Teenagers, find ways to use these verses as resources to understand yourselves and other teens. Anthropologists, use them to expand your understanding of human growth.
Homer spent many words on portraying the adolescent nature of Telemachas in the Odyssey, as Shakespeare did for Romeo and Juliet (see C-19 Kids in Western Literature till Shakespeare). Basho
uses far fewer words on many more teenagers in his renku, or linked verses composed by a team of poets, each writing a stanza inked to the one before. The majority of these verses are about girls; only
about eight about boys – however even eight verses is more than any other poet wrote about teenagers.
The existence of 26 verses about teenage girls, all offering praise, is altogether remarkable.
Single layer cotton cloth has been rinsed and is hanging on a line to dry in the breeze; overhead a lark sings brightly rising to heaven. The “flock” of girls in their pretty robes, going to have fun, chatting and laughing with each other, complement the clarity and freshness of the first stanza. Clean white fabric, skylark, cherry blossoms, and group of happy girls, all rise up together.
Japan idolizes the joyful sparkle of teenage girls – the sparkling quality which the girls in J-Pop groups are selected for -- and it is fascinating to see this consciousness in Basho 330 years ago. Where else in classical literature can we such young female joy? The obvious answer is Rosalind in As You Like It: Judith Cook in Women in Shakespeare says “Rosalind is a part which offers an actress all the wit, liveliness, and joy anyone could wish for.” Basho would have enjoyed her character.
Recovering from a long illness, with help she lifts herself to a sitting position on the futon. As she runs the comb down the full length of smooth black hair, she takes in its power. Then she caresses her adorable furry pet so kawaii! Watching her cuddle and pet this small living being, so soon after she was near death, makes me love her so much more. To keep the young and gentle from growing old and bitter, if only there was a way.
On the porch, December 22nd the Sun at its most distant point from us, his heart so distant from mine, how my desperation increases. I use all my skill with cosmetics and clothing, and look at him with all the charm I can muster, yet he does not return my gaze.
Her voice is always beautiful, but the hoarseness of a cold gives it a different beauty. Though her voice is so pretty, Basho makes her silently return the tray with the lunch she has no appetite to eat. From this and our knowledge of young girls, we suspect something going with her hormones and the advent of puberty. Her immune system is weakened by a cold, and food will only make her feel worse. Basho who grew up together with and paid attention to one older and three younger sisters writes with the feeling of a teenage girl. Girls today will understand her better than any literary scholar can.
Although Basho was writing about a different sort of tray, you may see this as a tray at your school cafeteria. The verb “slide back” is far more active and lively than would be the general and listless “give back.” That feeling and sound of that physical action together with the beauty of her voice form a sketch of this teenage girl who can be you.
Moles occur when cells that give skin its natural color grow in a cluster instead of spread out over the skin. A child may been born with a mole, or one may occur during the teen years
The mole does not interfere with her intelligence or motor ability, but everyone who meets her sees it, and consciousness of this saps her self-confidence. Grown up together with her sisters who have no moles, she hates the unfairness of this, but there is nothing she can do about it. Someone who cares for the daughter’s happiness has given her a gorgeous robe for dancing in the local shrine festival, but she is too ashamed of her mole to show it to the whole town. Can you imagine her as being your younger sister? Or your daughter? Or yourself.
Notice the physicality of Basho’s stanza: it contains only the active verb “folds up,” the object of that verb, “robe for dancing,” and the location of that action, “inside the box,” plus one word, “aimlessly” which conveys both physical and emotional experience. Also notice the flow of emotions from “detests” to “aimlessly.”
Kyaku wa mina / samukute kooru / kotatsu no ma
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. 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. He portrays the oppression of females common in Japan, yet his stanza occurs in a vacuum. Basho could have followed with more about the wife and 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 while sitting -- is square and provides seating for four people, so probably the father is sitting with two or three guests. The mother and daughter – in this society – would not be sitting at the kotatsu, but rather preparing or serving 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 sitting at a warm kotatsu. We imagine how much worse his abuse is when no guests are present. Basho thus completes and fulfills Shiko’s feminist vision, yet leaves us boundless room to imagine more of this family who may be a family we know.
A group of female servants are working together around a wood-burning stove. Here is the underhand cruelty of girls who think they are so great to one who does not fit in with their clique. A girl responds to a physical problem – a cinder from the fire lands on her hem – with a simple direct action that immediately puts it out. She does nor 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. So, if you are bullied, do not submit, and do not get upset in fighting back. Remember how big you are, and how small the “cinder” is.
I think Basho means what we today call “attitude.” The girl who is bullied does not give up and submit, nor does she get upset in fighting back -- cool and calm, with her attitude, she “rubs it out.” She rubs out the power of the bullying to upset her. 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.
Every one of you
in nadeshiko time
The flower nadeshiko, a type of carnation, has, since ancient times, been associated with Japanese femininity and youthfulness; because of what men want, the word came to imply submission to patriarchy – but now with Nadeshiko being the name of the Japan Woman’s Soccer (football) team that won the 201l World Cup, it can suggest “strong, bold, intelligent.” Here is a Basho stanza for all who are young and female.
Basho creates the turmoil in the heart of a teenage girl; she broods over thoughts of love, upset to hysteria, shaking all over. While he creates the daughter, he also creates a compassionate and understanding mother to calm down her child; she manages to say the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her heart.
Shiko makes the passion psycho-somatic; blasts of adolescent hormones produce night sweats, copious perspiration which soaks her nightclothes and bedding, usually accompanied by emotional crying. After the mother in Basho’s stanza quiets down her daughter and she falls asleep, Shiko creates the dreams which end the turmoil and silently return her brain to normal as a new sun rises.
The Nachi mountains near Kumano are famous for warrior disciplines such as archery in weather so cold you can barely feel your fingertips on the bowstring. Archery competitions are a New Year’s ritual, and for boys coming of age, a manhood ritual. (Sort of like ‘who can pee the furthest?’). In the link between the two stanzas, we feel the urging of life in early spring to become full spring as one with the urging of prepubescent boys to full masculinity
Long ago, when young folk wrote love letters with pen on paper, tears might smear the words. (If texting, they may flood the pad.) This raw adolescent from the boonies tries to express the depth of his love for some girl in a poem to her, but he is no Shakespeare. Bear's grease was a popular treatment for men with hair loss from at least as early as 1653 until about the First World War. The myth of its effectiveness is based on a belief that as bears are very hairy, their fat would assist hair growth in others. He wants more than just his hair to grow like a bear’s.
Inner urges of sexuality have confused his motor coordination, so he cannot manage the beautiful phrases and calligraphy that will impress her; he asks a monk to write the letter for him. The monk, however, being experienced in these matters, includes sexual allusions the boy cannot understand -- though the girl might.
I have been sent to the temple to become a monk. The priest in charge takes the clothes I wore coming to the temple, and sends them back to my former home. As my clothes go back to my mother, so go my thoughts.
Two brothers, the younger looking up to his future growth, the older back to his shorter past -- so without misfortune life fulfills itself. The hope of young lads in the countryside everywhere: to take a break from the family business and go see the magnificent shining City. How the Japanese make wishes: taking a cupful of water from the basin before the shrine building to wash one’s mouth, then bowing to the gods inside and asking what you want.
A boy has practiced the bamboo flute hour by hour, embedding the finger patterns into his brain circuitry, but because the temporal and frontal lobes of his brain are still immature, signals sometimes get mixed. When he awakens in the night, his fingers move spontaneously, as if they were on the holes of his flute.
Basho likes the elements of music and young boy, but rejects the solitude and detachment from reality. He expands the flute theme to two brothers who have practiced together for years, sitting in seiza, proper sitting position, beside each other, so their knees line up. Younger imitates older who relies on memories of when he was young. The harmony between two flutes played by boys sharing the same genes, same home, same upbringing, comes from the same deep mind as the subconscious coordination of finger movements.
The most famous teenager in Japanese history and literature, Taira Atsumori was recognized from youth for his talent on the flute, and given a family heirloom, his grandfather’s bamboo flute “Green Leaves.” His clan, the Taira, ruled Japan for some years, but were driven out and destroyed by their enemies. The night before their destruction, they had a party to enjoy themselves while they could. Eighteen year old Atsumori played his flute, touching the hearts of all who heard.
In the morning the attackers overwhelmed them. The Taira fled to cabin boats they had waiting on the beach. In the chaos and confusion, teenage Atsumori forgot his flute. He went back to get it and returned to the shore where he was cut down by an enemy warrior.
Basho 500 years later, is at Suma Temple near where the battle occurred, where the actual flute of Atsumori is kept.
In summer the multitude of green leaves blocks out the sunlight, so there is a shade, a sort of darkness, under the trees – and also ‘shade’ suggests the presence of a ghost. In this place where Atsumori played his flute five centuries ago, Basho feels the vibrations from that performance still lingering in the earth and stones, remaining in “traces” of the flute notes produced by an 18-year old boy.
Father died in war when I was small, and I have grown up under the weight of that grief. Now, finally reaching the prime of youthful vigor, I look back over those years of dreams awake and asleep constantly reverting to that one moment on a battlefield I have never seen in reality. Miyawaki, says,
“For a boy, his father is his model to learn from by observation, his goal in life. Having reached the age when now he can go to war, to see a dream of father in battle is the same as being on the battlefield himself. His regrets for his father can never be forgotten. The bond between father and son is well expressed.”
Written in 1687, can this stanza-pair reach the heart of one – girl or boy -- whose father was killed in war, natural disaster, or terrorism? I encourage teenagers who have lost a parent to explore this verse, especially as you approach eighteen. Also I hope adults who counsel bereaved teenagers to show it to them. The clear, straight-forward expression of personal feeling may be consoling.
No-longer-freezing wind melts final bits of snow, while warmth rising into the cold air condenses to mist before the moon. Early spring before there is any warmth suggests the early stages in a woman’s sexual life. In evening her futon and her dreams are still rolled up. She longs to spread the futon out, and her virginal body on it, so spring may come to her loins.
San, in Japanese imagery, would be a girl who grew up in town – not in a village – so she has some sophistication; her hands are not stained by mud. Following the conventions of love poetry, we know that this is the robe she wore when she was with him. Iris flowers are folded into clothing to go into storage to keep away bugs but, of course, her feelings here are more romantic. Hidden within the words, in the link between two stanzas, is the teenager’s experience of first love.
Love starts out simple but somehow becomes “intense.” Basho’s stanza makes the most sense if this is a teenage girl. “Although the turmoil of young love takes away all my appetite, mother insists I eat, to build up my slender body. Why can’t she understand that I cannot eat while this turmoil rages within me? Mother, stop bugging me!” History books never speak of mother-daughter conflicts so we look to Basho for information. 300 years ago or today, the daughter thinking of love, but mother of nutrition, so no meeting of minds. May this stanza-pair be a lens through which mothers and daughters see the other’s point of view.
A servant girl chops dried vegetable leaves to serve on top of rice, but her mind is “elsewhere” Where is that? With her lover who is a packhorse driver. She wishes for a day they can both have off, so they can hang together. She wants him “inside making love” – inside a house, and also inside her.
Big brother’s question really has no meaning, but may somehow console the lovesick sister. This could be Basho’s little sister Oyoshi, or your own little sister. These verses belong to you.
A teenage girl is speaking to herself: “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 such a big deal, but I hate the way he lorded over papa.
Just because he’s the boss, he thinks everything belongs to him!!”
Basho continues the theme of patriarch versus teenage girl: “and look how he treats his daughter, keeping her in the house, not letting her go outside and have any fun. 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 she will be “safe.” The Japanese call this hako iri musume, “daughter in a box.” The point of Basho’s stanza is the difference between cultivating a flower and cultivating an adolescent. The combination of two stanzas is a study of the teenage girl’s annoyance with a father and daughter of a higher class. Girls who make it their business to study human relationships may find this link interesting.
Wild boars come down from the mountains in autumn to ravage the ripe fields of grain with their savage tusks. Basho adapts this image to the human situation.The hormones kick in but there is no money to build an appearance attractive to girls. We send Basho’s verse out to all the impoverished young boys who “learn to wait for love” shivering in a thin jacket in the chill wind of an autumn nightfall.
The image of a young lord of noble birth at the hunting grounds has a long romantic tradition suggested in Kikaku’s stanza; in this context, “clouds” suggests 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” (yashinau) is 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.
Western authors and feminist historians have little good to say about the treatment of young wives in this “oppressive, feudal” era; they say a married woman was constantly suffering under the tyranny of her mother-in-law. When Basho says these positive things about his society, that a young wife could hope to be nurtured in her new household, I think we should listen. Our “first princess” will be happy in her new household happy because society, village, and family are at Peace, and Peace brings prosperity and harmony to many people. With so many writers focusing on negative aspects, we welcome Basho’s vision not only of the poor and lonely but also the well-off and flourishing.
In Asian cultures, rice is strongly associated with women, fertility, and the nurturing of children and society as well. Many Southeast Asian cultures believe in a female rice deity, or Rice Mother who inhabits the rice field, protecting the harvest and nurturing the seed rice; still today they make offerings and practice rituals to honor her. Rice is considered a feminine plant, soft, sensitive and shy, like a young girl. It dislikes being 'manhandled' – and so the labor of rice cultivation, except plowing, is done by women who do this work with care and sensitivity “so the rice goddess doesn’t become upset.”
Traditionally rice was planted by the young women of the village -- where these traditions are preserved in shrine festivals, the planters are older teenage girls -- in hope that their fertility would magically transfer to the fields. In reality women continued planting rice even as they grew older, however the tradition saw teenage girls and young unmarried women – i.e. maidens -- planting rice. In this article we explore five Basho verses in which the living young women planting rice merge with the divine Rice Mother.
Here Basho is at a village where, centuries before, women rubbed dye on silk fabric over a large rock with an intricate checkered surface to produce mottled patterns that became famous throughout the land:
The female hands gently separating the countless tiny roots of the seedlings from the dirt of the nursery bed, careful not to damage them, are the same hands which centuries ago rubbed dye onto cloth: the same hands – the same DNA, the same precision and delicacy – inherited from mother to daughter in this village in the heartlands. Dorothy Britton says Basho “contemplates with obvious delight the physical grace of nubile young women’s hands busy at their traditional task of transplanting new rice.
A traveler took a break from walking to sit and smoke his pipe, then when he got up, he left the pipe. Down the road a piece, he realized and went back to get it – however evening has fallen and the pipe is hard to find. (He sounds like me.) Basho jumps from absent-minded single man at leisure to merrymaking crew of teenages up to their shins in the “chocolate milkshake” of rice paddy, flinging mud at each other, joking and laughing – like a bunch of their teenage descendants today at the beach throwing water at eachother. Their behavior is ridiculous; it serves no serious economic purpose, so the old-fashioned male-centered (androcentric) and tradition-bound mind rejects it. Basho rather sees the ridiculous in the modern way, as amusing and “fun.”
Western books on pre-modern Japan note disparagingly that night soil was used as fertilizer, however few mention that the feces were separated from the urine, and stored in a koedame, ‘night soil jar’, dug into the ground, for at least one month, producing fermentation at temperatures up to 160° F (70° C) in which complex molecules, including parasites and germs, decomposed. So the night soil was sterilized before being put into the paddies for the maidens to walk barefoot in. These people were not such idiots that would cause their young women to die from infection.
Basho thinks from the mind of the teenage rice maiden; she is young, feminine, and concerned about her facial appearance.
Mount Tsukuba – today, 45 minutes north of Tokyo by train -- is famous for having two peaks almost the same height. The last bits of snow up there do not melt until early summer. Notice how Basho brings our attention to those “peaks.” The great poet sees the “mountains” pressing out under the robes of those maidens drinking rice wine to send a tingle through their bodies and lower their inhibitions.
In only seven words can we find the spirit of this child? After-harvest is among the busiest times of the farm year. The entire household works together all day and into the night to thresh and hull the entire year’s crop. Rice was hulled by turning a mortar over another mortar with grains between. After hours of exertion, gazing at the bright moon may provide a momentary escape from Earth and the labor of a tired body.
We can see Basho’s haiku from the point of view of someone (such as me) who has never done this work, however I wish to know how children who hull rice today will experience Basho’s poem. Let’s take the verse beyond the scholars and put it in the books young people in the developing world read, both in English and their native languages. May children and teens worldwide who work long hours feel some connection to the child laborer in Basho’s haiku. May they pause to look at the moon and see a message from Basho, a message to stay clear and strong inside.
She turns away from the moon which represents menstruation
Blackwood burns slowly, giving off dark smoke which accumulates over the walls, ceiling, and inhabitants in this shack in a mountain hollow where the sun never shines. Who will marry a girl so grimy with soot and deficient in vitamin D? It is easy to focus on women who grew up in the right circumstances and have all the tools to make themselves attractive – but in this verse Basho pays attention to a girl without those advantages. Ranran portrays her tears spreading all over like wild lilies in a field.
Left or right
wherever I put my tray
Although this poem was written 330 years ago, it can be your experience today or the experience of someone at your school.
The boss pretends
not to see their love
yet he knows
behind the umbrella
Walking together in town, the lovers are surprised to see, and be seen by her boss. He is cool and does not say a word, but her heart shrinks with haji -- shyness, bashfulness, embarrassment. She wonders he is thinking: if he imagines her naked and doing IT, if he condemns her for having sex without marriage? She clutches the handle to make the umbrella cover as much as possible without any movements that might attract the boss’s attention.
The first stanza is the “interesting” one, and Basho’s a cliché, but that cliché perfectly complements and completes the image. Renku scholar Miyawaki Masahiko says, “Probably no other following stanza so well expresses the sense of shame felt when one’s love becomes known to others.” Japan is said to be a “shame culture” rather than the “guilt cultures” of the Judeo-Christian world. Miyawaki is Japanese and writing about Japanese people, in particular Japanese women, but what about us, people in all sorts of different cultures, with different perceptual realities of love, young or old, married or unmarried, do we, or did we long ago, feel “shame” (or embarrassment or whatever we call it) when our love is seen by an authority figure who gets the picture?
Here is a Basho haiku for all women, but applies well to teenage girls, especially for those of you who wear your hair long and parted at the center to flow down both sides of your face. Rice cake is molded from glutinous rice mochi or dough so her hands and fingers are covered with sticky stuffy she does want on her hair.. “A lock of long hair has come loose from the band in back and fallen before her eyes.. Without thinking or breaking her stride, she reaches up with the clean surface on the side of her hand (above the thumb and forefinger) to tuck the hair behind her ear – with nothing getting on her hair. We have all, in every land where women wear their long, seen this action with the side of the hand around the ear. Try it with your own hand and you will recall exactly what Basho means.
This is Basho’s Mona Lisa, his most graceful hidden female. Only Basho has the delicacy and precision to draw such a moment out from the flow of everyday female life.