My thesis that Basho is the Poet of Children -- rather than the poet of old men -- can only be sustained by comparison with the children portrayed by authors and poets before Basho. In article C-19 are the children in Western Literature; in the present article, the children in Japanese literature from the 7th century to the 12th. The Western playwrights heap tragedy on children who suffer and often die, right on stage. The Japanese do not do this so much, and Basho’s images are mostly happy and uplifting. We learn that children and their caregivers long ago behave and felt much the same as they do today.
We can read for hundreds of pages in classical Japanese literature and see no mention of young children anywhere -- however one male poet 1000 years prior to Basho, Yamanoue no Okura (666 – 730) did pay attention to children. Edwin Cranston says, “With Okura Japanese poetry begins to develop themes outside the traditional trinity of love, death, and divinity…” Okura “staked out new ground” writing poetry of “family life and social concern.” Here are two of Okura’s tanka written in succession:
The contrast of decadent wealth versus impoverished degradation is enhanced by vivid adjectives – “rotting and thrown away,” “helpless” –and pictorial nouns – “padded garments. . . silk … handspun.” Cranston explains that Japanese poets after Okura made no effort to follow his focus on “family life and social concern” – for like all scholars, he knows not the
“social subject matter” and “compassionate intuition” in Basho’s linked verses. We may see traces of Okura’s social consciousness :
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. So where does Basho go from here? 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 sickly? Basho creates the question, but gives no hint of an answer. Such is life; we can only observe but never understand.
Okura’s headnote to the following ‘long poem’ describes the love of Prince Siddhartha for his son Rahula born before he left society to search for enlightenment. As Buddha he gave up all attachments except for that one, for “even the greatest sage still loves his child.”
A father eats the foods his children enjoyed, as Cranston says “swallowing his grief with each bite. . . The image of fruit and nuts… lends Okura’s verse the savor of a sorrow that gathers in the mouth, juicy like tears, gritty like sand, sweet and flavorful and impossible to forget.” Cranston notes the physical-ness of Okura, the way images of food taste in the reader’s mouth, bringing a deep, deep sorrow. Basho too grounded many poems on physical body and food imagery: for instance the rice-less diet of the snotty child, and the malnourished body of a wealthy child.
Parallel construction, as in “eating melons” and “eating chestnuts,” is common in Basho: for instance this passage in a letter to Ensui Basho recalls two foods at a picnic long ago in his hometown:
Okura wrote this verse “on leaving a banquet”
Out of sound is out of mind, and so men at parties and banquets give no thought to the problems that might be occurring at home. Okura recognizes the needs of his wife and children even when he cannot hear them. He
thinks from their point of view, as he goes home to give her some relief. This in the 8th century.
Basho also feels the loneliness of the wife while her husband is out and about.
Still sick and weak from a difficult delivery, she provides sustenance for a new life. As she sits nursing the baby in her arms, “tears of dew” are her tears falling on the baby, the thin watery fluid coming from her malnourished breasts, the summer sweat between two feverish bodies, the utter misery of their existence – while the father is… She and baby sleep inside the net to keep away bugs, but here she sits inside to eat and nurse the baby. her world reduced to the smallest dimensions, as small as her hopes for herself and her baby, as miniscule as his concern for their welfare.
Ki no Tsurayuki in his Tosa Diary (935) takes on the persona of various people on the boat returning to their home in the Capital, although he wrote every verse himself. A parent returning home after a five year absence speaks of a child who died while the family was away.
Basho, like Tsurayuki, uses ordinary words to evoke deep human feelings. The following renku trio refers to Tsurayuki’s tanka
Basho asks a question of a woman drank herbs to induce abortion. “Young pines” evoke the memories of a child who has died. Here, how long will the spirit of the child never born remain within you? Issun sends Basho’s question to a servant girl, adding a bit of yet deepening the secrecy. Basho then asks her another personal and intimate question: “Will you yield to the hormones urging you to produce more life?
On a day the weather prevents the boat from leaving harbor, the bereaved mother stands on the boat looking down at the shore with scattered gray-and-white clam shells known as “forgetting shells.”
The woman knows that nothing can alter the breaking of the waves, nor can anything lessen the grief she feels for the loss of her daughter. She wishes to remain immersed in grief, while the man wants to escape from that grief
while still remembering her. He creates an image of perfection, a white pearl, to focus on in recalling her.
Basho also relies on physical occurances and sensations to evoke deep human feelings.
But along with grief in the Tosa Diary are also lighthearted observations supposedly by people on the boat. In the poems said to be by children, we see Tsuryuki’s vision of a child’s thought s. All are anxious to get on their way back to their home in the Capital, but bad weather keeps the boat at a harbor known as Hane which means “wing.” Also they are worried about rumors of pirates lurking on their route. Another little girl speaks out:
Yes! The mind of a small child – the name of the location magically becomes what she wants, a way to fly home free and easy. Tsurayuki’s observations of child perception and concept construction are unique in world literature – until Basho portrayed the child’s mind in numerous verses such as
A mask used in Noh drama has a tube going downward from the eyes through the nose, so the actor can see the stage around his feet -- so the actor can smell through his eyes – or see through his nose?? Whatever.
According to the story, this is by a young boy, about eight years:
This is a question we all ask when we are young, often when looking out the window on a train.
Basho portrays a similar illusion on horseback.
The round conical hats of East Asian farmers, worn to ward of rain and snow as well as sun and wind, have about the same shape as Mount Fuji. Either I or the mountain wears a conical hat, either I or the mountain ride the horse.
Either I bounce up and down from the movement of the horse, or the multimillion ton mountain moves up and down from the movement of my eyes.
Sei Shonagon and later Basho observe the crawling of babies:
A family at market has unsold produce they have to carry home. The individual’s meal was served on several dishes on a small tray on legs, about 18 inches square and 9 inches high. Basho portrays infant motor development; the child reaching up onto the 9-inch-high tray is a developmental milestone on the road to standing.
At the home-and-shop of a cloth dyer, we see an expanse of fabric dyed indigo blue with no other colors, designs, blemishes anywhere. The baby crawls about here and there, sometimes sitting to explore what she finds.
sometimes scooting about on his bottom. Miyawaki notes that the “dirt” on “that place” may be poop, or dirt from the earth, or dust from the house, or - especially in this house - the residue of dyestuffs in any color; any or all of
these could be there on the derriere.
First on Shonagon’s list of “what is adorable” is “the face of a child drawn on a melon.” In this era little girls in summer drew a face with black ink or face-powder on a melon and attached to a stick with two-color strings to make a
Basho links the name of the melon with the ‘little princess’ who will someday marry the Crown Prince. He shows us a little girl’s plaything, a picture she drew of her idol, the little girl of royal blood whose fairytale dream comes true. She feels about it the way little girls today feel about pictures of their idols in music, movies and royal families. How adorable.
More observations from the Pillow Book
Frivolously, children come by. With appreciation for their childness, I give them interesting things.
They get used to this and come regularly, settling down, and scattering my household utensils, how hateful.
As lady-in-waiting to the Empress, Murasaki Shikibu observed royal and aristocratic children, and she populated her Tale of Genji with with numerous children. In the first few pages, Genji is born, and every character
who sees the infant praises his beauty – but the author fails to give us any images of baby Genji doing anything.
By Chapter V she has developed her writing talents to the point where she vividly portrays the humanity of nine year old Murasaki:
Murasaki ,lives with her grandmother who is a nun and adopted the child when her mother – the nun’s daughter died:
The nadeshiko, a delicate frilled carnation, sweetly scented, with five deeply
cut fringed petals, has since ancient times been a symbol for the loveliness of
young Japanese women: Basho wrote.
She played the koto for him, briefly and very competently.
He thought her delightful as she leaned forward
to press a string with her left hand. He took out a flute and she had
a music lesson. Very quick, she could repeat a difficult melody after
but a single hearing.
Every theme in the passages from the Genji appears in the following trio:
the young girl’s beauty and charm, long hair and difficulty combing it, age
and maturity, her doll play along with her skill on a stringed instrument.
black hair’s distress --
At an age
to take care of dolls
she is lovely
Weight of the zither
she holds on her lap
She has been sick for many days, forbidden to wet her hair because this
might bring on more sickness. Her hair has grown tangled and messy, so
passing a comb through it is painful. Girls today may appreciate her hair’s
“distress.” In spite of what Murasaki’s nurse says, the girl continues to
lavish her affection on dolls – developing her consciousness and skills for
taking care of babies.
From Sukan’s ideal of loveliness, Basho jumps into body sensation; the
words he uses – omotaki, heavy in weight; kakaeru, “holds”; hiza, “lap” –
all so physical and intimate; the little girl holds the instrument on her lap the
way she would a baby or a baby doll.
Genji’s young daughter, the Akashi princess, is compared to the slender edge
of pink blossom appearing as a flower bud starts to open.
The Princess so pure, still an edge emerging
shows who she will become
Murasaki understood genetics well enough to realize that the “edge
emerging” of baby girl contains the information which will blossom into a
whole and unique woman.
In Iga, before he left town in 1672, young Basho applied Murasaki’s
flower/baby image of “still an edge emerging” to the slender edge of crescent
moon on the third evening of the lunar month, emerging from the darkness of
no moon on the first two nights.
An image seen –
still an edge emerging
The slender white crescent of moon is the infant form, the seed,
the “edge emerging,” which will grow into the enormous shining globe
dominating the night sky at mid-month.
For New Years of 1693 Basho received a letter from Ensui with a haiku telling
of the birth of Ensui’s first grandchild, a girl:
New Year’s Day
still an edge emerging
Ensui took the phrase “still an edge emerging” from the Tale of Genji and
also from Basho’s haiku of two decades before,
and applied it to his infant granddaughter emerging from the womb, and also
to the New Year emerging from winter.
In the Tale, the Akashi Princess does become the Empress, so we see Ensui
had high hopes for his granddaughter.
Basho responded in a letter on April 4th of that Spring.
The plum blossom ‘still an edge emerging’
shall be all the more treasured.
I am happy you have a grandchild,
my joy as great as yours.
‘Her immaturity just shows that the best is yet to come. Basho links his heart
with Ensui, matching his 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
allowed to die). We cannot read this letter without feeling the warmth in
Basho’s heart. He expresses it so clearly.
Ten months passed. For the New Year of 1694, Basho sent another letter to his
In the spring of last year the scent of plum blossoms
I heard of ‘still an edge emerging,’ this year
gradually shall become fragrant and colorful,
so I guess how much you love her.
The whole tree will become gorgeous, as the infant who can now stand by
herself goes out into the world. Basho again links his heart with Ensui’s, feeling
Ensui’s love for the baby in his own chest. Both Ensui and Basho, two Asian
men in the 17th Century, praise the life of a newborn female. They seem to have
not gotten the message that girls can be ignored in favor of boys.
The following haiku is not in the letter to Ensui, however was written this
spring, apparently after Basho mailed the letter but was still thinking about his
old friend having a granddaughter.
Plum blossom scent
Behold the sun rises
On mountain trail
February the coldest time of the year, early morning the coldest time of
the day, the mountains colder and windier than anywhere else, yet wild
plum blossoms are colorful and fragrant. Of course, this haiku is fine by
itself, without referring to Ensui's granddaughter, however if we look at the
haiku along with Basho’s and Ensui’s poems, the passage from the Genji,
and Basho’s letters to Ensui, it becomes more and more likely that both
“plum blossom” and “sun rises” represent Ensui’s granddaughter emerging
from the womb. Because the major symbol for the entire nation is the
rising Sun, and in Japan the Sun is a Goddess, and because last spring and
again this spring Basho’s heart traveled to Ensui’s granddaughter, the
haiku beckons us to such an interpetation. Both Ensui and Basho, two Asian
men in the 17th Century, praise the life of a newborn female. They seem to
have not gotten the message that girls can be ignored in favor of boys.
Basho wrote this provocative stanza of renku:
Plump and healthy
the young son sitting
on the lap
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. In his letters
to Ensui, he says with complete and utter clarity:
Cherish the female as well
For those who love children, the chapter of the Genji to read is #37, “The
Flute”. First we meet the infant Kaoru, son of Genji’s youngest wife. Bamboo
shoots emerge in summer to be boiled and cut into bite-sized chunks.
Able to walk a few steps, the boy tottered up
to a bowl of boiled bamboo shoots.
He bit at one and, having rejected it,
scattered them in all directions….
Just cutting his teeth,
the boy had found a good teething object.
he dribbled furiously as he bit at a bamboo shoot.
Murasaki Shikibu, like an anthropologist, pays attention to a small child for
some time without the child suffering, dying, or in danger; she observes
ordinary infant behavior so we can see that babies 1000 years ago were like
From Murasaki’s image, Basho creates:
a baby’s drool dribbling
dew on bamboo grass
Exploring wetness: Yummy bamboo shoots mixing with saliva in my
mouth, drool dripping from Kaoru’s mouth in the Tale of Genji, morning
dew on the countless large flat leaves of bamboo grass growing over lowlying
dew-covered ground; the profusion of “b” and “d” and “l” sounds –
all from the lips --accumulating in a drippy, dribbly feeling.
Kaoru is believed to be Genji’s child, though in the infant’s face, his uncle
Yugiri sees traces of the true father, his deceased friend Kashiwagi:
The boy came running out.
He had on a single robe of deep purple.
The fair skin glowed, and there was in the round little
figure, something, an extraordinary refinement…
there was remarkable strength in the eyes,
and the arch of the eyebrows reminded him very much
of Kashiwagi, and that sudden glow when he laughed….
Yujiri describes the reflection of father’s face in the child’s with all the
clarity and precision of Gregor Mendel observing peas to discover the laws
of genetics. Basho also describes the effects of genetic inheritance on the
human face: In the Buddhist society of Japan – in Murasaki’s time or
Basho’s time, -- a younger son unlikely to inherit the household might be
given to a temple to become a monk.
The Priest sends away my
ordinary clothing That my
face resembles my
The priest in charge sends the clothing I will no longer need to my former
home; from now on, I will only wear monk’s robes. As my clothing goes
back to my mother, so do my thoughts. Even as I “leave the world,” she
continues to be part of me. My face is made from the same genes
as her face, so of course they are similiar; this is fascinating – in Japanese,
yukashi, “attracting me to it.”
Descent through the female line is fascinating.
Most wonderful of the children in the Tale of Genji all is this scene of
Genji’s two grandsons along with Yugiri who is their uncle: they call him
….the Third Prince, now three, the prettiest
of Genji’s royal grandchildren came running up.
“If you’re going over there, General,
take my royal highness with you.”
Yugiri smiled at the immodest language.
“If you wish to go. But am I to walk past a lady’s curtains
without a by-your-leave? That would be very rude.”
“No one will see. Look, I’ll cover my face.
Let’s go, let’s go.”
He was charming covering his face with his sleeves.
The two of them went off to the Akashi princess’s apartments.
The Second Prince was there, as was Kaoru.
Genji was fondly watching them at play.
Yugiri deposited the Third Prince in a corner,
where the Second Prince discovered him.
“Carry me too, General,” he commanded.
“He’s my general,” objected the Third Prince,
refusing to dismiss him.
Murasaki has portrayed the weird trippy logic of small children’s thinking.
Shonagon shows us children’s actions in brief tidbits, whereas Murasaki
goes further with psychologically detailed scenes. Basho and his followers
in renku also portrayed the qualities of children that defy and confound
At New Years
we bring along our
Though meaning we hide
they stand and listen
On New Year’s Day we get dressed up to visit shrines and friends and
people important in our lives – so we adults have a lot to talk about. We
brought the kids along with us, but really they did not want to go.
but how much do these highly attentive language sponges pick up?
As the character Murasaki approachs death, the author has her interact with
a small child who she raised:
Little Niou, the prettiest of them all, seemed to be everywhere
at once. Choosing a moment when she was feeling better and
there was no one else with her, she seated him before her.“I
may have to go away. Will you remember me.”
“But I don’t want you to go away.” He gazed up at her, and
presently he was rubbing at his eyes, so charming that she was
smiling through her tears. “I like my granny, better than Father
and Mother. I don’t want you to go away.”
“This must be your own house when you grow up. I want the rose
plum and the cherries over there to be yours. You must take
care of them and say nice things about them, and sometimes when
you think of it you might put flowers on the altar.” He nodded and
gazed up at her, and then abruptly, about to burst into tears, he
got up and ran out.
Okura introduced social consciousness into Japanese poetry,
then Tsurayuki introduced consciousness of the child’s mind. Shonagon goes
beyond these to portray the child in self-determined action, but she does this
only in short bits. Murasaki Shikibu gives us fully developed scenes in
which children speak and express their psychological reality.
Among the many uniquenesses of The Tale of Genji is that in this vast
narrative of four generations, an endless variety of events occur yet without
war, bloodshed, natural or man-made disasters. Lady Murasaki could write
this way because Japan was at peace under the rule of the aristocratic
Fujiwara clan of which she was a member.
A century later, the aristocrats lost power to military clans, so from the 12th
century, war destroyed the lives of children. In the Tale of the Heike
(compiled before 1330) the teenage Atsumori plays his flute for his family’s
enjoyment, then the next day is killed on the beach because he forgot to
bring that flute; Basho’s haiku sums up Atsumori’s story is the haiku IN
The 15th century anonymous chronicle Yoshitsune contains the story of
Yoshitsune’s wife giving birth on the forest floor but when this baby is three
she and her parents are all die in suicide. In both stories, a scene of humanity
is followed by violent death. The chronicle tells of Yoshitunse going to visit
the home of the Sato brothers who both died protecting Yoshitsune. He
speaks with warmth and humanity to the young sons, telling each what his
father did to save Yoshitsune, hoping he will grow to be as brave; then their
grandmother gives a speech seconding Yoshitsune – yet throughout all this,
the boys may as well be inanimate objects; they never speak or act; their
consciousness is never portrayed. Children rarely appear in history or
literature unless they are royal or get killed. Authors set us up with a lovely
scene of child life, then shock us with that child’s death. Death makes the
account of a child interesting enough to become literature – until Basho
came along to praise the life of children.
A rather strange passage appears in Yoshida Kenko’s Essays in Idleness
(1330): following is Donald Keene’s translation:
“A fierce looking brute of a soldier once asked
a companion ‘Do you got any kids?’
‘Not one” replied the other.
“Then,” said the soldier, ‘I don’t suppose
you knowwhat deep feelings are.
You probably haven’t a drop of warmth in you.
That’s a frightening thought.
It’s having children that makes people
understand the beauty of life.”
The story contradicts our stereotypes of people based on their appearance.
We do not expect a “fierce looking brute” to love and respect children.
Kenko says no more about this gentle warrior, so all we can do is wonder –
however we can find the same sentiment in Basho:
Lilies of the field
in crescent moon shadow
lined up in bloom
To my dear children
Oh what can compare?
The words of Jesus may help us understand Basho’s meaning.
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they toil not, neither do they spin.
And yet I say unto thee that even Solomon
in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
The Three Thirds of Basho
Basho’s several hundred poems about women children,
friendship, love, and compassion are,
I believe, the most pro-female, child-centered,
and life-affirming works in world literature.
I plead for your help in finding a person or group to
take over my 3000 pages of Basho material, to edit
and improve the presentation,
to receive all royalties from sales,
to spread Basho’s wisdom worldwide and
preserve for future generations