Mourning Hokujurosen

by Yosa Buson (1716-1783), translation and commentary by Kenny Blacklock

you left in the morning, in the evening my heart in a thousand pieces
how far away!
thinking of you, I wander the hillside
the hillside—how sad it is!
dandelions blooming yellow, shepherd’s purse white
no one to see this!
is that a pheasant crying over and over:
“I had a friend who lived across the river
mysterious smoke suddenly scatters, the wind blowing from the west
furiously, in a field of bamboo grass and reeds
no place to hide!
I had a friend who lived across the river, but today
no melodies are sung”
you left in the morning, in the evening my heart in a thousand pieces
how far away!
in my hut, I light no candles for the Amida image
I offer no flowers, lingering this evening with a heavy heart
you are venerable


“Mourning Hokujurosen” is a free style poem (haishi) found among painter and haikai poet Yosa Buson’s papers and published posthumously. “Hokujurosen” refers to Hayami Shinga (1671-1745), a haikai poet Buson frequently visited while living in Edo.

The poet expresses the unbridgeable gap between life and death in the phrase, “how far away!” which could alternatively be translated as a question, “why so far?” Similarly, “how sad it is!” in the fourth line could be translated as, “why so sad?” The poet, disheartened by the loss of his friend and mentor, cries out “why!” as he wanders the hillside and observes flowers in bloom. Buson colors the scene for us in yellow and white. Life continues to renew itself. This could be the subject of a haiku, but there is “no one to see this!” The wind blowing “furiously” over “a field of bamboo grass and reeds” contrasts nicely with the beauty of the dandelions and shepherd’s purse in bloom. Thus Buson paints life. Beautiful yet harsh. Another great haikai poet, Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), wrote in his diary as he lay dying from tuberculosis, “I feel the pain and see the beauty.”

In response to his query the poet hears a pheasant crying pitifully and imagines that the pheasant is relating its own story. The pheasant also had a friend “who lived across the river.” Even in life there is separation. “Mysterious smoke suddenly scatters.” This line is the subject of much debate among Japanese scholars. What is this smoke and where did it come from? The meaning of the word I translated as “mysterious,” hege, is unclear. It could also be translated as “transfiguring” or “metamorphosing.” This smoke represents death. It suddenly rises then disperses in the wind. One minute you are here and the next minute you are gone. The field remains. The blossoms remain. One explanation of this smoke is that it comes from a gunshot fired by a hunter. The pheasant has “no place to hide!” from the hunter just as there is “no place to hide!” from death.

Why doesn’t the poet light the candle before the Amida image in his hut? According to the biographies, Buson was a devout follower of the Jodo sect of Buddhism in his early years. This sect teaches that if followers faithfully call on the name of Amida Buddha they will be reborn in Amida’s paradise in the west and subsequently reach nirvana. Perhaps not making an offering to the Amida image represents a suspension of the poet’s ordinary routine. Particularly striking is the image of the flowers left in the fields and not brought into the hut. It is as if the poet is trying to suspend time while the memory of his mentor is still fresh, before it disperses with the smoke into the wind. He also seems to have, at least for the moment, shifted his veneration from Amida Buddha to Hayami Shinga. Venerating a haikai poet may not lead to rebirth in paradise, but it may lead to a deeper understanding of life.


Hass, Robert. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa. Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1994.
Muramatsu, Tomotsugu. Buson no Tegami. Tokyo: Taishukan Shoten, 1990.
Nakamura, Kusatao. Buson-shu. Tokyo: Taishukan Shoten, 1980.
Sato, Hiroaki and Watson, Burton. From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Kenny Blacklock is a musician and Japanese translator.

bandcamp button-bc-circle-white-32

© 2022 Kenny Blacklock