Can women today be empowered by poems and prose written in a different language by a man 330~350 years ago in a patriarchal society? Basho never shows us women lifting heavy loads, fighting ferocious beasts, or getting angry or aggressive: such is not the empowerment he concieves for women. His interest is rather in women finding the power to maintain themselves, their womanhood, in the face of bullying and abuse, to sing in harmony with others, to work steadily and consistently, providing for the future, to be "heroically brave" in spite of utter misery and gloom.
Consider the meaning of this term according to Wikipedia:
The term empowerment refers to measures designed to increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination in people and in communities in order to enable them to represent their interests in a responsible and self-determined way, acting on their own authority. It is the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights. Empowerment ... enables them to overcome their sense of powerlessness and lack of influence, and to recognize and use their resources. To do work with power.
Maybe you will not feel empowerment by a Basho verse today, but tomorrow or a year from now, when you consider the verse again, maybe when you are in a similar situation, the power will come to your mind.
Young Japanese today (knowing no Basho renku) consider him old-fashioned, desolate and lonely, having no relevance to modern life -- however here he penetrates to the heart of a problem plaguing society today: bullying.
Female servants are working together in the kitchen around the wood-burning stove, Kyokusui portrays the underhand cruelty of teenage girls who think they are so great to one who does not fit in with their clique. Saibari, literally “talent stretcher,” is someone with little talent who pretends to be an expert – so “smart-asses” they are.
Basho focuses on the young female responding to a physical problem – a cinder from the fire burns a hole in the hem of her house robe – with a simple direct action that immediately puts it out. She does not fuss over the bit of burning matter, or complain about it, or get angry at it. She simply crushes it between her thumb and forefinger. The girl who is bullied does not give up and submit, nor does she get upset in fighting back. Instead, she remains cool and calm, and with her attitude, she “rubs it out.” She rubs out the power of the bullying to upset her. With this small physical action, she "increases the degree of autonomy and self-determination" in her self.
Demi Lovato puts it this way:
Confident women don't let anyone — men or other women — trash talk or
undermine their dignity. They make their own choices about self-identity
and to be who they are, flaws and all. Don't let anyone tear you down.
Sora takes us to Chapter One of the Tale of Genji where a young woman, Kiritsubo, becomes the Emperor’s favorite. His jealous older concubine spreads bad vibes toward her throughout the court. As Kiritsubo walks about, women hide from her, saying horrible things about her; older women themselves, they know just how to shame a young woman; this is heavy stuff; girls commit suicide from shame such as this. Kiritsubo herself died from sickness brought on the ill will of those bitches at court.
Basho however gives his poetic creation life, not death. Lying on the futon beside the Emperor, she maneuvers her hand and arm into the space under his neck, watching for any signs of awakening, adjusting her hand and arm movements so he will not. In spite of the gossip about her and the shame it produces, she manages to love the Emperor with all the gentleness and devotion in her heart – a love so pure shame cannot interfere with it.
If we judge this woman according to our own principles of feminism, democracy, or anarchism, she may become the servile minion to a bogus diety – however if instead of those principles, we consider her within her own world-view, we see the remarkable power Basho has given her: awake in bed with him asleep, she has total control of one she and her entire nation believes is divine; right now, she has more power than any woman in Japan.
Basho’s stanza by itself contains no Emperor, so the one asleep can be your lover, husband, or child: as you care for this one, allow the physical body activity and spiritual depths in Basho’s words to empower you.
In the 12th century the shogun Yoritomo sent henchman to capture his younger brother Yoshitsune, but unable to find him, they took Yoshitsune’s mistress, the dancer Shizuka, and brought her to Kamakura to dance for the bully-in-command. Starlight shines from Shizuka’s tears as she struggles to hold them back in defiance of that horrible Yoritomo. Basho continues with a remarkably active, motionful stanza. Yoritomo roughly yanks Shizuka to a stance and demands that she dance, renouncing her love for Yoshitsune. Shizuka mocks him by dancing superbly while singing a song of her love for Yoshitsune. Shizuka stands up to Yoritomo’s patriarchy, dancing for the dignity of women who tell the truth. She "becomes stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights."
Shizuka’s defiance of Yoritomo brings to mind Emilia, in Othello, boldly accusing her husband Iago of deceiving Othello.
Emilia realizes that her insistence on truth can only lead to him killing her; she could retreat, stay alive and go home, but she presses onward with stupendous moral courage until Iago does stab her. She dies, honoring the truth. May the female power, the adherence to the truth, in these images of Shizuka and Emilia be resources for women (and men as well) today to find empowerment.
The stanza before this is about a boat; Shoki turns it into a love poem:
The boat carrying her lover has left harbor; she tries to reach it with pebbles – i.e. her love - but her slender arm cannot throw them any distance against the wind. Shoki actually uses the word “power” (chikara) in the sense of having only an imitation of it. From the weakness of the lone woman, Basho switches to a chorus of women allowing one woman to lead them, so their sound goes far. Basho refuses to go along with weakness and solitude; he instead affirms the power and solidarity of women in plural. I find it interesting that Japanese commentators say the leader of the chorus is male – and I suppose most choral groups today are led by men – however in the original Basho gives us freedom to have everyone here be female.
If women explore or recite Basho’s stanza, either by itself or with the previous stanza, they may find it an anthem to female solidarity and mutual empowerment. Basho recommends that women empower each other by singing together. This "enables them to overcome their sense of powerlessness and lack of influence, and to recognize and use their resources." Many women today will agree. Natalie Maddix says,
"Singing really has this healing property. There is a truth inside of us that maybe we're not ready to face and sometimes it's not until we sing together that we even become aware of our feelings."
Before machine-woven thread was available in Japan, women spun plant fibers by hand, and wove fabric on simple looms. Such fabric had a rough texture, and when washed, became all the more coarse. Before the clothing – especially underwear – dried, the damp fabric had to be pounded with a mallet to soften it and remove wrinkles. The sound of women pounding cloth could be heard in all Japanese villages into the early years of the 20th century.
Basho wants something stable in the night sky for these sounds from a woman on Earth. What could be more stable than the Big Dipper, always and forever pointing to the North Star, a fitting symbol for the constancy of women? To produce a sound so clear it reaches the Seven Stars light years away, the heart of the woman doing her work, "working with power," hour after hour, year after year, must be exceedingly clear.
“Pounding cloth” can be more than merely what our foremothers did generations ago: it can be a symbol for ALL the labor women do to maintain fabric and clothing in wearable condition. In TONE SO CLEAR, Basho offers women at work on cloth an avenue to a greater Power in the sky, a passageway through the heaviness to the divine.
It may help to remember that the Big Dipper is the ‘Drinking Gourd’ Black escaping slaves followed to freedom in Canada; to keep on their way North, they chanted over and over again, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” – the very best advice they could give themselves. I hope that by blending this power from African-American heritage with Basho’s haiku TONE SO CLEAR, both women and African-Americans can look up into the night sky to find inspiration and empowerment.
Hi tobashite / kinuta atagau / kodomo-tachi
Mother works from sun up to sun down; finally she takes a break in the evening, to wash her long black locks. Beside the well, she rubs a cloth bag of wet rice bran powder between her hands; the saponin or soap-like foam that emerges through the fabric has been used for shampoo, as well as face and body wash, since ancient times. Rice bran is rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals which moisturize and strengthen hair, protect it from ultraviolet rays, and prevent hair loss. So she provides for her hair’s future. Where does Basho go from this female chemical wisdom?
A wooden mallet, used to pound fabric of hand-spun yarn after washing so it would dry smooth and wrinkle-free, can represent all the work women do on cloth to keep it wearable, or all the work do with the power of their arms and hands. This can be an individual mother giving her children work to do in the evening, or she can be iconic, a symbol for all mothers passing on the torch to their daughters, first the older, then the younger, for as many girls as there are in the household. She gives them Light – a bit of the Sun emerging from a lantern – and Work, the long tradition of females working day and night without complaint, simply working, hour after hour, generation after generation – providing for the future, her children – only taking time off to care for their hair. He empowers not only the individual woman, but also the succession from mother to daughter.
In the 21st century, millions of women do physical work hour after hour while other millions do not. Can this stanza-pair promote the empowerment of both types of women? I believe the keys are to see the images as metaphors, and to link them together so each image empowers the following image:
Rice brain shampoo nourishs and empowers a woman's hair, and women feel power coming from their hair. "Lighting lantern" can represent education: the means to overcoming poverty and deprivation. A mallet gives weight and power to the slender hands and arms of the female or child. Binding these three images together - chemical nourishment plus education plus physical strength -forms a most powerful trio to empower women worldwide.
In his world-famous journal A Narrow Path in the Heartlannds, Basho tells two stories to empower women.
First, seeing the tombstones of the two women married to two brothers who died in ferocious battle to protect the hero Yoshitsune. History and literature remember the men while women (aside from romance) are forgotten, but Basho is different:
Basho says these women were kaigaishii, a word usually used for men, meaning 'gallant, heroic, brave,' - but instead of writing it in the masculine Chinese characters ordinarily used for this word, he writes in hiragana, the script used by women, which femininizes the word and makes the reader pause to search for the meaning. Basho honors these two widows for gallantly progressing through the lonely years doing the utmost they could for their children and household. Only Basho would consider this female conduct as brave and heroic as dying in ferocious battle to protect a hero. This is his feminism.
Later on in the journal, Basho encounters another two women, prostitutes at a brothel in Niigata City, but now on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Ise Shrine. He records their speech:
Yet for all the weakness and uncertainty they express, they had the courage to leave Niigata to walk more than 600 kilometers (400 miles) in which they could be be robbed, raped, or killed. The widows of the Sato brothers suffered the loss of their husbands, but they still had fine houses to live in. The play-women from Niigata went on a pilgrimage with nothing to comfort them; they only had their inner strength to endure hardship and misery, but they also had something else: eachother. Two women on a pilgrimage and two women surviving without husbands, each has a source of strength no single woman has: solidarity.