Haiku Masters

29/01/2021 10:50

Poets, sensitive writers, haiku composers… they are countless in Japan. These are just a few, although the most relevant, among those who cultivated this brief genre, even before it existed as such.

Yamazaki Sōkan (山崎 ) (1465–1553), whose real name was Shina Norishige, was a calligrapher in the court of the ninth Ashikaga shogun and a Buddhist monk. His poetic works, Daitsukubashū, Inu-tsukuba-shū, were anthologies of renga and haikai that would inspire the haikus of later generations.

Arakida Moritake (荒木 ) (1473-1549), who also became a monk, worked the renga, the tanka, and particularly the haikai. His poems appeared in the volume Shinsen tsukubashū and in the anthologies Haikai renga dokugin senku and Hōraku senku. Yo no naka hyakushu. One of the most famous verses of him is:

A fallen blossom

returning to the bough, I thought --

But no, a butterfly.

Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉) came to this world in 1644 in Ueno, about thirty miles away from Kyoto, and left it in 1694, from Osaka. In the meanwhile, coinciding with Japan’s Edo period, he became one of the most recognized poets in the country and is practically considered the creator and master of haiku. His birth name was Matsuo Kinsaku, but he ended up adopting Bashō, which means banana tree, because his habit of sitting in the shade of it when his disciples built him a shed with the tree in the courtyard. He was heavily influenced by Chinese poets, particularly those of the Tang dynasty and also earlier ones. Bashō participated in the construction of haikai no renga, which he developed by enhancing the importance of the first three verses, hokku, which he linked with his personal experience, especially in his travels on foot in Japan. In those, he concentrates the moments that capture his interest, transforming them into poems that already take the form of a haiku. In 1680, he was already completely dedicated to writing, accompanied by a bunch of disciples, among whom Takarai Kikaku would stand out. On poetry, in the prologue to one of his works, Basho points out: “In my point of view a Good poem is one in which the form of the verse, and the joining of its two parts, seem light as a shallow river flowing over its sandy bed”. Years later, in 1684, as a monk, he began a series of journeys on foot throughout the lands of the island of Honshu, a long wandering from which four books would emerge. The first great journey led him, between September 1684 and May 1685, to visit twelve provinces walking more than fifteen hundred kilometres. A journey that reflected in Nozarashi Kikō, Record of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton. A work composed in a mixture of prose and haikus, a kind of subgenre called haibun ( ) and in which he noted that, for him, poetry It’s spirit, such as it is, which led me to poetry, at first little more than a pastime, then the full business of my life. There have been times when my spirit, so dejected, almost gave up the quest, other times when it was proud, triumphant”. In that work, he writes:

Mausoleum handed over to the years

what memories?

Souvenir herbs!

He then made two more trips reflected in Kashima Kiko (A visit to Kashima shrine, 1687) and Oi no Kobumi, or Utatsu Kikō (Record of a Travel-Worn Satchel, 1688). From the long journey, he made to the north of Honshu Island with his disciple Kawai Sora in 1689, one of his most famous compilations of haikus came out: Oku no Hosomichi or The Path of Oku. Published posthumously in 1702, it achieved great recognition. It begins with a declaration of intent: “Following the example of the ancient priest (…) I left my broken house on the River Sumida”. The text, written as a travel diary through haikus, inspired later generations to make the same trip to northern Japan. Oku no Hosomichi is literally translated as the narrow way inland, but alternatively, it has also been translated as The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in Penguin Classics, in 1966 or The narrow Road to the Interior. The following haikus belong to the Path of Oku:

Behind the moon

the chrysanthemum stands

slight presence


Violets –

how precious on

a mountain path.

Takarai Kikaku ( ) (1661–1707), also known by his name Enomoto Kikaku, figured among Basho's disciples, describing the master's last days. He founded the Edo-za school, where he taught poetry. Kikaku wrote haikus perhaps less elegant than Basho's, but loaded with humour and rhetorical resources. In 1683, he compiled the collection of poems called Minashigur and in 1692 and 1694 the anthologies Zoodan-shu and Ku-kyoodai. Along with the poets Ransetsu and Kyorai, he led Basho's group of disciples known as The Ten Philosophers.

Our lives passed

no longer to return

Night comes

Ueshima Onitsura ( ), (1661-1738), although younger, was a contemporary of Bashō. They say that at the age of seven he wrote his first haiku:

Come, come, I told her

But the firefly

She flew away

His haikus, translated into Western languages, are collected in Tomoshibi no kotoba, Words of light, which, divided by seasons, begins with the following haiku:

I will search for voice threads

In the background

From the spring rain.

According to specialist Reginald Horace Blyth, “Onitsura composed the first real haiku” by dissociating himself from renga even before Basho. Onitsura began to write as a child, while Basho, seventeen years older, would do it later. Onitsura also wrote a two-volume essay on haiku theory: Hitorigoto (1718), where he said “In the spring of Teikyô's second year (1685) I realized that without authenticity there was no haiku”.

Tan Taigi ( ) (1709-1771) Came to this world in Edo, Tokyo, but also lived in Kyoto and in Nagasaki’s Shimabara neighbourhood. He was a disciple of Takarai Kikaku at the Edo-za school where he studied. Taigi emphasized the person more than nature; his tender tone is a predecessor of Issa's. According to Blyth: “Taigi's greatness is related to his acquired awareness that haiku is not religion, as in Basho; nor is art, as Buson thought, neither is it the source of consolation that Issa considers (…) Haiku is, or should be, neither more nor less than life itself”. Buson's friend, Taigi made a compilation of his poems that he titled Ownerless Cat, in addition to the 1766 anthology, Twenty Kasen from Kyoto. Masoka Shiki vindicated Taigi as a prominent haiku writer.

Firefly in flight.

Look! - I meant;

But, I'm alone -.

Yosa Buson ( ) (1716-1784) was born near Osaka as Taniguchi Buson, at age twenty he moved to Edo to study Japanese poetry, in 1718; at twenty-three he already belonged to the circle of haijin disciples of Bashō, with the poets Kikako and Ransetsu. When he turned forty-two moved to Kyoto and that's when he started using the name Yosa. In 1776, he created a school of poetry, which he calls Sankasha, where Tan Taigi and Kuroyanagi Shôha studied. He was a great Bashō’s admirer and a painter. Uniting both arts, he calligraphed Bashō's travel book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, illustrating it with his own drawings. Buson also travelled to northern Honshu, recreating Bashō's famous journey. His haikus are light and highly lyrical, recreating his paintings as Buson had been primarily involved in painting before haiku. Like the Chinese poet Wang Wei, his painting is a reflection of his poetry just as his poetry is a reflection of his painting. Shiki valued Buson's haiku even higher than Bashō’s did. "As a painter-poet he is a close observer of reality". Shiki called him Shasei, sketch of nature. More than three thousand haikus have been collected from him, as this one dedicated to Bashō's journey:

Narrow trail,

still do not fully bury

fallen leaves.

Ryōkan ( ) (1758-1831) was a Zen Buddhist monk, calligrapher, and poet, his name was Eizō Yamamoto. He lived in the village of Izumozaki, in Niigata, until at the age of eighteen he entered a monastery where he wrote waka regardless of the strict rules of composition. Contemporary of Issa and admirer of the Chinese poet Han Shan, he wrote about himself: “Who says my poems are poems? These poems are not poems. When you understand this, we can start talking about poetry".

The thief left it behind:

the moon

at my window.

Kobayashi Issa (小林 ), (1763-1827), born Kobayashi Nobuyuki, born in Kashiwabara, north of Tokyo on the fifth day of the fifth month of 1763, June 15 in our calendar. Issa is the name he adopted as a writer and which means cup of tea, his poems are full of humour and irony:

The little owl

makes a face…

spring dust.

Issa also travelled through his country and from those travels, he extracts most of his haikus. He also lived in different cities throughout his life: in Kyoto, Osaka, Matsuyama or Nagasaki. Prolific, he wrote more than twenty thousand poems in which he relapsed on some topics, mainly related to animals: fifty-four about snails, almost two hundred about frogs, two hundred and thirty about dragonflies, one hundred and fifty about mosquitoes and ninety about flies. The interest he aroused among his readers is reflected in the existing editions of his poetry, which outnumber those of Bashō. In English there are some, more or less, recent translations: The Autumn Wind, by Lewis Mackenzie (1984); The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa, by Robert Hass (1995); The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku: Kobayashi Issa, by Sam Hamill (1997); 45 Haiku by Issa, by Nanao Sasaki (1999); Issa Kobayashi, A translator’s selection of Master Haiku, by David G. Lanoue (2012), or Killing a Fly (2015). According to one of his translators, David G. Lanoue, Issa “is a poet who speaks to our common humanity in a way that is so honest, so contemporary, his verses of him might have been written this morning”.

Cool air –

the sound of well water

drawn at night.

Inoue Seigetsu (井上 ) (1822-1887) was probably born in Nagaoka, where today he is reminded with an oval headstone facing Mount Komagatake. His real name was Katsuzo Inoue, his pseudonym Seigetsu means the moon reflected in the water of the well. Along thirty years, he was a vagabond poet in the Ina Valley of Nagano province, who would calligraphy haikus to his hosts in exchange for a roof over his head and a few sips of sake.

This is the real pleasure

of this life without tomorrow

The flowers, the sake

Seigetsu did not publish, it was poet Isao Shimiojima who, in 1921, conceived the idea of compiling his work in Seigetsu no ku-shu (Collection of the Seigetsu haikus). In October 1930, a compilation of the complete work by Shimojima appeared with the collaboration of Saijiro Takatsu, a final version would be made in 1974. In 2016, Makoto Kemmoku and Patrick Blanche published in the French Éditions des Lisières, Jours d'errance, 109 Seigetsu haikus, probably one of the few editions of the poet in the West.

Masaoka Shiki ( 子規) (1867-1902). Masaoka Tsunenori, poet, literary critic and journalist, in his short life, 34 years, renewed the spirit of haiku and, in fact, he was who created and popularized the term to define this genre of poetry. Born in Matsuyama in 1883 he moved to Tokyo, where he met novelist and author of haikus, Natsume Sōseki. Shiki is the name he adopted as a writer and it means little cuckoo. Together with Bashō, Buson and Issa, he is considered one of the four great masters of haiku, a genre that he gave a new character when he wrote regardless of the rigid metric norms or the use of kigo and when he considered that it deserved greater recognition in the literature. Shiki's haikus are concise and forceful, it is not unusual that in the last syllables he give an unforeseen turn to the content of the poem. He also introduced neologisms and barbarisms, coming from the realism of Western literature. In 1892, he published, in the newspaper Nippon, a plea on the renewal of haiku: Dassai Shooku Haiwa (Talks on Haiku from the Otter's Den). Shiki continued to collaborate with Nippon throughout his life. There he published Haikai Taiyô, (A Text on Haikai for Beginners), Meiji Nijūkunen no Haikukai (The Haiku world, 1896), Haijin Buson, about the famous poet and Utayomi ni Atauru Sho, (Letters to a Tanka Poet).

Walking out the door

ten steps away

The vast autumn sea


Without reaching us

the winter sun -

Cooked rice

Taneda Santoka (種田 山頭 ) (1882-1940), Taneda Shôichi, born in a village in the south of Honshu Island, studied literature at the University of Tokyo, in 1911 he published in Seinen magazine translations of Ivan Turgenev and Guy de Maupassant. In 1926, he began the first of his many journeys on foot across the country trying to follow, in 1936, Bashō's journey. In haiku, he was a follower of Jiruyitsu, the school of Ogiwara Seisensui (1884-1976) who has vindicated himself, as Shiki or Kawahigashi Hekigoto (1973-1937) pioneer of free verse.

The feeling that something is missing...

The leafs are falling

He also had influences from Seigetsu; Santoka writes in his diary in August 1930 that he read the entire collection of Seigetsu haikus loaned to him and that he found very interesting: "This is the book I should have read up to the present. I like his grave of him and his writings of him are really great". In 1932, he published his first book of poems Hachi no ko (Rice Bowl Child). In English have been edited Santoka: Grass and Tree Cairn, translated by Hiroaki Sato in 2002, The Santoka: versions by Scott Watson, in 2005 and Walking by My Self Again, also translated by Watson in 2011.

Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石) (1867-1916) His real name was Natsume Kin'nosuke. English literature teacher, he spent three years in London, between 1901 and 1903, he was mostly known as a novelist in addition to his haikus. He published a score of novels and stories among which the best known are Wagahai wa neko de aru, I am a cat, Kokoro and Sanshiro. In 1887, Sōseki met Masaoka Shiki who encouraged him to become a writer and introduced him to the composition of haikus. It is from that moment when he takes the name Sōseki, which, in Chinese, means stubborn and begins to collaborate in the literary magazine Hototogisu, edited by Shiki. In 1905, his satirical novel I Am a Cat had a big success. Today, his works have been translated into more than thirty languages ​​and, from 1984 to 2004, his portrait decorated the 1,000 yen notes.

Radiant moon.

I give the brush rest,

but not to sake.

Sōseki also pays tribute to Bashō and Buson in several poems:

The short night

Bashōo approaches us

in farewell sound...


Tangled plums:

the master painted you well

Yosa Buson.

Kyoshi Takahama ( ) (1874-1959) Born in Matsuyama, studied Japanese literature in Tokyo and worked as a literary critic for Nihonjin magazine. His first haikus follow Buson's line of observation of the nature. In 1897, he publishes Haiku nyvumon (Introduction to haiku). The following year, with Shiki and others, he moved the headquarters of the literary magazine Hototogisu from Matsuyama to Tokyo. After Shiki's death, he run the magazine. In 1916, he wrote Susumu beki haiku no michi (The path that haiku should follow). In 1908, he published a novel, Haikaishi (The Master Haiku), continued to publish short stories, some novels and also haikus, including an essay, Susumubeki haiku no michi, about the path that haikus composition should take, vindicating the importance of kigo, the station word. His haikus were published in the Kyoshi-kushū and Gohyaku-ku anthologies. His son Takahama Toshi directed the magazine, Hototogisu, until 1980.

I follow the steps

of a lantern going fast

into the cold night

Ryunosuke Akutagawa ( 龍之介) (1892-1927) was born in the Japanese capital and, basically, wrote short stories: The screen of hell, Murder of the Meiji era, The death of the poet Bashō, among others. He worked in the department of English literature at the University of Tokyo, but is mostly known for his story Rashōmon, which the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa adapted for the big screen under namesake title. Akutagawa met writer Natsume Sōseki. His life was short since he committed suicide at the age of 35, saying goodbye with the phrase Bonyaritoshita fuan, gloomy unease.

Suddenly, the water

we lose out of hand

flowing: floow ... flo ...


In this haiku, in the manner of some calligrams of the time, he uses the iconic expression in Western spelling:


Geisha from the East Quarter

goes in a taxi top gear

between flowers in bloom.


He wrote his haiku jisei shortly before he died:


The water crystallizes

the fireflies light off

nothing exists

However, there are not exclusively haijin men. Women not only appear sometimes in haiku themes but also are actively writers. Perhaps they took the example of all those Chinese poets who showed an exceptional sensitivity, such as the great Song dynasty poet Li Qingzhao. Many women were great poets who appreciated composing traditional verses and even haiku. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, they looked at the compositions of Bashō or his disciples. The work of Den Sute-jo, Sonome, Shushiki, Sono-jo, Shoofuu-ni, Chigetsu, Sute-jo and especially that of Chiyo-ni (千代 ) (1701-1775), who was a Buddhist nun, stands out. She married very young and widowed at an early age. She had two teachers, disciples of Bashō: Shikō and Rogenbō. According to Rodríguez Izquierdo: "Her verses are full of subjectivity and have been very controversial in the sense of whether or not they conform to the haiku pattern". However, she has classic haikus adapted to the required canon. The following is an example of her work:

Morning glory!

The well bucket-entangled,

I ask for water

Nakamura Teijio ( ) (1900-1988) founded the literary magazine Kazahama. The composition of her haikus is traditionalist, scrupulously respecting metrics and kigo. One of her haikus says:

The lotus flower

its leaves and the withered ones

Floating in the water

Hoshino Tatsuko (星野 ) (1903-1984), daughter of the poet and novelist Takahama Kyoshi, was born in Kōjimachi, Tokyo, although she lived most of her life in Kamakura, where she rests in the Jufuku-ji temple. She founded a women's haiku magazine, Tamamo, and also contributed to Hotototgisu. In 1937, she published the first anthology of her haikus, traditional in nature. The following is one of them:

White faces


the Rainbow

Suzuki Masajo ( ) (1906-2003) ran a bar in Tokyo’s Guinza neighbourhood, she made possible to write about love and sex in haikus. Her most traditional verses have a great beauty. This is one of the most famous:

With autumn wind

I've picked up a shell

I don’t know its name

Kamegaya Chie ( ) (1909-1994) spent most of her life in Canada, so she belongs to the diaspora Japanese culture. It is therefore not surprising that her haikus are strongly influenced by Western culture. Chie's work is not very well known in Japan. This is a sample of her works:

I am so old...

I did not flinch when I knew

that I have cancer


From one year to another

no change

alone as always

Nisiguchi Sachiko ( ) (1925) has spent her entire life in a village of forty houses in the heart of Shikoku, cultivating her garden and hers haikus deprived of pretensions. This is one:

Silence on the mountain

Just the noise I make

collecting ferns.

Kakimoto Tae ( ) (1928) daughter of a Buddhist priest, has collaborated in literary magazines and has published compilations of her work: Mukoku, Chojitsu (Butterfly Days, 1989), Kaseki and Hakutai (White Body, 1998). One of her haikus says:

A noise

they dig a pit

behind the camellias.

© J.L.Nicolas


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