Yosa Buson: Haiku Master

Edward McFadden

kagero ya ajika ni tsuchi wo mezuru-hito

The shimmering heat
…soil in a wicker basket
someone dear

[T]hink of haiku as mirage. What you see isn’t what you are seeing. What you see vanishes before your eyes. You say earth is being heaped into a straw basket? I say its being hauled upon an old woman’s back. You say “someone dear” is an allusion — a loved one who has died? I say it’s the worthy old woman herself, pushing on gamely through the rising heat. Who’s right? Who’s to say? Neither of us? Both of us? Yes. No. I don’t know. The essence of haiku.

Yosa no Buson (1716-1783) was one in a triumvirate of haikai immortals of the Edo era in Japan: before him came the master, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), and after him the “humanist” Kobayashi Issa (1763-1826).

We know very little of the early life or parents of Buson, and perhaps that’s just as well. Chronicles of youth are invariably dull. We do know that he was born at Kema, a village which has been swallowed up by the present-day city of Osaka, but beyond that we have only rumor, anecdote, and supposition — until suddenly, at the age of twenty-one, he pops up in Edo (Tokyo), apprenticed to the haikai master Hayano Soa (also variously known as Hajin and the Master of Yahantei).

This apprenticeship, which included some practice of haiga, or painting, (an art form for which Buson is now equally, if not better, known), lasted until the death of Soa in 1742. Thereafter began a period of ten years of wandering — and it is here that for us the real life of the artist begins. At the end of the first year he emerges from the pupal stage by symbolically changing his name from Saicho to Buson, a name whose compounds mean “cease to be” and “ village.” And under that name he has given us more than 2500 haiku.

Though attempts have been made by various translators to bring Buson to life, presenting him as a pleasing nature poet, or as a lover of oddities and enchantments, none have really plumbed the depth of him or of haiku. Nor does any exhaustive translation of his work exist. As a primer, R.H. Blyth is pretty good (if one learns to leapfrog the annoying intrusions of English Lit); though with him the oasis isn’t often enough glimpsed.

Perhaps the difficulties of rendering into English, or some other non-ideographic language, that which may not only carry multiple meanings, but which has been highly condensed, have played their part in warning off other potential visitors. Deceptively simple in appearance — after all, each one is only seventeen syllables — haiku begin causing tricks as soon we begin trying to give order to our pathetic little scraps of words. How to cram all of that meaning into seventeen English syllables, when English, with its wave-like rhythms and frequent end stops, its rises and falls, seemingly wants so much more space to move in than the elegantly simple and ascetic, open ended a, ka, sa, ta, na of Japanese? Yet disregard this syllabic constraint, and the rolling prairie seems much too vast a place for a quiet Zen monk.

But good translation certainly isn’t impossible. Our labor just requires a little care.

tama-suri-no zayu ni hiraku tsubaki kana

Unfolding at the
hand of the glass polisher:
a camellia!

Here, twin meanings have survived the throes and pangs of birth in the new language, even somehow managing to come dressed in the requisite seventeen syllables.

Yet, in other instances, it isn’t possible to preserve the 5-7-5 syllable structure while maintaining the integrity of the song:

harusame ya mi ni furu zukin kitaru keri

Spring rain —
Coming down on me again
This hood I’ve been wearing.

Even still, we’re coming closer to the essence of haiku: the framing stanzas tugging at the center, each claiming it as their own.

Perhaps an even sweeter example is:

kogarashi ya hitato tsumazuku modori-uma

A cold winter wind—
it stumbles suddenly
the returning horse

Which leads us to ponder — which is it that stumbles? the wind, or the horse? One can imagine a cold wind blowing ferociously, stopping for a second or two, falling to its knees and catching its breath, then getting up and continuing onward. Or….

What should slowly be coming apparent, like the camellia unfolding, is the depth of Buson’s verse; the way in which multiple meanings are built into the structure; somewhat like those “find the hidden object” games where the picture within the picture only surfaces after you have stared at it long enough. Sometimes it seems with Buson as if a mirror has been placed on one side of an object or a person; a window on the other.

inazuma-ya katada domari no yohi no sora

Stopping at the parched field:
the evening sky.

Here, with the lightning briefly illuminating the whole scene, we can see to the horizon. Even at that we haven’t really rounded out the poem satisfactorily, for if we were able to completely marry sound, sense, symbol, and meaning, we would know that Katada, which has been translated here literally as “parched field”, is also the name of an actual place in Shiga Prefecture, on the shores of Lake Biwa. The second line would then read: “Stopping at Katada”; which in English, as opposed to Japanese, removes the additional meaning of the autumnal parched field that Buson wanted to present, though gives us back the feeling of the poet stopping somewhere for the night. Yet even as it is the poem crackles with layers.

And hasn’t our penchant for separating, for categorizing also done the poet a disservice? In Buson’s day a simple haiku didn’t often have to go through the embarrassment of standing alone on a naked white page, exposed to all the world. Rather, these seventeen syllable verses were meant to accompany other verses by other poets forming linked poetry known as haikai no renga, the most popular of which, kasen, had thirty-six verses. (When the first verse, or hokku, for whatever reason, had no following 14 syllable reply —waki-ku — only then was it truly a haiku.) The following are the first three verses of a kasen composed by Buson, Saiba, Tairo and others on May 25, 1774, entitled “Evening Breeze” (Yukaze ya):

yu-kaze ya mizu ao-sagi no hagi wo utsu

An evening breeze:
water laps at the leg
of a blue heron

gama ni san tan sei-sei to ou

Through two or three tan*
of cattails it blows

*A tan was a unit of measure equal to 0.245 acres. So, an area of less than an acre.

kurubeshi to omou fushi yori tsue orete

snapping the cane —
right from the node at which
he thinks he should cut

How clearly we can picture the joints of the sticklike leg of the heron, the cattails, and the bamboo cane. And how unlike our conception of poetry (with its unswerving allegiance to the solitary, alienated poet) is this coming together in a haiku party, this working together, this shared setting of mood.


Balance. Harmony. Poetry and pictures. (Haiku and haiga.) Both Buson and Basho considered painting and poetry as two forms of the same activity, the same ideal. A friend of mine says that when she’s writing her New Year’s cards (practically the only chance she has for writing with a calligraphy pen now) she feels as if she is painting pictures. And really she is.

One well known haiku of Buson’s

harusame ya monogatari yuku mino to kasa

Spring rain:
So the story goes —
Straw raincoat and umbrella

has its pictorial counterpart in a haiga by the author of two people in the rain, one holding a paper umbrella, the other donning a straw raincoat and hat; but the haiku and haiga are really only linked by clever subsequent scholars who found an easy match. What is clearly evident in both poem and painting, however, is the persistency of the spring rain — in the haiga by the naturalness and seeming comfortableness of wearers with things worn, as if they have grown together through long association; and in the haiku by the “here we go again” quality of the second line.

Spring rain. Summer heat. Autumn fields. Winter winds.

The seasonal element, as is well known, is intrinsic to haiku. We shouldn’t, however, think that Buson’s seasons are exactly synchronous with our divisions. In the old Japanese lunar calendar, each year was to begin at a midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox — roughly February 5th. Yet since the people believed the day of the new moon to be auspicious, New Year’s Day was always changed to coincide with whichever new moon was closest to the fifth. Thus, the first year of the Genroku period (1688) began on February 2nd, while the second year of the same began on January 21st. Because of the inherent messiness of the system it was necessary to frequently add leap years.

New Year’s Day then, was considered to be the first day of spring, making that season to have been what is, in the solar calendar, our February, March, and April:

shira-ume ya Kitano no chaya ni sumahi-tori

The white blossoming plum
at the Kitano tea shop
a sumo wrestler

Summer would have been our May, June, and July:

mizuumi e Fuji wo modosu ya satsuki ame

To the lake
Fuji gives back
The fifth month’s rain

Autumn, our August, September, and October:

meigetsu ya ame wo tametaru ike no ue

A bright harvest moon —
rainwater has collected
on the surface of the pond

Winter: November, December, and January:

waga zukin ukiyo no sama ni nizu mo gana

In this hood of mine
I hope I bear no likeness
to the worldly scene

And then the days lengthening, the sun strengthening, the beginning of the natural year would begin once again: a time called Setsubun, when the shiny, silvery heads of iwashi (a kind of sardine, though much larger than the ones you’ll find in the tin) were hung outside the entrance of houses to keep evil spirits away.

hi no hikari kesa ya iwashi no kashira yori

The light of the sun
this morning
from the head of a sardine

These sardines weren’t, however, the only charms. According to Kaempfer (1651-1716), that great chronicler of Tokugawa culture, the doors and posts of the houses of common people always had half a sheet of paper attached to them with a picture of a guardian deity, the most common of which was the horned black Gion or Gozutenno; other villages had the image of a hairy Ainu with his hands around a sword, which was supposed to protect the inhabitants from afflictions.

And perhaps during this period it would have been well for the people to have designed charms in order to ward off their own government, for Kaempfer also speaks of the numerous Shogunal edicts, such as the prohibition against Christianity, posted outside of the cities and towns. Rewards were paid for reporting Christians and other criminals, and along the road, on the western outskirts of town, were public execution grounds, once used to slaughter Japanese Christians, later to do away with those who had transgressed the Shogun’s laws by trading in secret with foreigners.

koma-bune no yorade sugi yuku kasumi kana

The Chinese junk
not stopping
moving on through the mist

And so for good reason the ships sailed on. In 1640, envoys for the government of Macao, along with their entire retinue of seventy-three persons (less twelve who were to report back to the Portuguese but ended up dying at sea anyway in a shipwreck) had been beheaded on Shogunal orders, the end result of which had been a complete stoppage of trade with the Portuguese and severe restrictions for both the Dutch and the Chinese. By 1685 the Chinese, aside from being limited as to the quantity of goods they were able to sell, were being taxed at a rate of sixty percent.

The severe restrictions of sakoku (national isolation) were not limited to outside nations. During the Genroku period (1688-1703) the Bakufu (the feudal government) passed a sumptuary edict stating that townspeople were not to wear silk.

kinu kisenu kachu yuyushiki koromogahe

Not putting on silk
The whole family grave:
A seasonal change of clothes.

From ancient times the dates of the four seasons were rigidly adhered to, so that when the season changed so too did the color, thickness, and material of the kimonos.

Oddly enough, even with all of these edicts, Genroku was perhaps one the liveliest and most colorful periods in the history of Japan. The rising merchant class in Edo (present day Tokyo) paid to be entertained in gay quarters by prostitutes, actors, dancers, and singers. The atmosphere or culture was known as ukiyo, or the “Floating World” and has been immortalized in numerous ukiyo-e and ukiyo-zoshi (paintings and novels). By Buson’s day, however, all of that had passed: a subsequent reaction by the ruling class had destroyed it all, and a new gravity had set in.

haru no mizu ni utata u nawa no keiko kana

How serious the training
of cormorants with ropes gets
on the water in Spring!

Ukai, or cormorant fishing, is still practiced from May to October in both Gifu and Kyoto Prefectures, though it is now mostly a tourist attraction. On preferably moonless nights, while the cormorants, attached to long leashes, wait dutifully on board, the fishermen suspend a basket containing a fire or light from the boat, which attracts fish, usually ayu (a kind of trout), to the surface. Once in the water, the cormorants are constrained from gulping their catch by a metal ring about the base of their necks. When the birds have caught their fill, they are brought back on board and made to relinquish the fish.

Summertime, too, just as now, was the time for hanabi (literally “flower-fire”):

mono taite hanabi ni teki kakaribune

Something burning . . .
fireworks in the distance
a moored boat

Haiku at its best, like hanabi, offers surprise. Indeed, the Japanese are deeply fond of novelty, or of finding something hitherto unseen, or discovering something they hadn’t known before.

shizukasa ni tahete mizu sumu tanishi kana

Enduring the stillness,
the crystalline waters . . .
A snail!

ajikina ya tsubaki ochi uzumu niwatazumi

An amazing scene:
fallen camellia flowers
carpeting the run-off from the rain.

ume orite shiwade ni kakotsu kaori kana

Breaking off a plum branch
grumbling about his wrinkled hand —
Ah, the fragrance!

Humor can also play a part in haiku:

harusame ya hito sumite keburi kabe wo moru

A light spring rain —
someone living there:
smoke seeps from the walls.

Buson prefaces this haiku with this explanatory note: “On the west side of Kyoto, there was, for a long time, a ghost living in a certain dilapidated house. Now we hear nothing of it.” Notice how the “mi” in “sumite” written in katakana, a script reserved for foreign loan words, mimics the smoke leaking from the walls/the ghost escaping.

Spirits. A belief in which is closely connected with a reverence for the past. Certainly Buson, as evidenced by his numerous haiku modeled after or echoing the master, had an abundance for Basho.

chichi-haha no koto no mi omou aki no kure

Of Mother, Father
can think of nothing but
The end of autumn

This haiku at one stroke venerates both the master and the poet’s parents. Here is Basho:

chichi-haha no shikiri no koishi kiji no koe

Mother, Father :
at frequent intervals pined for —
the cry of a pheasant

Another haiku, prefaced with the words: Konpuku Temple: The Venerable Basho’s Grave nods once more to the deceased teacher.

ware mo shishite hi ni hitori semu kare o bana

I, too, am dying
approaching the grave
withered Eulalia.

In An Account of the Restoration of the Basho Hermitage in Eastern Kyoto, Buson relates that “in the village of Ichioji, at the southwestern foot of Mt. Hiei, there is a Zen temple called Konpuku. The local people, when referring to it, call it the Basho hermitage.” Within the precincts of the temple was a hut, belonging to a priest named Tesshu. Basho had used it as his retreat, but after his death (1694) and then Tesshu’s (1698), it had fallen into disrepair, until a certain Higuchi Doryu, a friend of Buson’s, suggested restoring it. The occasion of the haiku was the dedication of a monument there to Basho.

Another monument, perhaps more lasting, is this haiku:

mono kaku ni ha ura ni mezuru basho kana

For writing something
how one appreciates the back of the leaf
especially Basho

Basho took this pen name after his students, one of whom had brought back a bashô, or plantain tree, from China for him, began calling his place Basho-an. Since the leaves of the tree were broad, he loved to sit and listen to the sound of the wind rattling them together or the rain pattering upon them.

The leaves of the tree. The book’s leaves. The rare ability to say two things in one breath: the genius of Buson.

kusa kasumi mizu ni koe naki higure kana

Grass, mist rising
not a voice over the water
The day has ended.



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Edward McFadden

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