"A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture, and transform.” Diane Mariechild
What Women Say About This Material:
“The primordial power of the feminine emanating from Basho’s poetry” Ceci Miller
“Basho shows an appreciation for women far beyond what we have been led to expect
from a Japanese man of this era.”
…the astonishing range of social subject matter and compassionate intuition
that Basho reveals in his links.
Michele Root-Bernstein Ph. D
I am an American who has lived in Japan for three decades; the company I created, Asabo Workshop, designs, builds, and sells developmental play equipment for children. I have studied and translated Basho in Japanese for more than thirty years as a hobby, without university affiliation, and have everyday discovered works which appear nowhere in English.
I am amazed that Basho is the most famous of all Japanese poets, yet so, so much of his work is unknown both in Japan and the West. It appalls me that his magnificent observations of women, as well as men and children, are unknown to humanity, are not taught in schools, do not appear in books and journals, are not cited by historians, sociologists, anthropologists worldwide. In this world of so much negativity and sensationalism, we need Basho’s positive, life-affirming words to remind us of what Sam (Sean Astin) said in the Lord of the Rings:
There is much good –, a positive gentle feminism which neither protests nor demands, but rather focuses on women as whole beings, conscious and acting with power on the world – in Basho and it’s worth fighting to overcome the judgments of Basho -- “literary,” “impersonal,” “old-fashioned,” “lonely,” “for a select group” -- by people who have almost no knowledge at all of his works on women.
Jeff Robbins: firstname.lastname@example.org
Translations and Commentary
Two Early Feminists
No, Woman, No Heavy
Links of the Feminine
I am well-aware that this self-publication contains typographical, grammatical, and formatting errors;
I am doing the best I can without funds or affiliation. Do not simply criticize my inadequacies; repair them
and share these glorious feminine words with women of the world.
Compiling the vast range of Basho’s works on humanity is far too great a job for a hermit like me to do alone. I hope to give the material and copyright to someone or some organization who, with my support,
will do a better job than I can.
This material belongs not to me, but to you, women of the world. Please take this mission over
and share it with your sisters all over the world, so I can die in peace
This book offers several hundred portraits of Japanese women by the 17th century male poet Basho: among the earliest and most numerous, diverse, and insightful female-centered works in World Literature.
By revealing Basho’s profound appreciation for ordinary women, Women Central overturns an old and obsolete roadblock so we enter a new realm of praise for women.
In The Descent of Woman, Elaine Morgan discusses the marginalization of women in theories of human evolution, but her words apply everywhere:
A very high proportion of the thinking on these topics is androcentric in the same way as pre-Copernican thinking was geocentric. It’s just as hard for men to break the habit of thinking of himself as central to the species as it was to break the habit of thinking of himself as central to the universe.
Or to break the habit of thinking of himself as central to the verse. Basho however has no trouble creating an image entirely female. He places the woman and her physical activity in the center of the image, as in this haiku:
Her fingers and palms coated with dough, she cannot use them to tuck her hair behind her ear, so she does so with the backside of her hand above the thumb and forefinger – 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.
Here are four characteristics of Basho poetry:
1) This verse is pure observation – without abstraction, judgment, philosophy, or religion – only physical observation
2) The verse focuses on a women by herself, with no male presence.
3) More specifically it highlights her body parts: hand, hair, face. The Japanese actually says “forehead hair” but does not mention her ear (mimi) – however hasamu, “to put between” is short for mimi-basamu, “to put between the ear and side of the head.”
4) It focuses on her activity, expressed in lively active verbs: “wrapping” and “tucks.” Some translators say “pushes her hair back,” but hasamu is more specific, precise and delicate.
My research assistant Bronagh said about this haiku,
“Basho shows an appreciation for women far beyond what we have been led to expect
from a Japanese man of this era.”
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.
For much more on LONG BLACK HAIR, see Topic 9
The terms “female centrism” and “gynocentrism” come from the mind of Lester Ward (1841–1913), the sociologist who first systemized the new academic discipline and became first president of the American
Sociological Association. He claimed that women were biologically superior to men, advocated equal rights, and caused controversy. The Japanese feminist Raicho (see pages 57 and 305) said “I was fascinated by his chapter on “female centrism” in Pure Sociology (1903) and drew on it in developing my own ideas about feminism.”
Despite his eminence, Ward’s sociological feminism has been neglected and forgotten by both his successors and the feminists who might benefit from following Raicho’s fascination. Despite Basho being the most famous of Japanese poets, his female-centric works appear in Japanese anthologies buried among
five or six hundred pages, ignored by almost everyone, not translated into other languages, so neither literary scholars nor feminists know of this profound legacy. Basho makes no biological, historical, or
feminist claims, so no controversy. He simply portrays the female (woman or girl) in the center of attention. Thus “female centrism.”
A subtle communication flows within the female group, allowing one voice to lead the others, so their combined voices go far. All that Black women have said about choral singing applies to this renku.
It also can apply to movements for political change. Who are the women who will lead us in chorus?
Casey Miller and Kate Swift in Words & Women say:
When women in the movement use “herstory,” their purpose is to emphasize that women's lives, deeds, and participation in human affairs have been neglected or undervalued in standard histories.
The “woman’s lives deeds, and participation in human affairs” portrayed in Basho poetry and prose works has been neglected and undervalued in standard accounts of his works. Basho’s male followers seem not to have noticed all the herstories their Master told – and through the centuries, scholars have not noticed – so the serious, austere, male-oriented Basho image has spread throughout the literary world. Though the women in Basho are central, they have been marginalized by scholars, so that outside of Basho4Humanity, no one conceives of Basho empowering women – and yet only Basho could write so feminine a stanza as this:
As the tiny mouth sucks her nipple, she gazes into the baby’s eyes and forehead, searching to see the dreams within. (To further explore this remarkable Basho stanza, see it in Breastfeeding with Basho
So long as women refuse to see the herstories in Basho’s work – because schools and men have told them there are none – women are doing men’s work, marginalizing women. Only by bringing the women in Basho away from the margins to the center of our consciousness, can we take back the sun of his female-centric genius.
Judith Cook in Women in Shakespeare notes several women with personalities in British plays of that era, yet most of them are “either suffering victims or outright villainesses…It would be wrong, therefore, to say that only Shakespeare in his time created believable and fascinating roles for women. The difference lies in his ability to write convincingly and beautifully for so many different types of women.” Shakespearean scholar A.L. Rowse glorified the Bard’s “most marvelous gallery of female characters in literature.”
Elizabeth Winkler in her article Was Shakespeare a Woman notes that,
The critic John Ruskin said, “Shakespeare has no heroes—he has only heroines.” A striking number of those heroines refuse to obey rules. At least ten defy their fathers, bucking betrothals they don’t like to find their own paths to love. Eight disguise themselves as men, outwitting patriarchal controls—more gender-swapping than can be found in the work of any previous English playwright. Six lead armies.
Most literary critics and professors, especially the males, do not see Shakespeare’s adoration of women. They instead consider him the “embodiment of the patriarchal authority of the Western canon.” Likewise for Basho: literary scholars for 300 years have ignored “his ability to write convincingly and beautifully for so many different types of women” producing Basho’s “marvelous gallery of female characters in literature,” or they have de-emphasized the femininity in the verses – to maintain their notion that Basho being one of the
Japanese literary elite, in the words of historian Louis Perez, “scarcely eluded to commoner women at all, and if they did it was mainly in a pejorative sense.” They deprive their students and readers the vast
resources for female empowerment in Basho poetry.
The outstanding examples of powerful and intelligent women in Shakespeare are Rosalind and Celia in
All’s Well that Ends Well, Desdemona and Emilia in Othello, Beatrice and Hero in Much Ado about Nothing, and Hermione and Paulina in A Winter’s Tale; in each play the two women friends support each other against the stupidity of men. Another common feature is that each of these plays is set in Italy; such solidarity between women in rarely seen in Shakespeare’s plays set in other places. Since, as Winkler notes, he never went to Italy, knew no Italian, and had little education of any sort, it seems likely that Shakespeare allowed Emilia Bassano, well-versed in Italian language and customs and also an accomplished feminist poet, to
ghostwrite or cooperate with him in writing these plays advocating female solidarity. Only Shakespeare (or whoever wrote these plays) could create the joyful self-affirmation of Rosalind and the heroic moral courage of Emilia. Basho also honors the solidarity of two women. Only Basho honors the succession of wisdom through generations of women:
Basho creates the turmoil in the heart of a lovesick daughter, and also creates a compassionate mother saying the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her down. In Mother as Icon this stanza appears with the stanzas both before and after, so we can explore where this stanza came
from and where it led. Exploring the female centrism in Shakespeare and Basho may enhance our feminism and womanism today.
Each year in this season she comes here to climb the hill of her grief.
…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
Unlike other collections of Basho which include only his haiku and travel journals, Basho4Humanity abounds with the vast and mostly uncharted wealth of his contributions to renku, linked verses composed by a team of poets, each writing a stanza linked to the one before.
The difference between fonts highlights the seperation of two minds, encouraging us to discover the links betweeen them.
Basho said very clearly that renku, not haiku, is his major work:
Hundreds of renku – but only a dozen haiku – contain the inner core of his reverence for women. The 196 renku stanzas by Basho in this collection reveal the depths of his feminine consciousness.
Most of the few books and sites which do offer a few Basho renku present them in full 36-stanza sequences in which only a fraction of the stanzas are by Basho, usually without commentaries to unravel the
links; the stanzas are simply given as a montage. From such a presentation, we cannot discern the brilliance of Basho’s links. In any full sequence some stanzas ‘miss’ the target, and some made sense in the 17th century but fail to register to 21st century readers. Since the reader will pay attention to each stanza presented, much energy will be wasted.
Rather than full sequences, I select stanza-pairs – either one stanza by another poet followed by Basho, sometimes Basho first, and occasionally both stanzas written in succession by Basho – which I believe will register to ordinary women today. I also include many stanza-trios and a few quartets, quintets, and one sextet, when all the links will appeal to modern minds.
Sometimes I offer a single stanza by itself, without any baggage from another stanza, so it will apply to a wide range of circumstances:
She makes herself beautiful before and while giving birth. Within her beauty is the power of regeneration, the nurturing of life. This is fine, yet more specific meanings from Basho’s stanza following the one which preceded it.
Infant rice plants look like ordinary grass showing no sign that four months later they yield the staple food of Asia. Basho generates the path of thoughts from rice sprouting to his vision of the creative and loving female. Woman merges with Earth, each making herself more beautiful. For more on this renku, see it in
Basho portrays the oppression which prevents many women from experiencing the fullness of life.
Do not simply read the poem once and go on to something else; roll the words around inside your mind, as you search for the “social subject matter” hidden in the words: the heart's connection to the words. Search for clues to this “sister” in the commentary in Oppression where Basho’s stanza appears with
the previous stanza by another poet, as well as from your own experiences of living with male decadence.
There is nothing “literary” or abstract about these intimate feminine verses or my commentaries; they are written not for literary specialists, but rather FOR EVERYWOMAN. The renku master Basho told his
The “heart’s connection” is through inner personal feelings, so women will understand better than men can. Women’s Studies – not literary scholarship – is the proper discipline to nurture and explore Basho’s
visions of women. Can we take these female-centric portraits away from scholars, and make them part of the feminist movement?
To explore the “bone marrow of this old man,” his “compassionate intuition,” search for the “heart’s connection” in the next stanza-pair:
Children scattered about the room, mother at the sunken hearth in the center has to “glare about” – staring fiercely all around‐to address them all, not that they listen. The stanza abounds with human activity in three lively verbs: “glaring about,” “orders,” and her spoken command “behave!” along with the activity of the children: crawling, running, climbing, arguing, fighting, breaking or swallowing things, this winter day in 17th century Japan.
Basho follows with her roasting miso, soy bean paste, on skewers to make a side dish. A bit of ash from the fire has gotten on the sticky miso. She lifts the skewer close to her mouth, purses her lips, and puffs a burst of air at the ash to propel it away. The astonishing delicacy of this action even the fingers of elves could not perform is the polar opposite of her glaring and shouting at her kids – yet both ordering and puffing are her breath, her life force the yogis call prana.
In most of world literature women face romance and/or tragedy (e.g. Shakespeare’s Juliet), with beauty or virtue, ugliness or evil (King Lear’s daughters). Basho says nothing at all about any of these. He searches for and discovers a different quality in a woman: she simply is alive and expresses her life-force in a way which is whole, positive, and vital. Here is the heart of his reverence for women: he perceives the physical activity of an ordinary woman of color as central and worthy of attention.
Modern Japanese feminist artist Tabe Michiko says,
I am opposed to the idea that art should be depressing, serious, and monotone.
This idea is deeply rooted in Japanese men’s sense of beauty.
Literary scholars maintain the notion that Basho followed in this tradition of “depressing, serious, and monotone” poetry, but actually he rejected that tradition which he called “Oldness” and “Heaviness”
to create a new and original form of Japanese poetry: karumi, “Lightness” (the opposite of Heaviness, not of Darkness, though in English the double meaning works). This is poetry about ordinary people and ordinary activities, without tragedy, desolation, or anything literary. Basho, like all of us, sometimes was sad – especially in the autumn – and some of his poems are lonely and desolate, and these are the ones which have been translated, however the majority of his work is upbeat and positive, full of life and activity.
In his final year, Basho defined Lightness in gentle words which women may appreciate:
Let the scholars have their “impersonal, detached, and objective” Basho while we discover Basho4Humanity – in this volume, the astonishing variety of his warm, personal, lively works about women:
Some scholars claim that Lightness was a phase Basho went through in his final year, from the winter of 1693 to the autumn of 1694, although Basho began speaking of Lightness from the spring of 1690. Even without him calling it karumi, Lightness shines in Basho poetry from his first renku stanza in 1665 until his final words spoken the moment before he died in early winter of 1694.
In the summer of 1694, Basho followed a stanza by Rikyu with what may be his ultimate expression of Lightness because it is Lightness overflowing with young female joy:
Single layer cotton cloth hangs on a line in the sunshine; overhead a lark sings brightly rising to heaven. Here are only girls, so no males to dominate or marginalize them, no female accommodation to male
nonsense, just girls being themselves. In their pretty robes, they go to have fun, chatting and laughing with each other, complementing the clarity and freshness of the first stanza. Clean white fabric, skylark,
cherry blossoms, and group of happy girls, all get high together.
Basho takes the energy of sunshine and bird song from Rikyu, and transforms that energy into the sparkling joy of young human females; not the joy of females to amuse men, but female joy with no males present; the joy all girls would experience if not for the oppression and demands of patriarchal society; the joy few men recognize, but Basho honors. Such is the heart’s connection.