Anthropology being the study of human characteristics, customs, and social relationships, all Basho works on humanity are anthropology, however here are works highlighting ten themes familiar to anthropologists, so Basho may bring insights to this field.
Basho expresses his “compassionate intuition” for humanity in both normal and difficult circumstances.
In traditional Japan the ie, or household, was “the basic unit of social organization” and a constant concern within the mind of every person. Each family sought to continue by having a head-of-the-family in each generation who passes the household onto the next generation, preferably the oldest son and his wife.To prevent an ie from dying out, a family without a capable son would adopt a “son,” often by marrying him to a daughter – or they would adopt both of them.
Our oldest daughter, our “first princess,” is marrying, or dreaming of marrying, the future head of the most prosperous family in this village. The word “nurtured” expresses Basho’s good wishes for her future in her new family, wishes that everyone in the household will support her in her roles as wife and mother. So often Basho focuses on the female, the positive, the hopeful.
Three years have passed
A rather laid back scene; the shop of a herbalist with shelves holding thousands of remedies and supplements - yet no customers. The place is so laid back that no one does much of anything. The oldest son, heir to the household and herb business, has not in three years managed to make his young wife pregnant. This is serious business. Women could be divorced for failing to produce a child in three years of marriage. (Ignoring the possibility that the problem might be in his contribution.) Hey you two, take some remedies from those shelves, and get going! Come on! We need that heir!
Things from lacquered box
This is a household in which the husband has been adopted into the bride’s family and lives with them, so this young man, looking forward to power in the future, must adapt to his wife's father holding onto power from the past. For some time now, they have not been very cordial to each other. This morning they greet each other with words that begin to repair their relationship.
With her sister and husband taking over the household, a second daughter has gone to the provincial castle to serve in a daimyo’s household. On her day off she returns to her native home where her happiness at seeing her father and brother-in-law starting to get along brings tears to her eyes. We know this castle servant is sensitive to her feelings and concerned about relationships within her family. From the fancy lacquered box, she takes out things that remind her of her mother, her sister and husband, and their kids, looks at them, and returns them to the box. (Nowadays these would be photographs.) Basho’s stanza does no morethan simply experess physical activity yet draws emotional energy from the two previous stanzas. This too is Anthropology.
The bright orange globes on the trees of his hometown Iga are a striking image of autumn, and of prosperity, and Basho’s mind goes back to all the autumns he has spent in this place of his birth and maturation, in each autumn seeing persimmons on the same trees – and then his mind goes back even further to the long years before he was born, and persimmons were on the trees of that era. “The town so old” means that the families here at present have been here for centuries, and every family has enough of the pie to stay together, prosperous and happy. Basho’s ‘greeting verse’ to his hometown presents a vision of social harmony with no major misfortunes, relationships between old and young generations mutually satisfying, so people have stayed in town and worked hard to keep their household go on generation after generation – and of course, the vision contains hope that this past will continue into Iga’s future.
Enough to eat,
Through the small forest behind the house, this family has direct access to the village center. They grow enough rice and vegetables that sustenance is no problem, so the father and wife’s husband adopted into this household speak to each other searching for how to use their power within the village to help neighbors who are not doing so well. I hope Anthropologists, both Japanese and Western, will further explain the human experience here.
According to a common generalization, Japanese society limits personal freedom, but reality is more complicated than that. The oldest son has no freedom at all; he must stay in his native home, and work to continue the household. His younger brothers have all the freedom in the world, so they innovate and create. Basho's older brother Hanzaemon and Basho are perfect examples.
Today too they play
They do no work; all they do is play around and offer advice: “Well, you could do this…” and “Maybe so and so will help.” Basho explains their laxness; they are the second and third sons of a successful doctor; while the oldest son takes over papa’s medical practice, they live at home with no gumption of their own, but lots of advice for others, and lots of leisure time to hang out together.
Crest on the kimono
The family crest represents the household unit. “To melt in the dew”is a metaphor for the household dissolving. Father has died without deciding a successor, and the adult children argue over who will follow him as head. Usually the oldest son succeeds, however if there is no oldest son, or if the family decides that he will not do a good job, another son may prevail, or someone unrelated may be adopted into the family to inherit. If everyone could simply agree and all support the same one to inherit, everything would work out and the “crest on the kimono” would continue –but no one is willing to give up their position, all their energy goes to squabbling, and eventually the family dies out.
Basho observes and records the customs of woman doing labor.
A woman in a rustic roadside rest area has gathered azaleas from the mountain and brought them inside to arrange in a vase, but a customer (Basho) comes in, so she places the flowers temporarily in a bucket in the center of the room, and goes to tear off some strips of dried cod for him to munch on with his tea. After the noon rush is over, she will get back to arranging them in a vase. Sitting at a table, he sees her in the kitchen, from his point of view, behind the flowers; the flowers appear as superimposed on her. She is the center of the verse: she mediates between the delicacy of azaleas and the roughness of her hands tearing the flesh of dead fish. Basho sees women as central in his Anthropology. The verse shows us the busyness of women – preparing food for both family and customers, along with a thousand other chores, while still finding time to make the place pretty with flowers.
At the end of summer on the Japan Sea coast near Niigata, Basho takes a photograph, like the photographs in National Geographic, showing the nature of a place, as well as the nature of the season, and the nature of a woman: While the day is still exhaustingly hot, in the cool shade of a willow tree a woman pierces fish with metal pins to roast them over the fire in her sunken hearth. She bends over to see what she is doing, as the long straight leafy branches bend over her, swaying gracefully. Once again, the woman mediates between delicacy and the roughness of working with dead fish. The skewer goes in through the gills and out the mouth. The sound of “skewering” contains the feeling of the metal pin puncturing the bloody flesh.
This is the power of the verse: it takes us beyond our ordinary consciousness to enter the reality of a woman who does this kind of work every day so her children or grandchildren get the protein, minerals, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids in small fish.
Basho gave the following as a greeting verse to a prosperous farmer whose home he visited:
Throughout Japanese culture, chrysanthemums are a symbol of longevity and hardiness, standing tall on perfectly straight stalks, the multitude of petals in a large showy ball, their color and fragrance untouched by the cold and frost of autumn ending. After rice is harvested and dried, the grains must be threshed from the stalks by shaking the stalks, or pulling them through a comb-like device with metal teeth. In all farming societies, after-harvest is a time for celebration.
In between these two vivid seasonal references is the uba or aged wet-nurse. She is the center of the verse. Probably she was the wet-nurse of the householder who stayed on with the family to perform the roles of women: babysitting the children, helping in the kitchen and on the farm, assisting the woman of the household in childbirth. Basho praises the woman for maintaining her vigor into old age. The image of chrysanthemums – the Japanese Imperial Crest –ensures that we take the verse as praise. Kon-sensei, as usual,goes right to the heart of the verse in one short, simple sentence:
“Implied in the word uba is the prosperity of the whole family.”
Once again, Basho makes a woman an Icon, a symbol for something greater than herself.
A young woman goes to the Big City to live, work, and marry. Pregnant, she returns to her natal home where her mother can care for her before and during birth, then help out with the newborn.
Basho fulfills the theme of pregnancy with the specific actions of this woman. Every item of clothing the family wears must be made from plant fibers, first spinning them into thread, next weaving the thread into fabric on a loom, then cutting and sewing the fabric. It has been estimated that to make a single adult house robe from plant fibers required 30 hours of work. The kitchen in a wooden and wood-burning farmhouse produces and contains many odors. Without chemicals, plastics, or electric appliances, a woman does what she can to keep the place from smelling. Weaving fabric for baby clothes, spreading sweet aroma throughout the kitchen, she generates positive energy for the new life: the ordinary but eternal work of women to keep children warm and house fragrant. How Basho must have watched his mother and four sisters to absorb their household consciousness.
This renku stanza-pair and the following one are discussed at greater length in the article Women at Work
The kids are scattered around the room so mom at the central hearth has to "glare about" to address them all, not that they listen. She is roasting balls of soybean paste on wooden skewers to make a side dish. A bit of ash from the fire has gotten on the sticky miso. Watch her bring the skewer close to her mouth and puff the ash away. The astonishing delicacy of this action even the fingers of elves could not perform is the polar opposite of her glaring and shouting at her kids. Both ordering and puffing are her breath, her life force, her prana. Basho shows us no romance, no tragedy, no immorality or morality, nothing extraordinary: he only focuses on the woman expressing her life-force as whole, positive, and iconic.
Basho's follower Shiko and Basho also portray the oppression of women:
Father (who may be drunk) insults his wife and daughter, saying the most horrible, vulgar things. In a misogynistic society, abuse of women is so commonplace no one pays attention to it. Shiko, though he is a Japanese man, does pay attention. He portrays the oppression of females common in Japan, yet his stanza occurs in a vacuum. Basho could have followed with more about the wife and daughter, but this is not what he does; instead he creates an environment and other people around that oppression.
A kotatsu -- a heater (charcoal in Basho’s time, electric in ours) with a table on top and blanket to hold the warmth around the lower body while sitting -- is square and provides seating for four people, so probably the father is sitting with three guests. The mother and daughter – in this society – would not be sitting at the kotatsu, but rather preparing or serving food and drink to father and his guests.
Father insults the females even when visitors are over, while the guests sit there shocked by what they are hearing; frozen in place, even sitting at a warm kotatsu. We imagine how much worse his abuse gets when no guests are present. We also wonder how the wife and daughter support eachother against his abuse. Basho completes and fulfills Shiko’s anthropological vision, yet leaves us boundless room to imagine more of this family.
The mole does not interfere with her intelligence or motor ability, but everyone who meets her sees it, and consciousness of this saps her self-confidence. Growing up together with sisters who have no moles, she hates the unfairness of this, but there is nothing she can do about it.
(For kuyamu, the dictionary says “regret, be sorry for,” however I remember when my daughters were teenagers, they used “hate” for a song or a dress or a food they did not like. I told them “hate” was too extreme, and they should use a more moderate term, but they kept on using “hate.” Now I understand that for a teenage girl to say she “hates” something is an expression of the teenage-girl qualities Shakespearean actress Janet Suzman describes in Juliet and Ophelia: “the appalling worries, the despair, how passionately one feels about every little thing.”)
Someone who cares for the daughter’s happiness has given her a gorgeous robe for dancing in the local shrine festival, but she is too ashamed of her mole to show it to the whole town. Basho always focuses on simple physical activities – folding the robe inside the box – to convey complex emotional states.
In between the physical “youngest daughter” and “mole on her face” is the vivid emotion of “hates.”
In between the physical “robe for dancing” and “she folds it inside the box” is the disappointment, frustration, hopelessness swirling about in “aimlessly.” The flow of emotional energy from “hates” to “aimlessly” produces a masterpiece of ordinary uncomfortable teenage-girl experience.
In 1690 Kyokusui begins and Basho follows:
Love starts out simple but somehow becomes “intense.” Basho’s stanza makes the most sense if this is a teenage girl speaking of her mother.
“Although the turmoil of young love takes away all my appetite, mother insists I eat, to build up my adolescent body. Why can’t she understand that I cannot eat while this turmoil rages within me? Besides, she knows I am trying to stay slender! Mother, stop bugging me!”
History books never speak of mother-daughter conflicts, so we look to Basho for information. 330 years ago or today, the daughter thinks of love, but mother of nutrition, so no meeting of minds. May this stanza-pair be a lens through which mothers and daughters see the other’s point of view.
Where did Basho learn to think from the teenage daughter’s perspective? From watching the four sisters who grew up together with him? From Oyoshi, the youngest of the four, a teenager while he was in his twenties? Oyoshi, whose name appears four times in Basho letters, where no other sister’s name appears even once?
Walking together in town, the lovers are surprised to see her (or their) boss coming the other way.
He is cool and does not say a word, but her Japanese heart shrinks with haji -- shame, shyness, bashfulness, embarrassment.” Haji is the Sun Goddess hiding in her Rock Cave or any woman today covering her mouth or eyes with her hand. Here she clutches the handle to make the umbrella cover as much as possible without any movements that might attract the boss’s attention. She wonders if the boss
imagines her naked and "doing it," if he condemns her for having sex without marriage?
Renku scholar Miyawaki Masahiko, in Basho’s Verses of Human Feeling, says,
“Probably no other following stanza so well expresses the sense of shame
felt when one’s love becomes known to others.”
Miyawaki is Japanese and writing about Japanese people, in particular Japanese women, but his comment turns the verse into anthropology. Japan is said to be a “shame culture” rather than the “guilt cultures” of the Judeo-Christian world - and it is important to remember that "shame" may not be the right word for you to relate to this experience: instead you may prefer "embarrassment" or "shyness" or "bashfulness"
or maybe a generalized "discomfort". Guilt comes from an offense to God or religion, and such an offense can never be hidden, since God knows everything. Shame (or whatever we call it) comes from an offense to family or society, which is very often hidden. The words "hide" or "hidden" occur very frequently in Basho
poems of humanity, for he is a master at portraying the effects of "shame" on the Japanese psyche, especally for females. See the article Hiding from Sight.
But what about us, people in all sorts of different cultures, with different perceptual realities of love, young or old, female or male, married or unmarried, straight or gay, do we, or did we long ago, feel “shame” when our love is seen by an authority figure who gets the picture?
For 34 Basho verses on Teenage Girls click here:
A rogue tried to steal rice from the field, but the villagers caught him and held him in a net – but then the sight of the moon enlarged their hearts so they decided that the poor guy’s parents did not love him enough and so he can be forgiven. (How amazing to see so "liberal" a consciousness three centuries ago.) Our lives are as inconsequential as dew disappearing in the warmth of morning, we know not where we came from, nor where we are going, so compassion is appropriate.
Basho portrays an individual who blames everything on divine forces. The next poet asks do we blame the robbery on the thief, or on ourselves, or on the Gods? We wonder who would do such a thing, and is this the same thief who stole a chicken before? A morning moon was in the sky all last night, so did the thief watch that moon while he broke into the chicken coop and took the chicken?
Chosetsu begins with someone in a house or shack startled by ordinary autumn sounds in a rice-growing village, a person who lets the trees and shrubs around the place grow wild so only one window can be seen. Is that window an eye watching the road, armed and ready to defend his freedom? Basho confirms that he is a thief, but focuses on his “wife ” -- probably without ceremony or vows; in Japanese he is merely “taking her along with him.” Chosetsu’s stanza is profound social realism, but an masculine anti-social realism; Basho looks rather at the female side of the gender coin. His seven simple words plug us into the desperation and ugliness in a woman’s life together with such a threatened man. The link between renegade male and submissive female can give rise to a library of sociology. Basho’s “compassionate intuition” for this “sister” is one of those innermost secrets he alone realized.
For many more verses on the Oppression of Women, click here:
365 is too many to remember, so we hold the year in memory associating with one particular event: the year he was born, the year they were married, etc. It is strange to return home and find that someone has been in the house, leaving no knowledge of his identity – and this occurrence is recalled at year’s end, as well as long after: that was the year the “thief came to visit”
The parents do not wipe the snot off their kid’s face, so germs produce skin infection and pus smeared together with dirt and tears. They seem to be transients who do not go to the trouble of maintaining a fire in the sunken hearth for the hour or more it takes to boil rice; instead of eating “meals” (which in Japan means with rice) they live on snack foods high in salt and saturated fat. The snotty-faced kid does not get much in the way of nutrition. The observations of the two poets resonate across time and culture.
This dealer in medicinal herbs is so prosperous his house has a roof of heavy ceramic tiles (most houses at this time had roofs of thatch). The Chinese gables at the ends are most impressive; they make the place look like a temple. Growing up in a rich house, where knowledge of herbal remedies and how to use them is second-nature, why is this child so sickly? Basho creates the question but gives no hint of an answer. Such is life; we can only observe, but never understand.
Shiko sets the place, near pine trees; the weather – the wind blow zun zun, continuously, not so strong a wind, but it never lets up - and the time. Nowhere does Shiko say anything about human life. Basho follows with an abundance of humanity – not only the child and the gatekeeper, but also the one who left the child outside the temple or mansion and snuck away in the dark, and the narrator, either a priest or owner of the mansion woken up by the gatekeeper; all these people are contained in Basho’s words. Who abandoned this child? Why? Will the priest or mansion owner take in the child? We contrast the inconstancy of the parents with the steadiness of the chill wind.
The first poet creates an aged nun who tells a story with much feeling. Once upon a time she got the chance to save a life. Basho portrays compassion in a nun whose life is devoted to Buddha, the Compassionate One. Ordinary masculine Buddhism would preach the virtue of non–interference, accepting the fate of this child to die and return to Buddha, but Basho sees a more feminine Buddhism,
in which the nun reaches out to help one in need.
For more on these poor children, see article Abandoned Child
The next pair of stanzas, both by Basho, portray the Warring States Period from 1467 to 1567 when central government did not function and provincial lords and religious sects constantly feuded with swords and arrows.
All the men, even bald monks and grandpas, were conscripted into the armies. No one was able to grow much food so there was famine. Without enough rice, people mixed in dirt with mochi to make the sacred rice-cake offerings to the divine spirits -- who will be dissatisfied and continue to send us this endless war.
He goes to join the troops gathering at night, so early morn they can go into battle. If he dies, she can only survive as a nun. She looks deeply into his eyes in the moonlight, seeing the division in the road tomorrow will bring, either the world with him alive or the same world with him dead.
Koeki’s stanza is magnificent by itself, but even more stunning is the way each element – the wind, the sunset, the “long-drawn-out cries” – feeds energy into Basho’s ode to Fate. In the link between the stanzas is the horror and cruelty of war. He took the elements Koeki provided and blended them into that great question of existence which can never be answered: Is death ordained? Or random?
Father died in war when I was small, and I have grown up under the weight of that grief.
Now, in the prime of youthful vigor, I look back over those years of dreams constantly reverting
to that one moment on a battlefield I have never seen in reality.
Renku scholar Miyawaki Masahiko, assuming this teenager is male, says,
For a boy, his father is his model to learn from by observation, his goal in life.
Having reached the age when now he can go to war, to see a dream of father in battle
is the same as being on the battlefield himself. His regrets for his father can never be forgotten.
The bond between father and son is well expressed.”
I pray that children and teens who lose a parent to war or terroism will explore this verse, especially as they approach eighteen, and counselors who work with bereaved teenagers will show it to them. The clear straight-forward expression of grief may be consoling.
Here are two stanza-pairs, one from the beginning of Basho's poetic life, then one from the end. First, from the first sequence in which he participated, in spring of 1665 in his hometown Iga; second, from a
sequence written in Iga in October of 1694, 29 and ½ years later:
People can be really obnoxious. Basho (1644-1694) counters with his take on what his contemporary Isaac Newton (1642-1727) called the Third Law of Motion – although Basho’s version is more human and personal. An eye for an eye. What goes around, comes around. You provoke me with words, I provoke you back. It gets very complicated because we are in a crowd with many different action/reactions occurring at once.
A worker hired for the day decides he has hulled enough rice for today, and goes home. Such individualistic decision-making is unusual in Japan; such decisions are made by the group, or by the boss. Basho continues on the theme of individual vs. group, and everyone in Japan can experience his stanza in today's marketplaces. Notice how similar BY MYSELF JOSTLING is to WHEN PUSHED, although they each come from rather different previous stanzas. So Basho explores the various relationships between individuals and groups in his society.
A group of female servants is working together in the kitchen around the wood-burning stove.
Kyokusui portrays the underhand cruelty of teenage girls who think they are so great to one who does not fit in with their clique. Saibari, literally “talent stretcher,” is someone with a little talent who pretends to be an expert – so “smart-ass co-workers” they are. Basho focuses on the young female responding to a physical problem – a cinder from the fire burns a hole in the hem of her house robe – with simple direct action that immediately puts it out. She does not fuss over the bit of burning matter, or complain about it, or get angry at it. She simply crushes it between her thumb and forefinger.
Basho suggests that the person who bullied develop what we today call “attitude.” She does not give up and submit, nor does she get upset in fighting back -- cool and calm, with her attitude, she “rubs it out.” She rubs out the power of the bullying to upset her.
His boat has left harbour. She tries to reach the boat with pebbles – i.e. her love -- but her slender arm cannot throw them any distance against the wind. From the weakness of the lone woman, Basho switches to a chorus of women allowing one woman to lead them, so their sound goes far. He praises the solidarity which empowers women. To see more Basho verses on Empowering Women, click here:
Here Basho on the road replies to a letter from Sora in Fukugawa, Basho’s home neighborhood,
where lives Basho’s nephew Toin
Reasearch assistant Shoko gets the feeling that Toin has some degree of disability; even without modern psychological terms, Basho describes his nephew’s problems with considerable accuracy.
Four years later, Toin has died from tuberculosis, and his widow, the nun Jutei, is dying from the disease she caught from him. Basho, on a journey so Jutei and her two daughters have a place to live, writes to Ihei in Fukagawa, on July 24th
There is no evidence for who Rihei was. So much of Basho’s letters consist of messages of caring for people (and so we must give up all ideas that Basho is impersonal or desolate). He has been an “uncle” to these people since he moved to Fukagawa 13 years ago, and he continues to be involved with them when travelling. He is especially concerned about Jutei - not knowing that she died yesterday, July 23rd. Kon believes that the younger of Jutei’s daughters is 11 at this time. Basho only mentions Ofu in his letter, not Masa, so it appears the younger girl suffers some health problem her sister is free of. The Japanese summer is mushi atsui, day after day of sultry, muggy heat which makes all health problems worse. Basho is worried about his grandniece’s delicate health. Anthropologists, take note!
Jutei died on July 23. Six days later Basho receives a letter from Ihei telling this , and replies the same day.
From his letter, we learn who Basho was and how neighborhood people in this era cooperated to help neighbors in need.
Basho thanks Ihei for helping Jutei die in peace. The “two persons remaining” are Jutei’s daughters, Masa and Ofu, now orphans. On his death bed, in his Will, Basho cares about how his grandnieces will manage. We see Basho caring for Humanity.
Basho's Will is counted as his final letter; to see all of his final letters, click here.
This woman has enough work sewing before winter comes. She may “make ends meet” in autumn, but has to survive the rest of the year. Into this poor struggling home, Basho introduces a daughter and a koto, or 13-string harp, an instrument of refinement played only by women. (however this koto may symbolize the
string instrument of another culture. Basho belongs to you.) If the mother owns a koto, she must have been well-off in the past, but fallen on hard times. Notice the link between the form of needlework and the strings and frets on the harp; just as the mother applies her fingers to the threads, the daughter applies her fingers to the harp strings. Both stanzas convey the diligence and constant effort of the female, the action
of her hands producing order, rhythm, and beauty.
The daughter plays her mother’s koto here and now - and also plays it through the months, years, decades of practice required to master the instrument. Basho praises the girl in the early stages of her discipline.
Author Leonard Shlain says "Cultures worldwide consider age seven the beginning of wisdom and moral understanding," but provides no references to back this statement up, and I ask anthropologists if they agree, for I believe the statement gives profound meaning to Basho's stanza. We imagine the pride the hard-working mother feels hearing her seven-year-old daughter produce such beauty. With utmost subtlety and grace,through the powerful effect music has on the brain, Basho portrays the bond between mother and daughter, the hope for a better future that the growing and learning girl evokes in her mother, hope rising on the lovely notes emerging from her seven-year old fingers on the harp.
Mother works from sun up to sun down; finally she takes a break in the evening, to wash her long black locks. Beside the well, she rubs a cotton bag of wet rice bran powder between her hands; the saponin or
soap-like foam that emerges through the permeable fabric has been used for shampoo, as well as face and body wash, since ancient times. Rice bran is rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals which moisturize and strengthen hair, protect it from ultraviolet rays, and prevent hair loss.
A mallet was used for pounding handspun cloth after washing to soften and smooth it, for pounding rice
to remove the hulls. This can be an individual mother giving her daughters work to do in the evening, or can be iconic, a symbol for all mothers passing on the torch to their daughters, first the older, then the younger, for as many girls as there are in the household. She gives them Light – a bit of the Sun emerging from a lantern – and Work, the long tradition of females working day and night without complaint, simply working, generation after generation – only taking time off to care for their hair.
Even for us today, for women do not do physical work hour after hour, this stanza-pair promotes the empowerment of women, so long as we embrace the links between three images:
rice brain shampoo empowers a woman's hair;
"lighting lantern" can represent education: the means to overcoming poverty and deprivation
a mallet gives weight and power to the slender hands and arms of the female or child.
Bringing these three images together forms a most powerful trio to empower women worldwide.