What Are Kireji and Kigo?

Although the rules of writing haiku are not set in stone, there are important structural as well as conceptual elements that should be maintained for traditional Japanese haiku writing. Traditional Japanese haiku must contain Kireji and Kigo, however, modern writers and non-Japanese haiku may omit these elements.


Kireji is considered the “cutting word” in Japanese haiku and is difficult to accurately define. The kireji is normally positioned at the end of any verse’s three metrical phrases and it provides structural support. When the kireji is effectively developed, it can become its own poem.

The word choice and positioning of the cutting word are strategic decisions to be made by the writer. The word choice combined with the positioning of the kireji cuts the flow of thoughts or ideas and suggests two thoughts independent of each other. This also creates a parallel between the initial phrase and what follows after the pause.

The pause is not only rhythmical, but it is also grammatical, which produces emotion for the reader. The Kireji is also capable of providing a strong conclusion at the end of the verse.

Kireji is specific to Japanese haiku, but in English haiku, punctuation including dashes or ellipsis can be used as the equivalent. The ultimate goal is to allow the reader to come up with a relationship between the two contrasting parts.


Unlike kireji, which is a structural element in haiku, kigo is more conceptual. While kigo is another aspect of traditional Japanese haiku, it is often omitted in modern and non-Japanese haiku.

The phrases in haiku can be constructed using kigo which are words associated with a particular season. The earliest indication of the use of kigo in Japanese poetry anthologies goes back to the mid-8th century. The reference to seasons and the use of seasons as elements of expression have been an integral part of Japanese poetry and culture.

When referencing the seasons, it is important to use elements from nature to create images that represent emotion and ideas. The following are some typical ways of using kigo in haiku.

  • Winter: Winter imagery is often indicative of grief, distance and serenity. It can include “snow,” “ice” and “bare tree.”
  • Summer: Summer words often invoke vivacity, warmness, love, rage, or lust. Phrases are comprised of references to the sky, heat, romance, and the beach.
  • Fall: Fall usually depicts decay, paranormal activity, suspicion, regret, loss, and an ending. These are portrayed with words describing shadows and language that invokes a sense of mystery.
  • Spring: Spring is often written about with words that connote youth, innocence and infatuation.
  • Holidays: Holidays are also written about and include their own appropriate array of explicit vocabulary

The most popular reference for kigo is a book called Saijiki, which is divided into the four seasons. Under each season, one will find various categories such as the Earth, the Sky, Animals, Plants or Humanity. Each category contains lists of kigo related to that subject. Saijiki is a type of dictionary that allows writers to find descriptions of kigo along with lists of related words that can be used. The book also contains examples of haiku that include kigo.

Kigo is an effective and powerful way of conveying ideas, thoughts and emotions to the reader. It is recommended that those writing traditional Japanese haiku incorporate kigo in order to produce the full effect.

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