A collection of child-centered renku, haiku, tanka and prose by Basho, revealing his consciousness of What Children Do. Let children know what Basho wrote about children
Robbins, Jeff 1952 –
Sakata, Shoko, 1971 --
What Children Do: Young and Alive with Basho
Includes bibliography and Subject Guide for Child Studies.
1. Child development 2 Infancy 3 Small children 4. Adolescence 5. Japanese society 6. Japanese literature 7. Haiku 8. Essays 9. Letters 10. Anthropology 11. Matsuo Basho (1644-94)
Cover illustration drawn in crayons by a third-grade boy, Sakamoto Taiyo,in Iga, Basho’shometown, 2009
This volume is dedicated to the children and teens reading it
May you share Basho with your children and grandchildren
Father and Son
Biology lessons from Cassatt and Basho.
Translations and Commentaries 12
What Age Child is the Book For? 14
What are Haiku? 15
Lightness = Newness 16
Links of Childhoood and Adolescence 18
Children in Basho prose 20
Letters about children 21
Basho speaks 22
Brief Notes to the Reader 24
Little Ninja Prologue 31
Chapter One -- The Poet of Children
Chapter Two -- Being a Baby
Chapter Three -- Age 3 to 7
Chapter Four -- Age 7 to 12
Chapter Five -- Teenagers
Chapter Six -- Prose, Letters, Spoken Words about Children
Chapter Seven -- Journey with Grandnephew
Chapter Eight -- Blessings Unto Kasane
Chapter Nine -- Learning to Read with Basho
Chapter Ten --
Syllables, Beats, and Words
Children in Japan Literature before Basho
In Western Literature till Shakespeare
Here to welcome children into this book. is a child-like bit of nonsense drawn by Basho in 1687
Diagram of a Snore
From tiny mouth opening to huge roar in the middle, then shaking away like crazy, and fading out to nothing, this is how grown-up men snore.
So, kids, draw a picture of daddy’s snore and send it to us.
Thousands upon thousands of pages of history and literature focus entirely on adults, with no mention at all of children. In the Appendix to this book are passages from a few Western classical works that do focus on a boy or girl – at least for one scene – but in most of these works the child soon meets a tragic death. Because we have so few records of the ordinary life and consciousness of kids long ago, the two hundred child-centered works by the 17th Century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho are a priceless cultural legacy. Basho actually paid attention to both boys and girls, and their care-givers, and portrayed them with gentle appreciation and hope for the future. In his final year, three months before he died, he told his students:
When Basho applies his heart to what children do, he records his observations in poems even shorter than an tweet . Several books in English include some of his poetry and prose, but not the works on children and teens. The Basho haiku in those books are mostly nature poems with no human in the scene, or they are sad lonely verses about poverty, growing old, and dying – so young people today will have little interest in reading them. The poems in What Children Do are altogether different. They are full of children and teens and their caregivers, full of youth and lively activity and humor and that special energy called “Hope.”
hildren transcend bad weather to find joy; , they “rush out” to be in it, while adults merely walk, or stay inside. They see hail positively, as “gems” falling from the sky. (p. 126)
Basho, a 17th century Asian man, supports education for girls:
The lovely fragrance of plum blossoms opens the mind to the book (which, since this is Basho4Now, could be on a pad or e-reader) of romantic tales from long ago, and this girl reading for enjoyment. The haiku is a ‘sketch’ – just a few brush strokes and much blank space for each one of you to fill it from your own imagination. Explore it as you would explore a photo your friend tweets to you.
Basho sometimes portrays boys:
and often children of either gender:
But his focus on girls is most profound :
Upset in her search for love, nearly hysterical. Mother manages to say the right words in the right tone to soothe her turmoil. Adolescent girls today may see themselves in Basho’s sketches of girls (maybe like one of his four sisters) three centuries ago:
The koto, or 13-string harp, is an instrument of refinement played only by women. Both stanzas convey the diligence and constant effort of the female, the action of her hands producing order, rhythm, and beauty. We imagine the pride the impoverished single 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.
These bright lively Basho works about children and teens are known only to a few scholars who pay no attention to them; never or rarely translated, almost nobody knows they exist – however if people knew about them, they could be vital resources for developing literary as well as self-understanding, in English or any language they are translated to.
Let’s spread Basho’s vision of children and teens beyond Japanese Literature, beyond Japanese culture, to kids all over the world/internet. Let the children of Asia and the world, from kindergarten to college, know the poems about them by one of the greatest, and certainly the most child-friendly and girl-positive, poets the world has ever produced.
My aim in translation is to give you exactly the information in the original, no more, no less – to reproduce Basho’s actual words in English with nothing – or very little -- from my mind or another mind to “help you understand.” Remember a Basho verse is like a riddle – no fun if too easy to understand. You need to search.
My efforts for your understanding have gone not into the translations but rather into the commentaries there on the same page as Basho’s original. You never need to look in the back of the book for the clues to Basho’s riddles; instead look immediately before or after the translation. Japanese also rely on commentaries on the same page to find Basho’shidden meanings. In my commentaries I have followed authoritative commentaries by Japanese Basho scholars, however from that base I fly freely through the worlds of knowledge - children’s songs, folktales, Basho biography, biology, anthropology, child development -- whatever is fun and interesting, or sad but teresting, whatever will make Basho more entertaining, or more inspiring.
My purpose in the commentaries is three-fold:
To have fun with Basho;
To learn more and more from Basho
To discover the warmth in Basho’s heart
Scholars may not approve of my “having fun with Basho”—they may not like the jokes and anecdotes and stream of consciousness wandering— but this trilogy is not Basho4scholars but rather Basho4humanity, for ordinary people who like reading to be fun, enjoy learning about children and teens, and feel compassion and hope for them.
What Children Do is a collection of resources for children, parents, and teachers to learn about children; you may read to them, or copy poems (with or without commentaries) for children to read and discuss. Small children, whether they read themselves or are to read to, will enjoy the poems about them in Chapters Four to Seven. Small children at first may read only the Basho poems in this font.
Children can learn to read from this haiku and dozens of others in this volume; for best results, provide an eggplant seed and cup of soil to each student. Even if a word or two is unfamiliar to the young reader, the structure is so simple they will easily learn. The poems can be an avenue into reading the more difficult language in the commentaries in ordinary print.
By fourth or fifth grade, children should be able to read and understand much more of the book. Children between 7 and 12 will get a kick out of Chapter named for them. Teenagers who do not enjoy reading books may prefer these seven-word poems that make a tweet seem long-winded. Those learning English as a second language, especially in Asia, will appreciate the simple straightforward, non-intellectual commentaries about Asian topics such as rice-planting and long straight black hair. I will be very happy if students in Asia use the book to study English as well as learn Basho’s Asian thought, and equally happy if students in the West learn Basho’s universal and youthful thought.
Thousands of schools in every land now teach haiku – so many children and adults know of these brief poems -- however a misunderstanding of the Japanese word on for “sound-unit” has led to the belief that haiku in English must have 17 syllables. In Japanese “syllables” are single sound units; an English syllable usually contains two of these – as the two syllables of ra-menhave four sound-units: ra-a me-n. Most of the simple ordinary words used by Basho have two sound-units, so 17 Japanese syllables is only room for about seven words plus two or three particles for grammar. It is usually easy and natural to translate the seven words of a Japanese haiku (or three-line stanza of linked verse) to about seven English words plus particles – and then the syllables come to about eleven. Eleven syllables in English have the same amount of sound as 17 Japanese syllables, just as 11 navel oranges may have the same amount of juice as 17 Mandarin oranges. Throughout this trilogy in every haiku and three-line stanza, you will find a syllable pattern close to 3-5-3, while the two-line stanzas approach 5-5.The 5-syllable lines have one unstressed syllable, so come to four beats. The 3-syllable lines end with an silent one-beat pause, so they also become four beats.
Four beats occur in in every line of poetry:
3 beats and pause / 4 beats no pause / 3 beats and pause.
No effort is required to fit the words into a four beat rhythm; they will go that way naturally – the syllables stretch out or compress -- since this is the rhythm of almost all the music we hear, sing, or play on instruments.
To emulate Basho, I suggest children today write haiku with about seven words, in about eleven syllables, with a spoken beat pattern of three-four-three, so with pauses the rhythm becomes 4 – 4 – 4.
Basho, like many young people in every era, rejected the traditions important to his elders: he told Kyorai:
The disease of Oldness (which he also called “heaviness”) is the preference for old-fashioned literary words instead of the modern words young people use, the focus on heavy situations, disappointment and tragedy, dragging the reader down with allusions to the sad past or inevitable dying, the love for mono aware, the pathos of all things and all people passing away, how sad it is. Basho said “Enough!” of that old past. Look rather at Now, actually focusing on what a child does in good health and ordinary circumstances -- crawling, crying, playing, sleeping, working, studying, fooling around, waiting, desiring. Sometimes he called it “Lightness,” and sometimes “Newness.”
The verse overflows with life and activity: boy standing tall and watching, whale breeching, waves surging, boy skillfully blowing into shell so sound travels throughout the village, adults running to their boats. The sound from the shell is the life-force of this child. The verse is “Light” because it has no tragedy in it, no grief (except to the whale), just a direct appreciation of a living child, of his life-breath.
Most of the verses in this book contain an actual child or children; the few that do not are characterized by their fundemental simplicity, and will amuse children.
Mochi rice cakes are eaten during the New Year’s season which in Japan lasts up to three weeks. As the days pass, with no refrigerators or plastic wrap, the leftovers get moldy – however if dried in the sunshine, the mold can be wiped off and the mochi eaten – but not if it had bird poop on it.
Usually we hear the lovely song of the bush warbler, but Basho notices something else about the bird. Scholar Kon Eizo says this verse is a “crystallization” of Lightness; it gives a definite form to Basho’s ideal: nothing poetic or philosophic. romantic or tragic, simply life as is, with a touch of humor, to be interesting. Small children will like any verse with pee or poop in it, so this should be a favorite.
Ina letter to two followers in 1690, Basho described Lightness as,
A poem of Lightness does not sink down with literary weight; it goes somewhere, instead of spinning about aimlessly. It is full of life and Hope, not sadness or regret. Haruo Shirane says that Basho’s Lightness consists of “youthful playfulness, spontaneity, naturalness, and fresh perspective…” Those who love Western poetry may find Basho’s poems of Lightness so simple and childlike, so lightweight, they feel like nothing –
yet they are alive and life-giving – so they please the young and childlike:
Basho and his followers gathered to compose a sequence of linked stanzas, each poet writing one stanza connecting in one way or another to the stanza before. In an letter to his follower Kyorai, Basho wrote about his linked verse:
In another Basho letter he complains:
When Basho says “old-style” he does not mean centuries old, but rather as in styles of poetry of a generation ago still popular in 1681, although still too old for Basho’s taste. After a few more digs at the old-style of other poets, he gives an outline of how to avoid oldness in linking verses.
Years later he put this in positive terms:
Poetry benefits from the realization of ordinary words.
if the rhythm of the phrase coming out your mouth is natural, it is okay – however if even one sound stagnates in your mouth, you must scrutinize the expression.
Ryoban looks at small children, naked in the mid-summer evening heat, their bright eyes anticipating the rise of the full moon. Basho enhances the life force in the children by focusing on their activity: holding the straw mats in front of their privates as they “run and jump about,” screaming for joy and laughing.
From 1686 to 1689 Basho called his poetic ideal “Newness” but then, from 1690 to his death in 1694, he called it Lightness.
Sometimes the second poet veered off into a different scene linked to the first stanza. Basho said: Link verses the way children play. Leap, as a child does, with freedom and joy, through space and time, to another reality.
If Basho’s haiku are snapshots of reality, then his prose is the video. The most well-known child in Basho prose is the abandoned two-year-old he encountered beside the Fuji River in 1684, however his compassionate account of this incident has been misunderstood to give Basho the reputation for being “that horrid man who left the child to die.” I try to repair the damage done.
Basho portrays his interaction, in 1688, with an eleven year old boy:
Through Basho’s lively active prose, we meet this kid dealing with an eccentric old geezer. Eleven year olds, however, grow up to encounter inner urges more compelling than “a snack at the tea-house”
Yes, they do. If this passage speaks to the heart of teenagers today dealing with those adolescent urges, Basho would be very pleased.
Authors with no knowledge at all of Basho’s letters – the repositories of his consciousness -- claim that he was “impersonal” and “detached.” The many sections of deeply personal and human-involved letters in Basho4Humanity prove how misguided these authors are. In this volume, the brief sections about children in Basho's letters to Kyokusui and Uko, reveal Basho’s devotion to children, his concern for their well-being.
The most remarkable glimpses of children in Basho’s letters are those of his grandnephew Jirobei and grandnieces Masa and Ofu. He made the choice to take 15 year old Jirobei with him on his journey west in 1694. Basho’s observations of Jirobei adapting to the rigors of traveling 25 to 30 miles a day, much of this on foot, are only a dozen sentences in seven letters on pages 174-9, but they offer considerable insights into male adolescent development. Basho writes of Jirobei:
In the 19th century, Charles Darwin initiated the study of child development with detailed systematic observations of his own children, but 200 years before Darwin, Basho’s undetailed and non-systematic observations of children and teens should be recognized as among the earliest portraits of young people in world literature, a forerunner of anthropological studies of children and adolescents, and furthermore a call for recognition of children as whole human beings.
The “heart’s immediacy” is the province of small children; as we grow up, we discover ways to interfere with that spontaneity. When we try to write a poem, all that mental baggage comes to mind. Basho searches for ways to avoid “too much making” and return to the heart untainted by adult words, thoughts, excuses, considerations, etc.
When you enter a discipline – martial arts, music, sports, etc – you travel together with the people practicing with you -- however separate from all others who have no idea of the information and techniques you are learning – so as of course you will be lonely. That can be interesting.
Basho observed that as people grew older, they lost their childhood innocence and could no longer could appreciate Lightness. He said,
Adults are so full of their skill, they can never be simple and Light; this, according to Basho, is their “disease.” The child is three feet tall (not having three feet, which would be weird). To “get” a poem can be to read, write, or interpret it. Basho is saying children have a wisdom that enables them to see the haiku moment and ‘get it.’ Instead of teaching them Basho, we should learn Basho from them.
Basho spoke to his follower Doho words that children may appreciate
The “Energy” here is ki, or qi, the “universal energy” of martial or healing arts, or as George Lucas called it “the Force.” Children who play a musical instrument, or surf the waves , or fly a kite, or practice a martial art, may best understand Basho’s meaning. To see how Basho himself rode the Energy in poetry, consider these two stanzas from the first of 300 sequences in which Basho participated. The year is 1666 and Basho is about 22. The first poet offers an elegant image of Japanese classical dance, and Basho takes that feeling into the world of children:
The movement of the dancer’s hand expresses more, much more, than simply getting from up to down; it expresses the dancer’s obedience to ki. The hand rides the Energy downward, as a surfer stays on the board even as the board drops and rises. Likewise the small child may not follow adult commands, but is obedient to that universal Energy.
Basho being, as far as I can tell, the only male author in world literature who focuses on ordinary women and children in ordinary life, these works are a legacy belonging to women and children everywhere.
Seasons --Spring begins the first day of the First Moon, in February still very cold,
but a few young greens show Spring,
Summer begins with the bright sunny 4th Moon, in May,
and ends in the full heat of early August
Autumn begins with the lingering heat of the 7th Moon (from mid-August)
and ends with the chill of mid-November.
Winter starts off chilly and gets colder and colder through the 10th to 12th Moons
(from November to January).
If we think of each season as that of being warm, hot, cool, and cold, the Japanese seasons do not fit, however if we think of them as the seasons of BECOMING warm, hot, cool, and cold, they are just right.
Calendar -- The Japanese followed the Chinese lunar calendar in which New Years Day, the First Day of the First Moon, is usually comes in early February by the Western calendar – so the Second Moon was approximately March, the Third Moon mostly April, and so on till the 12th Moon in January. Unfortunately when the Japanese switched over to the Western calender at the end of the 19th century, they simply used the old lunar moon numbers with the Western month numbers. Thus the Festival of Stars, Tanabata, the 7th day of the 7th Moon, is celebrated on July 7th. This is most confusing, because a festival suitable for the clear skies of mid August is celebrated in the middle of the rainy season.
I have followed Chronological Conversion Charts to give each date in Basho’s writing its Gregorian equivalent for that year. With dates given in our modern months, we can more fully enter the season of the verse.
Western year numbers are used instead of the Chinese ones Basho knew: since the year ended in early February, the January of each year was part of the year before.
Can we agree that Haiku are like sheep -- plural the same as singular?
And the same for samurai, kimono, and ninja?
Year of Age – The Japanese had no “birthdays.” A child at birth was considered age one, then become two the next New Years, though by the Western count, might still before first birthday. Throughout this book, I have subtracted one from every age given in Japanese: this is not perfect, but comes closer than leaving the number as is, or subtracting two.
Personal names are given Japanese style, family name first then personal name, however have been Westernized without indication of double-vowel sounds – as “Tokyo” is written. Scholars always give Basho’s name with a macron over the ‘o,’ but I believe without macron will be more welcoming for non-scholars.
We speak of Basho as a child or young man, although he only used that name from age 38 when a follower planted a basho, or banana plant, in his garden, and people began to call his cottage “banana-plant hermitage,” so he started signing his poems “Basho.”
I have taken every effort to avoid scholarly jargon and complex abstract sentences. On every issue there is much more I could say to “cover all my bases” – but I choose to keep things simple, so the main point does not lost among qualifiers and subjunctives. Sometimes I put the details in the Endnotes – but often I do not. To keep the Endnotes from overflowing, I have left a lot out from them too.
Endnotes -- In addition to the commentaries on the same page with the translation, some items have extra commentaries in the Endnotes. The endnotes are where to have more fun with Basho.
Each endnote begins with the page number in this volume, the first few words of the item, and the Japanese source. For all Basho poetry, and stanzas in renku in which he participated, the verse is given in Romanized Japanese. Since Basho usually uses simple ordinary words, anyone with basic understanding of Japanese can see that these translations use the same words as does the original.
Because, in spite of his many close friends and frequent get-togethers, so many accounts claim Basho was an austere and lonely recluse;
because some “Basho verses” appearing in English cannot be found in Japanese,
and some are known to have been hoaxes;
because so many of the works in this collection are so different from the well-known works of Basho;
because none of the many hundreds of writers about Japanese literature
mention the majority of works in this trilogy
because there is no way in English to confirm their authenticity
or accuracy of translation;
because I have no academic degree in Japanese literature;
for all these reasons some people will not believe the works here
are genuine –and so I want you to know that with the data in the Endnotes a reader of Japanese
will have no trouble finding almost every item in this trilogy in authoritative Basho anthologies
in a large Japanese city library.
First I wish to thank Sakata Shoko for her countless contributions to every page of this trilogy, for her patience in helping me understand her language, for her ability to find information on her electronic encyclopedia, and for her laughter at Basho’sjokes. I also thank my three assistants, Laura Mae Noda from Jamaica, Bronagh McCarthy from Ireland, and Shwe Poe from Myanmar, for your woman’s perspective on Basho and your help on the computer.
From the very beginning of my studies of Basho in Japanese, I have relied on the late Basho scholar Kon Eizo’s Basho Kushu, finding more wisdom in his brief, succient sentences than in whole paragraphs by other scholars. Later when I got into Basho’sletters, his Basho Chronology and Letter Anthology continued to the clearest of guides, giving me rich access to information no other scholars know. I express my gratitude to his spirit. I also wish to thank Miyawaki Masahiko for his guidance in the world of Basho’slinked verses of human feeling.
Mr. Inazawa at the Basho Museum in Iga, and Mr. Yokoyama at the Basho Museum in Tokyo took the time to answer my questions and guide me to areas I would never have found by myself; many thanks. Also, for supplying the cover illustration, I am indebted to city of Iga.
Many thanks to the librarians at the Fukuoka City Library for going the extra mile to find articles and information both in the stacks and on their data bases.
Also I express my gratitude to Wikipedia and Google for bringing so much information to my desktop.
My gratititude to Obun Publishing Co. in Tokyo, and especially Mr Arigaki, for bearing with my frequent misses in printing up the first bound manuscripts. I thank Maebaru General Printing for photoshopping.
Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier’s The Complete Guide to Self-publishing explained things other self-publishing books neglected.
The Back Cover Layout on page 36 of Dan Poynter’s The Self-Publishinng Manuel was most helpful in creating the back covers of each volume in this trilogy. Tanks to Dan for producing such a fine guide.
Thanks to George Swede and Francine Banworth at Frogpond for accepting my articles, and to Michele Root-Bernstein for her superb statement about Basho's "compassionate intuition" which became the basis for many of my own realizations.
I thank Yu and Chiyuki and Prabado for all they have given me.
Also I wish to thank Iida Kaori for her voice which inspired me throughout the writing of this book.
And I owe gratitude to Mount Tateishi, and to one place beside the Zubaiji River, where much of it was written.
Haruo Shirane’s statements on the humanity in Basho have been a beacon for me, showing that someone else besides myself could see that other Basho.
My gratitude to Hiroaki Sato for getting me into studying Basho renku with his Basho’s Narrow Road, and then introducing me to the ten volume Basho Renku Zenshu – two very important steps in the creation of this trilogy.
I must also acknowledge the people who have, without reading the book or knowing any of its contents, have judged it worthless. Your cruel and close-minded comments have shown me how much this book is needed, so hopefully future generations will not think about Basho the way you do.
My deepest appreciation goes to my three daughters, Jean, Ellie, and Shanti, for helping me understand the children and women in Basho, and for being the wonderful children you were and the even more wonderful women you are now. Also I owe much gratitude to Jean and my ex-wife Yo for continuing to support me in so many ways in the years of writing this book; to Yo for her superb Japanese country cooking, to Jean for her perceptive readings of the manuscript and her feedback. Thank you.
Little Ninja at the Castle in Iga
The smaller boy holds up one finger;
his big brother makes the same gesture, but hides it.
This is a kuji goshinho, the ninja symbol
for a nine-word chant which will make them invincible.
The girl already is invincible.
Basho’s birthplace, Iga (Mie-ken, southwest of Nagoya, east of Nara) was also home to Japan’s leading school of ninjitsu, the techniques of hiding, infiltration and secret attack practiced by those mysterious undercover agents. The Chinese characters for ninja mean “person who hides.” Ninja from Iga fought in the civil wars that wracked Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries, but by Basho’s birth in 1644 Japan had been at peace for two generations and ninjitsu had become a martial art (and underground spy ring). Basho grew up with ninja heritage everywhere around him; for instance his friend-in-youth Doho belonged by adoption to the Hattori clan, “the leaders of the ninja community in Iga.” On the surface they did no spying, but who knows what was going on in ninja secrecy?
In Iga nowadays, the ninja connection is a far greater tourist attraction – especially for young boys -- than the Basho connection. Ninja patrol the castle grounds (now Ueno Park) in robes that cover every square inch of skin, so as not to show up in the starlight while climbing a castle wall. Of course in the old days the robes were navy-blue which is indistinguishable in the night (that was the point) but the modern ninja are red, purple, yellow, pink, etc. and come in daddy, mommy and child sizes. A stand near the park rents ninja costumes (complete with plastic sword strapped to back – seen in left-page photo); for the day (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; 700 yen per person) so families can dress up and wander freely about the famous ninja castle.
This is where Basho came from.
Basho would have appreciated both faces being hidden.
We see a woman’s hidden face at
He also would have liked the clear detail of the mother’s hand,
for Basho also portrayed the female hand (see F-2 Hands)