From Kwaidan to Basho
Selection, Translation, and Commentaries by Jeff Robbins
Those reading this article are probably familiar with Lafcadio Hearn’s life and writings, especially since this website has recently carried articles about him. Here are two legends told by Hearn in his famous collection of supernatural tales Kwaidan, which may (or may not) have been the source of particular Basho verses.
The Legend of Uba-zakura, the ‘Wet-Nurse’s Cherry Tree,’ which is older than Basho’s time, originated in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku; Basho’s mother came from this province, so it is possible she told it to him when he was a child, a tale from the faraway place where mama lived when she was a child.
Basho’s parents must have wanted children very much because they had six of them – two boys and four girls, all of whom reached adulthood. Anthropologist Sarah Hardy says, “Without nutritionally fortified baby formulas and sterile water to mix with them, the availability of breast milk has always been the single most important predictor of infant survival.” In upper class Japanese families, it was not the mother’s role to feed her child. To ensure the life of the baby (especially if he was the oldest son and future heir) families hired uba, or wet-nurses. Often an uba might bring her own baby into the house, and the two babies would grow up together and might even become lifelong companions. Such a woman often stayed on with the family to nurse later infants and care for the growing children. (Likewise in 19th century England, novelist Jane Austen was the seventh child in her family to nurse from one uba.)
Historian Gary Leupp, in Servants, Shophands and Laborers in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan (1994), translates from the popular author Iihara Saikaku, an almost exact contemporary of Basho:
“Wet-nurses were especially well fed, and their behavior was carefully supervised, to ensure the quality of milk (given to the future heir). Even their food is special: for breakfast every morning, aside from flying fish and mackerel with their white rice gruel, their diet changes every day….The wet-nurse’s duties were taxing, allowing her little free time or privacy. She was expected to watch over the infant all night, noting the number of diaper changes. Three times a day she applied the Five Medicinal Fragrances.”
The Legend of the Wet-Nurse’s Cherry Tree
An old childless couple appealed to the gods at the local temple, Tosai-ji (a short walk from Matsuyama Station) and were blessed with a daughter. An uba breastfed the infant, and after weaning, was her attendant. The girl grew up in beauty until at age 15 she became fatally ill. The uba went to the temple and beseeched the gods, “spare the child, take me instead”. The gods accepted, the girl got better and the old woman faded. Before she died she told the parents of her bargain with the gods and asked them to fulfill the promise she made to plant a cherry tree in the temple garden in gratitude for the child’s life. They did, and the tree prospered for 254 years. Each spring, on the anniversary of the uba’s death, the tree came into glorious full bloom. Hearn says “The flowers were always pink and white like the breasts of a woman full of milk.” We notice how feminine-positive the legend is. The little girl is loved and cherished, the uba a paragon of kindness and altruism.
In 1664, when he was just 20, Basho wrote:
of the uba — in old age
The standard interpretation of this haiku posits that uba zakura is one species of cherry tree, and the verse concerns an old man recalling his glorious youth. Another interpretation takes it to mean “a faded beauty,” an old woman who recalls her days (and nights) or youthful elegance under cherry blossoms. The interpretation here, in accord with the legend, takes the uba in uba-zakura to actually be a wet-nurse. The memories may be of the babe at her breast, the child playing merrily, the teenager getting sick, the prayer to the gods that saved her life. Or Basho may be ‘sketching’ his family’s uba with baby Basho – or maybe his little sister Oyoshi, a baby nursing when seven-year old Basho first became aware of the world. Or it can be a sketch of any woman who can remember breastfeeding. All these feminine memories are seen and felt in the gorgeous cherry blossoms filling the tree with pink and white, like the milky nipples long ago.
In the legend the uba’s job was to care for the infant/child/teenager and she gave her life to do so. The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet however, instead messed things up. Her astonishingly verbose speech in Act I is inspired comedy. Only four teeth remain to her, but she has plenty of memories, and speaks of them profusely in iambic pentameter; she tells how she weaned Juliet (“it”) at age three:
For I had then laid wormwood to my dug. . .
When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!
“Dug” is properly used for the nipple of an animal, but Juliet’s Nurse is a rather earthy type of woman. I too would get “tetchy” – touchy, peevish – if someone put yucky oil of wormwood in my mouth when I was expecting warm sweet uba milk from the dug.
Juliet’s Nurse compliments her teenage mistress, “I would say thou hadst suck‘d wisdom from my teat”
Modern pediatric research has shown the Nurse spoke true. A Harvard University study of 1000 women found that each month of breastfeeding up to one year improved language skills at age 3 and intelligence at age 7. The lead author of the study, Dr. Mandy Belfort, emphasizes that breastfeeding is only one of many factors building intelligence. She notes that more research is needed to determine whether the boost is caused by nutrients in the milk or interaction between mother and baby. I say both.
The uba dies in the legend, so we finish this section with a suitable single stanza of Basho renku:
Kite string cut —
soul of the milk-giver
soars to heaven
The vivid physical image of a kit string cut, a bond being broken, the kite floating off to the vastness of space, flows into the spiritual image of the nurse parting from the living earth.
The Legend of Green Willow
A samurai on a journey overtaken by storm and night, takes shelter in a cottage. Here live an old couple and a maiden named Green Willow as graceful as a sapling. They fall in love and marry to live happily for five years — until suddenly one day Green Willow cries out in pain, saying she will now die. Someone has taken an axe to the willow tree which is her heart, its sap her life blood.
Her whole form appeared to collapse in the strangest way, and to sink down, down — level with the floor. Tomotada sprang to support her, but there was nothing to support! There lay on the matting only the empty robes of the fair creature and the ornaments that she had worn in her hair: the body had ceased to exist
Tomotada shaved his head to wander about offering prayers for her salvation. Returning to the cottage, he found three willows stumps remaining, two old and gnarled, and a sapling cut down long ago.
reaching to the mud
of low tide
Scholars say a willow tree on the riverbank has some of her branches ending underwater, but now at low tide, these reach down to mud. If the verse is merely a “nature verse,” this interpretation may be sufficient – however perhaps we can find a more interesting interpretation along a personal, feminine path. Willows in Japan are always associated with the young female. If we allow “Green Willow” to be the young woman in the legend, we can spend some time with her slender graceful youthful form at low tide reaching down for a shell stranded in the mud, a shell containing a creature full of protein, minerals, and omega 3 fatty acids. If we search for humanity in Basho’s works, we find it.
We can also meet the female Green Willow in linked verse with Basho’s stanzas in bold:
Green willow her hips
and hair like willows
wind through the pines
also is yearning
Both hips and hair, as slender and flexible as willow branches covered with young green leaves swaying sensually in the wind; a most gorgeous female image. Basho, now 22 years old, chooses to have this young willowy woman waiting for a lover who may never show. Notice the contrast between willow beauty and unfulfilled desire so intense it overflows self to fill the wind with longing.
Here Basho wrote the first and third stanzas:
“Weak as green willow”
the wife is despised —
‘Path of blood’
her day by day misery
in the spring rain
She drops a tea bag
in steam from her chest
Willow branches are pliant and flexible, submissive to every breeze, so we may think them weak. Women too are flexible, and in a patriarchal society expected to submit to every male desire. Men admire strength and rigidity, despising the flexibility of willows or women, as they despise the ‘path of blood’ from women’s reproductive organs, and also the sickness that comes with bleeding. During her period the long spring rains make this woman feel weaker and more shameful. For some relief, she boils the herbal tea bag in the steam rising from her inflamed heart.
As a man without experience of menstrual disease, I cannot comment on the female experience in these stanzas – however I can see that the poets had some experience of their mothers or sisters with the “path of blood,” and chose to put these experiences into their poetry – and this, to me, seems unique in world literature.
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Jeff Robbins email@example.com