Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Second Chance at Life-"The Moss at Tokeiji"

As anyone who is familiar with Japanese history will know, the lot of women during the era of warrior rule was not always a pleasant one. Arranged political marriages resulted in relationships that were often loveless, and relationships between the parties to the arrangement meant that a woman's status could change in an instant. The loss of a husband could also put the woman at the mercy of her in-laws. Lacking many of the protections women enjoyed in the Heian era, women such as Oda Nobunaga's sister Oichi endured tragic lives. Oichi's husband Azai Nagamasa committed suicide after being defeated by her brother Nobunaga. Forced into another political marriage, her new husband Shibata Katsuie was forced to follow suit (with Oichi joining him) at the hands of Hashiba (Toyotomi) Hideyoshi. However, there were a handful of alternatives for these women, particularly during the Edo period. A woman in an abusive relationship or simply on the run from a husband could enter a so-called 'divorce temple' and receive sanctuary, being put beyond the reach of her husband. After two to three years of religious training such a woman could receive a divorce, with many returning to their birth families and even remarrying. One of the most famous 'divorce temples' that gave women a second chance at life was Tokei-ji in Kamakura. Founded by Kakusan Shido, the widow of regent Hojo Tokimune (the regent who dealt with the Mongol invasions of Japan) in 1285, the temple was called the 'run-in' temple and continued to serve in this capacity until 1901 when the convent was converted into a monastery. "The Moss at Tokei-ji" is a collection of short prose pieces called "haibun" by several women poets paying homage to the over 600 years of the temple's history and the protection it afforded to women. The book is a labor of love by co-editors Lidia Rozmus and Carmen Sterba, and the care and thoughtfulness put into its preparation, execution, and design shine through.

From a design standpoint, the book reflects the best features of the Japanese aesthetic. It can best be described as simple and elegant. Nature views taken at the temple by Mamoru Luke Sterba Yanka illustrate the page edges, providing a subliminal boost to the prose within. The editors have included a very helpful glossary that will be invaluable to those new to haibun. Among other things, it explains the concept of 'seasonal words' and definitions of the different art forms. There's a short history of Tokeiji that one would have liked to seen expanded. There are biographies of all the authors and a selection of books intended for further reading-a solid variety of scholarly works devoted to both history and the arts.

The book collects 11 haibun (defined by the book as "a short prose piece with one or more haiku") penned by some of the better known women in the field of Japanese poetry. Authors include Margaret Chula, Patricia Donegan, Abigail Friedman, the late Kayoko Hashimoto, Masako Kokutami, Patricia J. Machmiller, Emiko Miyashita, Lidia Rozmus, Carmen Sterba, Nanae Tamaura, and Ikuyo Yoshimura. The educational credentials and publishing history of these ladies are impressive to say the least, and gives the book much credibility before a page is turned. Each of the haibun shares the author's impressions of Tokeiji, with an excellent variety of approaches. Some such as "Sasanqua" (Miyashita) or "Tokeiji Temple" (Donegan) revolve around a visit to the temple and the feelings and introspection it arouses in the author, while others such as "Regina of the Clouds" (Friedman) seemingly have nothing to do with the temple at first glance (detailing the author's friendship with a self-destructive young woman). Others like "Tokeiji Temple-Soothing the Spirit" (Kakutani) and "A Safe Place To Run To" (Sterba) address the history of the temple. Of course, many of the pieces combine these approaches to one degree or another. Perhaps our favorite was "Reveries of the Water Moon Kannon" (Chula), a selection that stretches from pre-WWII Japan through the Edo period to the Kamakura era and is written from the viewpoint of the Bodhisattva Kannon as she observes some of the many women who sought shelter at Tokeiji. Some of the haibun have multiple haiku and some contain Japanese versions of the poems. While the road taken by each of the authors vary, the destination always proves to be the temple of Tokeiji and the women it served.

The haiku (the popular 'three line' poems of Japan) encapsulate and underline the prose, giving it added depth and another layer of feeling. As with poetry in general, exploring the different interpretations and what the author might have meant for them to say is a major part of the enjoyment in reading the haiku. Offerings such as

near the gate
spiderweb catching the sunlight-
no master around

from "The Spiderweb" (Rozmus) are both obvious and subtle in their implications, allowing the book to work well as an introduction to haiku for neophytes as well as food for thought for longtime poets. The haibun dealing with seasons and nature such as "Haibun" (Machmiller), "At Tokeiji Temple" (Tamura), and "Four Seasons in Tokeiji Temple" (Yoshimura) benefit greatly by the allusions and symbolism of classic Japanese poetry. The authors have succeeded in 'marrying' their haiku to the haibun, producing pieces where one form elevates the other.

The haibun is further enhanced by the accompanying haiga paintings by Lidia Rozmus. Haiga is an art form that combines elements of haiku and sumi-e ink painting. Composed with black ink and brush, each haiga contains one haiku from each author's contributed piece along with a stylized image meant to "complement rather than illustrate" (much as the haiku complement the haibun). Much of the enjoyment gotten from reading the book is derived from putting one's own individual interpretation to the paintings and how the images and poetry build on each other. While many of the images seem to be fairly obvious at first glance, they are open to many interpretations upon further examinations. Are the images in "Unforgettable Encounters" (Hashimoto) meant to be raindrops, blossoms, or perhaps tears? Some images even attempt to define the undefinable, such as the haiga illustrating "the sound of sweeping sunbeams" from "A Safe Place To Run To" (Sterba). In the best tradition of Japanese culture, the haiga are simple in their execution but complex in their symbolism and will reflect the mindset of the viewer as much as they do that of the author.

"The Moss at Tokeiji" works on several levels. The haiku, haibun, and haiga give the reader a pleasing variety of Japanese art forms authored by some of the best known names in the field. It's designed to be accessible and enjoyable for both aficionados and beginners, and the subject matter will appeal to not only haiku writers but historians and even advocates of women's rights. This elegant volume is a well-executed tribute to the 'walk-in' temple that gave many a woman a second chance at life.

For information on obtaining a copy of "The Moss at Tokeiji" (published by Deep North Press), contact co-editor Carmen Sterba at (replacing AT with @-we can't have Carmen flooded with spambots, y'know).


  1. Beautiful post. The younger women were still not in the best of positions right after the war and during the Occupation. Many farmers (or we heard it was "many") were sold into prostitution to houses of prostitution in Tokyo and even in Sendai. Since I was not able to read or write or understand Japanese, it is hard for me to say these are true but having been there I can say they were.

    Please, if you have time, come to see my blog about Sendai-shi between 1953-1956.


  2. Abe, it's good that you kept your photos of Sendai and the one in front of the Great Buddha in Kamakura. So, you were actually in Kamakura where Tokeiji still stands. I had some relatives who worked in Japan during the occupation. They lived in Kamakura 40 years before I did. Finally, I visited the house they had in the Fifties and Sixties. The temples, shrines and ancient trees are protected, so have not changed much over the centuries.

    Carmen Sterba