Matsuo Basho (松尾芭蕉) and Haiku (俳句)

By Richard A. Colignon

Matsuo Basho  (1644-1694).  Source:

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). Source:

One of the most distinctive cultural expressions may be haiku poetry involving many elements that people have come to associate with “Japaneseness.”  Haiku poetry involves the juxtaposition of two images or ideas, a structure consisting of 17 morae (similar to, but different from, syllables), and a seasonal reference.

The most famous haiku poet of the Edo period is Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). He wrote numerous poems while on his 2,400 km, 5 month walking journey in 1689 and captured in his diary “A Narrow Road to a Far Provence” (奥の細道, Oku no Hosomichi). He departed from Fukagawa, Edo (Tokyo), headed north to Hiraizumi, then to the Sea of Japan coast, and concluded his journey in Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture. Basho is celebrated for his spare verse and mystical interpretations projecting human emotions and acute observations. Two poems, at the beginning and end of his journey may illustrate this genre.

Loath to let spring go,
Birds cry, and even fishes’
Eyes are wet with tears

Sadly, I part from you,
Like a clam torn from its shell
I go, and autumn too

These poems express Basho’s style: simple, unpretentious, and refined observations of nature, projecting human emotions in metaphors to nature. Visitors to the Nagoya area of Japan may wish to stop by Ogaki, which celebrates the master poet with museums, statues, and the town’s Basho Festival in November. It takes 30 minutes to Ogaki from Nagoya by JR train. For more information, contact: 大垣市奥の細道むすびの地記念館 (The Ogaki Memorial Museum of Oku-no-Hosomichi Destination Site) at:



Dr. Richard A. Colignon is Chair and Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Antthropology at Saint Louis University. 


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