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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Millennium

Still Life in 17 Syllables
Basho's poems have struck a universal chord

By Sangwon Suh


EVEN THREE CENTURIES AFTER his death, his presence in Japan today is almost palpable. Children start learning about his poetry in elementary school. Ask any Japanese adult, and he or she will be able to recite at least one or two of his better-known poems. Memorial events are held each year on the anniversary of his death. About a dozen museums are dedicated to his life and works, while some 2,400 stone monuments honoring him are scattered across the country. He is to the Japanese what Shakespeare is to the British -- a national icon whose name is synonymous with literary greatness.

Basho is the most celebrated exponent of the haiku, the famous 17-syllable poetic form. The haiku is derived from haikai no renga (or simply, haikai), a type of linked poetry in which two or more people take turns in composing a sequential chain of verses. Literally meaning "playful style," the lighthearted -- even vulgar -- haikai was popular among all classes in the 16th and 17th centuries. Basho was responsible for elevating this poetic form, until then little more than light entertainment, to the level of serious art. At the same time, he turned the haikai's opening verse, consisting of three phrases in the 5-7-5 syllabic structure, into an independent genre (the term "haiku," though, did not come into being until the 19th century).

Matsuo Basho, to give his full name, was born in Ueno, near the imperial capital of Kyoto, in 1644. The third child of a low-ranking samurai, he was initially called Kinsaku but went through a number of different names and pseudonyms during his lifetime. As a teenager, he entered the service of a poetry-loving aristocrat. When his master died in 1666, Basho spent the next few years as an itinerant poet. The exact nature of his activities during this period remains hazy, though one of the more colorful theories speculates that he was a professional ninja assassin.

Basho settled in Edo (Tokyo today) in 1672, where he published his first poetry book. He eventually became established as a haikai master, bringing Zen-influenced profundity to a genre previously marked by pun, parody and frivolity. His haiku are deeply evocative works that, usually through simple descriptions of nature, crystallize a gamut of human observations, experiences and emotions into 17 syllables. A well-known poem goes thus:

An old pond

A frog jumps in

The sound of water

In 1681, a disciple presented him with a basho tree (a type of large bush related to the banana). The plant flourished in his garden, nearly covering his house. Neighbors dubbed the place Basho-an ("Basho Hut"); its occupant became known as "Master Basho." The poet took a liking to the title and adopted it as his pen name.

In the last decade of his life, Basho undertook several trips around the country, and his travel journals, featuring both poetry and prose, have become classics of Japanese literature. The most famous of such works is Oku no hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North), which is an account of his 1689 visit to the northern regions and includes some of his finest poems.

Because of its compact, allusive nature, it is difficult to effectively translate the haiku into other languages. But that has not prevented it from gaining popularity in the West. Among those influenced by Basho's spare, elegant verses are legendary Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein (who described haiku as "montage phrases") and members of America's 1950s Beat movement. The Japanese master poet may never have trod beyond the shores of his homeland, but his graceful representations of life have proven to be truly universal.

In the News

• IT'S TOO LATE to fix the Millennium Bug. So says Robin Guenier, a former British government adviser once charged with looking into the Year 2000 computer glitch. "It is now fanciful to pretend that the problem will be solved," he says. Still, he urges action be taken to "minimize the disruptions."

• TAIWAN FOLLOWS a calendar whose base year is 1911 (when the Republic of China was founded). So the thinking on the island goes: Come 2000, it will still be Year 89 here, so the Millennium Bug won't bite, right? Wrong. Experts say Taiwan's computers are wired the same way as those anywhere else.

• GOLD-MINING COMPANIES are backing a proposal to mint a "millennium gold coin." They are hoping the venture, which could absorb more than 1,000 tons of the metal, would stimulate the depressed gold market.

• WANT TO TIE the knot at the break of the new millennium? If you're in New Zealand, you're out of luck -- it is illegal to conduct weddings between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The good news is that a legislator is moving to repeal the law. But good luck getting a clergyman to perform the service at that hour.

• A NEW TITANIC for the new millennium! Plans are afoot to build a full-size, ocean-going replica of the Titanic. Backers of the $500-million project hope to launch the luxury liner in 2002, the 90th anniversary of the original ship's ill-fated maiden voyage.


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