Of the women in Basho’s circle, Uko is the one for whom we have the most information and can draw the most fascinating picture. He wrote two tanka and one haiku to her, three letters full of personal details, and one passage about her in his Saga Diary; all of these are in this article. Also seven of her haiku expand our picture of her being. We begin our Uko journey with my favorite of her haiku:
I cannot say why I like this verse so much. I just do.
Uko’s ordinary name was Tome (pronounced Toh-meh). When she became a nun in 1691 she took the Buddhist name Uko which is what everybody calls her. In the years from 1690 to 1693 when Basho and Uko corresponded, she was in her twenties or thirties, married to Boncho, a doctor in his forties. A glimpse of Uko and Boncho at home in Kyoto can be seen in the following anecdote: one freezing, snowy night Boncho was about to leave for a poetry gathering, taking along a 12 year old servant boy. Uko spoke out:
A 17th century feminist haiku. Uko is threatening to show her husband her strength. (I think of Nancy with her fist in Fagin’s face, saying “No! You will not take Oliver!”) It is said that “Boncho, awed and ashamed, went on alone.”
Historian Louis Perez translates these instructions from the contemporary moralist tract, Greater Learning For Women,
“The great life-long duty of the woman is obedience… a woman should look on her husband as if he were Heaven itself and never weary of thinking how she may yield to her husband and thus escape celestial castigation.”
To this nonsense, Uko says “Not me!”
Letter to Uko, late October, 1690
Once a man reaches forty, ro, “old,” is added to his name. I suspect “Old Boncho” would not be so happy to see himself called this; but since this is a private letter to Uko, he will not know. 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. It is interesting how often the word 'joy' (yorokobi) appears in Basho's writing.
To ‘hide myself in the mountains’ means to stay in Iga – not really in the mountains but in isolation, far from the well-traveled road to Kyoto where Uko lives. “Be in your eyes” is a Japanese idiom, but works in English.
Yasui Masahiro says,
Basho’s letters to women contain mostly short words in which we see a gentleness and humanity (yasashisa to ningenmi) not found in his letters to men. We feel he does not 'lift his head' -- be arrogant and over- bearing – to a woman. He makes an impression with simple direct expressions. Take up any Basho letter to a woman and be touched by his unique charm.
I hope that Yasui's remarks help women readers develop a feeling of closeness to this woman of three centuries ago.
Basho spent 18 days this summer in Kyoto and stayed at Uko and Boncho’s house in a well-to-do neighborhood. Uko is the wife of a doctor. The following tanka appears in Basho’s letter
Basho recalls the tea ceremony Uko performed for him as her guest. Kon elaborates Basho’s meaning in the first two lines: “as I think of the kettle boiling in your tea cottage, I imagine your peaceful, settled lifestyle” -- a lifestyle so serene that each evening she has the time and heart to make tea in the formal meditative Way of Tea.
In a Japanese home of refinement, the houseguest never puts out his or her own futon and pillow; the wife of the house always performs that role while the guest is in the bath. Because Japanese line things up in parallel as an expression of respect, and because Basho was her teacher and a guest in her house, we can assume that Uko diligently lined the futons and pillows up in three even vertical columns -- like the three strokes of the Chinese character for ‘river,’ 川, which suggest a baby nestled between mommy and daddy, receiving warmth and security from both sides. In the tanka the heat of “kettle boiling” flows into the warmth in Basho’s memory of “those three pillows.”
In his haibun IN THE REALM OF ISE, Basho speaks of the woman of the house with appreciation for her skill and care in providing comfortable lodgings to a tired traveler. His message is similar in EACH EVENING. He wrote many haiku praising the splendor of Kyoto’s temples and shrines, as well as yearning for Kyoto long ago, however here Basho praises the living humanity in Kyoto, the graceful serenity of his hostess, the intimacy of their friendship.
He wrote two tanka in 1690, both focusing on woman’s life. SPRING PASSES BY encapsulates the eternal passage of the female from birth to old age and from generation to generation. EACH EVENING instead focuses on one particular woman, praising her hospitality, her tea ceremony, the sleeping arrangements she made for her guest. The feminine life-enhancing conscioiusness in these two tanka should be central to what students learn of Basho.
Two years before, at the end of 1688, Uko wrote this haiku:
She sketches the unsettled feeling of a woman whose hormones seek pregnancy; in 1689 they won. So by the time of this letter, autumn of 1690, her daughter must be near her first birthday (in the Western sense. The Japanese did not “have birthdays” -- everybody just became one year older on New Year’s Day. Simple.)
p.s. to 1690 Letter to Uko
Basho politely addresses the infant as Tei dono, “Little Miss Tei.” However he got the kid’s name wrong. Uko’s daughter is Sai. Basho goofed. "Yoshi" is short for Oyoshi, Basho’s little sister, now about 40. When Basho was in Iga at his house, Oyoshi asked him to take her best wishes to Uko and the baby; here Basho kindly delivers them. There are three persons in this postscript, all female. Basho pays attention to the energy passing from one female to another. Basho writes ‘like a woman’, with consciousness of women, children, and personal relationships. And so we end the first of three letters to Edo in this article.
In the spring of 1691, Uko took the tonsure of a Buddhist nun, although she continued living with her husband and two year old child in a wealthy section of Kyoto. Bessho Makiko notes that many woman haiku poets became nuns – after the husband passed on. Uko is the only nun-wife with an infant daughter. (Say what?) Bessho also provides a tanka she says Basho wrote to and about Uko; although it does not appear in standard Basho anthologies:
The long hanging sleeves of a kimono get wet from tears, thus in experiencing strong emotion, the Japanese (in poetry) "wring out their sleeves." Kokonoe, “nine circles” suggests that Kyoto resembles the ancient Chinese Capital laid out in nine concentric rings with the castle at the center. Still, Kyoto is one of the few major cities in Japan with no sea coast, so poor Uko has no salt water/tears in which to wring out her sleeves. Basho dedicates this nonsense to the “nun Uko.” It expresses his affection for her.
From May 16th to May 31, Basho stayed at Kyorai’s cottage in Saga. He helped Kyorai and Boncho compile a major anthology of the Basho school, Monkey’s Raincoat, to be published later that summer. So Basho would not be lonely, either Kyora and Boncho stayed the night. On May 16th Boncho was there. His wife, Uko, came out to the cottage the next day. Here is Basho's May 17th entry in his Saga Diary.
This verse by Uko is the only haiku by a woman in Basho’s published prose. Uko demonstrates the traditional role of women in Japanese society: providing hospitality. Instead of putting forth her own experience, Uko focuses on Basho, welcoming him to Kyoto and Saga by saying that whenever he comes here, strawberries will redden to celebrate his presence.
The fifth person may be either the delivery guy who brought the cakes from Kyorai’s house, or a fellow named Yohei who lives next door and is caretaker of the cottage when Kyorai is not here. The mosquito net is a special one, made for fishermen to set up over the river, so it’s pretty big – two tatami mats, about 6 foot square. They appear to be lying in alternating directions, “up and down,” my shoulders near your knees, for efficient use of space.
In Japan it is ordinary for both men and women to sleep in the same room, in separate parts of the tatami floor, on seperate futons, with no thought of sex or embarrassment. Still, five adults spread out inside one mosquito net is bound to get interesting, especially when one is a woman and furthermore a nun, and there is also her husband who is a doctor, their Poetry Master, the guy who owns the cottage, and someone else, presumably of a lower social class, but they all lie down together in one mosquito net.
No one gets any sleep though, so they “each come out from the net” and eat some cakes and drink some sake until everyone gets light and happy and they party till dawn. They sound like college students.
These are not the Japanese Ruth Benedict portrays in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, all taken up in working off obligations, stiff with the dictates of hierarchy and proper behavior, males always dominating females. Basho says ‘lighten up’ on the issues of obligation, hierarchy, custom, and gender—or maybe that Japanese society was not so severe as Western writers portray it, or maybe that the crowd Basho hangs out with was exceptionally loose.
Uko sent Basho a present, a cushion she designed and sewed to fit around his hips while he sits to keep them warm this coming winter. Basho’s replied on October 3, 1691.
Basho's personal warmth and caring for others is most easily seen in his letters to Uko.
In the p.s. to the 1690 letter, Basho called Uko’s daughter “Tei.” In her letter with the hip cushion Uko must have used the correct name, so in this letter Basho gets it right. If Sai was one then, in the year past she has entered the ‘terrible twos,’ that period when every waking moment is devoted to proving independence from mama, and the child is first able to have effects on the world. Japanese women today say the same about 2 or 3 year olds (otonashiku natta deshō).
p.s. to 1691 Letter to Uko
Basho wrote this letter in Zeze where Chigetsu must have told himr she got a letter from Uko. He praises the gentleness of woman, and also the solidarity of multiple women. He seems to be building bridges between these two women followers.
Uko sent Basho a letter with two of her haiku; here is one:
As life emerges in the fields so do plant substances that cause allergic reactions in this season.
The leaves of shrubs have prickles on them, and if you touch them, skin rash.
Letter to Uko, dated February 23, 1693
Uko gives no indication of where on her body she got the rash, but Basho sees it specifically “on your thin hands and legs” -- the parts of the body that come into contact with shrubs and wild growth as we walk through the field. Both in the haiku and in Basho‘s comment on it, we see much feminine body consciousness.
In Monkey’s Raincoat are this headnote and haiku by Uko:
Uko begins with the beauty of her hair enhanced by ornamental pins and combs. But much of that hair is gone; the long black hair lies like a puddle on the ground around her – the way many, many red petals of a camellia blossom lie together in a damp clump around the tree. Cherry petals are light and just float away. Camellia petals are solid and chunky -- the feeling of all that black hair on the floor.
The readers of Monkey‘s Raincoat unfamiliar with Uko cannot tell from the headnote or the verse that she is a nun, and they think “A woman who writes a verse like this, how beautiful and ladylike she must be!” Shoko and I considered various alternatives before she suggested ‘ladylike’ for teijo. I am not exactly sure what “ladylike” means, but somehow it fits. If they knew she was a nun they would not ask this. Nuns have given up all concern for beauty and ladylikeness.
The woman in 122 A LONE NUN chose an austere Buddhist life, but Uko seems to be enjoying her ordinary life while being a nun. Basho is telling Uko that the readers of her verse feel her femininity, when what they should be feeling is her Buddhism.
Basho‘s response is not to offend her. Remember she is pretending to be a nun without actually renouncing her sensuality. If Basho said Uko is beautiful, that would imply that her nun‘s disguise is not working; we can see through it. Uko, if we are going to pretend that you are a nun, we have to stop seeing you as a beautiful lady –although that is what you are, even without your hair. We have to maintain the tatemae. Although you are pretending to be a nun, in reality, become ever more compassionate.
After he and Kyorai completed editing Monkey‘s Raincoat, Boncho got into a dispute with Basho and left the school – though as we see in this letter Basho continues to support Uko. Sometime around 1693 Boncho was convicted of a crime and imprisoned – whether he is in jail at the time of this letter is unclear.
Basho either means ‘I hope Boncho can stay out of jail’ or ’I hope he gets out soon. Meanwhile Uko is on her own with a small child. Mujo junsoku, ‘Impermanence so swift’ is one of the grand central thoughts of the Japanese mind—that everything will pass away so soon. Basho writes it with a repeat mark. Three years ago Uko was a doctor’s wife with a fine house and a tea cottage in a wealthy neighborhood of Kyoto; from now with Boncho in jail Basho realizes that Uko will become very poor. Even when he gets out, no one will go to a doctor who is a convicted criminal.
Sometimes the best part of a Basho letter is the p.s.
Japanese Language instructor Shoko says yatsubara domo, is a swear word, maybe the equivalent of ‘those assholes‘- I think “jerks” is strong enough. Shirane describes how the Nagoya group were in 1684, “the primary force in first establishing the Basho style” but from 1691, “they turned their backs on Basho”, so by now “almost all the Owari/Nagoya group had become estranged from Basho.” Basho says communication with them is futsu, as when telephone lines are down after as storm or earthquake.
Part 2 of the p.s. is best of all. Remember the cushion made for Basho and sent him to keep his hips warm while sitting, and Basho's gratitude. – well, this winter; he liked wrapping it around his head. Basho gives Uko a vision of him with the cushion she made wrapped around his head. This is the real Basho, not some austere saint or Buddhist hermit, but as Shoko calls him, ‘Dear Uncle Basho,’ a bit strange but still a pretty good guy.
Consider this haiku by Ukio:
The bright five-note call of the ‘time bird’ spreads through the vast deep reverberation of the temple bell. Uko hears one sound vibrate inside another sound, such is her sensitivity to the physical world.
Yoel Hoffman’s Japanese Death Poems includes this verse by a woman named Uko:
The bird is said to call from the land of the dead, and to carry the dead spirit there. Both poems convey a profound awareness of sound and how sound reaches into the human heart. The Uko who wrote this verse, however, is not the Uko of this article. From her birth and dates, we see she was an infant when Basho wrote to Uko. Also we know this Uko lives in Kyoto. Possibily (or probably) the author of this poem was Uko’s daughter Sai who signed her death poem with her mother’s name.