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As we read Basho's letters to his brother and close friends, we travel through his mind, and discover his "gentleness and humanity," his "all the more joyful, all the more caring." For instance, in his Will dictated two days before his death, Basho send this message to his Edo follower Jokushi:
What a beautiful thing to say to an old friend.
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 ocean of his journals and essays, but even more revealing are 229 letters confirmed as authentic. Many of these surpass one page. Also, Japanese anthologies provide voluminous commentaries on every person, place, thing and idiom mentioned. These are a goldmine of information about Basho as well as about his society – and these letters should be studied in anthropology and sociology courses worldwide.
Basho shows us a calm, peaceful society without war or natural disasters so people are free to think small ordinary thoughts. The letters are not exciting or scandalous or edgy; they are mostly messages of gratitude, affection, or hope. Thus Basho expresses his “gentleness and humanity” These two words, yasashisa to ningen-mi, from scholar Yasui Masahiro are perfect for Basho’s letters; they SHINE with “gentleness and humanity,”
Readers accustomed to the explosions, assaults, and ugliness of modern movies and video games may find these letters “boring.” Who cares about the small talk of some old poet dead for 300 years? Eric Hoffer -- in no way referring to Basho or Japan -- says,
I have always felt that the world has lost much by not preserving the small talk of its great men. The little that has come down to us is marked by a penetration and directness not usually conspicuous in formal discourse or writing, and one is immediately aware of its universality and timelessness.
Here is a lovely bit of small talk from as postscript to a letter to Sora who lives near Basho’s hut in Fukagawa, written four days after leaving on his final journey in 1694:
Well now, Old Soha still has Sodo’s book.
I asked him to return it quickly.
Would you tell him again?
And please give the same message to Jokyu.
Things have not changed very much in 300 years. Not-giving-back-things-we-borrow is universal and timeless. We travel through Basho’s mind to meet his neighbors.
Although we have abundant poetry from Basho age 20 or 21 in 1665, and prose from age 28 in 1672, the earliest extant letter is from 1681 -- when Basho was 37 years old in a society that considered age 40 to be “old.” The letters in the six years from 1681 to 1686 number only 18 -- according to Kon Eizo’s Basho Letter Anthology. (The 60 letters in this collection are given with their numbers in this anthology of 229 letters, found in any major library in Japan, so readers of Japanese can easily find the original.) From the next three years, 1687 to ’89, we find 34 letters.
Only from 1690, after he finished his famous journey to the Deep North and began his two year leisurely sojourn in the Kansai area, did Basho’s letter writing came into full bloom: from Spring of 1690 to Autumn 1691, he wrote 70 letters. In winter 1691, he returned to a more busy life in Edo, but continued his letter habit; in his two and a half year in Edo he wrote 60. Then, on his final journey in the five months from June 3rd to the end of autumn, he wrote 29 letters including some of his longest. Letters in this collection from these five months fill one third of this collection. Finally, in winter on his deathbed he wrote one letter to his brother, and dictated his Will which mostly personal messages to friends and followers, and therefore included in letter anthologies.
Some authors consider Basho’s journal Oku no Hosomichi – which I translate A Narrow Path in the Heartlands -- the highlight of his work, and discuss only the years up to and including that journey in 1689 recounted in the journal. They skip over the years from 1690 to the summer of 1694, then discuss a few haiku written that autumn approaching his death. Those four and a half years, however, produced three-quarters of his letters, and much of his linked verse. In these years of his maturity (age 45 to 50) considered “old age,” Basho emphasized youthfulness and unconventionality (see Letters 1, 14, 62, and 140).
In many of his letters to followers, Basho includes haiku or renku he recently wrote. This way is how he shared verses with them, teaching them by example. A number of letters to different people, including Letter 57 to Sampu, contain this poem which Basho recognized as the birth of his poetic ideal of karumi, or Lightness.
While I include some of these verses, I leave out the majority, since the focus of this book is the letter communications, and unless the verses directly relates to the letter content, I do not want to dilute these letters with haiku which may not interest you.
Ensui (1640 – 1704)
Ensui was the poetry name of Basho's childhood friend Soushira, the oldest son in a prosperous merchant family in their home town. his sake factory-and-shop was called Uchi no Kami which means “The divine within.” In 1689 Soushira retired from the business and shaved his head to take the Buddhist name Isen. Basho calls him by any of the three, but whatever Basho calls him, we call him Ensui.
He was four years older than Basho, and I suspect that Ensui was in some way Basho‘s mentor. Basho‘s older brother Hanzaemon was only about 18 when their father died and he became head of the household, too busy to hang out with 12 year old Basho. Ensui became sort of a ‘big brother’ at this time – maybe. Or maybe not.In any case Basho and Ensui must have had fun together in those days. I say this because in his letters to Ensui, Basho is so much fun, so quirky and himself. To know Basho, the warm affectionate Basho, read the Letters to Ensui.
Basho wrote seven letters to Ensui, one to Ensui and Somu, and one to Ensui and Doho. In each of the letters to Ensui in this collection, you may notice a common ingredient: Basho to Ensui always mentions food -- in particular the special foods of their hometown.
For instance in letter 148 to Ensui, dated January 8, 1692, a month before the new year begins, Basho writes:
Miso is eaten in hot soup, so warms the body in winter; seasonal awareness is vital to both Basho haiku and letters. Ichibei and Kyoya are merchants in Iga. This yam paste with red miso, made by the women of Ichibei’s house, is eaten on top of rice, and is especially popular in Iga. Letter 136 to Ensui contains a sketch of Kyoya, at a picnic; this is the miso he produces and sells. Though gustatory memories they share from growing up together in Iga, Basho links his consciousness with that of Ensui.
Here is my favorite haiku by Ensui:
A large, expansive feeling from Basho’s childhood friend.
Kyokusui (1660 – 1717)
When Basho first met Kyokusui in 1689, this wealthy 29-year old samurai in Zeze (Otsu), on the southern shore of Lake Biwa, joined his school of poetry. The next year, after Basho finished his long journey to the Deep North, he went to his hometown Iga, but then decided Zeze was where he wanted to be. He seemed to draw energy from the people of Zeze – Chigetsu, Otokuni, Shado Masahide, and especially Kyokusui and his infant son Takesuke.
Basho wrote 17 letters to Kyokusui -- all in 4 and a half years, so three or four letters per year. Basho’s observations of Takesuke interacting with the women in charge of him, becoming a mischievous two-year-old, are vital bits of anthropology; where else in records of this time can we find portraits of infant children in ordinary life? In letter 130, Basho exhibits his wonderful imagination in exuberant praise for Kyokusui’s potential as a poet. Here Kyokusui focuses on young love, setting Basho up to further explore mother and teenage daughter relationships:
Kyorai (1651 - 1704)
Kyorai was born in Nagasaki, the second son of a doctor of Chinese medicine. When he was eight, his family moved to Kyoto; it is said, he walked with his father – a bit of personal history which may have endeared Basho to him. Like most second sons in Japan’s household system –like Basho – Kyorai had no role to fill in his household, so he had to reach out to find things to do. He went back to Kyushu to practice martial arts, but grew tired of that, so he returned to Kyoto. No doubt he helped out in the clinic as his older brother took over father’s practice; the father died in 1687. He got a cottage in Saga, west of Kyoto, far enough from big brother to not be restrained by his family’s reputation.
Kyorai became the leader of the Basho school in the Kyoto area, so letters to Kyorai often discuss his role as proxy for Basho in the Kyoto area. Three letters to Kyorai appear in this book, including the complete text of the longest letter Basho ever wrote.
Most haiku are nature poems, but here Kyorai looks at humanity
Sumo wrestlers have to move boldly and decisively, for even a slight-second of inattention will lose the match, but city living may be more confusing than encountering a 300-pound behemoth.
Sora (1649 - 1710)
Sora was born in Nagano. When he was young his parents died, so his grandmother took him in. When she died, Sora went to live with his uncle, a priest at a temple in the Nagashima district of Ise. As a young samurai, he served as an official in the Ise provincial government. At age 32 Sora retired from his samurai status to study Shinto, move to Edo,
make poetry with Basho, and accompany him on his travels. (We see there was a lot of social freedom in this society
usually depicted as rigid and structured. There was rigidity, yes, but there also were folks who “retired” from the
Basho’s feeling of comradery with Sora led him to take him along as traveling companion on two journeys. When Basho was traveling and Sora was home in Fukagawa, Basho called on him (or Sampu) to handle things and deal with people in Basho’s stead. Here Sora begins with a military triplet which Basho fulfills with his stanza about a rebel commander and brothel slave:
Sampu ( 1647 - 1732)
Soon after Basho first came to Edo in 1672, a man named Sugiyama Kensuke, the head of a wholesale fish merchant in downtown Edo, supplier of fish to the shogun’s castle, supported the young poet. As the years passed, his son Sampu took over the business and continued to support Basho. Sampu gave Basho one of his warehouses to live in, and when that place burned down in a citywide fire, built him another hut. Basho gave that second hut away in 1689, and Sampu and others built him a third hut in 1692.
Sampu seems to have brought the humor in Basho; Two essays, INTENTLY I IMAGINE THE SCENE and THE NIGHT OF TANABATA –reveal the laughter and fun these two shared. Basho had much confidence in Sora, but Sora was just a poor guy struggling to get by; Basho’s confidence in Sampu was far greater because Sampu was rich and powerful. In letter 208 to Sampu, Basho acknowledges that people think he only favors Sampu for his money, but Basho reassures him of his deep appreciation for Sampu’s talent and spirit. Here is one of his haiku which may (or may not) be feminist.
Selection of Letters
When I began compiling the works of Basho, I focused on works about women and children – and so, at first, all I studied was the eight letters to two women, Uko and Chigetsu, and the letters which mention Basho’s teenage grandnephew Jirobei, grandnieces Masa and Ofu, the children of his friends Kyokusui and Uko, and the granddaughter of Ensui. For many years, I thought this was a lot of letters.
When I expanded my Basho studies to include all of humanity, I reached out to the rest of his letters to Ensui and Kyokusui, revealing his close bonds to this merchant four years older and samurai 16 years younger. Also I found much human feeling in Basho’s letters to his older brother Hanzaemon, wealthy patron Sampu, frequent traveling companion Sora, good friends Kyorai and Ranran, neighbor Ihei, and Kyokusui’s younger brother Dosui. Note that the material in Letters from Basho are still only one quarter of Basho’s letters. I have searched for what Basho calls “lightness and interest” (karumi to kyou). I have searched among the letters for information about Basho’s older sister, her son Toin, his “wife” Jutei and their three children, and translated these sections, often without translating the rest of the letter.
Letters have been selected to the purpose of Basho4Now, that is, to demolish the “Basho image” of an austere, impersonal, and detached poet-saint, to reveal the real Basho, his profound involvement with his family and friends, his caring nature, his insights into the human condition. I have also chosen letters in which Basho discusses his poetic ideal of Lightness – or as he also called it, “Newness” – or he rejects the opposite of Lightness: Heaviness or Oldness. I choose passages such as this from Letter 218 to Ensui and Doho
Basho enjoys seeing Lightness appear in his follower’s poetry; he cherish this evidence of his contribution to their minds. Scholars who have little or no knowledge of Basho’s letters tell us Lightness was one of many techniques Basho used, or that it was a phase he went through in his final years. From the letters we learn that Lightness (or whatever he called it) was the essence of his poetic vision throughout the 13 years in which he wrote letters – and I will go further to say that Lightness was the essence of his consciousness throughout his 30 years of poetry and prose, and throughout his life.
There are letters from each of the four seasons from 1690 to 1694 which comprise 80% of this book; reading these in sequence we feel of the passage of the seasons for these five years.
Translations and Commentaries
Since the original form of these letters uses so many now-obscure characters and grammatical forms I cannot read most of the letters in their original form. I translate from a translation into modern Japanese – either by my research assistant Shoko or by scholar Tanaka Yoshinobu – however once I have that modern translation, I can figure out much of the original.
Sometimes I see places where the modern translator has taken the words away from the original to make them easier-to-understand; in my translations I always search for a way to more closely follow the original and still be understandable. Two examples from letter 124 to Kyokusui will illustrate. In the beginning of the letter, Basho literally writes your kindness is in my heart. Tanaka translates that to modern Japanese for “I appreciate your kindness.” Of course that is what Basho means, however I prefer to give you Basho’s actual words and let you figure out his meaning. Furthermore his concrete words can take on deeper meanings as we explore them as he wrote them.
At the end of the letter, Basho says I met with Kikaku and we gossiped about you The word “gossip” (uwasa) is actually there in the Japanese. Tanaka apparently feels this word is not suitable for the great poet-saint, so he changes it to “we spoke about you.” Again, I follow Basho in using unconventional, interesting words. My aim is to give you exactly the information in the original, no more, no less – to reproduce Basho’s words in English with nothing (or very little) 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.
My efforts for your understanding have gone 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’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 to make Basho more entertaining, or more inspiring in the 21st Century.
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
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 “only for scholars” but rather more for ordinary people who like reading to be fun, and enjoy learning about humanity.
Basho’s several hundred poems about women children, friendship, love, and compassion are, amost unknown
both in Japan and in the West, yet may be the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in world literature.I plead for your help in finding a person or group to take over my 3000 pages of Basho material, to edit and improve the presentation, to receive all royalties from sales, to spread Basho’s wisdom throughout the world and preserve for future generations
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The Three Thirds of Basho