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New to Haiku: What is a Kigo?

As a novice haiku poet, you will soon bump into the Japanese word kigo. You might be asking yourself, What is a kigo? Do I need to use one in my haiku? How do I use them? What are they for?

What is a kigo?

Simply stated, kigo are season words used in haiku. The Yuki Teikei Haiku Society defines and describes their literary value on their Kigo page:

A kigo is a poetic device used in haiku to denote a season; it’s a powerful word or phrase that can conjure up many allusions, historical references, spiritual meanings, and/or cultural traditions. Its use in haiku, a poem of few words, is especially effective because of this power to expand its meaning beyond the literal and to create a larger aura of seasonal mood, historical/ literary context, and/or cultural implications.

Why use a kigo?

In Haiku: A Poet’s Guide (2003), Lee Gurga writes:

Season is the soul of haiku, as simple as that. One can write fine short poems that do not have a seasonal element, but they will not offer the same gift that seasonal haiku do . . . By relating a single instant of time to the season in which it occurs, the poet can suggest a mood that would otherwise be impossible to create in so short a poem. Through using these seasonal references over hundreds of years, the Japanese have created a rich poetic texture. The kigo (“season word”) invites both poets and readers to weave these perceptions of the seasons into their lives and to weave themselves into the rich brocade of poetry.

Gurga goes on to say that a simple mention of the season is not enough. A kigo must evoke a specific sensory experience for the reader, often bringing to light an aspect of the season that may have been forgotten.

How did the use of kigo originate?

Traditionally, haiku poets have favored using kigo.  As Jim Kacian writes in How to Haiku (2006):

In the classic tradition, it has been considered essential for a poem to include a season word to be a haiku. This tradition arises out of haiku’s historic origins in [the collaborative linked-verse form] renga, when it was called the hokku. The function of the hokku is to indicate the time and place of composition of the renga. It was imperative, then, that the season be indicated somewhere in the body of the poem . . .

Kacian explains that over time, certain words and phrases, specifically those that highlighted natural events, came into use as a pool of kigo with which Japanese haiku poets were familiar. He writes:

The seasons have been the underpinning subject of haiku — indeed, of all traditional Japanese poetry — for several centuries.

However, Kacian goes on to say that the use of kigo has fallen out of favor in the last hundred years:

[D]espite an “official” policy which still advocates their use, and the fact that the great preponderance of haiku being written today still use them, season words are no longer considered essential to haiku, in Japan or elsewhere.

The Yuki Teikei Haiku Society is one group seeking to preserve the use kigo in English-language haiku. Their Kigo page includes this statement:

One of the tenets of haiku aesthetics that the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society honors is the importance of the use of kigo, or season words, in English-language haiku.

And from the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society history page:

The purpose of the founders [of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society] was to nourish and foster the art of writing haiku in English using the traditional guidelines developed by haiku poets in Japan. As explained by Mrs. Tokutomi, in Japanese “Yu” means “having,” “Ki” means “season,” “Tei” means “formal,” and “Kei” means “pattern.” Therefore, in the founders’ view, “yuki teikei” haiku had a season word and utilized a the three-line structure with the 5-7-5 pattern of syllables. The Society encourages the study of haiku in this form and others that have evolved in English over the years. . .

In 2010, the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society produced the San Francisco Bay Area Nature Guide and Saijiki Project, which recognized the value that kigo have for naturalists and others interested in the cultural and natural history of a given area (in this case, central California).

Adhering to the use of kigo is, admittedly, more difficult for those of us writing haiku in English. As Gurga explains in Haiku: A Poet’s Guide:

Unlike the Japanese, we in the West lack a strong tradition of seasonal associations in our poetry. As a result, the use of season words in English-language haiku is for the most part simply tied to our individual experiences of nature. This presents challenges for those writing haiku in English . . .

Gurga mentions that some have suggested that the season word requirement be relaxed in English-language haiku, but he cautions:

Ignoring the seasonal element, however, introduces the possibility of haiku becoming an entirely different — and less satisfactory — kind of poem, as the proliferation of “pseudohaiku” demonstrates.

So, do today’s English-language haiku need a kigo?

Well, as you can see, that answer depends upon whom you ask! That said, many of today’s English-language journals do not require haiku to have a kigo in order to be published. But echoes of the history and tradition of the kigo remain.

If you think about the economy of space in haiku, it makes sense to use words that commonly suggest a specific seasonal experience. For example, if I use the word “popsicle” in a haiku (and you live in the Northern Hemisphere), I probably don’t have to explain to you that it is summer in my poem, or use the word summer at all. You will automatically conjure up sticky, cold, flavored syrup dripping down your fingers on a hot day. Maybe children are laughing and calling to each other in the background. Words with this kind of evocative power are very useful in haiku, where every word counts (whether the word is on an “official” kigo list or not).

Some journals, while not expressly requiring a kigo, do request haiku that are “in season.” This can be a little tricky for new haiku poets, because you might be writing about snow in February when the journals are asking for spring poems for their next issue. It can be helpful to think long-game here, and remember that you can submit the poems you write this winter for next winter’s journal calls.

Seasonal English-language haiku seldom contain more than one word or phrase to reference a season. Again, this makes sense when you consider the brevity of haiku. For example, I don’t have to tell you that it is a cold winter if the poem already states that there is snow on the ground. Looking for double references to seasonality is a good place to start editing your haiku.

For another example of the influence of kigo — you rarely see haiku that reference more than one season. This makes sense if you think of haiku as marking a moment in time. However, like other “rules” of haiku, there are examples where this “one-season” rule has been broken, including this haiku of mine:

too early
for the kids to be up—
winter tulips

hedgerow: a journal of small poems 130, April 10, 2020

In this haiku, I’ve used the “wrongness” of two season words — winter and tulip (for spring) — to magnify the discomfort I felt at seeing my tulips bloom out of season.

Where can I find a list of English-language kigo online?

In Japan, kigo dictionaries are known as saijiki. Here at THF, in our online library, you can read The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words as selected by Kenkichi Yamamoto and translated by Kris Young Kondo and William J. Higginson. The Yuki Teikei Haiku Society maintains an English-language Season Word List, originally derived from Japanese saijiki but modified over the years for North American haiku poets. And Dr. Gabi Greve maintains a blog known as the World Kigo Database.

What are some new directions for kigo & saijiki?

In 2004, the Modern Haiku Association published a new, five volume saijiki; one volume contained non-season kigo. In How to Haiku (2006), Jim Kacian proposes the use of a broader range of keywords that would include season words, but not be limited to seasonality.

Alan Peat & Réka Nyitrai judged two Modern Kigo Project competitions in 2022, in which poets were asked to Invent a new kigo, write a definition, and produce a haiku featuring the kigo. Alan Summers won the first contest, in which he proposed “creeping sepia” as a kigo for autumn.

Allyson Whipple is currently working on The Culinary Saijiki, exploring the relationships between food and the seasons in haiku.

Do you think kigo are necessary in haiku? Do you have a preferred kigo resource or favorite saijiki? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments!

Is there a kigo for appreciating your hometown in winter after a long time away? Because there really should be. (This is Bountiful, Utah, near my parents’ house.)

We’d love to hear from you in the comments. The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy for more information.

Julie Bloss Kelsey is the current Secretary of The Haiku Foundation. She started writing haiku in 2009, after discovering science fiction haiku (scifaiku). She lives in Maryland with her husband and kids. Julie's first print poetry collection, Grasping the Fading Light: A Journey Through PTSD, won the 2021 Women’s International Haiku Contest from Sable Books. Her ebook of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Moth Orchid Press (formerly Title IX Press). Her most recent collection, After Curfew, is available from Cuttlefish Books. Connect with her on Instagram @julieblosskelsey.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. This essay, which also absorbs previous material, covers much about kigo, yet only scratches the surface at the same time! 🙂 But it does consider how ‘kigo’ or ‘seasonal markers’ will go as social engineering and war continues at a pace, and new climate patterns as well.

    .
    ____________________
    Ankle of the Dragon
    ____________________
    (In Pursuit of Kigo) by Alan Summers
    Link, Shift, Kire and Kigo

    thunder
    I slide a kigo
    into the gun

    Alan Summers

    The Pan Haiku Review Issue 2 (New Year’s Eve/Winter 2023) Kigo Lab Special
    ed. Alan Summers

    Some of the Features include:

    The Season Marker Series:
    • Ankle Of The Dragon: In Pursuit of Kigo by Alan Summers
    and
    • Unsold Sofas and Asparagus Sprouts: Chasing the Kigo by Alan Peat

    .
    plus
    The Modern Kigo Project Contest Judges’ Reports from Alan Peat & Réka Nyitrai

    .
    QUOTE:
    Bill Waters (originator, Poetry in Public Places Project):
    “And you are in the vanguard of the new-season-word revolution, Alan. You’re the first haiku poet I turn to to see which way the winds of change are blowing.”

    .

    FREE PDF DOWNLOAD:
    The Pan Haiku Review Issue 2 (New Year’s Eve/Winter 2023) Kigo Lab Special
    https://www.callofthepage.org/the-pan-haiku-review/

    1. the last one melting

      in the snow-jerk’s grip
      cola float

      Alan Summers
      Ankle of the Dragon
      The Pan Haiku Review Issue 2
      (New Year’s Eve/Winter 2023)
      Kigo Lab Special

      snowjerk or snow-jerk
      A snowjerk is a snow chaser, as the snow decreases in some geographical areas, and increases in other areas. Snow will soon be like diamond dust.

      Is snow on the verge of extinction?
      In general, we should assume that winter will bring less and less ice and snow in the
      future. Soon, maybe it will even be goodbye winter! In times of climate change, it is
      increasingly difficult for snow and permafrost. YourWeatherUK 16 Jan 2022

      Snow’s impact on Earth
      Seasonal snow cover is the largest single component of the cryosphere in areal extent, covering an average of 46 million km2 of Earth’s surface (31% of land area) each year, and is thus an important expression of and forcing of the Earth’s climate.
      –SnowEx | Snow – NASA 2023

      How it will affect tourism
      Climate change is also expected to affect tourism in Alpine regions such as Switzerland by reducing snow reliability. If climate change occurs, the altitude of snow-reliability will increase from 1200m (in 2002) to 1800m in upcoming years. Since snow cover is sensitive to variations in temperature and precipitation, major changes will take place due to climate change and this will affect the socio-economic conditions in the affected regions. It is evident that climate change will undoubtedly affect snowfall, snowpack, snow layers, and will lead to social, economic, and even humanitarian issues in the future.
      Luleå University of Technology Norrbotten County, Sweden

      Blizzards are predicted to become more intense in the face of climate change, despite shorter winters and rising global temperatures. –New York Times (December 2022)

      Snowzilla
      The aptly named blizzard “Snowzilla” hit the Northeastern United States in January of 2016, causing great damage to the area.

      The World is Getting Warmer Why All the Snow?
      National Geographic (December 2022)
      https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/23/us/global-warming-snowfall.html#:~:text=The%20warmer%20the%20planet%20becomes,and%20then%20release%20as%20precipitation.&text=It%20can%20seem%20counterintuitive%20that,can%20produce%20so%20much%20snow

      QUOTES FROM:
      Ankle of the Dragon
      The Pan Haiku Review Issue 2
      (New Year’s Eve/Winter 2023)
      Kigo Lab Special
      https://www.callofthepage.org/the-pan-haiku-review/

  2. So much to say about ‘kigo’ as I discovered when I researched as Embassy of Japan Roving Japan-UK 150 Haiku & Renga Poet-in-Residence, and Co-ordinator of The 1000 Verse Renga Project (in partnership with Bath Libraries, supported by the BBC Poetry Season; and Bath Spa University undergraduate development project haiku poet-in-residence (Autumn 2006 – Summer 2007); and Hull Global Renga Project 2010 co-leader for gathering over 3000 renga verses from people from all walks of life in the City of Hull.

    .
    ________________________________________________________________________________________________
    For example:

    [T]he terms kigo and its partner term kidai are actually post-Classic era and Post-Isolation Japan:
    ________________________________________________________________________________________________

    “After haiku became a fully independent genre, the term “kigo” was coined by Otsuzi Ōsuga (1881-1920) in 1908. “Kigo” is thus a new term for the new genre approach of “haiku.” So, when we are looking historically at hokku or haikai stemming from the renga tradition, it seems best to use the term “kidai.” Although the term “kidai” is itself new—coined by Hekigotō Kawahigashi in 1907!

    Itō, Yūki. The Heart in Season: Sampling the Gendai Haiku Non-season Muki Saijiki, preface in Simply Haiku vol 4 no 3, 2006.

    And of course the New Rising Haiku movement poets of Japan changed many things protesting against entry into World War II early December 1941.

    1. “creeping sepia kigo” originator: Alan Summers:
      https://haikubasecamp.wordpress.com/2022/06/12/96/

      .

      creeping sepia
      the rustle of non-humans
      at first light

      Alan Summers
      1st Place, The Modern Kigo Competition
      judges: Alan Peat and Réka Nyitrai
      (February 2022)

      .

      creeping sepia—
      sunlight catches the insect
      in amber

      Alan Peat & Réka Nyitrai
      Nulliparous haibun
      u n b r o k e n #34 (July 2022)

      sicilian hills
through
      the train window . . .
      creeping sepia

      Daniela Misso
      Frogpond vol. 45:3 (Autumn 2022)
      page 30

      .
      ___________________________________________
      OTHER CREEPING SEPIA by Alan Summers
      ___________________________________________

      creeping sepia the threshold of the forest becomes song thrush

      Whiptail: journal of the single-line poem issue 2 (January 2022)

      .

      creeping sepia
      the gravity inside
      beech masts

      Blo͞o Outlier Journal issue 3  
      the natural history haiku edition  (Summer 2022)

      .

      creeping sepia
      a dog that outran
      the wind

      Publication credit: Presence issue #71 (2021)

      Anthology credit:
      Fractured by Cattails
      The Haiku Society of America 2023 Members’ Anthology
      ed. Allyson Whipple

      .

      creeping sepia
      the dust motes
      of rifles

      Publication: Seashores Issue 9 (November 2022)
      _____________________________
      PAID Reading / Performance:
      _____________________________
      International Page and Stage (Northern Ireland)
      “Short form Poets from around the world” in association with the NZ Poetry Society
      27th November 2022
      introduced by Gordon Hewitt, with Shelley Tracey, a renowned poet, originally from South Africa, now living in Northern Ireland

      .

      creeping sepia
      snow globe pictures float
      in the continuum

      Frogpond vol. 46:2 Spring/Summer 2023

      .

      creeping sepia
      the hint of forbidden sea
      in the forest

      Five Fleas Itchy Poetry
      fleakeeper,
      Robin / Roberta Beach Jacobson
      October 31st Halloween 2023

      .

      creeping sepia
      the dusty sheen
      of spent ammo

      Alan Summers
      Failed Haiku vol. 9 issue 97 (31st December 2023)
      ed. Allyson Whipple

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