Basho actually wrote about makeup, dress, and hair, about female beauty and mirrors enabling such beauty,
about breastfeeding and little children growing up, adolescent girls dealing with mother while searching for love, striving to appear attractive to the opposite gender, women adorning themselves, giving birth, and breastfeeding:
Hundreds of poems and prose passage by the Japanese poet Basho focus on women and girls, and could inspire and empower modern women and girls – if anyone knew of them. Male scholars have ignored Basho’s gynocentric works, or whitewashed out the feminine aspects, so people today, if they know of Basho at all, believe he wrote only impersonal nature poems or sad lonely verses about growing old and dying. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Basho wrote a multitude of verses about the joys and the sadness of womenand girls, about hair and makeup and beauty, about pregnancy and breastfeeding, women with children, women abandoned or neglected by men, brides, wives, widows, women at work, women playing music, and women having fun. Basho pays attention to women, and by recording his observations he recognizes women’s identity and worth; this is empowering.
My mission is to take Basho away from the scholars who ignore these female-empowering resources, to overcome the widespread notion that Basho wrote only haiku about impersonal nature, to light the
flames of Basho’s female imagery in the hearts of women and girls worldwide.
“(this book) welcomes us into…a deeper understanding of this great poet’s humanity, and in particular, of his clear respect, affection, and even reverence, for women.”
…the astonishing range of social subject matter
and compassionate intuition that Basho reveals in his links.
Michele Root-Bernstein, Ph. D
Department of Theater
Michigan State University
His most graceful hidden woman
A woman 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. (however “wrapping rice cake” may symbolize any work a woman or girl does with hands in stuff she does not want on her hair; she could be farming, cooking, making pottery, or caring for a baby or a horse.) 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 her 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. Only Basho has the delicacy and precision to draw such a moment out from the flow of a woman’s everyday life.
About this haiku in particular, my research assistant Bronagh said “Basho shows an appreciation for women
far beyond what we have been led to expect from a Japanese man of this era.”
For more Basho verses on Long Black Hair, see
WRAPPING RICE CAKE is a haiku, however most of the verses in this article are renku, in which one poet begins and a second follows with a stanza linked to the first. In 1683, another poet began and Basho followed:
Grains of rice planted in nursery beds sprout, looking like ordinary grass, showing no sign that four months later they will yield the staple food of Asia. From the first poet’s vision of Mother Earth giving birth to rice, Basho expands to the universal female “giving birth to love in the world” while She makes herself beautiful. The Complete Basho Renku Interpretive Anthology says (in Japanese)
"Basho speaks of the beautiful form of the mother giving birth to a child
who receives love within the world.”
No other male writer in world literature says anything like this.
The living woman merges with Earth.
Basho observes what women do: adorn themselves. Most men merely want to look respectable, while women spend hours everyday making themselves beautiful with clothing, jewelry, hair, makeup, and more – just as the Earth adorns herself with green leaves and flowers.
Basho wrote both of these renku stanzas in 1692:
She emerges from the fertile mud to nourih her child from her breasts. This young peasant woman’s entire body is soiled and roughened by everyday dirt and mud, with only hard mineral-laden water for washing. Still, she tries to keep her face clean and pretty, for baby to behold.
Has any other male poet produced so exquisitely feminine a poem? Feminine in everyday concern for facial beauty and cleanliness,the femininity of women at work, women with breasts, women nourishing life,
and women’s hopes for children’s future, all wrapped up in five short lines.
Note the pronouns “my” and “your.” The poem is a personal communication between woman and baby, a prayer that her child will escape the constant work and ever-present grime of village life to a bright and prosperous future. For more Basho verses on breastfeeding, see
1692 was 100 years before Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication for the Rights of
Women considered the birth of feminism. Basho amazes me; what about you?
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.
This home serves as roadside rest area and teahouse. The cookstove has an iron pot fitting into a hole on top. Sora expresses the consideration of the host removing the pot so more heat goes to the guest - but does not specify the gender of this welcoming person. Basho makes her undoubtedly female.
We see her early-morning priorities - as we see Basho’s appreciation for Japanese women’s skill at applying make-up. Basho translater Dorothy Britton says, he “betrays an intimate knowledge of how women make themselves beautiful.” It amazes me that Basho – unlike any male author in world literature – paid so
much attention to the feminine pursuits of make-up and clothing.
In a linked verse of 1693, Yaba begins and Basho follows:
Here at the home/shop of a cloth dyer we see a perfectly woven expanse of indigo blue fabric with no other colors, no designs, no blemishes anywhere. Blue is the color of calmness, serenity, evenness, as in the blue sky.
Basho leaps to a baby crawling about here and there, sometimes sitting to explore what she finds, sometimes scooting about on his bottom. She may be wearing a diaper; even without safety pins, Velcro, or plastic pants, the Japanese have a long tradition of tying on loincloths. The “dirt” on ‘that place’
may be poop, or dirt from the earth, or dust from the house, or – especially in this house – the residue of dyestuffs in any color; any or all of these could be there, on the derriere.
Women (or men) who change diapers may enjoy the contrast between immaculate and calm blue fabric spreading over the yard and the haphazard assortment of whatever on this soft chubby tush. Basho actually wrote a stanza about a baby’s rear end; probably the only such verse in world literature. To ruly appreciate his stanza, to get the link to the blue fabric stanza, we need a mind as bizarre and fun-loving as his.
For more Basho verses on Being a Baby, see
In the spring of 1690, Basho was asked to name a newborn girl; he named her “Kasane” – to “pile up in layers” or “to occur again and again, in succession” – and wrote this tanka as a blessing for the newborn:
The double meanings, both in space and in time, overlap in a web of blessing and hope for Kasane and all female children. “Again and again in layers of blossom-kimono” takes on three areas of meaning:
1) the two layers of kimono over an inner robe;
2) the succession of blossom-kimono one woman
passes through from bright to sedate as she ages;
3) The kimono passing onto her daughter and granddaughter,
the next layers of herself,
Also “wrinkles” are both in the kimono and her skin.
A formal kimono is a two layer silk robe meticulously folded and tucked around the body in flat, even layers. Colors and pattern are chosen in harmony with the woman’s age. A blossom-kimono for a girl entering womanhood might be a soft pink with bold cherry blossom design on the lower portion. A thick brocade sash of a darker contrasting color encircles her waist. The red inner robe, suitable for a party, shows at the neckline, and where the hem opens, margins of the kimono lining appear and disappear as she walks.
Kasane, now your time begins, stretching to infinity before unfocused eyes. Soon you’ll be laughing and playing in the sunshine – that is, if no wars come and natural disasters, fatal illness, and financial ruin stay away too. One spring in youth, you shall be given your first “blossom-kimono,” an exquisite robe to be worn just once a year to view cherry blossoms, then folded up and stored away until next time to celebrate under cherry blossoms. The springs shall come and go with clouds of pink blossoms filling the treetops to fall in a
shower of petals as you blossom into a young lady elegant in your impeccably layered kimono. Each year as you sit with legs folded under you on the strawmat under the cherry trees, creases shall form in the fabric. Carefully, as yourmother shows you, restore its silky smoothness for another year. I pray the day comes for you to pass this youthful kimono onto your daughter, while you wear one more moderate in color and pattern – and this too passes onto her, and you to the dark sedate kimono of an older woman.
So, Kasane, may our nation remain at Peace and the happiness in your family pile up layer upon layer until wrinkles in the fabric no longer smooth out and you see wrinkles of old age cross your face. Do not despair, my child, for you live again as spring passes by and your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom kimono.
The tanka SPRING PASSES BY offers Hope to small females —Hope for a childhood without misfortune, hope that she will grow into womanhood and see grandchildren. Basho speaks of what concerns women: the succession of life, the happiness of children, the conditions of Peace, both in society and infamily, in which little girls can dress up and party with relatives and friends, and life goes on generation after generation. In less than a single tweet, Basho encapsulates the life of one woman from newborn to wrinkles. Someday, if enough people ever know this tanka exists, it may be recognized as the greatest work of all Japanese literature, a poem so life-encompassing it transcends the bounds of Japanese literature and culture to become a prayer for all female humanity.
This woman has enough work sewing before winter comes. She may “make ends meet” in autumn, but has to survive the rest of the year. Into this poor struggling home, Basho introduces a daughter and a koto, or 13-string harp, an instrument of refinement played only by women. If the mother owns a koto, she must have been well-off in the past, but fallen on hard times. Notice the link between the form of needlework and the strings and frets on the harp. Both stanzas convey the diligence and constant effort of the female, the action of her hands producing order, rhythm, and beauty.
The daughter plays her mother’s koto here and now -- and also plays it through the months, years, decades of practice required to master the instrument. Basho praises the young girl in the early stages of her discipline. The power of Basho’s stanza comes from the awareness that cultures worldwide consider age
seven the beginning of wisdom and moral understanding.
We imagine the pride the hard-working mother feels hearing her young daughter produce such beauty. With utmost subtlety and grace, through the powerful effect music has on the brain, Basho portrays the bond between mother and daughter, the hope for a better future that the growing and learning girl evokes in her mother, hope rising on the lovely notes emerging from her seven-year old fingers on the harp.
Basho suggests, in a stanza suitable for a modern parenting magazine, the turmoil in the heart of a teenage girl: she broods over thoughts of love, upset to hysteria, shaking all over. Basho creates that emotional turmoil, but simultaneously creates a compassionate and understanding mother to calm down her daughter, to say the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her heart.
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 so she falls asleep, Shiko creates the dreams which end the turmoil and return the brain to normal as a new sun rises.
Basho portrays the mother caring, with sensitivity and wisdom, for her daughter who is just she was twenty years before. Sam Hamill, a scholar who knows only Basho haiku and not his renku, claims that Basho was “at times, cold-hearted, inhuman” – however the poems unknown to Hamill overflow with personal and intimate details. They come alive with itawaru, Basho’s caring for others.”
For more Basho verses on Compassion, see
In 1690 Kyokusui begins and Basho follows:
Love starts out simple but somehow becomes “intense.” Basho’s stanza makes the most sense if this is a teenage girl speaking of her mother.
“Although the turmoil of young love takes away all my appetite,mother insists I eat, to build up my adolescent body. Why can’t she understand that I cannot eat while this turmoil rages within me? Besides, I am trying to stay slender! Mother, stop bugging me!”
History books never speak of mother-daughter conflicts, so we look to Basho for information. 330 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.
Where did Basho learn to think from the teenage daughter’s point of view? From the four sisters who grew up together with him? From Oyoshi, the youngest of the four, a teenager while he was in his twenties? Oyoshi, whose name appears four times in Basho letters, where no other sister’s name appears even once?
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 work on to future generations.
Hope for the Enslaved
Most “play-women” in this era were young village girls indentured to a brothel to save the family from financial ruin. Brokers went to areas struck by famine, searching for “bargains.” Historian Mikiso Hane describes how girls 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. “Play-women,” despite their gorgeous kimono and make-up, were prisoners. Although some did enjoy this life, and managed to rise in the ‘profession’ to become comfortable or even rich, and some were purchased by a wealthy customer, MOST either died young, often from syphilis —the average age of death in the play-quarters of Edo has been calculated as 22 years— or grew old
working on the “fringes of the sex and alcohol trade.”
Rotsu begins and Basho follows:
Rotsu states reality: young village girls were sold to the brothel for a money loan – the system set up so she can never pay off the loan, and will remain in slavery till her death – which, with no defense against venereal diseases, might be soon.
Basho gives her a message she wishes to send in a letter -- and renku scholar Miyawaki Masahiko notes that our appreciation for Basho’s stanza deepens if we imagine the letter is to her guy 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 ‘childof the sun.’ When the Sun Goddess sent her grandson down to Earth, she gavehim her Sacred Mirror, and told him that whenever he looked into it, he would
see Amaterasu. That Sacred Mirror, kept in the innermost and holiest sanctum of the Ise Shrine, is the absolute center of Shinto worship. Shinto teaches that sin is not original or ingrained. We are clear inside, but accumulatesins like dust on a mirror. To restore the original purity, all we must do is wipe the dust from the mirror.
In Basho’s day, mirrors were bronze-plated with an amalgam of mercury (as in the dental fillings of my childhood). In time the plating got cloudy. Mirror polishers were craftsmen who grinded the surface
on a whetstone, and polished with mildly acidic fruit juice, to restore the original clarity – so we see the mirror polisher as a servant to the Sun Goddess,one who can be trusted with a 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?” –
the question women ask silently every day.
This Basho stanza, and the 9 more on brothel slavery in MY BODY HAS BEEN SOLD https://www.basho4humanity.com/topic-description.php?ID=1525956610
can be resources to empower both victims of trafficking and also their advocates.
Basho and African-American Heritage
Before cotton entered Japan in the 16th century, and then where cotton was not available, villagers (i.e. women) made their family’s clothing from fibers in hemp stalks, wisteria or arrowroot vines, or under the bark of paper mulberry. Wives, daughters and older women of the household gathered the fibers, washed them in the river, spun them by hand into thread which they wove into cloth on simple looms. Such fabric had a rough texture, and when washed, became all the more coarse. Before the damp fabric – especially underwear –dried, it had to be pounded with a mallet to soften and remove wrinkles.
Often the moon appears in Japanese poetry, but the moon is, as Juliet puts it, “inconstant.” She begs Romeo,
Basho also wants something more stable in the night sky for these sounds from a woman on Earth. What could be more stable than the Big Dipper, always and forever pointing to the North Star, a fitting symbol for the constancy of women? To produce a sound so clear it reaches the Seven Stars light years away,
the heart of the woman doing her work, hour after hour, year after year,must be exceedingly clear.
“Pounding cloth” can be more than merely what Japanese women did generations ago: it can be a symbol for ALL work women do to maintain cloth in wearable condition. In TONE SO CLEAR, Basho offers women at
work on cloth an avenue to a greater Power in the sky, a passageway through the heaviness to the divine.
It may help to remember that the Big Dipper is the ‘Drinking Gourd’ runaway slaves followed to freedom in Canada; to keep on their way North, they chanted over and over again, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” – the very bestadvice they could give themselves. By blending this power from African-American heritage with Basho’s haiku TONE SO CLEAR, both women and African-Americans may find inspiration and empowerment.
The “iron bow” suggests the folk tale of Yuriwaka betrayed by a subordinate and abandoned on an island, but returning to take vengeance with his gigantic bow (a story similar to the Odyssey). Kikaku expresses the masculine boldly fighting for vengeance (or whatever men seek), then Basho switches to the creative yet fierce female. In Imperial China, a tiger represented the highest general (while a dragon was Emperor and phoenix the Empress) – but Basho goes beyond the Chinese imagination. The scholars offer no ancient poems or fables behind Basho’s image; he is entirely on his own here. Daybreak is the Sun-Goddess giving birth to the day and to life in the womb of tigress.
For more Basho verses on pregnancy and birth, see
His boat has left harbor. She tries to reach the boat with pebbles – i.e. her love – but her slender arm cannot throw them any distance against the wind. From the weakness of the lone woman, Basho switches to a chorus of women allowing one woman to lead them, so their sound goes far. Note his awareness,
in the 17th century, that solidarity among women is empowering.
May Basho’s stanza – with or without the previous stanza – become an anthem for women’s choral groups. The three lines are three measures in a musical composition with a consistent four-beat rhythm – three beats and pause, four full beats, three beats and pause – so they become a mantra. Basho said:
To be “graceful” and have “a musical quality,” the rhythm of beats must be consistent. The syllables contract and expand, and there are pauses in the first and third measures, to fit four beats into each measure, Shoko, who played piano for many years, says the pauses “regulate the rhythm.”
For more Basho verses on Music and Song, see: