A collection of poems and prose about men or humanity in general, about friendship, sake, music, war and peace, love, compassion, sex, laughter, shame, Zen and Chuang Tzu.
Any part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission, so long as the author is credited – and please inform the author of how the material is being used.
Basho belongs to humanity.
1) Human Studies 2) Anthropology 3) Gender
4) Dominance 5) Patriarchy 6) Edo-era Japan
7) Humor in Japanese Literature 8) Letters
9) Japanese society 10) Japanese Literature
11) Matsuo Basho (1164 – 94)
Cover illustration of Basho’s face is taken for a ink-drawing of Basho’s whole body sitting drawn by the haiku poet Yosa Buson.
For Yayoi Jean
and Ume Shanti
This is a work in progress: I request your feedback and new information to help me modify the text so future editions will be more acceptable to both scholars and ordinary readers.
From a letter to Ensui
Translations and Commentary 12
Humor in Basho 14
Body Consciousness 15
Poetry of Love and Sex 16
Links of Humanity 17
Basho prose 19
Spoken Word 20
Brief notes to the Reader 24
Male Ninja Prologue 31
1 Samples 35
2 20 year old Basho 53
3 Daybreak and Sunrise 65
4 Love and Lust 73
5 Animals and Stars Do It 95
6 High on Sake 105
7 Humanity Blossoms 121
8 To Be a Man 131
9 Kyoto 151
10 Personal essays 161
11 Friends on a Journey 169
12 Kind Considerate Men 189
13 Friends in Zen 201
14 Absurd Parodies 217
15 Dying with a smile 241
A Vertical vs. horizontal 263
B (Mis) translating humanity 265
In this book we meet the deeply personal Basho – explorer of human experience, hilarious comedian, warm affectionate man with many friends, messenger of hope to humanity – the Basho whose gentle, intimate, and humorous works have mostly never been translated and in Japan are never discussed. The well-known poems of Basho are either (a) nature poems with no human present in the scene or (b) sad lonely verses about poverty, growing old, and dying – however such verses are just a bucketful in the vast ocean of his poetry – not only haiku, but even more renku, or linked verse, and also a few tanka, the classical form of Japanese poetry. Everywhere in these other poems we find people and more people, ordinary men, women, and children doing things, relating to one another and to nature – for instance, this ode to humanity discussed in both volumes I and II.
Her entire body stained by omnipresent mud, the young peasant mother tries to keep her face clean and her heart hopeful. As her baby’s lips enclose her nipple, she looks into the eyes and forehead to see the dreams within. Every word conveys humanity -- face, rice planting, soiled by mud, breast-feeding, lap, dreams, my and you. - so physical and intimate with the body. This is Basho.
This quartet aims to demolish the “Basho image” – that image of Basho as a desolate, lonely, and austere “poet-saint.” He is said (by those with a limited knowledge of his work) to have been “serious and humorless”– “impersonal, detached, and objective” – “at times, cold-hearted, inhuman.” -- “to have spent much of his time in a state of perpetual despondency.” The scholars who said these words had no knowledge of most of the works in this collection, and I daresay little of any knowledge of Basho. I am shocked that a scholar could publish a statement such as this: “The finest of Basho’s poems seem to be devoid of ordinary human emotion.” From what selection came these “finest of Basho’s poems”? The problem here really is that poems “devoid of ordinary human emotion” are the poems scholars consider “finest” -- so these are the only poems they tell us about. The many Basho poems full to the brim with human emotion are ignored because they do not fit into the Basho image.
Professor Haruo Shirane – one scholar who sees the humanity in Basho – notes that
"Despite the overwhelming number of poetic greetings in Basho’s oeuvre,
relatively few appear in the modern canon of Basho’s famous poems."
Poetic greetings are by their very nature personal, so the scholars ignore them and ordinary people never see them. Also unknown are several hundred poems about women and children; prose passages on friendship, human kindness, and sexual passion; and also hilarious parodies; personal letters to close friends and his older brother; and passages of speech recorded by followers – an ocean of Basho humanity so vast this 1000 page trilogy contains only a fraction of it.
We try to learn about Basho, not from what others say about him, but from Basho’s own words. When we read that a scholar says:"Basho takes detachment from human emotion to the point of complete dehumanization not only in his poetry and literary theory but also in his own life." we must realize that yes, this is the reputation Basho has, but NO! these words have nothing to do with the reality of his works on humanity. We contrast this scholar’s statement with Basho’s own description of what he sought for in poetry:
To know the real Basho, consider this message in his Will, dictated two days before his death; on a journey dying in Osaka Basho sends gratitude to his patron, follower, and friend Sampu in faraway Edo:
We feel something very wonderful here, the warmth and love in Basho’s heart. If ever the humanity in Basho can get beyond his reputation for being literary, obtuse, impersonal, or a select group, he may someday (maybe after I am gone) be recognized as the most gentle and personal poet who ever lived.
These works are a profound legacy every Japanese, every Asian, every human, can enjoy, learn from, and be inspired by – if only we could forego that image we have of Basho, and read what he actually wrote about our common humanity.
Whether you read the pages in order, or open the book at random, I recommend you consider each two-page-spread as a unit.If you look for connections between the various items on left and right pages, you will find them. Also each of the 17 chapters can be a journey through a theme.
As always in Basho4Humanity,
The two different voices are seen in the succession of stanzas in a linked verse:
The thick lines of bold face resemble the India ink Basho himself used. Prose and letters are divided into poetic lines, almost every clause on its own line so Basho’s thoughts become free verse.Ordinary print is used for commentaries written by myself or translated from Japanese scholar’s commentaries.
My aim in translation is to give you exactly the information in the original, no more, no less – to reproduce Basho’s words in English with nothing extra from my mind or another mind to “help you understand” – though I do strive to fix up the grammar so Basho’s words are coherent in English. The seven words (plus a few particles) in each haiku translation are usually the same seven words in Japanese.
My efforts for your understanding have gone rather into the commentaries immediately after Basho’s original. You never need to look in the back of the book or somewhere else for the clues to Basho’s riddles; instead look immediately after, and sometimes before, the translation. Japanese also rely on commentaries on the same page to find Basho’s hidden meanings. In my commentaries I have followed documented evidence from Japanese Basho scholars, however from that base I fly freely through the worlds of knowledge - through Japanese children’s songs, folktales, biography, biology, anthropology, child development -- whatever is fun and interesting, or sometimes sad and interesting, whatever will make Basho more entertaining, or more inspiring in the 21st Century. My purpose in the commentaries is three-fold:
Literary 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 book is not “for scholars” but rather for ordinary people who like reading to be fun, and enjoy learning about humanity.
Humor comes from a connection transcending the barriers of Time -- a connection that enables Basho’s joke to amuse us three centuries later. Basho is believed to have been “serious and humorless” and books about humor in Japanese literature – such as Howard Hibbett’s The Chrysanthemum and the Fish – include no examples of Basho humor. The index has a few references to Basho, but when we go to the page we find a discussion of one of the various parodies written by others to mock Basho’s most famous verse:
One such parody, by anonymous, is
This is funny – for a while -- but far more hilarious are the parodies Basho himself wrote: bizarre tales of a vegetable market, stars making love in Heaven, rustic hillbillies, crows, sea slugs, cicadas, crocodiles, wild boars, a pious but obnoxious monk and a teenage servant on horseback (all in D-6 LAUGHING ALONG).
Let’s Have Fun with Basho!!
While others see him as “impersonal,” I am amazed at Basho’s frequent focus on deeply personal details of the human body. For instance, in a letter to his follower Chigetsu, a widow in her sixties, Basho writes about his chronic bowel disease:
Would you say something that body conscious in a letter?
Feel the sensations in this Basho haiku:
Take a break from summer hiking to sit with lower legs in the cool stream, refreshed by a cool breeze, surprised to feel the eight legs and two pincers of a tiny hiker on your wet flesh, looking to see the orange crab shape crawling on your leg through the water flowing by -- all is Sensation. People believe Basho dwells on the desolation of growing old, yet even when he does so, notice how physical is his perception:
Sand lingers in imperfectly washed seaweed to get into holes and crannies in old decaying teeth. Basho feels the wasting away of his life in those gritty mouth sensations. Young people bored with old men teaching abstract philosophy and religious concepts may prefer Basho’s emphasis on the body and its sensations:
The notion that Basho wrote poetry of love and sex will perplex readers led to think him a serious monk-like figure concerned only with impersonal nature or the sadness of growing old. A few of his haiku are about love, but these are not so interesting. To find the wonders of Basho’s vision of love, we look not in haiku, but rather in renku or linked verse written by a team of poets, each contributing a stanza in turn linked to the one before; and here we are surprised to find quite a romantic sensuality.
In linked verse, love verses are required at certain places in the sequence, so all poets wrote on love; one difference being that many of Basho’s verses are from the woman’s point of view, and also his contributions to the sequence are more physical and sensory than those of other poets. He speaks of woman’s body parts and actions.
(This could be “her pillow.”) Gently and carefully, she maneuvers her arm under his head without waking him. We feel the gentleness of her devotion. The verse is entirely physical activity, and yet somehow subtly suggests the depth of her love – while it also suggests a sensual nature in Basho that scholars prefer to overlook.
While a few Basho haiku are world-famous, and a few hundred are familiar to students of Japanese literature, the vast wealth of Basho’s linked verse is mostly unknown outside the three volumes of this trilogy. In Japan there are scholars who study Basho renku, and even one, Miyawaki Masahiko, who writes about Basho renku for the general reader, however still the average Japanese knows not even one stanza of Basho renku – while he or she may be familiar with three or four haiku. I know of nine scholarly books in English including 14 linked-verses sequences in which Basho participated: (listed in Endnotes) but only a few Western readers know any of the hundreds of Basho linked verses focusing on human experience.
In the following stanza-pair, Sora begins and Basho follows:
Sora was writing about the rivalries among court ladies at the Imperial Palace. In this context, the one asleep is the Emperor. He “summons” whoever he likes, and the women not chosen spread rumors about the lucky one – thus, in the Tale of Genji, the backbiting by jealous court ladies causes Kiritsubo, the mother of the Shining Prince, to sicken and die. Basho’s stanza by itself can apply to any female with a person she loves, however together with the stanza that spawned it, the meaning is more specific: in spite of the gossip about her and the shame she feels, this woman manages to love the Emperor with all the gentleness in her heart.
Each of the various books and sites containing a few renku, presents full 36-stanza sequences – but I believe this counter-productive. Sometimes three stanzas in sequence will continue in one theme, but more often the third stanza takes the second off into a completely different direction from the first; thus the famous haiku poet and critic Shiki criticized renku for having too much “movement” and no “literary unity.” Because of the constant change of subject matter from stanza to stanza, and also because in every sequence some stanzas are too rooted in 17th century Japanese thinking for us to appreciate today, and some simply will not resonate with a particular reader, a 36 stanza sequence is way too much for most of us to digest.
I follow Miyawaki in focusing on stanza- pairs selected to be meaningful today – but I also present single Basho stanzas when I find them more meaningful that way. A single stanza – such as EASING IN on page 16 – is an incomplete form that can mean far different things to each person. On page 17 we see how the previous stanza narrows the field of possible meanings, narrows it to a specific circumstance – and the meaning of a stanza is not limited by the previous one; the poet who follows is free to take those words off into another area of thought, and so can we.
Basho himself recognized the power of his linked verse far beyond that of his haiku. He said
Makota Ueda says that “marrow” here means the “innermost secrets” of renku which Basho believed he alone held. What are these “innermost secrets” in linked verse – but not in haiku? They occur in the link between two stanzas, the thoughts that come from the first stanza and take us to the second, the thoughts unstated yet hidden in the poet’s mind to be revealed in the reader’s.
If Basho poems are snapshots of reality, then his prose is the video. The images flow along, like water, always pressing forward, light and active, full of specific verbs giving life to the sentence. Consider the phrase “when Elizabeth was Queen” -- the inactive “was” has no life, and the phrase falls flat. Change to “when Elizabeth reigned” and feel the glory and dignity from that lively verb. Notice the active verbs in all of Basho prose.
In his first recorded haibun, written in 1672, Basho dedicates his future poetry to the divine spirits in a shrine in Iga:
Tanka poetry in 31 sound-units has for a thousand years been recognized as soothing to the divine spirits. Poetry in 17 sound-units was at this time considered a mere game for amusement, without spiritual value. Basho prays for divine aid so that his own briefer poetry will “soothe the kamisama.” Basho, age 28, already recognizes what the future will consider his great contribution to world literature: the introduction of spirit into “these shorter poems.” We wonder a passage so personal and expressive of Basho’s thought has not (as far as I can tell) been translated.
Even with 880,000 words of Shakespeare in print, we know almost nothing of his personal life or thoughts. He left us no letters, no diaries or essays, just the lines in King John
believed to be Shakespeare’s lament for his eleven-year-old son Hamnet who died the year the play was written.For Basho, in contrast, we have the vast sea of his journals and haibun, but even more revealing are 229 letters confirmed authentic. Many of these are longer than one page. These are a goldmine of information about Basho as well as about his society. In What Children Do are sections of letters to his friends about their children, or about his teenage grandnephew and two grandnieces. The present volume contains passages from the letters of Basho to his close friends and big brother – for instance, here Basho writes to his childhood and lifelong friend Ensui:
Joy fills the letter. Still there are only a few letters in the present volume, but the Letters friom Basho is entirely letters, 60 of them.
Several Basho followers recorded hundreds passages of speech uttered by their master, some about specific Basho haiku or linked verses, or about verses by other poets, and some without connection to a particular poem.
Here are a few of Basho’s thoughts about the human heart - 心
A standard is some quality used as basis for judging adequacy. Reason is the capacity for consciously making sense of things. A wizard seeks the exceptional and transcends the reasonable.
The masses will like any sort of sensationalism or nonsense, but one or two individuals expect true poetry.
Basho’s use of ordinary words to elicit extraordinary thoughts is discussed in Appendix A of both volumes I and II. One clear illustration of this is the haiku Basho wrote in his hometown at the castle where he served from childhood until age 22
The words are perfectly ordinary, but “realized” through cultural and personal associations with cherry blossoms and hometown, they become a masterpiece of human expression. (p. 117).
Basho, in his poems, teaches us how to “pass through” things.
In a letter to Sampu, Basho offered this advice
Without tragedy or disappointment, a focus on ordinary people living in peace, interesting not only to scholars and literary types, but even more so to ordinary folk who care about humanity.
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 the 6th Moon, 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 a little cold, then 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, usually comes in early February by the Western calendar – so the Second Moon was approximately March, and so on. If “Second Moon” is translated “February” the whole count gets out of whack.
Western year numbers are used instead of the Chinese ones Basho knew: since the lunar year ends in early February, the January of each year is approximately the 12th Moon of the year before.
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 seasonal feeling in the verse.
Can we agree that haiku are like sheep -- plural the same as singular -- and likewise for kimono, samurai, and ninja.
Year of Age -- A child at birth was considered one, then become two the next New Years, though by the Western count, could still be zero in years. 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, but have been Westernized without double-vowel macrons (as “Tokyo” is written without marks over the “o”s) – and so, in spite of the scholar’s, Basho is written without the macron.
We speak of Basho as a child or young man, although he only used that name from about age 38.
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 prefer to keep sentence simple, so the main point does not lost among qualifiers and subjunctives. Often I put the details in the Endnotes – and often I do not, so the endnotes do not go on forever.
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 – however they can be seen online at Each endnote begins with the page number in the collection, 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.
Because, in spite of his many friendships, many accounts say Basho was an austere and lonely recluse;
because some “Basho verses” appearing in English cannot befound in Japanese, and some are known to have been hoaxes;because 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 them;
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 can easily find every item in this trilogy in authoritative Basho anthologies in a large Japanese library. Also, that with the Romanized Japanese, a person with basic understanding of Japanese can see that
these translations say what the original does.
First I wish to thank Sakata Shoko for her countless contributions to this work, for her patience in helping me understand her language, her ability to find information on her electronic encyclopedia, and for her laughter at Basho’s jokes. I also thank my three assistants, Laura Mae Noda from Jamaica, Bronagh McCarthy from Ireland, and Shwe Poe from Myanmar, for your women’s perspectives 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 Eizō’s Basho Kushu, finding more wisdom in his brief, succinct sentences than in whole paragraphs by other scholars. Kon does see the humor, gratitude, and warmth in Basho, and explores them in his commentaries. Many passages in this book are either translated from Kon, paraphrases of Kon, or an idea that came from Kon’s commentary. Later when I got into Basho’s letters, his books continued to be the clearest of guides. I express my gratitude to his spirit. I also wish to thank Miyawaki Masahiko for his insightful guidance in the world of Basho’s stanza-pairs 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 permission to use the cover illustration, I am indebted to Koto City, Tokyo.
Many thanks to the librarians at the Fukuoka City Library for going the extra mile with expertise to find information in both on the stacks and in the library’s data bank.
Also I express my praise and gratitude to Wikipedia for bringing so much information to my desktop. This site does a remarkable job of supplying information that is interesting and does not require a scholar’s specialized knowledge to understand.
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.
Thanks to George Swede and Francine Banworth at Frogpondfor accepting my articles, and to Michele Root-Bernstein for her insightful editing which has made me a better writer. Likewise I thank Martin Kelley at Friends Journal, Terry Messman at Street Spirit , and David Rice at Ribbons, the Journal of the American Tanka Society, for including my articles.
Many thanks to Mr. Aragaki at Obun Printing in Tokyo for organizing and printing the book in small quantities for pre-publication use.
Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier’s The Complete Guide to Self-publishing explained things other self-publishing books neglected. Thanks to Dan Poynter’s for his superb guide to forming a back cover in his The Self-Publishing Manuel.
Much gratitude to John Dougill of Writers in Kyoto for posting my articles on Basho and Kyoto, for providing valuable feedback, and especially for arranging presentations at his university
I thank Yu and Chiyuki and Prabado for all they have given me.
Also I wish to thank Iida Kaori whose voice has inspired me throughout the writing of this book, and Masaya for her magnificently non-self-centered harp music which gave me great peace while outside was noisy.
And I owe gratitude to Mount Tateishi where much of it was written.
I must also acknowledge the people who have, without readingthe 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 feedback on both whole manuscripts and short bits of them.
Thank you all.
A 17th century portrait
of Hattori Hanzo
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. Ninja from Iga fought in the civil wars that wracked Japan from 1467 to 1567 but by Basho’s time Japan had been at peace for generations, and ninjitsu had become a martial art. Basho grew up with ninja heritage everywhere around him; for instance his friend-in-youth Doho was adopted into and became head of one family of the Hattori clan, “the leaders of the ninja community in Iga.”
The most famous Hattori was Hanzo. In 1582 Oda Nobunaga, had ended the civil wars and brought the country under his rule. The future shogun Ieyasu, then merely a retainer of Nobunaga, was sightseeing near Osaka when he learned that one of Nobunaga’s generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, had assassinated Nobunaga and had agents looking for Ieyasu to kill him too. Ieyasu had no army with him and was in quite a predicament – but he did have Hattori Hanzo. The ninja brought Ieyasu in secret through the mountains to Iga and gathered 300 ninja to guard him on the road to his home base near Nagoya. Ieyasu later said crossing Iga was the most dangerous thing he ever did.
In Edo, Hanzo formed the ‘band of Iga’ to guard the Hanzo Gate to Ieyasu’s castle, which gave its name to Tokyo’s Hanzomon subway line. Hattori Hanzo is also the hero of countless ninja movies, video games and manga as well as the ancestor of the guy in Hawaii who forged the sword for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.
Ima omou tei wa asaki sunagawa o miru gotoku
ku no katachi, tsuke-kokoro ni karuki nari