Dissection of the Haiku Tradition: Flower & Plant Kigo

by Fay Aoyagi

In this essay, I will discuss one of the traditional elements of haiku: the kigo. I would like to share the view of a non-traditionalist. My focus will be on how I use a kigo when I write a haiku in English. Though many of the samples I use will be the work of Japanese haiku poets, my main purpose is not to compare Japanese-language haiku with English-language haiku.

Also, my intention is not to tell you how you should write a haiku. I believe in diversity and I trust the voice of a haiku poet. I hope that my approach to kigo will help you deepen your haiku experiences.

In American haiku, the linkage between nature and human has been emphasised.  In most published haiku in the United States, the poet is invisible; one remains only an observer of nature. Many American haiku poets seem to believe that haiku should be a subdued sumi-e or a quiet still life. But haiku can be as colourful as van Gough’s paintings or as abstract as the work of Picasso.

The core of my haiku is my emotion as a woman, as a Japanese person, and an immigrant. “Who I am” is the essential ingredient in my haiku. To convey my feelings, I rely on a kigo. Sometimes finding the right kigo is my first step to writing a haiku.

watakushi no hone to sakura ga mankai ni

my bones
and cherry blossoms
in full bloom

Yasuyo Ohnishi 1

The cherry blossom is the national flower of Japan. From ancient times numerous poets have written about them. Saigyo dreamed of dying under the cherry blossoms and those short-lived, delicate flowers were the symbols of Kamikaze fighters during World War. 2

In April, people all over Japan gather under the trees in full blossom and have a party.

bara no sono hikikaesaneba deguchi nashi

the rose garden —
unless you retrace your steps
there’s no exit

Kiyoko Tsuda 2

While cherry blossoms symbolise where I came from, roses represent Western culture and where I am now. I think roses demand a lot of care. To have a gorgeous, perfect flower, one has to tend them with water, fertilisers and pesticides. Roses are somewhat the manifestation of my borrowed culture.

‘Rose’ itself is a summer kigo, but I prefer to use it in a winter setting. I can put contradictory feelings or images together in this way.

winter roses —
I am tired of reading
between the lines

Fay Aoyagi 3

‘Hydrangea’ is my favourite summer flower kigo. According to my Japanese saijiki, hydrangeas change their colors after they bloom because of a substance called flavone. The most common term for ‘hydrangea’ in Japanese is ajisai, but it is also called shichi henge (seven changes).

ajisai ya nobore to ieru gotoki kai

hydrangeas —
the stairs seem to tell me
to climb up

Tatsuko Hoshino 4

In Kamakura, where Tatsuko grew up, there is a temple called Hydrangea Temple, famous for its hydrangeas. There are steep steps up to the temple from the street.

I wish I knew more about botany. Some English flower names sound very interesting and evocative; such as Blue Witch, Indian Paintbrush, Johnny Jump-up and Solomon’s Seal.

shiragiku to ware gekkou no soko ni sayu

white chrysanthemum
and me, at the bottom of the moonlight
coldly glow

Nobuko Katsura 4

My association with chrysanthemum is somewhat complicated. It is the flower of the Japanese royal family and a chrysanthemum is embossed on the front cover of Japanese passports. In a way, the chrysanthemum is a husk of the things which I left in my native country. Yet, I feel I am a chrysanthemum wherever I go, whatever I do.

One of my favourite quotes about haiku is by Takajo Mitsuhashi. She said, “writing a haiku is an act of stripping scale from my skin. The scale which is stripped from the skin is evidence of my life”.

tsuta karete isshin ganji garame nari

ivy having died
the entire trunk
inextricably bound

Takajo Mitsuhashi 2

In Japan, Takajo is one of ‘4Ts’ (famous female haiku poets) along with Teijo Nakamura, Takako Hashimoto and Tatsuko Hoshino. They were pioneers in the early 20th century when the haiku world was dominated by men.

If a poet is a mere observer of nature, the gender of the poet may not be very important. However, if you place yourself at the center of your haiku, who you are and how you see the world will become critical.

karekusa no hito omou toki kiniro ni

withered grass
when I think of him …
burnished gold

Masajo Suzuki 5

Masajo Suzuki who lived a very interesting and rather dramatic life showed a different aspect of the withered grass. She saw hope in the withered grass. In the deep winter, we will hear the approaching footsteps of the spring.

Because I am not a nature lover, I see flowers and plants in a different way from a hiker or a gardener. It may be a helpful exercise for you to pick four or five flowers which are meaningful to you and compose a haiku based on why each particular flower appeals to you.


1 Gendai no Haiku (Modern Haiku Anthology) edited by Shobin Hirai, Kadokawa Shoten (1982). Translation by Fay Aoyagi.

2 Far Beyond the Field, edited and translated by Makoto Ueda (Columbia University Press, 2003).

3 Previously unpublished.

4 Dai Saijiki (Comprehensive Saijiki) edited by Shuoshi Mizuhara, Shuson Kato, Kenkichi Yamamoto (Kodansha, 1982). Translation by Fay Aoyagi.

5 Love Haiku: Masajo Suzuki’s Lifetime of Love, edited and translated by Emiko Miyashita and Lee Gurga (Brooks Books, 2000).

Editor’s note: This essay, one of 10 on the use of kigo, was first published in Frogpond 36.1 (2005) and appears here with the permission of the author.

Fay Aoyagi (Japanese: 青柳飛; born Aoyagi Fusae 青柳房江, 1956, Tokyo, Japan), immigrated to the United States in 1984. She is a professional interpreter and haiku poet writing in Japanese and English and is a member of the Japanese haiku groups Ten’I and Aki, as well as the Haiku Society of America (president 2016–19) and the Haiku Poets of Northern California (co-ordinator of the HPNC rengay contest since 2003). Fay, who lives in San Francisco, is the author of three award-winning haiku collections, the most recent being Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks (2011). She curates the blog Blue Willow Haiku World, presenting her translations of contemporary Japanese haiku.