Several dozen poems about adolescent girls by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho have been ignored by scholars and not translated, so almost nobody knows they exist. A few of them are haiku, but most are renku, or linked verses, composed by a group of poets, each one writing a stanza linked to the one before. The joy of reading renku comes from seeing the movement from one mind to another, and I have selected stanza-pairs and trios in which 21st century minds will appreciate the links between stanzas. Basho uses only ordinary words, and I have translated his poems with ordinary words for any girl with a basic knowledge of English to read, understand, and be inspired.
These poems can be vital resources for developing literacy as well as self-understanding, in English for native speakers or as a second language, or in any language to which they are translated. Let’s spread Basho’s vision of teenage girls beyond Japanese literature and culture, to girls all over the world and internet. Let the girls of Asia and the world, from grade school to college and work place, know the poems about them by one of the greatest and certainly the most teenager-friendly and girl-positive poets the world has ever produced.
In 17th century Japan, and elsewhere in the world, girls were expected to be passive, silent, and confined to the house, but in a renku Basho wrote in his final year, he captures the joyful freedom of girls upon release from social captivity:
Over sun-bleached whites
White cotton cloth spreads out to bleach and dry in the sunny breeze, as the spirit recovering from winter's contraction spreads out to receive springtime; overhead a lark sings brightly rising to heaven. Basho honors the flock of girls in their pretty robes, going to have fun under cherry blossoms, chatting and laughing with each other, to complement the clarity and freshness of the first stanza. Clean white fabric, skylark, cherry blossoms, and group of happy girls, all get high together. Japan idolizes the joyful sparkle of teenage girls – the sparkling quality which the girls in J-Pop groups are selected for –and it is fascinating to see such free-floating joy in Basho 330 years ago. Basho: the poet of Joyful Girls.
The flower nadeshiko, a type of carnation, has, since ancient times, been associated with Japanese femininity and youthfulness; because of what men want, the word came to imply submission to patriarchy – but now with Nadeshiko being the name of the Japan Woman’s Soccer (football) team led by the magnificant Sawa Homare, who won the 2011 World Cup, it can suggest “young, strong, bold, intelligent.”
She reads beside the open window near a plum tree in bloom, her youth in contrast to the classical elegance of plum blossoms and the romantic tales old centuries before she was born. Unable to go outside and wander as her brothers can, she does her traveling inside books. Tales from long ago inspire her – as that old storybook Little Women inspired the young girls who were Gertrude Stein, Gloria Steinem, Simone de Beauvoir, Ursula Le Guin, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Ginsberg, Hillary Clinton, and J.K. Rowling. The haiku is a ‘sketch’ – just a few brush strokes and much blank space for each one of you to fill it from your own imagination. Explore it as you would explore a photo your friend tweets to you. Basho supports literacy and contemplation in young girls.
That my face
My face is made from the same genes as my mother’s face, so of course, as I approach adulthood, my face will resemble her’s. Descent through the female line is fascinating. As Gregor Mendel studied peas to discover the nature of descent through generations, Basho is attracted to study the human female face.
A thousand years ago, and 700 years before Basho, Sei Shonagon made this observation in her Pillow Book:
This Basho haiku is for all women, but certainly fits teenage girls, especially those of you whose long hair sometimes falls before your face.
Rice cake is molded from glutinous rice dough so her hands and fingers are covered with sticky residue she does want on her hair – however this can be a symbol for any work a girl does with stuff she wants to keep from her hair; she could be working in the kitchen, garden, or workshop. A lock of long hair has come loose from the band in back and fallen before her eyes. Without thinking or breaking her stride, she reaches up with the clean surface on the side of her hand (above the thumb and forefinger) to tuck the hair behind her ear – with nothing getting on her hair. We have all, in every land where women wear their long, seen this action with the side of the hand around the ear. Try it with your own hand and you will recall exactly what Basho means. As one women observed, the picture is beautiful if she does with her fingers, but truly magnificant done with that place on the back side of her hand.
This is Basho’s Mona Lisa, his most graceful hidden female. Only Basho has the delicacy and precision to draw such a moment out from the flow of everyday female life.
December 22nd the Sun at its most distant point from us, his heart so distant from mine, how my desperation increases. Being “on the porch” gives the scene a background, so more real. I use all my skill with cosmetics and clothing, and look at him with all the charm I can muster, yet he does not return my gaze.
Love starts out simple but somehow becomes “intense.” Basho’s stanza makes the most sense if this is a teenage girl:
“Although the turmoil of young love takes away all my appetite, mother insists I eat, to build up my slender body. Why can’t she understand that I cannot eat while this turmoil rages within me? Besides, I am trying to keep my weight down. Mother, stop bugging me!”
History books never speak of mother-daughter conflicts so we look to Basho for information. 300 years ago or today, the daughter thinks of love, but mother of nutrition, so no meeting of minds. May this stanza-pair be a lens through which mothers and daughters see the other’s point of view.
San, in Japanese imagery, would be a girl who grew up in town – not in a village – so she has some sophistication; her hands are not stained by mud. Following the conventions of love poetry, we know that this is the robe she wore when she was with him. Iris flowers are folded into clothing going into storage to keep away bugs but, of course, her feelings here are more romantic. Hidden within the words, in the link between two stanzas, is the young girl’s experience of first love.
The no-longer-freezing wind melts the final bits of snow, while warmth rising into the cold air condenses to mist before the moon. Early spring before there is any warmth suggests the early stages in a woman’s sexual life. In the evening her futon, and her dreams, are still rolled up. She longs to spread the futon out, and her virginal body on it, so spring may come to her loins.
This stanza-pair is from the first renku sequence Basho participated in, in 1665, when he was only
20 years old:
“Hair parted in the middle” suggests a pre-teen girl, but a few years later hormones circulating through her bloodstream makes her “start to flirt” with hair “long and glossy” to cast a spell over boys nearby. Young Basho feels that spell. Standing behind and unable to see her face, through her hair he imagines her hidden beauty. It is remarkable how both poets focus on young female hair. More than 350 years later, television and magazines offer girls an endless variety of products to enhance the attractiveness of hair so that
“vision emerges” in boys and men.
Father (who may be drunk) insults his wife and daughter, saying the most horrible, vulgar things. In a misogynistic society, abuse of women is so commonplace no one pays attention to it. Shiko, though he is a Japanese man, does pay attention. He portrays the oppression of females common in Japan, yet his stanza occurs in a vacuum. Basho could have followed with more about the wife and daughter, but this is not what he does; instead he creates an environment and other people around that oppression.
A kotatsu – a heater (charcoal in Basho’s time, electric in ours) with a table on top and blanket to hold the warmth around the lower body while sitting – is square and provides seating for four people, so probably the father is sitting with two or three others. The mother and daughter, in this society, would not be sitting at the kotatsu, but rather preparing or serving food and drink to father and his guests. Father insults the females even when visitors are over, while the guests sit there shocked by what they are hearing; frozen in place, even sitting at a warm kotatsu. We imagine how much worse his abuse is when no guests are here.
Feminist Tokuza Akiko says that in Basho’s time and society, “criticism of women’s intelligence, autonomy, and moral worth was essential to the total subordination of women that society demanded.” A pretty grim prognosis, however Basho was an exception. He never criticizes a woman or child, and his many verses respectfully affirming the young and female should be part of world education.
A group of female servants for a large house are working together around the wood-burning stove. Here is the underhand cruelty of girls who think they are so great to one who does not fit into their cliche. Basho follows this with a physical problem: a cinder from the fire has landed on her skirt hem. She does not fuss over it, or complain, or agonize; she simply "rubs it out" with her thumb and forefinger. Her immediate action puts the problem to an end.
Basho's stanza, in combination with Kyokusui's, is his response to bullying: simply "rub it out." I believe he means an "attitude" that stops the bullying from being an upset. Rub out the power of the bullying to upset you. Demi Lovato puts it this way:
Confident women don't let anyone — men or other women — trash talk or undermine their dignity. They make their own choices about self-identity and to be who they are, flaws and all. Don't let anyone tear you down.
Although this poem was written 330 years ago, it can be your experience today or the experience of someone at your school. Basho belongs to you.
The mole does not interfere with her intelligence or body movement, but everyone who meets her sees it, and consciousness of this saps her self-confidence. Growing up together with sisters who have no moles, she hates the unfairness of this, but there is nothing she can do about it. (When my three daughters were teenagers, they frequently used the word "hate" for what they disliked. I always told them "hate" should be used for more extreme conditions - such as "hate crimes" - but they kept on using the word. Decades later, I realize that "hate" expresses the feeling of the teenage girl: as Shakespearean actress Janet Suzman describes the teenagers Juliet and Ophelia: "the appalling worries; the despair; how passionately one feels about every little things, how vulnerable." If modern 21st century teenage girls tell me to use another word for the feeling they would have for such a mole, I will change the translation, for my mission is to make Basho poems fit girls of today.)
Someone who cares for the daughter’s happiness has given her a gorgeous robe for dancing in the local shrine festival, but she is too ashamed of her mole to show it to the whole town. The emotions - frustration, disappointment - swirling about in “aimlessly” compliment the physical action of “she folds it inside the box.”
In much the same way, the emotions in "hates" compliment the physicalness of "youngest daughter" and
"mole on her face."
To understand the ordinary, uncomfortable teenage female experience in this stanza-pair, we concentrate on the flow of energy from "hates" to "aimlessly."
The daughter feels lost and tries to re-absorb herself in mother. She turns away from the Moon which represents growing up and having monthly periods like those of Moon and mother.
Mother works from sun up to sun down; finally she 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.
A mallet was used for pounding handspun cloth after washing to soften and smooth it, for pounding rice to remove the hulls. This can be an individual mother giving her daughters work to do in the evening, or can be iconic, a symbol for all mothers passing on the torch to their daughters, first the older, then the younger, for as many girls as there are in the household. She gives them Light – a bit of the Sun 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.
The joy of renku is to discover the link between the two stanzas. Here the link is “preparing for the future.” The chemical composition of rice bran prepares a woman’s hair to remain beautiful and silky for decades. The mallet adds weight and power to the slender hands and arms of the female, so she can maintain her energy for those decades and pass the power on to future generations.
There is no money to build an appearance attractive to boys. Basho’s verse goes out to all the impoverished youths who “learn to wait for love,” shivering in a thin jacket in the chill wind of an autumn nightfall.
Blackwood burns slowly, giving off dark smoke which accumulates over the walls, ceiling, and inhabitants in this shack in a mountain hollow where the sun never shines and no boys ever come. Who will marry a girl so grimy with soot, her bones weak from vitamin D deficiency? It is easy to focus on women who grew up in the right circumstances and have all the tools to make themselves attractive – but here Basho pays attention to a girl without those advantages.
Walking together in town, the lovers are surprised to see, and be seen by the boss. He is cool and does not say a word, but her heart shrinks with haji – shame, shyness, or bashfulness. She wonders what he is thinking: does he imagine her naked and doing IT, does he condemn her for having sex without marriage? She clutches the handle to make the umbrella cover as much as possible without any movements that might attract the boss’s attention. Renku scholar Miyawaki Masahiko says,
“Probably no other following stanza so well expresses the sense of shame (or “embarrassment” or “discomfort”) felt when one’s love becomes known to others.”
Miyawaki is Japanese, writing in Japanese, for Japanese readers - but how about you? How do you feel when together with a partner, you are seen by an authority figure who gets the picture?
A servant girl chops dried vegetable leaves to serve on top of rice, but her mind is “elsewhere” Where is that? With her lover who is a packhorse driver. She wishes for a day they can both have off, so they can hang together. She wants him “inside making love” – inside a house (instead of on a field where they usually make out) and also inside her.
Basho creates the turmoil in the heart of a teenage girl, while he also creates a compassionate and understanding mother to calm down her daughter. The daughter broods over thoughts of love, upset to hysteria. We imagine her shaking all over. Her mother – or someone like a mother – manages to say the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her brain and emotions.
Shiko makes the passion psycho-somatic; the blasts of adolescent hormones produce night sweats, copious perspiration which soaks her nightclothes and bedding, usually accompanied by emotional crying. After the mother in Basho’s stanza quiets down her daughter and she falls asleep, Shiko creates the dreams which end the turmoil and silently return her brain to normal as a new sun rises.
Basho grew up together with three younger sisters. Big brother’s question really has no meaning, but may somehow console the lovesick sister.
Recovering from a long illness, with help she lifts herself to a sitting position on the futon. Lying down, she could not comb her long straight hair, but now as she runs the comb down the full length of hair, she takes in its power. Also lying down, she could not hold her pet cat in her lap, so now she caresses the adorable furry feline with gratitude and joy. Watching her cuddle and pet this small living being, so soon after she was near death, makes me love her so much more. To keep the young and gentle from growing old and bitter, if only there was a way.
Her voice is always beautiful, but the hoarseness of a cold gives it a different beauty. Her immune system is weakened by disease, and food will only make her feel worse. Though her voice is so pretty, she silently returns the tray with the lunch she has no appetite to eat. The feeling of that physical action, “sliding back,” together with the beauty of her voice form a sketch of this teenage girl – who can be you. Girls today will understand her better than any literary scholar can.
In Asian cultures, rice is strongly associated with women, fertility, and the nurturing of children and society as well. Many Southeast Asian cultures believe in a female rice deity, or Rice Mother who inhabits the rice field, protecting the harvest and nurturing the seed rice; still today they make offerings and practice rituals to honor her. Rice is considered a feminine plant, soft, sensitive and shy, like a young girl. It dislikes being 'manhandled' – and so the labor of rice cultivation, except plowing, is done by women who do this work with care and sensitivity “so the rice goddess doesn’t become upset.”
Traditionally rice was planted by the young women of the village -- where these traditions are preserved in shrine festivals, the planters are older teenage girls -- in hope that their fertility would magically transfer to the fields. In reality women continued planting rice even as they grew older, however, according to tradition, teenage girls and young unmarried women – i.e. maidens – planted rice.
Here Basho is at a village where, centuries before, women rubbed dye on silk fabric over a large rock with an intricate checkered surface to produce mottled patterns that became famous throughout the land:
The young female hands gently separating the countless tiny roots of the seedlings from the dirt of the nursery bed, careful not to damage them, are the same hands which centuries ago rubbed dye onto cloth: the same hands – the same DNA, the same precision and delicacy – inherited from mother to daughter in this village in the heartlands. Dorothy Britton says Basho “contemplates with obvious delight the physical grace of nubile young women’s hands busy at their traditional task of transplanting new rice.
A traveler took a break from walking to sit and smoke his pipe, then when he got up, he left the pipe.
Down the road a piece, he realized and went back to get it – however evening has fallen and the pipe is hard to find. (He sounds like me.) Basho jumps from absent-minded single man at leisure to merrymaking crew of teenages up to their shins in the “chocolate milkshake” of rice paddy, flinging mud at each other, joking and laughing – like a bunch of their teenage descendants today at the beach throwing water at eachother. Their behavior is ridiculous; it serves no serious economic purpose, so the old-fashioned male-centered (androcentric) and tradition-bound mind rejects it. Basho rather sees the ridiculous in the modern way, as amusing and “fun.” Basho appreciates the joyful solidarity of teenage girls.
Mount Tsukuba – today, 45 minutes north of Tokyo by train -- is famous for having two peaks almost the same height. The last bits of snow up there do not melt until early summer. Notice how Basho brings our attention to those “peaks.” The great poet sees the “mountains” pressing out under the robes of those maidens drinking rice wine to send a tingle through their bodies and lower their inhibitions. (I hope you will not find Basho "creepy" for looking inside the robes of these maidens; he honors the breasts of women as symbols of life.)
Child of poverty
hulling rice, pauses to
In only seven words can we find the spirit of this boy or girl? After-harvest is among the busiest times of the farm year. The entire household works together all day and into the night to thresh and hull the entire year’s crop. Rice was hulled by turning a mortar over another mortar with grains between. After hours of exertion, gazing at the bright moon may provide a momentary escape from Earth and the labor of a tired body.
We can see Basho’s haiku from the point of view of someone (such as me) who has never done this work, however I wish to know how children who hull rice today will experience Basho’s poem. Let’s take the verse beyond the scholars and put it in the books young people in the developing world read, both in English and their native languages. May children and teens worldwide who work long hours feel some connection to the child laborer in Basho’s haiku. May they pause to look at the moon and see a message from Basho, a message to stay clear and strong inside.
Father died in war when I was small, and I have grown up under the weight of that grief. Now, finally reaching the prime of youthful vigor, I look back over those years of dreams awake and asleep constantly reverting to that one moment on a battlefield I have never seen in reality. Even though Father is dead, the bond between him and me continues.
Written in 1687, can this stanza-pair reach the heart of one – girl or boy -- whose father was killed in war, natural disaster, or terrorism? I encourage teenagers who have lost a parent to explore this verse, especially as you approach eighteen. I hope adults who counsel bereaved teenagers to show it to them. The clear, straight-forward expression of personal feeling may be consoling.
A teenage girl speaks to herself: “We carefully cultivated those chrysanthemums in a vase, but the boss come to visit and made such a fuss about how beautiful the flowers were, that father had no choice but to give them to the jerk! Losing the flowers is not such a big deal, but I hate the way he lorded over papa. Just because he’s the boss, he thinks everything belongs to him!!”
Basho continues the theme of patriarch versus teenage girl: “and look how he treats his daughter, keeping her in the house, not letting her go outside and have any fun with other people her age. He tries to cultivate her the way we did those chrysanthemums, giving her everything she wants but making her grow in a single place where she will be “safe,” without ever meeting any people who could be dangerous. Basho goes inside the heart of girls the Japanese call hako iri musume, “daughter in a box.”
The combination of two stanzas is a study of the teenage girl’s annoyance with a father and daughter of a higher class. Girls who make it their business to study human relationships may find this link interesting. They may also focus on Basho’s stanza alone.
Basho’s portrays the heart of daughters forbidden the same freedoms and opportunities sons receive. In a half-dozen words, Basho sums ups and conceals the experience of millions of girls worldwide;
Basho wrote numerous renku stanzas about one of the greatest evils that can be done to a young girl: trafficking into the sex trade. Village girls sold to a brothel were told they were going to the City to be maids or waitresses, but then were forced, from age 12 or 13, to have sex, sometimes with brutal or insulting men, every night of the week, and were beaten if they refused or tried to escape.
Basho gives this trafficked girl a message she wishes to send in a letter – and we can imagine the letter is to her boyfriend back in the village, the boy she knew since childhood and just began to love when she was taken away. She has no way to get her letter out without the brothel seeing it, so she asks the man polishing her mirror if he will post it outside (without telling his employer).
The mirror in Japan has been for a thousand years associated with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Being round and shiny, a mirror was considered a ‘child of the sun.’ Shinto, the native Japanese spirituality, teaches that sin is not original or ingrained. We are clear inside, but accumulate sins like dust on a mirror. To restore the original purity, all we must do is wipe the dust from the mirror. A mirror polisher ground and polished a mirror to restore the original clarity – so, as a servant of the Sun Goddess, he can be trusted with a young woman’s private message.
Every time she looks into the mirror he polished, to do her hair or make-up, she will see him, the carrier of her message; she will see her beloved reading the letter, and she will see the holy Sun shining with Hope. Here is Basho’s genius in all fullness, his deepest penetration into the female heart: “Can I trust you?”
A young girl is forced to have sex “on a pillow of waves” with the scum that comes off boats. Her stepmother, while father was away, sold her, an innocent child, to a brothel – although at first only to be a waitress or maid. In the context of the stanzas that followed, "Basho’s mountains are burned / grass painted with blood" depicts the aftermath of the violent rape of an innocent virgin who now realizes that such loveless sexual encounters will be her grief every night for the rest of her life.
Basho speaks as a young vibrant woman surprised to meet another young woman on the street, realizing that they grew up together, after so many years have passed. "So, you remember the affectionate name my mother or nurse called me while I suckled. Basho’s rhetorical question takes us both back to that paradise of innocence in our shared childhood. Rotsu jumps ahead fifteen years to see where those years have brought “your flower face” – to the misery of slavery in a brothel. You, the sweet little girl I knew as a baby, now as I look into your face, still lovely but fading, I see how often and much you cry.