Thursday, August 1, 2013

Poetic Musings: Kasane Tanka by Matsuo Basho

Spring passes by
again and again in layers
of blossom kimono
may you see wrinkles
come with old age

Iku haru o/ kasane gasane no/ hana-goromo/ shiwa yoru made no/ oi mo miru beku

Matsuo Basho
trans. by Jeff Robbins and Sakata Shoko

A "blossom kimono" is an exquisite robe worn just once a year to view cherry blossoms, then folded up and stored away until the next cherry blossom celebration. The spatial and temporal meanings of Kasaneru overlap in a web of blessing and hope for Kasane and all female children. "Layers of kimono" can refer to the two-layered kimono over an inner robe; the succession of blossom kimono one woman wears from bright to sedate as she ages; and the passing of the kimono to her daughter, who is the next layer of herself. Both the kimono and her face also have "wrinkles." By encapsulating the existence of one woman from newborn to wrinkles, the tanka is an ode to life.

-- excerpted from Jeff Robbins and Sakata Shoko's "Two Tanka by Basho," Ribbons, 9:1, Spring/Summer 2013

Only a few comprehensive Basho anthologies, such as  Nihon Koten Bungaku Zenshu volume 71 (p. 284-85), include Basho’s tanka above. Written in 1690, this poem is the concluding tanka of Basho's haikai prose , entitled Blessings unto Kasane.

During my pilgrimage to the Deep North,
in one of the villages was a little girl
who looked no more than five years old.
She was so small and indescribably charming
that I asked her name, and she said “Kasane”.
What an interesting name!
In Kyoto rarely is it heard
so I wonder how has it has passed down
and what is that “layers, again and again”?

“If I had a child this name she would receive,”
I remember saying in jest to my traveling companion
and now, unexpectedly, through an acquaintance
I have been called on to be Name-giving Parent.

Spring passes by
Again and again in layers
Of blossom-kimono
May you see wrinkles
Come with old age

Matsuo Basho

(translated by Jeff Robbins. For more information about this poem, see A Message of Hope For Women and Girls: Matsuo Basho‘s Blessings unto Kasane, Translations and Commentary by Jeff Robbins with assistance from Sakata Shoko)

The story described in the opening lines is recorded in Basho’s famous travel writing, The Narrow Road to the Deep North:

I knew someone in a place called Kurobane in Nasu, and I decided to take a short cut from Nikko straight across the broad plain. We happened to notice a village in the distance as rain began to fall and the sun set. Lodging for a night at a farmer’s house, at daybreak we headed off again over the plain. A horse stood grazing in a field. We sought assistance from a man cutting grass and though he was a rustic, he was not without compassion. “Hmm, let’s see here. The plain is criss-crossed with trails and somebody unfamiliar with the right way is bound to get lost -- that’s a real problem -- say, why don’t you take this horse as far as he’ll go and just send him back,” and he lent us the horse. Two children came running along behind the horse. One was little girl named Kasane, a truly elegant name I’d never heard before.

must be a name for
a double-petalled pink
kasane to wa / yaenadeshiko no / na narubeshi (Sora)

Soon we made it to a village, and tying some money to the saddle, I sent the horse back.

(trans. by David Landis Barnhill, see Basho’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Basho, Translated with an Introduction by David Landis Barnhill, p. 52)

According to Basho’s account above, the little girl’s name, “Kasane,” inspired Sora to write the haiku above. Nadeshiko is a small plant known as pink, usually associated with little girls. As kasane means “layers” or “double,” Sora made a wordplay by adding a prefix “yae-“ (literally “eightfold”) to nadeshiko. But, there is no such flower called (Double Pink).


  1. Ordinarily not a name, kasaneru is an active verb that means "to pile up in layers, one on top of another." In the dimension of time, Kasaneru means "to reoccur, again and again, in succession."

    -- excerpted from Jeff Robbins and Sakata Shoko's "Two Tanka by Basho," Ribbons, 9:1, Spring/Summer 2013, (p. 67)

  2. A formal kimono is a two-layer silk robe worn over an
    under robe, meticulously folded and tucked around the body
    in flat, even layers. The colors and pattern are chosen in
    harmony with the woman‘s age. A .blossom-kimono. for a
    girl entering womanhood might be a soft pink with bold
    cherry blossom design on the lower portion. A thick brocade
    sash of a darker contrasting color encircles her waist. The
    red inner robe shows at the neckline, and where the left side
    of the skirt covers the right, margins of the kimono lining
    appear and disappear as she walks.

    -- excerpted from see A Message of Hope For Women and Girls: Matsuo Basho‘s Blessings unto Kasane, Translations and Commentary by Jeff Robbins

  3. I just received a copy of the 5th Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum English Haiku Submission Collection; on p. 39, I was surprised to find the following haiku by Jeff Rosenspan

    Girl in a story
    Sunshine and cherry blossoms
    Wishes she were real

    If Basho were alive and could read English, he would have told Jeff that "yes, she was real and her name was Kasane."