Japanese Soul, Haiku – Reading Matsuo Basho

April 24, 2011 Juju Kurihara 0 Comments

bashouHaiku is a type of poem which describe the sentiment, sensation or the beauty of nature with 17 syllables. Usually written in three lines, 5-7-5 syllables and always contain a key word which describes the season. Haiku is one of the most important culture which reflects hidden Japanese soul.

Matsuo Basho (松尾芭蕉 1644-1694) is one of the masters of Haiku (俳句) who developed Haiku to the level of art. 

He was born in Iga no Kuni (伊賀の国), now Mie prefecture (三重県) in Japan as a second son of 6 brothers and sisters of a pre-samurai class family. 

As his father died, at the age 18 Basho served a son of a general of the clan Toudou, Yoshitada (良忠) as a cook. 

This changed his life completely. Basho was introduced to Haiku from Yoshitada. After the death of Yoshitada, he was even more into Haiku and at the age of 28, this future master of haiku dedicated his first haiku collection to Iga Tenmangu (伊賀天満宮) which is known as a Dios de literature and wisdom.

Basho came to Edo (江戸), became a master when he was 33 years old and started teaching haiku although he was working at a water construction office as he didn't earn enough from the teaching.


In his era, he was considered as revolutionist or avant-garde. Why?

First he changed the essence of haiku, from "humorous" and "entertaining" to "beauty of the nature", "solitude" and "relief of the soul". For Basho, haiku was the quest for the nature and the life.

bashou plant


Ha left Edo and moved to the East End. There he planted a Japanese Banana which had just arrived at Japan, and which he named himself from.

His name is actually Banana. Interesting.


Another example of him being revolutionist is this haiku,

Furuike ya, kawazu tobikomu, mizuno oto (古池や 蛙飛び込む 水の音)

– Old pond, a frog jumped in, I hear the sound of water-

kaeruWhat is the mystery here?

First, he didn't say "In the old pond". Why? Because without putting "in", the pond can be a protagonist of this poem.

First thing Bashou saw was the pond, then he noticed a little frog.

Another trick of this haiku is that he ended the poem with "I hear the sound of water". Why?

In this poem, the keyword which describes the season is "frog" which is a summer word and traditionally, when you put the word "frog", it was common to put the voice of the frog. However for Bashou, the sound of water was more important.

It's true, even though he didn't put the actual sound of the water "slpash", we can easily imagine this sound, can't we?

This technique was very new and original in that period but Bashou did it.

Also this was very visual which focused on a very small stage with total silence, then a little sound emerges. Since the surrounding is so quiet, even a tiny sound seems to be so loud.

Basho wanted to increase the silence with a small sound, in other words, multiplier effect.


Another good example is this haiku,


Shizukesa ya, iwa ni shimi iru, semi no koe (静けさや 岩に染み入る 蝉の声)

– So quiet, that the sound of cicadas seems to be increasing, but at the same time, I feel that those stones in the mountain are absorbing the sound of cicadas-

Because it's so quiet, even the sound of this noisy bug seems to emphasise the silence, and you remain yourself in it.

Let's see if you can feel it. Just imagine you are alone in a wood like the photo above and listen to the sound of cicada. Mind you, cut off any noise, maybe better listen to the headphones.



How was it? Did you hear what Basho heard?



More about Japanese literature

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Poet, Taro Gomi

King of short short, Shin-ichi Hoshi

Book, Bonsai

Shodo-The Quiet Art of Japanese Zen Calligraphy-

The team

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