Basho renku on “play-women” are crucial documents in the history of the struggle against male exploitation of woman's body. 100 years before Vindicaton of the Rights of Women, Basho spoke out for the woman’s point of view on prostitution. In each of the Basho stanzas the woman is central to the scene, vital in her womanhood even while she suffers from cruel patriarchy – and I believe Basho is the only male writer in all the centuries who so focused with “compassionate intuition” on ordinary women in hundreds of verses. I pray that women who have been trafficked and exploited, and those working to stops these crimes against humanity, will find amusement, as well as empowerment, in these verses.
Most “play-women” in this era were young village girls indentured to a brothel to save the family from financial ruin. Brokers went to areas struck by famine, searching for “bargains.” Historian Mikiso Hane describes how girls were told they were going to the City to be maids or waitresses, but then were forced, from age 12 or 13, to have sex, sometimes with brutal or insulting men, every night of the week, and were beaten if they refused or tried to escape. “Play-women,” despite their gorgeous kimono and make-up, were prisoners. Although some did enjoy this life, and managed to rise in
the ‘profession’ to become comfortable or even rich, and some were purchased by a wealthy customer, MOST either died young, often from syphilis —the average age of death in the play-quarters of Edo has been calculated as 22 years— or grew old working on the “fringes of the sex and alcohol trade.”
Rotsu begins and Basho follows:
Rotsu states reality: young village girls were sold to the brothel for a money loan –the system set up so she can never pay off the loan,and will remain in slavery till her death – which, with no defense against venereal diseases, might be painful and soon. Basho gives her a message she wishes to send in a letter -- and renku scholar Miyawaki notes that this may be to her guy back in the village, the boy she knew since childhood and just began to love when she was taken away. She has no way to get her letter out without the brothel seeing it, so she asks the man polishing her mirror if he will post it outside (without telling his employer).
The mirror in Japan has been for a thousand years associated with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Being round and shiny, a mirror was considered a ‘child of the sun.’ When the Sun Goddess sent her grandson down to Earth, she gave him her Sacred Mirror, and told him that whenever he looked into it, he would see Amaterasu. That Sacred Mirror, kept in the innermost and holiest sanctum of the Ise Shrine, is the absolute center of Shinto worship. Shinto teaches that
sin is not original or ingrained. We are clear inside, but accumulate sins like dust on a mirror. To restore the original purity, all we must do is wipe the dust from the mirror.
In Basho’s day, mirrors were bronze-plated with an amalgam of mercury (as in the dental fillings of my childhood). In time the plating got cloudy. Mirror polishers were craftsmen who grinded the surface on a whetstone, and polished with mildly acidic fruit juice, to restore the original clarity - in effect making him a servant of the Sun Goddess, one who can be trusted with a woman’s private message. Every time she looks into the mirror he polished, to do her hair or make-up, she will see him, the carrier of her message; she will see her beloved reading the letter, and she will see the holy Sun shining with Hope. Here is Basho’s genius in all fullness, his deepest penetration into the vulnerable heart: “Can I trust you?” – the question women ask silently every day.
In NOW TO THIS BROTHEL, Rotsu created an image of a woman sold into prostitution, and with CAN I TRUST YOU Basho added personal intimacy to that oppressive image. Here the same two poets do something similar in reverse:
I am surprised to meet you on the street, a young woman who grew up together with me in my hometown, after so many years have passed. Oh my dear, one so close to me that you know the affectionate name my mother or nurse called me while I suckled and later as a child. Basho’s rhetorical question takes us both back to that paradise of innocence in our shared childhood. Rotsu jumps ahead fifteen years to see 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 especially rough, dirty men. 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. Basho lays the foundation of intimacy, then Rotsu builds the house.
On his journey to the Deep North, in Obanazawa, Basho and his local followers composed a linked verse of 36 stanzas Here, Basho’s stanza alludes to mythical stories about local legends, however Ryoban saw the potential in Basho’s stanza for a severe indictment of brothel slavery, and Sora fulfilled that indictment:
Sora’s stanza portrays the misery of a young girl from a backward village in the Deep North sold to a brothel in a harbor town where she is forced to have sex “on a pillow of waves” with the scum that comes off boats. Ryoban’s 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 burned and 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.
The brothel loaned money to the father with the daughter as surety on the loan, then she was expected to pay off the loan from the money she received from each customer after the brothel took its share. They give her a two-room suite to live and work in, and better food than she got at home in poverty, yet they charged her for them. And they encouraged her to live luxuriously so -- remember she was a teenager -- she borrowed more from them. If she went into the hospital, her expenses were added onto the principal of the loan. The system was set up by the brothel to insure that few women ever got out of debt, so they had to continue their ‘service.’ The system was legal and administered by the police.
The next verse by Lady Chiyo, born ten years after Basho’s death, conveys the play-women’s experience of mi-agari, when she pays the brothel her fee for one night, so tonight her “customer” is herself:
She wanted this one night to herself, to gather her inner resources, the resources she needs to go on with this life – but with no warm body alongside, the sudden drop in temperature after midnight in late autumn awakens her. Unable to get back to sleep, she lies there wondering and worrying, how will she ever earn her freedom when she takes nights off and has to pay for them? Wondering What is karma? And what is syphilis?
The wonder of Chiyo’s haiku is how it contains three worlds – economics, the oppression of women, and seasonal awareness – all these between the upper and lower futons.
No one ever sees her cry, yet still she mourns for the love she might have experienced if…
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.
The average age of death for play-women was 22, so a woman still in the Yoshiwara play quarters after thirty years is most unusual. The experience has aged her hair more than the rest of her. Basho’s stanza sets up a mystery: is this her bedroom now? or her bedroom long ago? In either case, the suffering play-women wrote the nembutsu prayer for salvation from the bodhisattva Amida: namu Amida buttsu. I find it interesting that Shimasue Kiyoshi, the comiler of the BRZ, gives absolutely no explanation for this stanza; every Japanese gets the meaning without a doubt.
On their journey to the Deep North, Basho and Sora have walked along the Japan Sea coast in the hottest part of summer to reach the Barrier of Ichiburi. They lie on their futon at a ryokan or inn on the east side of the border gate.
So begins Basho’s ode to two women on a journey. They were “play-women” in a brothel in Niigata, but they left that profession in Niigata. Now on a spiritual pilgrimage, in pilgrim’s robes, they are not currently play-women; they are woman. As he fell asleep, through the wall of his inn: he heard one:
The moonlight shining on the roof makes the inn a sort of shrine, and the lovely purple bush-clover decorates this holy place. Under that roof are two courageous women, asleep with the kamisama.
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.
“Lady Love” is a courtesan who fulfills her job, to make her customer feel like he is the most important fellow in the world, and also order lots of expensive sake. He is even willing to die for such a lover – yet we must keep in mind that this is all pretense and acting. She no more loves him than she will love tomorrow’s customer. In fact, she pities his gullibility and hates having to play these stupid games with him.
Sometimes a woman got out of a brothel into something worse:
A rich and powerful man in the Capital has paid off a play-woman’s loan, so now he owns her. He keeps her in a shack with a low door that can hardly open because of all the thorns. He does not want the neighbors to know she is here. (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, his colleagues, and the media.
Talking with the brothel’s customer in bed, I realize that this man is my cousin; probably we 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. Basho takes our minds in such unexpected directions.
The emperor has ordered troops to subjugate the rebels; the samurai gather, and when morning comes, leave camp with strict, solemn military precision. Someone is going to get it! Meanwhile, the commander of the rebels (Han Solo) has spent the night in a brothel, and when morning comes makes a hasty departure so he can prepare his army. Before he leaves, since he is not likely to need cash ever again, he gives all he has to his partner in “one night’s vow.” (Military commanders carry considerable funds). Here we have a play-woman who got lucky. Now she can purchase her freedom, return to her home village, a hero because she saved her family from ruin, marry that boy she loves, and have children.
Taking off from Sora’s masculine military stanza Basho creates a blessing for the feminine. Though the woman is not mentioned in any word, if we look into the link between the two stanzas, we discover her, one who has endured year after year of degradation in solemn dignity, and from her years of misery we leap to the wonder of her good fortune – yet along with the joy she feels for what he has given her, comes the grief of knowing why he is giving away all his cash.