Matsuo Bashō


Matsuo Bashō (Japanese,松尾芭蕉) born as Matsuo Kinsaku (Ueno, 1644 – Osaka, November 28, 1694), was the most famous poet of Japan”s Edo period. During his lifetime, Bashō was recognized for his works in Haikai no renga (俳諧の連歌). He is considered one of the four great masters of haiku , along with Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki; Bashō cultivated and consolidated haiku with a simple style and a spiritual component. His poetry achieved international renown and in Japan many of his poems are reproduced in monuments and traditional places.

Bashō began practicing the art of poetry at an early age and later became part of the intellectual scene in Edo (now Tokyo), quickly becoming a celebrity throughout Japan. Despite being a teacher of poets, at certain times he renounced the social life of literary circles and preferred to travel the entire country on foot, traveling even in the sparsely populated northern part of the island in order to find sources of inspiration for his writings.

Bashō does not break with tradition but continues it in an unexpected way, or as he himself comments, “I do not follow the path of the ancients, I seek what they sought.” Bashō aspires to express with new means the same concentrated feeling of great classical poetry. His poems are influenced by a first-hand experience of the world around him, and he often succeeds in expressing his experiences with great simplicity. Of haiku Bashō had said that it is “simply what happens in a given place at a given time.”

First years

Bashō was born Matsuo Kinsaku (松尾金作) around 1644, somewhere near Ueno in Iga Province (present-day Mie Prefecture). His father, Matsuo Yozaemon, was a low-ranking samurai with few resources in the service of the powerful Todo family, and wanted Bashō to pursue a career within the military. He had an older brother and four sisters. Traditionally biographers are of the opinion that he worked doing chores in the kitchens. However as a child he became a page in the service of Todo Yoshitada (藤堂良忠), heir to the Todo and two years older than Matsuo. Under Yoshitada”s protection, Bashō was able to train in haikai composition with master Kitamura Kigin (1624-1705), a poet and critic of the Teitoku school of haikai. The young Yoshitada and Bashō, despite their great difference in social class, would share a love of haikai no renga, a form of literary composition that is the fruit of cooperation between several poets. The sequences begin with a verse in the 5-7-5 moras format; this verse was named hokku, and later haiku, and was elaborated as a small independent piece. The hokku continued with an addition of 7-7 moras by another poet. Both Yoshitada and Bashō gave themselves corresponding tengo (俳号), haikai pen names, Bashō”s was Sobo (宗房), which is constructed simply from the on”yomi transcription of his samurai name, Matsuo Munefusa (a compilation of two of his hokku was printed in 1664, and in 1665 Bashō and Yoshitada composed a hundred or so renkus verses.

In 1666 the sudden death of Yoshitada represented the end of Bashō”s quiet life as a serf in the atmosphere of a traditional feudal society. No documentary record of this period exists, but it is believed that Bashō considered becoming a samurai and left home. Biographers have proposed possible motivations and fates, including the possibility of an affair between Bashō and a Shinto miko named Yute (寿贞), but this relationship is unlikely to be true. Bashō”s own references to this time are sparse; he later recalled that “long ago I coveted the fact that I was an official and had a corner of land,” and also, “there was a time when I was fascinated with the ways of homosexual love,” but there is no sign that he was referring to a real fictional obsession or anything else. He was unsure whether he could become a full-time poet; he commented that “alternatives struggled in my head and my life was full of restlessness.” His indecision may have been influenced by the still relatively low artistic and social status of renga and non-renga haikai. In any case, he continued to create his poems that would be published in anthologies the years 1667, 1669, and 1671. In 1672 he published his own compilation of works by him and other authors of the Teitoku school, Kai ōi (貝おほひ). In the spring of that year he settled in Edo to further deepen his study of poetry.

Renowned writer

The literary circles of Nihonbashi quickly recognized the value of Bashō”s poetry for its simple and natural style. In 1674 he became a member of the inner circle of haikai practitioners and was secretly taught by Kitamura Kigin (1624-1705). At that time he wrote this hokku in homage to the Tokugawa shōgun:

kabitan mo

He adopted a new tengo, Tosei, and by 1680 was already engaged in the craft of poet full time, being a teacher of twenty disciples. In the same year, Tosei-Montei Dokugin-Nijukasen((桃青门弟独吟二十歌仙), a work containing the best poems of Tosei and his twenty disciples, was published, showcasing the artist”s talent. In the winter of 1680, he made the surprising decision to move across the river to Fukagawa, away from people and choosing a more solitary life. His disciples built him a rustic hut and planted a banana tree (芭蕉, bashō or Musa basjoo) in the yard, giving a new tengo to the poet who would henceforth be called Bashō, and his first permanent home. He loved the plant very much and was very upset to see plants of the genus Miscanthus, a Poaceae typical of Fukagawa, growing around his banana tree. He wrote:

Bashō UETE

During this period of retirement, Bashō”s work underwent a new stylistic shift. Abandoning the “mundane noise” of the city and, with it, the parodic and transgressive style of the Danrin school that predominated in the 1970s, his gaze now turned to the Chinese classics, especially to the texts of the Zhuangzi and the poetry of Du Fu and Su Dongpo (Su Shi), with whom he shared the retreat experience. The Bashō production opened a new path in the history of haikai: it was a poetry intimately linked to the poet”s personal experience, although mediated by a continuous dialogue with classical Chinese poetry and with the work of other Japanese retreat poets such as Saigyo or Sogi. As a result, the vital experience of abandonment and poverty converges with the wabi-sabi aesthetic. The presence of everyday objects (a piece of dried salmon, the dripping of rain in a bucket…) acquire prominence as poetic motifs exploring “the high in the low, the spiritual in the mundane, the wealth in poverty.”

Bashoo nowaki shite

Despite his success, he lived a dissatisfied and lonely life. He began to practice Zen meditation, but did not seem to regain his peace of mind. In the winter of 1682 his hut burned down and shortly after, in early 1683, his mother died. With all these events he traveled to Yamura to stay with a friend. In the winter of 1683 his disciples gave him a second hut in Edo, but his mood did not improve. In 1684 his disciple Takarai Kikaku published a collection of poems by him and other poets, Minashiguri (虚栗), Wrinkled Chestnuts. Later, in late September of the same year, he left Edo for the first of his four great journeys.

Traveling poet

Traveling in medieval Japan was very dangerous and Bashō”s expectations were pessimistic; he believed he might die in the middle of nowhere or be killed by bandits. As the journey progressed, his mood improved and he found himself comfortable doing what he was doing; he met many friends and began to enjoy the changing landscape and seasons. His poems became less introspective and reflected observations of the world around him:

uma wo sae

Along with the vital experience, travel also represents for Bashō an aesthetic experience of encounter with places already sanctioned by the tradition of classical waka (utamakura) poetry (the cherry trees of the Yoshino hills, the temple of Taima, the tomb of the lady Tokiwa, the plains of Musashi…) present in his poems since his first travel diary.

The first trip to the west took him from Edo to the distant province of Omi. Following the famous Tokaido route along the Pacific coast, he gazed at Mount Fuji, until he reached Ise Bay, where he visited the famous Shinto temple. After resting for ten days in Yamada, he visited his hometown in Uedo and the famous cherry trees of Mt. Yoshino in Nara. In Kyoto he met with his old friend Tani Bokuin and several poets who considered themselves his disciples and asked him for advice. Bashō showed them contempt for the contemporary style existing in Edo and even criticized his work Wrinkled Chestnuts, saying that it “contains many verses that are not even worth talking about.” While in Nagoya he met with local poets and disciples, composing five kasen that would form part of the work Winter Sun (Fuyu no hi). This work would inaugurate the new Minashiguri style, where classical Chinese poetry became the aesthetic reference. He returned to Edo in the summer of 1685 and spent time writing more hokku and left comments on his own life:

Toshi kurenu

Around this time he would collect the experience of this first trip in the book Diary of a skull in the open (Nozarashi Kiko, 野ざらし紀行), although he would not finish it until 1687. When he returned to Edo, to his hut, he happily resumed his work as a poetry teacher; however he was already making plans for another trip. In early 1686 he composed one of his best haiku, one of the most remembered:

furu ike ya

Historians believe that this poem became famous very quickly. In the same month of April, Edo poets gathered at Bashō”s hut to compose haikai no renga based on the frog theme; it seems that in a tribute to Bashō and his poems, they placed it at the top of the compilation.

Bashō remained in Edo, continued his master”s degree and participated in literary competitions. He made a couple of trips. The first was an excursion in the autumn of 1687 to participate in the tsukimi, the festival to celebrate the autumn moon, accompanied by his disciple Kawai Sora and the Zen monk Sōha that he would record in his Journey to Kashima (Kashima Kiko) (1687). In November he would undertake a longer journey when, after a brief stay in Nagoya, he returned to his native Ueno to celebrate the Japanese New Year, the fruit of which would emerge Notebook in the Backpack (Oi no Kobumi, 1687). On his return to Edo, he visited Sarashina in Nagano to contemplate the harvest moon, an experience he recounted in The Diary of a Journey to Sarashina (Sarashina Kiko, 1688).

Back home in his hut, he alternated solitude with companionship, moving from disliking visitors to appreciating their company. At the same time, he enjoyed life and had a subtle sense of humor, as reflected in the following hokku:

iza Sarabia

Oku no Hosomichi

Planning for another long private journey by Bashō culminated on May 16, 1689 (this was a trip to the northern provinces of Honshu, the main island of the archipelago of Japan.

From the first lines of the book Bashō is presented as an anchorite poet and half monk; both he and his traveling companion travel the roads wearing the habits of Buddhist pilgrims; their journey is almost an initiation and Sora, at the beginning of the journey, shaves his skull. Throughout their journey they write a diary accompanied by poems and, in many of the places they visit, the local poets receive them and compose with them the corresponding collective haikai no renga.

By the time Bashō arrived in Ōgaki, Gifu Prefecture, he had completed the record of his journey. He took about three years to revise it and wrote the final version in 1694, with the title Oku no hosomichi (奥の細道) or Path to Oku. The first edition was published posthumously in 1702 . It was immediately a commercial success and many other itinerant poets followed the route of his journey. He begins the diary with the following words: The months and days are travelers of eternity. The year that goes and the year that comes are also travelers. It is often considered to be his best work, with some hokku such as the following:

araumi ya

At the end of the journey, and of the book, Bashō arrives in the village of Ohgaki from where he finally embarks to return home. The work ends with the last haiku, which is difficult to translate. We add four suggestions.

hamaguri no

Last years

After a couple of months of rest in his hometown, Bashō, accompanied by his disciple Rotsu, visited Nara in January 1690 to attend the famous Kasuga festival. In February he returned to Ueno, staying at the castle of the lord of Tangan. During the month of April, the first mention of the poetic principle of karumi (lightness), which would guide his poetic production in this last phase of his life, is documented. On his way again, he went to Zeze, a town on the shores of Lake Biwa, where he would spend the summer in a hut built by his disciples. It was around this time that his health problems began. From there he would make brief trips around the area.

When he returned to Edo in the winter of 1691, Bashō lived in a new hut, surrounded by his disciples, located in a neighborhood northwest of the city called Saga. There he wrote the Saga Diary (Saga nikki). This time he was not alone, with him he had a nephew and his friend, Jute, who were recovering from an illness. He received a large number of visitors while helping his disciples Kyorai and Bonchō prepare Sarumino (1691), considered the best anthology of the Bashō school. Feeling an improvement in his state of health, he left Edo again to live in a new hut near Gishu Temple, one of his most beloved places. After a long journey accompanied by his nephew Tōri, he returned to Edo in December 1691.

Back in the capital, Bashō began to tire of the literary circles and popularity that had trivialized haikai composition. He gradually reduced his public activity, remaining with a small group of loyal disciples including Sanpu and Sora. It was they who built him a new hut in a place not far from his original residence in Fukugawa, where they would transplant the famous banana tree.

Bashō continued to feel unwell and restless. He wrote to a friend and remarked that “worried about others, I have no peace of mind.” The death of his beloved nephew Toin, whom he had taken with him on his last trip, plunged him into deep sadness. Around that time he also began caring for a young woman, named Jutei, with her three children. Some biographers relate Jutei to a love affair the poet had in his youth. With the arrival of autumn he gradually resumed his social life, although physically he was not recovered.

At the beginning of the new year Bashō began planning a new trip. Aware of his health condition, he wanted to say goodbye to his relatives in Ueno. As he would write to a friend, “he felt that he was near his end.” In addition, the disputes between his disciples in Nagoya and Osaka had him worried. In the poems of this year a new poetic style was evident, characterized by what he would call karumi (lightness). After leaving Jutei with his two daughters at his cottage, Bashō left Edo for the last time in the summer of 1694 accompanied by Jirobei, Jutei”s son Jirobei. Passing through Nagoya, he arrived on June 20 at Ueno. Despite his tiredness and poor health, he arrived in Kyoto and settled in Villa Rakushi. There he received the news of Jutei”s death. His school was gaining prestige. Proof of this was the appearance of two anthologies, Betsuzashiki and Sumidawara.

After visiting Kyoto again, he returned to Edo at the end of August. The desire to spread the new style, marked by the karumi, made him set off again for Osaka, where he arrived exhausted and very ill. After a brief improvement, suffering from stomach problems, he died peacefully, surrounded by his disciples on November 28. Bashō is buried in Otsu (Shiga prefecture) in the small temple Gichu-ji(義仲寺), next to the warrior Minamoto Yoshinaka. Although he did not compose any poems on his deathbed, the last poem written during his final illness has come down to us and is considered his farewell poem:

tabi ni yande

Rather than clinging to the formulas of kigo (季语), a form that is still popular in present-day Japan, Bashō aspired to reflect in his hokku the emotions and environment around him. Even during his lifetime his poetry was highly regarded; after his death this appreciation grew. Some of his students, and in particular Mukai Kyorai and Hattori Dohō, collected and compiled Bashō”s own views on his poetry.

The list of disciples is very long. On the one hand there was the so-called group of the “ten philosophers”, among whom Takarai Kikaku is worth mentioning; on the other hand a diversity of followers, among whom Nozawa Bonchō, who was a physician, is worth mentioning.

During the 18th century the appreciation of Bashō”s poems increased even more fervently, and commentators such as Ishiko Sekisui Moro and Nanimaru traveled far and wide to find references to his hokku, searching for historical events, medieval documents, and other poems. These admirers were lavish in their praise of Bashō and concealed the references; it is believed that some of the supposed sources were probably false. In 1793, Bashō was “deified” by the Shinto bureaucracy, and for a time any criticism of his poetry was considered blasphemy.

In the late nineteenth century this period of unanimous passion for Bashō”s poems came to an end. Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), arguably Bashō”s most famous critic, overthrew the long period of orthodoxy by raising objections to Bashō”s style. However Shiki also helped Bashō”s poetry reach the leading intellectuals of the day and the Japanese public at large. He invented the term haiku, which replaced hokku, to refer to the independent form with a 5-7-5 structure, which he considered the most convenient and artistic of all non-renga haikai. Of Bashō”s work he went so far as to say that “eighty percent of his output is mediocre.”

The critical view of Bashō”s poems continued into the twentieth century, with notable works by Yamamoto Kenkichi, Imoto Nōichi, and Tsutomu Ogata. The 20th century also saw translations of Bashō”s poems into various languages and with editions around the world. Considered as the haiku poet par excellence, he became a reference, also due to the fact that haiku was preferred to other more traditional forms such as tanka or renga. Bashō has been considered the archetype of Japanese poets and poetry. His impressionistic and concise vision of nature especially influenced Ezra Pound and the Imagists, and later also the poets of the Beat Generation. Claude-Max Lochu, on his second visit to Japan, created his own “travel painting”, inspired by Bashō”s use of inspirational journeys. Musicians such as Robbie Basho and Steffen Basho-Junghans were also influenced by him. In the Spanish language, José Juan Tablada is worth mentioning. In Catalonia there are examples of the use of haiku by Carles Riba


  1. Matsuo Bashō
  2. Matsuo Bashō