"A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture, and transform.”
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 most of them, so almost nobody knows that Japanese anthologies contain several hundred verses of what editorial consultant Ceci Miller calls Basho’s “respect, affection, and even reverence for women.” In Woman Central: Basho Honors Women and Girls, you will find 276 such woman-centered verses, along with commentary to help you discover the hidden meanings. The entire book has an Introduction and 19 sections, all of which will be found through the URL links given below.
To disclose the vast yet unknown reservoir of resources for female inspiration and empowerment in Basho’s works is my mission. Despite the impersonal reputation male scholars have imposed on him, Basho uses only simple ordinary words in straightforward physical description of the activities, emotions, and concerns of women and girls throughout time. Specialized or scholarly knowledge is not required to understand Basho’s gem-like verses in bold face; your personal knowledge of female experience will bring them into your heart.
I love my hair because it’s a reflection of my soul
Tracee Ellis Ross
Some long hair has come loose from the band in back and fallen before her face. 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.
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. This haiku strikes a chord of recognition in anyone who reads it with attention. Here 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.
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Unlike other collections of Basho which include only haiku and travel journals, Basho4Humanity abounds with the mostly uncharted wealth of his tsukeku, stanzas he added to a previous stanza by another poet in renku or linked verse. Basho said that renku, not haiku, is the culmination of his search for poetic expression:
For this pamphlet, from each of 19 topics, I have selected haiku or tsukeku in which Basho expresses the “bone marrow” or inner core of his reverence for the female.
The difference between bold and not-bold highlights the separation of two minds, encouraging us to search for the links between them.
Each page begins with an epigraph introducing the topic to modern female concerns, then the verse along with commentary to help you discover what Michele Root-Bernstein recognizes as the “astonishing range of social subject matter and compassionate intuition that Basho reveals in his links.”
May these 20 Visions of Women encourage women worldwide to explore the full book with 256 more Basho verses and commentary focusing on women as central.
From her position as healer, Ma’s hands had grown sure and cool and quiet.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
The first poet offers an image of nature: in Japanese gardens the flower cockscomb highlights autumn, so vivid a red every eye is drawn to them; here in front of the garden all the more in-your-face red.
Basho one month before he died, in his hometown where he grew up with his four sisters and their mother, counters that flower image with humanity: a relationship of one human female caring for another. Red the color of passion suggests to Basho the turmoil in the heart of a lovesick teenage girl. He imagines that turmoil, the daughter upset to hysteria, shaking all over, but also imagines – and recalls – a compassionate mother who, from her position as healer, manages to say the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her child down. To discover the “bone marrow of this old man” we search for how the flower image unfolds to a vision of mother caring for daughter
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“Spring passes and one remembers innocence.
Summer passes and one remembers exuberance.
Autumn passes and one remembers reverence.
Winter passes and one remembers perseverance.”
Single layer cotton cloth hangs on a line in the sunshine; overhead a lark sings brightly rising to the sky. 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, making each other laugh, 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 to the sparkling joy of young human females.
See how Basho takes the energy of sunshine and bird song from Rikyu, and transforms to the sparkling joy of young females. Joy: the goddess’ gift to every girl.
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I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women
Imagine a woman standing on the shore watching a boat carry away her lover. 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 one, become an anthem for women’s choral groups as well as for social and political movements. Women with power over your selves, join together in solidarity to repair the insanity male dominance has produced in this world. Who are the women who will lead us in chorus?
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"I know I'm stronger in the songs than I really am. Sometimes I need to hear it myself. We all need to hear those empowering songs to remind us."
This woman has enough work sewing before winter comes. She may manage 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 typically played 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.
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“The symbol of Goddess gives us permission. She teaches us to embrace the holiness
of every natural, ordinary, sensual dying moment" Sue Monk Kidd
The first poet speaks and the tree spirits transform his voice into a spring breeze. Basho said, “See from practice that your following stanza suits the previous one as an expression of the same heart's connection,” and so his stanza transforms the divine female energy of the mountain into a cascade, dispersing not to nothing, but rather joining the flow, always the same but ever-changing, inward to the heart and outward to the world. Basho tells us:
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The way of aloha (love) is really simple. You give and you give and you give and you give from here (the heart), until you have nothing else to give. Rell Sunn Hawaiian woman champion surfer
Sora suggests the beginning of The Tale of Genji where a young woman, Kiritusbo, “summoned” by the Emperor, becomes his favorite and bears him a son. Other court ladies, led by his senior consort, spread rumors to shame her so she sickens and dies.
Basho counters shame with delicate physical activity and devotion. This woman, despite the gossip and shame, lies in bed beside her lover (or her child), carefully maneuvering her arm under his head without waking him. Basho empowers a woman to overcome bullying and shame by concentrating on her female power, her aloha: “You give and you give and you give.”
Woman’s Love II
The boss pretends
not to see their love
yet he knows
Minufuri no / shujin ni koi o / shirarekeri
(BRZ 8: 153) Walking together in town, they are surprised to see and be seen by “the boss.” He is cool and says nothing, but her heart shrinks with haji – shyness, bashfulness, embarrassment. What he is thinking? Does he imagine her naked and doing IT? Or condemn her for making love without marriage? She clutches the handle so the umbrella covers as much as possible without any movements to attract his attention.
Miyawaki Masahiko, in Basho’s Verses of Human Affection, says, “Probably no other following stanza so well expresses the sense of shame felt when one’s love becomes known to others." Japan is a “shame culture” rather than a Judeo-Cristian “guilt culture.” Miyawaki is Japanese and writes about Japanese people, but what about us, women (or men) in all sorts of different cultures, with different perceptions of love, young or old, married or unmarried, do we, or did we long ago, feel “shame” (or whatever we call it) when, together with a sexual partner in a non-sexual situation, we are seen by an authority figure who gets the picture?
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There is such a special sweetness in being able to participate in Creation
Pamela S. Nadav
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.
This is the REAL Basho, the life-affirming Basho scholars neglect while they maintain their austere, impersonal, detached Basho image.
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“That divine nourishment – the source from which we all draw, like a mother's breast,
ever full and ever flowing." Sarah Buckley
(BRZ 8: 26, 27; Basho wrote both stanzas.) She emerges from the deep mud of paddy to nourish baby from her breasts. Her entire body is soiled and roughened by work, yet she tries to keep face clean and pretty, for baby to behold. She looks into baby’s open or closed eyes, praying that “you” escape the constant work and ever-present grime of village life to a brighter and more prosperous future.
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, and women’s dreams and hopes for children’s future, all wrapped up in five short lines.
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(Among the Minangkabu of Indonesia)
Since husbands go to live with their wives, it is men who experience the separation and loss that women face at marriage in so many other societies. Staying in place, daughters connect women to one another and to the ancestral land cultivated by generations of their maternal relatives.
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:
The ‘heart’s connection’ is a link between previous and added stanzas through the kokoro, or deep inner feelings, of the bride trained to be bashful, 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 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 in STANDING SCREEN SHADOW the heart’s connection 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 will continue 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 which Basho described as
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Life began with waking up and loving my mother's face.
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 can never resolve: the ordinary discomfort of life in a judgmental society.
Dare to dance, leave shame at home Native Hawai’ian proverb
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I feel that any woman who is in control, who is in touch with her femininity and sensuality, is a woman that is empowered. Shakira
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 enough to live on. 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.
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“Criticism of women’s intelligence, autonomy, and moral worth was essential to the total subordinatioof women that society demanded.”
Tokuza Akiko, The Rise of the Feminist Movement in Japan
Startled by clappers
a window in the thicket
for her life married
to a thief
Naruko odoroku / kata yabu no mado
Nusubito ni / tsuresou imo ga / mi o nakite
In this shack they feel threatened; they startle at the ordinary clatter of clappers in a rice-growing village to scare away hungry birds from ripening grain. They allow the trees and shrubs around the place to grow wild, so from the road only one window can be seen. Is that window an eye watching the road, armed and ready, to defend his freedom? Chosetsu portrays the masculine and anti-social; Basho looks rather at the female side of the gender coin. We imagine her anxiety over his occupation. When the clappers sound, she startles, wondering what will happen to her when ‘they’ come to take him. Basho cares about the suffering of women brought on by male deviance.
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Now through a field of riotous maiden flowers
I go untouched by any drop of dew
Suppose you too have a nap among the flowers
Then we may see how you resist their hues
The Tale of Genji
More than six centuries after Murasaki Shikibu, Basho leaving on a 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.
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Courtesans were ranked and graded from the top class who excelled in their appearance and artistic accomplishments to women sold cheaply for ten minutes at a time, called “single slice whores.”
Prostitution and Public Authority in Early Modern Japan
Women in this era did not ride on boats unless they worked there, 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.
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“I feel that chanting for thirty-five years has opened a door inside me,
and that even if I never chanted again, that door would still be there.
I feel at peace with myself.”
From Seifu’s fantasy of an angel caressing a spring of clear 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.
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"If I think more about death than some other people, it is probably because I love life more than they do."
The first poet portrays a woman’s hand writing in the flowing hiragana script of women her disappointment in love, then playing a further expression of regret in a stream of harp notes. From this blend of physical hand activity with emotion, music, and spirit, Basho evokes the icon of cherry blossoms, the physical activity of climbing a hill, and the grief of human relationships, yet leaves us free to explore the connection between the two stanzas within our own hearts.
Each year in this season, she comes here to climb the hill of her grief.
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“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong.
It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength
In 1689 Etsujin begins and Basho follows
The respiratory hoarseness of a cold adds a unique beauty to her voice. The words “sliding back” contain the physical feeling of this adolescent silently returning the tray with lunch she has no appetite to eat. With her immune system struggling to overcome the virus causing a cold, food will only make her feel worse. How remarkable that two men 330 years ago recorded the voice and experience of female adolescence. This is
anthropology. Teenage girls and young women will understand these verses better than I or any man can.
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For me, child, life has always been an endless unfolding:
night unfolding into day, girls unfolding into women,
women unfolding babies from themselves. Why, life itself
unfolds to death, and death unfolds to life again.
Basho blesses a newborn baby girl, his god-daughter:
Each spring as cherry blossoms fill the trees to fall in a shower of petals, you blossom into a young lady elegant in the 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, my child, for you live again and again as your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom-kimono.
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Basho’s several hundred poems about women, children, friendship, love, and compassion are the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in world literature. I plead for your help in finding a person or group to take over this outstanding feminist resource, to edit and improve the presentation, to receive all royalties from sales, to spread Basho’s wisdom worldwide and preserve for future generations.