When the Moon Can Stand Alone: Single Kigo and the Tokutomi Contest
haiku essay by J. Zimmerman

When the Moon Can Stand Alone: Single Kigo and the Tokutomi Contest

by J. Zimmerman, Coordinator of the 2013 and 2014 Tokutomi Memorial Haiku Contests.

This essay on haiku and the use of season words (kigo) in haiku, specifically with regard to the Tokutomi Memorial Haiku Contest, was first published in the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society 2013 annual anthology Above the Clouds (2013, pp. 61-67), edited by Patrick Gallagher.

The Yuki Teikei Haiku Society (YTHS) sponsors the annual Kiyoshi and Kiyoko Tokutomi Memorial Haiku Contest. This is the oldest USA-based international haiku contest honoring the English-language adaptation of the traditional Japanese form. The contest requires each submitted haiku to have a five-seven-five-syllable pattern and to include a single kigo (seasonal phrase) from a contest-specific list.

Before I discuss the contest's screening process, here are features of the kigo. A kigo "operates in Japanese haiku as a poetic device. Symbolic of a season, it holds the power of allusion to literary, religious, and historical references" (Machmiller, 2011). Thus, in addition to denoting a season for the poem and placing the poem in nature, a kigo can provide a "vertical" link between the haiku and poet's historical, cultural, and literary past (see also Shirane, 1998 and 2000). Haruo Shirane (2000) comments:

In Japan, the seasonal word triggers a series of cultural associations which have been developed, refined and carefully transmitted for over a thousand years and which are preserved, transformed and passed on from generation to generation through seasonal handbooks, which remain in wide use today.

A kigo "is the sounding board of the poem ... [without it] there would be no amplification, no overtones, no lingering reverberations" (Machmiller, 2011). Furthermore, "the season that a kigo represents is chosen because the kigo is at its most impressive at that time of year" (Machmiller, personal communication, 2013).

The Tokutomi contest offers haiku poets the opportunity to explore these aspects of the haiku tradition by encouraging the creation of contest-worthy haiku.

I acknowledge that skillful poets can successfully break poetic rules and conventions. In particular, many admirable haiku have been written with more than one kigo and even without a kigo. But, to be fair, entries in a contest must comply with contest rules. My objective here is to summarize kigo usages that fell outside the 2013 Tokutomi Contest rules. I hope this information could help the reader be successful in using the classical form required by the Tokutomi Contest. Contestants in subsequent Tokutomi Contests could be less likely to use multiple kigo or make other inadvertent errors that can cause disqualification of a poem.

The 2013 screening process

Each year the contest coordinator selects kigo for the contest. The list for the 2013 contest contained kigo for each of the five seasons (including New Year). The kigo for New Year were first sun and New Year's reunion; for spring, sugar moon and soap bubble; for summer, iris and iced coffee; for autumn, migrating raptors and grasshopper; and for winter, whale and long underwear (YTHS-contest, 2013).

For the 2013 contest, poets offered 218 poems. One of the largest coordinator tasks was, to my surprise, to screen haiku for compliance with the rules. Unfortunately 56 poems (a quarter of the haiku) failed to meet at least one of the four contest rules. This disqualified them from being forwarded to the judges. Almost all disqualifications were caused by disregard for a single contest rule:

Haiku with more than one recognized kigo will be disqualified (YTHS-contest, 2013).

Below is a summary of the main errors seen, followed by some recommendations.

Explicit reference to a season

Sometimes a poet added an explicit season name ("spring," "summer," "autumn," or "winter") that matched the contest-list kigo used. But, by definition, each kigo refers to a season. Naming the season duplicates the season information and diminishes the power of the specified kigo. The poet needs to allow each kigo to denote its season fully.

Less commonly a poet added an explicit season that conflicted with the chosen contest-list kigo. For example, more than one poet added "winter" in a haiku with the contest-list kigo "first sun."

Sometimes the poet inserted the name of a month (January, October, etc). This is a double problem. First, the name of a month either duplicates or challenges the season invoked by the contest-list kigo. Second, the explicit month is best avoided in general because poets write haiku in the southern hemisphere as well as the northern: the name of a month denotes the reverse season to a reader living on the opposite side of the equator to the poet.

Implicit reference to a season

Just as a contest-list kigo implies a season, so do many other words. One of the hardest areas for the haiku poet is to develop attentiveness to words and phrases that potentially signify the season, in order to not include them inadvertently.

In contest submissions, some poets added an extra season word that signified but did not name the season. Some words duplicated and some contradicted the contest-list kigo used. A small and randomly selected subset is:

Poets sometimes differ in their ideas about the seasonal significance of a word: set that aside. This contest is guided by traditional (as opposed to personal) uses of season words. In the same way that a writer uses a dictionary and a spelling checker, a haiku poet can consult the YTHS season word list (YTHS-kigo, 2013) as well as the non-regional season-word almanac by Higginson (1996a) in order to check against accidental addition of season words.

Modification of a contest kigo

A haiku was disqualified if it used a contest-list kigo incompletely. In particular "migrating raptors" is an autumn kigo. Replacing it by the unqualified and non-seasonal "raptors" was cause for disqualification.

Some changes to the contest kigo are acceptable, however, such as:

Non-kigo use of a contest kigo

The 2013 rules did not specify that a haiku would be disqualified if it used a contest-list kigo as a simile. Examples are:

Accordingly, such haiku were not disqualified for the 2013 contest.

For future contests, a guideline will be added that a haiku would be disqualified if it were to use a contest-list kigo in any non-kigo manner.


Practice the use of a single kigo in a haiku. This has two benefits that can result in better haiku:

Study kigo through reading Higginson (1996a and 1996b) and Machmiller (1995 and 2011), as well as Missias (2000). Enrich the depth of your studies through such books as Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho (Shirane, 1998).

Ueda (1999, p. 19) also comments on the cultural resonance of the haiku's kigo, writing about the kigo being something the senryu (the haiku's often humorous human-nature sibling) lacks:

[W]hile a haikai poet could create complexity through the use of [a] kigo (season word), a senryu writer has no such culturally loaded vocabulary at his disposal ... He could use a word referring to season ... but because senryu had no tradition of seasonal poetry to feed on, the word would not carry the kind of rich cultural connotations that a kigo would.

Trumbull (2000), in an exploration of adaptations of the Japanese haiku by Western writers, advised that classically in Japan: "Poets who used a kigo incorrectly, in a way that failed to capture the manifest essence of the season, would risk the rebuke of the haiku master." Meanwhile, I hope that this essay, far from being intended as a rebuke, is a helping hand in the kigo foothills, and will bring you greater success in your future submissions to the Tokutomi Contest.

As for the moon, kigo almanacs show "moon" to be of the autumn season. If you see "moon" by itself in a kigo list for a Tokutomi Contest, do not duplicate the season in your "moon" haiku by adding "autumn" or any other autumnal season word. And do not add a phrase that conflicts with the autumn season given simply by "moon."

Instead, allow the kigo to do its full work. Let the moon denote the brightest of moons, the moon closest to the earth in autumn. To distinguish this usage from other occurrences of the moon, the traditional convention is that a reference to the moon at another time of the year must be shown by naming the season (summer moon, winter moon, or spring moon) or by some other designation (such as in the 2013 Tokutomi Memorial Haiku Contest whose spring kigo included "sugar moon").

I am grateful to Patricia J. Machmiller for her kigo guidance. Without it, I would not have had the opportunity to coordinate the 2013 Tokutomi Memorial Haiku Contest. I hope that by sharing my experience with you, you will be able to incorporate some of it in your writing and that in next year's contest your haiku will be among the winners.


Higginson, William J. (1996a). Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac. Tokyo: Kodansha.

Higginson, William J. (1996b). The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World. Tokyo: Kodansha.

Machmiller, Patricia J. (1995). "The Kigo: Simplicity and Power" in GEPPO Jan/Feb 1995 issue.

Machmiller, Patricia J. (2011). "Kigo: A Poetic Device In English Too" in Wild Violets (the YTHS 2011 members' anthology), pp. 29-31.

Missias, A.C., editor (2000). In Due Season: a discussion of the role of kigo in English-language haiku. Supplement #1 of the Acorn haiku journal, released Spring, 2000.

Shirane, Haruo (1998). Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Shirane, Haruo (2000). "Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson, and Modern Haiku Myths" in Modern Haiku 31:1, pp. 48-63. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from http://www.haikupoet.com/definitions/beyond_the_haiku_moment.html

Trumbull, Charles (2000). "Seasonality: English-language Haiku in Search of its Vertical in Missias" (2000).

Ueda, Makoto (1999). Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu. New York: Columbia University Press.

YTHS-contest (2013). Retrieved February 11, 2013, from http://youngleaves.org/2013-tokutomi-memorial-contest-announcement/ .

YTHS-kigo (2013). Retrieved May 27, 2013, from http://youngleaves.org/season-word-list/ .

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