Haikai and haiku poetry

Haikai is a shortened form of the expression haikai no renga, or "playful linked verse." This poetic form, which emerged as a distinct genre near the end of the Muromachi period (1333-1573), was a popular outgrowth of the more aristocratic (and hence more dignified) practice of renga: composing linked sequences of tanka poetry. Unhampered by the requirement to be decorous, haikai was characterized by greater spontaneity than traditional renga, by greater freedom in the choice of subject matter and, initially at least, by a strong emphasis on humor and verbal wit.

Early haikai

The earliest practitioners of haikai included Yamazaki Sōkan (? - ca. 1540) and Arikida Moritake (1473-1549), but the poet credited with putting the genre on a firm literary basis is Matsunaga Teitoku (1571-1653). The school of poets who eventually gathered around him (collectively known as the Teitoku School, or Teimon) determined the direction taken by the genre in the first half of the seventeenth century. However, the school’s acceptance of haikai’s status as an essentially inferior form of renga resulted in an attitude toward composition that is perhaps best characterized as tepidly conservative: the codification of rules and centralization of authority were achieved at the cost of a certain artistic integrity.

Beginning in about 1673, a new school of haikai acquired influence under the leadership of Nishiyama Sōin (1605-1682). This became known as the Danrin School (Danrin-ha), the style of which was characterized by a light, witty expansiveness that helped free haikai from the staid conventions of the Teitoku School. This new sense of artistic independence made itself felt in the broader choice of subjects considered suitable for treatment, in the everyday diction that was employed in composition, and in the deliberately unconventional linking techniques that poets adopted. One of the school’s more notable figures was Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), now remembered chiefly for his fiction, who excelled in contests to see which poet could produce the largest number of verses in a limited period of time (yakazu haikai). Saikaku’s record was 23,500 verses, which he composed in 1684 in the course of a single afternoon and night at Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka. A number of the school’s adherents themselves tired of what often seemed to be the excessive emphasis on playfulness, and this minority attempted to compose haikai of greater artistic merit than those produced by the vast majority of their peers.

Matsuo Bashō

Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) was born in the town of Ueno in Iga Province (in what is now western Mie Prefecture). As a youth, he entered the service of a family related to the province's feudal leader and became friends with the family's eldest son, who was two years older than Bashō. Both Bashō and his young master studied haikai under one of Matsunaga Teitoku’s disciples. After his master died an untimely death, Bashō moved to Edo, where he came under the influence of the Danrin School and eventually established himself as a haikai master in his own right. Late in 1680, Bashō moved away from the bustle of Edo to a solitary hut located in the more rural neighborhood of Fukagawa. The following spring, a disciple planted a bashō, or banana plant, next to the hut, giving it the name by which it was subsequently known -- the Bashō Hut -- and providing its master with the nickname he used for the rest of his life.

Bashō’s style as a poet underwent a number of significant changes during his career. Starting off in Edo as a poet in the witty but shallow Danrin style, Bashō experimented with other traditional styles that allowed him to absorb influence from classical Chinese poetry and incorporate fresh techniques of juxtaposition in his verses. Both of these aspects can be found in the haikai collection Minashiguri (Shriveled Chestnuts, 1683). Bashō continued his efforts to establish an original poetic voice, showing the first signs of maturity in the travel diary Nozarashi kikō (The Records of a Weather-Beaten Skeleton, based on a journey to western Japan taken in 1684-85) and the haikai collection Fuyu no hi (The Winter Sun, 1684).

After 1684 Bashō became an inveterate traveler; each of his lengthy journeys ultimately resulted in a travel diary that typically interspersed hokku (a single, self-contained verse in 5-7-5 syllabic form, nominally intended to be the first verse in a haikai sequence) among passages of concise yet evocative prose (in other contexts, this type of writing is called haibun, or "haikai prose"). A total of five travel diaries were written, of which Oku no hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North)—based on a journey to northern Japan Bashō took in 1689 with his friend and disciple Kawai Sora)—stands out as a major work of premodern Japanese literature, and rare is the Japanese student unable to quote the first few lines. The epitome of the mature "Bashō Style" (Shōfū) of haikai poetry is usually considered to be the linked-verse collection Sarumino (The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat, 1691). This collection is where Bashō, having spent years spent developing an original style based on his own experience as a poet, gives fully realized expression to many of those qualities now considered his chief poetic legacy—above all the sublime quality of sabi, which depicts, or more accurately suggests, the solitary condition of a human being in relation to nature and the universe.

Yet sabi was not the final stopping point in Bashō’s development as a poet. In 1693 Bashō closed the gate of his hut for a month, refusing to welcome visitors. It would appear that he was attempting to work out an inner conflict between loneliness and despair on the one hand and a resigned acceptance of things as they are on the other. It was this latter attitude that prompted him to advocate the ideal of karumi ("lightness") said to characterize many of Bashō’s later verses, including those contained in the 1694 collection Sumidawara (A Sack of Charcoal). Here Bashō often seems to be making the attempt to return from the solitude of nature to the everyday world of ordinary human affairs.

Bashō was a perennial wanderer who identified strongly with such earlier poets of travel as Saigyō (1118-1190) and Sōgi (1421-1502). It therefore seems somehow inevitable that he died in 1694 while undertaking yet another arduous journey by foot. Although at the end he appears to have entertained doubts about the ultimate value of poetry, there is no question that the world would be a far less meaningful place without his. The poetic principles of the Bashō School (Shōmon) were carried on by disciples who, in addition to composing verses in their own right, compiled editions of their master's poetry and produced important critical commentaries on haikai. Chief among these commentaries are Sanzōshi (Three Booklets, 1702), by Hattori Dohō, and Kyoraishō (Conversations with Kyorai, 1704), by Mukai Kyorai. Needless to say, Bashō remained one of a kind.

Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa

After Bashō’s death, haikai grew increasingly popular among the population at large, but at the same time it also became vulgarized and trite. Its decline was briefly arrested in the Tenmei era (1781-89), when the activities of a number of poets in Edo, Kyoto, Owari, and Ise sparked a revival of sorts. The poet now best remembered from this period is Yosa Buson (1716-1783), who won fame as both a poet and a painter. Buson’s style is characterized by an outer pictorialism overlying a romantically colored classicism. Nevertheless, the downward slide in the fortunes of haikai resumed toward the end of the eighteenth century, leading to a situation so grim that the Meiji poet Masaoka Shiki (who popularized the modern term haiku) remarked that most of the haikai composed after 1830 did not bear glancing at. The one point of light illuminating the general darkness of the early 19th century was Kobayashi Issa (1763- 1827), one of Japan’s best-loved poets, whose highly individualistic style is characterized by a passionate defense of the weak and helpless. Issa's haibun journal Ora ga haru (The Spring of My Life, published in 1852) is a poignant record of the events in his life in 1819, the year in which his oldest daughter died from smallpox.


Translations  (emphasis on premodern poets; for the sake of neatness, all translations are listed according to the name of the translator or editor; the distinction between translations and studies is not always an easy one to make, so be sure to check the "Studies" section too). Place of publication has been omitted.

  • Andrews, James David, trans. Full Moon Is Rising: "Lost Haiku" of Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), and Travel Haiku of Matsuo Bashō, a New Rendering. Branden Press, 1976.
  • Barnhill, David Landis, trans. Bashō's Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Bashō. State University of New York Press, 2004.
  • Blyth, R. H., trans. Haiku. 4 vols. 1949-1952. Hokuseido, 1981-1982.
  • Bowers, Faubion, ed. The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology. Dover Publications, 1996.
  • Britton, Dorothy, trans. A Haiku Journey: Narrow Road to a Far Province. 1974. Kodansha International, 1980.
  • Chilcott, Tim, trans. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. An online translation first published in August 2004.
  • Corman, Cid and Susumu Kamaike, trans. Back Roads to Far Towns: Bashō’s Oku-No-Hosomichi. 1968. The Ecco Press, 1996.
  • Gollub, Matthew, trans. and ed. Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs!: The Life and Poems of Issa. Lee & Low Books, 1998.
  • Hamill, Sam, trans. The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku. Shambhala Publications, 1997.
  • Hamill, Sam, trans. The Essential Bashō. Shambhala Publications, 1999. This is an earlier edition of Hamill's Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings, listed below.
  • Hamill, Sam, trans. The Sound of Water: Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets. Shambhala Publications, 2000.
  • Hamill, Sam, trans. Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings. Shambhala Publications, 2000.
  • Hass, Robert, ed. and trans. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa. 1994. The Ecco Press, 1995.
  • Henderson, Harold G., trans.  An Introduction to Haiku. Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958.
  • Japanese Classics Translation Committee, trans. Haikai and Haiku. Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkōkai, 1957.
  • Keene, Donald, trans. The Narrow Road to Oku. Kodansha International, 1996.
  • Lanoue, David G., trans. Issa: Cup of Tea Poems, Selected Haiku of Kobayashi Issa. Asian Humanities Press, 1991.
  • Lewis, Richard, ed. and trans. The Way of Silence: The Prose and Poetry of Bashō. Dial Press, 1970.
  • Mackenzie, Lewis, trans. The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa. 1957. Kodansha International, 1984.
  • McCullough, Helen Craig, ed. Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology. Stanford University Press, 1990. Contains complete translations of two travel diaries, including Narrow Road to the Deep North.
  • Miner, Earl, trans. Japanese Poetic Diaries. University of California Press, 1969.
  • Miner, Earl and Hiroko Odagiri, trans. The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat and Other Poetry of the Bashō School. Princeton University Press, 1981.
  • Sakaki, Nanao, trans. Inch by Inch: 45 Haiku by Issa. 1985. La Alameda Press, 1999.
  • Sato, Hiroaki, trans. Bashō’s Narrow Road: Spring & Autumn Passages. Stone Bridge Press, 1996.
  • Sawa, Yuki and Edith Shiffert, trans. Haiku Master Buson. 2nd ed. Heian International Publishers, 1978.
  • Stryk, Lucien, trans. On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho. Penguin Books, 1985.
  • Stryk, Lucien and Noboru Fujiwara, trans. The Dumpling Field: Haiku of Issa. Swallow Press, 1991.
  • Ueda, Makoto, trans. Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women. Columbia University Press, 2003
  • Yuasa Nobuyuki, trans. The Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa’s Oraga Haru. 2nd ed. University of California Press, 1972.
  • Yuasa, Nobuyuki, trans. Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. Penguin Books, 1966. Contains all five travel diaries.

Studies (these center mainly on the premodern period rather than on haiku generally, for which the bibliography would now be quite long; again, it should be kept in mind that studies and translations are not always easily distinguished from each other). Place of publication has been omitted. I have published a paper titled The Beat of Different Drummers: English Translations of Hokku from Matsuo Bashō's Oku no hosomichi that may be viewed here or, alternatively, in the pages of the July 2002 edition of the online World Haiku Review. I have also translated Kuwabara Takeo's controversial "Modern Haiku: A Second-Class Art" for the online journal Simply Haiku (4:1, Spring 2006).

  • Aitken, Robert. A Zen Wave. Weatherhill, 1978.
  • Blyth, R. H. A History of Haiku. 2 vols. Hokuseido, 1964.
  • Crowley, Cheryl A. Haikai Poet Yosa Buson and the Bashō Revival. Brill, 2007.
  • Gill, Stepher Henry and C. Andrew Gerstle, eds. Rediscovering Basho: A 300th Aniversary Celebration. Folkstone, Kent: Global Oriental, 1999.
  • Higginson, William J., with Penny Harter. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. 1985. Kodansha International, 1989.
  • Jonsson, Herbert H. Reading Haikai Poetry: A Study in the Polyphony of Yosa Buson’s Linked Poems. Brill, 2016.
  • Keene, Donald. World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
  • Keene, Donald. Travelers of a Hundred Ages. Henry Holt, 1989.
  • Miner, Earl. ed. and trans. Japanese Linked Poetry: An Account with Translations of Renga and Haikai Sequences. Princeton University Press, 1978.
  • Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō. Stanford University Press, 1998.
  • Ueda, Makoto. Zeami-Bashō-Yeats-Pound. Mouton & Co., 1965.
  • Ueda, Makoto. Matsuo Bashō. 1970. Kodansha International, 1982.
  • Ueda, Makoto. Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary. Stanford University Press, 1991.
  • Ueda, Makoto. The Path of Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson. Stanford University Press, 1998.
  • Ueda, Makoto. Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa. Brill, 2004.
  • Yasuda, Kenneth. The Japanese Haiku. Charles E. Tuttle, 1957.



Although a Google search for the term "Bashō" now yields millions of results in English, few sites contain biographical or bibliographical information that cannot be found in one of the major online encyclopedias. It takes a large store of patience to wade through hundreds of sites simply for the pleasure of reading perhaps a half dozen translations on any one page. Information about Buson and Issa is, of course, much harder to come by, and even when available it is not normally very detailed (two or three notable exceptions appear below). Some of Buson’s paintings can be viewed at online museum sites, although again a great deal of clicking usually provides a rather meager reward.

There are quite a few haiku-related sites online that offer original or translated poems; only those offering articles and/or other scholarly information are listed below. For a convenient list of online haiku sites, see the Raysweb website.

Contemporary Haibun Online

Although devoted primarily to publishing English-language haibun, this quarterly journal does have a large archive of essays and interviews that are listed on this page.

The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words

An online seasonal almanac -- last updated in 2005 and showing its age -- that categorizes many of the "season words" (kigo) used in haiku poetry. The page was edited by William J. Higginson and forms a part of the larger Renku Home site, which also dates back to 2007.

Haiku of Kobayashi Issa

A site managed by David G. Lanoue, professor of English at Xavier University of Louisiana, in New Orleans. The site offers a searchable archive of 10,000 of Issa's haiku, each dated and accompanied by romanized versions of the Japanese. An "advanced search" function also provides access to an archive of comments on the haiku. A section called "About Issa" contains a short biography and timeline.

History of Haiku: 10 Haikuists and Their Works, from Basho to Koi

Very short introductions to ten famous haiku poets written by haiku poet Yotsuya Ryū, dating back to 2000. Bashō and Buson are the only premodern poets to receive pages of their own.

Simply Haiku

An online quarterly published between 2003 and 2009 that dealt with tanka, renku, senryu, haibun, and haiga as well as haiku. In addition to original compositions in English, the site also carried essays, interviews, and book reviews, all of which are still accessible through the site's archives. I published a translation here of Kuwabara Takeo's "Modern Haiku: A Second-Class Art" (vol. 4, no. 1, Spring 2006).

The World Haiku Review

A fairly active online magazine published by the World Haiku Club, with articles on and original work in the genres of senryū and renku as well as haiku and haibun. The magazine underwent a facelift in 2008, and the archives for the period 2001-2007 are offered on a separate blog-like site.


The opening lines of Bashō's Narrow Road to the Deep North


The days and months are the wayfarers of eternity, as are the constantly passing years. Both those who spend their lives plying the waves in boats and those who grow old holding tight to the lead ropes of packhorses make of each day a journey, and of their journey a home. Many of the ancient poets, too, met their end while on a journey. Beginning from a certain age, my own thoughts turned ceaselessly to travel and, like a wisp of cloud borne upon the wind, I wandered the coasts and bays, returning last autumn to my tumbledown hut on the banks of the Sumida, where I cleared away the cobwebs and saw out the old year. But with the mists of spring rising into the sky, my senses once more fell thrall to temptation, and I was filled with a longing to cross the barrier at Shirakawa. The gods of the roadside beckoned in such a way that I lost interest in everything else. I patched the holes in my leggings, attached a new cord to my straw hat, and strengthened my knees with moxa, a vision of the moon at Matsushima already taking form in my mind's eye. I sold my hut and composed the following just before moving to a cottage owned by Sanpū:

surely this grass hut
            will for the next owner be
                a festive house of dolls!

I used this as the first of a sheet of eight verses, which I left hanging from a post inside the hut.





Bashō’s narrow road to the deep north

Below is a Google Map of the route taken by Matsuo Bashō on the roughly 160-day journey recounted in Oku no hosomichi (The Road to the Deep North). Dates given inside the markers usually refer to the days on which Bashō spent his first night in the specified location, although certain exceptions exist (I have tried to identify those). The trip itself began in Edo (modern Tokyo) on the twenty-seventh day of the third lunar month of 1689, and it is conventionally held to have ended on the third day of the ninth lunar month, when Bashō was welcomed by disciples and others to the castle town of Ōgaki in what is now southwestern Gifu Prefecture. A brief frame supplies an account of Bashō’s preparations for the trip as well as a description of his departure from Ōgaki for the Grand Shrine of Ise on the sixth day of the ninth month.

Since Bashō revised and embroidered parts of his account, dates and other details are not completely reliable. Bashō’s travelling companion Kawai Sora, however, kept an accurate diary, and while he was eventually forced by poor health to curtail his participation, his chronology provides a useful counterpoint to the version offered by Bashō himself.

Needless to say, only a limited number of places have been marked on the map. The “Points of Information” layer can be disabled if desired to focus on the route itself, which was not as straightforward as the lines might suggest. A number of the information markers are slightly out of place so as to reduce interference with the route markers. The content of the map could be expanded almost indefinitely, and I do plan to revisit the project as time permits. Meanwhile, notifications of errors or other infelicities will be gratefully received (contacts are listed under the Home menu). Although the folks at Google are the ones who make such interactive maps possible, considerable effort has gone into the creation of this one, and linkbacks and/or acknowledgments would be appreciated. The map is responsive but will probably be difficult to view and navigate on smaller screens.