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Cherry trees from Japan around the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC.

Kigo (season word(s), from the Japanese 季語, kingyo) are words or phrases that are associated with a particular season. Kigo are used in the longer linked-verse form known as renga (including haikai no renga), as well as in haiku, to indicate the season when the stanza is set. They are valuable in providing economy of expression.

History of kigo

Representation of and reference to the seasons has always been important in Japanese culture and poetry. The first anthology of Japanese poetry, the mid 8th century Man'yōshū, had several sections devoted to the seasons. By the time of the first imperial Japanese anthology, the Kokinshū, a century and a half later (AD 905) the season sections had become a much larger part of that anthology. Both of these anthologies also had sections for other categories, such as love poems and miscellaneous (zō) poems.

The writing of the linked verses of renga started in the middle of Heian period (roughly 1000) and developed through the medieval era. By the 13th century there were very set rules for the writing of renga, and the formal structure of renga specified that about half of the stanzas were supposed to include a reference to a specific season depending upon their place in the renga. According to these rules, the hokku (the opening stanza of the renga) must include a reference to the season in which the renga was being written. A lighter form of renga called haikai no renga ("playful" linked verse) was introduced near the end of the 15th century; thus haikai was the linked verse practice followed and elevated by Matsuo Bashō and others until the Meiji Era (1867-1912). Near the end of the 19th century, the hokku, the opening verse, was completely separated from the context of haikai no renga by Masaoka Shiki and revised and written as an entirely independent verse form, though retaining the kigo. In the Taishō Era (1912-1925) a movement began to drop the kigo entirely. Today, however, most Japanese haiku still contain a kigo, although some may omit it. Many haiku written in languages other than Japanese may omit kigo.

Kigo and seasons

A jack-o'-lantern lit by a candle inside.

Kigo are words or phrases that can be strongly associated with a particular season, or sometimes the association can be more subtle. Pumpkins (kabocha), for example, are a winter squash that is associated with the fall harvest. Furthermore, for people living in the United States, pumpkins are also associated with the Jack-o'-lanterns of Halloween. A little later in the year pumpkins are also associated with the pumpkin pies that are often part of the Thanksgiving Day dinner along with turkey and cranberries.

The full moon as photographed by the Galileo spacecraft.

But why is the moon (tsuki) an autumn kigo since it is up in the sky all year long? Autumn is when the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer but are still warm enough to stay outside, so you are more likely to notice the moon. Often the night sky will be free of clouds so that also helps with noticing the moon. Autumn is also the time when the full moon can help farmers work under the moonlight to harvest their crops (see harvest moon). [For more on the moon as a kigo see below].

Japanese seasons

In the Japanese calendar, seasons traditionally followed the lunisolar calendar with the solstices and equinoxes at the middle of a season. Having the seasons centered on the solstices and equinoxes also used to be the European tradition with midsummer equivalent to the summer solstice (usually 21 June), and Midsummer Day ( 24 June) as a quarter day in England, Wales, and Ireland. (The astronomical definition of seasons, however, has the seasons beginning at a solstice or equinox.) The traditional Japanese seasons are:

Cherry blossoms ( sakura), often simply called blossoms (hana) are a common spring kigo.
Spring: 4 February— 5 May
Summer: 6 May— 7 August
Autumn: 8 August— 6 November
Winter: 7 November— 3 February

For kigo, each season is then divided into early, mid, and late periods. For spring, these would be:

Early Spring: 4 February— 5 March (February)
Mid-Spring: 6 March— 4 April (March)
Late Spring: 5 April— 5 May (April)


A sunflower, a typical sign of summer.
The A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima was near ground zero in August 1945.

Japanese haiku poets often use a book called a saijiki, which is like a dictionary or almanac for kigo. An entry in a saijiki usually includes a description of the kigo itself, plus a list of similar or related words, and then a few examples of haiku that include that kigo. The saijiki are divided into the four seasons (and modern saijiki usually include a section for the New Year and another section for Seasonless (Muki) words). Those sections are divided into a standard set of categories, and then the kigo are sorted within their proper category. The most common categories (with some examples of both Japanese and international summer kigo) would be:


  • The Season - midsummer; dog days
  • The Sky and Heavens - sunset, rainbow, the Pleiades at dawn
  • The Earth - waterfall, summer field or summer meadow (i.e. the abundance of summer wildflowers)
  • Humanity - nap or siesta, sushi, sunbathing, nudity, swimming pool
  • Observances - A-Bomb Anniversary ( August 6th), Dominion Day ( July 1st, Canada)
  • Animals - jellyfish, mosquito, snakes, cuckoo
  • Plants - lotus flower, orange blossoms, lily, sunflower

Notice that although haiku are often thought of as poems about nature, that two of the seven categories are primarily about human activities (Humanity and Observances).

Common kigo in Japanese haiku

Japan is long from north to south, so the seasonal features vary from place to place. The sense of season in kigo is however based on Kyoto and its vicinity, since the classical literature of Japan developed mainly in this area, especially up to the early part of the Edo period (the early 17th century). [For a larger list of both Japanese and International kigo, see the List of kigo article.]

[note: An asterisk (*) after the Japanese name for the kigo denotes an external link to a saijiki entry for the kigo with example haiku that is part of the " Japanese haiku: a topical dictionary" website.]


  • Spring (haru) - the name of season is a kigo or season word. Other combinations are Spring begins (Haru tatsu), Signs of Spring (haru meku), Sea in the spring (haru no umi), Spring being gone (Yuku haru). Higan of Spring (春彼岸, haru higan, literary beyond the border of this world), one week around Spring Equinox (shunbun) has a significant period for Buddhists to soothe their ancestors' souls and grave-visiting as well as Higan of Autumn.
  • February (kisaragi or nigatsu), March (yayoi or sangatsu) and April (uzuki or shigatsu). The third month (sangatsu) in the Japanese calendar is equivalent roughly to April in the Gregorian calendar, therefore End of March (yayoijin) is equal to End of Spring (haru no hate).
  • Warm (atatakashi or nurumu) - all spring - as the weather changes from the cold of winter, any warming is noticed. Also Water becomes warm (mizu nurumu).
  • Spring mist or Spring haze (kasumi) - all spring - the daytime haze of spring. The night-time haze during spring that can obscure the moon is called oboro. Haruichiban, the first strong southerly wind of spring is used as kigo in the modern haiku.
  • ume blossom - early spring
  • uguisu (鶯, Japanese bush warbler (sometimes translated as Japanese nightingale), Cettia diphone) - early spring - the bird is used as an example of sweet sounds. Uguisu were mentioned in the preface to the Kokinshū. It is often associated with ume blossoms and new growth in early Japanese waka and is regarded as a harbinger of spring (春告鳥, harutsugedori, literary "bird that announces the arrival of spring").
  • cherry blossoms ( sakura) and cherry blossom-viewing ( hanami) - late spring (April) - for the Japanese, cherry blossoms are such a common topic that in just mentioning blossoms (hana) in haiku it is assumed they are cherry blossoms. Blossom-viewing is an occasion for partying with friends or coworkers.
  • Hanamatsuri (Blossom Festival), Buddhist festival celebrating the birth of Buddha, on 8 April.
  • frogs (kawazu) - all spring (February-April) - noted for their loud singing
  • skylarks (hibari) - all spring - noted for their songs in flight, swallows (tsubame) mid-spring, twittering (saezuri) - all spring - the chirping of songbirds
  • Hinamatsuri (Girl's Day) Doll Festival and Hina (doll) - a traditional Japanese festival for girls on 3 March.
The cicada (semi) is a common late summer kigo.


koinobori - ornament of Tango no sekku. Early summer.
  • Summer (natsu); other combinations are Summer has come (natsu kinu), End of summer (natsu no hate). Summer holidays (natsu yasumi) means mainly the school holiday.
  • May (satsuki or gogatsu), June (minazuki or rokugatsu), July (fumizuki, fuzuki or shichigatsu)
  • hot (atsushi), hotness (atsusa) and hot day (atsuki hi); also, anything related to the heat, including sweat (ase) and in contemporary haiku, air conditioning (reibō)
  • wisteria (fuji), hana tachibana (wild orange blossoms) and iris (ayame) - early summer (May), lotus (hasu or hachisu) - mid and late summer.
  • Rainy season (tsuyu) - the Japanese rainy season, usually starting in mid June.
  • hototogisu (Little Cuckoo - C. poliocephalis) - all summer (May-July) - the hototogisu is a bird in the Cuckoo family noted for its song
  • cicada (semi) - late summer (July) - known for their cries
  • Tango no sekku traditional festival for boys on May 5. See Hinamatsuri in Spring for the girls festival. Festival (matsuri) is applied to summer festivals of Shintoism for pulification. Traditionally it meant the fest of Kamo Shrine in Kyoto, however as kigo it can be applied to each local Shinto festival.


Grapes (budō) are a fruit typically harvested in Autumn.
  • Autumn (aki); other combinations are Autumn has come (aki tatsu), Autumn is ending (aki tsuku), Autumn being gone (yuku aki).
  • August (hazuki or hachigatsu), September (nagatsuki or kugatsu) and October (jūgatsu or kamnazuki). The ninth month (kugatsu) in the Japanese calendar is equivalent roughly to October in the Gregorian calendar, therefore End of September (kugatsujin) is equal to End of Autumn (kure no aki).
  • Typhoon (taifu or nowaki), thunder (kaminari)
  • Milky Way (amanogawa, lit. "river in the heaven"), because in the autumn it is most visible in Japan. It is associated with Tanabata.
  • moon (tsuki) - all autumn (August-October), and moon-viewing (tsukimi) mid-autumn (September) - the word "moon" by itself is assumed to be a full moon in autumn. (Moon-viewing and leaf-viewing (momijimi or momijigari) in autumn (along with snow-viewing (yukimi) in winter and cherry blossom-viewing (hanami or sakuragari) in spring) are common group activities in Japan.)
  • Insects (mushi), mainly it implies singing insects. Also crickets (kōrogi) - all autumn (August-October) - noted for the singing of the males
scarecrow in early autumn paddy field.
  • Nashi pear (梨 nashi), Chaenomeles (boke no mi), peach (momo), persimmon (kaki), apples (ringo) and grapes (budō) are examples of fruit that are used as autumn kigo.
  • colored leaves (momiji) - late autumn (October) - a very common topic for haiku along with related topics such as first colored leaves (hatsu momiji) mid-autumn, shining leaves (teri momiji) late autumn, leaves turning colour (usumomiji) mid-autumn, leaves start to fall (momiji katsu chiru) late autumn, etc. Leaf-viewing (momijigari) is a common group activity.
  • Scarecrow (kakashi), rice cropping (inekari) - rice harvest and relevant things are significant for Japanese life.
  • Autumn Festival (akimatsuri) - Autumn festival is mainly in the purpose of the thanksgiving for harvest. Other feasts in the Autumn, including Tanabata (the festival of the weaver maiden and the herdsman in the Heavenly Court), Grave-Visiting (haka mairi), and Bon Festival (ancestors' spirits come home to share the ceremonial and festival time with descendent family, urabon-e) - all early autumn (August) - are kigo as well as associated ornaments and activities like small bonfires called mukae-bi (welcome-fire for ancestors' spirits) and folk dancing (bon odori).


Fallen leaves (ochiba), a symbol of winter.
  • Winter (fuyu), using "winter" in a haiku adds a sense of chilliness (literally and figuratively), bleakness, and seclusion to the poem.
  • November (shimotsuki or jūichigatsu), December (shiwasu or jūnigatsu) and January (mutsuki or ichigatsu)
  • Cold (samushi) and Coldness (samusa).
  • fallen leaves (ochiba) and dry leaves (kareha) - all winter (November-January) - just as colored leaves are a clear sign of autumn, fallen leaves are a sign of winter.
  • snow-viewing (yukimi) - late winter (January) - a popular group activity in Japan. Also first snow (hatsu yuki) mid winter, snow (yuki) late winter, and ice (kōri) late winter.
  • fugu soup (fugujiru), anglerfish or sea-devil stew (ankō nabe), oyster (kaki) - seasonal dishes.
  • Christmas - this is a modern kigo. It was not used in the Edo period, when Christianity was forbidden.
  • Calendar vendor (koyomiuri) - preparation for the new year.
  • New Year's Eve ( ōmisoka or toshi no yo, literally "The end of year"), and the New Year's Eve party (toshiwasure).
  • Kan (kan), days from 5 or 6 January until 4 or 5 February (literally coldness) - derived originally from the Chinese 24 seasonal periods. Also Daikan (great coldness) a day around 20 January, or Beginning of Kan season (kan no iri, 5 or 6 January).

New year

This group of kigo is a modern invention. Before Japan began using the Gregorian calendar (in 1873), the Japanese New Year was at the beginning of spring.

  • Japanese New Year (正月 shōgatsu) * As in many other cultures, the Japanese New Year is an important time of year for celebrations and there are many activities associated with it that may be mentioned in haiku, including some "firsts": first sun (hatsuhi), first laughter (waraizome), and first calligraphy (kakizome). There is also New Year's Day (ganjitsu).
  • first sparrow (hatsu-suzume) * - the first sparrow helps welcome the New Year.
  • New Year's Day customs: kadomatsu * (a traditional decoration usually made of pine and bamboo that is place on the gate or outer doorway), otoshidama (the custom of giving pocket money to children), toso (a ritual mulled saké only drunk on New Year's Day).
  • osechi (traditional Japanese New Year's Day food): zōni * (a traditional vegetable broth with mochi—sticky rice cakes. The ingredients for zōni vary greatly between regions in Japan.), seven herbs (nanakusa) and rice porridge with seven herbs ( nanakusa gayu), eaten in the evening of 7 January ( jinjitsu).

Dispute on attribution

Switching from the old Japanese calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1873 brought about numerous changes in life in Japan. Even traditional events have been affected by this change. Since kigo are affiliated with seasonal events, several modern haiku poets have had to reconsider the construction of kigo and their attribution to season. One of biggest changes was the creation of a "New Year" part as a seasonal sectioning of kigo.

One typical example is the case of Tanabata. Traditionally the date of Tanabata is 7th day of the 7th month of the Japanese calendar, therefore in August of the Gregorian one. Today in many places it is celebrated on 7 July, hence there is a dispute as to whether Tanabata should be treated as a summer kigo.

Kigo outside of Japan

Although haiku started as a Japanese poetry form, it is now written around the world in many different languages. William J. Higginson's "Haiku World" (1996), which is the first international saijiki, has more than 1,000 poems, with over 600 poets from 50 countries writing in 25 languages. The writing of haiku around the world has only increased with the advent of the internet, where one can even find examples of haiku written in Latin, Esperanto, and Klingon, as well as numerous examples in more common languages.

These international haiku poets have had to adapt the idea of kigo to their local conditions and culture. Many phenomena that might be used as kigo are similar around the world, such as the blooming of flowers and trees in the spring, and the migration of birds in the spring and autumn. Even if the trees and birds are not the same as in Japan, the concepts are still the same.

On the other hand, climatic conditions can often be very different from what the Japanese are used to. The tropics, for example, are very different from the temperate climate of Japan and usually only have a wet or Monsoon season, and a dry season. The Tornado Alley area of the United States has its tornado season (peaking from late winter through mid summer, depending upon latitude). Areas with a Mediterranean climate, such as Western Australia, coastal California, and Spain have their summer Fire Season. On the other hand, in the Caribbean and the North Atlantic, plus surrounding areas, it is Hurricane Season during the summer and autumn months.

There are many local cultures around the world, but you can still find similarities and differences. One similarity is that many areas have harvest festivals with bonfires. One difference between locations is that for a bird that migrates, some places will view that bird as a winter resident, or as a spring and summer breeder, or as an autumn and spring migrant.

For some examples of non-Japanese kigo, here are some from southern California:

  • Heaven: Santa Ana winds (hot, dry winds that usually happen in winter), June gloom (heavy overcast that is usually found on the coast), Smog (an inversion layer over the Los Angeles basin makes the smog worse during the summer)
  • The Earth: "Fire season" and Forest fires (from the very dry months of July and August through the early rains of winter there is the danger of fires in the local hills and mountains)
  • Humanity: Surfing, Beach volleyball, Rollerblading, and Skateboarding (although these are activities that are now done around the world, their popularity started in southern California)
  • Observances: Easter sunrise services in the Hollywood Bowl, Tournament of Roses Parade (on New Year's Day morning before the Rose Bowl college football game). El dia de los muertos (the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration on 1 and 2 November)
A large Jacaranda tree in full bloom.
  • Animals: Grunion (a sardine-sized fish that spawns by laying its eggs in the sand at high tide near midnight), Whale watching ( Pacific Gray Whales can be seen from the coast or on whale-watching boat trips as they go to and from their breeding lagoon in Baja California.)
  • Plants: Jacaranda (an introduced ornamental tree found in many older neighborhoods that has an abundance of blue-purple flowers in mid-spring), desert wildflowers (the nearby deserts such as Joshua Tree National Park can be a carpet of wildflowers after a good rainy season)

Kigo and haiku: an example

An Australian frog (kawazu).

In the famous haiku by Matsuo Bashō below, "frog" is an all spring kigo. Haiku had been traditionally written about the singing of mating frogs, but Bashō chose to focus on a very different sound.

Furuike ya
Kawazu tobikomu
Mizu no oto
An old pond
A frog jumps in—
the sound of water.

Must haiku include a kigo?

In the pre- Meiji era (before 1868), almost all haiku contained a kigo. For example, Japanese experts have classified only about 10 of Matsuo Bashō's ( 1644- 1694) hokku in the miscellaneous (zō) category (out of about 1,000 hokku). As with most of the pre-Meiji poets, Bashō was primarily a haikai no renga poet (that is, he composed linked verse with other poets), so he also wrote plenty of miscellaneous and love stanzas for the interior lines of a renga. Usually about half the stanzas in a renga do not reference a season.

A little later Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) (who wrote mostly haiku and not renga) wrote 109 haiku without season words (out of roughly 20,000 haiku).

The Meiji era poet Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), who recommended several major reforms to the writing of hokku and tanka, including an expansion in subject matter and vocabulary, still included kigo in his revision of hokku, which he renamed haiku. Experts have classified a few hundred of Shiki's haiku in the miscellaneous category (out of the few thousand that he wrote). His follower Takahama Kyoshi, who was the most influential haiku poet in the generation after Shiki, also emphasized kigo. However, in the early part of the 20th century, there were a number of Japanese poets, such as Kawahigashi Hekigoto, Ogiwara Seisensui, Noguchi Yonejiro, Taneda Santōka, Ozaki Hōsai, Nakatsuka Ippekirō, and Natsuishi Ban'ya who were less concerned about the traditions of haiku such as the inclusion of kigo. Some, like Hekigoto and Seisensui, actively opposed the insistence on kigo, but even these often included kigo in their haiku.

Most Japanese, and many western, haiku written today still follow tradition by including a kigo. Many haiku groups and editors of haiku publications insist that haiku include a kigo. For some haiku traditionalists, anything that doesn't have a kigo is something else, either senryu (comic haikai) or zappai (miscellaneous haikai). Until a few modern saijiki added the miscellaneous category, any seasonless haiku would not have been included as an example haiku in a saijiki, which are the major references for haiku poets in Japan.

A Tree Sparrow (suzume).

There are, however, some reformers who have made suggestions such as using the idea of keywords (which would include kigo as a subset). Keywords are words, such as dawn, birthday cake, ocean wave, beggar or dog, with strong associations, but which are not necessarily associated with a particular season. Birds that do not migrate, such as Pigeons or Sparrows, are additional examples of non-seasonal keywords.

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