Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
button Contents button Archives button About Simply Haiku button Submissions button Search button
Winter 2009, vol 7 no 4

Kigo, a Key to Japanese Culture:
An Interview with Gabi Greve, Japan
Robert D. Wilson, Interviewer

RW: What led you, a medical doctor, and your husband to move from Europe to Japan, and to study and learn the Japanese language to a point where you now translate haiku by famous Japanese poets?

GG: First, let me thank you for the opportunity of this interview, Robert san! Please forgive my mistakes in the language. I am a native speaker of German and even after about one year at grammar school in London, my English is still not "druckreif", ready for print, most of the time.

I have been a translator all my life, beginning with translating research papers of the WHO in the field of medicine, my first profession, at the university of Heidelberg, Germany. I then began to study East Asian Art, especially Buddhist art, at Heidelberg University with Professor Seckel, one of the pioneers of this field. I got a scholarship to study Japanese language in more depth, so off we went to Japan in 1977. My husband is an anthropologist, specializing in food anthropology and in the field of material culture, the tools used for providing food, fishing, hunting and harvesting tools. Many of them are kigo for Japanese haiku, by the way.

After two years of intensive language study, we set up shop as translators in Kamakura, close to Tokyo. This old capital of Japan has many temples, so I could continue my research about Buddhist art and write two books on the subject, introducing Buddha statues and ritual implements of Esoteric Buddhism and other Buddhist sects. One day my friend, the priest of a nearby temple, mentioned a group of haiku poets meeting at his temple every month. "You should join them, they know all about Japanese culture" he smiled. That was my first encounter with haiku, more than 20 years ago.

The haiku sensei (group leader) gave me a small pocketbook-size saijiki (haiku almanac) at the first meeting and advised to study it well, like my vocabulary book. Soon the big saijiki followed and is still at my desk now. Joining a Japanese haiku group meant learning, learning, learning. Which is what I still do after so many years. Japanese kigo are a constant inspiration of Japanese culture for me, and I want to share this knowledge with the haiku poets worldwide.


RW: Although not of Japanese descent, you and your husband live in Japan, operating a museum. What inspired you to open up your museum?

GG: After the sarin poison incident in the Tokyo subway and the devastating earthquake in Kobe in 1995, we decided it was time to move out of big city life and find a place of our own, ending up here in the remote mountains of Okayama, in Western Japan, almost like old Issa in his village. Since the estate is quite big, we started collecting Daruma artifacts, which are found on many things Japanese (that is quite a different story). Daruma san (the Indian priest Bodhidharma) is the founder of Zen Buddhism and maybe the best-known foreigner in Japan after Buddha himself and I can use items with Daruma patterns to introduce various aspects of Japanese culture. Anyway the collection grew into a small museum and its online presence is even bigger.

By the way, the memorial day of Daruma (Daruma ki) is a kigo for haiku, as are many other memorial days of famous people. I covered them here in a special saijiki of their own:

Memorial Days of Famous People

Introducing Japanese Haiku Poets

My involvement with the WHC [World Haiku Club] and English Language Haiku (ELH) began in about 2004 via the Internet.


RW: You've mentioned to me that "whenever I write the word HAIKU, I am talking about traditional Japanese haiku." Do you prefer traditional Japanese haiku over the Occidental conceptualization and expression of haiku, and if so, why?

GG: Traditional Japanese haiku is well defined by its form and therefore easily distinguishable from other kinds of poetry, especially short form free verse. Haiku in other languages often do not follow these strict formal aspects and are therefore much more difficult to define or distinguish from short-form poetry.

Inahata Teiko, the President of the Japan Traditional Haiku Association, has written about the three basic conditions of haiku and starts off with this advice:

"It is very important that you feel free to write a haiku your way. But there are certain basic conditions which you as a haiku poet are supposed to observe."

Based on these three conditions, I made up my own example of a car named HAIKU driven in many parts of the world.

Take off the wheel of kigo (seasonal cultural code word)
Take off the wheel of cutting word (make this cut marker in other languages)
Take off the wheel of 5-7-5 (make that short/long/short in other languages)

Drive your "car" safely! You only got one wheel left ...

The discussions about "what constitutes a haiku" (in languages other than Japanese) revolve not so much about its formal aspects but about personal opinions, arbitrary rules for ELH and preferences of poetry magazine editors. This is a world in itself that I often find confusing. Therefore I prefer to concentrate on traditional Japanese haiku.


RW: What is kigo and why is it so important to traditional Japanese haiku?

GG: The Japanese feel haiku is a "seasonal greeting", with kigo, a seasonal word, being the lifeblood, the marrow, the navel of haiku there have been many comparisons to emphasize their importance, even this one by Kuroda Momoko sensei: "Seasonal words are our national treasures."

Let me quote Teiko sensei again: "Haiku is a poem born from a 'season word.' Haiku appreciates nature and our daily life by means of season words. From the time you wake up till you say 'good night' and retire in bed, your daily life at home and at school is filled with pleasant and unpleasant events, things you want to do, affairs with your friends or family members. Your life further includes a comfortable night, or sleepless hours as it is too cold or too hot. Have you ever stopped to think that all these routine affairs keep you closely related to all the vicissitudes on earth that follow the change of seasons? Have you ever been aware of what nature has in store for your unbiased eyes and heart? Season words symbolize the nature-man relations. Haiku is a poetry that expresses itself through season words."

You can find more about this discussion here:

Japanese kigo come in seven categories:

jikoo  時候  Season, climate, time
tenmon 天文  Heaven, natural phenomena, astronomy
chiri 生活  Earth, geography
seikatsu 行事  Humanity, daily life, livelihood
gyooji 動物  Observances, seasonal events, rituals, ceremonies
doobutsu 植物  Animals, Zoology
shokubutsu 植物  Plants, Biology

As you can see, two of these categories are entirely concerned about humanity and human activities in observances, rituals, festivals etc. Therefore the simple notion: "Haiku is about nature, senryuu is about humanity" does not hold for traditional Japanese haiku. Humanity is a big part of it! Not to mention the different opinions of ELH haiku poets whether humanity is part of nature or not

Of course some free-verse-style haiku are also composed without kigo, without a cutting word and not strictly following 5-7-5 in Japan nowadays, but for this interview, I want to concentrate on the traditional Japanese haiku.


RW: I am interested in the humanity-related kigo. Can you provide some details about them?

GG: Let me give you some numbers first, quoting the Big Japanese Saijiki (Nihon Dai Saijiki). Just counting the kidai, the headlines for kigo or "seasonal themes", so to speak, remembering that each kidai has many related kigo, so the actual number of kigo is much more than this:

spring 201
summer 308
autumn 164
winter 356
new year 178

That makes it more than 1000 kidai (and many more than 3000 kigo) of the category of humanity in all seasons! I have just finished introducing all the humanity kidai and kigo for autumn and work on the winter now. The other seasons will follow soon.

The kidai count for the category of observances is rather similar, giving us another more than 3000 kigo, that makes six thousand for the categories of humanity and observances! I think the numbers speak for themselves.

Not many of these Japanese humanity-related kigo have been translated so far, since they are deeply rooted in Japanese culture and need a lot more explanation than "snow" or "summer heat" or the names of birds and flowers. Therefore I have started to bring these kigo to the attention of worldwide haiku poets and people interested in Japan through my various blogs about Japanese culture, to show that many haiku are about human activities, can be humorous and funny and still be a traditional haiku, not senryuu.

These kigo refer to activities of us human beings throughout the seasons. Many are related to food and drink, to things that keep the home comfortable during the seasons, not to mention all the yearly festivals, rituals and ceremonies. Food means planting and harvesting, tending to the fields and all the farmwork throughout the year. Then we have hunting and fishing for food. Next are games and entertainment, the school year, the tea ceremony some activities and things have become obsolete with the advent of modern civilization, but to understand Basho, Issa or Buson properly, you still have to know about them. Uda Kiyoko, president of Gendai Haiku (Modern Haiku Association) in Japan, has recently published a book about how to "Enjoy Old Kigo" (kokigo to asobu). On the other hand, modern items have found entry into the kigo realm, for example "air conditioner", "electric heating blanket" or "snowmobile". Kigo are constantly evolving, since they are the bread and butter of the daily life of a Japanese haiku poet.

Thanks to the Internet, many haiku about all kinds of subjects are now easily to be found online. Hasegawa Kai and his group for example are working on a very detailed online saijiki in Japanese. I try to find relevant haiku to go with the humanity kigo and translate them for my haiku friends. Readers can join me here, where translations are also discussed, since it is often not easy for me to work in two languages which are not my mother tongue:

Translating Haiku Forum

More about the basics of seasons and categories in a worldwide context:


RW: Does the exclusion of kigo in a haiku, Japanese or Occidental, invalidate it as a haiku?

GG: Without a kigo, a poem cannot be added to the saijiki, the typical almanac collection of haiku. Such a poem is sometimes added in an extra chapter called ZAPPAI, miscellaneous, in Japanese. Lately, Japanese collections according to topics (keywords) have also come up. ZAPPAI in Japan is not a judgment about the quality of a poem, just one of its classification. Many short poems are written outside Japan in the fashionable name of "haiku", just as a lot of dishes are prepared in the name of "sushi". A lot of experimenting is going on, challenges about the haiku form are made, things move on, so right now, I prefer to stand back and just "watch what is going to happen" (mimamoru) and see what kind of short-form poetry will survive after 100 more years of ELH.


RW: You are also doing the English speaking world a service by assembling an ongoing international sajiki or rather "database" found online at:

World Kigo Database.

What inspired you to form this database and start the following activities:

Haiku Topics

Kigo Hotline Forum

GG: Many of the Japanese kigo are deeply rooted in the culture and cannot easily be transplanted into another culture where poets are trying to write haiku in other languages. To me, that does not mean you should neglect the use of kigo altogether. That would be throwing a budding haiku baby out with the poetic bathwater and deprive haiku of its most important ingredient.

Kigo are a kind of cultural code vocabulary necessary to write good haiku. They are not simply the biology textbook or the weather forecast, as is often mentioned. Even in Japan, many plants and animals are with us all year round, but there is only one season, when they are "at their best" (shun, as it is called in Japanese) and that is when they are used as kigo code words. With its location from subtropical Okinawa to rather cold Hokkaido in the north, we have plenty of climate zones in Japan, but that does not prevent haiku poets from using kigo as code words for their poetry.

The aim of the World Kigo Database is to help poets worldwide to understand the basic principles of Japanese kigo and with this understanding enable them to find code words of their own culture, establish a saijiki for their own region, share the treasures of their own culture! Each haiku poet could thus become an ambassador of his region and in the course of time help other poets to learn more about his area. I am sure there are local festivals, seasonal work to be done, local food in your area that is worth writing a haiku about. Regional haiku groups are now trying to collect some of these seasonal words and compile their own saijiki. I am very grateful for all of these attempts and activities and encourage haiku poets and haiku groups worldwide to work more on these collections. My dream would be the "Great American Heritage Saijiki".

The World Kigo Database (WKD) tries to present the many worldwide activities in compiling local saijiki, but I need the help of the regional haiku poets. If I have missed any attempts at regional saijiki, please feel free to contact me here, where we collect basic information and discuss worldwide regional kigo:

Kigo Hotline Forum

The latest information about what is happening at the WKD is always here:

WKD Newsletter


RW: What is your concept of Haiku Topics? Should they be encouraged?

GG: Reading Japanese haiku of the Edo period, the modern reader has to make a time slip to understand them fully, slip back in a time without electricity or fast transportation, no TV and no handy phone for easy communication.

Apart from kigo used in the old haiku, many words are mentioned that need to be explained to a modern reader, especially a reader from outside of Japan. These are all topics used in haiku, and they contain many things, basically in the same categories like the kigo categories mentioned above. Also many place names are mentioned in Japanese haiku, which usually need a bit of explanation to understand the poem to its fullest meaning.

Take for example "tsuwamono-domo", the ancient warriors, in the famous haiku of Matsuo Basho about the summer grasses, which does not just refer to any warrior of old, but to Minamoto Yoshitsune, Benkei and the Fujiwara clan of Hiraizumi. That means quite a bit of historical background in just one word before the haiku can be savored to its fullest.

Or think about "fireflies". As a kigo code word, they remind us of the warriors of the fight between the Heike and the Genji and any haiku using this word is much more that a sketch of pure nature.

Since I am a great fan of Japanese history, I started to collect and explain topics (keywords), beginning with culturally relevant words. There are many of these regional culturally relevant words now used in haiku from India, Kenya and many other countries, so the Haiku Topics Blog was a natural addition to the World Kigo Database.

Haiku Topics


RW: Not that you don't have a full plate as it is, but since August 2008, you have also been working on a saijiki about Japanese food, since many dishes are seasonal and are therefore delicious kigo for haiku. Why the need for a saijiki about Japanese food?

GG: I find it easier to collect various groups of kigo within the category of HUMANITY and present them in a saijiki of their own. And I hope to follow up with an expansion about worldwide food kigo over the years.

The concept of SHUN, the best season for fresh food, is one of the most important of good cooking in Japan and thus also for kigo. Many things like fish and vegetables are with us all year round or in more than one season, but are at their best in just one season, when it is their SHUN and this is also their time for becoming a kigo code word for poetry. The saijiki comprises special dishes of each season and the ingredients used for preparing them, like fresh fish, seafood and vegetables. Since many dishes are not so well known outside of Japan, they need a detailed introduction and have thus not been widely featured in saijiki almanacs in translations of other languages outside of Japan.

By the way, Uda Kiyoko has also recently published a nice book about Seasonal Vegetable Specialities (Shun no SAIjiki, a play of words with the sound SAI, which can also mean "vegetable"). Each vegetable is introduced with one seasonal dish (the kigo) and a recipe to go with it.

For me the Washoku Blog is another opportunity to introduce in more detail this important seasonal aspect of Japanese food culture and their historical background.


RW: While working on the saijiki Washoku Blog, you were contacted by a German publisher to write a book about Japanese food, introducing culture and dishes from Hokkaido to Okinawa. The book will have about 500 pages. It is quite a large one in the series of CULINARIA, where food of the world is introduced in German, your native language, and many are translated into English later on. Please elucidate on this.

GG: This project has been going on since August 2008 and is in its final stadium now. The CULINARIA series about worldwide food is quite remarkable with many photos to illustrate the food culture, detailed cultural background information and a set of recipes to go with each ingredient. I even got a chance to sneak in some haiku in the chapters about Matsushima in the North and Matsuyama in Shikoku. The regional dishes of Japan are not so well known, some of them have been "invented" out of the need to survive severe famines or keep the poor farmers alive during the long harsh winters of Northern Japan and Hokkaido. All kinds of fish and seafood are prepared in seasonal local dishes with the special flavor and history of the area. In a time without electricity or refrigerators, sashimi (eating raw fish) was the best thing a fisherman could do right in his boat or at the beach. The bounty of the sea and the mountains (umi no sachi, yama no sachi) plays an important part in traditional Japanese food culture and the use of food items as offerings to the deities. There are many religious rituals centering on food offerings and many of these rituals are kigo, by the way. They are introduced in my blog Saijiki of Buddhist, Shinto and other Ceremonies, Rituals, Festivals and Events of Japan


RW: You have for a while now been translating haiku by famous Japanese poets and sharing them with members of the World Haiku Club and Simply Haiku workshops. Have you thought of compiling in the future a book of your translations?

GG: No, I never intended to write a book about this. When I started the WKD project in 2004, I had little experience with homepage making and no technical support, so I ended up with Blogger and that proved to be a good choice. My work about Japanese culture in its many aspects has grown into quite a "Darumapedia" of its own. I enjoy writing, and enjoy researching about Japanese culture. I do not consider myself a haiku poet, rather a cultural anthropologist. All my work is free for all to read and enjoy and when the blog disappears, all will be gone, so I advise anyone to take copies of your favorite pages. (If anyone has a better idea to preserve it all, please let me know.)


RW: Dr. Greve, or rather, Gabi San, as you are known in Japan, do you have any advice you would like to give our readers?

GG: Writing haiku in a language other than Japanese, you have a choice to make. Keep as closely as possible to the traditional haiku format (short/long/short, one kigo, one cut marker) or depart from this and write in a more free verse style. The choice is yours, the internet with all its relevant information is at your fingertips. The study of Japanese culture via haiku is a rewarding endeavor and I would be happy to be your guide on this trip for a little longer. If it makes you more keenly aware of your own culture, all the better. If you feel like contributing some kigo of your region, join me at the KIGO HOTLINE.

Thank you very much, Robert san, for this chance to talk about the importance of kigo in traditional Japanese haiku.