William Shakespeare, Basho’s near contemporary, thought of theater as life, and life as theater: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” (As You Like It, 1603). Matsuo Basho too, was fond of theater, in particular Noh theater in which the main players wore masks to represent emotions. For Basho, the year 1694, the play comes to an end.
年々や 猿に着せたる 猿の面
Toshi doshi ya/ saru ni kisetaru/ saru no men
Year after year, it’s a monkey in a monkey’s mask
— Matsuo Basho, December 1693
1693 – 23 months to go
[Revised January 2020, revised December 2020]
1693 has ended, 1694 has arrived. In Buddhism, there is no self in any being, nor any essence in any thing. Still a monkey still wears a monkey face.
Toshi doshi, year after year. If we count by the Gregorian calendar, Matsuo Basho had 23 months to live when he wrote this haiku. If we count by the lunar calendar which Basho followed, then it was less. Remember, in 17th century Japan, New Year was based on a lunar calendar. It was the first day of spring, and the rebirth of life after winter’s slumber.
The end of 1693, we find Matsuo Basho, age 49, back in his familiar Banana Hut (basho–an), in the Fukagawa District across the Sumida River from Edo. In August he takes no visitors. The year 1694 arrives and he finds “no peace of mind”.
Of this haiku Basho remarked:
“I jotted down this haiku because I was sad to see people stuck, struggling in the same way, year in and year out.”
Notes on Translation
Toshi doshi, 年々や, year after year. Basho would repeat this sentiment in another haiku.
Toshi doshi ya / sakura o koyasu / hana no chiri.
Year after year, falling blossoms nourish the cherry tree.
Saru no men, 猿の面, could easily be translated as monkey face or mask. The phrase is phonetically similar to the idiomatic saru mane, 猿真似, “monkey imitation,” “monkey see monkey do”.
Noh Theater and Sarugaku
In Noh Theater masks expressed human emotions and a monkey mask represented someone acting foolishly. Sarugaku, 猿楽, “monkey music” was also a popular form of entertainment consisting of acrobatics, juggling, and pantomime, sometimes combined with drum dancing, later including word play reminiscent of Basho’s own haiku.