Rice fields now barren expanses of mud and frost with row after row of cut-off stubble; Sun (Goddess) weak and cold yet She shines with the promise of better things to come – so we love Her.
Japanese of old celebrated the New Year on the first day of the first Moon in the lunar calendar; this varied from late January to mid-February by the Gregorian calendar. Spring, according to the Oriental reckoning, begins in February when it is still very cold, but the first signs of Spring can be seen in a few wild greens.
Basho’s first recorded haiku, written in 1662 when he was 18, focuses attention on the passage of old year into New Year.
“Second last day” is the day before the last day of the lunar year, in 1662, February 17 and the first day of Spring by the solar calendar. It is not necessary to understand all the details of the two calendars; the point of the verse is that questioning we experience at the end of one year and beginning of another: is this an end? or a beginning? The questioning comes from a famous tanka in the Tales of Ise:
At the end of autumn in 1680, Basho experienced some profound realization of human loneliness –an existential crisis – which led to him leaving society to become a wandering poet. He marked this transforming moment in his life with a haiku
The branch lifeless, the crow black and forbidding, the nightfall cold and dreary, accumulate to form deep sabi, which the Japan Encyclopedia defines as “a medieval aesthetic combing elements of old age, loneliness, resignation, and tranquility.” Basho devoted the winter of 1680 and much of 1681 and ’82 to sabi,
and he began the year 1683 -- on January 28 -- with this haiku
On New Years, 1683, Basho went back in time to that momentous autumn nightfall when his life changed direction. He seems to have reconsidered the hold of sabi on his mind, for this year he begins to lighten up. As in all New Years poems, the question is “Do we look forward or look back?”
In a Shinto ritual, ice from winter is preserved in an ice house to last until midsummer, and that spirit of perseverance offered to the kamisama. As the Japanese frequently extort each other, gambatte, “persevere, hang in there, maintain your strength.”
Issho switches from mid-summer to freezing cold New Year’s daybreak; just before we see the first bit of Sun-circle, there is a glimmer on the horizon. The stanza-pair is a poetic representation of the yin-yang symbol. Yin is dark and cold; Yang light and hot. The bit of ice in the midsummer heat is the spot of Yin in the field of Yang; the sun rising in midwinter is the bit of bright heat in the cold dark field. The two fields with opposing spots together form the cycle of the year, of reality, of consciousness.
For New Year in 1689 Basho focuses on sunlight:
He was “supposed” to get up early to see the first sunrise, but… The bed was so warm and the dawn so cold. He promises himself he will do better tomorrow. What do you think? Will he “blunder” tomorrow too? There’s enough “glory of spring” at noon.
In a letter to two followers in 1690, Basho writes:
Not very impressive from a literary standpoint, not very fashionable . this “sketch” of a beggar asleep outdoors under a straw mat in the freezing cold New Year’s weather. If not for fortune, I could be him. This man, who most people ignore or wish to ignore, has an identity, a humanity, in which Basho sees the glory of spring.
WHO IS THAT MAN? goes straight to its human and sociological meaning; it does not “spin about” aimlessly yet is not “heavy”; it does not shove that meaning at the reader’s face.
Mochi rice cakes are eaten throughout the New Year’s season which in Japan lasts up to three weeks. As the days pass, with no refrigerators or plastic wrap, the leftovers get moldy – however dried in the sunshine, the mold can be wiped off and the mochi eaten – but not if it had bird poop on it. Usually we hear the lovely song of the bush warbler, but Basho notices something else about the bird. Kon says this verse is a “crystallization” of Lightness; it gives a definite form to Basho’s ideal: nothing poetic or philosophic, romantic or tragic, simply life as is, with a touch of humor, to be interesting. Small children will like any verse with pee or poop in it, so this should be a favorite.
Haiku scholar Kon Eizo says, “At a New Year’s performance, a monkey’s mask worn by a monkey changes nothing – so we repeat the same foolishness each year.”
The Nachi mountains near Kumano in Wakayama-ken are famous for severe winters and also for warrior disciplines such as archery in weather so cold one can barely feel fingertips on the bowstring. Archery exhibitions and competitions are a New Year’s ritual, and for boys coming of age, a manhood ritual. Sort of like ‘who can pee the furthest?’
In the link, we may search for the nature of male puberty. Sexuality is conceived as a type of “heat” which children lack, so they are winter. New Years (in February) is like puberty, when some parts of the body first feel that heat while other parts are still cold and non-sexual. We look forward to Spring, the season of romance and sex, when that heat becomes pleasant -- but beware of things getting too hot in summer.
The samurai Ranran was one of the first in Edo to follow Basho, and continued supporting him for 19 years. He died in 1693 in his forties. The following is from Basho’s essay Grief for Matsukura Ranran:
A samurai dad walks holding hands with his little son. (Say what?!) 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 Ojuu famous for his beauty as a small child, and “picked out” the character juu from Ojuu, 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. When Ranran heard the name Basho chose for his son and saw the characters he selected, his face lit in joy.
Japanese for 20 centuries at New Years have played hanetsuku, non-competitive badminton in which the purpose is to volley as long as possible. The following haiku was written in 1702 by a seven- year-old girl, Haru, from Osaka, the great mercantile capital of Japan, where everyone is a merchant. Her daddy is busy all year long. Rarely does he spend any time with her. She loves New Year’s because he takes three whole days off from work, and will play lots of badminton with her. Near the end of the year, when he comes in to say goodnight to her, Haru asks in her most charming voice:
We feel her love for Daddy, her patient though eager waiting for him to spend time with her at New Years. Haru-chan teaches us that seven-year-old girls 300 years ago thought and felt this way. Where else is there such a record of a small child’s consciousness from so long ago?
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. (Ciisaki yatsura: yatsura is the plural form of yatsu, a slang word meaning, for an adult, “guy” or “jerk” or even “asshole,” although chiisaki, ‘tiny,” makes them small and cute.
As we walk about and talk to relatives, friends, and people important to us, a lot of what we say is not appropriate for children to know, so we hide our meaning in a maze of adult words with references to people and things they know not; the Complete Basho Renku Interpretive Anthology says “we speak rapidly and respond with “un huh” – but how much do these highly attentive language sponges pick up? Adults think that language comprehension requires knowledge of each word’s individual meaning, but children get the meaning from context. The link between the two stanzas leads us into the nature of language, concentration, and intelligence.
From the 17th century Japanese commoner children went to private schools known as terakoya. Girls studied homemaking skills, arts, and music, and could read and write in the phonetic kana alphabets. Boys learned to read and write the thousands of Chinese characters used in formal Japanese. They practiced with copybooks such as Tenkin Orai, a series of letters appropriate to each month, giving students a wide range of content to copy, so they would learn how to understand and use all those characters effectively.
On the first day of school after New Year’s break, also the start of Spring, a teacher tells the students to take out Teikin Orai and practice writing New Year’s greetings (similar to the one billion nenga-jo 120 million Japanese send out at the end of the year to arrive on New Year’s morning). It would be clearer for the teacher to ask “from whose satchel shall the best penmanship spring?” (“spring” being a verb, as water springs from the rocks ) or even clearer, “who can do the best writing?” But this teacher’s question is more interesting to the children, and they play along with the game, and shout “Me! Me! From my satchel the year shall spring!” So they all work hard, as if playing a game, to get better. Instead of simply telling the students what to do, this teacher adds interest to the learning process. Both Basho’s father and his older brother taught calligraphy to neighborhood children to supplement their farm income; with this haiku Basho shows his knowledge of how a thoughtful teacher can motivate children to learn.
For New Years of 1693 Basho received a letter from his childhood and lifelong friend Ensui with a haiku telling of the birth of Ensui’s first grandchild, a girl:
“An edge emerging” is the first bit of white petal seen as a flower bud starts to open, but also is a phrase in the Tale of Genji describing Genji’s daughter, the Akashi Princess:
The Akashi Princess grows up to become Empress; Ensui applied this image, both natural and literary, to his infant granddaughter emerging from the womb, and also to the New Year emerging from winter. Ensui apparently has high hopes for his granddaughter.
For the next New Year, 1694, Basho sent a 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. Basho links his heart with Ensui’s, feeling Ensui’s love for his granddaughter in his own chest.
The sharp flavor in daikon pickles penetrates his teeth because they are old and need much dental work. Mochi itself has no distinct flavor to arouse young people; they like it mixed with other flavors. Only old patient taste buds enjoy it for its subtle flavor
For New Year’s 1694, Basho in Edo writes to his samurai friend Kyokusui in Zeze beside Lake Biwa: he mentions the previous New Years when Kyokusui was in Edo and came to visit Basho:
Japanese custom cherishes various firsts-of-the-New-Year: the first dream, first sunrise, first hawk sighting: the “first laugh” is not one of these, but Basho and Kyokusui invent a new custom. We may follow them in cherishing and remembering our year’s first laugh.
Zoni is traditionally eaten throughout the 20 days of the New Year season. Thus by the end of the First Moon, when this letter was written, one might be tired of zoni. We see that the uba—old woman servant who probably was Kyokosui’s wet nurse—likes to overfeed her baby. Basho is playfully kidding his friend.