Sing to the Dawn
This topic contains six females whose names we know:
the famous authors, Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu,
Basho’s followers Uko and Sonome;
Jutei, the “wife” of his nephew Toin;
and Basho’s goddaughter Kasane,
For each woman, we, along with Basho, unfold her womanhood
In a renku composed in 1678, Basho made an interesting response to a
stanza about prostitution:
Because men listen not to the Gods, they purchase “love” from hookers; a hundred coins was about 2000 yen or 20 dollars today; a paltry fee to pay for a quickie at a roadside rest area. Basho would rather read the words of a woman divinely inspired, Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book. He says this book is better than sex. By including the title of her book in his stanza, Basho honors the authoress of that book.
The Pillow Book is a collection of Shonagon’s 11th century opinions, and she has an opinion about everything. Men who think women should not have opinions, or at least keep their opinions to themselves, will hate this book. Basho honors Sei Shonagon for writing exactly what she wanted to
say; this certainly counts as womanism in both of these Asians, Shonagon and Basho.
(Told by Otokuni)
Basho says, “Go beyond the scholars with their old worn-out approaches.
Discover a new way to reach into those ancient works.”
One of the most famous passages in Japanese literature is Sei Shonagon’s opening
to the Pillow Book:
The woman who took the pen-name Murasaki Shikibu from the name of the principal female character in her Tale of Genji, was born in about 973 and like her contemporary Sei Shonagon lived in the Imperial Court. Her mother died when she was a young child – as Genji’s mother does in the Tale. Contrary to customs of the time, her father gave her a ‘boy’s education.’ It is said that she disliked the men at court whom she thought to be drunken and stupid. She married in her twenties and had a daughter in 999. After her husband died in 1001, Murasaki became a lady-in-waiting and tutor to the Empress, in her diaries she wrote that people found her “pretentious, awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales,
haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous and scornful.” In other words she made no effort to be nice to people, so did not fit in well.
In 1004 (according to legend) she went to Ishiyama Temple near Lake Biwa, for a seven-day retreat, searching for inspiration. The Genji no Ma (Alcove of Genji) is the ‘traces’ of the small room in the side of the main temple building where under the harvest moon she began work on the world’s first novel and the longest until modern times. In 1690, at dawn Basho went to see the Alcove where he wrote:
The little cuckoo’s bright call bird sounds breathless, as if striving to produce the five notes with utmost beauty. Although the haiku portrays no woman, it was written where Murasaki was inspired to write her
masterpiece and alludes to the famous opening of Sei Shonagon’s masterpiece, the Pillow Book:
Basho brings these two great female authors together with the grandeur of dawn, the color purple, and that inspiring bird call: ho-toto-GI-su
Of all the many female characters in the Tale of Genji, certainly the one in which
authoress put the most of herself was Murasaki – and we have seen her as a child on page 17, and as a young woman after being forced to have her first sex on page 44. The great sadness of the character Murasaki was that she was unable to have children. Possibly the most beautiful account of
this character appear just before her death:
In his Will dictated two days before his death, Basho, possibly thinking of
Murasaki, sends a message to his follower Jokushi:
In the summer of 1690 Basho in Kyoto stayed at Uko and Boncho’s house. The following tanka appears in Basho’s letter to Uko in October, with a note specifying that the poem is for her. It requires unfolding.
Basho recalls the tea ceremony Uko performed for her guest. Kon elaborates Basho’s meaning in the first two lines: “as I think of the kettle boiling in your tea cottage, I imagine your peaceful, settled lifestyle”
-- a lifestyle so serene that each evening she has the time and heart to make tea in the formal meditative Way of Tea.
In a Japanese home of refinement, the houseguest never puts out his or her own futon and pillow; the wife of the house always performs that task while the guest is in the bath. Because Japanese line things up in parallel as an expression of respect, and because Basho was her Teacher and a guest in her house, we can assume that Uko diligently lined the futons and pillows up in three even vertical columns – like the three strokes of the Chinese character for ‘river,’ 川, which suggest a baby nestled between mommy and daddy, receiving warmth and security from both sides. In the tanka the heat of “kettle boiling” flows into the warmth in Basho’s memory of “those three pillows.”
Basho wrote two tanka in 1690, both focusing on woman’s life. SPRING PASSES BY (at the end of this topic) encapsulates the eternal passage of the female frombirth to old age and through generations. EACH EVENING instead focuses on one particular woman, praising her hospitality, her tea ceremony,
the sleeping arrangements she made for her guest.
Two years before, at the end of 1688, Uko wrote this haiku:
She sketches the unsettled feeling of a woman whose hormones seek pregnancy; in 1689 they won. So by the time of this letter, autumn of 1690, her daughter must be near her first birthday (in the Western sense. (The Japanese did not “have birthdays” – everybody just became one year older on New Year’s Day. Simple.)
(p.s. to 1690 Letter to Uko)
Basho politely addresses the infant as Tei dono – “Little Miss Tei” – but he got the kid’s name wrong; Uko’s daughter is Sai. ‘Yoshi’ is short for Oyoshi, Basho’s little sister, now about 40. When Basho was in Iga at his
house, Oyoshi asked him to take her best wishes to Uko and the baby; here Basho kindly delivers them.
Basho pays attention to the energy passing from one female to another. He writes “like a woman” with consciousness of women, children, and personal relationships.
In 1691 Uko sent Basho a present, a cushion she designed and sewed to fit around his hips, to keep them warm while he sits in winter. Basho’s replied on October 3 of this year:
Right before the Chrysanthemum Festival when these tall noble flowers are displayed all over town, people fearing their flowers will catch cold, wrap their stalks in cotton to keep out the cold wind
With autumn progressing and nights starting to show winter near, Basho feels his body as one with the chrysanthemums in the garden. As he shivers, they shiver too. Chrysanthemums have no warm blood, yet must have some means to remain upright, full-petaled, and gorgeous while all else is withered and fading. The warmth from Uko’s cushion around his hips is like the warmth from cotton around chrysanthemum stalks. Both the tanka EACH EVENING and this haiku highlight the physical body warmth in his
feelings for Uko. Maybe it is time to give up the idea that Basho is cold and austere.
In the p.s. to the 1690 letter, Basho called Uko’s daughter “Tei.” In her letter with the hip cushion Uko must have used the correct name, so in this letter Basho gets it right. If Sai was one then, in the year past she has entered the ‘terrible twos,’ that period when every waking moment is devoted to proving independence from mama. Japanese women today say the same about 2 or 3 year olds (otonashiku natta deshō).
Basho is in Zeze, beside Lake Biwa, where his woman follower Chigetsu lived. She must have told Basho she got a letter from Uko. Here from the letter to Uko is Basho’s postscript in the letter of 1691:
Basho praises with gratitude the gentleness of woman, and affirms the solidarity of women. He seems to be building bridges between these two women followers, as well as bridges from them to women today.
A year and a half later, on February 23, 1693, with winter coming to an end, Basho sent another letter to Uko; here is the p.s. to that letter:
That cushion Uko made and sent him to keep his hips warm, Basho liked wrapping it around his head. This is the real and unconventional Basho, not some austere saint or Buddhist hermit, but as Shoko calls him, ‘Dear Uncle Basho,’ a bit strange but still a pretty good guy.
Woman scholar Bessho Makiko says Basho wrote another tanka to and about Uko when she cut her hair to shoulder length and declared herself a Buddhist nun – although she went on living with her husband and infant daughter. The verse does not appear in standard anthologies, but I trust Bessho, and the verse sounds like one Basho would have written – for fun.
Kokonoe no / uchi ni wa umi no / naki mono o
Nan tote ama no / sode shoboruran
When we lift our hands to our eyes, the long hanging sleeves of a kimono get wet from tears, thus in experiencing strong emotion, the Japanese (in poetry) ‘wring out their sleeves.’ Kokonoe, “nine circles” suggests that Kyoto resembles the ancient Chinese Capital laid out in nine concentric rings with the castle at the center. Still, Kyoto is one of the few major cities in Japan with no sea coast, so poor Uko has no salt water/tears in which to wring out her sleeves. Basho dedicates this nonsense to the “nun Uko.”
It expresses his affection for her.
We end our exploration of Uko with my favorite of her haiku:
Sonome ("Garden Women"), daughter of a priest and official at the Ise Shrine, married to an eye doctor, was known for her beauty. Basho visited Sonome’s home in March of 1688 and wrote the following verse as a
compliment to his hosts; though he mentions the husband in the head note, his verse focusing entirely on her.
Noren curtains are often seen in Japan today, in the entrance to a shop or restaurant, and in doorways inside the house, you walk through the vertical slit in the middle of the curtain. The oku of the house is the interior or “northside” where the wife does her work. Oku is also the ordinary word for someone else’s wife, oku-san, or more politely, oku-sama. “Mrs. Interior” comes through the curtain to greet the guest and bring tea and
cakes – but otherwise she stays in her “north side.” “Northside plum” means both a tree and the woman Sonome. Plum blossoms are in Japan the most elegant of images and thousands of poems have been written about this elegance. From the guest parlor Basho’s mind passes between the flaps of curtain to the interior of the house, where all is quiet and hidden, yet he knows she is there. So Basho is saying to Sonome: “you are so elegant that I “see” that quality of you even when I cannot see you.” Basho’s attitude toward Sonome
resembles the worship of a goddess. My daughter Shanti says, “Every time I read this verse, the less innocent it sounds.” (The husband’s take on Basho’s sketch of his wife is not recorded.)
Sonome and husband moved to her Osaka. In 1694, fourteen days before Basho’s death, Basho and nine other poets gathered at Sonome’s home. Basho, as guest of honor, begins the renku, and Sonome follows:
Sonome has arranged chrysanthemums from her garden in a vase in the decorative alcove in the room where poets gather. Each of many petals in a perfect wheel is pure white without a flaw anywhere, so Basho honors the purity of the woman Sonome. Basho focuses all on one element, the flower’s whiteness, to see in Sonome the divine purity for which he has always searched.
She counters this purity with a process Japanese traditionally consider defiling yet Sonome says is pure: menstruation: the “water” (blood) with fallen “crimson leaves” (discarded lining of the uterus) flows according to the Moon’s cycle. Through this complex response – the moon shining on red leaves in moving water – we can, if we choose to, see that same ideal of purity in woman’s body functions. Sonome rejects her patriarchal culture’s image of menstruation as defilement; she says “No! It is as pure as a white chrysanthemum – pure but complicated as water in motion.”
According to Shiko, Basho said about WHITE CRYSANTHEMUM:
Basho usually writes of ‘seeing’ what is hidden – as he did with Sonome behind the doorway curtain.
Here he speaks of concentrating on the woman actually before his eyes – for this will be his final chance to gaze at her. According to Shiko who was there at the time, Basho said the verse is about the “beauty of Sonome’s elegance.” Japanese scholars obviously either do not know, or do not approve of Shiko’s account, since they ignore it. Makoto Ueda translates five scholars’ comments on this
verse: here are, three of them (Ueda 1992, p. 408)
“I prefer to read this strictly as a poem on white chrysanthemums”
“The beauty of the flower has no reference to anything else.”
“Basho was just writing a poem on flowers; he had no
thought of Sonome at all; later on, it came to imply the poet’s
respect for the hostess with no deliberate intention on his part.”
What?! Basho was at her home, and his haiku a greeting verse to his hostess. Of course it expresses respect. Here are three fine examples of androcentric thinking. To these scholars (if Ueda’s translations are
accurate) any notion that Basho cares about women is an anathema.
In the renku sequence beginning with Basho’s WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM and Sonome’s MORNING MOON MAKES WATER, #s 3 through 9 were by other poets. Following is #10 by Basho, and Sonome’s #11:
Basho portrays the transient feeling of people who have torn down their old house, and are building a new one, so right now are homeless. They have a place to stay at night, but spend their days at the construction site. They have made a firepit in a shack and there cook lunch. Sonome says camping in a shack is fine for guys, but as a woman she would go crazy without a proper stove and sink and other convenieces of a
17th century kitchen. The woman in her stanza did get hysterical, and was ready to return to her native home, an action which could lead to divorce – but then she thought about it some more, and resolved the matter in her mind: she stays with her husband and, by looking forward to the new home when it is built, endures camping out for a while longer.
Notice the link from the fire in Basho’s stanza to the hysteria in Sonome’s. In two short lines, she manages to convey both the burning desire in the woman’s heart to get away from the mess and dirt and inconvenience, and also the cooling down as she realizes she had better stay and endure. She shows us how women feel and respond in a patriarchal world.
As for the “wife” of Basho’s nephew Toin and mother of Basho’s grandnephew and two grandnieces, her name is unknown to us, but after Toin dies in 1693, she takes the Buddhist name Jutei. Some say she was
Basho’s lover in Iga before he left town in 1672 at age 28; others that she was a “maid” (and maybe courtesan) of Basho in his early years in Edo. She may even been both – first Basho’s maid/lover and later his nephew’s common-law wife – or neither.
Letter to Sora, dated Oct 13, 1690
Basho got a letter from Sora telling of conflict in the family. Shoko gets the feeling that Toin has some degree of disability. Even without modern psychological terms, Basho describes his nephew’s problems with
considerable accuracy. Even without specifying the wife, we suspect how she suffered from Toin being “negligent” and from the discord in her family. In Basho’s letters we learn that Toin was a fugitive from the law in Iga and hiding out in the metropolis using an alias, so there were also the problems that occur from living as fujitives from the law.
Basho tells of Toin coming down with tuberculosis in winter of 1692 and dying in Spring. He borrowed the equivalent of $600 from Kyokusui so Jutei and the kids could have something to eat. They needed a place to
stay. Basho had a recently built 3-room hut where he lived alone, although Jirobei sometimes stayed with him. He could have brought all four of them in, but the place was really not big enough for an old woman,
two young teenage girl, an adolescent boy, and Basho. The perfect solution was to take Jirobei on a journey, and let the females have the place to themselves.
After Basho and Jirobei left Edo on June 3rd, Jutei and her daughters moved into Basho’s hut.
On June 8th, Basho wrote to Sora:
Jutei died in Basho’s hut on July 23. On July 29th Basho receives a letter from Ihei telling of Jutei’s death, and replies the same day:
It would be normal for Basho to honor her spirit at her Hatsu-bon, the first Festival of the Dead after she died. In his final O-bon season, Basho wrote:
The Festival of Souls is a time to wonder about life and death, about ancestors and all their achieved, about descendents and how we prepare for them. The Jutei in Edo brought three children into this world and raised them to teenage, so she certainly was “of account” – however apparently for much of her life she considered herself of little worth.
Margaret Cavendish, born 21 years before Basho and alive till he was 32, was an English noblewoman but, speaking for women in general, she said
Basho hibernate in caves until warmth wakens them. Even though Basho did not know this British woman, he wrote a haiku which answers her:
They have membrances between their limbs that they can spread out to catch the wind and glide through the air – certainly no match for the muscles of a bird’s wing. Basho tells the woman to come out from hiding,
and discover the joy and power of a full life.
The 20th century feminist Hiratsuka Raicho speaks for many women who feel “of no account”
How remarkable that a prominent early Japanese feminist in 1911 said the same as Basho did in his poem OF NO ACCOUNT.
Basho wrote the following tanka in the spring of 1690 to bless a newborn baby girl he was asked to name. He named her Kasane: a verb in the dimension of space meaning to “pile up in layers” and in time “to reoccur,in succession.” From this double meaning, the name and the poem unfold
to Basho’s reverence for life and for the female.
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. To appreciate this tanka, we must recognize the hope in 17th century Japanese that the peace enforced by the Tokugawa Shogunate will continue. No one wants to return to the suffering of the Warring States Period from 1467 to 1603. Once we see within SPRING PASSES BY an Ode to Peace,
the blessing unfolds for Kasane and all newborn girls.
One spring in youth, you shall be given your first blossom kimono; a two layer silk robe worn over an under-robe. The springs shall come and go with clouds of pink-and-white blossoms filling the treetops to fall in a
shower of petals as you blossom into a young lady elegant in your bright lovely kimono.
Each year as you sit with legs folded under you on the straw mat under the cherry trees, creases shall form in the fabric. Carefully, as your mother shows you, restore its silky smoothness for another year. May the day come for you to pass this youthful robe onto your daughter, the next ‘layer’ of yourself, while you wear one moderate in color and pattern – and this too passes onto her, and you to the dark sedate kimono of an old woman.
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 and again as spring passes by and your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom kimono. The tanka offers Hope to the smallest females — Hope for a childhood
without misfortune, Hope that she will grow into womanhood and see grandchildren. In his few simple words Basho speaks of what concerns women: the succession of life, the happiness of children — the conditions
of peace, both social and family, in which little girls can dress up and party with relatives and friends, and life and prosperity goes on generation after generation.
This tanka appears on page 285 of volume 71 of the Nihon Koten Bungaku Zenshu (Complete Anthology of Japanese Literature) which can be found on the shelf of every library, large or small, in Japan, although it has been completely ignored by every scholar and translator, so that outside of my works, it is unknown to nearly everybody. Because it clearly affirms the worth of the newborn female, and encapsulates the life of a woman from birth to wrinkles, I believe it can unfold to become Basho’s greatest work and the most profound and life-affirming verse in Japanese literature, Asian literature, and World Literature.