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Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) - original name Kobayashi Nobuyki - Also called Kobayashi Yataro, born in some sources on May 5, 1763


Eighteenth-century Japanese poet, who used the simple pen name Issa and who is propably the best loved of the haiku masters. Issa's life was full of misfortunes – he lost his mother at an early age, his stepmother mistreated him, he suffered from poverty, his children died, and his marriage with his second wife was unhappy. However, Issa's poems reflected the small joys of life. He used also dialect and colloquial language when depicting the life of the Shinshu peasants and everyday events.

In the depths of the lake
A peak of cloud.
(A History of Japanese Literature: From the Man'yōshū to Modern Times by Shūichi Katō, translated and edited by Don Sanderson, 1997, p. 221)

As a poet Issa was more robust and subjective compared to austere, priestly Matsuo Basho (1644-94) and worldly, sophisticated Yosa Buson (1716-83). By confessing his doubts and loneliness in highly personal haiku, Issa's poems also have given consolation to generations of readers. One of his most loved poem Issa claimed to have written at age 6: "ware to kite / asobe yo oya no / nai suzume" (Oh, wont's some orphan sparrow come and play with me). ('Kobayashi Issa,' translations by MB [Max Bickerton], The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology, edited by Faubion Bowers, 1996, p. 61)

Kobayashi Issa was born Kobayashi Yataro in Kashiwabara, Shinano province (now part of Shinano Town, Nagano Prefecture), a son of a farmer. Yagobei, his father, was thirty years old and was widowed in 1765, a few years after Issa was born. He owned two acres of farmland, a hard working man burdened with heavy taxes. The two brothers of Issa's mother, named Kuni, were well educated, one was a priest and the other a poet. Until his father remarried, Issa was looked after by his grandmother, Kana, who may have spoiled him a little bit. Issa learned to read and write at the house of Rokuzaemon Nakamura, know as a poet under the pen name Shimpo and who had a flourishing wholesale business in wine. Kana died in 1776 and Issa was then sent to Edo, where he felt like being "a pitiful bird without a nest."

Issa's troubles with his stepmother, named Hatsu, began when she gave birth to her own son, Senroku. Issa had to babysit his little brother, his skin wet with Senroku's urine. Issa also complained that he was beaten "a hundred times a day," every time Senroku fretted. In 1777, at the age of fourteen, he was sent by his father to Edo (Tokyo today), where he studied haiku under the master Norokuan Chikua (died 1790). Possibly Issa also worked as a clerk at a Buddhist temple. There are no reliable record of these years. After Chikua's death Issa succeeded him as a teacher. In 1790 Issa got at least nine poems published in five different books.

Issa's works gained the attention Seibi Natsume, a wealthy rice merchant, who became his patron. Although his poems became more and more known, he was forced to travel and work hard until his fiftieth year. "Days and months are travelers of eternity", he later said. "So are the years that pass by." He called himself "Issa the monk" or "Issa the Beggar", had his head shaven and wore a dark robe. In 1792 he gave up the name Yataro and changed it into Issa, Haikai-ji Nyudo Issa-bo (Temple of Haiku Lay Brother Issa); Issa means One Cup of Tea. In one poem he explained: "Here's the Spring / and with it transmogrified / Yataro becomes Issabo". (The Autumn Wind, a selection from the poems of Issa, translated by Lewis Mackenzie, 1957, p. 28) His earlier names included "Kobayashi Ikyo" and "Nirokuan Kikumei." After a journey in south-western Japan, he published a collection of verse, Tabishui (1795). Issa lived at various places, including Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki, Matsuyama and other cities. He often also visited his home town. "Rambling to the west, wandering to the east, there is a madman who never stays in one place,"  Issa described himself. (A Taste of Issa: Haiku, translated by David G. Lanoue, 2019, p. 11) While in Endo he lived the life of a haikai master and taught amateur poets. In eastern haikai circles his work did not enjoy much of a reputation. During these years his spiritual guide was Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior.

Yagobei died of typhoid fever in 1801, at the age of 65. The body was cremated according to the Buddhist rites and Issa collected the bones. His sorrow Issa recorded in a short journal, Chichi no shūen nikki (1801, My Father's Last Days). Issa's stepmother and stepbrother challenged his father's will, in which the inheritance was split between Issa and Senroku. In the early 1810s Issa returned to Kashiwabara, where he rented a room and wrote a poem about his mistreatment.

Finally in 1813, after 13-year-long disputes, the property, including the house, was equally divided between Issa and his stepbrother. Now financially securd, he visited his students in northern Shinano. A boil on his buttocks made him bedridden in Nagano for two months and a half. When he felt a little better, he wrote: "while I'm taunted / by fleas and flies, another / day is gone".  (Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa by Makoto Ueda, 2004, pp. 85-86)

At the age of fifty-one, Issa married a young woman, named Kiku, and was able to enjoy the position of the leader of the haiku world in northern Shinano. In Journal of My Father's Last Days the poet depicts the family disputes before his father's death – he died of typhoid fever. Even though the sick man was suffering he "smiled happily at the those who offered him poison and criticized those who suggested remedies." (Bereavement and Consolation: Testimonies from Tokugawa Japan by Harold Bolitho, 2003, p. 75)

So this is where
I end up living

Five feet of snow.
Where I come from
Even flies
(A History of Japanese Literature: From the Man'yōshū to Modern Times by Shūichi Katō, translated and edited by Don Sanderson, 1997, p. 222)

Issa was a prolific writer of both poetry and prose. He treated his subjects with humor, excelling particularly at affectionate portrayals of such creatures as fleas, frogs and sparrows. Issa's poems about animals and insects are learned by every schoolchild in Japan. He is the most popular haikai poet of the Endo period. During his lifetime Issa wrote over 20,000 haiku, hundreds of tanka, and several works of baibun. Close observations of nature and passing but meaningful personal incidents have often melancholic mood. In poems based on his own life Issa often used words of the daily conversations. Village life is not seen as idyllic, but hard, especially during the winter: "Cold, cold / In the eaves / Evening cicadas and red peppers." (A History of Japanese Literature: From the Man'yōshū to Modern Times by Shūichi Katō, translated and edited by Don Sanderson, 1997, p. 222)

Among Issa's other famous works is Oraga haru (The Year of My Life / The Spring of My Life), a poetic diary completed in 1819, where he records his life and his spiritual path, sad memories, the death of his beloved daughter, Sato, but also contemplates the cycles of nature: "But this poor tree has neither the strength to put forth fruits and flowers, nor the good fortune quite to die. Existence is a continuous struggle to remain simply one foot high. This can haerdly be called living even for a tree." (The Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa's Oraga Haru by Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1972, p. 85)

The Year of My Life was written during the relatively calm period in the poet's life. However, Issa's later years were filled with sorrows, when his wife and eight children died and his property was destroyed by fire. Issa himself suffered from failing healt. Temporarily, he lost his ability to speak. Issa's new wife, Yuki, came from a local samurai family. She was 38 years old. After a few weeks of marriage, Yuki left him. In 1826 Issa married for a third time; she was a farmer's daughter, who had worked at a local inn. It was a doomed union. Issa died two years later, on November 19, 1827 in Kashiwabara (in some so urces the date is January 5,1827), survived by his wife and unborn child.

Ah, how I miss
my nagging old mate
today's moon
(Cherry Blossom Epiphany: The Poetry and Philosophy of a Flowering Tree by Robin D. Gill, 2007, p. 301)
For further reading: 'About Issa' by David G. Lanoue, in A Taste of Issa: Haiku by Kobayashi, Issa (2019); Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa by Makoto Ueda (2004); Cool Melons Turn to Frogs!: The Life and Poems of Issa, story and haiku translations by Matthew Gollub; illustrations by Kazuko G. Stone (introductory work for children, 1998); A History of Japanese Literature: From the Man'yōshū to Modern Times by Shūichi Katō, translated and edited by Don Sanderson (1997); The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa, ed. by Robert Hass (1994); Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English, With Selected Examples by Kenneth Yasuda (1994); The Life and Work of Kobayashi Issa by Patrick McElligott (thesis; 1984); Of This World: A Poet's Life in Poetry by Richard Lewis (1965); A History of Haiku, 2 vols., by R. H. Blyth (1964); Orphan Sparrow by Lewis Mackenzie (1957); The Autumn Wind, a selection from the poems of Issa, translated by Lewis Mackenzie (1957) - Haiku: Japan's most popular unrhymed poetic form. Haiku consist of 17 syllables arranged in three l ines containing five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. Traditionally the haiku focused on the natural world, the fleeting moment, but then it became a vehicle to express a wide range of of attitudes about almost any subject. Outstanding haiku masters: Bashõ, Buson, and Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), who revived the traditional form. Haiku's emphasis on the immediate and concrete influenced early 20th century Imaginism in Europe and America, especially through the efforts of the American poet Ezra Pound. - Tanka: A Japanese fixed form of verse of five lines, the first and third of which have five syllables and the other seven (5-7-5-7-7). Tanka focuses on the essence of one static event, image, mood.
Ääni samana
ruhtinaankin edessä
satakieli soi.
kunnioitane kovasti
maaten pitkänäin.
(Translated into Finnish by G.J. Ramstedt, from Japanilaisia runoja, 1953. - Issan runoja on suomennettu myös antologioissa Kirsikankukkia, 1951 ja Maailman runosydän, 1998 sekä Juhani Tikkasen teoksessa Kirppuhyppy (2006).

Selected works:

  • Kansei-kucho, 1794
  • Tabishui, 1795
  • Chichi no shūen nikki, 1801 [Journal of My Father's Last Days]
  • Kyōwa kujō, 1803
  • Bunka kujō, 1803
  • Shichiban nikki, 1810-1818
  • Waga harushū, 1811
  • Hachiban nikki, 1818 [Eight Diary]
  • Oraga haru, 1819 - The Year of My Life (translated by Nobuyaki Yuasa, 1960) / The Spring of My Life (translated by Sam Hamill, 1977)
  • Kuban nikki, 1822
  • The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa, 1957 (translated by Lewis MacKenzie)
  • A Few Flies and I; Haiku, 1969 (selected by Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert from translations by R. H. Blyth and Nobuyuki Yuasa)
  • The Dumpling Field, 1991 (translated by Lucien Stryk, with the assistance of Noboru Fujiwara)
  • Ten Poems, 1992 (translated by Robert Bly)
  • Issa: Cup-Of-Tea Poems: Selected Haiku of Kobayashi Issa, 1991 (translated by David G. Lanoue)
  • The Spring of My Life: And Selected Haiku, 1997 (translated by Sam Hamill)
  • Inch by Inch: 45 Haiku by Issa, 1999 (translated by Nanao Sakaki)
  • Today and Today, 2007 (pictures by G. Brian Karas)
  • The Spring of My Life: and Selected Haiku, 2019 (translated from the Japanese by Sam Hamill; illustrated by Kaji Aso)
  • A Taste of Issa: Haiku, 2019 (translated by David G. Lanoue)

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