Letters to  Uko

(A chapter from Take Back the Sun – Basho Tells Her Story  Translations and Commentary by Jeff Robbins Assisted by Sakata Shoko)

[Bold face is used for Basho’s own words]

Of the women in Basho’s circle the most fascinating is Uko who lived in Kyoto with her husband Boncho.  We have so much material about her to explore, and residents of Kyoto may appreciate that Uko walked on the same streets they navigate today. Basho wrote about her in his Saga Diary and he wrote the three letters to Uko full of personal details in this article. Also we have many of her haiku, seven of them given here. Here is my favorite of her haiku:


the sparkle of stars

night shower

Uko’s ordinary name was Tome. When she became a nun in 1691 she took the Buddhist name Uko, and this is the name she is known by. In the years from 1690 to 1693 when Basho and Uko corresponded, she was in her twenties or thirties, married to Boncho, a doctor in his forties.

A glimpse of Uko and Boncho at home in Kyoto can be seen in the following anecdote: one freezing, snowy night Boncho was about to leave for a poetry gathering, taking along a 12 year old servant boy. Uko spoke out:

Were this my child

no way would you take him!

snow in the night

A 17th century feminist haiku. Uko is threatening to show her husband her strength. (I think of Nancy with her fist in Fagin’s face, saying “No! You will not take Oliver!”)   It is said that “Boncho, awed and ashamed, went on alone.”

Historian Louis Perez translates these instructions from the contemporary moralist tract, Greater Learning For Women: “The great life-long duty of the woman is obedience… a woman should look on her husband as if he were Heaven itself and never weary of thinking how she may yield to her husband and thus escape celestial castigation.”

To this nonsense, Uko says “Not me!”

Our first Letter to Uko was written in late October, 1690:

Recently Old Boncho and Kyorai came to visit.  Although it must have been a bother to them, for so long we lingered, unable to part,
so you shall realize how unlimited was our joy.

 Once a man reaches forty, ro, “old,” is added to his name. I suspect   “Old Boncho” would not be so happy to see himself called this; but since this is a private letter to Uko, he will not know. Basho says that keeping company with him is a duty Boncho and Kyorai have taken on, so a bother to them. Of course he doesn’t really think this; he just says so for appearance (tatemae). How the Japanese love to prolong farewells. It is interesting how often the word ‘joy’ (yorokobi) appears in Basho’s writing.

This winter allow me to hide myself deep in the mountains, but when Spring comes again and again I shall be in your eyes.

To ‘hide myself in the mountains’ means to stay in his hometown of Iga –   not really in the mountains but in isolation, far from the well-traveled road to Kyoto where Uko lives. “Be in your eyes” is a Japanese idiom, but works in English.

I can hardly forget your long-standing benevolence, nor can I say enough about it.  Thanks to the clothing you made for me, I shall not be cold, so you need not worry about me. Let us wait, without misfortune, for Spring.

Yasui Masahiro says, Basho’s letters to women contain mostly short words in which we see a gentleness and humanity (yasashisa to ningenmi) not found in his letters to men. We feel he does not ‘lift his head’ – i.e. be arrogant and over- bearing – to a woman. He makes an impression with simple direct expressions. Take up any Basho letter to a woman and be touched by his unique charm.

Basho spent 18 days this summer in Kyoto and stayed at Uko and Boncho’s house: The following tanka appears in Basho’s letter:

                                          Each evening

                                          kettle surely boiling,

                                           how I miss

                                           those three pillows in

                                             the room where we slept

                                                       This is to you      


                                         [Yoi yoi wa kama tagiru-ran ne-dokoro no

                                            mitsu no makura mo koishi karikeri]

Basho recalls the tea ceremony Uko performed for her guest.   Basho scholar Kon Eizo 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 role 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 her houseguest, 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,’ , 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.”

The tanka focuses on Uko, praising her hospitality, her tea ceremony, the sleeping arrangements she made for her guest. Basho wrote many haiku praising the splendor of Kyoto’s temples and shrines, as well as yearning for Kyoto long ago, however here he praises the living humanity in Kyoto, the graceful serenity of his hostess, the intimacy of their friendship.

Two years before the writing of this letter, at the end of 1688, Uko wrote this haiku:

With no child,

of what shall I think?

the year ends

She sketches the unsettled feeling of a woman whose hormones seek pregnancy; in 1689 they won. (Old Boncho scored!)   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.  May you raise Tei-chan without misfortune. Yoshi from far away also says this to you.                                                                        

Basho politely addresses the infant as Tei dono — “Little Miss Tei”. However 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. There are three persons in this postscript, all female. Basho pays attention to the energy passing from one female to another. Basho writes ‘like a woman’, with consciousness of women, children, and personal relationships.

In the spring of 1691, Uko took the tonsure of a Buddhist nun – which in Japan means cutting the hair to shoulder-length — although she continued living with her husband and two year old child in a wealthy section of Kyoto. Bessho Makiko notes that many woman haiku poets became nuns – after the husband passed on. Uko is the only nun-wife with an infant daughter. (Say what?) Shoko, from reading Basho’s letters to Uko, gets the impression that Uko becoming a nun had little or nothing to do with Buddhism.   Being a nun gave a woman freedom to travel and interact with many people, but also Shoko suspects that Uko wanted to ensure that she would not get pulled into a relationship with another man if Boncho disappeared from her life—which does in fact happen in 1693. Boncho was quite enough.

I have a different idea. Uko became a nun because she did not want any more children. Sai-chan was quite enough. Officially sanctioned celibacy was the only way she could keep Boncho off of her.   He was in his forties and concerned about appearing “old” and she still young and vibrant. So Uko was not “really” a nun, it was just a disguise, a tatemae for appearance, as a means of contraception.

People want their cultivated chrysanthemums to be perfectly healthy for the Chrysanthemum Festival on the 9th Day of the 9th Moon (in 1691, October 29), when everyone goes around town admiring the many different colors and arrangement of this late autumn flower. It is a custom to wrap cotton around them in the days before the festival so they won’t catch cold.

Uko sent Basho a present, a cushion she designed and sewed to fit around his hips while he sits to keep them warm this coming winter. Basho’s replied on October 3, 1691.

With your letter came the cushion you made for my hips and sent to me from the intention of your heart, not from a shallow place within you, and so I am grateful. Now as we wrap chrysanthemums in cotton:

In the first frost

flowers start to feel cold,

my hip cushion

When finally I can go up to Kyoto I will thank you more.

We recall the tanka Basho wrote to Uko the preceeding year:           

Each evening
kettle surely boiling,
how I miss
those three pillows in
the room where we slept

Both the tanka and IN THE FIRST FROST contain warmth, intimacy, body consciousness, gratitude, and a feminine presence and outlook.

I would like to think Sai-chan is becoming obedient.

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).

p.s.     For the letter you sent to Chigetsu you have made me grateful. Gentle your heart’s intention, returning again and again.

         Chigetsu also knows that feeling.

Chigetsu, another woman follower of Basho, must have told Basho she got a letter from Uko. He praises the gentleness of woman, and also their solidarity. He seems to be building bridges between these two women followers.

Uko sent Basho a letter with two of her haiku; here is one:

Field in spring—

from which of the grasses

came this rash?

 Uko went walking through a field in spring, and got a skin rash. Her verse carries the mind from the vast field of miscellaneous grasses and shrubs to Uko‘s own body. As life emerges in the fields so do plant substances that cause allergic reactions in this season. The leaves of shrubs have prickles on them, and if you touch them, skin rash.

Uko’s other verse appears in Monkey’s Raincoat with this headnote:

I am weak and often sick and to trim my hair was too difficult, so this spring I changed the style.

Hairpins and comb

long ago – fallen petal

of the camellia

Uko begins with the beauty of her hair enhanced by ornamental pins and combs. But much of that hair is gone; the long black hair lies like a puddle on the ground around her – the way many, many red petals of a camellia blossom lie together in a damp clump around the tree. Cherry petals are light and just float away. Camellia petals are solid and chunky — the feeling of all that black hair on the floor.

Following are sections from Basho’s final Letter to Uko, dated February 23, 1693

            As for the two haiku you sent me, they do make the feeling enter.  I am glad to see your talent has not declined.

            Of the two, the verse FIELD IN SPRING made me see an image of the awful rash on your thin hands and legs.

Uko gives no indication of where on her body she got the rash, but Basho sees it specifically “on your thin hands and legs” — the parts of the body that come into contact with shrubs and wild growth as we walk through the field. Both in the haiku and in Basho‘s comment on it, we see much body consciousness. If Basho is so austere and monk-like, how come he ‘sees’ a woman‘s legs in imagination?

From your verse in Monkey‘s Raincoat people feel attracted. They ask me, ‘What sort of beauty is she? Is she ladylike?’

The readers of Monkey‘s Raincoat unfamiliar with Uko cannot tell from the headnote or the verse that she is a nun, and they think “A woman who writes a verse like this, how beautiful and ladylike she must be!” Shoko and I considered various alternatives before she suggested ‘ladylike’ for teijo. I am not exactly sure what “ladylike” means, but somehow it fits. If they knew she was a nun they would not ask this. Nuns have given up all concern for beauty and ladylikeness.

Some Japanese women nuns chose to live an austere Buddhist life, but Uko seems to be enjoying her ordinary life while being a nun. Basho is telling Uko that the readers of her verse feel her femininity, when what they should be feeling is her Buddhism.

 I reply, “She is not beautiful and she is not ladylike.  She became a nun only by the compassion in her heart.”  So discipline your heart to more and more compassion.

Basho‘s response is not to offend her. Remember she is pretending to be a nun without actually renouncing her sensuality. If Basho said Uko is beautiful, that would imply that her nun‘s disguise is not working; we can see through it. Uko, if we are going to pretend that you are a nun, we have to stop seeing you as a beautiful lady –although that is what you are, even without your hair. We have to maintain the tatemae. Although you are pretending to be a nun, in reality, you shall become ever more compassionate.

After he and Kyorai completed editing Monkey‘s Raincoat, Boncho got into a dispute with Basho and left the school – though as we see in this letter Basho continues to support Uko. Sometime around 1693 Boncho was convicted of a crime and imprisoned – whether he is in jail at the time of this letter is unclear.

If Boncho can manage would be good, one step in your favor. Impermanence so swift. And again.

Basho either means “I hope Boncho can stay out of jail” or “I hope he gets out soon.” Meanwhile Uko is on her own with a small child. Mujo junsoku, ‘Impermanence so swift’ is one of the grand central thoughts of the Japanese mind—that everything will pass away so soon. Basho writes it and follows with a repeat mark. Three years ago Uko was a doctor’s wife with a fine house and a tea cottage in a wealthy neighborhood of Kyoto; from now with Boncho in jail Basho realizes that Uko will become very poor. Even when he gets out, no one will go to a doctor who is a convicted criminal.

Sometimes the best part of a Basho letter is the p.s.

With those jerks in Nagoya, all lines appear to be down.  Much unfinished business.

Shoko says yatsubara domo, is a swear word, maybe the equivalent of   ‘those assholes‘– I think “jerks” is strong enough. Shirane describes how the Nagoya group were in 1684, “the primary force in first establishing the Basho style” but from 1691, “they turned their backs on Basho”, so by now “almost all the Owari/Nagoya group had become estranged from Basho.” Basho says communication with them is futsu, as when telephone lines are down after as storm or earthquake.

However, the hip cushion you sent me — this winter, I wrapped it around my head and it kept out the cold.

Part 2 of the p.s. is best of all. In the second letter to Uko,   Basho thanked her for the cushion she made and sent him to keep his hips warm while sitting – well, this winter; he liked wrapping it around his head. This is the real 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.

Uko wrote this haiku:

Within the toll

of the evening bell –

ho toto gi su

The bright five-note call of the little cuckoo, known as “time bird,” spreads through the vast and deep reverberation of the temple bell.   Uko hears one sound vibrate inside another sound, such is her sensitivity to the physical world.

Yoel Hoffman’s Japanese Death Poems includes this verse by a woman named Uko:

Take me now

where the clouds pass

hototo gi su

 The bird is said to call from the land of the dead, and to carry the dead spirit there.

The Uko who wrote this verse, however, is not the Uko of this article. From her birth date given in Hoffman’s book, we see she was an infant when Basho wrote these letters. Also it is recorded that she lived in Kyoto. It seems like that the author of this death-poem was Uko’s daughter Sai who signed it with her mother’s name.

Note from Jeff Robbins: I request your assistance in getting out the word on this ‘other Basho’ – the warm affectionate Basho who wrote hundreds of poems about women and kids, and hundreds more about friendship and love —   hundreds of Basho works few people know, yet the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in all literature?  Your feedback will be most appreciated.  Basho4now@gmail.com