The lives of cats and dogs have forever been woven into human life. 18 Basho haiku and renku on cats and dogs reveal how people in Japan 330 years ago experienced these two mammals.
Charles J. Dunn in his Everyday Life in Traditional Japan says
“Dogs were seldom seen in the home, except for some Pekinese dogs, imported by the Dutch. Japanese dogs, typified by the fighting breed from Tosa in Shikoku, were strong animals with close connections to the Eskimo dogs of the North. They were good as watchdogs, but also formed wild packs that roamed the countryside. Cats, on the other hand, were often to be found in homes, performing their worldwide functions of vermin catchers, but never, of course, given a saucer of milk. (p. 151)
Dunn gives us considerable information, but something is missing from his account. He says nothing about the affection between girls and cats, and nothing about the interest of children in dogs. In the final two poems in this article, Basho records female and young human experiences of affection for cats and interest in dogs.
The nursery song Yuki, Snow, a traditional folk tune, certainly was known when Basho was a little boy, in the 1640s.
A kotatsu is a heater (in our time electrical, in Basho’s charcoal) with a frame holding up a blanket and table top. People sit with their legs inside the warm space and the blanket around their hips – but the cat’s whole body can get in. The song observes that dogs like to get all excited and run about, while cats prefer to be warm and comfortable.
In summer the balls of soft cotton fiber burst out from their buds, each as soft, white, and furry as a darling little white cat walking amidst the cotton plants. The second stanza switches to winter when cats, like old people, seek to be warm, inactive, and have no involvement with the absurdly changing world. A kotatsu – table with blanket all around, and a heater inside -- is large enough for people to rest their lower bodies inside – however a cat can get her whole body in, so she lies there getting high on the embracing warmth.
The fire is banked – burning coals covered by ashes – to remain alive till morning when it can be awakened. The cat depended on her connection to the slight warmth given off by the banked fire to be comfortable all night long. But the fire was not banked properly, and went out. Inside became as cold as outside, so out she came and here she is, crying.
This stanza-pair from the very first renku sequence Basho participated in, in 1665, shows this young man's concern with maybe the most important concern of all life: the Second Law of Thermodynamics. We feel
the thermodynamic connection of domesticated cats to the human family and the warmth humans provide.
Cats and humans do it the same way: as a struggle for dominance and being on top. Not only in sex but in every aspect of life, those on top stay there – having fun and sex and leisure -- while those on bottom remain on bottom for life.
‘Heat’ is caused by estrogen, so it occurs only in the female. She then invites Mister Cat to turn on his testesterone. Estrogen drives female cats into ‘heat’ several times a year, but early spring is most common. Spring is the season for love and sex in many species, including humans. The pathos of cats at the mercy of their hormones shows us how pitiful we are in love.
Heat periods occur about every two weeks and last about 4 to 7 days. Multiple males will be attracted to a female in heat. The males will fight over her, and the victor wins the right to mate. At first, the female will reject the male, but eventually she will allow him to mate. When cats mate the male bites the scruff of the female neck so she cannot escape (which is why cats like to be rubbed there, behind the neck). The female utters a loud yowl as the male pulls out of her because a male cat's penis has a band of about 120–150 backwards-pointing penile spines, about 1 mm long; upon withdrawal of the penis, the spines rake the walls of the female's vagina, which is a trigger for ovulation. (I’ve heard that sound.)
After mating the female gives herself a thorough wash… with her tongue which has hooks on it like a brush that untangles fur; also her saliva contains a detergent which cleans fur. If a male attempts to breed with her at this point, the female will attack him. Once the female is done grooming, the cycle will repeat.
Wikipedia and Basho tell it like it is.
The sex-crazed she-cat ‘commutes’ (kayoi) through the kitchen, climbing the stove then jumping out the window, so many times a day on her trips outside WHERE THE BOYS ARE that the baked clay structure is starting to crumble.
The verse is a question. Again we see a cat on her way to get laid. Is the family that feeds this cat too poor to give her any rice or fish, only barley, a grain the Japanese consider low-class, tasteless, and low in nutrition, and since she is too horny to eat much anyway, in her malnourished state the nights of frenzy and exhaustion leave her looking like hell, right?
The cycle has ended for now, and the screeching and the yowls cease as the hazy moon shines secretly into the room where futons have been laid out on the tatami for people to sleep or make love on.
Fujiwara Teika, in the 13th century, wrote what may be the funniest of all classical tanka:
Japanese are reluctant to show their inner feelings, so Teika envies the cat’s freedom of expression.
The use of the word “love” in these poems is of course parody.
Basho wrote what may be the funniest of all haiku:
Mataudo means ‘complete person’ but is used sarcastically in kyogen comedies to actually mean a fool. The lady-cat is so drunk on sex-hormones that she walks right on top of a dog. But the dog is asleep and only half wakes up to gaze around a bit, wondering ‘what was that?’ then goes back to sleep. Basho compares the dog to a ‘complete person,’ a saint or a fool, who can face any situation with equanimity.
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.
It's nice to see Basho and Kikaku having fun.
Each of the three stanzas highlights a voice responding to the transitory nature of existence: first, the dejected cry of someone in a stage play whose happiness has vanished. Next, the moron in the audience who reacts noisily. Finally Basho gets REAL with the actual cry of a life being snuffed out.
On early winter evenings, clouds gather in the sky, moving fast while they drop sudden cold showers.
To portray this phenomenon Basho chooses a striking image: a dog pissing while running.
The rain falls on a village where many dogs run about, and sometimes pee.
Clouds, dog, village, are one with the rain and the movement.
Basho is staying at an inn, but the sound of rain on the roof fills his attention, and then he hears a wild dog in the distance soaking wet and howling.
Tiny purple petals fill the plain of lespedeza bushes; Kon notes that this flower image gives a feeling of “gentle adorable beauty” in contrast to the fearsome mountain dog. Basho invites the dog to sleep among the bushes, where Kon says “the dog will certainly calm heart and become obedient”
Seeking to kill his enemy rather than be killed, he waits with his weapons at the enemy’s gate, never knowing when and how that one will appear. Threatened, he must remain half awake all night long, ready to defend himself. By force of will, he sweeps the dreams from his drowsy mind. In the nearby field stands a statue of the bodhisattva Jizo, Buddhist “Guardian of the Roads.” “Jizo comforts those in distress, succors captives, assists all those in need … Statues of Jizo were therefore erected along lonely mountain passes and difficult roads.” The warrior calls on Jizo for strength to stay awake and stay alive.
That lonely cry in the distance, is it real or in a dream? Is the ‘dog’ a real dog or a metaphor for man who seeks a wife to comfort him in distress and assist him in need. Within this trio is the life of a warrior: his struggles against male enemies and against nature (the need to sleep), his use of religion to help in in these struggles, then (from Basho) his longing for female love.
Nothing in the previous two stanzas requires Basho to go where he went: to focus his attention on the loneliness of a wild dog which he compares to the loneliness of a man without a woman.
Recovering from a long illness, with my help, she sits up for the first time. Lying down, she could not properly comb her long hair, but now running the comb down the full length of the strands, she absorbs their powerinto her body. Watching her pet this small furry living thing -- a similar tactile experience – just after she was so close to death. makes me love her all the more. The poet sees the girl’s affection for the cat as an extension of hair-combing. If only there was a way to keep the young and tender from growing old and bitter.
Little boys with no inhibitions at all about take off their clothes when the heat is so oppressive even in the evening. They wait for the moon to rise, but this may carry the hidden meaning of “waiting for puberty.” Basho adds exuberant body movement to this image of children. He says naked is okay, but how about a bit of restraint? The kids hold thin straw mats about a meter square in front of their privates as they dash about screaming. Still we see their “moons.” Still in the paradise of innocence, but feeling the first hints of that shame to emerge when their bodies show sexual traits.
One naked child notices a nearbly dog asleep -- but holding tail up with attention. Shiba and Akita dogs, the original breeds on these islands, are known for perpetually holding their tails up in a perfect curl, the white fur under the tail curling around to show on top, as round and white as the moon (Ahh, the link between the three stanzas). The child who jumps about in naked joy has consciousness and the ability to observe with wonder the natural world. We see not only the dog but also the child’s interest in the dog.
The poet 300 years ago makes this observation, through the eyes of a child, about Japanese dogs, about the nature of sleep, consciousness, and muscle control. We can see the same any evening in a Japanese neighborhood; dogs with round tightly curled tails. Somehow the brain signals which produce this tail shape are programmed into Japanese dog genes.
I have a shiba dog, and she usually holds her tail in a perfectly round curl – a work of art that tail. When completely relaxed her tail falls, but she can also sleep with it fully round. In other shiba dogs in the neighborhood, the circle of tail sometimes is not so neat and round, but still with some control in that direction. Often when I see my dog Suzu, I think of this stanza or the entire trio. Thanks to Basho and his followers. it becomes more fun to be with my dog – and thanks to Suzu, the trio becomes ever more enjoyable.