Last reviewed: June 2018
Ueno, Iga Province, Japan
November 28, 1694
Born Matsuo Munefusa into a warrior family in Iga Province in the year 1644, as a youth Matsuo Bashō—also known as simply Bashō—served in the house of Tōdō Yoshikiyo, warden of Ueno Castle, east of the ancient capital of Nara, as the personal retainer of Yoshikiyo’s son Yoshitada. Yoshitada was himself interested in the haikai, was a disciple of the poet Kitamura Kigin, and had the pen name of Sengin. Apparently this poetic activity stirred Bashō’s interest, for there are early poems of his which were evaluated and corrected by Kigin. Matsuo Bashō
Yoshitada died in 1666, when Bashō was twenty-two. This was a turning point in Bashō’s life, for he abandoned further feudal service. He seems to have gone to Kyoto, and in 1672 he was in Edo (now Tokyo), where he found employment at the local water works. By this time he had acquired a number of disciples, and one of them offered him a small residence. From that time on he devoted his life to his art. Two schools of haikai poetry were prevalent in Edo at this time, the old Teitoku School and the newer, more liberal Danrin School headed by Nishiyama Sōin. Bashō preferred the latter, and he associated himself with the school’s members; eventually, however, he tired of their tendency to run to empty witticisms. Bashō began to form his own school around 1677, gathering around him numerous disciples who admired his attempts to merge the humor and lightness traditionally associated with haikai with a philosophical seriousness. His school brought haikai linked poetry, haibun (haikai prose), and the seventeen-syllable hokku, or haiku, to a new height.
His poems and writings show his love of nature. In 1684 he began his wanderings through various parts of Japan, composing haiku as he went, and writing his famous travel accounts and diaries. In the middle of 1694 he set out west on another trip, and after having visited various places on the way, he visited his childhood home in Ueno before going on to Ōsaka, where he fell ill and died. His master’s death and his later tribulations in Edo and on his wanderings had made him an introspective and moral man, although not devoid of humor.
The nom de plume which he used was Tōsei of the Hut of the Bashō. Bashō, meaning plantain, was the name of his residence because a plantain tree grew there. There are numerous schools of the haikai and haiku in Japan today, but they all stem from Bashō, so great has been his influence on Japanese seventeen-syllable poetry. He is one of Japan’s most highly esteemed poets and one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature.