Basho’s New Year Haiku

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

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

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

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 (bashoan), 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.
Spring, 1691.

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.


Why I am called Bashō

Autumn 1692

A banana leaf
Hanging on the pillar
And the moon over my hut

芭蕉葉   を柱に懸けん  庵の月     bashō ba o / hashira ni kaken / io no tsuki


Why I am called Matsuo Bashō

“[T]he bashō’s useless nature is itself reason to admire it. The monk Huaisu lovingly followed the bark with his brush to learn its ways. The astronomer, mathematician and poet Zhang Heng watched the leaves unfold to inspire his studies. I am like neither. I rest in the shade of the bashō leaves, because they are so easily torn.”

Bashō, 芭蕉, in English, is the banana tree, not the yellow fruited kind we are familiar with, but of similar stature, tall and leafy. “Useless,”  Bashō called the tree, its flower plain, its stalk thick, but one no axe-man cares to fell.

A banana tree grows in Fukagawa

By 1680, Matsuo Bashō, having achieved some fame,  moved from Edo’s bustling city center across the Sumida River to the quiet and rural Fukagawa district. A disciple brought Bashō a banana plant as a gift and it thrived, growing tall and strong, sprouting other saplings. Bashō admired its resilience in the wind and the rain.

In time disciples took saplings to plant as a sign of respect.

In the spring of 1689, Matsuo Bashō tired of Edo and decided to take a journey north which would eventually become a book which would further enhance his fame. He sold his hut wrote a well-known haiku on his departure and left.

Bashō returned to Edo in the autumn of 1689. His disciples then built him a simple hut of three rooms near where the old one had been. It had a simple bamboo gate, a reed fence and a view of Mt. Fuji.  Pillars of Japanese conifer stood guard at the entrance. A single banana leaf was attached to one of the pillars.

New banana saplings were planted in the garden.

His disciples had take a bashō leaf and written eight haiku on its backside. This was then placed on the pillar at the entrance to the hut. Overjoyed by the gift and the thought, Bashō imagined watching the autumn moon through the swaying leaves of the newly planted bashō trees.

“What year did I come to nest in this area? … My new thatched roof hut, near my first one, fits me well with its three small rooms… I’ve transplanted five banana (bashō) samplings so that the moon when seen through the leaves will be beautiful and moving. The bashō’s leaves are over seven feet in length. When the wind rips the leaf to the leaf-spine, it is as painful as seeing a phoenix with a broken tail, as pitiful as a torn green fan…

Like the ancient mountain trees, the bashō’s useless nature is itself reason to admire it. The monk Huaisu lovingly brushed the bark to learn its ways. The astronomer, mathematician and poet Zhang Heng watched the leaves unfold to inspire his studies. I am like neither. I rest in the shade of the leaves, because they are so easily torn.”


Bashō’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō, selected haibun, page 135



Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857

On everyone
It sleets, you know, even the inn
Becomes cold

On everyone
It sleets, you know, even the inn
Is freezing

Hitobito wo
Shigureyo yado wa
Samuku tomo

人々を しぐれよ宿は 寒くとも

Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857
Hiroshige (1797–1858), Meguro Drum Bridge, 1857

Winter of 1689

If this was (as I suppose it was) written in the winter of 1689 at a poetry gathering with Bashō’s disciples and friends in Ueno, Bashō’s hometown, then I suppose the general feeling was both warm and chilly as the winter sleet made even the inn where they had gathered cold. The timing of the gathering was the culmination of Basho’s celebrated Journey to the North. It was not a journey that Matsuo Bashō believed that he would survive, and no doubt the friends at the gathering were eager to hear the details.

So  much so that the sleet and the cold sharpened the tales that Bashō told.

Thoughts on English translation

Shigure 時雨 (しぐれ) may mean a driving rain, sleet. There is a thorough discussion on the World Kigo Database. The addition of the suffix yo is a nuanced “I say” or “you know”. The sleet, as you know, is so cold even the inns and houses feel it too.

Samuku tomo 寒くとも becomes cold, is freezing.

One is tempted to interpolate at this point. Shigure might also mean to figuratively shed tears at the coming together of the friends at the inn after Basho’s long journey to the north. One is also tempted to think of the symbolism of the quick winter rains as a metaphor for Thomas Hobbes’ (1588 – 1679) expression that life is “nasty, brutish, and short”.

Shiwasu – 師走の

雪と雪 今宵師走の 名月か

Snow and more snow,
On this December night
Is there somewhere a bright moon?

This winter’s night
So much for the full moon

Yuki to yuki/  Koyoi shiwasu no/  Meigetsu ya

Matsuo Basho, Wandering south towards Kyoto, Winter 1684
Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857
Hiroshige (1797–1858), Meguro Drum Bridge

Winter’s Night, 1684

In the Japanese calendar, the Japanese refer to the 12th lunar month as shiwasu. At a renga party where poets compete to form haiku with complementing verses, not everyone has arrived. Meanwhile, the conversation centers on the snowy weather and who is late.

Should they start reciting haiku? After all, there is a lot to do before the Lunar New Year arrives.

Matsuo Bashō begins:

I run, you run, the days are brief, so we all run, shiwasu, even the priests run to complete their tasks.

Snow and more snow,
On this December night
Is there a beautiful bright moon?

Notes on English translation

Yuki to yuki (雪と雪) snow and more snow, snow upon snow, something approaching a blizzard.

Koyoi (今宵) tonight, this evening

Shiwasu (師走の), the 12th lunar month, December. Literally, it means “priests run”, implying that even Buddhist monks and Shinto priests also have to run around, as they are very busy for the yearend.  Shiwa (師走) may also refer to a teacher or master, meaning that Bashō is also running at this time of year.

Meigetsu (名月) often refers here to a bright moon or to a full moon, which according to the old Japanese lunar calendar, appeared on the fifteenth night of each month. This is similar to the Roman “ides”, marking the first appearance of the full moon.


As always, there are many good translations of Basho’s haiku, a good translation is: Basho’s Haiku, Selected Poems by Matsuo Basho, no. 147.

evening snow at kanbara
Evening Snow at Kanbara