Coming  Clean  on  Kigo


Haiku Dreaming Australia is closely related to the 'issue' of kigo. As the Dreaming editor I feel obliged to explain my position, although not necessarily to persuade others to share it. What follows is a summary of my opinion on kigo. This was largely shaped by my failed Search for 'Australian kigo'

I have nothing to add to the many excellent writings and public discussions about the use of kigo in haiku written in languages other than Japanese. Rather than revisit these well-canvassed arguments I simply state my conclusions based on them. Any elaboration relates to my Australian perspective. The Australian Haiku Society (AHS) has endorsed the Dreaming project but the opinions expressed here are my own.

My start point is that, whether I like it or not, kigo exist, and have done so for hundreds of years. Further, kigo are used by most of the world's haiku poets, including many who write haiku in English. Ignoring kigo is not an option. I must make some accommodation with it.

The Easy Part

As a minimum, I want to know which words in the haiku I make might signify a season to informed readers, and might have special connotations beyond Australia. This knowlege makes it less likely I'll write nonsense haiku.

More importantly a working knowlege of common kigo, and the facility to quickly check on others, lets me more fully appreciate other poets' haiku, including translations from Japanese.

I satisfy these basic needs with my own kigo list – selected translations from Japanese saijiki, reduced by me to a minimum. I have a searchable copy on my computer desktop and I carry a one-page hard copy. My list contains, for example, 'spider' but not 'Dolls Festival'.

For more serious reading I use the on-line, searchable resource The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words 1 and William Higginson's Haiku World 2

The Tougher Decisions

For clarity, below I assert what are really only the opinions I hold at this stage.

Colonial settlers sought to impose their concept of seasons, in particular four of them as determined by equinoxes and solstices, on Australia. I sympathise with those Australian naturalists who say this is, at best, unhelpful.

In Australia we do not have and are unlikely to ever acquire the equivalent of the Japanese kigo culture. That is unique to Japan.

The season which particular Japanese words (kigo) signify are based on tradition and are not self-evident. Calendar references (names of months and events such as Easter, Christmas and New Year) indicate the opposite season to those in our hemisphere.

When we use the translation of a Japanese word (kigo) to signify a season in Australia the full import of that kigo is often lost on Australian readers.

Kigo, in addition to indicating season, carry haiku-enriching associations and connotations but these are based on a tradition we do not share. These associations are not easily apprehended by us; they can trigger associations we never intended. In our hands kigo is a crude and inappropriate tool for indicating seasonality. For me 'Australian kigo' is an oxymoron. (I am not interested in whether our poems should be called 'haiku' if they do not contain a kigo.)

Data banks and other reference sources, in which one can research the seasonality of selected words and phrases, in any country, may be useful for research. And perhaps such lists of what-happens-when-in-which-country will eventually be endorsed by world and national haiku bodies, but let's not hold our breath.

However there will never be a 'collection of Australian kigo', an Australian saijiki to which Australian poets adhere. Even a collection of agreed season words is unlikely. Arrival at this bloody-minded position was liberating for me: it resolved my 'kigo wavering', stopped me wasting time on their futile pursuit, and freed me to seek kigo alternatives. Let's look closer at why I dismiss Australian kigo/season words.
*     I can't imagine separate saijiki for Broome, Alice Springs, Melbourne, etc. Perhaps seven regional saijiki would be needed to cover our continent.

*     For that matter, how many seasons? Two as in the 'top end'? Four as in Tasmania? Seven as observed by Aborigines in the SW of our country?

*     Botanists tell me that some species of 'wattle', once my favourite candidate as a late-winter kigo, is in bloom somewhere in Australia every day of the year. What season for wattle?

*     Perhaps we could get all Australians to standardise kigo on Canberra, our national capital; pigs might fly.

*     And who may elevate a word to the status of 'Australian kigo'? An Hungarian tourist? The local cloudcatchers haiku group? Does AHS have the interest, expertise and clout to arbitrate?

*     Anyhow, would Australians settle for sharing haiku only with those poets who subscribe to our saijiki?    No, and amen.


The value of locating our haiku within the seasonal cycle is a given, particularly when something in nature familiar to the reader is used to do so, and provided the season is germane to the haiku. How then, without kigo or prescribed season words, do we indicate the season?

I suggest that we do not start with 'season' as a haiku subject/objective, not even in a classroom — such may be appropriate in countries with a kigo culture but not in Australia.

If the season is integral to a haiku we are making and the context does not convey it, then let us use the name of the season—spring, late summer, winter wind...—rather than a second-hand and artificial symbol for that season.

This naive approach makes misunderstandings unlikely, defeats the lure of haikuland, and allows us to stay true to the 'here and now.' We may use season names more often but if seasonality is important then they bear such repetition.


Professor Haruo Shirane3 hit the nail on the head when he said haiku should draw on the poet's 'historical, cultural and literary past'. Without the depth such linkages bring to haiku, their three(?) short lines are hard-pressed to qualify as poetry.

In Japanese, kigo provide the most powerful form of allusion but in Australia seasonal words will contribute little. However there are many other candidate words for making the connections that Shirane advocates:   'Uluru', 'Dreaming', 'boomerang', 'convict', 'first fleet', 'squatter', 'shearer', 'Anzac', 'Phar Lap' etc. Such words, broadly understood and used within Australia, are there for the finding. Given the chance, some will establish themselves in Australian haiku usage and open up that 'Y axis' for us.

The history of Europeans in Australia is less than 300 years old but fortuneately we share this continent with Aborigines, indigenous Australians, with the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on Earth. They are recognised to have arrived in Australia from 40,000 to 70,000 years ago. Their myths, legends and Dreaming, their affinity with nature, are potential treasure troves of Australian-symbolic keywords.

To give up the allusive power of kigo is to surrender something that was never ours. And there are many other ways to draw on our history and culture to enrich our haiku. But that is the subject for a separate discussion.

I conclude:   kigo is a four-letter word and I will not use it again.

    ....... John Bird
                                             Last updated: September, 2009

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1.   The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words Selected by Kenkichi Yamamoto. Translated by Kris Young Kondo and William J. Higginson. Edited for Renku Home with added information on the seasonal system by William J. Higginson,   []

2.   Higginson, William J.; HAIKU WORLD: An International Poetry Almanac; (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodansha International, 1996)

3.   Harua Shirane, 'Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths,'Modern Haiku XXX1:1 (winter-spring 2000), pp48-63.

A failed attempt to identify Australian season words

In 2001, frustrated with trying to apply Japanese kigo to this hemisphere and continent I began researching potential Australian kigo/season words. I carefully reviewed haiku written by Australians and sought suggestions from both haijin and those unfamiliar with haiku. I was surprised to find only a handful of seasonal designators valid for all of Australia; most of these were events in human affairs such as Australia Day, Anzac Day, Melbourne Cup. I abandoned the project in favour of finding seasonal indicators for the region in which I live.

Prospecting for regional season words

I have been writing haiku in this region since 1997. For three years my mother and I held weekly ginko in the Brunswick Valley. See:
the region: its season words and sample haiku

In 2005 a regional haiku group, Cloudcatchers, was formed. It's object was not specifically to identify and use regional season words but the group has met four times per year, once in each season, for each of the last four years. Meetings take the form of a ginko with subsequent on-line workshopping of the best haiku. The members? haiku output is widely published and respected; their attitudes to seasonality, are instructive.

Certain conclusions are unavoidable:
Regional season indicators are available, at least more so than on a national scale. However poets are not interested in formalising or codifying these indicators of season. Cloudcatcher poets write about nature as they experience it there and then; if their haiku?s context conveys the season then fine; if not, that?s usually fine too. They feel no obligation to indicate the season in which they write. If they feel their haiku needs an indication of season, or they wish to make the season clear to readers outside their region, then they will probably use the season name ("Spring" etc). They would eschew haiku written as if made in a season other than the current one.

As a result of these experiences and further study, I revised my whole approach to kigo and seasonal references in Australia. This coincided with the launch in 2006 of the Haiku Dreaming Australia project

Rethinking kigo and seasonal words

I formed Haiku Dreaming Australia in reaction to a perceived loss of Australian identity arising from the homogenisation of world haiku written in English. This project dovetails with my abandoning the search for Australian kigo.

In the short essays of Haiku Dreaming Australia I look at how we Australians might reconcile our 'Australian haiku' with that of a world which largely embraces kigo, and I consider alternatives to kigo that might bring depth and resonance to our poems.

    ....... John Bird
                                             Last updated: September, 2009

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Search for Regional Season Words
the Region, its Season Words and Sample Haiku

john bird

I live in the NE corner of the state of New South Wales (map, later), bounded by the Tweed River to the north, the Richmond River to the south, the Great Dividing Range to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. Sub-tropical mountains, river flatlands, a seashore which includes Cape Byron, the most easterly point of the Australian mainland. This is the traditional home of the Bundjalung Nation whose sacred mountain, Wollumbin, is the extinct volcano within whose caldera we all live. I was born here.

This region has the usual four seasons:
Spring -- September, October, November
Summer -- December, January, February
Autumn (Fall) -- March, April, May
Winter -- June, July, August.

Seasonal Words
Words which designate a specific season in this region (not exclusively, of course) include:
Spring: burning cane, dragon lizards, Melbourne Cup, kite flying, lightning [not autumn], hail storm, whales going north

Summer: Australia Day (26th January), beach, cyclone, haze [not spring], falling gum leaves [not autumn], mirage, northerly [not winter], sunbathing, surfing, swimming, cricket

Autumn: Anzac Day (25th April), blues festival (Byron Bay), cassia (yellow flowering shrub), clear sky, tailor (saltwater fish)

Winter: bottlebrush, southerly [not autumn], wattle [early winter], football

Haiku. Examples of haiku that use some of these.

eighth month
mangrove blossoms
on the flow
chain lightning—
house too low for the dog
to crawl under
kite festival
the home-made dragon
drags its tail
water dragons
already the babies
living statues

I fill a hole
in the Pacific Ocean
white clouds
rainforest -
a northerly mixes
canopy greens
park cricket
a caterpilla moves
to the next leaf
a dolphin pod threads
the pack of surfers

first sunrise
the world curves
round wollumbin
a shark
swallows the mullet–
new year

blues festival
new brothers share
the grass
woodsmoke hangs
in the autumn twilight
a mother calls
Anzac eve–
a currawong watches them
clean the cenotaph


a child counts lorikeets
on his fingers
heaped leaves
the pregnant woman
leans on her rake
crisp morning
the toddler dribbles
a pine cone
glimpse of wattle-
our teenager practices
her look

john bird

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