Fascination with women’s hair enriches Japanese poetry from the most ancient, and Basho invested much attention into the beauty, grace, and sensuality of long black hair. To complement Basho's images of hair, we also explore images in the ancient poetry anthology Manyoshu, the 11th century Tale of Genji, and in the poetry of Basho's woman followers and the 20th century woman poet Yosano Akiko.
Even when the renku stanza by Basho does not contain any hair, it is linked to a stanza about hair, and to understand the link is our quest.
If you have been taught that Basho wrote about natural scenes – flowers, birds, insects, etc. – or the lonely desolation of growing old, may these 35 poems on long sensual hair open your mind to another Basho.
In her Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon wrote:
Basho had a similar experience:
A mother preparing sweets for the children bends over a bucket of rice dough, forms into cones, wraps leaves of bamboo grass around each one, and ties with a strip of rush. Some of her long hair moist with sweat has come loose from the band in back and fallen before her face. Her fingers and palms are coated with residue. Without thinking or breaking her stride, she reaches up with the clean surface on the side of your hand above the thumb and forefinger to tuck the hair behind her ear – with nothing getting on her hair.
Women in every land and every time where hair is worn long make this precise, delicate, and utterly feminine movement with the side of the hand around the ear. Whether you are female or male, with hair long or short, make the movement with your hand and you will recall exactly what Basho is showing us. The verse strikes a chord of recognition in anyone who reads it with attention. WRAPPING RICE CAKE is Basho’s Mona Lisa, his most graceful hidden woman. Only Basho has the delicacy and precision to draw such a moment out from the flow of a woman’s everyday life.
We can see both Shonagon’s and Basho’s visions everyday.
Basho’s very first renku sequence, written in spring of 1665, contains a stanza-pair that reveals the sensual
consciousness of long black hair in 21 year old Sengin followed by 20 year old Basho
“Hair parted in the middle” suggests a girl before puberty. As she enters adolescence, hormones spread through her body to make her hair grow long and elegant, and her personality alluring and flirtatious. Basho is drawn to the woman whose face he cannot see; he “sees” through the hair on the back of her head to a vision of her face. And remember he is just about twenty years old when he wrote this.
Leonard Shlain in The Alphabet versus the Goddess notes that
Young women devote considerable time and energy to their hair, intuiting that a gorgeous crown will enhance their sexual attractiveness. ... Hair length is entwined with sexuality and she who possesses long hair signals her fertility to potential mates.
The large pink and white flower is a fine ornament for the hair of a tiny peasant girl naked in the August heat. The child stands there innocent and charming, the ideal human form: she carries the future of humanity. Shoko, with daughters this age, sees in the verse “an expression of the warmth in Basho’s heart.”
Mother works all day long, and finally takes a break in the evening, to wash her long black locks. Beside the well, she rubs a cotton bag of wet rice bran powder between her hands; the saponin or soap-like foam that emerges through the permeable fabric has been used for shampoo, as well as face and body wash, since ancient times. Rice bran is rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals which moisturize and strengthen hair, protect it from ultraviolet rays, and prevent hair loss. Rice-bran lather empowers her hair for the future.
From this chemical knowledge of hair, Basho leaps to the mother-child bond. An individual mother gives her daughters work to do in the evening, or she can be iconic, a symbol for all mothers passing on the torch to their daughters, first the older, then the younger, for as many as are in the household. She gives them Light – a bit of the Sun (Goddess) emerging from a lantern – and Work, the long tradition of females working day and night without complaint, simply working, generation after generation – only taking time off to care for their hair. Thus Mother empowers her daughters who are the future.
In the Tale of Genji Murasaki Shikibu repeatedly describes the long thick black hair of the 9 year old girl who will become Genji’s wife:
Recovering from a long illness, when she could not comb her hair properly lying down, she sits up for the first time. Running the comb down her long black locks, she absorbs their power into her body. Watching her caress the fur of her small living pet - a similar tactile experience – soon after she was so close to death makes me love her all the more. “I” could be her lover or her parent. In the link between the two stanzas, we feel the nature of long silky hair.
A warm wind
The long slender flexible willow branches hang to the ground, swaying in the spring breeze, as a girl’s hair sways around her body while she walks.
In Japanese mythology the Sun-Goddess Amaterasu prepared herself to meet her hostile brother, the Storm God Susano.
Usually the Goddess wears her hair in a feminine style, but here she changes to a martial style. Magatama are cresecent shaped beads which attract the spirits of the dead. Both beads and hair itself serve as source as well as repository of spiritual power.
Basho’s woman follower Sonome, is known for writing “women’s haiku” such as the next two verses:
The mother or babysitter wraps baby in a kimono sash and ties to her back; with the face behind her neck, the child could watch and learn social communication. In cold weather a oversize cloak (hanten) went over both of them, restricting baby’s limb movement, but in summer inquisitive hands could easily reach the hairs at the back of her neck.
She shows us the hot sweaty reality of motherhood in the sultry Japanese summer – when there is Peace in the land. When there is war or tragedy, a woman has too many big problems to concentrate on so ordinary a moment. Japanese babies look at the back of mother’s neck, her nape, for hours a day; it is well-known for its erotic appeal to Japanese men. Sonome wrote another verse about her nape.
She explores the small ordinary sensations in woman’s life, the coolness that enters between collar and hair bun. The verse is incredibly unexciting: that’s the great part about it. Because in Japan the nape is erotic, the verse has a sensual side, although for a woman with a hair bun, it is an everyday-in-summer experience.
In “Hair Symbolism in Japanese Popular Religion,” Gary Ebersole emphasizes the correlation in the Japanese mind between straight orderly hair and a straight orderly mind, between messy hair and an upset heart. For example, he points to this tanka in the Manyoshu:
The daughter must have died – but under what circumstances? She must have appeared in the dream, as if she were alive. To see her back from the dead has upset the ki, energy, spreading out from the mother’s brain into her hair.
Izumi Shikibu, in the 11th century, wrote of being alone, without him, the turmoil scattering her hair
Here Yosano Akiko blends the romantic Tanabata legend with human hair dishevelled during love-making.
This poem from the Manyoshu, a thousand years before Basho, reveals the Japanese worship of long hair:
She lies down on her hair, mingling her body with the strands as slender and silky as she is.
Yosano Akiko wrote
Lady Chiyo, born ten years after Basho died, wrote of rice-planting maidens:
This is the busiest time of the year. The women have no time to straighten their hair, or their robes –and besides, soon they will be up to their knees in mud. They walk bare-footed into the paddy, chatting and calling out to each other, grimacing and laughing as the mud squishes between their toes. Forming a long straight line, they stoop over and move backwards, inserting each bundle of three green shoots a few inches into the mud.
Both hips and hair, as slender and flexible as willow branches covered with young green leaves swaying sensually in the wind. This is a most gorgeous female image – then Basho makes her wait for a lover who apparently will never show. Notice the contrast between her willowy beauty and her unfulfilled desire so intense it fills the wind.
Many months have passed since the great battle, and the bones of warriors picked clean by scavengers and exposed to rain, snow, dew, and wind lay white on the ground. On a day off from work, a married woman servant walks back to her native home. She knew she would have to pass the battlefield, and could not do so alone, especially in the gloomy rain, so someone (her husband?) walks with her to alleviate her fear. The first thing she does upon arrival at her parent’s house is wash the bad vibes from her hair -- the hair which contains her life-force. We breathe in that smell of thick wet hair – as in beauty parlors – like the smell of mist.
Pulled up from bed by someone enthusiastic to show her the Moon, the girl is embarrassed to be seen in her nightgown straight from sleep without any preparation of face, hair, and clothing; she really does not want anyone to see her emerging sexuality in the moonlight. Basho says this flustered and ashamed girl grows up into a mature self-assured lady. The thick black hair holds much heat, so her maids wave folding fans at it to push the coolness into the mass of strands. The image of servants fanning her hair (like Cleopatra’s servants fanning her with palm branches) suggests the nobility of this lady. “Dew” suggests the moistness of sexual functions. A “robe of dew” would be transparent, revealing her entire body as naked as the moon, yet not at all ashamed. The stanza pair shows us two stages in a woman’s sexual development: first embarrassed, then composed.
A man has disappointed her in love, and she cuts her hair and telpathically sends him a dream to tell him this. The traditional way to interpret “cutting her hair” is as “becoming a nun” – although Shoko says “not necessarily.” In Japan, women cut a number of strands as a declaration of giving up the past to move into a new future. Basho makes her see through the false love she thought was real, realizing that such love disappears as surely as the moon fades into the morning sky and gorgeous blue morning glories wilt to become refuse in the rain.
He made clear definite promises – “hard as nails” – but it was all a sham; his heart was never in the words. She can wait here forever; he does not care. As things get cold in autumn, dew is heavy – but “dew” here means “tears” and also impermanence and disappointment, wearing out and decaying all things, both living and non-living, so the young grow old and bitter. Basho’s verb in Japanese is more than simply “wiping away” the tears, but rather a bold and vigorous “sweeping away” of all that heaviness.
Long ago, when young folk wrote love letters with pen on paper, tears might smear the words. This adolescent from the boonies tries to express the depth of his love in a poem to her, but is no Shakespeare. Bear's grease was a popular treatment for men with hair loss from at least as early as 1653 until about the First World War. The myth of its effectiveness is based on a belief that as bears are very hairy, their fat would assist hair growth in others. He wants more than just his hair to grow like a bear’s.
This old wandering beggar usually has no money, but now possesses a single coin -- with a hole in the center to hangs on a string round his neck. In the same area, below the neck and around the chest, this strong man’s shaggy black hair spills freely. The power of this hunk who everyday carries heavy baggage for miles and miles, comes from his long shaggy hair – as when the Sun Goddess prepared herself for battle with her brother the Storm God, she unbound her hair -- as Samsom drew power from his hair before Delilah cut it off. Basho’s stanza especially highlights raw physical manhood without culture, religion, or philosophy.
For the next stanza-pair, two possible translations of the first stanza:
Top: a romantic scene, as in the Tale of Genji where perfumed aristocratic men sneak into a lady’s bedroom for secret sex. Osoroshii means “afraid,” however Shoko says that from a Japanese viewpoint, the woman is not afraid of him – in the Tale of Genji when a man “rapes” a woman, he forces himself on her, however always without assault or injury to her body – so the speaker in the stanza has no fear of him physically hurting her. Shoko emphasizes that this Japanese woman fears the consequences in family and society of this romance becoming known. In English: “worrying.”
Bottom: Another reality where men are not washed and perfumed, and more violent in sex. As he enters the room, she recognizes his putrid odor, recalling other times he has used her. She does not get up to greet him; rather she cowers on the futon steeling herself for what is to come. We feel the ominous approach of this man she fears. Imagine what happened in between the two stanzas: the activity and sweat and sound of sex (or rape?) in the hot moist Japanese summer without air conditioning, sex aggressive enough
to mess up her hair (and the rest of her).
She sits on the futon, neither screaming nor weeping, but rather sliding her fingers down the hair beside her face to wipe off sweat and straighten the strands, drawing power from her hair to recover from her ordeal. He is gross and cruel, while she is sensitive and dignified. She is stronger than he is: she has more endurance.
The karawa or “Chinese rings” hairstyle –four rings rising from the head – was an elegant style for both courtesans and ordinary women.
The elegant and charming hairstyle worn “gently” by the young wife suggests a marriage beginning with hope for the future. Jump ahead several decades, to some fabric that was part of a bag, something that used to be important, so I kept it, but I can no longer remember, everything getting faint, drifting away – yet those Chinese Rings worn on her head long ago remain clear in my mind.
Basho’s stanza is solitary; alone I find one strand of white hair amidst the multitude of black hairs – so I realize my middle age is past. The next poet goes plural: a number of years, countless cherry petals, and a number of friends – however while the white strands increase, the friends shall decrease.
This woman has both grey hair and an infant at her breast, so we gine her as a grandmother who, after her daughter died, saves the life of her grandchild. Because she plays a shamisen, the Japanese reader suspects that she is a geisha, or performance artist who makes her living travelling about singing and dancing. She hold the instrument on her lap against her torso, much the way she holds the baby. “She scratches her scalp” in difficulty understanding or accepting her fate: the death of her daughter, the three needs conflicting within her, to nurture the infant, to make a living, and to rest her aging body. The ever-present conflict of these needs drives her to distraction – thus she absent-mindedly uses her plectrum to scratch an itch under her hair.
Knowing nothing of grandmother’s sorrow and confusion, the child delights in the softness of her body and flavor of her milk. The old woman looks into baby’s eyes and forehead searching to see the dreams within. Unlike her own dreams gone sour, these dreams are fresh and new – and she wonders whether her grandchild will overcome the hardship of losing mother to realize those dreams.
“Fallen hair” means the wife has died – for a woman’s hair contains her life force. “Dew” is the forces of wetness that rust, corrode, and wear out all things. She looked in the mirror so often it retains a copy of her face – or maybe the husband and wife were so in tune with each other that their faces came to resemble each other.
Religious authorities battle against the sexuality of hair. Monks, both in Japan and the West, cut off their hair to baldness. Roger Ebersole in Hair: Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures explains: “Shaving of the initiate reduces the individual to the state of the embryo or infant, the asexual hairless condition.” Women who became nuns in the West did not have to shave their heads, however, as Leonard Shlain notes:
Outlandish designs were employed by various orders to disguise a nun so that it appeared she did not have any hair at all. A starched, white, angular, stiff whimple not only completely hid her hair, its characteristics were the antithesis of a feature of humanhood that is naturally soft, dark, wavy, and lustrous.
In Japan, nuns were not required to go bald, but had to cut their hair to shoulder length: Basho’s woman follower Uko wrote when she became a nun:
Uko begins with the beauty of her hair enhanced by ornamental pins and combs. But now much of that 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.
When a woman cut her hair, symbolically she cut off herself, to serve only Buddha – however this nun seems to have retained her selfhood as a woman. Basho focuses on her “fragrance” – not her smell, but the aura of beauty that surrounds her. He places her near a watchtower which suggests this is during the Warring States Period – which ended a hundred years before Basho was born. So what is the scene? Shoko sees that this nun is most likely at a picnic held under the tower whose samurai are ready to defend against an attack. So there are dozens or even hundreds of people – nobles, generals, elegant ladies, servants -- in this scene, yet Basho has eyes only for the alluring nun. Likewise the warriors: they have pushed aside the woven straw curtains to get a glimpse of her.
Another renku tearjerker: he seduced her with promises of love and devotion, but when she gave birth to a son, he took the boy to be his heir and abandoned her. With no place else to go, she entered a temple which takes in such women. She had to cut her hair and stay in a cell. Only if she lets her hair grow back, can she can re-enter society. Her breasts still have milk which she has to squeeze out and throw away – while she recalls the baby that milk is produced for – such is the bitterness which fills her heart.
Basho’s mom died in 1683 while he was in Fukagawa. The next year he returned to Iga to visit her grave
and spend time with others “from the same belly.”
The young boy Taro of Urashima village (no connection to the tuber taro) was carried down by a sea turtle to the palace of a sea-goddess and stayed there for a while. Before he returned to his home, she gave him a jeweled box which (as usual in these stories) she told him to never look inside. Back on land he discovered that decades had passed and everyone he knew was dead. In despair he opened the box and a whiff of smoke arose, turning him into an old man with white hair.
In autumn, frost forms only early in the morning; a harbinger of winter to come. Basho weaves together human emotion and seasonal awareness in a ‘sketch’ of a few strands of white hair on his palm.
Basho came back to his hometown in September of 1694 for the three-day Bon Festival honouring deceased ancestors. The dead are buried in family plots near the ancestral home. On the first day of the O-Bon Festival, the whole family goes to the cemetery and with lanterns and torches escorts the spirits home.
When father died in 1656 we were all young and healthy. Then mother passed away in 1683. Now we all are showing the years as we go to visit the graves. How soon will we come here to stay and be escorted home in future O-bons? The middle segment sums up the nature of growing old: white hair and osteoporosis.
For O-bon, the Festival of Lanterns, they are everywhere; in people’s windows, on the ground, hanging from ropes, on rafts floating in the river. The lanterns represent the spirits of the dead; also they light the way for the spirits crossing the boundary. A woman cries for someone who has died, whose spirit is among those who have come back, while the wind more slender than her long hair penetrates into the depths of her heart,