Bashō, Spring 1678

The Captain-General too
Kneels before
His Imperial Majesty in Spring

Kabitan mo/  tsukubawakeri/   kimi ga haru

甲比丹もつ  くばはせけり   君が春

Dutch_tribute_embassy_to_Edo 

Tsukubawakeri

According to Japanese legend, thousands of years ago a deity descended from the heavens and asked both Mount Fuji and Mount Tsukuba to offer themselves as a place to spend the night. Proud and arrogant Mount Fuji said that it was already at a peak of perfection and didn’t require any other blessings. Thus, it refused.

Mount Tsukuba, on the other hand, thought of nothing but being a good host. So, it offered itself as a place of rest, giving the deity its trees as cover, its nuts and fruit as food, and streams as water. This is why, as the story goes, Mt. Fuji is cold and stark while Mount Tsukuba is always covered in beautiful foliage.

Spring 1678

Matsuo Basho’s poetry was an extension of the art form of haikai-no-renga. This is a group activity in which each participant displays wit by spontaneously composing a verse in response to the verse that came before; the simpler the two verses, the more interesting the images, the more impressive the poet’s ability.

As a young man, Matsuo served the family of Todo Shinshichiro, a samurai general in charge of the Iga region where Basho was born. He attended the young Todo Yoshitada, who wrote verse in the renga style. Yoshitada died at the young age of 28 and Basho, now freed of his obligation, moved on, continuing his interest in poetry. Matsuo Bashō studied under the likes of Kigin Kitamura in Kyoto before moving to Edo in 1672. By the spring of 1678, he had moved up through literary circles, receiving instruction from Nishiyama Sōin, who founded the Danrin school (談林派, literally talkative forest).

Bashō became the tree that towered over the forest.

Kabitan mo/  tsukubawakeri/   kimi ga haru

This haiku, that uses the Dutch Captain General as a subject, is perhaps a tongue in cheek reference to himself, Bashō paying due to those that came before him and taught him the art of haiku.

Two years later in 1680, Bashō would complete the break and move to Fukagawa on the forlorn eastern bank of the Sumida River. There he took on his well-known haigō, “Bashō” taken from the banana tree given to him by a student.

Notes on Japanese translation

甲比丹 kapitan, captain general, likely derived from the original Portuguese and later Dutch term for the head the head of a trading company in Japan
mo, also
kanji lord, ruler
haru, spring, springtime

君が春
kimi ga haru, I am not sure I am happy with my translation of “His Imperial Majesty in Spring”. There is some semblance with the Japanese word Kimigayo, which is usually translated as “His Imperial Majesty’s Reign”. This is the former Japanese National Anthem based on a poem from the Heian Period (794–1185). The first lines of the poem (Kimigayo wa, Chiyo ni yachiyo ni) are roughly translated as “Thousands of years of happy reign be thine.”

Saddle my horse, uma ni kura

The Dutch too are coming,
To see the flowers blossom,
Saddle my horse

阿蘭陀も 花に来にけり 馬に鞍

Oranda mo/ hana ni ki ni keri/ uma ni kura

A Close Encounter of a Dutch Kind

In a closed society (sakoku, 鎖国), as Japan was, strangers would elicit a curious look.

The Dutch with their bearded faces and yellow hair would have been doubly strange to the Japanese. Not quite a close encounter of a third kind, but alien no less.

Since 1633, the Shogun in Edo had banned foreigners from entering Japan and Japanese from traveling abroad. Only the Dutch were permitted a trading post in Nagasaki harbor on the small island of Deshima (Dejima). The island was ” 82 ordinary steps in width and 236 in length through the middle,” according to Engelbert Kaempfer who spent two years there with the Dutch East India Company.  The Japanese were still curious about western ways and each spring, the Dutch brought tribute to the Shōgun in Edo, bringing news of the world and bearing gifts: weapons, clocks, telescopes, medicines and rare animals.

It must have been quite a spectacle.

Dutch_tribute_embassy_to_Edo

[From Engelbert Kaempfer: The History of Japan (1727), based on observations made between 1690 and 1692 with the Dutch East India Company. Image Wikipedia.]

Hanami

The Dutch trip to Edo occurred in April when Japan was in the midst of its Hanami festival  (花見, flower viewing festival). We associate this festival with the well-known cherry  blossoms (桜 sakura), but they would have also included flowering plum.

Notes on translation

阿蘭陀 Oranda, Holland, The Dutch
mo, too, also
hana, flower
馬に鞍, uma ni kura, saddle my horse, literally put the saddle on my horse

Important Sources

Matsuo Basho – WKD Archives
Cherry Blossom Epiphany, page 145
Dutch Encounters, excerpt from Kaempfer’s observations