Reading the Seasons

On June 8, 2018, the Haiku International Association held a lecture titled “Seasons and Literature,” inviting Nishimura Kazuko, a successful haiku poet and essayist, to speak. Following is a review of proceedings.

Nishimura Kazuko delivers her lecture. JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO

Nishimura Kazuko is the author of Kigo de yomu Tale of Genji, Kigo de yomu The Pillow Book and Kigo de yomu Essays in Idleness, three books in which she interprets or “reads” (yomu) classic works of Japanese literature through their use of season words and phrases (kigo). Kigo are used to convey the season under observation in renga, haikai and haiku poetry.

“There are many expressions of seasons in well-known scenes in Tale of Genji; for example, birds sing, cherry blossoms bloom and petals fall, the moon shines in the sky, and drizzling rain falls like tears,” Nishimura explained in her lecture. “I find such expressions to be charming, like background music.”

Nishimura highlighted the charm that can be found in classics themed on the expressions of seasons and how the relationship between the seasons and literature itself functions as a source of season words, which are an important element of haiku poetry.

Nishimura explained the main points of her books using examples of summer season words. These included: “festival,” “washing the hair,” “cicada shell,” “thunder,” “thin clothes,” “lotus,” and “moon flower” in Tale of Genji, the oldest novel (early eleventh century); and “Aoi matsuri,” “iris,” “Boy’s Day,” “cuckoo,” and “nap/siesta” in The Pillow Book (completed in 1002). Along with Essays in Idleness (1330–1332) and Hojoki (1212), The Pillow Book is considered one of the three greatest zuihitsu (collection of writings) in Japan. Nishimura pointed out that each of the above classic works describes the charms of the season as a backdrop to the story.

Tale of Genji includes 795 waka poems. Nishimura recognizes a haiku flavor even in passages in The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, who is said to poor at creating poems. Nishimura read aloud the following sentences which appear at the beginning of The Pillow Book. 


In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!” 

[Donald Keene translation.]


Shonagon’s approach to description and manner of writing are very similar to the sense of making haiku, looking from the current world view of haiku. Nishimura said that she was 100% sure that Sei Shonagon would create haiku if she were alive now.

What Are Season Words?

A large audience of haiku enthusiasts attended Nishimura’s lecture, which was hosted by the Haiku International Association.

The development of waka served as the backdrop to the formation of season words. A waka poem is a fixed form of verse that comprises five phrases consisting of five, seven, five, seven and seven syllabets (5-7-5-7-7) themed on love or nature. It is held that renga was created as a branch of waka in the sense that the first person created the first three phrases (5-7-5 syllabets), and others created the remaining two phrases (7-7 syllabets). Renga is said to have been popular throughout Japan in the fourteenth century. In the sixteenth century, haikai was created as a poem that expressed the playfulness of common people with hokku (5-7-5) and renku (7-7) following the same scheme. The poets at the time set rules for specifying the seasons to capture the scope of the seasons in renga and haikai poems to prevent excessive extensiveness. That was the beginning of season words.

In 1648, Kitamura Kigin (1625–1705), waka poet, haiku poet and classic scholar, published Yamanoi, a collection of 1,300 season words with example poems. In 1663, he released Zo Yamanoi, an enlarged edition of the previous book. His books became the popular key models for ordinary people in the Edo period (1603–1867) when they created poems.

Kigin was a teacher of Matsuo Basho (1644–1694), who separated hokku from haikai and completed it as a form of art. Basho is said to have become Kigin’s pupil around the time when Zo Yamanoi was completed.

Kigin is known to have written commentaries on Japanese representative classic works after the publication of the season word compilations, including Man’yoshu, The Tales of Ise, Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book, Essays in Idleness and The Hachidaishu (the first eight imperial anthologies of Japanese waka poetry).

Expressing Emotions through Season Words

Lecture materials showing the titles of Nishimura’s books about season words in three classics of Japanese literature

Season words can be found in Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenko, such as “dawn,” “cuckoo,” “barefoot,” “heat/hot,” “horses cooled,” “cool,” and “linen silk.”

Stating that Essays in Idleness, a collection of short passages and essays, was also created with a feeling that is very specific to haiku, Nishimura pointed out that proverbs and conceptions of life were expressed with similar resonance in Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims by François duc de La Rochefoucauld, and talked about “26. Breaking up” in Essays in Idleness.

When I recall the months and years I spent as the intimate of someone whose affections have now faded like cherry blossoms scattering even before a wind blew, I still remember every word of hers that once so moved me; and when I realize that she, as happens in such cases, is steadily slipping away from my world, I feel a sadness greater even than that of separation from the dead.

Nishimura pointed out that the sentences implicitly depicted a very impressive scene when Kenko became a Buddhist priest, after losing heart due to unrequited love when he was young. As she pointed out, “26. Breaking up” continues as follows:


That is why, I am sure, a man once grieved that white thread should be dyed in different colors, and why another lamented that roads inevitably fork. Among the hundred verses presented to the Retired Emperor Horikawa one runs:

The fence round her house,

The woman I loved long ago, 

Is ravaged and fallen;

Only violets remain

Mingled with the spring weeds.

Kenko ended the passage with the following sentence:

What a lonely picture – the poem must describe something that really occurred.

— 26. Breaking up, Essays in Idleness. [Donald Keene translation.]


The poem quoted is by Fujiwara no Kinzane (1053–1107) and uses “violet” as a season word. The season is spring.

Nishimura then gave another example of a haiku, by Yosa Buson.


In the hedge of his girl’s 

He sees 

Shepherd’s purses in bloom. 

[Kumano Shoji translation.]


Essays in Idleness was one of the most popular books in the Edo period. I think that Buson also read it. What Buson expressed in the poem is his memory of transitory love. At the time, the Japanese people wrote about associating their love with seasonal things, flowers, birds, weeds and even events,” Nishimura observed.

A Poem-loving People

Narumi Yukiko (left), Kit Pancoast Nagamura and Nishimura Kazuko introduce three “photo haiku” from among thousands contributed to the “HAIKU MASTERS” TV program on NHK.

The population of haiku poets is said to be 10,000,000 in Japan. This figure includes many potential nameless haiku fans. The population of tanka fans is said to be one tenth of that of haiku. Whether haiku or tanka, many Japanese amateur poets create poems almost weekly, finding themes in their life or work, and send their works to the four major broadsheet newspapers, TV shows and radio programs. A large number of poem-related magazines is issued every month, including fanzines.

Japanese modern literature has changed significantly since the Meiji period (1868–1912) under the influence of Western culture. However, haiku and tanka have maintained their tradition as fixed verses without being greatly affected by Western countries.

Nishimura has served as a selector of haiku poems on “HAIKU MASTERS,” an English-language based TV show on NHK World. She aims to popularize haiku around the world, demonstrating self-awareness and pride. “HAIKU MASTERS” is broadcast in 160 countries. Nishimura and Kit Pancoast Nagamura have appeared in the program as selectors since it first aired. According to Narumi Yukiko, the TV program producer, over 10,000 photo haiku, or combination works of haiku poems with related photos, have been sent to the program production team from 111 countries.

Nishimura read aloud three poems from the works that have been contributed. Here is one of them:


A long journey

In the pockets the perfume

Of jasmine

— A woman in her 60s in Italy


In connection with this haiku, Nishimura introduced a poem from The Tales of Ise (also published in Kokin Wakashu):


the strong fragrance

of mandarin orange blossoms

awaiting the fifth month

reminds me of the scented

sleeves of someone I used to love

[Ueda Makoto translation]


It is about the memory of the woman with whom the poet used to have a close relationship.

Poems transcend time and space. Haiku may travel much more lightly with their style of three parts consisting of five, seven and five syllables (5-7-5). This is what I thought after listening to her lecture about the seasons and literature.

SANO Kentaro, freelance writer

Note: Episodes of “HAIKU MASTERS” can be viewed here.

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