Fascination with women’s hair enriches Japanese literature from ancient until modern times as in this tanka from the Manyoshu, the most ancient collection of Japanese poetry:
She lies down on her hair, mingling her body with strands as slender and silky as she is.
In the early 11th century Tale of Genji the young prince describes the 9 year old girl who will become his wife, now with her grandmother who is a nun.
In her Pillow Book of the same era, Sei Shonagon observes a moment we still see today in girls and young women:
Basho invested as much attention into the feminine glory of hair as did his forebears.
Youyou to / kaki-okosarete / kami kezuri
Neko kawaigaru / hito zo koi shiki
Ano hana no / chiranu kufuu ga / aru naraba
(BRZ 9: 180) Sick and lying down she could not comb her long hair properly; now recovering, with my help, she sits up and runs the comb down the full length, power returning to her body. Lying down she also
could not hold her cat on her lap; now watching her caress the silky fur of this small living creature, soon after she was close to death, makes me love her all the more.
The joy of reading linked verse is to see how Yaba takes Basho’s image of a comb flowing through long straight hair and transforms that image to a girl’s hands petting the full length of a furry beloved cat. The poetry of sensation. Then watch how Basho further transforms Yaba’s imagery. To keep the young, loving, and sensual from growing old, bitter, and regretful, if only there was a way.
Chimaki yuu / katate ni hasamu / hitai-gami
(Kon 704) A woman preparing sweets for the children bends over a bucket of rice dough, forms into cones, wraps with bamboo grass, and ties with a strip of rush. Some long hair loose from the band in back has fallen before her face. Her fingers and palms coated with residue, without thinking or breaking her stride, she reaches up with the clean surface on the side of her hand above thumb and forefinger to tuck hair behind her ear – with nothing getting on her hair.
In every land and every time where hair is worn long, we see this exquisite motion of the hand around the ear. ”This 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.
This haiku demonstrates four characteristics of Basho’s female-centric poetry:
1) Pure observation – without abstraction, judgment, philosophy, or religion – only physical observation
2) Focuses on a women by herself, with no male presence.
3) Highlights her body parts: hand, hair, ear
4) Focuses on her activity, expressed in lively active verbs:“wrapping” and “tucks.” Some translators say “pushes her hair back,” but hasamu, “tucks (between head and ear)” is more specific, precise and delicate.
Tsukimi yo to / hiki-okosarete / hazukashiki
Kami aogasuru / usumono no tsuyu
(BRZ 6:74) A teenage girl pulled from bed by someone enthusiastic to show her the Moon is embarrassed to be seen in her nightgown with no preparation of face, hair, and clothing; she really does not want anyone to
notice her emerging sexuality in the moonlight. Haruo Shirane notes the “soft erotic mood” of this stanza.
Basho sees this flustered and ashamed girl grow up into a mature self-assured lady. Her maids wave folding fans at her mass of thick black hair to push away the summer heat, suggesting her nobility (like Cleopatra’s maids fanning her hair). The “dew on her thin robe” makes the robe transparent, revealing her entire body as naked as the moon, yet not at all ashamed. Shirane says “the connotations of the previous verse and
the added verse ‘reflect’ upon each other, thereby deepening the connotations of both” The link between the two stanzas is the process of female development through which bashful girl becomes sensual woman.
Izumi Shikibu, in the 11th century, wrote of being alone, without him, the turmoil scattering her hair:
Tsuyu ni shigaramu / imo ga ochi-gami
Mono iute / kagami ni kao no / nokori mieyo
(BRZ 2: 221) “Fallen hair” means the wife (like a tree) has died – for her hair (like leaves) contains her (the tree’s) life force. Each word carries double or triple overlapping meanings. “Dew” (or tears) is the wetness (the emotions) that rusts, corrodes, and wears out all things. She looked in the mirror (the Sun Goddess) so often it retains a copy of her face – or maybe the husband and wife were so in tune that their faces came to resemble each other. Themes of ancient poetry merge with intimate personal experience.
Kozo no ikusa no / hone wa nozarashi
Yabu iru no / yome ya okuramu / kyō no ame
Kasumu nioi no / kami arau koro
(BRZ 6: 222) Months have passed since the great battle, and the bones of warriors picked clean by scavengers and exposed to weather lay white on the ground. Basho adds to this scary and upsetting scene a married woman servant on a day off from work, walking back to her native home. She could not pass the battlefield alone, especially in the gloomy rain, so another person walks with her to calm her spirit.
The first thing she does upon arriving is wash the bad vibes from her hair – the hair which contains her life-force. Feel the tactile link between rain falling on hair and water washing hair, then breathe in that smell of thick wet hair, as in beauty parlors, like the smell of mist. The poetry of sensation.
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, as in this classical tanka which I translate:
The daughter who died has appeared in the dream, as if she were alive. To see her back from the dead has upset her mother’s ki, energy, spreading out from brain into hair.
Oki mo sede / kiki-shiru nioi /osoroshiki
Midareshi kami no / ase nugui iru
(BRZ 4: 359) 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.
Basho suggests what happened between the two stanzas: the activity and sweat and sound of violent sex 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.
Uso samuki / kotoba no kugi ni / machi bouke
Sode ni kanaguru / maegami no tsuyu
(BRZ 9: 277; written five years after WIPING AWAY THE SWEAT) A woman waits for a man who made clear definite promises – “hard as nails” – but it was all a cold and heartless lie. She can wait here forever; he does not care. Dew” means “tears” but also impermanence and disappointment, wearing out and decaying all things, both living and non-living, so the young grow old and bitter. She sweeps her forelocks with her arm to wipe away the heaviness; again and again Basho focuses on woman’s active and decisive motion
Ubatama no / kami kiru onna / yume ni kite
Koi o miyaburu / asagao no tsuki
(BRZ 3: 310) “A dream comes” suggests that that this dream is a “sending,”
a dream sent to a man by a woman’s spirit. Apparently he disappointed her
in love, so she has cut her hair and is telling him this in her sending. The
traditional way to interpret “cutting her hair” is as “becoming a nun” –
although Shoko says “not necessarily.” She explains that in Japan, women
cut a number of strands as a declaration of giving up the past to move into
a new future. Basho makes this woman 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.
With only a whisper
hair dresser departs
In dyer’s shop
all sorts of material
Tada sasayaite / deru kami yui
tori dori ni / kouya no kata o / tori chirasu
(BRZ 7: 35) A hair dresser has come to the shop hoping to be hired, but
sees that this is not a good time.
She says nothing, but only whispers “Sorry for intruding” as she walks out.
The next poet tells the kind of shop it is, and what the hair dresser saw so
that she decided to leave without offering her services. All those
various-colored materials scattered about suggests the messy hair that
requires a hair dresser.
Yosano Akiko, 200 years after Basho, wrote: :
That girl at twentyher
black hair ripples
through the comb
in the pride of spring
so very beautiful!
On the young wife’s head
Chinese Rings were gentle
As a keepsake
some fabric from a bag
Imo ga kashira no / karawa yasashiki
Katamite chou / fukuro no kire no / hatsu hatsu ni
(BRZ 4: 209) The elegant and charming “Chinese rings” hairstyle –four
rings rising from the head –worn “gently” by the young wife suggests a
marriage beginning with hope for the future. We leap ahead many 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 on her head so long ago remain clear in my
A warm wind
swaying side to side
Achi kochi ya / men men sabaki / yanagi-gami
(Kon 26) Basho in 1667, now just about 23 years old, sees the long slender
flexible willow branches hang to the ground, swaying in the east wind
which brings spring to Japan, as a woman’s hair sways around her body
while she walks. The hair is a reflection of her soul.
Rose of Sharon –
a naked little child’s
Hana mukuge / hadaki warabe no / kazashi kana
(Kon 108) The hibiscus syriacus, called a rose of Sharon, is common in
Japan as well as in South Korea where it is the national flower. They grow
wild on an old wall or fence, blooming in early autumn, large trumpet
shaped flowers, usually pink with prominent yellow-tipped white stamens,
a fine ornament for the hair of a tiny peasant girl naked in August heat. She
stands there innocent and charming, the ideal human form: she carries the
future of humanity. Shoko, with daughters this age, sees “an expression of
the warmth in Basho’s heart.”
by the child I carry
in this heat
Basho’s woman followers Sonome explores the hot sweaty reality of
motherhood in the sultry Japanese summer, 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 haiku about her nape
almost to my collar
bun of hair
The small ordinary sensations in woman’s life, the coolness that enters
between collar and hair bun. 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. More of Sonome’s poetry appears in
Still their hair
untied, they go forth
to plant rice
Chiyo-jo writes of young women who have no time to straighten their hair,
or their robes – walking 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.
The abundance of thick, loose, black hair suggests the fertility of both
women and muddy field.
Basho’s mom died in 1683 while he was in Fukagawa. The next year he
returned to Iga to visit her grave
Without a word my brother opens an amulet case.
“Pray to this lock of mother’s white hair.”
Held in hand to melt
in the heat of my tears –
Te ni toraba kien / namida zo atsuki / aki no shimo
(Kon 201) 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.
Ten years later he again came here for the O-bon Festival:
The whole family
white-haired and on canes
visits the graves
Ie wa mina / tsue ni shiroga no /haka mairi
(Kon 892) 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. The middle segment
sums up the nature of growing old: white hair and osteoporosis.
For O-bon, lanterns represent the spirits of the dead, and also light the way
for spirits crossing the boundary to return to the living world.
In the moonlight
among O-Bon lanterns,
time to weep
Autumn wind more slender
than strands of her hair
Tsukiyo ni / tourou haite / naki kurashi
kami suji yori mo / hosoki aki kaze
(BRZ 7: 50) She cries for one whose spirit has come back, while the wind
penetrates to the depths of her heart.
This morning I found
a strand of white hair
Year after year
lined up under blossoms
number of friends
Kami no shiraga o / kesa mitsuketari
Toshi-doshi no / hana ni narabishi / tomo no kazu
(BRZ 7: 267) One white strand amidst the multitude of black reveals her
middle age is past. A number of years, of cherry blossom picnics, of cherry
petals, and of friends – however while white strands increase, the friends