Of Haikus and Poetry: Matsuo Basho a Japanese Word Master

The value of Japanese Poetry

Literature in Japan has a very long history and could be dated back thousands of years. Most of Japan’s written works depict the life and culture of the people at the time that it was written.

There are many different forms of poetry not only in Japan but also all over the world. The earlier forms would be the spoken poetry. These usually involve tales of great people - a great way of learning about history before the time it was written. Oftentimes these stories involve heroes that overcame fantastical situations. Although it might involve a great deal of exaggeration and magic, a considerable amount of this is certainly genuine. Some spoken poems can be sung or chanted.


As systems of writing become more established, poetry has transformed from its spoken form to written form. And this is now the time that people enjoy writing poems as a passion, a hobby, or a simple pastime.

Poetry is important in Japanese history mainly because of the fact that it is a clear expression of one’s thoughts. It could be used as a means of indirectly criticizing a ruler or a government. It can be used as a subtle way of writing negatively about the society and its diseases. Most important of all is that a lot of poets and writers have used it as a weapon to rebel against the ruling classes. It could be used as a way to send messages to the public without being censored, it is just a matter of others being able to decode.

Different forms of Japanese Poetry

There are many formal forms of Japanese poetry that have been developed through time. Examples of this would be waka, haikai, kanshi, and more. Each type of Japanese poetry has something special to offer, making them distinct from one another.

Kanshi is one of the oldest forms and it is said to be directly influenced by the Chinese culture. This word literally translates to Chinese poetry. This is because of the fact that it is a written work in the Chinese language written by Japanese artists.

The Waka is another old form of writing poetry. It is the Japanese equivalent of Kanshi. This makes this form of poetry the classical or traditional style of Japanese writing.

The haikai may be a traditional way of writing poetry but it is still used in modern Japanese literature. What makes it different from the waka and the kanshi is what it writes about. The haikai is a satirical form of writing, it usually involves puns and jokes which indirectly ridicules and targets common societal problems which are present at the time.

The katauta is also a simple form of poetry which deals with questions about the world, life, and death. Just like the haiku, it consists of three lines but instead of creating images, the katauta creates deep questions. It is known as a half-poem with a 5-7-7 syllable pattern. It is called a half poem because it literally stops in the middle of a typical five-liner poem.

Another type of poetry form is the somonka. Just like how Shakespeare writes his sonnets, Japanese poets also write about love in the form of poetry. The somonka is known as love letter tankas, which are five-lined 31 syllabled poetry. It talks about love, heartache, adoration, and more. It also talks about negative things as well like longing, lust, and hate.

Who is Basho Matsuo?

His life and death

Matsuo Basho is Edo Period’s most popular poet. He is a master of words who has made a significant number of poems during his time. His words were quite influential during his time, because not only was he a poet he was also known as a c critic. He has used his words as a form of revolution and criticized the systems of the feudal government. In his lifetime, he has made more than a hundred poems and he has even influenced a “new style of poetry.

He was born in the year 1644 and he has been known to be interested in haiku and poetry even when he was young. However, the life of a poet is not a promising venture. Thus, he has decided to serve a feudal lord and train towards becoming a samurai.

Sadly, he has found that this was not his passion and decided once and for all that he is going to be a poet. He introduced a “new style” of haiku which contained 17-syllables. It contains contrast between two different and contrasting ideas in a single three lined work.

It is said that he can compress deep and meaningful ideas in only just a few words. Creating philosophies about life, existence, death and more. He has also tackled socio-political topics as well, a favorite from all his work. One of his most famous work was Oku no hosomichi or the Narrow Road to Oku.

A lot of people confuse Matsuo Basho with the popular children’s show in Spain known as Basho and Friends. This show teaches reading and alphabet to young kids through the dog Basho and his friends.

His contribution to literature

The Haiku that Basho learned was a five-lined short poem which consisted of a total of 31 syllables. He received training and education to write this kind of poetry. However, he changed the form of the haiku and retained only the first three lines. This will reduce the form into only 17-syllables.

At first, a number of people were skeptical about it and found it ridiculous to have only a three-lined poem. However, the capabilities of Basho has proved his skeptics wrong as he was able to compress ideas in such a low number of words. Since then, the new style and form of the haiku is the modern haiku that people of today are familiar with.

By Keisuke Mutoh from Kyoto, Japan (dsc02177.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Samples of Basho’s Poems

His most famous works feature intriguing symbolisms between ideas and subject matter. He uses different independent ideas and strings them together to create a simple “pattern”.  This is what makes his work unique and one-of-a-kind. Also, there are cases that he uses images that connote action. Examples of this would be falling leaves, moving wind, flying bird, and more. One of his works is:

On a withered branch

A crow has alighted:

Nightfall in autumn.

It could be seen that in a human’s memory, a withered branch is reminiscent of changing seasons. The fallen leaves that leave a withered branch is a visual stimulator for the autumn season. On another note, he has created a vision of a crow leaving such a branch. It is believed that crows lurch around trees during the night time to search for food. The combination of the two creates a scenario that a is crow flying off of a withered tree - his version of an autumn night.

Most of Basho’s works are not only visual but also involves different sense like smell and touch. One of his works is as follows:

Scent of chrysanthemums

and in Nara

All the Ancient Buddhas.

In this poem, he was trying to portray the image of falling chrysanthemum leaves and flowers in the ancient Buddhist temples of Nara. He was trying to create an image that is both intriguing and nostalgic. He was using the memory of the smell of chrysanthemum to create a trigger of experience in one’s memory.

A lot of his works deal with personal experiences that a lot of people can easily relate to. He gives truth in such a short amount of words. Here is an example

Will we meet again

Here at your flowering grave

Two white butterflies?

It could be seen that the first line tells of his longing for a loved one. It is evident that he wants to see that other person again and is regretful that he is left behind. On the second line, it is revealed that the reason he was longing so sadly is the fact that this loved one has already passed away. Thus, there are no means for them to see each other anymore. However, the last line describes two white butterflies. It could mean that he believes that he will see his loved one again in another life - after death or even after they are reincarnated.

What is haiku?

Haiku is a modern form of poetry. It consists of three lines and 17 syllables. The first and last lines consist of five syllables while the middle line consists of seven syllables. This makes the simple pattern of the haiku as 5-7-5.

The aim of the haiku is to present visual images of nature, life, death, and much more. However, it is through the influence of Basho that this has turned into something else. He usually uses the first two lines to create independent images and uses the final line to string the two images together to form another independent idea.

There is a special form of haiku that deals with satirical commentary about socio-political issues in the society. These are called haikai and it is said that Basho was quite popular and skilled with this form of poetry. It is through this that he sends messages and critique to the current society. A feat that made him known as an influential critic.

Other popular Japanese Poets

Yosa Buson

Just like Issa and Basho, Buson is considered as one of the greatest and most influential poets of the Edo period. He idolized Basho and worked closely on the latter’s poetry. He read and studied the works of Basho and even published his commentary and notes about many of the poet’s works. He has published his commentary and notes on the Narrow Road to Oku in 1744.

it is said that most of his works dealt with nature, life, love, and death. He also wrote about modern day issues about society, equality, and even government. Like Basho, he was also a popular critic and many people valued his views on many things.  His love for poetry lived on as he became a writer and a teacher of poetry.

What is interesting about him is that he rarely wrote under his real name. Throughout his lifetime, he wrote under a variety of pen names. He first wrote under the pen name Yosa. He taught and wrote under the names haigo, yahantei and teacher haijin.

Masaoka Shiki

Born on the late 1800s, Shiki is known to be one of the four haiku masters. Interestingly, he lived at the time when prose was more popular than poetry. It was a time when people’s interests with short forms are starting to die down. However, he continued to write haiku on different topics. He created an avenue for the short poetry to live on despite the continuous attempts to its popularity during the Meiji period.

Kobayashi Issa

This man was born almost a century after the death of Basho. He is a well-known poet who has created works that dealt with life and religion. He is known as one of the four haiku masters. Although he lived much later than Matsuo Basho, he places on one of the most famous spots for Japanese poets.

This man was a Buddhist priest however, he found that being religious was not the life he wanted to live. So he left the monastery and went back to his childhood village. He then found a wife, but he suffered tragedy after tragedy when his children die young. It is said that many of his works relate to the first three children that he had lost. His wife after birthing three kids also died. The man lived in misery but soon found love in another wife.

He has impressively written tens of thousands of haiku. His work was so numerous that it dealt with a multitude of topics and concepts. Most of the topics deal with personal realities that many people go through. Because of this, his work is still read up until today.