To overcome the reputation Basho has been given for being "impersonal, detached" and "serious and humorless" here are 25 examples of joy and fun in Dear Uncle Basho.
The old guy careens from one person's shoulders to another one's shoulder, doing what he calls a "dance" but is more foolishness than skill. Basho focuses on the young folk enjoying grandfather's drunken excuse for a dance.
Let's Have Fun with Basho!
Kikaku teases Basho for his obsession with Chuang Tzu’s butterfly dream, the point beginning that Basho is too clumsy to catch the insect midair. Maybe he could hit one in his dreams, but dreams are not reality. Basho responds that Kikaku’s stanza is so “rotten” that a dog, who will eat garbage, passes on this one.
In 1667, 22 year young Basho wrote:
Human feeling becomes one with the seasons, and cherry blossoms appear at the very happiest time of the year – so the Japanese schedule their school graduations and commencements in cherry blossom time. Japanese poets for ten centuries have dwelled on the sadness of cherry blossoms passing away just one week after they bloom, however young Basho sees only happiness without the sad. This verse is not much of a haiku, however as a statement about the young life and laughter in Basho’s 22 year old mind, it is superb.
Basho’s headnote to the following, Spring amusement at Ueno, tells us the blossom-viewing picnic was at the same place, Tokyo’s Ueno Park, so popular for these parties today:
Ordinary women in Edo work hard every day and the annual picnic under the cherry trees at Ueno is one of the very few days of the year when she can have fun. Most Japanese women are slender, especially in the upper body, and the kimono emphasizes that slenderness.
This woman is intoxicated by the beauty of cherry blossoms everywhere around her, on the trees, petals in the air and all over the ground, and also by the beverages she has drunk. Having shed her ladylike social inhibitions, she is acting bold and assertive. She has borrowed a padded haori coat from one of the men at the party (women do not wear haori in Basho’s time）and put it on over her kimono, adding some bulk to her chest, shoulders, and arms, making her look manly. This is a working class party, so there are no samurai present, and no swords either, but she is using something long and thin to pretend.
The Japanese says she inserts (sasu) the ‘sword’ under her obi, the thick brocade sash around her waist. Then she does the ever-popular “Hey you guys! See how long my sword is” sending the party into hysterics. We see the woman in the center of the action, strong, vibrant, and playful (with the aid of sake).
Anthropologist Ruth Benedict, in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), says of Japanese women at parties, “when they are of a ripe age they may throw off taboos, and if they are low-born, be as ribald as any man.” Benedict observes that a woman who has never borne a child
“tends to be reserved while one who has had children, entertains the party, too, with very free sexual dances, jerking her hips back and forth to the accompaniment of ribald songs. These performances inevitably bring roars of laughter.”
This is Anthropology! Can you hear the “roars of laughter” in Basho’s verse?
The following haiku in the spring of 1690 marks the birth of Basho’s poetic ideal of Lightness.
The cold of early spring has passed, but there is still a chill in the air. Under a canopy of pinkish white blossoms, on ground scattered with petals, we lay out our favorite foods. The soup is brought to the picnic in an iron pot and heated over a fire. Namasu is raw vegetables or fish marinated in vinegar, popular at celebrations -- so the verse also contains the work of women preparing the food and cleaning up afterward. Amidst the excited chatter of girls and women in their blossom kimono, the songs and laughter of relatives and friends, some more petals have fallen on the food. We are celebrating the season of warmth and new Life. Lightness is Us, real people having fun, sharing food.
The usually serious Buddhist priests float along, and the otherwise demure self-effacing wives “slither” their hips in an erotic manner, all because of the exuberant “high” feeling that comes with cherry blossoms.
In 17th century Japan, and elsewhere in the world, girls were expected to be passive, silent, and confined to the house, but in a renku Basho wrote in his final year, he captures the joyful freedom of girls upon release from social captivity:
Clean white cotton cloth spread out on a line to dry in the breeze, the spirit recovering from winter contraction spreads out to receive spring, overhead a lark sings brightly rising to heaven. Basho
honors the flock of girls in their pretty robes, going to have fun, chatting and laughing with each other,
complementing the clarity and freshness of the first stanza. Clean white fabric, skylark, cherry blossoms,
and group of happy girls, all get high together - with no boys to bring them down. Japan idolizes the
joyful sparkle of teenage girls - as in J-Pop girl groups - and it is interesting to see this consciousness in Basho 330 years ago. Basho: the poet of Joy2Girls.
Here is another high-on-spring verse from Ki no Tsurayuki in the 10th century, and I like to imagine that Basho emulated this verse in his GIRLS ONLY stanza:
The young girls run through the fields to gather the seven greens of early spring, waving the long hanging sleeves of their kimono with such feminine elegance.
A traveller took a break to sit and smoke his pipe; 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.) From the absent-minded single man at leisure, Basho jumps to a merrymaking crew of young women at work in the chocolate milkshake paddy. He records them flinging mud at each other, not to hurt or humiliate, but for the childlike “fun” of the entire group. He portrays women having fun by themselves, for themselves --rather than together with men and for men’s enjoyment. I love the contrast between the lively group “fun” of these young women and the vagueness and lack of purpose in the single man searching for his pipe -- which he never should have dropped in the first place.
The people in this house are very nice; they put out food for wild birds. We need to pay more attention to these Basho verses, and prose and letters, about goodness and joy – less attention to the sad verses.
The scene of this year’s baby bamboos, like brown pointed magician’s hats, peeking out here and there among their towering parents, is one any child would love to draw. Susabi is the absorption of a child in learning, the compulsion to practice a task over and over again. so we see 5 year old Basho hunched over the paper, concentrating his entire being on drawing that conical shape on a flat piece of paper, creating himself from information absorbed as he draws.
Little children have no inhibition at all about taking off their clothes when the heat is so oppressive even in the evening. “Waiting for the moon to rise”s may carry the hidden meaning of “waiting for puberty.” Basho
adds joyful and exuberant body movement in the scene. He says naked is okay, but how about a bit of restraint? The kids hold thin straw mats a meter square in front of them as they dash about screaming. Still we see their “moons.” Here are children still in the paradise of innocence, but feeling the first hints of that shame to emerge when their bodies show sexual traits – yet they are still children and it’s okay to be exuberant and joyful.
The poet is in his hometown with those 40 years younger; These are the hills where Basho played as a child. Joyful in the year’s first snow, the kids go bounding about like rabbits, so Uncle Basho suggests they find some real rabbits somewhere, pull off some fur, and stick it on their faces between nose and mouth, to complete the picture. Basho’s disciple Kyorai pointed out that we should not be surprised when we notice that the verse “makes no sense” -- it is not supposed to be logical or make sense. It’s a joke shouted by one child to another as they run about in the snow. Adults may not find the joke funny, but if it amuses children, it has achieved its purpose.
Hail is droplets of ice falling from the clouds, not soft as snow; it hurts when it hits you. Some people enjoy snow, but who enjoys hail? Basho does. It’s FUN to be pelted by gems of ice. See how pretty they are.
Basho writes about Ranran, one of his first friends and supporters in Edo.
A samurai dad walks holding hands with his little son. (Say what?!) Pay attention; this is Anthropology. Maybe some samurai were not so strict and ‘manly’ as we imagine today. Basho replaced Ranran’s son’s infant name with one more suitable for an active and intelligent young boy.
The little boy in his New Years finery was so handsome that Basho thought of the 3rd century Chinese sage Oju famous for his beauty as a child. Basho “picked out” the character ju from Oju, and combined it with the first ‘Ran’ in Ranran, forming a name half from the father and half from a Chinese sage known as a handsome and brilliant child. Ranran thought for a moment about the name Basho chose, and when he understood, his face flushed in joy. So Basho is praising his samurai friend for his feminine emotional sensitivity and caring for children. Can you see why Japanese male scholars ignore this passage?
This is a household in which the husband has been adopted into the bride’s family, so he lives with them. For some time now, he has had problems with his mother-in-law, and they have not been very cordial to each other. This morning they greet each other with words that begin to repair their relationship.With her sister and husband taking over the household, a second daughter has gone to the provincial castle to serve in a daimyo’s household. On her day off she returns to her native home where her happienss at seeing her mother and brother-in-law starting to get along brings tears of joy to her eyes. We know this castle servant is sensitive to her feelings and concerned about relationships within her family. From the fancy lacquered box, she takes out things that remind her of her mother, her sister and husband, and their kids, looks at them, and returns them to the box. (Nowadays these would be photographs.)
The “close to tears” feeling in the second stanza, based on the joy of seeing estranged relatives come together, feeds into Basho’s stanza of physical objects and human actions – so the woman .takes out and put back things with joy – though it may be joy tinged this sadness.
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.
Basho says that keeping company with him is a duty Boncho and Kyorai have taken on, so a bother to them. Of course he doesn’t really think this; he just says so for appearance (tatemae). How the Japanese love to prolong farewells, hour after hour in the ritual of parting.
While Kyokusui was away from home for 18 months, Basho visited his samurai mansion and sent this information to Kyokusui in a letter:
Basho paid attention to his friend’s servant’s wife, newborn, and aged mother: he felt them worth mentioning in a letter. He manages to get all three generations into the picture, focusing on the boundless joy” of the female. He assumes Kyokusui will appreciate this concern for the female, child, and grandmother.
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 tells Kyokusui that his son and heir is growing up to become a takumashi, “vigorous, strong” samurai who can also laugh with joy.
In a letter to Ensui in 1691, Basho describes a blossom viewing picnic he, along with Ensui, attended in Iga:
Two old friends at the party, one struggling to think of a serious poem, the other having lots of fun. Kyoya is a merchant in Iga. Hattori Doho, the leader of the Basho circle in Iga, is an Instructor in the martial art of the Spear (so you don’t want to mess with him), and the head of a family related to the master ninja Hattori Hanzo – but he too seems like a fun guy.
One of the most moving moments in Basho’s letters occurs in Spring of 1693: Basho tells of his nephew dying of tuberculosis in Basho’s hut. Here Basho has nursed him since winter. He has described the months of misery watching his nephew fade, and then says:
In 1694, on his final journey, Basho writes to Sora:
The “ones with the same name (Matsuo)” are his brother Hanzaemon and sister Oyoshi and husband adopted by Hanzaemon to inherit the household, Oyoshi’s son Mataemon, and other children. Doho, Ensui, and Hanzan all grew up with Basho in Iga. And a letter to Sampu:
In October of 1694, just a month and a half before his death, Basho in his hometown gave a harvest moon party for his Iga followers. His woman follower Chigetsu sent goodies to share.
In a reply to Chigetsu, Basho writes:
Hanzaemon was stunned to see how much Chigetsu sent. Tosuke and Benshiro must be the children of Chigetsu’s household (and most men would not mention them at all).
(letter to Ensui and Doho, October 1694)
November 28, 1694 (from the diary of Kagami Shiko)
It is one of those warmish days in early winter when already spring seems coming back to us. All other insects have died from the night cold, but flies are somehow tougher. Tori-mochi is the sap from the mochi tree, a type of ilex or holly stuck around the end of a bamboo pole to make a fly (or bird) catcher. Instead of waiting for the fly to come to the sticky, you swing the sticky at the fly. To flick the fly before it flies away requires stillness-in-motion, a talent Basho learned growing up in Iga, famous throughout Japan as a training center for ninja.
Basho maintains Lightness to the very end. The flies “sure” (-rame) “enjoy” (yorokobu) “having” (yadosu) him the way you “have” or “keep” a pet. Basho is the flies’ pet, and they enjoy flying around in the smell of his infection and diarrhea. Even in his final words Basho uses lively specific verbs to create humor. His comment is so light and playful, and he is smiling, that his attendants assume he is not about to give up the ghost at this particular moment, so they continue swinging bamboo swords at flies – and he’s gone, the joyful ninja from Iga.