homeeditorsreviewsessaysmhbooks issues

Volume 35.3
Autumn 2004


Kobayashi Issa: Two Very Different Views

Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa, by Makoto Ueda

Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa, by David G. Lanoue


reviewed by Jon LaCure

Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa, by Makoto Ueda. Brill’s Japanese Studies Library 20 (Leiden, Neth.: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004). xi+194 pages, 6.5 x 9.75; hardbound. ISBN 9004137238. $79.00.

Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa, by David G. Lanoue (Reno, Nev.: Buddhist Books International, 2004). 143 pages, 5.5 x 8.5. ISBN 0914910531. $12.95.


Kobayashi 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.

It 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.

Perhaps 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.

The 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.

The 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.

He 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 be settled.

The 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, in 1827.

Makoto 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 (7):

ware to kite
asoibeya oya no
nai suzume

come here
and play with me, orphaned
little sparrow

In 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.

In 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 haiku:

Issa 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).

In 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.

This 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.

In 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.

One 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.

Ueda’s 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.

The 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:”

In 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).

Ueda 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
niramekura suru
kawazu kana

Locked in a staring contest
me . . .
and a frog

The 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:

In 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. (129–30)

Lanoue’s 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.

Ueda 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 originally intended.

Both 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:

makeru na
kore ni ari

scrawny frog, fight on!
issa Issa
to the rescue (30)

The translation by Ueda uses only a dash:

skinny frog
don’t give up the fight—
Issa is here (106)

The differences in the interpretations mirror the differences in the translations. Ueda explains the poem in a very traditional manner:

Issa 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)

Lanoue’s interpretation fits in with the theme of his book. It is more colorful and also somewhat idiosyncratic:

Issa 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)

Lanoue’s 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.

Ueda’s 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.


Kobayashi Issa. The Dumpling Field: Haiku of Issa. Translated and with an introduction by Lucien Stryk. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1991.

Kobayashi Issa. The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku. Translated and Introduction by Sam Hamill. Boston: Shambhala, 1997.

Kobayashi Issa. The Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa’s Oraga Haru. Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1960.

Kobayashi Issa. The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa. Translation and introduction by Lewis Mackenzie. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1957.

Huey, Robert N. “Journal of My Father’s Last Days: Issa’s Chichi no Shôen Nikki.” Monumenta Nipponica 39:1 (spring 1984), 25–54

Ueda, Makoto. The Path of Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Ueda, Makoto. Matsuo Bashô. New York: Twayne, 1970.



©2004 Modern Haiku • PO Box 68 • Lincoln, IL 62656