Basho's renku, or linked verses, about the oppression of women in this article, as well as those empowering women in article B-13, reveal a feminism in Basho within his misogynistic society.
“Criticism of women’s intelligence, autonomy, and moral worthwas essential to the total subordination of women that society demanded” says feminist historian Tokuza Akiko about Basho’s era. A pretty grim prognosis, however Basho was an exception. In his linked verse he either praises the woman, or observes her without judgment – and in some verses he portrayed the oppressive conditions which stifled women in his time.
We begin with Basho linked verse about one of the worst forms of oppression, sexual trafficking, which in Japan was indenture of a daughter in exchange for a money loan to the father. Girls before puberty were sent to the brothel, told they were to be maids or waitresses - but when their first period came, they were forced to have sex with a customer ever night. Receiving some of the money paid by the customer, they were told that they could save that money and eventually purchase their contract and go free – but in reality the system was rigged against them so few girls ever did leave the brothel. Most died, usually of syphilis by age 22.
Now to this brothel
She has thoughts she wishes to send in a letter, but no way to get her letter out without the brothel intercepting it, so she asks the man polishing her mirror if he will post it outside (without telling his
employer). The mirror in Japan has for a thousand years been associated with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Being round and shiny, a mirror was considered a ‘child of the sun.’ A mirror polisher was a craftsman who ground the surface on a whetstone, and polished with mildly acidic fruit juice. By restoring the original clarity of a mirror, he joins the myth to become a servant of the Sun Goddess, one who can be trusted with a young woman’s private message.
Here is Basho’s genius in all fullness, his deepest penetration into the vulnerable heart: “Can I trust you?”
The third stanza, portrays the misery of a young girl from a backward village in the Deep North sold to a brothel in a harbor where she is forced to have sex “on a pillow of waves” with especially rough and dirty men. The second stanza tells us how she got there: her stepmother, while father was away, sold her, an innocent child, to a brothel – although at first only to be a waitress or maid. In the context of the stanzas that followed, Basho’s ”mountains are burned / grass painted with blood” depicts the aftermath of the violent rape of an innocent virgin who now realizes that such loveless sexual encounters will be her grief every night for the rest of her life.
Basho begins in the first person, a young woman surprised to meet another young woman on the street, one who grew up together with her in their hometown, after so many years have passed. My dear, one so close to me that you know the affectionate name my mother or nurse gave me while I suckled and later called me as a child, together we go back to that paradise of innocence in our shared childhood. Rotsu jumps ahead fifteen or twenty years to reveal where those years have brought “your flower face” ‐ to the misery of slavery in a brothel near a harbor where you have to deal with the filth that comes off boats. You, the sweet little girl I knew as a baby, now as I look into your face, still lovely but fading, I see how often and much you cry.
Ordinarily a woman, unless she works on a boat, would not ride on one – so we get that this woman is indentured to a tour boat. Every night she has sex with different men, while only in sleep can she
dream of true love – but the rocking of the boat wakes her to reality, her life as a sex slave on this floating brothel where she will die “thinking of love” but never experience it.
Talking with the brothel’s customer in bed, I realize that this man is my cousin; we probably have never met, but he spoke of a relative who is my relative. Basho then takes an amazing leap into improbable coincidence, al la Dickens: this cousin also was the one arranged to marry me, but something happened and my family needed money, so they sold me to a brothel. And now here he is, in bed with me, only for one night.
A rich and powerful man in the Capital has paid off a play-woman’s loan, so now owns her. He keeps her in a shack with a low door that can hardly open because of all the thorns. (Even if she did escape, where could she go? Here she has shelter and food.) “Seven miles from the Capital” is close enough so he can visit her without too much trouble, but far enough – in the 17th century -- that no rumor of her will reach his wife and colleagues.
Both men and women of the upper classes treated their hair with camellia oil so it would hold the customary styles: This woman at a roadside inn cooks for travelers and also provides sex. She hates the greasy smell customers leave on her pillow. She also hates the degrading pretence of false vows made to satisfy him with no possibility of becoming true love, since she is indentured and can never leave, and this hatred burns hot enough to roast the sardines she prepares for him.
In this house (or shack) 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. The trees and shrubs around the house 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? Basho clarifes that the householder is a thief, yet focues on the woman married -- probably without license --- to this creep. Chosetsu’s stanza is profound social realism, but a masculine, anti-social reality. Basho looks rather at the female side of the gender coin. We imagine his lack of concern for how she feels, along with her constant anxiety over her husband’s occupation. When the clapperssound, she startles, wondering what will happen to her when ‘they’ come to take him.
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. Hear her hysterical screaming at Fagin:
Chosetsu’s stanza leads me to the warped humanity of Fagin and Sikes as the police and mob closed in on them, while Basho’s stanza reveals the tragedy of Nancy, but also her liveliness and integrity.
He seduced her with promises of love and devotion, but when she gave birth to a son, he took the boy to be his heir and abandoned her. With no place else to go, she entered a temple which takes in such women. She had to cut her hair and stay in a cell. Only when her hair grows back can she can re-enter society. Her breasts still produce milk which she has to squeeze out and throw away – while she recalls the baby that milk is produced for – such is the bitterness which fills her heart.
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… She and baby sleep inside the net to keep away bugs; here she sits inside to eat and nurse the baby, her world reduced to the smallest dimensions, as small as her hopes for herself and her baby, as miniscule as his concern for their welfare.
Impoverished peasants (i.e. women) make their family’s clothes from fibers in stalks, vines, or under bark. This family is not quite so poor; he 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? Here is the reality of male-female relationships in patriarchal society. We may recall Linda Loman, the wife in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, darning her stockings while her husband bought new ones for his
Willow branches are pliant and flexible, submissive to every breeze,so we may think them weak. Women too are flexible, and in a patriarchal society expected to submit to every male desire. Men admire strength and rigidity, despising the flexibility of willows or women, as they despise the ‘path of blood’ from women’s
reproductive organs, and also the sickness that comes with bleeding. During her period the continuous spring rains make this woman feel weaker and more shameful.
Basho’s question really has no meaning, but may somehow console the heart of the lonely, unfulfilled wife left in her home while her husband goes where husbands go, and does what husbands do when they are away from their wives. . .
Ensui gives us very little to work with, and Basho only a bit more, so we must supply details from our knowledge of living arrangements in a patrilocal society. 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 who is
abandoning his responsibility, for her daughter-in-law and grandchildren who now have no one to support them. So smoothly the mind moves from Ensui’s stanza into Basho’s.
With no position in society, no family ties, no education, no beauty or sex appeal, nothing to offer but hard work in cold water, she walks to the houses where she washes clothes, and encounters male
cats fighting for access to a female. Cats and humans do it the same way: males fighting to dominate a female. Not only in sex, but in every aspect of life, those on top stay on top – having fun and sex
and leisure -- while those on bottom remain there for life – so impoverished old women do laundry for low pay.
Father (who may be drunk) insults his wife and daughter (or an old woman harasses her daughter-in-law and granddaughter), saying the most horrible, vulgar things. We recall Tokuza’s statement that
“criticism of women’s intelligence, autonomy, and moral worth wasessential to the total subordination of women that society demanded.” In a misogynistic society, abuse of women is so commonplace no
one pays attention to it.
Shiko, though he is a Japanese man, does pay attention, however his portrait of oppression has no context, no situation in which the oppression occurs and that can help explain it. Basho could have followed with more about the father, the wife, or daughter, but this is NOT what he does; instead he creates an environment and other people around that oppression.
A kotatsu -- a heater (charcoal in Basho’s time, electric in ours) with a table on top and blanket to hold the warmth around the lower body -- is square and provides seating for four people, so we imagine the father sitting with three guests. The mother and daughter – in this society – would not be at the kotatsu, but rather prepare or serve food and drink to father and his guests. Father (or grandmother) insults the females even when visitors are over, while the guests sit there shocked by what they are hearing; frozen in
place, even at a warm kotatsu: their silent disapproval of father’s behavior is suggested. They and we imagine how abusive he becomes when no one outside the family is watching. Basho thus completes and fulfills Shiko’s feminist vision, yet leaves us room to imagine more of this family.
Pounding cloth with a mallet is woman’s work – so here 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 summer and autumn with her, but has other plans for winter.
A teenage girl speaks: “We carefully cultivated those chrysanthemums in a vase, but the boss come to visit and made such a fuss about how beautiful the flowers were, that father had no choice but to give them to the jerk! Losing the flowers is not a big deal, but I hate the way he lorded over papa. Just because he’s the
boss, he thinks everything belongs to him!!” -- the pushy behavior of a man used to getting his own way.
Basho continues the theme of patriarch versus teenage girl: “and look how he treats his own daughter, keeping her inside, not letting her go out and be with people. He tries to cultivate her the way we
did those chrysanthemums, giving her everything she wants but making her grow in a single place where no problems can occur.” The Japanese call this hako iri musume, “daughter in a box.”
Akiko Tokuza says: “Parents protected their daughters’ chastity and morality by isolating them both from men and from rational and critical thought…” Japan at this time was ruled by a government which forbid anyone from leaving the country and anyone or anything foreign from entering; this father is doing the same to his daughter. He cannot be king over his nation, or his city, or his neighborhood, and even his
son rebels, but father expects his daughter to be weak and allow him to can rule over her. His treatment may not include abuse or deprivation or hard work, but is still oppression. Without the same
freedoms and opportunities boys receive, she cannot develop her mind. She is just a pretty flower in poppa’s house.