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Haiku -- Matsuo Basho

Since it's that time of year...
(Poem #56) Haiku
scent of plum blossoms
on the misty mountain path
a big rising sun
-- Matsuo Basho
(For an exposition on the haiku form, see the Minstrels, poem #23
(another Basho))

We're in the middle of cherry blossom season here in Japan, and the
country is going through its annual bout of spring fever. To understand
why, it helps to know a bit of Japanese history...

In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu put an end to several hundred years of constant
fighting among Japan's feudal (and feuding) lords, and established
himself as the first Shogun (I think the word means
'commander-in-chief', but I'm not sure). This marked the beginning of
the Edo period of Japanese history - although the Emperor still
nominally ruled the country from his palace in Kyoto, the real power was
centred in the eastern city of Edo (modern day Tokyo).

During the Edo period, the upper classes were bound by a rigid code of
honour. The heads of noble families (the 'daimyo') were obliged to spend
half of every year in Edo, and the other half in their personal fiefs;
their wives and children, however, were forced to remain in the capital,
courtesy the 'hospitality' of the Shogun. The ruinous expenditures of
shifting residence every six months, coupled with the fact that their
families were virtual hostages of the ruler, meant that the daimyo were
never able to mount a successful challenge against the authority of the
Shogun, and the system remained stable (and completely isolated from the
outside world) for over 250 years.

It was during this period that the Samurai rose to prominence.
Originally the armed retainers of the daimyo, it was recognized (most
shrewdly, by the Shoguns) that they were the real wielders of power in
what was essentially a medieval society. The Samurai developed their own
code of honour, in which loyalty and stoicism played prominent roles;
this code has survived virtually unchanged to this date, and it forms an
important part of modern Japanese society and culture.

So, where does the sakura feature in all of this? Over time, the humble
cherry blossom became a symbol of the Samurai and their code - starkly
beautiful, short-lived, and glorious in death. When the Shogunate was
finally overthrown in 1868 and the Emperor Meiji was restored to the
throne, cherry trees all over Japan were cut down - the Emperor (a
modernising nationalist) wanted no reminders of the feudal past to
remain. Today, though, the sakura tree has regained its place in the
national consciousness, and every spring, the Japanese indulge
themselves in an orgy of celebration when the delicate pink blossoms
finally make their appearance after a cold and bare winter. The time is
right to go to a park, spread out a mat, drink sake, and do hanami
('hana' = flower, 'mi' = see).

You know what? I think I'll do just that, come the weekend :-)

thomas.

PS. For those of you utterly beyond redemption, here's the Japanese
original:

ume ga ka ni
notto hinoderu
yamaji kana

PPS. I think I digressed a bit from the actual 'poetic' content of
today's haiku. Suffice to say that I find it intensely evocative - the
image in my mind is that of saffron-clad Buddhist monks in a temple as
old as the hills, ringing a deep gong to welcome the sunrise, while
pilgrims from afar walk up the mountain paths through a carpet of fallen
blossoms...

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saffron-clad Buddhist monks in a temple as
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