Matsuo Basho’s biography

The biography of the most famous haiku poet, Matsuo Basho

Portrait of Matsuo Basho by Yosa Buson

In Japan, there are many people who are famous for haiku. Among them, the Matsuo Basho, who was active in the Edo period, is known worldwide by developing Haikai poetry that was the source of haiku. 

Learn about the origin, formats, and rules of haiku poetry

His representative work is the travel book “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” from Edo to Oshu, Hokuriku Road. Basho left many haiku poems and influenced many poets including Yosa Buson who adored him and drew the above picture. 

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Biography of Matsuo Basho

Birth and into the world of Haikai poetry

Matsuo Basho (1644 – 1694) was born in Iga Province (currently Mie Prefecture) as the second son of six brothers and sisters. His childhood name was Kinsaku. His father was a farmer who had been treated for samurai, and he died when Basho was 12 years old. Basho changed the name from Kinsaku to Munefusa as an adult and started to serve at Todo Clan as a cook at the age of eighteen. Traditionally, the clan esteemed highly on literary and poetry art. He also learned haikai poetry from his master. When he was twenty, his two poems were chosen for the public anthology for the first time.  After his master’s death, Basho more deepened the pursuit of Haikai poetry and became a representative young poet in the province. He went up to Edo (today’s Tokyo) that was the center of the culture in Japan. 

In Edo and Full mastership

Nihonbashi, by Utagawa Hiroshige

At the age of 31, he had the pseudonym of Tousei and became a figure known in the world of Haikai poetry even in Edo. Five years later Basho finally got the full mastership of Haikai poetry. But he did not have enough income just to teach poetry, so he also worked as a clerk on waterworks for about four years. The haiku at that time was full of humorous wit and gorgeous phrases. However, he pursued a poem that embraced the beauty of nature in silence, the solitary of the Chinese poets Du Fu and Li Bo, and the relief for the soul. He deepened Haikai poetry and sublimes it into literature that faces the spirit. 

"Basho" (Japanese banana plant)

In 1680, the world of Haikai poetry in Edo was full of greed for gold and fame, and the masters competed for the number of disciples. Disappointed with this situation, he left the city of Edo, built a thatched hut in Fukagawa on the east coast of the Sumida River. According to the values of the masters, leaving from Nihonbashi was regarded as defeat, but his disciples greatly welcomed the transfer to Fukagawa and supported his life. When he planted a a Japanese banana (basho in Japanese) in the garden, it got a beautiful leaf and reputation, and the disciples began to call the hut “Basho-an”. He also change his name into “Basho”. At this time, he started to learn Zen.

Traveler Poet

In 1684, as his mother died at the hometown Iga in the previous year, Basho traveled to Nara, Kyoto, Nagoya, and Kiso in order to visit the grave. The travel writing of this journey is called “Nozarashi Kiko” (Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field). He gradually became absorbed in his journey and walked in Nagano in 1688. And next year, Basho went on the famous trip of “The Narrow Road to Deep North”.

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Summary and route of “The Narrow Road to Deep North”

He traveled around the Hokuriku region for seven months and walked about 2400 km.

Later years

After traveling to Tohoku region, Basho lived for a while alternately in the villa of his disciple Kyoto and in the hut of the temple in Shiga. At the age of 48, he returned to Edo. When he was back, countless people visit him to hear the advice of poetry. However, after being tired of meeting many people, he refused any meetings and began an isolated life. In 1694, Basho finally completed the writing of “The Narrow Road to Deep North” and went on a journey to the west area of Japan. But he got ill on the way of the travel in Osaka and died October 12.