Matsuo Kinsaku — Bashõ

1644 - 1694

by Janice M Bostok

Most of you who have heard of the short Japanese poem haiku will no doubt have heard of the haiku master Matsuo Bashõ. He is considered the first of the four Japanese masters who are the pillars of the development of the haiku poem. In the west, we are probably first introduced to him in translation and many of us say we fell in love with haiku because of Bashõ's work. Of course, there has been much more development of the haiku over the years in Japan, but this is the starting point where we are introduced to haiku and become serious about wanting to write it in English.

Little is known of his childhood. He was born near Ueno in the Iga province. As a child he was known by a number of names. Kinsaku was one of them. We think of Bashõ as solitary, a loner, but he had an elder brother and four sisters. His father Matsuo Yozaemon was a low-ranking samurai who farmed in peacetime. Little is known of his mother. It is thought that the social standing of the family was not above average and his future was uncertain, and by no means guaranteed to be exceptional.

At a very early age Bashõ was placed into service with Todo Yoshitada who was a relative of the Feudal Lord and merely two years older than Bashõ. So they quickly became companions. Bashõ's young master wrote haikai and eventually this strengthened the bond between them. Bashõ's early life so far appeared to be peaceful and contented and he may have remained in service for many years, except for the fact that his young master fell ill and died while still quite a young man. The brother of Yoshitada succeeded him and married his widow. It is believed because of this Bashõ left the service and began his life as a wanderer.

Whether it is fabrication or not we will never know, but it is said that Bashõ had numerous love affairs with women (his own brother's wife, perhaps Yoshitada's wife and his master's maids). One which seems to bear some truth is that he had a long standing affair with a woman. Jutei, who later became a nun. However, she had several children who could have been by Bashõ.

Bashõ continued his interest in writing and the earliest poem still in existence was written in 1662. He contributed to anthologies and when he attempted to compile a book of poems many poets were pleased to participate. He called it The Seashell Game: (Kai Oi), produced in 1672. The Seashell Game was a haiku contest whereby poems were matched in pairs by different poets and then judged. The value was not in winning, but the judging and critical comments by Bashõ, when the work was published.

Bashõ moved to Edo. Perhaps this was for career advancement, because he was known to consider a government post highly desirable. But at the same time he was also becoming known as a poet and possibly wanted to become a professional poet and teacher. He already had students.

Bashõ lived in a modest hut built for him by his students, on the edge of the city. His students gave him a banana plant to grow at the door of his hut. This is where he took his haiku name from: Bashõ means banana plant. He was enthralled with the plant and thought of it as somewhat like himself as it grew; it had big soft leaves which easily ripped in the wind; small ordinary and useless flowers; and was unable to produce fruit in the cold Japanese climate. Those of you who have ever grown banana plants or lived near plantations (as I have) will know the sound the large leaves make in the wind. It's sometimes exciting and sometimes mournful. This may depend on one's mood, I imagine.

In the winter of 1682 Bashõ's hut was destroyed by fire which also destroyed the whole neighbourhood. He was again homeless. He had spent time working on his spiritual life and had even mentioned that he might enter a monastery. However while he meditated and studied zen under a Priest called Butcho he never officially became a priest.

His students built him another hut, but while he was pleased not to be homeless it was not enough — neither poetic success nor his new hut seemed to console him. He already had the spirit of a wanderer. He set out on one of his famous journeys.When he stopped at his childhood home he was shown the lock of hair from his dead mother. He wrote:

Should I hold it in my hand
It would melt in my burning tears —
Autumnal frost

It is accepted now that he was writing about his mother's lock of hair and it seems many ancient Japanese poems are bordering on metaphor or simile. (Something which perhaps we will need to look at in the future of the writing of haiku in English.)

Towards the end of his life Bashõ found he had responsibilities which he had taken up writing possibly to avoid. An invalid nephew came to live with him and the woman he had been involved with earlier in his life (Jutei) also came to live with him, with a number of her children. Because of his fame many people wanted to visit him. He declared that he would either give up poetry and remain silent, or stop seeing people. In the autumn of 1693 he gave up seeing people. He died not long after. One of his last poems was:

This autumn
Why am I aging so?
Flying towards the clouds, a bird.

Bashõ is famous for re-inventing the renga or renku form. The form whereby a number of poets sit together and write verses in turn. It is believed in 1665 he and his young master and another poet composed their first renku of one hundred verses. Bashõ contributed eighteen verses. This interest in renku was important for the form, because it had deteriorated to its lowest depths and was considered vulgar. Yet, he stimulated other poets to write it as he wandered around on his travels.

The other Japanese form which Bashõ is famous for is the haibun, or the diary entries which he kept on his journeys. He set out on a number of journeys and lived to write about them and leave them for us to enjoy today.

Travel and the recording of his travels was the climax of Bashõ's life and his maturity as a writer and a man. The Narrow Road To The Deep North was one of the highest attainments of poetic diaries in Japan.

In his unsurpassed work Matsuo Bashõ, Makoto Ueda (published by Twayne in 1970) says Bashõ considered prose and poetry to be complementary. But while he wrote many long pieces of prose which we consider to be haibun Makoto Ueda does not count the prose of 'headnotes' of haiku as prose in the same sense as haibun. Many Japanese haiku include headnotes and we do not consider them to be haibun.

For example one of the headnotes to a poem about the banana plant:

'I feel lonely as I gaze at the moon, I feel lonely as I think about myself, and I feel lonely as I ponder upon this wretched life of mine. I want to cry out that I am lonely, but no one asks me how I feel.'

I think this is the reason so many writing haibun in English today, think that a haibun is merely a short paragraph of prose, ending with a haiku. They are writing a form akin to a haiku with a headnote, not a fully developed haibun. Writing 'haibun' in this form is something which has worried me since the popularity of haibun has soared. I label them 'detail preceding haiku'.

Perhaps it is time to go back to where it all began and read Matsuo Bashõ's travel journeys in a good translation.

It is generally agreed that Bashõ's most famous haibun is 'Oku no Hosomuchi' — literally translated as Narrow Roads to the Interior. But it has also been translated as Back Roads to Far Towns, by Cid Corman and Narrow Road to the Deep North by Nobuyuki Yuasa. Other haibun, or haiku prose that I have been able to find are the following: The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton; The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel; A visit to Sarashina Village; and House of the Falling Persimmons.


The Haiku Hand Book, How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku; William J. Higginson, with Penny Harter. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North and Other Travel Sketches; Nobuyuki Yuasa, translator. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966

Back Roads To Far Towns; Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu; New York: Grossman, 1968

Matsuo Bashõ: Narrow Road To The Deep North; Makoto Uedo, New York: Twayne, 1970

© 2005 Janice M Bostok
sumi-e by Janice M Bostok © 2005
This article is one of a series of four and was first published in Yellow Moon 17 2005 pp. 33-34