Matsuo Basho
Introduction

Photograph by: Michael Yamashita, National Geographic February 2008

Matsuo Basho, the master of Japanese haiku, lived in 17th-century Japan, when haiku hadn’t fully developed into the independent poetic form we know today. His poetry showed the power that a three-phrase haiku could have, but his masterpiece—the travel journal Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to a Far Province)—contains both poetry and prose.

Matsuo Basho (using the Japanese standard: Matsuo was his family name, Basho one of his pen names) was born to a samurai family in Ueno, Japan, in 1644. His father died when Basho was a child, and it is said that the family was not prosperous. Young Basho spent time as a servant to the local lord’s son, Todo Yoshikiyo, who was just two years older than Basho. This was important in Basho’s development, since both young men shared an interest in poetry. When his master died in 1666, Basho seems to have decided to devote himself to a literary life. He traveled to Kyoto, perhaps staying there on and off, and soon made his way to Edo, then a promising new city. He founded a school of poetry there and took long journeys around the area that echoed the travels of earlier poets. Subsequent scholars have viewed the move to Edo and his travels as a way for Basho to secure his place in the Japanese poetic tradition.

Basho wrote haikai (linked verse) in the manner of his time—with groups of poets and students who would gather to create verse that followed set guidelines. During this era, people also paid to be instructed in a variety of arts or disciplines by “town teachers,” and followers would seek lessons from Basho. In the summer of 1694 he set out on another journey, visiting Kyoto and his hometown of Ueno. During this trip he died, surrounded by friends, in the town of Osaka.

Bibliography

Norman, Howard. “On the Trail of a Ghost.” National Geographic (February 2008), 136-149.

Carter, Steven D. “On a Bare Branch: Basho and the Haikai Profession.” The Journal of the American Oriental Society (January-March 1997), 57-69.

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

Ueda, Matsuo. Matsuo Basho: The Master Haiku Poet. Kodansha International, 1982.

Poetry at the Time of Basho

Renga (linked verse), a medieval Japanese poetic form, was popular in the 14th and 15th centuries. But as literacy increased and more Japanese wrote poetry, this traditional style began to change. During the 16th century a new form of linked verse developed—_haikai_, or playful style—that had less rigid themes and rules than conventional renga. In both conventional renga and haikai, groups of people composed linked verse following specific guidelines for such things as length (they wrote sequences of 36, 44, 100, and even 1,000 verses).

In both forms the opening verse (_hokku_) was particularly important; it was an honor to be asked to compose the hokku. As haikai was becoming popular, the hokku was becoming a poetic idiom in its own right. Basho composed haikai sequences, but he also must have sensed the poetic possibilities of the opening verse (later called haiku). At the time contests were held that pitted two hokku against each other, with a judge declaring the winner. Basho refereed one such contest, publishing poems from it—including two of his own—in a 1672 collection called The Seashell Game. What established his reputation, however, was a combination of the haikai anthologies his students put together and his own work as a haikai master.

It is impossible to summarize Basho’s aesthetic temperament, but when discussing a famous haiku (the “frog” poem below), he explained, "Go to the pine if you want to learn about pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself."

Bibliography

Basho’s Narrow Road: Spring & Autumn Passages, trans. Hiroaki Sato. Stone Bridge Press, 1996.

Carter, Steven D. “On a Bare Branch: Basho and the Haikai Profession.” The Journal of the American Oriental Society (January-March 1997), 57-69.

Keene, Donald. Travelers of a Hundred Ages: The Japanese as Revealed Through 1,000 Years of Travel Diaries. Columbia University Press, 1989.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa. Penguin Group, 1966

Ueda, Matsuo. Matsuo Basho: The Master Haiku Poet. Kodansha International, 1982.

Basho in Translation

Basho’s works were first translated into English in the late 19th century, and today several different English translations can be read of just his Narrow Road to a Far Province (the title differs according to the translation as well). Professor Stephen Kohl at the University of Oregon has put together a site where you can read the account of the journey and compare four different translations.

A comparison of translations of the first entry in Narrow Road (Kohl’s site makes this easy) illustrates the differences and shows how a translator’s word choice can affect understanding. On some level, these differences highlight the beauty and depth of the poetic form as well as Basho’s unique artistic gifts.

Narrow Road to a Far Province, first entry

Moon & sun are passing figures of countless generations, and years coming or going wanderers too. Drifting life away on a boat or meeting age leading a horse by the mouth, each day is a journey and the journey itself home. Amongst those of old were many that perished upon the journey.
(translated by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu, Back Roads to Far Towns)

The sun and the moon are eternal voyagers; the years that come and go are travelers too. For those whose lives float away on boats, for those who greet old age with hands clasping the lead ropes of horses, travel is life, travel is home. And many are the men of old who have perished as they journeyed.
(translated by Helen Craig McCullough, The Narrow Road to the Interior)

The passing days and months are eternal travellers in time. The years that come and go are travellers too. Life itself is a journey; and as for those who spend their days upon the waters in ships and those who grow old leading horses, their very home is the open road. And some poets of old there were who died while travelling.
(translated by Dorothy Britton, Narrow Road to a Far Province)

Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives traveling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road.
(translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

Howard Norman chose different translations of the Narrow Road, and here is where you can find the original translations for passages not sourced in the print article.

“The road gods beckoned.”
(translated by Dorothy Britton; Narrow Road to a Far Province)

“One whole paddy field
Was planted ere I moved on
From that willow tree!”
(translated by Dorothy Britton; Narrow Road to a Far Province)

“Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home.”
(translated by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu; Back Roads to Far Towns)

“Tired of cherry,
Tired of this whole world,
I sit facing muddy sake
And black rice.”
(translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa; The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. Note that this poem is from a collection of poems, Empty Chestnut, published in 1863.)

“Once had my raincoat on, eager to go on a like journey, and then again content to sit imagining those rare sights. What a hoard of feelings, Kojin jewels, has his brush depicted! Such a journey! Such a man!”
(translated by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu; Back Roads to Far Towns)

“Avoid adjectives of scale, you will love the world more and desire it less.”
(Robert Hass, “Vintage,” Human Wishes)

“The cool fragrance of snow.”
(translated by Dorothy Britton; Narrow Road to a Far Province)

“Feel the truth of old poems”
(from a letter by Basho; translated by Hiroaki Sato, Narrow Road: Spring and Autumn Passages)

“A mound of summer grass:
Are warriors’ heroic deeds
Only dreams that pass?”
(translated by Dorothy Britton; Narrow Road to a Far Province)

Bibliography

Back Roads to Far Towns: Basho's Oku-No-Hosomichi, trans. Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu. Ecco Press, 1996.

Basho’s Narrow Road: Spring & Autumn Passages, trans. Hiroaki Sato. Stone Bridge Press, 1996.

A Haiku Journey: Basho's Narrow Road to a Far Province, trans. Dorothy Britton. Kodansha International, 2002.

Hass, Robert. Human Wishes. Ecco Press, 1990.

The Narrow Road to Oku, trans. Donald Keene. Kodansha International, 1996.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa. Penguin Group, 1966.

The Journals of Basho

In the Japanese literary tradition, journals or diaries take their place alongside novels and essays. Basho wrote in a form known as haibun, which he called “haikai prose.” His Narrow Road to a Far Province is perhaps the best known work in the form and arguably the best known work of Japanese literature outside the country. He wrote five travel diaries and a sixth, shorter work. Here are a few details about his journeys and the works that resulted from them.

Exposed in the Fields. The first of Basho's major journeys took place when he left Edo in the eighth month of 1684. He returned to Edo in the fourth month of the following year. He traveled southeast, and his stops included Kyoto and Ogaki (where he ended Narrow Road).

A Pilgrimage to Kashima. From the 8th to the 12th month of 1687 Basho took a short trip to the Kashima Shrine to see the harvest moon. The night of the viewing was rainy and overcast, but he was able to visit with the Zen Buddhist priest with whom he had studied in Edo.

Manuscript in My Knapsack and Journey to Sarashina. Basho left on his second major journey soon after he returned from the Kashima Shrine. He traveled for about 11 months in 1687 and 1688, covering much of the same ground as he did in his first journey.

Narrow Road to a Far Province. Basho left Edo on May 16, 1689, on the travels that would become the inspiration for his masterwork. The journey in Narrow Road ends when Basho arrives in Ogaki, in the autumn of 1689. Basho didn't make it back to Edo until 1691, because he took time for short side trips to visit students and friends.

Saga Diary. This short book details the time Basho spent traveling around Kyoto in the summer of 1691.

Bibliography

Basho’s Narrow Road: Spring & Autumn Passages, trans. Hiroaki Sato. Stone Bridge Press, 1996.

Keene, Donald. Travelers of a Hundred Ages: The Japanese as Revealed Through 1,000 Years of Travel Diaries. Columbia University Press, 1989.

Ueda, Matsuo. Matsuo Basho: The Master Haiku Poet. Kodansha International, 1982.

Basho's "Frog" Poem and the Haiku

Listen! a frog
Jumping into the stillness
Of an ancient pond
(translated by Dorothy Britton; from Narrow Road to a Far Province)

Basho’s “frog” poem is perhaps his best-known haiku, the one that has received the most critical commentary. An entire book has been devoted to interpretations of just this one haiku (and contains 100 different versions). The poem was published in 1686 in two anthologies, Frog Contest and Spring Days. The former, as its title suggests, consists of frog poems written by Basho and his students. Basho wrote only three of the poems in Spring Days, but this haiku captures his mature style and showcases what readers associate with modern-day haiku. It describes an objective action, but Basho’s description of the frog jumping into a pond encourages interpretation and introspection. Basho’s influence was already being felt by the 18th century, when the Japanese poet Yosa Buson (1716-48) responded with his own interpretation of the poem in another haiku. The Japan Shop showcases Basho’s famous frog poem in Japanese and then English.

A haiku poem has three phrases of five, seven, and five syllables. To be considered a true haiku, though, the poem must have a reference to a season and a breaking (or cutting) word. A transitional word, the cutting word divides the haiku into two parts, encourages interpretation, and adds power to the poem. A poem with the same syllabic structure that lacks a seasonal or cutting word is known as a senryu. Columbia University’s East Asian Curriculum Project offers resources that highlight the development of hokku as the distinct poetic idiom known today as haiku. You can listen and watch as modern scholars talk about Basho and explain hokku.

Basho’s influence continues today, with websites devoted to his poetry and prose along with interpretations and analysis of it. Haiku practitioners of all ages can be found. This site will create a haiku—a “cyberpseudopoetic masterpiece.” Try one and see what meaning you uncover.

Bibliography

Hass, Robert, ed. The Essential Haiku. Ecco Press, 1994.

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

Ueda, Makoto. Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku With Commentary. Stanford University Press, 1992.

Last updated: January 15, 2008

Keywords: Matsuo Basho, Basho, poetry, haiku, haikai, Japanese culture, Japanese literature, haibun, Oku no Hosomichi, Robert Hass, hokku, renga, Howard Norman, Cid Corman, Robert Hass