The earliest and most numerous, diverse, and insightful female-centric verses in World Literature were written by the Japanese male poet Basho between 1664 and 1694 – although scholars have neglected the vast majority of them, so almost nobody knows Basho’s studies of women and girls exist in Japanese anthologies. My research assistant Bronagh said
Basho cherished and nurtured his appreciation for women to produce these gem-like verses which could inspire and empower women and girls worldwide if they became known. They should be included in every Women’s Studies course, as well as in Anthropology courses. No specialized or scholarly knowledge is required; knowledge of women is. Basho uses so few ordinary words and such simple grammar that his verses can be used to teach children and adults reading along with a female-positive message.
Unlike other collections of Basho including only haiku and journals, Basho4Humanity abounds with the vast and mostly uncharted wealth of his contributions to renku, linked verses by a team of poets, each writing a stanza linked to the one before. I have selected stanza-pairs with one stanza by Basho focusing on women or girls.
The difference between bold and not-bold highlights the separation of two minds, encouraging us to find the links between them. Basho clearly said that renku, not haiku, is the culmination of his search for poetic expression of humanity:
For this pamphlet I have selected from each of 19 topics one study of women expressing the inner core of Basho’s reverence for the female. Each page begins with an epigraph introducing the topic, as this from Diane Mariechild introduces the entire book:
Then comes the verse along with Japanese original, Romanization, and brief commentary to help you discover what Michele Root - Bernstein calls the
and Ceci Miller:
May these 21 Visions of Women encourage women worldwide to explore the full book with 12 times as many Basho verses and more commentary all focusing on women as central.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women
From a previous stanza about a boat, the poet imagines a boat with a woman’s lover leaving the harbor. She tries to reach it 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 – their power, their truth – goes far. May Basho’s stanza, with or without the previous stanza, become an anthem for women’s choral groups as well as for social and political movements led by women. Women with “power over themselves,” please join together in solidarity to repair the sickness male dominance has produced in this world. Who are the women who will lead us in chorus?
Rell Sunn, Hawaiian woman champion surfer
Walking together in town, the lovers are surprised to see, and be seen by, “the boss.” He is cool and says not a word, but the heart behind the umbrella shrinks with haji – shyness, bashfulness, embarrassment. She clutches the handle to cover as much as possible without any movements that might attract his attention. Scholar Miyawaki Masahiko sees the anthropology in this renku:
Kyokusui says love starts out simple but somehow becomes “intense.” Basho follows with the teenage daughter’s thoughts:
“Although the turmoil of young love takes away all my appetite,
mother insists I eat, to build up my slender body. Why can’t she
understand that I cannot eat while this turmoil rages within me?
Mother, stop bugging me!”
Here is the “generation gap” between mothers and daughters in every time and every land. Daughter thinks about love, while mother about nutrition, so there can be no meeting of minds. We see a mother 330 years ago worried about her daughter refusing to eat, struggling to stay slender, and a daughter hiding her inner feelings from mother, so the problem can never be resolved. This is anthropology, the observation of human behavior. May the verse help mothers and daughters each see from the other point of view.
“The symbol of Goddess gives us permission. She teaches us to embrace the holiness of every natural, ordinary, sensual dying moment"
Sue Monk Kidd
Hase Temple has long been a place of pilgrimage for women to pray to the 30-foot tall statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, the largest wooden image in Japan. Women commonly pray to Kannon for love, to bear a child, for a child to succeed in school or work, or for relief from hardship.
By the end of April even the nights are warm and tranquil; it is a time for the heart to find solace and renew hope. The compassion in Kannon’s face and figure radiates to every corner of the temple. Over there, in a corner, someone barely seen in faint lantern light sits in communion with the Goddess. Who is she? Why has she come here alone at night? What is she praying for?
By making a poem about the hidden woman, Basho eulogizes her; as conduit between spring and Kannon, she herself becomes eternal. This woman and her prayers to Kannon-sama convey a tender mystery known in temples and churches throughout the world – this world where men make decisions but men are inconstant, and all women can do about it is pray to a goddess for compassion.
Robin Lim, midwife.
Infant rice plants look like ordinary grass showing no sign that four months later they yield the staple food of Asia. Basho follows with a woman making herself beautiful before and while giving birth – as plants sprouting are Mother Earth’s green make-up. Woman merges with Earth, both giving birth to “love in the world.” Within her beauty is the power of regeneration, the power to nurture life.
Pamela S. Nadav
Basho wrote both of these stanzas:
This rice-planting woman emerges from the pond of fertile mud to nourish her child from her breasts. Her entire body is soiled and roughened by everyday’s dirt, with only hard mineral-laden water for washing ― yet 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 concern for facial beauty and cleanliness, the femininity of women at work, women with breasts, women nourishing life, women’s dreams and hopes for children’s future, women as one with the ground bearing life, all wrapped up in five short lines.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
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. 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 to propel the ash 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. Basho perceives the physical activity of an ordinary woman of color as central and worthy of attention.
(In the Minangkabu society of Indonesia)
Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sandry
Women in the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy
A family in debt cannot allow the neighbors to see them spend money on a wedding.
Basho explains the link he produced:
In Japan a bride, trained to be bashful, is taken from the only home she has ever known, and brought to the household of her husband and his imposing parents. When we concentrate on the heart’s connection, the innermost feelings of the new bride, the “tray of sweets” becomes a symbol of her peeking out from her bashful secrecy. The “sweets” are the love and kindness she has within her. She looks forward to gaining confidence in herself, so she can give these “sweets” to her husband, guests, neighbors, and future children.
The notion that “sweets” symbolizes the wife’s love and kindness is, I believe, confirmed by a message Basho, two days before his death, sent in his Will to his old friend and follower Jokushi,
Thus the heart’s connection in STANDING SCREEN SHADOW is the bride’s Hope for the future of this marriage, the Hope that her husband will remain faithful and her heart remain whole, so her kindness continues unchanging for him to enjoy to the end. Since no other male poet, especially so long ago, would pay such attention to female love, kindness, and Hope, the stanza shines with Newness – another name for Lightness – which Basho described as:
We reject the old-fashioned, heavy male theories leading nowhere, to discover Basho’s life-giving, female-centric truth.
Mary Ann Evans (“George Eliot”)
The mole does not interfere with her intelligence or body movement, but everyone sees it, and consciousness of this saps her self-confidence. Having grown up together with sisters who have no moles, she hates the unfairness of this, but can do nothing about it. Someone who cares for her happiness has given her a gorgeous robe for dancing in the local shrine festival, but she is too ashamed of her mole to show it to the whole town. Nameshiku, “aimlessly,” conveys the frustration and disappointment
of an adolescent with problems she has no way to resolve: the ordinary discomfort of life in a judgmental society.
Native Hawai’ian proverb
Tracee Ellis Ross
Some long hair has come loose from the band in back and fallen before her face. Her fingers and palms coated with doughy residue, without thinking or breaking her stride, she reaches up with the clean surface on the backside of her hand above thumb and forefinger to tuck the hair behind her ear – with no dough getting on her hair. Women in every land and time where hair is worn long make this precise, delicate, and utterly feminine movement with the side of the hand around the ear; we see it everywhere.
Whether you are female or male, with hair long or short, make the movement with the back of 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. 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.
She uses her lovely eyes to charm a man. A koku is about 150 kilograms of rice, used as a standard for measuring wealth; “a thousand koku” means that this samurai’s yearly stipend from the government is so-so, not great, but livable. Basho continues the narrative: her chance for a thousand koku about to ride off into the distance, she grabs the ring hanging from the saddle where his foot rests. Do not go, thousand koku. please do not vanish. I love this woman with her wide open eyes; she is so vital and active. She knows what she wants and she acts to get it.
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. We imagine the pride the hard-working mother feels hearing her daughter produce such beauty.
With utmost subtlety and grace, through the powerful effect music has on brain and heart, 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 koto.
(“Shirara, ochikubo, kyoutaru” are story titles a young girl, Joruri-hime, reads in a storybook popular in Basho’s time.) A girl reads beside the open window near a plum tree in bloom, her youth in contrast to the classical elegance of plum blossoms and romantic tales old centuries before she was born. Unable to go outside and wander as her brothers can, she does her traveling inside books. Tales from long ago inspire her – as that old storybook Little Women inspired the young girls who became Gertrude Stein, Gloria Steinem, Simone de Beauvoir, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Hillary Clinton, J.K. Rowling, and Ursula LeGuin who said about Louisa May Alcott’s ode to the female:
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, criticize, 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 into the sparkling joy of young human females. Was he recalling the joy of his four sisters?
The Tale of Genji
More than six centuries after Murasaki Shikibu, Basho, before leaving on his journey through the Japan Alps), expresses his anxiety about traveling the rough and backward road:
These are tiny clumps of yellow granules on tall stalks in autumn. The Japanese call them “harlot flowers” though the English is “maiden flowers.” How fragile are these flowers moist with dew and seeming about to topple in the raw mountain wind. The translation is altogether literal, however words take on divergent meanings in our private minds.
From Seifu’s fantasy of an angel caressing a spring of water, Basho follows with a woman chanting the Lotus Sutra, beginning with the famous nam myoho renge kyo, which for many East Asians contains the ultimate and complete teachings of Buddha. (You can hear Tina Turner chant the Lotus Sutra on her CD Beyond.) She chants not in the monotonic drone of priests, but rather elegantly, musically. Basho portrays the woman’s path to Enlightenment not inside a temple, but rather beside the window watching the world in sunshine while she sings the words of Buddha.
The Rise of the Feminist Movement in Japan
Father insults his wife and daughter, saying the most horrible, vulgar things. A kotatsu – a heater with a table and blanket on four sides to hold the warmth around the lower body while sitting – is square and seats four people, so we imagine father with three male friends. The mother and daughter prepare and serve food and drink to him and his guests. Father (probably drunk) harasses the females even when visitors are over, while the guests sit there shocked by what they are hearing; frozen in place, even sitting at a warm kotatsu.
Courtesans were ranked and graded from the top class who excelled in their appearance and artistic accomplishments to the women sold cheaply for ten minutes at a time, called “slice-of-time whores.”
Prostitution and Public Authority in Early Modern Japan
Women in this era did not ride on boats unless they worked on them, so we get that here is one indentured to a tour boat. No one ever sees her cry, yet when she is alone she mourns for the love she might have experienced if she had not been trafficked. Every night forced to have sex with a different man, only in sleep can she dream of true love – but the rocking of the boat wakes her to reality, her life as a sex slave on this floating brothel.
The first poet focuses on a woman’s slender hand which writes , in the flowing hiragana script of women, her disappointment in love, then plays a further expression of regret in a stream of harp notes. As the first poet blends physical hand activity with emotions, music, and spirit, Basho blends the icon of cherry blossoms and the physical activity of climbing a hill with the grief of human relationships, yet leaves plenty of room for imagination to fill.
Each year in this season, she comes here to climb the hill of her grief.
Sing to the Dawn
Basho wrote this tanka in spring of 1690 to bless a newborn baby girl:
The springs shall come and go with cherry blossoms filling the trees to fall in a shower of petals as you blossom into a young lady elegant in the bright lovely kimono you wear once a year at your family’s blossom picnic. May peace, health, and prosperity continue so you 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 with wrinkles across your face. Do not despair, for you live again and again as your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom-kimono.