Basho's renku and letters tell of his lifelong concern for the well-being of children and teenagers; he paid attention to children of all ages, and recorded their circumstances and behavior. In this article are poems and letter sections about:
Poverty and deprivation
Treatment of newborn females
Infant health and mood
Disease and immunity
Abuse of females
War and death of a parent
(Poems on ABANDONED CHILD are in article C-11;
about trafficking of young girls into the sex trade in C-5 MY BODY HAS BEEN SOLD)
One Japanese poet, Yamanoue Okura. a thousand years before Basho, explored sociological themes such as the effects of poverty and wealth on children. Edwin Cranston says, “With Okura Japanese poetry begins to develop themes outside the traditional trinity of love, death, and divinity…”
The contrast of decadent wealth versus impoverished degradation well suits our age also. Cranston tells us that Okura “staked out new ground” writing poetry of “family life and social concern,” but Japanese poets in the centuries after Okura made no effort to follow this focus -- however once we recognize the “social subject matter” and “compassionate intuition” in Basho’s linked verses, we may see the traces of Okura’s social concern in Basho renku:
The parents do not wipe the snot off their kid’s face, so germs produce skin infection and pus smeared together with dirt and tears. They seem to be transients who do not go to the trouble of maintaining a fire in the sunken hearth for the hour or more it takes to boil rice. Instead of eating “meals” (which in Japan means with rice) they live on snack foods high in salt and saturated fat. The snotty-faced kid does not get much in the way of nutrition. The observations of the two poets resonate across time and culture.
This dealer in medicinal herbs is so prosperous his house has a roof of heavy ceramic tiles (most houses at this time had roofs of thatch). The Chinese gables at the ends are most impressive; they make the place look like a temple. Growing up in a rich house, where knowledge of herbal remedies and their use is second-nature, why is this child so skinny and sickly? Basho creates the question but gives no hint of an answer. Such is life; we can only observe but never understand.
In summer of 1690, the samurai Kyokusui was among the entourage of the Lord of Zeze in attendence on the Shogun; they remained in Edo throughout the next year and into the spring of 1692. Meanwhile in Zeze, Basho visited Kyokosui’s mansion. Infant Takesuke was Kyokusui’s first son and heir to the household.
From letter to Kyokusui, dated August 1, 1690:
Basho could see that the baby was “born with” (umare-tsuki) intelligence, endowed by his parents; thus he also praises Kyokusui and wife. Takesuke is getting bigger because he is drinking breast which is milk germ-free and designed for human babies to digest. Kon believes that this uba was Kyokusui’s nurse, and has stayed on with the family as a nanny to help care for the children. Whether she feeds Takesuke from her aging breasts is unclear. More likely, Kyokusui’s family has hired another younger uba for Takesuke, possibily with her own baby who grows up together with Takesuke. Because the old uba lives with the family, she is there to help care for the children so the wife – and Takesuke – will not stress out with her husband away in the Capital for 18 months. Maybe this woman does not fed Takesuke, but she does the rest: changing diapers, washing and drying, carrying the baby about, allowing him to play without getting hurt.
Readers familiar with child welfare may note that Basho gives a remarkably complete developmental profile on the infant:
1) gaining weight, 2) shows intelligence, 3) health good, 4) father absent
5) but child lives in stable, extended family of women devoted to his care.
6) They remain cheerful even when he is sad (because papa is away) so they cheer him up
and 7) Takesuke “shows no signs of loneliness”.
Doctor Basho looks equally at the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of child development – and sends his observations to the father to help him feel better in his absence from his son. Basho pays attention to children in ordinary daily life, and furthermore he pays attention to people caring for children.
In another letter to Kyokusui, dated December 14 of that year 1690, Basho, still in Zeze, again portrays the infant in a way that will please and reassure the concerned father whose job requires him to be far away from his son.
Basho’s praise for one-year-old Takesuke pleases Kyokusui because his young heir is the next generation, the next layer, of Kyokusui. The father is a samurai, but nowadays there is no fighting, and samurai have become government administrators. Kyokusui has little opportunity to be manly, and his son is growing up without father present. Basho reaches inside Kyokusui’s heart to reassure him that his son is showing adult traits, becoming a takumashii (strong, sturdy, vigorous) little samurai who can also laugh – just like Dad.
A picture of chubby baby boy in an advertisement for baby food: we are certain this male child is getting the best. His sisters may not fare so well. Basho is not condoning preferential treatment for male babies; rather he is photographing what he sees, for us to judge.
From the villages where life goes on at a natural pace, young folk migrate to the Big City where competition and the high cost of living make life rough (but more fun than in the village) so they must “calculate” to survive. City people, in their endless calculations, lose their natural feeling toward their young, so for a son they sent out a birth notice, but not for a daughter. In much of Asia, throughout the millennia, only boys were cherished while girls were considered a liability and might be strangled immediately after birth or abandoned to die from the cold.
For New Years of 1693 Basho received a letter from his childhood friend Ensui telling of the birth of Ensui’s first grandchild, a girl. Ensui called his granddaughter “still an edge emerging” the first slender bit of white petal seen as a flower bud begins to open. Basho responded in a letter on April 4th of that Spring.
‘Her immaturity just shows that the best is yet to come. Basho links his heart with Ensui, matching Ensui’s joy with his own. He recognizes and affirms Ensui’s positive feelings about the newborn female; he says it is okay for Ensui to treasure her. (this in Asia where infant females were, and sometimes now are, killed at birth or allowed to die soon after) We cannot read this letter without feeling the warmth in Basho’s heart. He expresses it so clearly. If Basho's poems and letters about female child welfare were taught in schools throughout Asia, maybe Asian boys would grow up with more concern for their sisters and daughters.
Ten months passed. For the New Year of 1694, Basho sent another letter to his oldest friend:
The whole tree will become gorgeous, as the infant who can now stand by herself goes out into the world. Again he links his heart with Ensui’s, feeling Ensui’s love for the baby in his own chest. Basho, an Asian man in the 17th Century, praises the life of a newborn female. He says with complete and utter clarity:
Cherish the female as well
Winter brings savage winds from the North to rip the last leaves from the trees, withering whatever they touch. Hohobare, (swollen cheeks) is the old way of saying the mumps, an acute communicable disease of children that causes swelling of the salivary glands below and before the ears and a high fever as the immune system works to kill the mumps virus.
Why is this child with the mumps outside in the winter wind? A feverish body needs to be inside, under many futons, since with a fever the body is much warmer than the surroundings so heat escapes easily, which we call ‘feeling chilly.’ Why is this child with the mumps outside in the cold winter wind? Mother has to shop for food and the baby has mumps. With a zukin or hood over the head, she straps baby to her back with a kimono sash.Then she pulls a nen-neko hanten, an oversized thick padded jacket over both of them, and goes outside into the bitter wind. The little body is snug and warm next to the mother’s back, and the steady walking rhythm soothes the feverish baby to calm down and maybe fall asleep. Everywhere is covered by jacket and hood, except for around the nose and mouth, so baby can breathe – this is when Basho sees the “cheeks swollen and painful.”
Basho, with no modern medical knowledge, recognizes the essential nature of immunology: that disease leaves “traces” (antibodies) to prevent that disease from reoccurring in this body.
Baby cries that panicky scream that so upsets adult ears. Mother or babysitter busy with something else, to shut the kid up, thrusts baby into a cradle. Imagine the crying baby as a house under construction – busy, busy, busy with both carpenters inside the frame and around it, and roofers on top, sawing, hammering, moving things about, shouting to each other. As it grows dark, all leave and that house becomes absolutely silent. Such is the magical quieting effect a cradle has on the infant. has on the infant. Screaming, facial distortion, falling tears disappear into silence and peaceful breathing. Basho recognizes that one of the keys to infant welfare and happiness is movement which stimulates the inner ear senses of gravity and motion.
No word in either stanza specifies a teenage girl – but somehow we feel this is one (and I speak from memory of three such). Her voice is always beautiful, but the respiratory hoarseness of a cold adds 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. Her immune system is weakened by a cold, and food will only make her feel worse. Girls today, and social workers concerned with girls, 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 physical action together with the sound of her voice form a sketch of this teenage girl.
Basho wrote this stanza with no connection to SLIDING BACK; at two different times in his life, he saw the expression of a girl's inner life in the way she moves a lunch tray. I hope high school students will apply Basho’s stanzas to your own experience or the experience of others in your school. Three hundred years ago in Japan, someone experienced what you, or that person, experiences today.
Kyokusui speaks of any age or gender, how love starts out simple but somehow becomes “intense.” Basho switches to the first person with a stanza that makes the most sense if she is an adolescent girl. His stanza is what she thinks:
“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!”
This stanza-pair conveys the reality of that “generation gap” occurring between mothers and daughters in every time and every land. Basho shows us that mothers three hundred years ago worried about their daughters struggling to stay slender, and daughters hid their inner feelings from mothers, so the problem could never be resolved.
The verse belongs in every high school curriculum – yet such inclusion is inconceivable. Every educator “knows” that Basho is “literary” and not relevant to our modern age; that to understand Basho requires scholarly knowledge beyond that of ordinary teachers and students - and so the world is deprived of this astonishing resource for teenage education, the only poems in world literature focusing on ordinary adolescent life.
Rice is harvested, the grains threshed from the stalks and hulled to remove the coarse scaly husk, leaving edible brown rice. Traditionally it was pounded with a mallet; many women and girls in Africa, do it this way today. Various devices have been invented to improve the efficiency of human force in rice hulling. yet the workers still have to concentrate for long hours.
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, some using the family’s rice-hulling machine, others doing it the old way. After hours of exertion, the child gets a brief rest. Gazing at the bright moon may provide a momentary escape from Earth and the labor of a tired body.
Is the child in Basho’s haiku a boy or a girl? Some may think girls are too delicate for this sort of arm and shoulder work, however in rural villages worldwide teenage girls manage to do hard work. 19th century Western visitors to Japan tell of women doing far heavier work than did the men – and the tradition of hard working women clearly began by the teen years.
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 girls and boys 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 native languages. May teens worldwide working long hours feel some connection to the child laborer in Basho’s haiku.
A kotatsu is a heater (charcoal in Basho’s time, electric in ours) with a table on top and a blanket to hold the warmth around the lower body while sitting.
The subject may be a husband who insults his wife and daughter, or an old woman harassing her daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Shiko and Basho have created an astonishing portrait of a dysfunctional family. Father or grandmother verbally abuses 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. Basho: the poet of Humanity.
Feminist Tokuza Akiko tells us that in Basho’s time,
Criticism of women’s intelligence, autonomy, and moral worth as essential to the total subordination of women that society demanded... Parents thus protected their daughters’ chastity and morality by isolating them both from men and from rational and critical thought.
A pretty grim prognosis, however Basho was an exception. His many verses affirming the young female are a unique resource which should be part of world education, as well as sociology and anthropology textbooks.
Young Japanese today consider Basho “impersonal,” “old-fashioned,” and “wabi-sabi,” having no relevance to modern life, however here is a linked verse in which Basho’s stanza penetrates right to the heart of a problem plaguing our society today: bullying.
A group of female servants is 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 a little talent who pretends to be an expert – so “smart-ass” fits her.
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 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. 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.”
I hope victims of bullying find some wisdom from this verse helping you to deal with the bullies, and I hope social workers concerned with bullied children show them the verse, and talk about what it means and how it can empower kids against bullying. Can you just “rub it out” with attitude? Can you reach out across the centuries to this harassed young woman to share power with her?
The speaker is a teenage girl: “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 combination of two stanzas is a study of the teenage girl’s annoyance with the unfairness of the adult world,
In any time and any place, fathers try to control their daughters. Often their strictness avoids a bad outcome, and often it backfires – as it did in Romeo and Juliet. Some may consider Basho’s couplet STRICT NOT TO LET HIS too short to be a “poem” – but whatever it is, fathers and daughters may find in the words an avenue to understanding. I especially want to send this verse to places in the world today where daughters are not allowed to interact with people or learn anything beyond work and religious customs; they will be a good way to learn English as well as Basho thought.
Father died in war when I was small, and I have grown up under the weight of that grief, year after year struggling to deal with this loss. Now, in the prime of youthful vigor, I look back over those years of dreams constantly reverting to that one moment on a battlefield I have never seen in reality. The Japanese does not indicate the child’s gender; Renku scholar Miyawaki Masahiko, assuming this teenager is male, shows us how to find the profound human depths in this link:
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 died in Iraq, Afghanistan or on the streets of America? 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.
Basho’s Will, dictated two days before his death in Osaka, contains this message to his neighbor Ihei in Fukagawa who led the efforts to care for Jutei, the widow of Basho’s nephew Toin, as she died, leaving behind two young teenage daughters:
On his death bed Basho reaches outside his painful dying self to care about how his orphaned grandnieces are feeling and how they will manage after he is dead. We see a neighbourhood welfare system that cares for neighbors, even children, in need.
Basho creates the turmoil in the heart of a teenage girl and also creates a compassionate and understanding mother to calm down her daughter. The daughter broods over thoughts of love, upset to hysteria, shaking all over, Her mother – or someone like a mother –manages to say the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her down. Shiko makes the passion psycho-somatic; the 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 so she falls asleep, Shiko creates the dreams which occur to end the turmoil and return the brain to normal as a new sun rises.
As children become teens, social problems arise from their sexual energy overflowing. In the following haibun, Basho refers to these words of Confucius which adolescents today should consider:
Teenagers, pay attention.