“Spring passes and one remembers innocence. Summer passes and one remembers exuberance. Autumn passes, one remembers reverence. Winter passes, one remembers perseverance.” Yoko Ono
Willows and blossoms embody spring. The major event of summer is rice-planting.
Autumn comes with a bright moon. And snow makes the winter.
Throughout Japanese culture, willows represent the female -- and likewise in English,
no matter how slender a man is, most of us will not say he is “willowy”.
Basho developed his love for the feminine willow from the first renku to which he contributed in 1665. Although he said nothing about willows in his stanza, this is linked verse, and so the willows in the stanza before his enter into his vision.
A girl speaks of Sayo Hime, the goddess who spreads spring over the earth; just as this Goddess forms the same number of petals on each of millions of flowers, this little girl cares for her body and clothing and dolls meticulously. To see such carefulness in a little girl may be rare in the West where life is a search for freedom, however the Japanese have evolved so life is a search for order.
Her 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 20 year old Basho makes her wait for a lover who does not show. Notice the contrast between her willowy beauty and her unfulfilled desire so intense it fills the wind.
Here is one of Basho's earliest haiku, written in 1667, when he was 22 or 23:
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. For more Basho verses on the sensuality of woman's hair, see
In his final spring of 1694, 50 year old Basho wrote seven haiku on this tree (half of all the haiku he wrote in these three months). Here are two of these which express a feminine life-force:
The slender flexible willow branches caress the earth with the gentleness and sensitivity of a mother, lover, or nurse soothing away the pain. The verse is not about a tree or about a woman: it is both. May nurses who work with the sick and injured find in Basho’s verse a prescription for gentleness and a healing touch.
From her position as healer, Ma’s hands had grown sure and cool and quiet.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Scholars say a willow tree on the riverbank has some of her branches ending underwater, but now at low tide, these reach down to mud. If the verse is merely a “nature verse,” this interpretation may be sufficient – however perhaps we can find a more interesting interpretation along a personal, feminine path:
The folktale Green Willow is told in English by Lafcardio Hearn in his collection of supernatural tales Kwaidan. A samurai on a journey overtaken by storm and night, takes shelter in a cottage. Here live an old couple and a maiden named Green Willow as graceful as a sapling. They fall in love and marry to live happily for five years -- until suddenly one day Green Willow cries out in pain, saying she will now die. Someone has taken an axe to the willow tree which is her heart, its sap her life-blood.
Tomotada shaved his head to wander about offering prayers for her salvation. Returning to the cottage, he found three willows stumps remaining, two old and gnarled, and a sapling cut down long ago. If we allow “Green Willow” to be the young woman in the legend, we can see her slender graceful youthful form at low tide reaching down for a shell stranded in the mud.
The word tao, “lovely,” is ordinarily used for women, and the willow is usually associated with women – so it is not necessary to say the word “women” in this haiku. One gentle warm Spring day the willow tree sleeps, its long flexible branches hanging loosely, like a woman’s hair. A bush warbler resting within the branches sings its melody, and Basho imagines that song carrying the willow’s soul out to the world.
Both plum trees, which blossom bright and fragrant in freezing cold early spring, and willows, the first tree to show new green leaves, represent the spring-like feeling of innocent and unspoiled youth. In Japan from medieval times, the practice of pederasty, shudō (衆道), "the Way of the Young," was prevalent in the religious community and samurai society. Basho says that men get to choose whether to obtain that feeling of youth and innocence from the smooth gentle bodies of young boys, or from women blossoming with sexuality.
Cherry trees grow everywhere in Japan, and from the end of March, buds form on the branch tips and still naked of leaves open up pinkish white blossoms. The blossoms stay on the branches for just one week, and during that time, the branches fill up with green leaves. Cherry blossoms can bring joy and hope to the human heart, and young girls deserve to feel joy and hope, for they carry the future.
Single layer cotton cloth is hanging on a line to dry; overhead a lark sings brightly rising to heaven. The poet says no words of joy or hope, and even no words of humanity, but these human feelings, joy and hope, are suggesated by the flapping of fabric and bird’s wings.
Basho, the Poet of Humanity, places that suggested joyfulness in actual female youth: here are only girls, so no males to dominate them, no female accommodation to boys, just girls being themselves. The “flock” of teenage women in their pretty robes, going to have fun, chatting and laughing with each other, complement the clarity and freshness of the first stanza. Clean white fabric, skylark, cherry blossoms, and group of happy girls, all get high together. This renku pair, composed in Basho’s final spring, may be the most joyful of his poems of Lightness.
Basho, as an anthropologist, shows us the joy young girls and women can experience - just as Shakespeare, in As You Like It, gave Rosaliind to the world without the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. The site Smoop, says
Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom credits Rosalind with being the first real lover in all of modern literature. She's the first to make fun of love and also the first to let herself be fully embraced by all its frivolity and pure joy.
Judith Cook, in Women in Shakespeare, says
"Rosalind is a part that offers an actress all the wit, liveliness, and joy anyone could ask for."
I hope you, the reader, especially if you are female, find a similiar joy in Basho's GIRLS ONLY.
Here is another Basho look at the joy cherry blossoms bring to women:
The usually serious Buddhist priests float along, and the otherwise demure self-effacing wives “slither” their hips in an erotic manner, all because of the exuberant “high” feeling that comes with cherry blossoms and spring.
This verse was written in the spring of 1681, in that 18 month period (from winter of 1680 to summer of 1682) when the Zen priest Butcho was staying a few minutes walk from Basho’s hut. There is, however, no evidence that he actually did study with Butcho, and the verse is hardly appropriate for a student of Zen Buddhism:
This old woman can remember her days (and nights) of youthful elegance; she blossoms again along with the cherry trees, as the memories within her emerge like blossoms. Shoko says, “It is almost as if the old woman wants to make a new memory for this season in her last days.” She is an Icon of the Feminine, a symbol for something larger than herself, the continuity from youth to old age.
A court lady took the tonsure when the emperor died, and left Court to live in the ordinary bustle of Kyoto streets. When another nun, a friend of hers still at Court, comes to visit, the first nun asks about the cherry blossoms she used to know and love.
Butterfly is an image of feminine elegance, whereas the obnoxious climbing weed mugura, wireweed, grows wild over anything in its path without the slightest hint of elegance. The second nun exclaims “Imagine you, a lady of the Imperial Court, among these lowly gossips” while the first nun chokes up with tears filling her nasal passages. We listen in to the conversation of two women in 17th century Japan.
Anthropologist Ruth Benedict, in her classic study of Japanese customs and behavior, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword published in 1946, says of Japanese women at parties:
“when they are of a ripe age they may throw off taboos, and if they are low-born, be as ribald as
any man. The Japanese aim at proper behavior for various ages and occasions rather than at consistent characters like the Occidental ‘pure woman’ and the ‘hussy.’
Before she is a mother, she would not make a sex joke, but afterward, and as she grows older, her conversation at a mixed party is full of them. She entertains the party, too, with very free sexual dances, jerking her hips back and forth to the accompaniment of ribald songs. These performances inevitably bring roars of laughter.”
This is Anthropology!
Basho’s headnote to the following, Spring amusement at Ueno, tells us the blossom-viewing picnic was at the same place, Tokyo’s Ueno Park, so popular for these parties today:
Ordinary women in Edo work hard every day and the annual picnic under the cherry trees at Ueno is one of the very few days of the year when she can have fun. She takes her gorgeous ‘blossom-kimono’ out of storage to wear it one time in a year. Most Japanese women are slender, especially in the upper body, and her kimono emphasizes that slenderness.
This woman is intoxicated by the beauty of cherry blossoms everywhere around her, on the trees, petals in the air and all over the ground, and also by the beverages she has drunk. Having shed her ladylike social inhibitions, she is acting bold and assertive. She borrows a padded haori jacket from one of the men at the party (women do not wear haori in Basho’s time）and puts it on over her kimono, adding some bulk to her chest, shoulders, and arms, making her look manly.
This is a working class party, so there are no samurai present, and no swords either, but she is using something long and thin to pretend. The Japanese says she inserts (sasu) the ‘sword’ under her obi, the thick brocade sash around her waist. Then she does the ever-popular
sending the party into hysterics.
Can you hear the “roars of laughter” in the anthropologist Basho’s verse? We see the woman in the center of the action, strong, vibrant, and playful (with the aid of sake). Has any other male poet in World Literature portrayed the joyfulness of women – women by themselves, with no mention of any man present – the way Basho does in so many poems?
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 this topic we explore several Basho verses in which young women planting rice merge with the flow of life through generations.
Oldest son maintains the ancestral house while younger brothers form branch houses nearby. Instead of each one sprouting their own rice seedlings, the main house does this for all the farmers that sprouted from it long ago. Although Basho’s stanza is masculine, it is masculine in a life-giving activity women. If we allow “seedlings” to be human, Basho’s stanza suggests the essence of living succession; the present generation gets the seedlings, i.e. the future, from structures left by past generations.
Where can a rice-planting mama put her baby while she works in the mud? The crescent moon in the sky has the perfect shape to hold a baby and rock to sleep. Kyoshi continues with the care the present provides to the future. Rocking stimulates the gravity-and-motion receptors in the inner ear, to soothe the vestibular centers in the brainstem, causing the brain to develop and organize more effectively.
Till grain is soft
Basho is visiting Kakei’s home in Nagoya.Kakei begins the renku with an expression of hospitality; he tells his wife or servants to boil the new just-harvested barley (not last year’s leftovers) to a softness Basho’s delicate system can digest.
Basho continues to focus on these women who serve men and children. This is the busiest time of the year; everyone must leave the house early to spend the whole day in the fields planting rice. Basho replies with a message of consideration to the wife or servants who also must leave early; he ask for breakfast together with everybody else, so later on the woman don't have to come back from the fields to serve him alone.
Here Basho is at a village in the Deep North 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 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.
Under the willow branches thick with green leaves, Basho watches the line of women move through the mud, sharing energy with them. When they reach the end of this field, he leaves while they move on the next field.
Japanese – especially when planting rice – make all sorts of jokes comparing this to the way humans sow their seeds. Throughout Japanese culture, yanagi, willows are associated with the feminine. A famous old willow stood before the gate to the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarters - and today in Japanese cities an area or establishment with yanagi in its name is often where a man can rent a woman. The words ‘woman’ or ‘female’ are not stated, yet the feminine is everywhere in this haiku. It’s a very sexual verse.
Teenage girls and unmarried women, work together planting every field in the village, then comes time to celebrate. This would be one of the very few times in a year young women could get small cups of sake. They sit lined up a table, still in their work robes, the left side of each robe over the right side, and tied with a sash at the waist.
Mount Tsukuba, 45 minutes by train north of Tokyo, 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 leads us to the "mountains" growing under the robes of those maidens lined up to drink sake lowering their inhibitions. We feel the bit of alcohol flowing though fertile young bodies, heightening the sensations of new breasts rubbing against the cloth of their robes.
Yuumagure / kiseru otoshite / tachi-gaeri
Doro uchikawasu / saotome no zare
ishi-botoke / izure kakenu wa / nakari keri
A traveler on foot took a break 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 had fallen and the pipe hard to find. (He sounds like me.) Basho jumps from absent-minded single man at leisure to merrymaking crew of young women up to their shins in the “chocolate milkshake” of rice paddy, flinging mud at each other, joking and laughing. Beside the rice field a row of stone statues of Buddha has stood here for centuries; every single one haws patches of raw stone where a feature - the nose on one, ear on another - has broken off from the rain, snow, and wind.
The women’s behavior is ridiculous; it serves no serious economic purpose, so old-fashioned androcentric and tradition-bound minds reject it. Basho rather sees the ridiculous in the modern way, as amusing and “fun.” the trio is a sandwich: Basho vibrant, feminine, and playful stanza is the tasty filling between two slices of plain white white, one masculine, the other inanimate. The female vigor and pleasure in Basho's stanza is all the lively and feminine in contrast to the leisurely bumbling male and ancient crumbling statues.
名月や / 海にむかえば / 七小町
The Japanese says "Seven Komachi" which are an actor performing the famed beauty Ono no Komachi in seven different costumes to represent seven stages in her life. Basho refers to the famous Ono no Komachi as an icon representing any woman.
Basho scholar Kon Eizo says:
“As the beautiful scenery of Lake Biwa under the harvest moon transforms according to the position of the moon in the sky, so we recall seven changes in the illusionary beauty of Ono no Komachi,”
To capture that icon in English where we have no cultural consciousness of Komachi, I have borrowed from Shakespeare the comparison of people in the world to actors on a stage, and also the division of human life into a series of seven ages.
Shakespeare, specifies “men,” however many women chose to see the seven ages as
We can make Basho's haiku HARVEST MOON meaningful for ourselves if we see or imagine each position of the Moon is one act in the play of a woman’s life. Watching the enormous round moon proceed through the long night over the vast expanse of lake, the seven stages unfold before our eyes or the eyes in our minds.
In 1689, Iugen was an 18-year-old Basho follower struggling to survive as one of many priests at the Ise Shrine. He and his wife were in financial straits when Basho visited them after he finished his arduous journey to the Deep North. He wrote the following haibun and haiku.
The teenage wife, as would any Japanese woman, wanted everything to be absolutely perfect for her husband’s Poetry Master, so she used all her skill and care to arrange the flowers in the alcove just right, cook a traditional Japanese meal for Basho, arrange the bathing room so it would be easy for his old tired body to get a relaxing hot soak, and set the futon room for his convenience and restful sleep. He notices her efforts and consideration for his needs, and sees in them her commitment to her husband (“her heart one with his”) and the household she has married into.
Akechi Mitsuhide was a major player in the Warring States period, the more than a hundred years of alliances, betrayals, slaughter and revenge that occupied the powerful men of Japan from 1467 to 1603. He assissanted Oda Nobunaga to change the course of Japanese history. He and his wife, Tsumaki Hiroko, had six children, the most famous being Tama, her Christian name Gracia, the model for “Mariko,” the heroine of James Clavell’s Shogun.
Akechi was expected to cater a poetry gathering for many VIP guests, but lacked the funds to do so in the style required. If the gathering did not go well, Akechi would lose face, which in this fiercely competitive group could mean the end of his career. Hiroko did the one thing she could to get the funds: she cut off and sold her floor-length black hair. (In Shogun, Mariko tells this story Basho likes so much. We also remember that Jo in Little Women did this.) So Basho compares Iugen’s wife to this noble, self-determined, and resourceful lady of the past. Imagine the boost this gives to these two struggling young people; imagine the boost it gives to the self-esteem of the wife. Like “Curley wife” in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, she has no name. Unlike Curley’s wife, however, Iugen’s wife is in control of her herself and devoted to the success of the household she has married into.
The moon with 29-day cycle is a worldwide symbol for the feminine. Basho is asking the moon to be less bright, more subdued, so we can speak of the diligence and devotion of women. Alongside every man who becomes famous is a woman whose life is just as remarkable and certainly more productive. Of the wife let us speak.
Basho knows that Iugen’s family will cherish their copy of this haibun and haiku, and until the day she dies, the wife will recall the night Basho stayed with them, the night she became the center of his attention, realizing that he wrote this haiku for her, to honor her womanhood.
Hulling rice removes the coarse scaly husk, leaving edible brown rice. The entire household works together all day and into the night to thresh and hull the year’s crop. Originally rice was pounded with a mallet, but in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, completed in 1102, she observes rice hulling by machine:.
Unhulled rice was placed in a lower stone, and two or three people pulled at a pole to rotate an upper stone over the lower, grinding the grains between them.
This haiku, I believe, is one of Basho’s most powerful portraits of humanity, however scholars have denied that power with their assumptions – so we begin by challenging those assumptions. They assume this is a boy, although Sei Shonagon (six centuries before Basho) observed girls doing this job. Also in Kyorai’s Ise Journal of 1686, he tells of “young and old women gathered to hull rice.” Western women visiting Japan early in the 20th century noted that low-class women and girls did the same backbreaking labor as men and boys. So history encourages us to see this “child of poverty” as female. Millions of adolescent girls worldwide would agree.
A second debilitating assumption is that this child cannot appreciate the glory of the moon, for peasants,
and especially child peasants, lack the aesthetic sense that male intellectuals cherish. Jane Reichhold says “Moon viewing was considered as reserved for the noble or educated classes and not for peasants or children.” Makoto Ueda quotes four Japanese scholars’ comments on this verse: one says that to interpret “the moon as being so beautiful that even a peasant’s child had the heart to appreciate its beauty” is “overly intellectual.” Another scholar says this is a “farmhouse scene of great charm, but that charm is a mere verbal invention and does not penetrate deep into the reader’s heart.”
Let’s throw away the assumptions. The point of the verse is that while peasant children in general do not appreciate the moon, here is one child, maybe a girl, that did – and all children might, if encouraged. When Basho saw this child gaze at the moon, he realized the oneness of humanity: that even peasants and children, even girls, can enjoy moon-viewing just as he did. Once we allow this girl to appreciate the moon, we affirm her humanity, and if we are pro-female, this does “penetrate deep into the reader’s heart.”
In only seven words we search for the spirit of this child. After hours of exertion, she gets a moment’s rest. 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 young people who do hard work 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 discover 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 whole inside.
Her husband goes to join the troops gathering at night, so early morning they can go into battle. If he dies, she can only survive as a nun. Basho complements the sadness of the first stanza with an environment (moonlight), a masculine and interesting image (the samurai in his armor) then, without a single word about her, he focuses on the woman’s activity and consciousness with a double-verb, mi-sagashite, literally to “look, searching.” She looks at him, searching to see into the future: the division in the road tomorrow will bring, either the world with him alive, or him dead.
The double verb occurs in the original as in the translation, at the very end of the verse, William Strunk, Jr. in The Elements of Style, tells us to “place the emphatic words at the end.” Mia notes that the comma between ‘looks’ and ‘searching’ “makes the reader pause on line, placing the woman’s stillness in contrast to the movement of her leaving husband.” The woman is still, yet active (she looks) and conscious (searching). So Basho focuses on the woman’s humanity.
The Japanese does not indicate gender, but in reality, who goes on foot to buy rice? A zukin, or hood, is worn to keep cold and snow from the head, neck and shoulders. Since a bag for rice is sewn differently than a hood, the bag will not give much protection—which is the point of the verse. And on the way home with the bag full, she will have nothing to keep the snow from her head and neck.
They married long ago with hopes of prosperity, but things have not worked out so well. There is no sense of one blaming the other; both are looking for the best way to survive together. Each is humble to the other. The gender equality in Basho’s stanza flows into the mutual humility in Izen’s. Literature usually shows us heroes or villains; these folks are neither; they are simply losers. Shoko says, “Because they are losers, they each know that that no one except the other will help.”
We are at a home which serves as roadside rest area and teahouse. The kamado, or 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. Here we see her early-morning priorities: Dorothy Britton says, Basho “betrays an intimate knowledge of how women make themselves beautiful.”
Basho visits the nun Chigetsu in Zeze where centuries before lived the poetess and nun Shosho.
Basho begins with and Chigetsu follows:
Basho says that talking to her is as speaking to that one long ago. Chigetsu responds with typical Japanese female humility, “No! No! You must not compare me to the great Shosho.”
Chiegetsu begins this pair with a traditional sad and gloomy Japanese stanza: a desolate image of impoverished old age sweeping the snow from her house with a fragile straw broom. Basho says “Enough” with the sadness and desolation; he counters with personal relations, warmth, and intimacy. Both Basho and
Chigetsu wear black robes of vivid contrast to the snow. One person cannot surround a brazier (without getting burned); there have to be two people both moving close to the fire and close to each other.
Basho thus compliments his hostess for the warmth she provided with her home and brazier and body.
Basho and Chigetsu wrote this pair in the winter of 1689, soon after Basho finished his journey to the Deep North. This is when Haruo Shirange says Basho was giving up his allegiance to the heaviness of traditional Japanese poetry, beginning his search for his poetic ideal of Lightness -- which here includes warmth and intimacy.
Basho’s several hundred poems about women children, friendship, love, and compassion
may be the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in world literature.
I pray 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 worldwide and preserve for future generations.