The kigo is an essential element of traditional Japanese haiku poetry. As a seasonal reference, the kigo creates atmosphere and anchors the poem in a particular time of year. Their clever use can also open the doors to far more substantic readings, and even turn the entire “purpose” of a poem on its head. But for English readers unfamiliar with the vast lexicon of Japanese kigo, or even the specific connotations attached to them, identifying these seasonal words can be challenging.

What is a Kigo?

A kigo is a word or phrase that signifies a particular season. They originated in classical Japanese poetry forms like renga and haikai no renga as a way to unify verses thematically. Over time, seasonal references became formalised into a set of accepted words and associations.

In Japanese haiku, the kigo sets the temporal context, with spring and autumn being the most commonly invoked seasons. For example, Matsuo Basho’s famous haiku contains the kigo “frog” (kawazu), which signals late spring:

“old pond / a frog leaps in / water’s sound”

Some other examples of Japanese kigo indicating seasonality include:

  • Spring – sakura (cherry blossoms), ume (plum blossoms), mushi (insects)
  • Summer – kawasemi (kingfisher), minazuki (June)
  • Autumn – kuri (chestnuts), hagi (bush clover), aki (autumn)
  • Winter – yuki (snow), kogarashi (wintry wind).

Essentially, with Japanese poetry being so traditionally tied to the natural world, kigo are almost a kind of short-hand to tap into those seasonal connotations so permeating the culture. While we, of course, have the same connotations here in the UK, they aren’t regarded with the same level of awe and respect as they have been (again, traditionally) in Japanese culture.

Where is the Kigo Normally Placed in a Haiku?

In Japanese haiku poetry, the kigo most often appears in one of three positions:

  1. At the end of the first line (kami-no-ku).
  2. At the end of the second line (naka-no-ku).
  3. At the end of the third line (shimo-no-ku).

The first line placement is probably the most common, in my experience. Putting the kigo early in the poem allows it to set the scene first before the rest of the imagery and ideas unfold.

For example, here is a haiku by Kobayashi Issa with the kigo “bush warbler” in the first line:

“bush warbler – plum blossoms buried under the snow”

Now, while that might just be a pretty line to most readers in the Western world, the bush warbler is a bird that is typically associated with the ume blossom – and one which is a typical signifier of early spring. So, whereas the line “plum blossoms buried under the snow” might sound extremely wintery – perhaps even mountainous – the addition of the kigo “bush warbler” twists the poem into one of expectation and rejuvenation. Simply casting your eyes over it wouldn’t necessarily reveal that, without an understanding of how kigo is typically used in Japanese poetry.

Clues for Identifying the Kigo

Here are some tips for locating the kigo when analysing a haiku:

Think about season and setting

The kigo sets the overall season and atmosphere of the haiku. As you read the poem, consider the time of year being conveyed and the setting that is established. For example, keywords related to spring could include cherry blossoms, melting snow, baby animals being born, or spring rain. The images should create a sensory experience connected to the season – sights, smells, sounds that provide a seasonal context. Think about the feeling the words and images evoke and how they transport you to a particular point in the natural yearly cycle.

Consider symbolism

Some kigo carry a more symbolic meaning related to seasons, for example:

  • Spring – sprouting plants, dawn, youth, new beginnings
  • Summer – bright sun, the peak of energy and life, fullness, fertility
  • Autumn – fading light, sunset years, ageing
  • Winter – dormancy, conclusion, stillness, introspection

Consider if key images in the poem represent broader ideas related to the progression of seasons and cycles of life.

Identify season words

Listen for words and phrases that connect directly to a particular season. For example:


  • snowmelt, thaw, sprout, bud, hatch
  • gentle rain, april showers
  • mild, warming


  • heat, humidity, drought
  • cicadas/insects buzzing
  • beach, swimming hole


  • harvest, crop, fade, wither
  • chill, frost
  • flocks migrating


  • frost, ice, snowflakes
  • hibernate, den
  • bare trees, dormant fields

Do the words clearly indicate a distinct seasonal period? The kigo will establish concrete sensory details of the season.

Think about seasonal activities/events:

Some kigo subtly reference seasonal activities, events, or occasions that connect to a particular time of year. For example:


  • graduation, commencement
  • weddings
  • spring cleaning
  • Easter


  • summer vacation, travel
  • swimming, camping, hiking
  • summer festivals, carnivals, fairs
  • fireworks displays


  • harvest festival
  • leaf peeping
  • Halloween
  • Thanksgiving


  • year-end holidays
  • skiing, ice skating
  • sitting by the fire
  • New Year’s celebrations

Does the poem mention an activity or event closely tied to a season? If so, that’s likely the kigo.

Examples of Kigo

Let’s examine some haiku examples and identify the kigo. This haiku is by the infamous haiku poet, Issa:

New Year’s Day
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

The kigo here is “New Year’s Day” representing winter’s end and spring’s beginning. While not a necessity, as the final two lines largely convey the same ironic detachment as the kigo does, it helps to put everything in perspective and reinforce the subversion of the “rebirth” of the year.

This poem is by Yosa Buson

The summer grasses—
memories, longings
in the autumn wind.

Here, the poem is balanced between two kigo – the summer grasses, with all their connotations of heat – that sharp prickly as you lay down on dry grasses – and the autumn wind, with its coolness, it’s promise of rain. The balance between the two has layers to it beyond the kigo themselves; it could also be seen as a reflection on the nature of earth vs heaven, the physical against the ephemeral, the sadness or acceptance at the changing of the seasons; we can feel his memories and longings of summer being caressed – or even blown away – by the oncoming winds of autumn.

Struggling to Identify the Kigo? Check a Saijiki!

A saijiki is a listing of kigo words organised by season. This is a helpful resource to consult if you are struggling to identify the kigo in a haiku.

To use a saijiki:

  • Consider what season you think the haiku is referring to based on imagery and symbolism
  • Consult the saijiki for that season and look for keywords that match words in the poem
  • The matching word is likely the kigo

For example, if a haiku contains the image of blossoms, you might guess it’s referring to spring. Checking the spring section of a saijiki would reveal “cherry blossoms” and “plum blossoms” both listed as spring kigo. If the haiku mentions one of those specific blossoms, you have discovered the kigo!

Using a complete listing of seasonal words can help pinpoint the kigo when it is difficult to determine from the text alone. Over time, you will become more familiar with typical kigo and identifying them will become easier.

Hopefully you’ll have found this useful – I still get quite a lot of clicks to the site on people asking how to identify a kigo (I assume it’s a crossword puzzle answer or a question in some teenager’s homework). But, even if you’re here for neither of those reasons, hope you came away with a little better understanding of kigo and the role they play in Japanese literature!

J.W. Carey
Latest posts by J.W. Carey (see all)