Haiku: Nature Imagery and the Four Seasons

Written by UP Asian Center on . Posted in The Asian Center Blog

Photos (L–R): Gabriel Marengo; Xeromatic; LoggaWiggler; Michail Prohorov

Nature imagery is very prominent in haiku, but did you know that traditional haiku are commonly associated with each of the four seasons? 

As Stephen Addis notes in his book, The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters (2012), “references to a particular season….are called kigo. In Japanese, the great majority of traditional haiku indicate spring, summer, autumn, or winter, either directly…. or through images that suggest which season is being presented. Some of these references may seem arbitrary, but they are firmly fixed into haiku history. “ Addiss enumerates the following objects and images, and the season with which each is associated. 

 Frogs  Herons  Harvest moon   Snow
 Swallows  Toads  Lightning  Frost
 Warblers  Lillies  Dew  Ice
 Hazy moon  Duckweed  Deer  Owls
 Late frost  Hail  Grasshoppers  Ducks
 Plum blossoms    Dragonflies  Fallen leaves
 Cherry blossoms    Persimmons  Bare trees

The four seasons play a prominent role in Japanese art, culture, and literature. In Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts, Professor Naruo Shirane writes that “court poetry of the Heian period thus did not reflect the actual climate so much as to create a highly aestheticized, and…ideological representation of the four seasons.” Shirane calls this portrayal “secondary nature,” where nature is viewed in utopian terms, its unpleasant aspects (hot summers and harsh winters) downplayed. One of the objectives of "secondary nature" is to “create an ideal environment through linguistic, visual, tactile, and alimentary means.”

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