Nobuyuki Kobayashi — ISSA

1763 — 1827

by Janice M Bostok

The spring moon
Shines Godlike
Upon a flower thief
At work on a hill. 1

Issa was born in Kashiwabara village, Japan, the first son of a farmer. His childhood name was Yatarô but he was registered with Nobuyuki as his first name and Kobayashi as his surname. Issa did not have a happy or fortuitous life. While he was still young (at the age of about three) his mother died. His grandmother took over raising him. Later she also died and his father remarried. His stepmother eventually forced Issa to leave home at the age of thirteen.

He traveled to Edo, which is now the capital, Tokyo. City people scorned country folk and called the peasants 'grey starlings'. Issa wrote over five thousand haiku during his lifetime, many of them about starlings and sparrows and other animals and insects.

joining the starlings
a night of winter

dejected —
even among sparrows
a stepchild

Issa remained in Tokyo for twenty years, living in poverty. He became seriously interested in writing haiku at the age of twenty five. When his teacher died he succeeded him as leader of the group. However, this position didn't sit comfortably with him and he chose to wander through the southwest of Japan until 1801, when his father died and he returned to the village where he was born.

As pine trees grow all over Japan Issa wrote many poems about them. They became a symbol for shelter for the homeless.

in pine-tree shade
eating, sleeping
60 provinces!

Even though he inherited his father's property, his stepmother and stepbrother managed to keep him from moving into the dwelling that was rightfully his and he lived in a rented hut at the edge of the village.

sparrows at the gate —
the brothers' first

well here it is
my final home?
five feet of snow

my dear old village
every memory of home
pierces like a thorn

In 1815 Issa married a young woman of twenty eight years of age. He was fifty two. His wife produced four children all of whom died in infancy. His wife also died in the final childbirth.

evening falls —
a stepchild sparrow
cries in the pine

It appears he really did live in the shadow beneath the pines even in the village of his birth where he should have been settled at home.

Issa married a second time and seemed happy at last. By this time he had moved into his rightful home, although he enjoyed a casual lifestyle. Because of his own treatment by society and closer to home, by his step-family, Issa felt compassion and tolerance for all life, even the fleas and flies.

don't chase, don't chase
that flea has kids

don't swat the fly!
wringing hands
wringing feet

Issa's second wife produced a girl heir for him. Unfortunately the baby was actually born after his death and he never saw her. He was sixty five years of age when he died.

Issa (Cup-of-tea) will be remembered for his masterpiece 'Ora ga haru': The Year Of My Life, 1819. (A Haibun) It should be noted that the particular sect of Buddhism to which he belonged (Shinshû) was a lot more liberal than what Bashô believed in. His wanderings are somewhat more social.
Not consciously developing a style as Bashô may seem to have done, nor writing as formally as Buson, Issa had a personality all his own. He used the local dialects and the language of daily conversation. For us, today, his work appears to manifest the true philosophy of the Buddhist intent without the obvious religious rhetoric which many writers get caught up in. We love him for his simple warmth of humanity and his compassion for all living things.

There is a story, whether it is true or not, that the daimyo Maeda, the great Lord Kaga sent for Issa to come and speak about haiku. Issa refused, because although still a peasant, he would not be 'ordered' to appear before nobility. It may be a true story because Issa also shows some of this 'nerve' in his poems.

losing the contest
surprise, surprise
the lord's mum won. 2

Rather than the ancient anecdotes, I prefer the present-day novel titled Haiku Guy by David G. Lanoue, published by Red Moon Press, in the USA. It's a hilarious, loosely termed historical novel based on Issa — or Cup-of-tea. It is said he was called Cup-of-one-tea because he only stopped to have one cup of tea and then continued on his travels.

It is now thought that many of Issa's childhood poems were written from memory when he was older and more mature. Considering he only began writing haiku seriously at the age of 25, this is probably the case. But it is known that his father wrote reasonably accomplished haiku, and Issa attended the home of an educated man in the village, to learn to read and write. This educated man wrote haiku. So it is possible that he knew quite a bit about writing haiku before he left the village.

It also seems that many agree his poems about animals, bird, and insects are actually about his own lifetime circumstances. He was the orphaned sparrow in his mountain village; he was the peasant starling in the city; and he was the homeless cat and dog looking for shelter and love after returning to his home village — where his house burnt down.

Since haiku has become known in the west we have been told not to use simile, metaphor, or personification. Issa certainly used all of these devices in his poems. If we carefully study many of the Japanese master's works we can find a similar usage in their poems, but perhaps not as exaggerated as in Issa's case.

For example Bashõ wrote about 'should I hold it in my hand, it would melt from my tears, the mountain snow'. He was really talking about his dead mother's lock of hair! Now translators are saying 'his dead mother's lock of hair'. Japanese haiku is full of simile, metaphor and personification.

Many non-haiku poems can be interpreted in this manner. The layers of meaning are what makes a poem great. However, because of Issa's compassion we sometimes get caught up in his style of writing and want to share our own understanding and enjoyment of our own environment. But we must remember poetry is language on the cutting edge, as we say. We would no longer think of a fly wringing its hands in begging mode, unless it was a giant cyber space monster perhaps!

In our cynical/belief/non-belief confusion we are more likely to say 'don't swat that fly, it may be your reincarnated grandmother'!

What we should remember is that poems of any form should read naturally, make sense and be mature in tone and capable of triggering the reader's response. What we know is that Issa was a priest-like gentle, homeless person who wandered around for most of his life searching for that zen-like acceptance and peace. Hopefully, each of us will find it in our own way and express it in our own language of today's lifestyle. And, perhaps we should also remember what Bashô said: …'if one is to write good haikai, one must interpret and describe the lowly and the commonplace with high serious intent'3

1 The Year Of My Life, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles. USA. 1972. P.40
2 chrysanthemum
3 The Year Of My Life, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles. USA. 1972. P. 17

All poems quoted (unless otherwise stated) are translated by David G. Lanoue, who has a wonderful website about the lives and work of the Japanese Masters: He must be interested in all things Japanese because you can find anything you would wish to know about Japanese culture and interests on this site.

© 2004 Janice M Bostok
sumi-e Issa's flea by Janice M Bostok © 2004
This article is one of a series of four and was first published in Yellow Moon 16 2004 pp. 33-34