古池の蛙老行く落葉哉

At the old pond
the frog ages.
Leaves fall.

与謝蕪村

Yosa Buson (1716-1784), was a well-known Japanese poet and painter in the mid Edo Period. Although Buson was better known for his skillfully executed paintings during his lifetime, today he is remembered as the one of the greatest Japanese haiku poets ever, second only his idol Matsuo Basho.

Buson was born in the village of Kema in Settsu province (now Kema Ward in the city of Osaka). His originial last name was Taniguchi. At the age of 20, Buson moved to Edo, where he took up the study of poetry under famed haikai master Hayano Hajin, whose teachings emphasized the supremacy of the naturalistic style of Basho. After Hayano's death in 1742, Buson followed in the footsteps of Basho by touring several northern provinces which Basho had toured.

Finally after several years of itinerancy, Buson settled down for good in Kyoto at the age of 42, and began to build his reputation as an outstanding painter in the Chinese-influenced "literary style" known as bunjin gaka. Buson was primarily a painter from 1756 to 1765, but in the late 1760s he gradually began to return to writing poetry, and became one of the central figures in a movement to rid haiku of superficial witicism and return to the purity of Basho's style. It was around this time that he took the surname Yosa, perhaps after his mother's home village.

In 1771, Buson completed his most famous paintings in collaboration with Ike no Taiga - a series of landscape based on Chinese poem juben jugi ("Ten Conveniences and Ten Pleasures"). These paintings confirmed his status as one of the finest painters of his day, and have since been named a Japanese National Treasure.

Buson married late in life and had one daughter, Kuno. Much of his final years were spent fretting over his daughter's unhappy marriage. Buson died in 1784 at the age of 68, and was buried at the Konpukuji temple in Kyoto, where his grave can still be seen today.

Buson's painter's eye brought a pictoral, highly visual sensibility to his poems. Whereas Basho had taught "master technique, then forget it," and had written poems which sounded so natural that they seemed almost effortless, Buson's effort to fit his vision to the poetic form is slightly more visible in his poems. Nevertheless, he was a poet of rare vision and refined sensibility who could produce truly evocative, and even startling imagery. However, since Buson made his career and fame as a painter and only seriously took up poetry near the end of his life, he was best remembered as a painter until the late 19th century, when essays by critics such as Shiki Masaoka pointed out the rare genius of his poems.


Buson's tribute to Basho's "old pond" translated by yours truly.

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