The definitions of Japanese terms are primarily culled from four sources: the Kenkyu-sha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary (1942 edition); Andrew Nelson’s Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary; Haruo Shirane’s Classical Japanese: A Grammar; and Jim Breene’s website, “Japanese Dictionary Server” (WWWJDIC). While Tsutomu Ogata and Morita Ran’s Buson zenshū (volume 1) served as the primary source for Buson’s writings, I also consulted Blyth’s four volume series Haiku and his two volume History of Haiku; Sawa and Shiffert’s Haiku Master Buson; and Ueda’s The Path of Flowering Thorn: The Life and Work of Yosa Buson. In Buson’s lifetime, his poems often appeared in print or in letters several times in different versions; I occasionally included variations when they substantially changed the content of the poem. Readers interested in the different versions and their history should consult Buson zenshū.





Until 1873, the Japanese followed the Chinese lunar calender. This meant that the year started sometime in our January or February. I included the Japanese version of the dates as well as the western version because it is helpful to maintain the relationship Buson himself assumed between his writing and the time of year. Spring began with the new year, and took up the first three months. Summer was the fourth through sixth months, autumn the seventh through ninth, and winter the tenth through twelfth. Given the temperate climate in eastern-central Japan, this meant, for example, that the leaves changed color in mid-fall, and snow was considered typical of late winter. Buson almost always wrote haiku about the season he was actually in, with the exception of some spring haiku written in the 12th month, in preparation for the all-important New Year’s album. 

Years: a year like An-ei 3 means the third year of the An-ei era. Eras usually but not always correspond to the years one emperor is on the throse. The emperor also had the power to name a new era at any time, for any number of reasons—at the start of a new sixty year zodiac cycle, for example. The era could change in the middle of a year, which causes occasional incongruities. I have provided a list of corresponding years below. All of Buson’s haiku were written in the following eras, most of those (that we still have, at least) in the last three.


            Enkyō, ‘Becoming Prolonged’: 1744-1748

            Kan’en, ‘Prolonged Lenience’: 1748-1751

            Hōreki, ‘Valuable Calender’: 1751-1764

            Meiwa, ‘Bright Harmony’: 1764-1772

    An-ei, ‘Peaceful Eternity’: 1772-1781

            Temmei, ‘Dawn’: 1781-1789 (Buson died in 1783)


In the traditional Chinese calender, the years follow a sexagenary cycle through combinations of the ten stems and twelve branches. The branches are the twelve animals of the zodiac: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and boar. The stems are the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each has a yin and yang manifestation. So An-ei 1 (1772) was mizunoe tatsu, a yang water dragon year. Mizunoe is variously translated as ‘yang water’, ‘male water’, or ‘older brother of water’.


Days also followed the twelve animal cycle, as did the hours of the day, each approximately two hours long but adjusted as the days and nights grew longer or shorter. The hour of the rat was always midnight, the hour of the rabbit sunrise, the hour of the horse noon, and the hour of the cock sunset.

    animal name                   number of hour               approximate Western equivalent

    rat                                   9                                      11 p.m. to 1 a.m. (midnight)
    ox                                   8                                      1 a.m. to 3 a.m.                                 NIGHT
    tiger                                7                                      3 a.m. to 5 a.m.
    rabbit                             6                                       5 a.m. to 7 a.m. (sunrise)
    dragon                            5                                      7 a.m. to 9 a.m.
    serpent                           4                                      9 a.m. to 11 a.m.           
    - - - - - - - - - - -                                                                                                                 DAY
    horse                              9                                      11 a.m. to 1 p.m. (midday)
    ram                                 8                                      1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
    monkey                          7                                      3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
    cock                               6                                      5 p.m. to 7 p.m. (sunset)
    dog                                 5                                      7 p.m. to 9 p.m.                                NIGHT
    boar                                4                                      9 p.m. to 11 a.m.






cutting word (kireji): a word that marks the division between the terms that are being juxtaposed in the haiku. This rule is quite loose. A haiku usually sets two elements alongside each other, suggesting many possible connections—analogy, association, metaphor, personification, etc. But there may be three terms or only one. Common cutting words include ya, kana, keri...but there may be no word in the poem that directly functions in this way.

haibun: haiku set in prose. A haibun can be quite short, a single poem and a prose setting that is not much more than an elaborate head note, or it can be a long narrative. The defining works of the genre are Basho’s travel haibun, especially The Narrow Road to the Interior. I have included translations of brief headings to the haiku, but I did not usually attempt to translate the longer passages that would qualify as haibun.

haiga: haiku painting, a combination of poetry and ink painting, usually marked by a casual, minimal style with little use of color. The calligraphy of the poem and the strokes of the picture often interact with each other in playful, harmonious ways.


haikai: the poetic tradition that includes haiku, renku, haibun and haiga: playful poetry that uses a wider stylistic and emotional range than the waka tradition, which is usually stately and melancholy.


kanshi: what the Japanese would call Chinese poetry, either written by Chinese or Japanese poets. Many Japanese poets composed poetry in Chinese, although the practice has died out since World War II.


kasen: a renku of thirty-six verses, a popular length in the Edo period. When Buson participated in writing linked verse, this was the typical form they used.


kyōgen: a comic genre of theater that developed alongside, and in relation to noh. A short kyōgen performance can be performed between two noh plays, for example, the parody and slapstick of kyōgen providing a relief from the solemn atmosphere of noh.


pillow word (makura kotoba): a set phrase or epithet, a kind of poetic name for a place. Already by Buson’s time tourism was a competed-for source of income, and regions strove to inspire these names for their memorable landmarks to encourage visitors. There are examples in the long notes to New Year 4e, 4eSpring 1b, and 11d.


pivot word (kakekotoba): one of the ways haiku achieves its great compression is through this practice, which uses puns to allow multiple meanings of phrases, or combines two separate phrases into one. Examples can be found in the long notes for New Year 2f, 2g, 4e, Summer 3b and 12b.


renga: linked verse, written by at least two but usually more persons. The first person composes the first verse or hokku of three lines in syllables of five, seven and five. The second person caps it with a second verse in two lines of seven syllables each. The two verses link together as a poem. Then the third verse is again three lines, and links with the preceding two lines, but has little connection to the first verse. And so it continues, each new verse changing and recontextualizing the verse before it. Typically people would meet at a gathering to write a set number of these–fifty or a hundred verses, for example. Someone, the most experienced poet, or the guest of honor, was chosen to arbitrate the composition. He wrote the first verse and kept track of the rules for composition, of which there were many, requiring the full moon to appear by such and such a verse, for example. He often had great influence over the final result. Eventually renku, a lighter parodic version of renga, developed into its own genre.


renku: distinguished from renga by its lightness, wittiness, and greater use of puns and word play, the haikai version of renga. Originally it also was much more prone to vulgarity. But while the great stylistic range of haikai always made vulgarity a possibility, under Bashō’s influence its light playfulness was married to a more profound sense of zen austerity and simplicity. Bashō led groups to produce some of the masterpieces of renga.


Renku and renga are relevant to the history of haiku because poetry masters began collecting first verses rather than extemporizing them, since the poem depended so much on a strong first verse that set the tone for the rest. These initial verses became a form in their own right, called hokku, which is what Buson himself would have called his haiku verses, haiku being a later term proposed by the 20th century poet Shiki. Some of the haiku in this collection were also used to begin renku: see New Years 2h or 4c.


season word (kigo): the word or phrase that indicates the season, and a requirement for haiku. Some of them are obvious–cherry blossoms for spring, colored leaves for autumn–but many of them depend on a detailed knowledge of Japanese flora, fauna, customs and literary history, and seem obscure to us. Kigo were codified and books of lists published with hundreds of these terms or categories of terms for poets to consult. In haiku gatherings, the group would often choose a season word, or assign a different season word to each poet, and it was a show of one’s skill to find a treatment that both acknowledged the past uses of the term and added something new to it.


senryū: a poetic form with the same syllable count as haiku, but not requiring the season word. Senryū lends itself more easily to straightforward humor or satire. Named after the 18th century poet Karai Hachiemon.


waka or tanka: A traditional Japanese form, a five line stanza in lengths of 5, 7, 5, 7 and 7 syllables. Capping verses was a courtly and elegant pastime by the period of the Tale of Genji: someone would compose the first three lines and hand them off to another person to finish. This established break in the authorship, and use of waka as a kind of game or challenge, led to the form of renga.



COMMON GRAMMATICAL MARKERS: This list of common particles, conjunctions and verb endings is to aid students of Japanese and readers who are interested in following the word-for-word translations more closely. Some of the terms, like the auxiliary verbs keri and tari, have fallen out of use since the Edo Period, and some basic grammatical patterns have shifted. For more detailed explanations, the reader is referred to Haruo Shirane’s Classical Japanese.

Japanese has relatively few sounds and therefore many homonyms, allowing for dense layers of puns (in lighter haiku, this may be the major activity of the poem). Syntax and context, along with the use of Chinese characters, are usually sufficient to clarify meanings.

ari: be


-de: following mizenkei form of verb, negative of connective suffix -te (and distinct from the particle of location de, ‘at’)


ga: particle following and pointing to subject (unlike English, a Japanese clause can have several non-compound subjects)


-gachi: suffix meaning ‘apt to, prone to, liable to, subject to, easily.’ Koie-gachi, ‘tending toward small houses,’ meaning a modest or poor neighborhood.

go-: see o-

ka: interrogative particle, translated as question mark


kana: along with ya, one of the most common cutting words, or kireji, which serve to indicate the terms that are being juxtaposed in the haiku. Usually occurs at end of poem (after the second term), and indicates exclamation. Often translated as an exclamation point, but its emotion is not quite so emphatic.

-kemu, -ken: conjecture about past event, its cause


-keri: auxiliary verb, signifies past tense from standpoint of present moment, hearsay past, ‘so it is said’; exclamatory recognition or discovery, especially in nari-keri, ‘for the first time I’ve noticed’; typical in waka; also shows direct past, or past connected to present (which may translate as perfective), and serves as a cutting word/ mild exclamation in haiku.

 -ki: recollective auxiliary verb

-ku: adverb ending


mi: a very general term meaning ‘the body, the skin, the person, one’s self, oneself, one’s station in life/position/circumstances, soul, mind, heart, power, ability,’ etc., often signifying first person

mi-: see o-


mo: a particle that, besides its present day meanings of ‘as well as, as much as, no less than, even, also, too, already, still,’ etc., signified emphasis in classical Japanese.

-mu, -n: auxiliary verb of speculation or intention, often translated as future tense

-naku ni: ‘though/because X is not,’ or at the end of a sentence, ‘my, how X is not’(Shirane 2005, 68)

nan: question word, ‘what’ or ‘how’


nari: declarative verb ‘be.’ From ni ari. Also can be a suffix for adjectival verbs.

nari-keri: indicates past, or exclamation over new awareness of past fact

na...so: negative imperative na with final particle so: ‘Don’t do X.’

-ne: in old Japanese, a final particle signifying a request or wish.


ni: a particle with many meanings (‘in, at, on, from’), also creates nominal form when following renyōkei form of verb, also creates adverbs from adjectives (e.g., shizuka ni, ‘quietly’)

nite: often appears at the end of poem headings; ‘at, with, in’

-nu: verb suffix forming perfective tense; see also -zu


no: a particle that functions like a possessive, or ‘x of y’ with the terms reversed: ‘y no x’. It can also indicate the preceding word is the subject, but I have not distinguished between the two functions in these translations.

o: particle following a noun that receives action, a direct object

o-, on-, mi-, go-: honorific prefix, indicating elevated status of following nominal


san: often appears at end of poem heading, ‘on the subject of, in praise of’ (Rogers 1979, 290n), as distinct from the respectful title san following people’s names

-shi: adjective ending


-tari: auxiliary verb. Indicates result of previous action, continuation of previous action, perfective, completion of action, ‘has ended up,’ parallel action. Can also follow adjective to make adjectival verb.


tari-keri: auxiliary verb, recognition of past event, ‘now that I look closely, I see...’ ‘now I realize’ (Shirane 2005, 395)

-te: a conjunctive particle following a verb: ‘and then, at the same time, therefore, being..., but’


to: reportative particle, follows something heard, said, seen, etc., with no direct (or, usually, necesssary) equivalent in English. Another particle to means ‘and,’ but it appears only rarely in Buson’s haiku

-tsu: definite past, follows renyōkei, shushikei forms of transitive verbs

-tsutsu: suffix meaning ‘while..., as...’


wa: like ga, a particle following the subject, but without ga’s emphasis; ‘X wa’ can be translated ‘as for X’.


ya: 1.) Mild exclamation. As one of the most common kireji words, it comes in middle of poem, usually translated here with a colon, but could also be a semi-colon, dash. It can also come at the end of the sentence. 2.) Variously positioned in the sentence, it can signify doubt, or a rhetorical question.

yo: cutting word, signifying emphasis and exclamation


-zu: negative verb suffix. Has rentaikei form of -nu, which must carefully be distinguished from perfective verb suffix.

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