Kobayashi Issa Haiku Analysis Essay

Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa, also known as Kobayashi Yataro and Kobayashi Nobuyuki, was born in Kashiwabara, Shinanao province. He eventually took the pen name Issa, which means “cup of tea” or, according to poet Robert Hass, “a single bubble in steeping tea.”

Issa’s father was a farmer. His mother died when he was young, and he was raised by his grandmother. His father remarried, and Issa did not get along well with his stepmother or stepbrother, eventually becoming involved in disputes over his father’s property. When Issa was 14, he left home to study haiku in Edo. He spent years traveling and working until returning to Kashiwabara in the early 1810s. In Kashiwabara, his life was marked by sorrow— the death of his first wife and three children, an unsuccessful second marriage, the burning down of his house, and a third marriage.

Issa’s haiku are as attentive to the small creatures of the world—mosquitoes, bats, cats—as they are tinged with sorrow and an awareness of the nuances of human behavior. In addition to haiku, Issa wrote pieces that intertwined prose and poetry, including Journal of My Father’s Last Days and The Year of My Life.

In this Japanese name, the family name is Kobayashi .

Kobayashi Issa(小林 一茶, June 15, 1763 – January 5, 1828)[1] was a Japanese poet and lay Buddhist priest of the Jōdo Shinshū sect known for his haiku poems and journals. He is better known as simply Issa(一茶), a pen name meaning Cup-of-tea[2] (lit. "one [cup of] tea"). He is regarded as one of the four haiku masters in Japan, along with Bashō, Buson and Shiki — "the Great Four."[3]

Reflecting the popularity and interest in Issa as man and poet, Japanese books on Issa outnumber those on Buson and almost equal in number those on Bashō.[4]


Issa was born and registered as Kobayashi Nobuyuki[2] (小林 信之), with a childhood name of Kobayashi Yatarō (小林 弥太郎), the first son of a farmer family of Kashiwabara, now part of Shinano-machi, Shinano Province (present-day Nagano Prefecture). Issa endured the loss of his mother, who died when he was three.[5] Her death was the first of numerous difficulties young Issa suffered.

He was cared for by his grandmother, who doted on him, but his life changed again when his father remarried five years later. Issa's half-brother was born two years later. When his grandmother died when he was 14, Issa felt estranged in his own house, a lonely, moody child who preferred to wander the fields. His attitude did not please his stepmother, who, according to Lewis Mackenzie, was a "tough-fibred 'managing' woman of hard-working peasant stock."[6]

He was sent to Edo (present-day Tokyo) by his father one year later to eke out a living. Nothing of the next ten years of his life is known for certain. His name was associated with Kobayashi Chikua (小林 竹阿) of the Nirokuan (二六庵) haiku school, but their relationship is not clear. During the following years, he wandered through Japan and fought over his inheritance with his stepmother (his father died in 1801). He wrote a diary, now called Last Days of Issa's Father.

After years of legal wrangles, Issa managed to secure rights to half of the property his father left. He returned to his native village at the age of 49[7] and soon took a wife, Kiku. After a brief period of bliss, tragedy returned. The couple's first-born child died shortly after his birth. A daughter died less than two-and-a-half years later, inspiring Issa to write this haiku (translated by Lewis Mackenzie):

Tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara
This dewdrop world --
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet . . .

Issa married twice more late in his life, and through it all he produced a huge body of work.

A third child died in 1820. Then Kiku fell ill and died in 1823. "Ikinokori ikinokoritaru samusa kana" (生き残り生き残りたる寒さかな) [Outliving them,/Outliving them all,/Ah, the cold!] was written when Issa's wife died, when he was 61.[8]

As a big fire swept the post station of Kashiwabara on July 24, 1827, according to the Western calendar. Issa lost his house and had to live in his storehouse, which is still kept in the town. "The fleas have fled from the burning house and have taken refuge with me here", says Issa. Of this same fire, he wrote: Hotarubi mo amaseba iya haya kore wa haya (蛍火もあませばいやはやこれははや) If you leave so much/As a firefly's glimmer, -/Good Lord! Good Heavens!'[9]

He died on November 19, 1827, in his native village. According to the old Japanese calendar, he died on the 19th day of Eleventh Month, Tenth Year of the Bunsei era. Since the Tenth Year of Bunsei roughly corresponds with 1827, many sources list this as his year of death.

Writings and drawings[edit]

Issa wrote over 20,000 haiku, which have won him readers up to the present day. Though his works were popular, he suffered great monetary instability. Despite a multitude of personal trials, his poetry reflects a childlike simplicity, making liberal use of local dialects and conversational phrases, and 'including many verses on plants and the lower creatures. Issa wrote 54 haiku on the snail, 15 on the toad, nearly 200 on frogs, about 230 on the firefly, more than 150 on the mosquito, 90 on flies, over 100 on fleas and nearly 90 on the cicada, making a total of about one thousand verses on such creatures'.[10] By contrast, Bashō's verses are comparatively few in number, about 2,000 in all.[11]

Issa, 'with his intense personality and vital language [and] shockingly impassioned verse...is usually considered a most conspicuous heretic to the orthodox Basho tradition'.[12] Nevertheless, 'in that poetry and life were one in him...[&] poetry was a diary of his heart', it is at least arguable that 'Issa could more truly be said to be Basho's heir than most of the haikai poets of the nineteenth century'.[13]

Issa's works include haibun (passages of prose with integrated haiku) such as Oraga Haru (おらが春 "My Spring") and Shichiban Nikki (七番日記 "Number Seven Journal"), and he collaborated on more than 250 renku (collaborative linked verse).[14]

Issa was also known for his drawings, generally accompanying haiku: "the Buddhism of the haiku contrasts with the Zen of the sketch".[15] His approach has been described as "similar to that of Sengai....Issa's sketches are valued for the extremity of their abbreviation, in keeping with the idea of haiku as a simplification of certain types of experience."[16]

One of Issa's haiku, as translated by R.H. Blyth, appears in J. D. Salinger's 1961 novel, Franny and Zooey:

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

(Katatsumuri sorosoro nobore Fuji no yama 蝸牛そろそろ登れ富士の山) The same poem, in Russian translation, served as an epigraph for a novel Snail on the Slope by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (published 1966–68), also providing the novel's title.

Another, translated by D.T. Suzuki, was written during a period of Issa's life when he was penniless and deep in debt. It reads:

tomokaku mo anata makase no toshi no kure
Trusting the Buddha (Amida), good and bad,
I bid farewell
To the departing year.

Another, translated by Peter Beilenson with Harry Behn, reads:

Everything I touch
with tenderness, alas,
pricks like a bramble.

Issa's most popular and commonly known tome, titled The Spring of My Life, is autobiographical, and its structure combines prose and haiku.


  • Bostok, Janice M. (2004). "Nobuyuki Kobayashi — Issa, 1763–1827". Yellow Moon. Pearl Beach, N.S.W.: Yellow Moon Literary Group (16): 33–34. ISSN 1328-9047. Archived from the original(online reprint at the Australian Haiku Society) on 2008-05-11. 
  • Hamill, Sam, trans. (1997). The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku: Kobayashi Issa. Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-144-6.  (pbk, 180 pp., 160 haiku plus The Spring of My Life, an autobiographical haibun)
  • Lanoue, David G. (2004). Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa. Buddhist Books International. ISBN 0-914910-53-1. 
  • Mackenzie, Lewis, trans. (1984) [1957]. The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa. Kodansha International. ISBN 0-87011-657-6.  (137 pp., 250 haiku)
  • Suzuki, Daisetz T. (2002). Buddha of Infinite Light: The Teachings of Shin Buddhism, the Japanese Way of Wisdom and Compassion. Shambhala; New Ed edition. ISBN 1-57062-456-9. 
  • Ueda, Makoto (2004). Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa. Brill. ISBN 90-04-13723-8. 

English translations[edit]

  • Kobayashi, Issa (2015). Killing A Fly. Saarbrücken: Calambac Verlag. ISBN 978-3-943117-87-5. 
  • Hamill, Sam, trans. (1997). The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku: Kobayashi Issa. Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-144-6.  (pbk, 180 pp., 160 haiku plus The Spring of My Life, an autobiographical haibun)
  • Hass, Robert (1995). The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa. United States: Ecco Press. ISBN 0880013516. 
  • Mackenzie, Lewis (1984). The Autumn Wind. Japan: Kodansha International. ISBN 0-87011-657-6. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bickerton, Max (1932). "Issa's Life and Poetry"(online at Google Books). Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan. Tokyo: Asiatic Society of Japan. ser. II, vol. 9: 110–154. ISSN 0913-4271.  (A biography and selection of translated haiku; TOC is on p. 111.)
  • Lanoue, David G. (2005). "Master Bashô, Master Buson... and Then There's Issa". Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry. Web: www.simplyhaiku.com. 3 (3, Autumn 2005): section "Features: Interviews & Essays". ISSN 1545-4355. Archived from the original(online) on August 18, 2007.  (An essay about the haiku persona of Issa, by the translator of the Issa Archive.)
  • Hislop, Scot (Fall 2003). "The Evening Banter of Two Tanu-ki: Reading the Tobi Hiyoro Sequence"(online). Early Modern Japan: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Columbus, OH: Early Modern Japan Network (EMJNet). 11 (2): 22–31. ISSN 1940-7947.  (A discussion of Issa's approach to haikai no renga including a translation of a hankasen by Issa and Kawahara Ippyō)


External links[edit]

Issa's portrait drawn by Muramatsu Shunpo 1772-1858 (Issa Memorial Hall, Shinano, Nagano, Japan)
  1. ^Saihōji homepage bio for Issa.
  2. ^ abBostok 2004.
  3. ^R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol I (Tokyo 1980) p. 289
  4. ^Ueda, p.xi
  5. ^Shirane, Haruo. Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900. Columbia University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-231-14415-5. p507
  6. ^Mackenzie, page 14
  7. ^Hamill, p.xviii
  8. ^Blyth, p. 366
  9. ^Blyth, p. 409
  10. ^Blyth p. 371 and p. 353
  11. ^Blyth, p. 108
  12. ^Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho (Tokyo 1982) p. 175-6
  13. ^Ueda, Basho p. 176
  14. ^Ueda, p.169
  15. ^Blyth, facing page 371
  16. ^Leon M. Zolbrod, Haiku Painting (Tokyo 1982) p. 42

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