Tag Archives: Women haikai poets

Sutejo, Tsuki no katsura

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading texts related to Sutejo. Since she became a very active and serious nun after her husband died, most of it is full of Buddhist terms I don’t understand well at all.

Anyway, here’s a verse:

it’s made the the leaves drop
from moon’s sweet-olive tree —
winter rains

tsuki no katsura fuyugaresasuru shigure kana

While katsura is typically translated as “cassia” (Cinnamomum cassia), the tree on the moon is what they call in the American South “sweet-olive,” otherwise known as osmanthus (Osmanthus fragrans), an evergreen plant which blooms in the autumn with a distinctive, heady scent. It’s associated with the legend of Wu Gang 吳剛, whose arrogance was punished by setting him the task of chopping down the sweet-olive tree on the moon. Sadly for Wu Gang, the tree there is self-repairing, so whenever he finishes, he has to start all over again.

Print by Japanese artist Yoshitoshi, showing the legendary woodcutter Wu Gang pointing at the moon.

In Sutejo’s verse, the speaker conjectures that the clouds of winter’s intermittent rain (shigure) now covering the moon have surely also caused the tree to lose its leaves. This comes from a belief that shigure caused leaves to change color.

Print by Yoshitoshi, late 19th c. Public domain.


Sutejo, Nure iro ya

Another Sutejo hokku:

glittering with jewels —
rain drops 
on the princess azalea 

nure iro ya ame no shita teru hime tsutsuji 



Like the previous verse, this is from Kitamura Kigin’s anthology. I have been looking around for “hime tsutsuji” (what I’ve translated as Princess Azalea) but beyond descriptions of it being small and dainty, I don’t know what it’s called in English, or Latin for that matter.

There is word play here — “shita teru” to fall, as of rain or dew, can be read together with “hime” to recall the name of the divinity Shitateru-hime, who is mentioned in Kojiki.

Teimon haikai used a lot of word play, especially with homonyms. They tended to be a bit intellectual, like this one.


Sutejo, Mizu kagami

Today–a hokku by Sutejo 捨女 (1634-1698).

gazing into mirroring water,
eyebrows drawn gracefully —
riverside willow

mizu kagami mite ya mayu kaku kawa yanagi

Is the one gazing into the water a human speaker, or is it an anthropomorphized willow tree?

In Tang China, the eyebrows of beautiful women were described as having  the shape of willow leaves. Willow  trees in general were associated with desirable women, as the supple shape of their branches suggest pliability and modesty. Sutejo’s verse alludes to this analogy.

In “Song of Everlasting Regret” 長恨歌, the Bo Juyi 白居易 poem that was much admired in premodern Japan, the Emperor is reminded of his beloved by lotus blossoms and willows:

the lotus [blossoms] were like her face, the willow [leaves] were like her eyebrows

I wasn’t aware of the “willow leaf” ideal. I had heard of the “moth antennae” analogy, but the willow leaf shape is considerably different; a lot closer to modern beauty standards.

Letters 2: Bashô 1690

The image shows a kana variant for まいらせ候

Part of my occasional Letters series. This one is from Bashô to his disciple Ukô 羽紅, who was married to one of his most famous disciples, Bonchô 凡兆. One of the things that’s immediately striking about this letter is that it’s written largely in kana (syllabary) in deference to Ukô being female. There are some other interesting points, but read on.

To: Madame Otome
From: Bashô

PS Please take good care of Miss Sai. I also send my appreciationr to Yoshi for her kindness over the years.

The other day Kaseirô 加生老 and Kyorai stopped by for a visit, and while it was a great effort for them do so, I was sorry they had to leave, feeling unbounded happiness. I am spending the winter hidden away deep in the mountains. When spring comes, I hope I may come to visit you again. It is difficult to express in words the unforgettable kindness you have long shown to me. The clothes were well-made; I am sure I will never be cold. Please do not worry about me. Please look forward to the spring in good health.

surely you keep
the kettle boiling for tea
night after night —
how I miss our three pillows
side by side in the sleeping room!


1) In premodern Japan, women made the clothes their husbands and children wore. From this letter, we learn that that Bashô (who did not marry) had clothes made for him by the women in his male disciple’s families.
2) Bashô is famous for his hokku, but here he expresses his appreciation in a waka. Like the kana, I presume this is a courtesy to his female recipient.
3) The print version of the letter I am using, 注解芭蕉書簡集 (Annotated Bashô Letters Anthology) by Abe Kimio 阿部喜三男  (1952) uses the fabulous ligature for “mairase sourou” (I go), see below. I don’t think there is Unicode for this character.

Ligature mairasesoro.gif

Tricky epistolary forms:

尚〻(尚尚) PS
御みまひ (they) came for a visit
御大儀 an inconvenience (for them)
ぞんじまいらせ候 (I) thought/felt
御めにかかり申すべく候 (I) intend to meet (you)
申しつくしがたき候  it is difficult to exhaust (my) expression (to you)
御こしらへ (you) made
御座あるまじく候 (I think) it will probably not exist…
御きづかい被成まじく候  (if you) please do not worry about (me)