Scholars have added their sexual and humorous fantasies to Basho's account of meeting two women at an inn. We instead consider the female reality of prostitution in Japan to honor the women.
Basho and Sora have walked along the Japan Sea coast in the hottest
part of summer to reach the Barrier of Ichiburi. Basho wrote:
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 spiritual pilgrimage.
We have seen in C-5 MY BODY HAS BEEN SOLD that most “play-women” were village girls trafficked by their family to a brothel in the city to have sex with a different man each night, and were beaten if they refused or tried to escape. The BIG QUESTION then is,
What are they doing on the road 150 miles west of the city?
Those who write about this passage apparently assume that these women were traveling prostitutes, selling sex to strangers and trusting them to pay. Western women might do such a thing, but Sone Hiromi, who has studied the Edo-era sex trade, says "instances of individual prostitution in which a woman made a living without an employer or anyone watching over (or living off) her were extremely rare. (p. 76) Tomorrow we meet these women and they seem to be on their own - however brothels do not give their slaves vacations, especially to travel seven hundred miles on foot and probably never return.
This year, 1689, however is the one year in twenty when the Ise Shrine is taken apart and rebuilt again using the same materials; many Japanese make pilgrimages to Ise at this time. For so important an event, it is conceivable the play-women convinced their owner to let them go on vacation. The brothel owner knows they may not return, or (being dead) cannot return, but is letting them go. He has already made back his investment on them. Also, he knows that if they do return, they will be so grateful, they will work all the more willingly for the rest of their pitiful lives. (This may not be the way you, the reader, would think, but could be the thoughts of a young Japanese girl from the countryside 300 years ago.)
Or maybe they have left without the brothel’s consent; this is called nuke mairi, an ‘loophole-visit’ to the Ise Shrine. Shoko says even the most exploitive Japanese brothel owner would not punish a courtesan for escaping to visit the high holy shrine of Shinto at this special time – so long as she returned and went on seeing customers to work off the debt. This ‘loophole’ however is only good in the one-year-in-twenty when the Ise Shrine is renewed. Or, maybe they are truly escaping; they have no intention of returning to that
hellhole of a brothel, no intention of catching syphilis and dying before age 22. Simply running away is an option easy for me to imagine – because I am a rebellious American– however a Japanese women would be less likely to consider it – especially since doing so would put her family into debt.
Men get fixated on the image of “courtesans” in gorgeous kimono and hairstyles – as illustrated by the 18th century poet and painter Buson and by Miyata Masayuki in Donald Keene’s translation - however Basho when he only heard them through the wall gives no information at all about their appearance. It is far more likely that they are in drab shapeless pilgrim’s robes, since they are on a pilgrimage. They cannot walk on the dusty road for miles and miles in a fancy kimono, sandals, and styled hair; also, they would not be allowed through the provincial barrier gates. Historian Louis Perez says of both male and female pilgrims:
“The samurai at check points let them through without many problems as long as
they were dressed as pilgrims and seemed to be behaving themselves.”
I cannot see them carrying the kimono and obi and make-up and elaborate combs and sandals and what-not in their luggage on foot for 400 miles. They are traveling in ordinary robes without make-up or any of that feminine stuff; they are on a pilgrimage. Basho only knows of them as ‘play-women’ because he heard their conversation through the partition between the rooms.
Men, assume what you want to assume – but remember that these women are not, at this time, objects for you to desire. No. They left that ‘profession’ behind in Niigata; now they are pilgrims.
The older man in their room may be the uncle of one of the women who has agreed to help them begin their journey; tomorrow he will take back letters to their parents who they saved from starvation.
The Play-Women’s Lament
these words I hear as I enter sleep.
The lament gives voice to all the women throughout the ages who have been ‘reduced to misery’ by the sex trade. David Barnhill says, “this entire passage has given rise to voluminous and varied commentary,” however I note that in much of this commentary little attention is given to the play-women’s lament.
Male scholars avert their eyes from the misery of prostitution, preferring to imagine that women are happy to provide sex the way men like it, without commitment. Ueda describes Basho’s haiku (below) about the women as a “light-hearted, even humorous poem about two pretty courtesans who happen to lodge at the same inn.” Ueda says nothing about their misery, while Basho says nothing about them being “pretty.”
The lament alludes to an 11th century tanka:
The call girl in the tanka resents having to sleep each night in a different love hotel, instead of in a home of her own. Like most women she seeks constancy in vows – as Sora wrote in a haiku which Basho included in his journal just before The Play Women from Niigata:
Ospreys, or fish hawks, form a ‘pair-bond’ so a couple stays together till one dies. They usually build their nest in trees, but this rock among the waves stands high enough that the birds feel it safe for their nest, and in that safe place they vow their commitment to each other and to their young.
Basho’s speaker applies the word “inconstant” from the tanka to the “vows of one night” she and her customers made with no possibility of fulfillment. Sex without vows—even pretend vows—is
mechanical and empty. Such ‘cheap sex’ is available from women known as ‘night hawks’ and ‘cotton pickers’ who hang out in the hills where men can find them -- but men go to expensive brothels
for an experience closer to the real thing. Both courtesans and customers go through the ritual of “one night’s vow,” pretending that sex is love, to give him what he paid for. The inconstancy of this, the degrading pretense, is what most bothers her. Like her sister two centuries later, she wishes “to keep
my life pure and refined.” Now that she and her companion have freedom for a while, and no one knows what they will find at Ise, maybe something real for their heart’s commitment.
Gōin, literally ‘cause and effect’, is associated with the Buddhist doctrine of karma from the past determining one’s present fate. The woman speaks of “everyday karma” (hibi no goin), not karma as
philosophers explain it, but rather the karma in her daily experience. Ika ni, how, is a question word. Unlike philosophers, the speaker claims no understanding of karma—since no human can actually know what is destiny and what is the result of personal choice or the actions of others— but she wonders — as every woman trapped in sexual slavery must wonder — how could her life have turned out this way?
She grew up in a farm village. What tragedy in the world brought her beloved parents to such poverty that they traded their daughter for a money loan?
While some male commentators and translators de-emphasize the misery so clearly expressed in Basho’s words, others augment that misery with a concept absent in the original — the concept of ‘sin’. For example,
Donald Keene translates the lament as:
“What terrible karma accounts for our inconstant vows,
the sins we have daily committed? We are wretched indeed.”
A ‘sin’ in English is “the breaking of a religious law or moral principle, an offense to God or humanity.”
There is no mention of ‘sin’ anywhere in Basho’s original. These play-women have committed no sins—although horrible sins were committed against them.
Yuasa Nobuyuki more explicitly blames the victims for their misery; he translates:
“having been forced to find a new companion each night, they had to renew their pledge of love at every turn,thus proving each time the fatal sinfulness of their nature.”
Yuasa apparently assumes that they were private prostitutes, since in a brothel women do not have to ‘find a companion’; either the house assigns her to a customer or he chooses her. While Keene sees the “sins” committed by a woman, Yuasa with his phrase “the fatal sinfulness of their nature” makes sin inherent to womanhood. He seems to be grafting the Judeo-Christian concept of Original Sin onto the Indian doctrine of karma, sort of a double whammy. Let us discard the patriarchal concept of “sin”—whether inherent or
committed -- from the Play-Woman’s Lament, to instead realize their feminine search for purity and refinement.
In the sadness of autumn, tiny purple petals of bush clover form in countless multitudes on the bush, live out their brief lives, then scatter to the ground. The two women have walked many miles to get to this inn. The day-long exertion and anxiety comes to rest in the haiku. All are sleeping peacefully under the moon shining on the roof of the inn. I find it strange that many translators think the middle segment means “we slept with prostitutes” -- as if Basho were making a school-boy joke about sleeping in the same building with women who do IT for a living. Ha-ha. Actually there is no ‘I’ or ‘we’, no male person, anywhere in the
verse; the only subject is ‘play-women.’ Just because some men insist upon seeing themselves and their fantasies in every scene, we do not have to join them.
Also, netari means ‘to sleep’ without sexual connotations; just to sleep, with peaceful dreams. To androcentric thinking, women have no role but to serve or please men – so if these women are merely sleeping, they may as well not exist. We remind the men that these women are NOT, now on this trip, prostitutes. They are pilgrims and they are women. They walk miles and miles every day, through the heat and humidity, the way Basho does, so they need their sleep. Let us not bother them with sex jokes.
Robert Aitken notes that some commentators assume that:
Basho equates himself with the moon, serene and aloft,sailing through the sky, while putting the play-women on alevel with the unfortunate bush cover, living out their brief existence below.
Aitken disagrees and so do I. Basho has no conceit; he would never see himself ‘above’ anyone else. Pre-eminant Basho scholar Kon Eizo sees it exactly the opposite: Basho is the low, humble one while the play-women are gorgeous like the moon. (though, remember, that at the time of this haiku, Basho has not even seen the women; he has only heard their voices). Comparison -- characterizing complex human beings in simple terms of higher or lower – is NOT what is going on in this verse. Aitken remarks, “Comparisons are odious.” Rather than comparison, the point of this verse is Unity. These women are icons, symbols of
humanity. ALL of us, no matter what we do or have, are tiny petals soon to scatter in the wind. Everyone in the inn – ordinary travelers as well as wandering poets and women on spiritual pilgrimages, and
the innkeeper’s family as well – will soon pass away while the moon shines forever.
When we watch someone fast asleep—alive without consciousness - we feel he or she exists on a separate plane, closer to the divine. The moonlight shining on the roof makes the inn a sort of shrine, and the bush-clover decorates this holy place. Under that roof are two courageous women, asleep with the kamisama.
When we see the women as the center of Basho’s verse with no male presence, the poem becomes an ode to the silence and harmony of the woman's spirit asleep.
The speaker expresses much weakness and uncertainty, as is the stereotype for Japanese women, however let us remember that she and her companion have had the strength to leave Niigata with no knowledge of where they are going, and the strength to walk the same “nine days in the heat and humidity” Basho suffered on the road to Ichiburi.
The women see Basho and Sora’s black robes and assume they are actual Buddhist monks. They specifically ask Basho and Sora to “tie the bond” (kichien sase) that brings them into Buddhism. Although they are on a pilgrimage to the holiest shrine in Shinto, they still seek salvation through a vow to the Buddha. So Shinto and Buddhism function as one in the play-woman's mind).
Another possibility: the inn is on the Niigata side of the barrier gate,so from now, they have to pass through. This is still their home province, so Ichiburi is the first barrier gate they are crossing. It has a reputation for being very severe with women travelers. If the guards suspect they are escaping from a brothel, they may hassle them. These women are accustomed to arousing and satisfying men. When they get to the barrier-gate, can they steer the guard’s mind away from sex, away from suspicion? They do not know what will happen when they get to the gate. The two women talked it over between themselves and decided that
if Basho and Sora accept them as initiates, they may have a better chance of getting through to the next province.
Basho’s response seems heartless. He ignores their request, ignores their need for reassurance, and brushes them off with a cliché. In some Buddhist thought, one should not get involved; trying to help only pulls the knot of karma tighter. This heartless response, however, may be a literary device Basho created when he wrote A Narrow Path in the Heartlands four years after the journey; since Sora in his factual diary says nothing about play-women at Ichiburu, it is probable that the entire incident is fiction. As fiction, Basho intentionally leaves us with a feeling. If he told us that he and Sora helped the two women, we would feel more confident about their future. Since he refuses, we feel “pathos unceasing.” The reality is that since men will not help, these women have only one thing in their favor; they have each other, their solidarity: