‘American Haiku’ we must—by trial and error—work out its own standards.”[11] Some experimental kigo trials have occurred (e.g. William Higginson’s Haiku World[12]), but such forays haven’t caught on. Without a culture of nature, a culture of space, a culture of consciousness, aren’t we left with merely “naively realistic” objectifications of nature, as Gary Snyder points out (see “Confusions, confabulations” below). A number of English-speaking poets tend to compose from a concrete, realist viewpoint, and seem to follow a formula in haiku composition. As a result, many American haiku in haiku magazines are mundane and lack true depth. Might this be related to cultural disconnectedness, concerning heritage and cultural background? It may be that the contemporary haiku genre has a unique opportunity to forge a new sense of culture with regards to nature, and I’d argue the best of our tradition represents this new culture. What seems crucial is to examine what the poetry is bringing to us, and how it is doing so. Thus, there is a deeper and more primary taproot in contemporary haiku than the question of how to connote season words as representative things.

A kigo project in English

Recently the World Haiku Club (WHC) began a “worldwide kigo project,” which will collect “viable kigo.” The prospectus of the project states,

The real issue is whether or not finding local season words pertaining to specific climatic and cultural zones or countries in the rest of the world would be possible, plausible, desirable, useful or necessary in terms of making what is written as haiku more like haiku or better haiku. The fact that many poets have thus discarded or dismissed kigo (some have even condemned it as being no more than a weather forecast and not poetry) as inapplicable or irrelevant has damaged haiku outside Japan and denied it cultural and historical depth.[13]

Certainly, this view posits the need for kigo in English, as it implies that some number of poets have up till now been writing faux haiku—that we could be writing something “more like haiku or better haiku,” with approved kigo. And the result of not having a kigo tradition is damage and denial. What is the damage implied? That of the reputation of haiku in English, as viewed from Japan? Or, from those who feel that haiku, in whatever language, is something of a joke without kigo? Or perhaps that we need to explore haiku more thoroughly? As for the denial of cultural depth, this seems a thorny problem. Yes, in many mediocre haiku, seasonal-reference-as-weather-forecast is rife. But then, to look fairly at any literature we ought to examine the best it has to offer not the worst, and there are quite a few excellent haiku not only without kigo but without seasonal reference—in English and in Japanese—in any country. So we enter into the zone of kigo politics, with the implicit theme here that without kigo, i.e., a definitive, accepted official published glossary of kigo, we cannot have cultural or historical depth.

after the bombing
ruins of a bridge
linked by the fog
                  —Nebojsa Simin [14]

In this haiku, which arguably possesses historical as well as cultural depth, “fog” may or may not connote season; in any case, the felt season here is war. It is any season, the season of hell. In Japanese, “fog” (kiri) is kigo. Its use as kigo in this haiku would subvert the traditional sense of kigo, at the very least. What does “spring” (the kigo season of fog) have to do with this poem. At most, the kigo would imply an additional level of irony. But the point of this natural element lies in its insubstantial “as-if” character, its contrast to the violent machinations of humankind, rather than any presumed seasonal quality.

As a reader of haiku and composer, if I am to purchase a future kigo-publication in English, I would hope to learn how modern haiku are to be treated, how the modern and postmodern imagination, vision of haiku is to be expounded. I would hope to be inspired with new approaches to kigo, modern techniques to revolutionize and subvert, which reflect the forefront of contemporary traditions worldwide—especially in Japan, which has had a big head start. Looking through the various kigo projects, what I witness is factory work, specimens, taxonomy. Starting points for focus perhaps. But where is the genius? For surely we will need a work of genius to inspire us to carry that kigo glossary around in our pockets.

Confusions, confabulations: kigo equals seasonal reference equals Nature?

Writing in 1986, Cor van den Heuvel published an influential preface to the second edition of The Haiku Anthology, reprinted in the current third edition (1999).[15] These sentences may have caused some confusion:

It seems useful to me to keep the two genres distinct in somewhat the same way the Japanese do—haiku relates to Nature and the seasons, senryu relates to human nature. Traditionally, the Japanese have ensured this by insisting that to be a haiku the poem must have a season word (kigo), while a senryu does not (pp. xlv-xlvi).

Indeed, one reason for the amazing popularity of senryu, from the Edo period on, was that one didn’t need a Saijiki (or kigo), and senryu found fertile soil in the haikai tradition. And yet, although haiku is considered a “serious” literature, its roots are likewise to be found within haikai (humor). Recently, a book appeared addressing this topic, Haiku Humor by Tsubouchi Nenten.[16] The above remarks were written in 1986, at a time when a focused awareness on modern Japanese haiku was just beginning to be cultivated in English; thus, the fact that over the last century in Japan senryu and haiku elements have been intermingling in numerous ways seems to have been missed. These days, the categorization of haiku as relating to nature, and senryu with human nature, is an oversimplification.  Yes, there is a locus to each form, with senryu often utilizing ironic, acerbic or witty social comment; and haiku possessing a more objective style, focused on the natural world—but there are many points of crossover. The actual situation is not so simple—as with most things modern in states which allow free expression, we find interpenetration, synthesis and fusion, rather than exclusivist classicist purity.

From the conservative or traditionalist point of view, there may be an insistence that haiku have kigo, but it is not the case that “the Japanese [insist that] to be a haiku the poem must have a season word.” The haiku tradition does not find unanimity regarding muki-haiku. We have the term “muki-haiku” itself, which would be an oxymoron according to the above dictum. As well, we see the idea of “kigo” being conflated with “Nature” (and opposed to human nature?), in turn conflated with “seasons”; that in turn conflated with “season word.” It seems important to parse these ideas, discriminate the nuances which give each term its distinct theoretical and applied meaning.

Two factors make haiku and senryu genre-separation a bit easy to manage in Japan. The first is social—there are senryu circles, senryu websites, journals. If, as a composer, you call what you do senryu, there’s a place for you, a literary community; similarly, for haiku. The second factor is kigo—senryu do not “read” with kigo (as previously discussed). When you put these two factors together, and add the stated intention of the poet, you have clear distinctions which are not based on the level or type of humor or topical content of whatever (approximately) 5-7-5-on poem you are looking at. Senryu, whether having or lacking kigo terms, may also have seasonal reference, after all. Likewise, haiku may have humor and present a social subject, and may also lack kigo (muki-haiku). Hoshinaga Fumio’s poem: [17]

遊園地 にナチスいっぱいです  秋
yûenchi ni nachisu ga ippai desu ûaki

the amusement park
full of Nazis –
this autumn

provides social critique. Its humor is dark, acerbic, biting. It is not senryu. Why not? The author does not state the genre of the poem, one way or another. Nonetheless, it appears in the Chapter “Lament” in a book containing a number of notable haiku. Hoshinaga is a national figure, acclaimed for his haiku, is a noted haiku teacher and founder of a haiku journal. As well, a serious concern is indicated in this poem—a belly laugh it does not provoke. The author has additionally mentioned that over 90% of his poems use kigo. Although the kigo term “autumn” is found in this poem (a seasonal reference, in this English translation), its representation refers as much to cultural decline as environmental season. In fact, the season seems darkly ironic. Hoshinaga has commented that he never uses kigo merely to convey an environment of naïve realism. His haiku often utilize senryu (haikai) elements; as in Bashô, one finds a radical blend of the vernacular and the serious, “high” and “popular” literary cultures (“amusement park” and “Nazis” relate to modern, international cultural history and themes). The poet does place this poem within the haiku sphere: it has kigo and 17-on, which is quite enough. Even if this were muki-haiku, its placement and the poet’s intentionality would be enough to lend it veracity as being haiku. If only the situation were as straightforward in English.

A confusion in English is the idea that kigo equals nature. This is a misreading of kigo, I believe. As Hoshinaga mentions, “kigo [may be] more of a symbolic element.” The writer may experience kigo “through your heart (inner sense), not through seeing, touching, and so on.”[18] This stylism of kigo provides an environment which may be symbolic, historic, literary, surreal, or otherwise impressionistic, interpretive, or subjective (as Tsubouchi also points out, below). What is the true intention of kigo?

This area of the symbolic and subjective brings up a philosophic question. What do we mean by Nature? In his ecocritical essay, “Unnatural Writing,” Gary Snyder offers some insight in critiquing the assumptions of earlier nature writers:

There is an older sort of nature writing that might be seen as largely essays and writing from a human perspective, middle-class, middlebrow Euro-American. It has a rhetoric of beauty, harmony, and sublimity. . .Natural history writing [is] semi-scientific, objective, in the descriptive mode. Both these sorts are "naively realistic" in that they unquestioningly accept the front-mounted bifocal human eye, the poor human sense of smell, and other characteristics of our species, plus the assumption that the mind can, without much self-examination, directly and objectively "know" whatever it looks at.[19]

These comments may also serve as a relevant critique of haiku. Snyder, like a number of modern thinkers, asks us in these introductory remarks to carefully examine the nature of human awareness, to question habitually unquestioned characteristics of reality (as embodied in romanticism, realism, naturalism, humanism). It seems that Snyder and Hoshinaga have in common a postmodern spirit of exploration in terms of both poetry and philosophy. Perhaps it is not kigo that will link us as international practitioners of haiku, but a deeper understanding of the modern and postmodern ethos of our respective literatures, and how this understanding is expressed—as we increasingly share a globalized, communal zeitgeist. Perhaps we can locate this spirit, value this same ethos, more centrally in contemporary and future haiku thought.

Simply put, kigo exist in Japanese and do not exist in English. In English we have a season word/phrase tradition that began with translations from Japanese into English, which “interpreted” kigo into non-kigo literary culture—our literary culture, which does not have the conceptual or historical frame of kigo. And so, non-kigo “season words,” indicating a seasonal reference, were born. Kigo (in Japanese) and season words in English are apples and oranges, particularly as (Japanese) kigo are not “natural,” but nature reified. Tsubouchi refers to several modes of kigo reification, in locating the great treasure of kigo to haiku: its true intention.

Tsubouchi Nenten: Kigo

Someday, a translation of An Introduction to Haiku (Haiku Nyûmon) may hopefully be presented in its entirety. Tsubouchi’s style is informal, witty, and dialogic. The book includes the cover description, “ofuro de:” it’s part of a published series printed on paper able to withstand the rigors of the daily bath! As such, one imagines its major audience as likely an older set, enjoying a refreshing and enlightening read during a good soak. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this offering of Tsubouchi’s insight.

Please note that text within parenthesis represents my added comment; this method seemed preferable to taxing the reader with footnotes. The linear text was also separated into paragraphs.

Concerning the “Glossary of Seasonal Terms for Haiku Composers (Saijiki)”[20]

So, at this point, perhaps you would order me to explain kigo, and the Saijiki? What particularly do you want to know?

For example, why was kigo first created and used and why is kigo only seen in a Saijiki — are these some of the questions you have?

It is said that kigo were first created in China to convey the concept of a yearly cycle composed of the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter. Before the concept of four seasons came to Japan, we had the concept of two-season pairings. We can consider that the present special seasonal times of New Years (shôgatsu—three days) and the Bon Festival (three days in summer—variable dates) are holdovers of this ancient concept.

In the poetry and verse of the Manyôshû (759CE, the earliest collection of Japanese poetry), the yearly cycle was classified into the four seasons, with differing aesthetic feelings related to each season. This aesthetic sensibility became fully realized some ten centuries ago, in the Kokin Wakashû (also known as Kokinshû, 905CE).

Spring is “flower” (Cherry blossom); summer is “hototogisu” (a little cuckoo—smaller than a pigeon); autumn is “moon” and “fall-leaf colors;” winter is “snow;” these are the typical images for each season as seen in the poetry collections. Then, in medieval times, kigo came to be used in renga, in which the first stanza (hokku) used a seasonal reference as a kind of salutation, which related to the poetic expression or evocation. So, kigo became very important.

Concerning kigo, at that time (from waka to renga—see “History of Kigo” chart below),

Center: Kigo of Waka [waka no kigo 和歌の季語]
First Ring: Kigo of Renga [renga no kigo 連歌の季語]
Second Ring: Kigo of Haikai [haikai no kigo 俳諧の季語]
Third Ring: Kigo of Haiku [haiku no kigo 俳句の季語]

kigo was limited (restricted) to a sensibility of highly refined elegance (for example, haigon—the Chinese pronunciation of kanji/word compounds, and/or slang idiom—was not allowed); but in the (later) haikai era, the sense of kigo has expanded to include a commonplace, mundane and “folksy,” or “everyday” sensibility. This evolution in the sensibility of kigo seems quite natural, as the haikai was a poetic form in which slang was used, a kind of “street poetry.” Elegant poetry is waka or renga. This is obvious, isn't it? Thus, the Saijiki of the Edo era is roughly equivalent to our contemporary Saijiki, and (the Saijiki as such) was brought into definitive existence in the Edo era.

There is a measure of covenant in the season word. This covenant can be described as one’s true intention or true sensibility. For example, considering “spring wind” (haru kaze): there is a word, shunpžtaitô (from the Chinese: “wind blowing mild and genial”) which can be applied to human character. It is made of four kanji characters: haru (spring) and kaze (wind) plus the compound (taitô), meaning calm, quiet, peaceful wind.

It is a true intention of the spring wind.

The true intention is a tradition of the spring wind used by the waka, the Chinese poem, and the haiku, etc.

So, the single (kigo) word is a distillation wrought by tradition representing the true intention of kigo. The Saijiki (kigo glossary) elucidates (glosses) the true intentions of such words. In a nutshell, the expression such as “lonely spring breeze” (sabishii haru ka ze) does not exist as kigo.


So, when the spring breeze is felt as lonely, what am I gonna’ do?

In this case, the spring breeze: it’s calm and warm; however, I feel that it’s lonely—nonetheless, there is no way to concretely express this.

Here is my haiku,

harukaze ni haha shinu ryuukakusan ga chiri

to the spring wind
mother dead, herbal medicine

Concerning this haiku, in this case the spring wind blows calmly and peacefully. However, the person (figure) who exists in the wind is looking at the spring breeze feeling sad, because their mother has died. Because the spring breeze is calm and peaceful, the person's mind (heart, feeling) is also (sensed as) fleeting—as unreliant as the herbal powder that scatters to the wind.

Recently, there are people who make muki-haiku (haiku lacking kigo); concerning kigo, the external, objective world is divided into four seasons as in a mechanism or system; that is to say, the external, objective world of four seasons (for kigo) is something like wearing spectacles (blinkers). For example, the tomato and the cucumber appear in the market all the year round, though the kigo (for those vegetables) is summer. When the external world is delimited in this way at the four seasons, the delimitation marks the rhythm of life.

You ask me are kigo man-made?

Yes, exactly.

There are originally no four seasons in the natural world, but humankind delimits the natural world at the four seasons, and so it happens that kigo arise, as one result.

In a word, kigo is a culture. Because there is a culture, there are generally trends, but sometimes the change is drastic. In one example of drastic change, during the Meji era the solar calendar was adopted and the kigo seasons changed greatly. Therefore, the Saijiki is a collection of kigo; however, the entries in the Saijiki do not cover all kigo. The Saijiki is only one standard of kigo; kigo are always being born and have died within the nexus of haiku poets.  

A measure of covenant—true intentions

Tsoubouchi points out that “the single (kigo) word is a distillation wrought by tradition representing the true intention of kigo.” In this sense, any single kigo term is not only an image or reference to season and nature—this would be a superficial reading. Kigo are distillations possessing a complex alchemy: each term is a multidimensional surface measured within a cosmos. Modern haiku writers may subvert or otherwise alter the means or methods of kigo presentation in their compositions but many continue to utilize the transformative poetic power inhering in kigo culture; the power of what Hoshinaga refers to as the “environment” spawned by kigo—an environment which includes nature and culture, objective and subjective, fact and fancy, the topoi of psyche—that is, “reality” as given by the cultural connotations of the terms. As seen above, Tsubouchi isn’t talking about the true intentions of seasonal reference, but rather the true intentions of a wellspring of literary, philosophic and spiritual culture, with ancient roots. What are these true intentions? And, what are our own intentions, regarding kigo? Perhaps we need to discover their intentions, before willing our own.

In imagining a kigo culture in English, can we find a historical bullseye to our kigo target, a most ancient layer—come to observe the growth rings of succeeding centuries, “a natural . . . evolution of sensibility”? It would seem a paradox to “force” naturalness—yet kigo are also “man-made.” Given this inherent paradoxicality (an iconic or sur-real naturalness, in which the cooked serves to indicate the raw), is there some potential in the ideal of kigo, which could appeal to the postmodern and beyond—the future of haiku?

Shall we look more deeply into the history of our own literary relationship with the natural world, its flora and fauna—or turn to Japanese Saijiki originals? The University of Virginia Library has already an excellent, bilingual online work-in-progress, Japanese Haiku, A Topical Dictionary,[21] which is both informative and scholarly. Would we do best to avoid collecting terms altogether and seek first the heart of kigo, its true intention. Perhaps only at such a juncture will we have acquired the needed measure of insight required to move us further toward new cultural and psychic sensibilities, regarding the actual words of a proposed kigo world. Whatever words they might be, these upstart kigo, they would be marked but not delimited by haiku—as kigo represent a more extensive culture than that inscribed by a single poetic genre. Kigo are not a subset of haiku; rather, haiku utilize the historical culture and tradition of kigo, in which the haiku genre participates.

It may be that as with all unique cultural treasures, we may witness, study and admire an achievement not of our own making, rather than possessing it. Alternatively, we may proceed along some new and entirely different line. In fact it is unclear to me how to proceed, regarding the birthing of a kigo culture in English. It is likely the poets themselves who will open us new haiku vistas—yet there also exists a need for further understanding.

Richard Gilbert, Ph.D., Faculty of Letters
Kumamoto University, Kumamoto, Japan


1] By including a selected historical sampling of haiku to illustrate usage and application, kigo are glossed, rather than defined. In this sense, “kigo glossary” seems preferable to “kigo dictionary.” [return]

2] Blithe Spirit, 13:2 (Journal of the British Haiku Society, June 2003), p 5. [return]

3] First Mainichi Anthology of Winning Selected Haiku [daiichikai mainichi ikutai shyousakuhinshi] (Tokyo: Mainichi Shimbun, 1997). [return]

4] Recently, each student in a class of 20 Sophomores studying in the Faculty of Literature, Department of  English, was asked to find a work of contemporary literature in 5-7-5-on.  The student selections: eight senryu; five kotowaza (proverbs, idioms); two traffic mottos and one motto (kokusai hyôgo & hyôgo); two 'other' 5-7-5 works; and, two sayings of Chinese origin. No haiku were selected—this is further evidence of how outside the general cultural radar haiku may be. Online video presentations of these selections are available: A proper illustration of the intricacies of kigo requires numerous examples and lengthy technical illustration and translation, so remains beyond the scope of this present article. [return]

5] This senryu is a satirical takeoff of Tsubouchi Nenten’s haiku. Here is the original haiku written by Tsubouchi (An Introduction to Haiku [Haiku Nyûmon], (Tokyo: Sekai Shisôsha 1995, 1998), p. 12:

yokohama no jyuuichi gatsu no kirin kana

  in yokohama –

Those familiar with Tsubouchi’s work will know that he has made pilgrimages to zoos around Japan, holding an intention perhaps similar to that of Bashô in his journeys to far-distant places, investigating limits of the known and cultural boundaries. A worthwhile if intuitive comparison can be made, if we consider that in The Narrow Road to Oku, Bashô’s famed haibun travelogue, the village of Oku is both actual place and metaphor: it was generically considered the edge and end of civilization, beyond which was wilderness. This edge was in fact a metaphorical cultural boundary, as the existence of the Ainu attest. Tsubouchi, in a contemporary context, observes African animals trapped in Japanese zoos; one senses a continuity with and eulogizing of Bashô’s “Oku,” both as a travel goal, and in positing a desire for specific modes of poetic journey. [return]

6] As can be found in Japanese Haiku, a Topical Dictionary, University of Virginia Library; “a work-in-progress based on the Nyûmon Saijiki by the Museum of Haiku Literature in Tokyo.” Available online: To find the reference, click the link “Full Entries," scroll down to “aki: Autumn,” find the subsection “The Heavens,” click the link “tsuki.” [return]

7] For those interested in a Japanese translation of “moonlit hills,” some possibilities might be tsuki oka ni, oka ni tsuki, or okatsuki. In each case, the kigo is “tsuki,” moon.  [return]

8] See endnote 7 (ibid); the entry “tsuki” is found in “Full Entries:”  [return]

9] See the entry “wataridori” (ibid). [return]

10] “The Miraculous Power of Language: A Conversation with the Poet Hoshinaga Fumio,” Richard Gilbert, (Modern Haiku, 35:3, Autumn 2004), pp. 27-45. Available online: The following is a pastiche of Hoshinaga’s comments relating to kigo: “I have repellence, revulsion exactly against the formal rules and approach, kigo, and various formal necessities. . . . Haiku is a centralized art. For instance, looking at the saijiki (haiku kigo or season-word dictionary), the kigo focus only on the Kyoto or Tokyo (Edo) locales. There are no "local" saijiki: you cannot find local characteristics. Given such a situation, local people have a sense of inferiority, when regarding the "center" of the tradition. This type of inferiority-complex provides a kind of energy for my creation. . . . . [Notwithstanding,] Kigo is very useful and convenient for creating a sense of place (where) and time (when). We can say that a kigo is just one word — but this one word can speak volumes. . . . Finally, how a person lives in the time and the place; makes a relationship with the time and place — you can describe or express a cross section of life just by identifying "person." I can express a cross section of life with kigo — so kigo make it much easier to compose haiku. From this point of view, kigo is very useful and symbolic language. This is why ninety percent of my haiku contain kigo. . . . this use of kigo is more of a symbolic element. . . . I have real experience, real experience of kigo. This is why I can write haiku. It seems that I make haiku with my brain, but I can say I make kigo with my real experience, my sense of reality. . . . Using a seasonal reference may be a good hint or suggestion for an English-language haiku writer, but sometimes you have to write naked.” [return]

11] American Haiku (1963), quoted in The Haiku Anthology (3rd edition), “Preface to the First Edition,” Cor van den Heuvel (Norton, 1999), p. lxi. [return]

12] Of particular note is Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac, William Higginson, (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1996).  [return]

13] Available online: .  [return]

14] KNOTS: The Anthology of Southeastern European Haiku Poetry, (Dimitar Anakiev and Jim Kacian, trans., eds., (Tolmin Slovenia: Prijatelj Press, 1999). Nebojsa Simin lives in Novi Sad and is editor-in-chief of the influential Serbian publication Haiku Letter Magazine[return]

15] The Haiku Anthology (3rd edition), Cor van den Heuvel (Norton, 1999). [return]

16] Haiku Humor [haiku no yu-moa], Tsubouchi Nenten (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1994). [return]

17] “Hoshinaga Fumio: Selected Haiku from Kumaso-Ha,” Richard Gilbert, (Modern Haiku, 35:3, Autumn 2004), pp. 46-55. Available online: . [return]

18] Available online, see endnote 10 (ibid). [return]

19] A Place in Space, Gary Snyder, (Counterpoint Press, 1995), pp. 163-172. [return]

20] “Composing Haiku, Part 1: Kigo” in An Introduction to Haiku [Haiku Nyômon], Tsubouchi Nenten, (Tokyo: Sekai Shisôsha 1995, 1998), pp. 50-54. [return]

21] See endnote 6 [return]


Richard Gilbert rebuilt his first car and motorcycle (a Honda 750) at age 17 listening to Frank Zappa, Bert Jansch, Morton Subotnick, Ravel, delta blues, 50s-60s jazz, and WPKN (Bridgeport, CT). Majored in math/computer science and music at a nameless Connecticut university, worked in the electronics industry and as an engine rebuilder for some time, transferred to Naropa University (Boulder), where he studied and hung out with beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, etc.; composed sonic ur-scapes, became a Tibetan Buddhist meditator. Performed in and produced conceptual art multi-disciplinary presentations as poet, videographer, electric guitarist; undergraduate thesis on Japanese classical haiku, received a BA in Poetics and Expressive Arts. Went to a Buddhist seminary in 1984, and returned to Naropa for an MA in Contemplative Psychology. Into the early 90s, he was a clinical adult outpatient psychotherapist, at Boulder Community Mental Health Center. In 1988 he entered The Union Institute doc toral program, received a Ph.D. in Poetics and Depth Psychology in 1990, took an important trip to Chaco Canyon resulting in the performance poem Big Bird & the Great North Road, set to music by composer/session-guitarist John March, which received airplay around Los Angeles and Denver; became a divemaster in 1991 and nearly moved to the islands; instead, a garage in LA: rebuilt a wrecked 1981 BMW R100RS, playing mostly acoustic guitar and listening to KCRW and KPFK, while working in post-production audio, sleepless in tiny, dark soundproofed rooms strewn with old pizza. After some month-long meditation retreats, returned to Denver and worked in Community Television as a director/producer. Five years later, nearly became a Buddhist monk, but moved to Japan in 1997, pursuing a passion for Japanese haiku, research, translation, home and for living above the poverty line. Built a computer hard disk recording studio, which powers music projects and ESL software development; has published around 30 academic papers and some poetry. He can be seen riding around Kumamoto on a 2003 Suzuki SV1000S (a 1000cc twin), when not in his office at the Faculty of Letters, Kumamoto University. Hopes to ride Yakushima and the Okinawan out-islands later this year.

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku