Ordinary women hopeful or disappointed, women at work, washing hair, with their peers chatting or complaining, women neglected or abandoned, widows living alone with memories. Basho never married but must have learned a great deal from watching his mother, four sisters, and his brother and wife: their everyday life – not the extraordinary tragedies of Shakespeare and other writers , but rather their everyday activities and consciousness.
The Manyoshu poet Okura 1000 years before Basho, wrote of leaving a banquet:
Out of sound is out of mind, and so men at parties and banquets give no thought to the problems that might be occurring at home. Okura recognizes the needs of his wife and children even when he cannot hear them. He thinks from their point of view, as he goes home to give her some relief. Okura and Basho stand out in world literature as poets who wrote of the ordinary experience of parents and children.
Japan is (or was) a patrilocal society: brides enter the husband’s family and village:
The image of a young lord of noble birth at the hunting grounds has a long romantic tradition which Kikaku suggests in his stanza; in this context, “clouds” suggest sex. Basho makes the “young lord” the oldest son of the village headman. 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” is well-chosen to express 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.
Basho visited Kyokusui’s house in Zeze while Kyokusui was away from home. In a letter to Kyokusui, he portrays the happiness in the females of Kyokusui’s servant:
The “old mother” is the husband’s mother who lives with them, and may or may not be supportive of her daughter-in-law. Giving birth without misfortune and pleasing her mother-in-law, an ideal family life in this society.
The Sun in spring warms the ground and air near the ground. This warm moist air rises, and sunlight passing through it refracts, so the air seems to shimmer.
Basho sees in these heat shimmers the “Sun Carpenter building Lord’s mansion” – She is the Sun Goddess Amaterasu who builds many things, such as food, fabric, and wood, with her light: Meanwhile the Sun Carpenter and Earth Mother work together to produce edible grains, so in the storehouse we have enough to feed all the children of so many brides. (A more extensive discussion of this stanza-pair appears in B-5 PREGNANCY AND BIRTH)
A family unable to pay their debts must not let the neighbors see them spend money on a wedding:
The BRZ says Basho’s stanza is “one which holds secrets,” and both stanzas are full of secrecy attractive to our interest. I suspect that “trayful of sweets” in the “folding screen shadow” is sexual – but maybe that’s just me (though now it’s in your mind.) A sexual meaning does fit in with the first stanza.
Cotton imported from India was first grown in Japan in the 16th century, and proliferated from the 17th when Basho lived. Villages grew enough for their own needs. The major commercial crop was grown around Osaka and shipped to the cities. Historian Louis Perez tells us that in 1736 more cotton passed through Osaka Harbor than did rice.
Basho makes a rather strange link: mother is giving birth to her son a second time, now to form his own life and family – or maybe Mama’s boy is escaping from her domineering influence as the whole area of white cotton balls escapes from their buds.
As it grows dark, the watchmen hold up lantern to get a better look at the faces of people entering the town. Here comes a man in a wedding procession; he must have some years behind him since he has attained the position of boss, but he is dressed up to look young and fine – however the watchmen can clearly see how fake his youthfulness is. In the context of Basho’s stanza, that phrase “at entrance” may take on a sexual meaning. If you like it that way, go for it.
“Pines”and “waiting” are matsu in Japanese which leads to thoughts of love, since in Japanese literature there is more “waiting for love” than there is actual lovemaking. “Love Cape” is not an actual place name, but well describes a long narrow strip of land jutting out into the sea. (Even if Basho did not think of “love cape” in this erotic way, we can.) The wedding ornaments are bonsai, tiny decorative pine trees -- however “wedding ornament” can mean as you choose. Her marriage vows remain after the ornaments are forgotten, as she vows to the Sun Goddess shining on pure white snow to be so pure and faithful to that single long narrow strip of land jutting into her engulfing sea.
Blackwood is a type of firewood that burns slowly giving off dark heavy smoke that accumulates over the walls and ceiling and inhabitants. Basho then pinpoints the daughter living within this shack in a mountain hollow where the sun never shines; he reaches into her heart. There are no available bachelors in her world, no one to marry a girl so grimy with soot and rickets from vitamin D deficiency. All she can do is long for a love she will never know.
Growing up beside the Kiso Road in a crude and backward village in the mountains of Nagano, she occasionally saw him drive a packhorse carrying goods, and he saw her. When she ripened, they “got together.” You imagine how. “Clappers” are noisemakers hung over a field of ripening grain with a string attached, so they can be pulled to scare away hungry birds – however the birds simply fly to the next field and wait for the puller to leave. When you marry a packhorse driver in Kiso, you get little romance but much futility.
A woman leaves her home village to work in the City and meet a guy; pregnant, she returns so her mother can help out before birth and after.
After she finished weaving a piece of fabric, she folds it and leaves it while she goes to the back door of the house to light a stick of incense and spread sweet fragrance throughout the smelly farm kitchen, So she moves her body back and forth, up and down, around her swollen belly. In the place she herself was born, she prepares her body and spirit for delivery through physical work. (A far more extensive discussion of this stanza appears in B-5 PREGNANCY AND BIRTH)
Basho writes to his follower Chigetsu, a widow in her sixties：
Basho speaks of the yome, Chigetsu’s daughter-in-law who came to this household decades ago. Without Abigail Adams to remind him, Basho “remembers the ladies.” Western books on Japan emphasize the mother-in-law’s cruel oppression of the yome who lived in misery until she could pass the misery onto a younger yome -- as if nowhere in Japan did in-laws get along with each other. People cannot be generalized in this way. Certainly in Basho’s time some old mothers welcomed the future into their household.
Here is a rather laid back scene; the shop of a herbalist with shelves holding thousands of substances used to improve health -- yet no customers. Basho takes it to a new realm; the place is so laid back that no one does much of anything. The oldest son, heir to the household and business, has not in three years managed to impregnate his young bride. This is serious business. Women might be divorced for not producing a child within three years – however the problem may be with his contribution. Why haven’t they used the right herbal remedies from the shelves to fix him or her up. Come on, you two! We need that heir!
Basho portrays the oppression of women in patriarchal marriage
Here is a house (or shack) where the residents (or squatters) feel threatened; they startle at ordinary autumn sounds in a rice-growing village: the clatter of noisemakers hung over fields of ripening grain to scare away hungry birds. They allow the trees and shrubs surrounding the house to grow wild, so from the road only one window can be seen. Is that window an eye watching the road, armed and ready, to defend his freedom? All that in two short lines.
Basho continues, clarifying that the householder is a thief, yet focusing on the woman married -- probably without license or ceremony --- to this schmuck. We imagine his lack of concern for how she feels. Chosetsu’s stanza is profound social realism, but a masculine, anti-social reality. Basho looks rather at the female side of the gender coin.
My thoughts go to Nancy in Oliver Twist, also married to a thief, the despicable Bill Sikes. Nancy participated in the evil of Fagin’s gang, yet when the time came, she fought courageously for life and decency. From Chosetsu’s stanza I imagine the warped humanity of Fagin and Sikes as the police and mob closed in on them, while Basho’s stanza leads me to the tragedy of Nancy, but also to her liveliness and integrity.
Still sick and weak from a difficult delivery, she provides sustenance for a new life. As she sits nursing the baby in her arms, “tears of dew” are her tears falling on the baby, the thin watery fluid coming from her malnourished breasts, the summer sweat between two feverish bodies, the utter misery of their existence – while the father is…The net is a small one where she and the baby sleep. Sitting inside to eat and nurse the baby, her world is reduced to the smallest dimensions, as small as her hopes for herself and her baby, as miniscule as his concern for their welfare.
With a mere two dozen words, the three poets create a world, complete with mother, father, and baby; breastfeeding and speaking to baby; the love between the couple; the sadness of him being transferred to a distant place; the melancholy notes of the lute together with her distraught sobbing, from evening through night into day.
A glimpse of Basho’s followers Uko and Boncho at home in Kyoto can be seen in the following anecdote: one freezing, snowy night Boncho was about to leave for a poetry gathering, taking along a 12 year old servant boy. Uko spoke out:
A 17th century feminist haiku. Uko is threatening to show her husband her strength. Historian Louis Perez translates these instructions from the contemporary moralist tract, Greater Learning For Women,
“The great life-long duty of the woman is obedience… a woman should look on her husband as if he were Heaven itself and never weary of thinking how she may yield to her husband and thus escape celestial castigation.” To this nonsense, Uko says “Not me!”
Sometime around 1693 Boncho was convicted of a crime and imprisoned – whether he is in jail at the time of this letter to Uko is unclear.
Either ‘I hope Boncho can stay out of jail’ or ’I hope he gets out soon.” Meanwhile Uko is on her own with a small child. Mujo junsoku, ‘Impermanence so swift’ is a central thought in the Japanese mind—that everything will pass away so soon. Basho writes with a repeat mark. Three years ago Uko was a doctor’s wife with a fine house and a tea cottage in a wealthy neighborhood of Kyoto; from now with Boncho in jail Uko will become very poor.
Our next lesson in marriage experience begins with great hope for the birth of her first child and her future happiness:
Basho sees her years later, a village housewife who would love to gossip about fickle men for hours at the community well, but with so many children to feed and clothe, she simply has too much work to do. Because the previous stanza is about birth and the following stanza about sex, the “well” may suggest a certain part of a woman’s body. The "fickle man" is her husband who makes his money buying thread spun by village girls and selling it door-to-door to women, then instead of spending the money on family needs, he purchases a night as “guest” to a play-woman. As he leaves her place in the dawn, she may come outside to watch him leave. A man who deals in something so small and unexciting as thread must be small and unexciting elsewhere, so I doubt this woman feels much enthusiasm after her one night of pretending to love him. This is what his wife would say at the well, the wife who was so hopeful pregnant with her first child.
Basho portrays the uncertain, transient feeling of people who have torn down their old house, and are building a new one, so right now are homeless. They have a place to sleep at night, but spend their days at the construction site. They have made a firepit in a shack on the property, and there cook lunch. Sonome says camping in a shack is fine for guys, but as a woman she would go crazy without a proper stove and sink and all the other convenieces of a 17th century kitchen. The woman in her stanza did get hysterical, and was ready to return to her native home, an action which could lead to divorce -- but then she thought about it some more, and resolved the matter in her mind: she stays with her husband and, by looking forward to the new home when it is built, endures camping out for a while longer.
Notice the link from the fire in Basho’s stanza to the hysteria in Sonome’s. Basho sketched a family in these circumstances; Sonome narrowed the focus to the wife. In two short lines, she manages to convey both the burning desire in the woman’s heart to get away from the mess and dirt and inconvenience, and also the cooling down as she realizes she had better stay and endure.
Who chances upon money lying on the street and uses it on home improvements? A man would more likely spend his lucky find on his own pleasures, so we say this is a woman. Pleased that her floor mats have fresh, sweet-smelling woven-straw covers, she invites her parents and siblings and their kids over for a party. According to the patriarchal system of Japan, when a woman enters her husband’s family, she gives up involvement with her relatives, and lives only to serve her husband and sons. Both stanzas (in this translation) are mildly subversive, allowing the wife to focus on her own concerns and feelings.
Men gather with their peers, then take a nap, while their wives chatter in their local dialect with no inhibitions and much ribald humor about the young virgins deflowered by their sons, then joining the woman’s collective in this village. Ryoban objects to unsupervised women speaking so freely because such liberated wives (he thinks) treat their kids like little emperors who grow up weak and unable to regulate body temperature within normal parameters. Renku Sociology 101.
Her husband’s bell awakens the town every morning -- as at night the wife alerts the same people to her child being lost. Both stanzas focus full attention on the woman, her breath and her activity expressed by an abundance of active verbs. Also the stars in the night sky resemble the glowing embers in the ashes of the fire pit.
The endless diversity of human life and marriage experience. Basho makes the leap from woman talking-too-much to woman overly fond of garlic. This root is eaten to ward off heat-sickness and mosquitoes. She seems to be spending the whole hot month in that net where she goes on eating garlic and talking about things.
They married long ago with hopes of prosperity, but things have not worked out so well. There is no sense of one blaming the other; both are looking for the best way to survive together. Both are humble to the other. The gender equality in Basho’s stanza flows into the mutual humility in Izen’s. Literature usually shows us heroes or villains; these folks are neither; they are simply losers. Shoko says, “Because they are losers, they each know that that no one except the other will help.”
Apparently the husband is deserting his family. He does not sit down with them to explain or say good-bye, he does not even come into the main part of the shop. He just leaves a letter of exclamation and a few coins inside near the door. We feel his shame and his weakness, there in Ensui’s words. His mother holds the coins in her hand, and cries for her son abandoning his responsibility, for her daughter-in-law and grandchildren now with no one to support them. Ensui speaks only of man; Basho brings in the woman and children. So smoothly the mind moves from Ensui’s stanza into Basho’s.
Iugen in 1689 was an 18-year-old Basho follower struggling to survive as one of many priests at the Ise Shrine. He and his even younger wife were in financial straits when Basho visited them, though they have inherited a fine house built by the shrine. The following essay is the head note for the haiku MOON BE SAD.
The teenage wife, as would any Japanese woman, wanted everything to be absolutely perfect for her husband’s Poetry Master, so she used all her teenage skill and care to arrange the flowers in the alcove just right, cook a traditional Japanese meal for Basho, arrange the bathing room so it would be easy for his old tired body to get a relaxing hot soak, and set the futon room for his convenience and restful sleep. He notices her efforts and consideration for his needs, and sees in them her commitment to her husband and the household she has married into.
Akechi Mitsuhide was a major player in the Warring States period, the hundred years of alliances, betrayals, slaughter, and revenge that occupied the powerful men of Japan from 1467 to 1567. He and his wife, Tsumaki Hiroko, had six children, the most famous being Tama, her Christian name Gracia, the model for ‘Mariko,’ the heroine of James Clavell’s Shogun.
Once, when their stronghold was destroyed in battle, Akechi, Hiroko, and the children had to wander about staying in various Zen temples. The impoverished Akechi was expected to cater a poetry gathering for many VIP guests, but lacked the funds to do so in the style required. If the gathering did not go well, Akechi would lose face, which in this fiercely competitive group could lead to the end of his career. Hiroko did the one thing she could do to get the funds: she cut off and sold her floor-length black hair. (In Shogun, Mariko tells Blackthorne this story Basho likes so much.)
So Basho has compared Iugen’s wife to this noble, self-determined, and resourceful lady of the past. Imagine the boost this gives to the marriage of these two struggling young people. Imagine the boost it gives to the self-esteem of the wife. Like “Curly’s wife” in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Iugen’s wife has no name. Unlike Curly’s wife, however, Iugen’s wife is in control of herself and devoted to the success of the household she has married into. And look what she has managed to do: Basho wrote a haibun about her devotion, and with no name of her own, she has made her husband’s name known through the centuries. A powerful young lady.
The moon with 29-day cycle is a worldwide symbol for the feminine.. Basho is asking the moon to be less bright, more subdued, so we can speak of the sadness in women’s lives. Alongside every man who becomes famous is a woman whose life is just as remarkable and certainly more productive. Of the wife let us speak. Basho knows that Iugen’s family will cherish their copy of this haibun, and until the day she dies, the wife will recall the night Basho stayed with them, realizing that he wrote this haibun and haiku to, and for, her.
Imo are ‘tubers’, the thickened starchy underground section of certain plants. Because tubers (a) provide much nutrition from ground too poor for other crops, (b) underground are protected from storms, and (c) can be stored for months without spoiling, tubers keep people alive during famine. Sato-imo, or taro, were the “village-tuber” – the stable food of peasants -- in Japan (in Hawaii, kalo, the ingredient for poi). The song Imo arau, “Washing Taro,” found in a 1578 songbook, is far older than Basho.
The speaker is a woman washing taro. She begins with a simple counting rhythm, similar to “one-potato, two-potato…” but also meaning “Does he have a mistress in the Capital and which one of us wll he prefer?” Taro are traditionally harvested on the day of the harvest moon, the 15th of the 8th Moon.
‘Round’ refers to the shape of taro, of the full moon, and of certain parts of a woman’s body (“Tiny taro are preferred”). Women’s groups may enjoy singing the song, call and response. It has no assigned rhythm; each singer creates her own rhythm.
Taro in Japan reach maturity in September so they nourish the peasants – 80% of the population – through the winter. Here the village women (onna domo, plural) have gathered the small and various-shaped taro in baskets and taken them down to the river to wash off the dirt while they chat to each other. The round corms fit easily into their small hands as they dip them into flowing water.
The words here are very flexible. Either the women sing the song “Washing Taro” to the famous 12th century poet Saigyo, or he sings to them. I have allowed the translation to fit either possibility. Saigyo sings, or the women sing, of the reality of marriage in Japan: she works hard every day in the four seasons, struggling to feed herself and the children on staple foods like taro (or potatoes) while he goes wherever husbands go, eating fancy foods in restaurants and enjoying pleasures he cannot find at home. The haiku together with the song affirms the solidarity of women, to circumvent the loneliness of the wife whose husband wanders about doing his thing.
The husband, at least, has cotton clothes – and when he gets home from wherever he went, he expects them to be mended. She worries the eternal worry of wives everywhere: will he return?
The falcon, bred for hunting, is an exceedingly masculine image, yet in old age feels the loss of life force. Basho leaps to the human female world of widows in old houses they can no longer maintain.
“Pounding cloth” is woman’s work – so here the phrase means . the man’s constant repetitive effort to gain her trust and access to the wealth she inherited from her husband. He seems to have enjoyed the summer with her, but has other plans for winter.
Fallen hair” means the wife has died – for a woman’s hair contains her life force. “Dew” is the forces of wetness that rust, corrode, and wear out all things. She looked in the mirror so often it retains a copy of her face – or maybe the husband and wife were so in tune with each other that their faces came to resemble each other.
Carmen Blacker, in The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan, explains that the miko twanged her bow of catalpa wood with one hemp string to, “emit a resonance which reaches into the world of spirits, enabling the shaman who manipulates it to communicate with that world.”
On the 49th and final day of mourning, a widow listens to a miko channel her husband’s spirit. Never again to make herself beautiful, no longer will she need a mirror.
The two Sato brothers died defending Yoshitsune from his enemies.
What did these women do to deserve such praise? They did what all young women who have lost husbands do: go on doing the best they can for their children and household. Basho, unlike any other male poet, focuses his attention on the women in history, and asks us to retain these stories of female “sturdy diligence” so future generations can know them.
Kaka is a rustic word for “old mother.” The word is “vulgar”, meaning “of the common people” but not derogatory; most Japanese consider it a term of affection. Chiso is literally ‘a treat’ but every Japanese knows this word as part of go-chiso sama deshita, the common everyday expression of gratitude to the one who prepared food. Kon Eizo tells us the meaning he sees hidden in this verse:
“Maw waves her round paper fan over the hot food to cool it off. This is an impoverished farm house, so we see Paw has returned from the fields, (taken off his sweaty cloths) and sits in his loincloth. Watching his beloved wife (aisai) bestow her heart (kokoro tsukai) on the food, he enjoys the evening cool and waits for the food.”
Kon recognizes the psychic energy, the love, Maw bestows on the food as she waves her fan over it. The scholar reveals that this is a love poem, not the love of young people at the beginning of their search, but the love of an old couple near the end. In the poetry of heaviness, we would grieve over their poverty and misery. However, with Lightness, we forget all that, and focus on peaceful feelings of wholeness, of love and gratitude, even in old and impoverished country folk.
In the stereotypical Japanese marriage there is no love; it’s just a convenient arrangement for the man to get on with his life while the woman supports him and raises children. The Japanese speak of the “Three Commands” of the husband to his wife on those nights when he is home: Meshi! Furo! Neru! (Meal! Bath! Sleep!).“Bath” means heat the tub of water so I can take a bath, and “Sleep” is “put out of the futons so I can go to sleep,”not “let’s sleep together.” Yet, once in a while, in the park, you see a grey-haired man and woman walking hand-in-hand, the love based on long familiarity obvious between them.This is the love Basho wrote of in A Narrow Path in the Heartlands:
the love he wrote of in a message in his Will to one of his oldest friends in Edo, Jokushi: