Issa (1763–1827) is generally considered to be one of
the three most important premodern Japanese haiku poets along
with Matsuo Bashô (1644–1694) and Yosa Buson (1716–1783).
Of these three most is known about the life of Issa. Books
about Bashô and Buson must resort to phrases like “it
is generally presumed …,” or “it can be
surmised that ...” in order to fill in the details about
their backgrounds or early lives. In the case of Issa there
is detail in abundance. Issa wrote much about himself and
his family. There are also letters and accounts from others.
The diaries must be read with some skepticism. Issa was prone
to overdramatizing and in some cases blatantly stretching
the truth. But, given these caveats, he is a wonderful subject
for a biography.
therefore seems strange that the first biography of Issa
in English has just now been published. There have been
several translations of his diaries, some collections of
his translated haiku, and even one children’s book.
An excellent translation with introduction to Issa’s
Chichi no shôen nikki (“Journal of My
Father’s Last Days”) by Robert N. Huey appeared
in the journal Monumenta Nipponica in 1984. Lewis
Mackenzie’s collection of poems, The Autumn Wind:
A Selection from the Poems of Issa, has a lengthy introduction
that takes up almost half of the book. Sam Hamill’s
The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku and Lucien
Stryk’s The Dumpling Field: Haiku of Issa,
both have introductions with some biographical information.
part of the reason for the lack of a book-length biography
has to do with Issa’s position in premodern Japanese
haiku. He is beloved by his fans but is generally considered
to be the least of the three main poets. Various reasons
are given for his diminished status. One obvious reason
was his lack of followers. Although he had many students,
he did not found a school that could carry on his poetic
legacy. The two books reviewed here, both published in 2004,
give very different reasons for Issa’s lesser status.
In fact, it is hard to imagine two books about the same
poet that have so little in common. In a few cases the same
poems are translated and commented upon, but these examples
are remarkably few.
general outline of Issa’s life is widely known. He
was born Kobayashi Yatarô in 1763 in Kashiwabara in
the present-day Nagano prefecture. This rugged, mountainous,
and remote area in the Japan Alps is probably best known
today as the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Issa’s
family were farmers, neither particularly rich nor poor.
The event that shaped Issa’s life was the death of
his mother in 1765 when Issa was only two years old. His
father remarried when Issa was eight. A half-brother soon
followed. With a new baby in the family there was bound
to be some jealousy; a stepmother made the situation worse.
After being the center of attention for so long, Issa felt
himself ignored and put upon. In a famous passage in Oitachi
no ki (1801; “Memories of My Childhood), Issa
describes in rather gruesome detail the burden of caring
for his new brother and how he was punished whenever the
baby was unhappy.
situation did not improve greatly as Issa grew older, at
least in Issa’s version of the events. In 1777 he
left Kashiwabara for Edo (the present-day Tokyo). The details
of his early years in Edo are somewhat sketchy, but by 1787,
at the age of twenty-five, Issa had entered the world of
haikai (modern: haiku). He joined one of the prominent schools
of haikai poets, studied under a master, and eventually
established a reputation as a haikai poet. In his thirties
he traveled a great deal, going home to Kashiwabara and
also visiting many other places in western Japan.
returned to Edo for a while in his mid-thirties to take
up the life of a haikai master but did not meet with great
financial success. In 1801, at the age of thirty-nine, he
returned to Kashiwabara to find his father gravely ill.
When his father died, half of the estate was left to Issa.
This resulted in a protracted dispute between the poet and
his stepmother and half-brother as to how the details would
estate was finally settled when Issa was fifty years old.
He settled down in Kashiwabara and married. His wife bore
three sons and a daughter. Tragically all four children
died from various causes. His wife also passed away. A second
marriage lasted only a few months. He was married a third
time in 1826. A fire that destroyed much of the village
also took his home and he ended up living in a renovated
storage house. Issa grew ill and died the following year,
Ueda’s biography, Dew on the Grass, is a delight
to read. It moves in straight chronological order. Each
of the chapters covers a range of dates. Chapter one, for
example is titled: “With an Orphaned Little Sparrow:
1763–1791.” The poem from which the chapter
gets its title is one of best known of Issa’s haiku
ware to kite
asoibeya oya no
and play with me, orphaned
the diary from which the poems came, Issa claims that the
poem was written when he was five years old. In total Ueda’s
book probably has something in the neighborhood of 300 haiku.
Each poem has both the romanized Japanese and Ueda’s
excellent translations. Because this is a biography, all
of the poems are placed into the context of Issa’s
life and his development as an poet.
the first chapter there is a succinct and insightful summation
of Ueda’s views of the poet’s strengths and
weaknesses and his place in the world of premodern Japanese
always had an earthly perspective, with a mind that looked
at nature from his highly personal point of view. Joy,
grief, anger, and all the other emotions were his own,
individualized and conveniently distorted. Although he
is compared with Bashô and Buson and said to be
one of the three Pillars supporting the hokku world, he
seems smaller for that reason in comparison with the other
two. His poetry is lacking in the viewpoint that transcends
time and space. Yet on the other hand it is filled with
personal feelings, intense and lively, that we can easily
identify with. Poems on small animals and insects, such
as cats, wild ducks, sparrows, fireflies, mosquitoes,
and fleas, abound as the poet lived intimately with them.
He saw them with the eyes of a man who had many frailties,
and he treated them personally, with irony that makes
us stop to think. Issa’s poetry in that sense is
more “human” (4).
the chapters that follow Issa comes to life for the reader
through an abundance of biographical detail and historical
background. Ueda describes the economic situation at the
time and especially the economics of life as a professional
haikai master, an area that will be unfamiliar to anyone
but the specialist. Ueda also describes in detail Issa’s
development as a poet. Ueda begins with Issa’s first
efforts, a period when Issa still relied heavily of models
such as Bashô. Ueda then places Issa clearly in the
haikai schools that were dominant at that time.
is probably the single area where there is the most misunderstanding
of premodern haiku among nonspecialists in both Japan and
the West. Scholars of premodern haiku invariably point out
that Bashô was one of the more important poets among
a whole generation of remarkable haiku poets. At the time
of his death Bashô was just one of many excellent
haiku poets. The process of canonization that has resulted
in today’s “three Pillars” was clearly
not as simple as one might imagine.
the case of Issa, readers who think of him as a truly unique
poet will be surprised to see how much his early verse was
influenced by the Katsushika school. Many of the Katsushika
poets, like Issa, were from rural areas, especially those
east of Tokyo. Ueda also shows other influences such as
the Tenmei style practiced by poets who emulated Buson (30).
Ueda describes this school as painting “imaginary
scenes more beautiful than any found in everyday life,”
or creating “fictional situations fit chiefly for
books of romance” (30). By recounting Issa’s
travels and the various influences of the day, Ueda shows
Issa’s voice and individuality gradually emerging
in his later years. Eventually Issa would develop a style
that appeared artless and simple without the use of classical
allusions or puns.
of the most interesting aspects of Ueda’s biography
concerns the economics of haikai poetry. Reading Ueda’s
description of Issa’s development as a haiku poet
reminded me of the life of a contemporary entertainer. A
modern-day musician, for example, might go to the big city
to learn and begin to establish a reputation, then leave
to go on tour and become more widely known. In somewhat
the same way, Issa established a reputation with the Katsushika
school in Edo, then traveled around Japan earning money
by teaching the locals and at the same time gaining experience
through contact with other poets. In his later years he
returned to his native village to raise a family.
book is a painstakingly researched, well written, and long
overdue biography of an important premodern haiku poet.
Anyone with an interest in haiku will enjoy this book. It
stands with Makoto Ueda’s two other authoritative
biographies of premodern haiku poets, Bashô and Buson,
as essential reading for all students of Japanese literature.
The difference between this book and the previous two is
the large amount of detail and background that Ueda is able
to provide. Here the poet, with all his charms and flaws,
truly comes to life for the reader.
thesis of David G. Lanoue’s book is evident from the
title: Pure Land Haiku: the Art of Priest Issa. Here
haiku has become Pure Land Buddhist haiku and Issa has become
a Buddhist priest. Instead of a chronological arrangement
of materials with chapter titles that include dates, Lanoue’s
book has chapters that correspond to various ideas and concepts
from Buddhism and specifically from Pure Land Buddhism.
Instead of a chronological presentation of the poems, they
are arranged according to these concepts such as: karma,
transience (mujô), or human feeling (ninjô).
The poetry is not presented in such a way as to see the
development of the poet or various influences, but rather
as examples of ways of thinking about the world and religion.
Perhaps the approach is best summed up in the final chapter,
which is titled “Prayer and Grace:”
a sense, every haiku in Issa’s canon of over twenty
thousand can be viewed as a prayer. Even in verses that
do not directly reference the nembutsu or praying, one senses
the quiet joy and sublime gratitude of one who approaches
things of this world with the non-forcing, accepting spirit
of Shinran’s faith (125).
sees Issa’s poetry as taking on a more religious tone
as he poet grew older. Lanoue finds this religious tendency
in all of Issa’s poetry. Lanoue begins and ends his
book with the same poem from early on in Oraga haru (“The
Spring of My Life”):
ore to shite
in a staring contest
me . . .
and a frog
poem does not appear in Ueda’s book, but it does show
up in both of the English translations of the poetic diary.
In Nobuyuku Yuasa’s translation the frog becomes a
“giant frog” that “glares” back
at the poet “in silence” (45). Hamill supplies
even more detail as the frog now becomes an “old pond
frog” that “glares” back with an “ugly,
surly face” (10). Lanoue’s translation stays
with the sense of the original, but his interpretation that
concludes the book reflects the general theme of his monograph:
the Introduction we began with this haiku, noticing how
it creates humor through the incongruity of its human and
amphibian contestants. However, the congruity in the scene
is just as important. Issa and the frog are not only fellow
travelers on the road to enlightenment; they are essentially
the same traveler. To put it another way, “Issa”
and “frog” are constructs that exist in separateness
only within the either–or framework of human linguistic
thinking. To an enlightened perspective—a perspective
that transcends either–or thinking and can therefore
be talked about only in the language of poetic image and
metaphor—there is just one traveler, one struggling
point of consciousness, one “I” on a journey
to ultimate realization: a journey to a place that has been
called, metaphorically, the Pure Land, made possible by
a guiding and enabling power that has been called Amida.
speculation concerning this poem is clearly in religious
or philosophical rather than literary terms. There is no
doubt that religion was an important part of Issa’s
life and poetry. His father belonged to the Pure Land sect
of Buddhism which is often associated with the lower classes
and the countryside. On the other hand, most commentators
generally make a distinction between the secular poet such
as Issa and poets who were actually priests. The poet Ryôkan
(1758–1831) is an example of the latter. He was a
Zen monk who traveled, begged for alms, and lived in simple
dwellings. In contrast, Issa was very involved in the worldly
pursuits. Haikai was a way of making a living. He was also
seems to have suffered from an almost unhealthy obsession
with money and property in his disputes over his father’s
estate. Issa was married three times and fathered a number
of children, although most of them died while still young.
Issa had deep religious convictions. Many of his writings
and poetry certainly reflect a profound faith, but it is
hard to see Issa as someone devoted only to religion.
sees Issa’s devotion to Pure Land Buddhism deepening
as the poet grew older. He quotes a haibun by Issa about
Bashô where Issa tries to show Bashô had the
true egalitarian spirit of Pure Land Buddhism as opposed
to the elitist tendencies of Zen Buddhism (86–87).
Ueda speculates that one of the quotes from Bashô
may be something that Issa fabricated. The other quote from
Bashô, a famous passage from Notes in My Knapsack,
is certainly put into a different context from what Bashô
of these books are important contributions to the scholarship
available on a very important and beloved haiku poet. Both
books have excellent translations of Issa’s poetry,
something that has not always been the case in the past.
The translations by Lanoue tend to be more colloquial, with
strong punctuation such as exclamation marks and much more
variation in line length. Issa’s poem on a skinny
frog is a good example of the different translation styles.
Both translators present the context for the poem. Issa
has just seen two frogs fighting over a female and the smaller
one has lost out. Lanoue’s translation reads:
kore ni ari
frog, fight on!
to the rescue (30)
translation by Ueda uses only a dash:
don’t give up the fight—
Issa is here (106)
differences in the interpretations mirror the differences
in the translations. Ueda explains the poem in a very traditional
wrote the frog poem after seeing several male frogs fighting
for a lone female. The hokku has since become well known
for its expression of sympathy toward the weak, but we
should also take note of the self-confidence implied in
it. Although he himself is a faltering old man, he is
still strong enough to help a frog, “Issa is here,”
which mimics the self-announcement of a samurai on a battlefield,
adds a touch of humor. (107)
interpretation fits in with the theme of his book. It is
more colorful and also somewhat idiosyncratic:
refuses to exercise the philosophical restraint of a Master
Bashô but instead plunges boldly into the fray to
assist his little friend—if we are to believe the
scene conjured by this haiku. Although children delight
in the image it paints, the haiku is not just a child’s
poem. The poet’s intervention recalls Amida Buddha’s
concern for sentient beings. Amida relates to his devotees
as Issa does to the skinny frog.… (31)
book has a clear point of view of Issa as a follower of
Pure Land Buddhism. There is an ample amount of background
material about Buddhism that should be helpful for those
not familiar with the various Buddhist doctrines. This view
of the poet is, however, decidedly one-dimensional. Compared
with the academic study by Ueda, Lanoue’s portrait
of the artist seems romanticized. Much of what others have
seen as “overdramatized” in the poetic diaries
Lanoue takes at face value. Lanoue’s prose style is
lively and entertaining enough to hold the attention of
the casual reader. Perhaps the greatest strength of the
book is the poetry itself. There are a large number of poems
and the translations are excellent. Unfortunately there
is no index to the poems, although there is a general index.
biographical and chronological study of Issa gives us a
much more complex view of a poet with great talent, a great
capacity for life and love, deep religious convictions,
and numerous human faults and weaknesses. In addition to
the biography, the appendix to Ueda’s book contains
a translation of a kasen produced by Issa and two other
poets when Issa was at the height of his career. A kasen
is a linked verse form with thirty-six verses of alternating
seventeen and fourteen syllables. This monograph has a detailed
general index, an index of haiku in English arranged by
subject and an index of haiku in Japanese. Unfortunately,
with a retail price tag of $79.00, Brill seems to be marketing
the hardcover edition exclusively to academic libraries
and the specialist. We can only hope that a paperback edition
with come out soon that will be more affordable for the
average person. This is clearly one of the essential monographs
on premodern haiku that should be in the library of anyone
with an interest in the subject. It joins the many other
wonderful books and translations that Ueda has given us
over his long and productive career.
Issa. The Dumpling Field: Haiku of Issa. Translated
and with an introduction by Lucien Stryk. Athens, Ohio:
Swallow Press, 1991.
Issa. The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku.
Translated and Introduction by Sam Hamill. Boston: Shambhala,
Issa. The Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa’s
Oraga Haru. Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. Berkeley,
Calif: University of California Press, 1960.
Issa. The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of
Issa. Translation and introduction by Lewis Mackenzie.
Tokyo: Kodansha, 1957.
Robert N. “Journal of My Father’s Last Days:
Issa’s Chichi no Shôen Nikki.” Monumenta
Nipponica 39:1 (spring 1984), 25–54
Makoto. The Path of Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry
of Yosa Buson. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University
Ueda, Makoto. Matsuo Bashô. New York: Twayne,