Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
September-October 2004, vol. 2, no. 5

| Contents | Archives | About Simply Haiku | Submissions | Search |


FEATURE: Cheryl Crowley, Yosa Buson - Longing for an imagined past.

Yosa Buson (1716-1783) is one of Japan's most well-known haiku poets. Like many of his contemporaries, he viewed himself as an inheritor of the legacy of the great Matsuo Bashô (1644-1694), and he strove to infuse his verse with the same grandeur and profundity as Bashô's had. However, although Buson's approach to writing was just as serious as Bashô's was, his haiku is very different from Bashô's. Buson's haiku distinguishes itself with its romantic and mysterious overtones, its evocation of scenes imagined from reading Japanese and Chinese classics, and nostalgia for the past. Because Buson was a painter as well as a poet, many readers have identified a special painterly quality in his work. Whether you agree with this or not, it is certainly true that Buson was one of the greatest masters of haiga (compositions that combine both haiku text and pictures); and even among haiku poets, who as a matter of course are expected to be sensitive to natural beauty, Buson's appreciation for color, landscape, and bold, vivid images is outstanding.

Buson lived in an age when commoners were growing prosperous and comfortable, and increasingly had access to art and literature. During the early eighteenth century in Japan, advancements in printing technology, a rise in literacy, and improvements in the quality of life in general meant that more people than ever before were reading and writing poetry, especially haikai (as the genre was called then). However, some poets, including Buson, felt that the popularization of haikai was not altogether a good thing. The more popular haikai became, the more it attracted people who were unwilling to put in the necessary time and effort to learn the craft well, and thus the verse that they wrote tended to be tasteless and banal. The movement to resist this so-called vulgarization of haikai and to return it to the high standard that had been set for it by Matsuo Bashô has come to be called the Bashô Revival, and Buson was its most prominent leader.

Not much is known about Buson's family or early life; he came from a rural area called Settsu (part of modern Osaka). When he was in his early twenties he traveled to Edo (modern Tokyo) and studied haikai with Hayano Hajin, whose school was called Yahantei. Hajin had been a student of Bashô disciple Ransetsu, and was a free-thinking and open-minded teacher who encouraged Buson to concentrate not on imitating the work of others, but on finding his own authentic voice. "Change with the times, adapt to the times spontaneously, disregard what has come before or may come into being later," was how Buson described Hajin's approach to poetry in Make the past now (Mukashi o ima) and this was the principle Buson followed all his life.

After Hajin died in 1742, Buson spent about a decade in northeastern Japan, practicing painting and poetry with former Hajin disciples and their acquaintances. He finally made his way back to western Japan around 1751, where he spent a few years trying to break into the highly competitive Kyoto art market. Things did not work out at first, so he moved to the Tango region for three years, building his client base among rural people before returning to Kyoto in 1757 to try his luck again. This time he did better, and except for another three year journey in the provinces, this time in Shikoku (1766-1769), Buson spent the rest of his life in Kyoto. He died in 1783.

Painting was always Buson's major source of income, and haikai was something he did more for love than for money. It was not until 1770 that he established himself officially as the leader of a haikai school. He called his school Yahantei, making himself Hajin's successor. Even so, Buson was adamant about the importance of separating poetry from commerce, and he looked down on other haikai teachers who simplified their teachings in order to attract the most students. In the preface to his Shundei verse anthology (Shundei kushû), one of his rare statements on poetic theory, Buson reminisces about a conversation he had with one of his students in which he said:

"Haikai is that which has as its ideal the use of ordinary language, yet it transcends ordinariness. To transcend ordinariness and yet make use of it, the method of 'transcending the ordinary,' is most difficult."

His student agreed that this was difficult, and pressed him for an explanation. Buson explained that the best way to improve one's haikai was to read: Chinese poetry to start with, but in general, reading all kinds of literature was important. For Buson, the essence of improving your writing was improving yourself, and the most efficient way to do this was to read.

One of the consequences of Buson's emphasis on reading was that his haiku tend to be less a direct transcription of personal experience than they are carefully constructed allusions to other literary works. Many Buson verses that seem to be poignant expressions of heartfelt emotion are entirely fictional. One example scholars often cite is:

mi ni shimu ya it sinks in deep
naki tsuma no kushi o in the bedroom, I step on
neya ni fumu my dead wife's comb

While this would seem like a powerful statement of grief, Buson's wife was very much alive at the time he wrote this. This haiku might be better read as an example of Buson's great skill in using the limited space of seventeen syllables to suggest a longer narrative. Alternatively, we might see it as an example of Buson's interest in exploring the meaning of images and language drawn from classical poetry. The phrase "it sinks in deep" (mi ni shimu) is included in saijiki (haiku season word dictionary) as an autumn kigo (season word); the earliest verse cited comes from Later collection of gleanings (Goshûi wakashû, 1086), the fourth imperial waka (tanka) anthology:

kaze no ne no the sound of the wind
mi ni shimu bakari sinks in deep
kikoyuru wa just from hearing this
waga mi ni aki ya it comes to me
chikaku naruran autumn is surely near
~ Anonymous

This waka established the meaning of the phrase "sinks in deep" as one associated with the autumn wind, whose chill is so sharp it seems to penetrate the body. Thus when Buson uses it in the verse about stepping on the comb, we understand that he implies a sudden shock of cold, such as one might feel when being taken unawares by a gust of autumn wind.

However, because he writes haiku, Buson also appreciates the humorous possibilities of classical phrases. The following poem from Ancient and modern poetry anthology (Kokin wakashû, 920), the first imperial anthology, is another example in which the speaker realizes that autumn has come by hearing the sound of the wind:

aki kinu to that autumn has come
me ni wa sayakani my eyes did not
mienudomo see clearly
kaze no oto ni zo it surprised me
odorokarenuru in the sound of the wind

Fujiwara no Motoyuki

The phrase "sinks in deep" does not appear in this verse, but the situation is similar: the poet's sensitivity for the beauty of the seasons is so great that the arrival of autumn carried on the wind affects him deeply. This is the proper tone for a waka poet--elegant, nuanced, refined.

As a haiku poet, Buson is far less reverent:

aki kinu to that autumn has come
gaten sasetaru I was convinced
kusame kana a sneeze

Buson's haiku starts with the same phrase as Motoyuki's, "that autumn has come" (aki kinu to). However, something far more prosaic than the autumn wind prompts his realization that cold weather is here--he sneezes. Reference to bodily functions like sneezing and even eating were excluded from waka on the grounds that they were inelegant, but haiku poets were under no such prohibition. Indeed, the basic meaning of haikai is "comic:" haiku were supposed to surprise or elicit laughter by creating the expectation of something elegant, but following it up with something mundane. Here, as we have seen, the phrase "that autumn has come" creates the expectation that it will be followed by a reference to "the sound of the wind," but the only wind in Buson's haiku is the air that is stirred by the unfortunate speaker's sneeze.

If you are interested in finding out more about haikai and the haiku of Yosa Buson, here are some good places to start:


  • Shirane, Haruo. Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. At 1200 pages, it's not just haiku, but the book does contain hundreds of excellent translations of important verse and prose by the major pre-modern Japanese haiku poets. There's lots of useful background information too.
  • Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashô. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. Mainly about Bashô and his followers, this book is the best introduction in print to the poetics of classical Japanese haiku.
  • Ueda, Makoto. Bashô and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995. Gives a close, word-by-word explication of Bashô's most important haiku.
  • Ueda, Makoto. The Path of the Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. An excellent, highly readable introduction to Buson's biography and haikai writings by a senior scholar.

I'm working on a book on Buson too--keep an eye out for it in the future.


Cheryl Crowley is Assistant Professor of Japanese Language and Literature, Department of Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures, Emory University, Atlanta Georgia. Her research interests focus on early modern Japanese literature and art, classical Chinese poetry and women's studies. Dr. Crowley is working on a book about Yosa Buson (1716-1783) and 18th century haikai poetry.