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 |

Can a lay exploration be of use to other writers new to haibun who will also hear about the masters and wonder about their approach to haibun?

One place in the haiku genre world that I enjoy visiting is the editor’s choice page in The Heron’s Nest.24 There the editors explain their best-of-issue picks. Initially, I’d quickly read the selected haiku and not get much from them. Then I’d look at the editors’ explanations and their impressions of the work. They’ve learned how to appreciate haiku through exploring context, highlighting specific poetic phrases and relating the content to their own experiences, as when they personally step into the writer’s shoes.

I came to realize that most haiku are not readily appreciated with a quick reading, nor even, as some have suggested, through several readings aloud. It takes intuition, method and work to ‘get it’. Of course, the editors, other readers or we ourselves may have a different interpretation than intended by the writer, but that’s another matter.

It’s my belief that commentaries by well-versed readers are potentially as valuable as scholarly treatments in lending insights, particularly to readers and writers who are newer to the form.

Of course, the work of scholars is critical to guiding us to a deep understanding of a work, but often their writing is lengthy, academic and jargon prone. As such, it fails to engage on an intuitive level. Thus, as has often been asserted, the scholars may be mostly speaking among themselves. However, without their translations and commentaries, we’d not be able to have a conversation with the masters because it wouldn’t exist in our language in the first place.

In an editorial in Haibun Today, Jeffrey Woodward has commented on the need for a critical literature on English-language haibun:

If haibun is to survive and develop as a viable genre, bibliographies, anthologies, monographs, book reviews and critical essays will play a role that is only slightly less central than the writing of haibun itself. Nor may haibun poets cast their eyes about the larger environment and blame their relative obscurity, with any justice, upon an indifferent "mainstream" literati or broader haikai community. Writers in any arena have an obligation not only to write well but to work, also, to promote that writing, to secure an audience and to improve, thereby, the odds of their art's survival.25

I would agree that two levels of literary criticism are essential: that done by scholars and translators, and that done by contemporary readers and writers. We non-scholars can do this by sharing our impressions on a deeper level than “I enjoyed this” or “I didn’t get it”. Today there is a world of resources on the Internet, widespread availability of inexpensive books, and increasingly rich resources found in our own haiku-genre journals to assist us in doing so.

On a personal level, I've found that writing commentaries takes me further into a haibun than one or two readings would. Reading haiku and haibun is, after all, an acquired skill — one that has to be worked at. And deconstructing a piece of fine writing can lead to ideas for improving one’s own writing.


I hope that I’ve been able to encourage others to similarly read in greater depth and to consider writing commentaries on haibun that appeal to them for whatever reason.

As for further gains by reading the ancients, Jane Hirshfield’s thoughts about two Japanese female master poets are apt:

We turn to these poems not to discover the past but to experience the present more deeply. In this way, they satisfy the test of all great literature, for it is our own lives we find illuminated in them.26

Indeed, the next time I decline to put up Christmas lights, I’m sure that Issa’s distant voice will come to mind as I gaze out into the darkness of night.

And Issa’s haiku will continue to remind me of my good fortune despite life’s myriad problems:

What good luck!
Bitten by
This year’s mosquitoes too.
(tr. Robert Hass)


Information about Issa

There is a vast amount of information on Issa and his works on the Internet and in various books. Here are a few facts condensed from Wikipedia’s “Kobayashi Issa” and Lanoue’s “About Issa” websites:

Kobayashi Yatarô (June 15, 1763 - January 5, 1828) chose Issa (Cup-of-Tea) as his haiku name. In his typical self-deprecating manner, he called himself "Shinano Province's Chief Beggar" and "Priest Cup-of-Tea of Haiku Temple." A devout follower of the Jôdoshinshû sect, he imbued his work with Buddhist themes: sin, grace, trusting in Amida Buddha, reincarnation, transience, compassion for the creatures of the earth as well as the poor, and the joyful celebration of the ordinary.

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. Issa is perhaps the most loved of the Japanese masters for his humour, and accessibility and focus on creatures.

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. He wrote many verses on plants and the lower creatures: 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. By contrast, Bashō's (total) verses (on all subjects) are comparatively few in number, about two thousand in all).

Issa was the first son of a farm family. He endured the loss of his mother, who died when he was three. Her death was the first of numerous difficulties. He had a falling out with his stepmother, who was a woman of hard-working peasant stock. 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. During the following years, he wandered through Japan and fought over his inheritance with his stepmother (his father died in 1801). 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 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. The daughter referred to in Oraga Haru died less than two-and-a-half years later, inspiring Issa to write this haiku (translated by Lewis Mackenzie):

The world of dew –
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet …
(tr. Lewis Mackenzie)


book cover Ray Rasmussen is haibun co-editor (with Glenn Coats) at Haibun Today. Previously he has been haibun editor at A Hundred Gourds, Notes from the Gean and the World Haiku Review.

His haibun, haiku, haiga and articles have appeared in various haiku genre journals and his haibun are carried in several anthologies.

Ray was introduced to haiku when he photographed the Kuramoto Japanese Garden near his home in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. In putting up a website on the garden he wanted to include Asian poetry, and the Internet led him to haiku. He became a member of the World Haiku Club and subsequently his world expanded into the fullness of English-language haiku forms.

On his haiku journey, Ray developed a particular interest in haiga and haibun. Seeing a need for more venues that featured haibun, he co-founded Contemporary Haibun Online with Jim Kacian, A Hundred Gourds with Lorin Ford, Melinda Hipple and Ron Moss, and he assisted Jeffrey Woodward in changing his Haibun Today Blog into the website journal, Haibun Today.

Ray currently is leading a Haibun Study Group, particularly for writers newer to the genre. If interested, contact him at His photography and haiku may be found at Ray's website and a list of his commentaries and articles can be found at Ray's commentaries and articles.


My thanks to Margaret Dornaus and Beverly Momoi for bringing Issa’s Travel Journal to my attention; to Beverly Momoi, Nancy Hull & Gary Ford for comments on various drafts; to Jeffrey Woodward and Beverly Momoi for their detailed comments; to Lorin Ford for her comments and copy editing; to Ron Moss for his wonderful haiga with Issa’s haiku; and to Jim Sullivan for his website layout for I know it can be agonizing to set up a complex webpage like this.


1. “Kobayashi Issa,” taken on Jan. 30, 2014 from Wikipedia.

2. Donna Fleischer in “The American Haibun” website writes: “The first haibun are found in Matsuo Basho’s (1644 – 1694) travel diaries in which he recorded his outer and inner journeys on foot throughout 17th century Japan, of which, Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Road to the Interior, is the best known. lilliputreview

3. Sam Hamill, “Sam’s Haibun Tips,” taken on January 17, 2014 from Paul Nelson’s Website.

4. “Kobayashi Issa”, Petri Liukkonen Website, taken on Jan 27, 2014.

5. Jon LaCure, “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,” Modern Haiku, 35:3, Autumn 2004.

6. Makoto Ueda, Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa, Brill Academic Publishers, 2004.

7. David G. Lanoue, Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa, Buddhist Books International, 2004.

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

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

10. Joan Zimmerman, “What English-Language Haibun Poets Can Learn From Japanese Practices,” Contemporary Haibun Online 9:4, January 2014.

11. Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku, The Ecco Press, 1994.

12. Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku, The Ecco Press, 1994.

13. Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction To Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets From Basho to Shiki, Garden City, NY, Doubleday Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company.

14. David G. Lanoue, “Master Bashô, Master Buson ... and Then There’s Issa,” Simply Haiku, 3:3 Autumn 2005.

15. “ Oku no Hosomichi,” taken from Wikipedia on January 30, 2014. Basho’s travel journal is translated alternately as The Narrow Road to the Deep North and The Narrow Road to the Interior.

16. Steven D. Carter, from the Preface of the Kindle Reader version of Haiku from the Renga Masters: Before to Basho Haiku, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Carter writes: “Abroad or in Japan, mention of the word haiku brings to mind Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the greatest master of that genre.”

17. “Tsuru & Kame (Crane & Turtle)” Taken on January 15, 2013 from the Miyokographix Website .

18. “The meaning of Japanese New Year traditions,” Taken on January 15, 2015 from the Japan Today Website.

19. For an example of Wakamizu in today’s Japan, visit the Ryukyu Gallery website.

20. “Crow,” Wikipedia, taken on February 17, 2014.

21. David G. Lanoue, “Stories Behind the Haiku: Cultural Memory in Haiku” Modern Haiku, 44:3, Autumn 2013.

22. Jeffrey Woodward. From a personal correspondence with the author. March 1 and 2, 2014. Published with permission.

23. Ken Jones, “Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories,” Contemporary Haibun Online 3:3 September 2007.

24. The Heron’s Nest website can be found here.

25. Jeffrey Woodward, "Haibun Tomorrow? Maybe, Maybe Not." Haibun Today (March 12, 2008).

26. Jane Hirshfield, The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (Vintage Books, 1990) with Mariko Aratani