Basho came down from his journey to the Deep North in autumn of 1689; for that winter, all of 1690. and most of 1691, he hung out in the Kansai, dividing his time among his hometown Iga, Zeze (Otsu) beside Lake Biwa, and Kyoto. In these two years of leisure, Basho wrote many letters. For the year 1690 we have 43 letters scholars believe to be authentic, of which eight are given here. Three of these are to the samurai Kyokusui, and from these letters we see the image of samurai we have today – stiff, formal, and humorless - does not suit Kyokusui.
In summer of 1690, Kyokusui who lived in Zeze, was among the entourage of the Lord of Zeze in attendence on the Shogun; they remained in Edo throughout the next year and into the spring of 1692. While Kyokosui is in Edo, he gave Basho use of the Hut of Unreal Dwelling, an old cottage in the hills above Zeze where Kyokusui’s uncle lived until his death eight years ago. Basho stayed here this summer and autumn as he described in his well-known haibun At the Hut of Unreal Dwelling.
We begin 1690 with letters of spring.
Sampu must have been very busy, and did not respond.
Ihei, a man from Kamo village near Nara, is briefly mentioned in Basho’s letters – until 1694 when he becomes an important part of Basho’s life: see letters 199, 203, 204 (in G-19 Rest of Summer, 1694)
and his Will (in G-20 Final Letters). Basho’s nephew Toin 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.
In his letter to Sampu Basho sends five haiku which were used to begin renku sequences: one of these was, written on April 10th.
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 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.
Basho'r follower Doho tells us,
So UNDER THE TREES is the birth-poem of Basho’s poetic ideal of Lightness (karumi) – and letters 62 and 81 provide more Basho insights into this ideal. (For much, more more on Lightness, click here ) 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 through images of picnic food and cherry blossoms. Lightness is Us, real people having fun, sharing food. Hurray!
Bash and Kyokusui’s younger brother Dosui 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. This poem does not simply stand alone. Stephen J. Wolfe in his article Using the Useless: Chuang Tzu’s Influence on Basho notes that “if the reader is not familiar with the butterfly passage in Chuang Tzu…the poem makes little sense.” This is true, but we must go further: only if we consider the context of the letter, the friendship between Basho and Dosui, can we understand Basho’s thought in this haiku. Kon Eizo, preeminent authority on both Basho haiku and Basho letters, reveals Basho’s personal message to Dosui here:
“You and I are one in our attraction to Chuang Tzu.
We can give up all notions of distinction between us.”
This letter is written to two sons of one of Basho's oldest followers, the boys now about 18 and 15, so here we have Basho's advice to youth.
Look at the haiku I wrote for New Years:
Basho does not actually include this haiku in the letter, for Shiken and Sensen already know it, but here it is for you:
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 and offers that glory to two teenage poets.
Although WHO IS THAT MAN is about a homeless beggar, Basho still sees it as a demonstration of Lightness, which is the opposite of Heaviness (not, in Japanese, the opposite of darkness though Basho would have appreciated the double meaning in English.) The verse 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.
Shiken and Sensen probably recalled Basho's advice for the rest of their lives.
In this letter we meet the infant Takesuke, Kyokusui’s first son and heir to the household, and also the old uba, or wet nurse who probably breastfed Kyokusui and then stayed on with the family as babysitter and servant. She may also feed Takesuke from her old breasts, or the family may have hired a younger wet nurse for him
Those familiar with child welfare may note that Basho gives 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 makes these observations in a letter to Kyokusui because he knows his samurai friend’s profound feelings for his first-born 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 a child without that one dying or suffering?
(C-19 Kids in Western Literature till Shakespeare gives many examples of this): 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.
Later on the letter, after writing about his Kyoto follower Boncho, Basho offers one sentence about his wife Uko known for speaking out against his patriarchy. (See D-11 ONE FINE WOMEN, UKO).
Scholar Ito Yu says “So well Basho understands hardship.”
Basho offers this haiku and discussion 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. Apparently in those days without plastic or refrigerators, fermented and curdled foods smelled worse than they do nowadays.
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 hardship. This imaginary wild boar brings me a chuckle as I struggle against the wind – and so this poem as well as the letter passage reveals the nature of Basho’s Lightness.
This letter to Kyokusui, contains the haiku below with this comment by Basho
There is no information to identify this monk. In another place Basho preceded the haiku with this headnote
“Raw Zen” seems to be a phrase Basho invented. It means enlightenment which occurs suddenly and for the moment, but has not been tested through interaction with the world. Basho says such enlightenment is useless. True enlightenment must be “cooked” through experience and time.
This is the silent ‘heat lightening’ which occurs in the summer evening sky without rain or storm. The horizon flashes brightly, for a moment, then no more. It is easy for the human mind seeking enlightenment to feel enlightened by such a flash, yet Basho says “No.” Simply observe the lightening with humility; that is nobility. This letter to Kyokusui, and letter 185 to Dosui are where, instead of seeing what modern advocates of Zen say Basho thought about Zen, we learn something closer to what he actually thought.
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. Basho got a letter from Sora telling of conflict in the family. We can imagine why, after Jutei’s death, in Letter 203, Basho wrote that she was “a person without happiness” and her daughters had “the same unhappiness.”
Soha is a Zen monk and neighbor of Basho; a portrait of him on a journey appears in Friends in Zen.
Rotsu was a samurai who, at age 25 in 1674, became a beggar monk. In 1685 he started following Basho, and in 1688 came to live near Basho in Fukagawa. In 1689 he came up to the Japan Sea Coast to meet Basho at the end of his journey to the Deep North, and rode together with him down to Mino. In a renku sequence composed at this time, Rotsu began with great power and Basho followed with a masterpiece of female humanity:
(For a discussion, see L-20 Brothel Slavery)
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.
Uko’s actual name was Tome, but in 1691 she become a nun and named herself Uko which is the name she is known by, so I use it here.
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.
Kon says that the single word nasake which I have translated “benevolence” contains Basho’s gratitude for Uko’s hospitality and courtesy when Basho stayed in Uko and Boncho’s house the previous summer.
Scholar 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’s appreciation for women -- seen in three letters to Uko and five letters to Chigetsu stands out from the centuries of men worldwide ignoring and depreciating women (unless they had a romantic interest). Consider Leo Tolstoy who is famous for his spirituality and pacifism, yet his wife wrote in her diary:
“How little kindness he shows his family! With us he is never anything but severe and indifferent…he never once thought to give his wife a moment’s rest, or his sick child a drink of water.”
A most magnificant example of Basho's appreciation for women, and in particular for Uko, is this tanka which further expresses Basho’s appreciation for Uko’s benevolence when he stayed in her house this summer:
Basho tells Uko that this tanka is a personal message from his heart to hers. He recalls the tea ceremony she 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.”
Basho produced two tanka in 1690, both focusing on woman’s life: in the spring, asked to name a newborn baby girl, he wrote this tanka to bless her:
This personal message to a newborn girl encapsulates the eternal passage of the female from birth to
old age and from generation to generation. See C-14 Blessings Unto Kasane.) EACH EVENING, written
in autumn, instead focuses on one particular woman, praising her hospitality, her tea ceremony,
the sleeping arrangements she made for her guest.
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 heart's 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’s p.s. to the 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. ‘Yoshi’ is short for Oyoshi, Basho’s youngest 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. Basho, not Tolstoy, should be our model for spirituality and pacifism which includes women and children.
This letter contains information crucial to understanding the life of Basho’s nephew Toin and his “wife” Jutei with three children – however because of one statement in the letter, many scholars believe it to be a fake, written by someone else, 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:
The mention of Takesuke’s sister Osome is what makes some scholars believe this letter is fake; they maintain that Osome was born after this letter was written, and someone unfamiliar with Kyokusui’s family made a mistake in faking this letter. Kon, however, maintains that she was the older sister.
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. By putting this alias in a letter to a samurai who works for the government, Basho is putting his entire family in danger, for if Toin is captured, the entire Matsuo family will be punished. (See Letter 147 to Hanzaemon in G-15 Letters of 1692).
Basho obviously had profound trust in Kyokusui.
This letter and letter 85 to Sora are the only vague evidence we have indicating that Toin and Jutei were
1) a couple and 2) fugitives. (Of course there is no clear evidence of this. What do you expect?) These are people from Iga; they know all about hiding.
But even in a family of fugitives, little girls like to get presents from far away, especially presents from their granduncle.
The letter to Kyokusui ends with this prose poem ablout women, and it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Basho writing something like this in 17th century Japan – although someone imitating Basho’s
focus on females and the creation of life could have penned it:
Basho (or whoever wrote this letter) 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.
To see Basho focus on the female in letters,
For renku, it will take you a long time to absorb the 392
Basho stanzas in 20 articles in Women in Basho.
For haiku, see N-14 Women in 43 Basho Haiku.
For journals and haibun, see N- 15 Women in Basho Prose.
Basho: the first male feminist author in World Literature.