Year by Year

Matsuo Basho

[This is a draft]

Writing about the life of Matsuo Basho in context with Western Civilization is no easy task. Matsuo Kinefusu (his birth name) was born in 1644. This was close to the beginning of the Edo Period. Power was vested in the Shogun and his base of power was Edo (Tokyo). It was then Japanese policy to bar Japanese from foreign travel and foreigners from entering Japan. Western ideas and values did enter Japan, though mostly through the Dutch traders who were given limited access at the port of Nagasaki. One exception was the English pilot, William Adams, who was shipwrecked on the Japanese coast. He became an advisor to the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, and eventually a samurai himself. Japan was otherwise on its own. Indeed, Christianity which had made some in roads when the Portuguese traders had access, was not officially outlawed and Christians were summarily executed.

In Europe, the Reformation had come and gone. And after the disastrous wars between Catholics and Protestants that followed, an uneasy truce followed with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Oliver Cromwell, who might have been likened to the Japanese Shogun, but for the fact he deposed and executed the king, was now himself dead. England had a new monarch, King Charles II. It was to become the Age of the Enlightenment. John Locke, John Milton, and Baruch Spinosa would have been contemporaries of Matsuo Basho.

Japan was not open to such free thinking, but it did experience its own forms of expression. Traditional theater was represented by Noh plays. Kabuki theater developed. Puppet theater was popular and monkey minders displayed the skills of macaque monkeys to amused bystanders.

Because of the Japanese social structure much of the literature was written by the Samurai class. And the poetry they wrote was generally referred to as waka. It has many variations which I won’t attempt to go into. Rather I will simply say that when Basho came along, his poetry focused on the simple haiku, a verse of 5-7-5 syllables. Moreover, haiku was often expressed during a renga, a kind of round, where poets add on haiku after haiku, generally on a theme. Basho often participated in these with friends and disciples. And though Basho was not the first or the only Japanese writer to create a travelogue, he perhaps became the most famous with the posthumous publication of Oki no Hosomichi.


1644 – Matsuo Kinefusu was born on a family farm in Ueno, Mie Prefecture.

1656 – Matsuo Yozaemon, Basho’s father, dies. Basho becomes a servant to Todo Yoshitada, a young Samurai at the nearby Iga Castle.

1662  – First known poem.

1665 – Basho (age 21) and Todo Yoshitada, together with others, compose a hyakuin, a one-hundred-verse renku.

1666 – Death of Todo Yoshitada. Basho goes to Kyoto, studies poetry.

1667, 1669, and 1671 – Bashō’s poems are published in various anthologies, some of which Bashō publishes himself.

1672 – Moves to Edo.

1680 – Crosses the Sumida River to Fukagawa, Banana Hut, eventually becoming Matsuo Basho.

1683 – Mother dies, hut burns down.

1684 – Travel to Nagoya, Osaka and Kyoto where he had been a student. Haiku and commentary published as Journal of Bleached Bones in the Field.

1687 – Basho travels west along the Tokaido Road before returning to Edo along the Nakasendo Way, including the Kiso valley. The trip was published as a travelogue in two works combining poetry with commentary: The Record of a Travel-Worn Satchel and A Visit to Sarashina Village.

1688 – Trip through Gifu, the Kiso valley and Sarashina.

1689 – Trip to the Northern Interior, Oku no Hosomichi.

1689-1691 – Kyoto.

1691,1692 – Returns to Edo.

1693 – Death of his nephew Toin, a trip along the Nakasendo Road, presumably to his home to share the news.

1694 – Death near Osaka.


Record of a Travel-Worn Satchel – journey west to Kyoto and Nara, 1684.

A Visit to Sarashina Village

Oku no Hosomichi – trip to the northern interior with Sora, begun in late Spring 1689, ending that fall in and about Kyoto. Published posthumously in 1704.

To be continued…

External sources