His journey to the Deep North now past, Basho spends 1690 at leisure in Iga and around Kyoto, and in his leisure writes an amazing 44 letters still extant.
Letter 57 to Sampu, April 18,
The scene the same in Basho’s time as in ours. 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.
At the time of this verse, the Master said,
To those who love Western poetry, Basho’s verses of Lightness will seem so simple and Light they feel like nothing – but they leave the reader feeling good -- as opposed to Heaviness which relies on heavy word associations and allegory to make the reader feel sad. Even without tragedy or sensationalism or negativity, however, Basho reaches into the human heart. In this verse, he reaches through taste sensations – soup which could be so many possibilities and namasu which is raw vegetables marinated in vinegar. The cherry blossoms scatter onto these two taste images; a liquid food and the taste of vinegar.
Kyokusui’s younger brother Dosui and Basho share an enthusiasm for the ancient Chinese sage Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi) famous for his story of waking up from dreaming he was a butterfly to wonder whether if actually he was a butterfly dreaming of being Chuang-Tzu.
The “Great Way of Nature” is the Taoism of Chuang Tzu. Kon elaborates: “You and I are one in our attraction to Chuang Tzu. We can give up all notions of distinction between us.”
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.
In this letter we meet the infant Takesuke, Kyokusui’s first son and heir to the household, and also the family uba, a woman hired to breastfed Takesuke and then stay on with the family as babysitter.
A remarkably complete developmental profile on the infant:
1) gaining weight, 2) shows intelligence, 3) health and mood good,
4) father absent, but 5) child lives in stable, extended family of women devoted to his care.
6) They remain cheerful even when he is sad (because papa is away) so they cheer him up and
7) Takesuke “shows no signs of loneliness”.
Doctor Basho looks equally at the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of child development –
and sends his observations to the father to help him feel better in his absence from his son.
Basho pays attention to children in ordinary daily life, and furthermore he pays attention to people caring for children.
Where else in old-time literature do we see anyone care for an infant without that one dying or suffering? Juliet’s uba, after she tells of weaning three-year-old Juliet, goes on… and on… and on with a story of the day when baby Juliet:
Shakespeare (in 1595) observes that an infant may not need to cry - if distracted, he or she will stop and even become happy. Read Basho’s letter along with the Nurse’s account: they say exactly the same thing! When the infant is in a bad way, adults act cheerfully to lift the child’s spirit up.
In this letter Basho offers this haiku as an example of his new style of Lightness which he declared this spring (see Letter 57 to Sampu).
People have one-track minds with no lane for a new style to pass. They do not appreciate a verse because, instead of seeing and hearing the words for what they mean in this particular context, they respond to them within some old context.
The reader may think EVEN WILD BOARS is “vulgar” because the animal is such a wild, ferocious beast – however the verse is not really about wild boars. It rather expresses the human experience of being in a furious autumn typhoon: as the savage winds blast my body, as if to blow me away, I fantasize a wild boar in the same experience. This imaginary wild boar brings me a chuckle as I struggle against the wind – and so the verse is one of Lightness.
Sudden enlightenment which comes like a flash of silent lightning, is “raw Zen.” To be enlightened for a moment is useless. Basho says true enlightenment can only come from experience through time -- and he says this again in letter 185 to Dosui.The two letters to Dosui (#s 60 and 185) and this letter to Kyokusui are three places where we can learn not what modern authors say Basho thought about Zen, but rather what he actually thought.
Meanwhile he was also concerned with events in his neighborhood in Fukagawa. Two letters from this year gives us glimpses of his nephew Toin who lives near Basho’s hut with his “wife” (probably without formal marriage) and three children, a boy Jirobei, believed to be about 11, and two girls Masa and Ofu, 9 and 7.
Lettter 85 to Sora, October 13:
Shoko gets the feeling that Toin has some degree of disability, Even without modern psychological terms, Basho describes his nephew’s problems with considerable accuracy. The slight mention of Toin in letter 57 to Sampu, and this somewhat more detailed yet still vague statement are the only words about Toin in Basho’s letters before he became sick in 1693. This absence of evidence of Toin’s existence in Edo is itself evidence that Toin was a fugitive hiding out in the vast population of the Shogun’s Capital.
Basho leaves us a hint that Toin lived together with a woman and children. Her name is unknown to us, but after Toin dies, she will take the Buddhist name Jutei. We can imagine why, after Jutei’s death, Basho wrote that she was “a person without happiness” and her daughters had “the same unhappiness.”
A tea canister disappeared from a house where poets had gathered, and blame fell on Rotsu.
The canister was found and Rotsu exonerated, but apparently hard feelings lingered from the incident.
(see commentary to letter 159 to Uko).
Once a man reaches forty, ro, “old,” is added to his name. 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.
Basho spent 18 days this summer in Kyoto and stayed at Uko and Boncho’s house.
The following tanka appears in this letter to Uko.
Basho recalls the tea ceremony Uko performed for 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.”
He wrote two tanka in 1690, both focusing on woman’s life. SPRING PASSES BY, a personal message to a newborn girl, 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. In the 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.
Two years before, at the end of 1688, Uko wrote this haiku:
She sketches the unsettled feeling of a woman whose hormones are seeking pregnancy; in 1689 they won. (Boncho did it!) 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.
Basho politely addresses the infant as Tei dono -- “Little Miss Tei”. However he got the kid’s name wrong. Uko’s daughter is Sai. ‘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.
This is believed by many scholars to be a fake, written by someone else, however Kon considers it genuine, so includes in his anthology. On his authority, I translate about one-fifth of the whole letter.
Basho, still in Zeze, again portrays the infant in a way to please and reassure the concerned father whose job takes him far away.
Basho’s praise for one-year-old Takesuke pleases Kyokusui because his young heir is the next generation, the next layer, of Kyokusui. The father is a samurai, but nowadays there is no fighting, and samurai have become government administrators. Kyokusui has little opportunity to be manly, and his son is growing up without father present. Basho reaches inside Kyokusui’s heart to reassure him that his son is showing manly traits, becoming a takumashii (strong, sturdy, vigorous) little samurai who can also laugh – just like Dad.
In 1676 Toin, age 15, accompanied his uncle to Edo and so could be called Basho’s “retainer of long ago.” When Basho was in Kyoto he, like everyone else, bought souvenirs for the folks at home, his grandnieces Masa and Ofu whom he calls “little nuns” as a term of affection. Basho knows that Kyokusui is too busy to deliver the package himself, so he asks him to have his personal servant Seiroku take it to Toin’s workplace in Kyobashi, Yumi-block (now Ginza 2-chome, a few blocks east of Tokyo station), a prosperous and bustling shopping area (as it is today). Kon notes that a registry of all people working in this area at this time shows no one named Ishimaru Kento.
What is going on here? Why can’t the package be sent directly to Toin? Why is Toin going by an assumed name at his workplace? “Ishimaru Kento” is it? The ‘to’ in Kento is the same character for “peach” we find in Toin, and also in Tosei, Basho’s former poetry name before he settled on Basho. Hopefully no one -- especially no one from Iga, ninja capital of Japan!! -- will notice any of this. Frankly, it does not seem like a very smart alias.
We even know the address where Toin worked, and we see that “Ishimaru Kento” lives with “little nuns” who are apparently Jutei’s daughters Masu and Ofu; the son Jirobei is not mentioned here. From this letter we see, vaguely but still clearly, that Toin and Jutei were 1) a couple and 2) fugitives.
(Of course there is no evidence of this. What do you expect?)
But even in a family of fugitives, little girls like to get presents from far away, especially presents from their granduncle. Tomiemon’s wife gave birth normally, both mother and children without misfortune, and the old mother’s joy boundless. Basho pays enough attention to his friend’s servant’s wife, newborn and aged mother to mention them in a letter. He manages to get all three generations into the image, focusing on the female.
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 throughout the world and preserve for future generations