Shiwasu, December

Being rushed,
I give a forget-the-year party
In a good mood
I wonder?

Setsuka rete  Toshi wasure suru  Kigen kana

せつかれて 年忘れする 機嫌かな

Shiwasu, December, Priests rushing to make ready the Temple

Forget the Year

I have no year for which to date Matsuo Basho’s New Year’s haiku. The winter of 1682 is a likely year, for his Banana Hut was destroyed in a fire. The following year his mother died. There are perhaps other likely candidates, but I don’t suppose we will know.

This haiku is like a scrap of paper fallen from a pocket as one fiddles about for change to feed the parking meter when rushing about on New Year’s Eve.

Of course it is now January 2021. Being rushed by the holidays, worried about a pandemic, and an election crisis, I almost forgot to celebrate the passing of 2020. Or, Basho would agree, I simply wanted to forget an awful 2020.

Shiwasu, 師

In 17th century Japan, Japanese families prepared for the New Year’s Eve party by rushing to a Shinto shrine to venerate their ancestors. For this reason, December is given the name Shiwasu, 師走, which translates as the “month of running priests” who are busy sweeping up and setting out candles. At the temples and shrines, wishes for the new year must be made, and new omamori (charms) bought and old ones returned to be be burned.

Today, as back then, there is a bit of sadness mixed in with gladness. The Japanese call these New Year’s parties 忘年会, bonenkai, literally forget the year party. For Basho, this becomes 年忘れする, toshi wasure suru, forget the year. Perhaps it was a bad year.

We all have those. And come the New Year don’t we wish to be in a good mood, 機嫌 Kigen. I wonder, かな, kana. And don’t some like to keep grudges. Hmmm?

New Year, Second Day

shôgatsu ga futsuka arite mo shiwade kana

New Year, Second Day,
but already
wrinkled hands

First Month, Second Day
but already
wrinkled hands

I suppose that the first thing a child notices about an aging mother, before the gray hair, are the veins and wrinkles that appear on a mother’s careworn hands.

Kobayashi Issa

Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828) offers up this guest haiku. Basho would not object, ther is much to learn from others.

The pen name, Issa (一茶), means “cup of tea” which summarizes the subject matter of Issa’s poems — things to his liking, simple things to be enjoyed, something to think over. Issa gives no date for his poem, but we can guess that he was already advanced in years, if not in his understanding of life’s short lease.

There are perhaps two comments worth making. First, that 正月, shôgatsu in Issa’s time meant the first day of spring by the lunar calendar. For that reason, I suppose, if asked, Issa would prefer the literal “First Month, Second Day”.

Second, that Issa’s life was marked by tragedy and sorrow — the death of his first wife and three children, a failed second marriage, and his home burning down. Issa’s response to this was —

In a world of grief and pain
Flowers bloom
Even then

Issa would enter into a third marriage, but Issa died before the birth of his daughter.

Three in One

three in one cup,
but I drink to one name,
who am I, this night?

盃に 三つの名を飲む 今宵かな

sakazuki ni mitsu no na o nomu koyoi kana

Oct. 23, 1685, Edo

Everyone likes a good riddle. So who was Matsuo Basho toasting?

On this date in Japanese history, Yamaga Sokō, original name Yamaga Takasuke died. He was a military strategist, Confucian philosopher, and originator of what would become the Bushido Code by which all Samurai would operate.

Three in One conjures up an image of the Holy Trinity, the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three for One, makes one also think Alexandre Dumas‘ 19th century novel Three Musketeers, who proclaimed, “Un pour tous, tous pour un. (One for all, and all for one.)”

Sakazuki Takasuke!

No, Basho likely had in mind Takasuke in offering up Sakazuki, a ceremonial cup of wine. This is speculation, but it fits nicely. Basho being descended from a Samurai family would want to honor another. Takasuke Sakazuki! Takasuke Sakazuki! Takasuke Sakazuki! The honorific was said three times.

Li Bai

Matsuo Basho also had in mind 8th century Chinese poet Li Bai (太白,744–762). He of many titles including the Transcendent Poet, Banished Immortal, and Green Lotus House Warrior. The first for his skill as a poet, the second for his prodigious drinking, and the third as an artist.

Basho’s haiku is a response to Li Bai’s well-known poem Under the Moon, Drinking Alone.

In the midst of flowers, with one jug of wine
Drinking alone, and no one else,
I offer up my cup, to the bright moon
My shadows and I, a party of three.

Li Bai


Why three? Things that come in threes are funnier, interesting, and more memorable. Comedians, magicians, and poets know to set up a sequence with three short lines, then the punch line. Three is mystical. The Holy Trinity, as I’ve said. It also creates a unique pattern and a relationship that the brain can understand. The Three Blind Mice, The Three Little Pigs, The Three Stooges. Three is also an odd number, the first Prime number, if one excludes the number “one.” Two fit together nicely, but three rarely do.

Basho explains

By way of explanation, Basho’s haiku came at gathering for moon-viewing (観月) at his home in the fall of 1685. He he had returned to Edo and his Banana Hut after the first of his wanderings. Present were three friends all named Shichiroubei. No doubt Basho founds some humor in the homonyms, zuki, as in cup, and tsuki, moon; as well as the visual similarity of the flat circular cup and the circular full moon.

Basho ends his haiku alliteratively with koyoi kana, 今宵, literally, this night, but also a question, as in, who am I?


Gentle Reader, nomu, 飲む, let’s drink: Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu

Saki, Sake cup from Wikipedia

Basho’s New Year Haiku

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

Year after year, the monkey wears a monkey’s mask

Year after year, a monkey dons a monkey face

Toshi doshi ya
saru ni kisetaru
saru no men

年々や     猿に着せたる      猿の面

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

1693 – 23 months to go

[Revised January 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.