A Hundred Gourds 3:3 June 2014

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Issa’s Humanity and Humour:
A Haibun Passage from His Travel Journal Oraga Haru

| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 | page 4 | page 5 |

Understanding and Appreciating Issa’s Oraga Haru : How Important Is The Cultural Gap?

Comments that Issa’s writing is unpretentious, open and, often, tongue-in-cheek are apt when applied to the passage I selected for study. I enjoyed his openness in sharing thoughts and feelings ( …  like the actors who come begging on New Year's Eve with empty wishes for prosperity. The customary New Year pine will not stand beside my door … )

Much of what I know about ancient Japan comes from historical fiction like James Clavell’s Shōgun, films like Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” and bits of deeper reading of some of the translated classics of the period (for example Basho’s Oku no Hosomichi with commentaries by the translators)15. In saying this, I recognize that Issa’s period is separated from Basho’s by more than a century and isn’t necessarily well depicted by such books and films. I add to the quasi-fictional information with research excursions into biographies and history. So by no means is this essay to be viewed a scholarly treatment. I gratefully leave that to scholars and translators.

The passage I selected comes early in the journal and is more or less an introduction to Issa’s travels. It has a focus on his feelings about New Year’s celebrations, observations of his daughter, comments about his poverty and preparation for a forthcoming journey. A spiritual quest forms the basis for the journal.

Initially, he states his feelings about the falseness and materialism of Japanese holidays:

… I am like the priest, for I too shun trite popular seasonal congratulations. The commonplace "crane" and "tortoise" echo like empty words, like the actors who come begging on New Year's Eve with empty wishes for prosperity. The customary New Year pine will not stand beside my door. (tr. Hamill)

In reading this and other passages, I feel that I have sufficient understanding to enjoy the writing without the full context of Issa’s era. After all, most of us experience casual well-wishing around days like Christmas and New Year’s as similar to the everyday “How are you?” Carter puts the issue of understanding into perspective with his comments on earlier period hokku (the predecessor of haiku):

Does the many-layered allusive nature of . . . hokku mean that we cannot understand it without knowing . . . background circumstances, allusions, and so forth? The answer is, of course, no. Like all texts, hokku survive the demise of the events that produced them, taking on a different life.16

But, consistent with Henderson’s example of allusive connotations (shown above), Carter goes on to indicate what can be gained by deeper exploration of context:

What the exercise of exploring the rhetorical complexity of poems . . . does teach us . . .  is that hokku when they were first composed, were seldom straightforward poems of natural description, even when they may easily be understood that way, which was usually true for later haiku as well.

In short, there’s a contextual richness that is lost but isn’t necessarily essential to appreciating writing from another period and culture – good writing stands the test of time.

Returning to Issa’s opening lines: the Internet can be a rich source of contextual information. For example, the crane and tortoise are two of the longest lived animals and are used in greetings to express something akin to our own New Year’s toasts: “To a long life and happy new year.”17 With respect to the pine, in Japan today many households “put up pine decorations known as ‘kadomatsu” on either side of entrances. The gods are said to descend from the heavens and dwell in the earthly realm for three days, after which time the decorations are burnt, releasing the spirits back to their realm.18 So Issa’s reluctance to put a pine beside his door is perhaps akin to me not putting a lit Christmas tree in my window.

A second prose theme in Oraga Haru alludes to the difficulties of the path Issa has chosen:

My own way of celebrating the first of the year is somewhat different (than the priest’s), since the dust of the world still clings to me.     . . . I live in a tiny cottage that might be swept away at any moment by a blast from the wild north wind.     . . . I will leave all to Buddha, and though the path ahead be difficult and steep, like a snow-covered road winding through the mountains, I welcome the New Year — even as I am. (tr. Yuasa)

Again, context is important, but not essential. Issa isn’t clothed in dust simply because he’s travel worn. This passage serves as a preface to the start of his travel as a spiritual journey and, as we learn as we read further in his journal, to the difficulties that he is likely to encounter. Indeed, the journey was so trying, he considered turning back many times.

The passage also alludes to Buddhism’s emphasis on suffering and compassion and to Issa’s own suffering. A haiku that indicates his feelings about the suffering he witnessed and about the indifference of those better off is:

we walk on the roof of hell,
gazing at flowers.
(tr. Robert Hass)

The haiku is perhaps an apt depiction of first-world readers who are likely to understand such wholesale suffering only from a distance. One has only to be tuned into today’s (bad) news to know that the Four Horsemen have been particularly active in our lifetimes. But isn’t our suffering more in the form of guilt at the plight of the poor in our own country and that of people living in impoverished countries? Yes, some of us contribute funds, encourage foreign aid, adopt children, sponsor various development missions, help build schools, fund medical teams and contribute to food banks. But speaking for myself at least, I feel helpless and guilty and, as best I can, I ignore the news of the world’s suffering and sniff the flowers.

In the next passage, Issa shifts from his negative attitudes about the rituals to the family gatherings surrounding those rituals. Here he expresses his joy of seeing his young daughter explore the world:

And although she was born only last May, I gave my little daughter a bowl of soup and a whole rice cake for New Year's breakfast, saying:

Laughing, crawling, you're
exploring — already two
years old this morning
(tr. Hamill)

And again, context lends further understanding:

. . .  the Japanese New Year (shogatsu or oshogatsu) is today the most significant holiday in Japan.    . . . On Japanese New Year’s Day, the family starts the New Year with a "breakfast of mochi" or rice cake.

For us, the rice cake offered his daughter would be viewed as a sparse and inexpensive celebration treat. After all, our typical holiday banquets consist of abundant spreads of sumptuous foods and our problem is obesity, not near starvation. For the poor in Issa’s time, a rice cake would have been an expensive gift to a child too young to appreciate the sacrifice. As for the seeming incongruence about his daughter having been born only the previous May and yet being two years old, traditionally in many Asian cultures, babies are considered one year old when they are born.

The passage may have simply been a joyful moment worth noting, but it may also serve as a metaphor for Issa’s wish that his forthcoming journey will be approached with the freshness of a child experiencing the early years on life’s path. Indeed, many of Issa’s haiku reflect the attitude that becoming child-like was a worthy aim:

turning into a child
on New Year's Day …
I'd like that!
(tr. Lanoue)
About this, Lanoue writes:

Issa's decision to become a child again isn't completely absurd, for it is his mission as a haiku poet to see the world with open, nonjudgmental, child-like eyes. Too many adults, in their daily rush, hurry past Nature's treasures without paying attention to them, without really seeing them. This year, Issa vows to do otherwise.

Another contextual issue that might be considered is that a Japanese reader, knowing about Issa’s life and particularly about the early death of his daughter, is likely to respond to the passage with more compassion than an uninformed western reader.

Even without the various pieces of contextual information presented above, contemporary readers will readily understand Issa’s reactions to New Year’s celebrations and identify with his love of his daughter, expressed by his delight in watching her at play. While I have curmudgeonly attitudes about our Christmas celebrations, their materialism, falseness and lack of focus on Christian charity, I’ve always treasured the family gatherings. I was enchanted, for example, when my young daughters, dressed as elves, delivered the gifts handed to them by my father-in-law, dressed as Santa. I’m fairly certain that the girls had been psychologically transformed into elves during this family ceremony. On the other hand, a greeting card from my auto dealer or dentist leaves me cold, just as Issa had disdain for the actors arriving at his door to offer New Year’s salutations (and receive an offering).

The last passage and the third haiku takes us into Issa’s transcendence through humor:

No servant to draw wakamizu, New Year's "first water."

But look: Deputy
Crow arrives to enjoy
the first New Year's bath
(tr. Hamill)

Wakamizu, the first water drawn on the morning of New Year's Day, is believed to have the magical power to maintain health and prolong life. It is practiced today with ritualistic splendor.19

Here Issa is sharing his delight in watching a crow enjoy a bath in a rain puddle. And who among us has not enjoyed watching birds (sparrows, jays, robins in my backyard) enjoying puddles and even dust baths?

Also worth mentioning is that crows figure prominently in Issa’s haiku and thus may serve as an allusion. In my culture, the crow is considered by many to be a noisy, invasive pest, and in a mythical or superstitious sense, a harbinger of bad news or even death. However, in Issa’s era the crow may have been seen in a more positive light. In China and Japan, for example, the crow has a positive mythology: three-legged crow lives in the heart of the sun and his three legs represent the morning, afternoon, and evening.20 And Issa, with his compassionate focus on creatures, is likely to have had a more balanced view of crows as the social, intelligent and playful yet noisy nuisances and crop raiders that they are. Here’s an example of how Issa sees crows and that leads me to think that with his peasant roots he may have identified with the crow:

crow and nightingale
pass through it too …
purification hoop
(tr. Lanoue)

This haiku is best understood with Lanoue’s comments on its context:

This haiku refers to a hoop made out of miscanthus reed, used for a summer purification ritual. If one passes through it, one is protected from infectious diseases. In this haiku, both a crow and a nightingale pass through, suggesting that the hoop welcomes both commoners (crows) and nobility (nightingales).

To summarize, Issa’s haibun can be understood and identified with on personal level even across the gap of several centuries and the differences between his and a reader’s culture. Even this brief exploration into context has helped me to understand Issa’s particular circumstances which inform his prose and haiku.

However, for a deeper set of examples of the roles that allusion and culture played in Issa’s writing, I recommend David Lanoue’s recent article “Stories Behind the Haiku: Cultural Memory in Haiku” where he explores Issa’s practice of packing his haiku with allusions to literary classics and folklore. Lanoue writes:

When Issa incorporates such allusions into his poetry, it is not with an intent to show off cleverness or erudition. He is simply looking both inward and outward, mingling memory with perception. Earlier cultural narratives infiltrate his consciousness and join with the immediate im­pressions of his five senses, producing haiku in which past stories and present situations seamlessly combine.21

This, Lanoue concludes, should inform the practice of haiku composition and, I would add, the writing of haibun:

Paying attention to this aspect of Issa can lead to an insight that might be helpful for haiku poets today: the immediate moment of a haiku can legitimately include cultural memories triggered in that moment. In a sense, such poetry exists in the interval between the past and now.

A final point: as I made my way through Oraga Haru, I realized increasingly that while some contextual detail may increase appreciation, it may be that a single introductory passage from a lengthy travel journal would be better understood as part of a whole, just as with the opening pages of a novel where there is much to follow. The entire work should be read to gain a better appreciation for the man, his times and his writing style. And I would hope that the passage I’ve selected for purposes of this essay would encourage readers to do so.