Selection, Translations and Commentary by Jeff Robbins

Assisted by Sakata Shoko


Words of Basho, Kyorai, and Chine in bold to stand out

In this article we meet Kyorai, the second son of a doctor of Chinese medicine in Kyoto, born in 1651, and his fascinating yet retiring nine-year younger sister Chine (pronounced “Chee-neh”). When the father died, Kyorai’s older brother continued the medical practice. In the autumn of 1686, Kyorai took Chine on a pilgrimage from their home in Kyoto to the Ise Shrine, central shrine of the Sun Goddess.  The distance round-trip was about 200 miles, and apparently they walked the whole way, staying the nights in ryokan, or Japanese inns. Kyorai’s Ise Journal is an absolutely unnoticed gem, not only of literature but also of anthropology. As far as I can tell, it has never been translated, and even in Japanese is difficult to find. Most of the journal does appear in the biography Mukai Kyorai by Oichi Hatsuo and Wakaki Taiichi (Tokyo, Shinkyosha, 1986, pp. 34 ~ 41).                                                    

The journal consists of prose by Kyorai and haiku by both Kyorai and Chine. For this article, I have selected prose passages in which 35 year old Kyorai observes his 26 year old sister as she learns the world outside her parents’ house. Sensitive to her feelings, supporting her with positive energy, and paying attention to the poetry she writes (far better than his own), Kyorai transcends the patriarchal assumptions of his society to reveal the exuberant and playful heart of this young woman in 17th century Japan.

In Japan at this time young women were trained to stay quiet, smile, and nod to what the man says.  Historian Tokuza Akiko in the The Rise of the Feminist Movement in Japan (Tokyo: Keio University Press, 1999, p. 41) says “Criticism of women’s intelligence, autonomy, and moral worth was essential to the total subordination of women that society demanded.” A pretty grim prognosis, but Kyorai appears to have been an exception (as was Basho). Tokuza continues: “Parents thus protected their daughters’ chastity and morality by isolating them both from men and from rational and critical thought”. Chine’s parents however, allowed her to go on this journey,  and she seems quite capable of rational and critical thought. Anthropologists should take note.

In a prologue to Kyorai’s journal, Basho writes:

The first time I read this journal, my feelings awoke.
The second time, entranced by it, they were forgotten.
The third time, I realized how perfectly it is written.
This person Kyorai has fully traveled the path.

The Ise Journal begins:

The sun hot yet wind cool on our heads,
I take my younger sister on a pilgrimage to Ise.

Until Ise
such good companions,
morning geese

The genius of Chine’s verse is in the double meaning: “Kyorai and I are good companions” along with “wild geese are our good companions.” These birds spend the summer in Siberia then in autumn fly south to winter on the marshes of Japan; south is also the way from Kyoto to Ise. The feeling Chine has watching a flock of geese fly in the direction they are walking, and her feeling for her brother, become one. Chine’s spirit along with her brother’s take flight in the haiku.

Affection between adult brother and sister occasionally appears in old-time literature – Ophelia and Laertes in Hamlet, Sebastian and Viola in Twelfth Night – but the circumstances in these plays are extraordinary beyond belief. The brother-sister bond portrayed in the Ise Journal is unique in literature because it is so ordinary.

Kyorai and Chine stay at an inn, and Kyorai writes:

The innkeeper’s wife is such an uba. She turns her face toward us and shouts  “Fresh from the mortar! Before they cool down!” Chine cannot stop laughing.

Uba, “old woman” suggests a former wet-nurse, a rather earthy sort of woman (think Juliet’s Nurse). I love the sound of uba (rhymes with “tuba”) here. The innkeeper’s wife was making mochi rice cakes: kneading the mass of cooked rice in a mortar where her husband pounded it with a mallet, then molding into a cake with a surface soft and smooth as a baby’s bottom. At this time women used face powder containing white lead to fill in the wrinkles and obtain a mochi-hada, skin as smooth as mochi.

On behalf of the innkeeper Chine writes:

If you will not
remove that face powder,
when oh when
can we see the wrinkles                                                                                                        
in your uba mochi

Kyorai says it is the innkeeper’s job to advertise his wife’s rice cakes, but Chine does that job for him in her tanka. Chine uses the classical poetic form for her hilarious look into women’s concern for their aging skin. Change uba mochi to “old woman’s skin,” and you will see what 26 year old Chine is saying to this uba in her fifties or sixties. Shoko comments that Chine’s verse is onna-rashiku, “womanly, feminine.” I, like Chine, cannot stop laughing.

For the following night, Kyorai writes:

This being Chine’s first time away from the realm of our parents, in sympathy with her upset, I say what I can to divert her.

Kyorai actually pays attention to his sister’s mind and heart. Where else in male literature is there such a record of male consideration for a woman who is not his mother or romantic interest? Basho seems to have had much affection for his seven-year-younger sister Oyoshi – since he often mentions her by name in his letters – so he could easily appreciate Kyorai’s feeling for Chine. If you too have a younger sister, you may also feel as they did.

Another night, another inn:

In a house across the way, young and old women  gather to hull rice while singing until late night, with the door open, we hear them.

 At each lodging
the rice-hulling songs
are different

On her first journey, Chine learns of human diversity— that people only one day apart do the same work, to different songs. Her verse is anthropology in its purest form. A standard anthropologist would record the location and lyrics to each song, but Chine summarizes her conclusions in one concise observation.

Beside a river near Ise where Basho wrote of women washing the tuber taro in the flowing water, Chine wrote                                    

Put in water
hands better be wiped,
the autumn wind

Chine is so fundamental, so sensory, so conscious of her body: where skin is wet, how the wind penetrates! In our time we provide warm water to many people, yet the hundreds of millions of women in the temperate zone who work in unheated water may be able to appreciate Chine’s hands’ awareness of the need to wipe well with a dry cloth, so they can endure the work for decades of the four seasons.

Chine’s haiku about her hands has an ally in an early spring haiku by another Basho woman follower, Chigetsu:

Hands stopped
by the bush warbler
kitchen sink

The bush warbler sings in February when the weather is still very cold, and the well water a woman used to wash dishes is especially chilly. The lovely call of the bird takes her consciousness away from her hands, and without consciousness, they stop moving.

Hands also appear in a haiku another woman follower, Uko, writting about her small daughter Sai:

I shall breathe
on your frostbit hands —
big ball of snow

She breathes warmth on her daughter’s red and inflamed hands. Mom and Sai-chan rolled the ball of snow together.   These three woman poets follow their teacher in his frequent focus on body parts and the sensations and activities of these parts. (See Article F-2 HANDS in Basho4Now.)

Kyorai and Chine arrive in the part of Ise where the Grand Shrine is.

We change our clothes and fix our hair then with deep respect go to visit the Inner Shrine. Our eyes could not be parted from the scene…

It is not appropriate to wear dirty travel clothes or loose hanging hair when visiting the home of the Sun Goddess.

In the evening we buy souvenirs for everyone and so it became night.

Just like their descendants traveling today, Kyorai and Chine buy souvenirs for the folks at home. Here ends our time within Kyorai’s journal.

Chine’s journey with her brother was her final fling before marriage. She had one daughter in 1687, but in the summer of 1688 when Basho was in Kyoto, he learned that Chine was gravely ill, possibly from complications from her second pregnancy. Her brother used all his medical skill, but still she passed away.

Chine’s jisei no ku or “farewell to life” poem was:

Easily glows
and easily goes out
a firefly

Kyorai responded to his sister with:

On my palm                                                                                                                      
sadly goes out
the firefly

Simple words to express Chine’s humility and Kyorai’s grief.

While in Gifu I hear that Chine has passed away so I send these words to the home of Kyorai.

Now the house robe
of the one who is gone —
airing in the heat

Clothing gets musty in the warm moist summer, so one sunny day everything is hung outside to “air in the heat.” Basho cannot be with Kyorai’s family in their grief, but he sends them an image which transcends the distance between Gifu and Kyoto. One of Chine’s kosode, a simple kimono for household wear, is being kept as a memento and is hanging outside with the rest of the family’s clothing. The traces of Chine’s being linger in the fabric she wore, gently dispersing in the warm breeze.

The trio of her death-verse, her brother’s response, and Basho’s ode to her existence form a testament to the warm feelings among these three people. Chine’s laughter resounds through the centuries.  May her light continue to shine in our thoughts.

Jeff will be running a workshop on Oct 28 from 2.00-5.00 at Ryukoku University, Omiya campus, sponsored by WiK and Kansai SWET. For details, please see the top righthand column. Jeff’s previous articles for this website on Basho include Kyoto vs. Home, New Year BashoBasho’s Letters to Uko, Basho in Saga and Basho in Zeze.
For an interview with him about his work, see here.

Jeff writes: “Basho’s several hundred poems about women children, friendship, love, and compassion, are almost unknown in Japan and in the West, yet I believe the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in world literature.

Here a few Basho4Now articles [see below] which relate to themes in The Life and Death of Chine:
On a Journey – 10 Basho haiku, 10 renku, 6 haibun, and 3 letters about the nature of traveling
Women at Work – 12 Basho haiku and 13 renku about the labor of Asian women
Anthropology in Basho — 6 Basho haiku, 15 renku, 5 letters about human nature and behavior

I ask for your help in finding a person or group to take over my 3000 pages of Basho translations and commentary, to edit and clarify, to receive all royalties, to spread Basho’s works on humanity worldwide and preserve for future generations.”