Treasures from Issa, Part 2

Vol 2-3, November 2002

 Shades of Ink – Translating the Japanese Poem
Xavier University, Louisiana, USA

Treasures From Issa
2nd Installment

An obvious benefit of posting translations on the Internet–as opposed to publishing them in unforgiving hard copy–is that visitors to a website can offer corrections and insights which can be almost instantaneously uploaded. Since spring 2000 I have been diligently translating Issa and putting this work online for public critique, acknowledging all help received. A nice arrangement, in theory, but how many people have the language skills, familiarity with haiku tradition, and the time to proofread and think deeply about upwards of 3,700 haiku? This autumn (2002) I found that someone, or, to be more exact, he found me. Shinji Ogawa, a self-described hermit, stumbled onto my Issa site not too long ago and ever since has been generously, patiently sending corrections and comments, poem by poem. The system, I’m happy to report, works.

Here are some examples of haiku by Issa that Shinji, from his hermit’s hut somewhere in the world, has been clarifying.

The first contains an idiom, he to mo omowanu, (consider it less than a fart), which Shinji translates: “don’t care a bit about it.”

chiru ume wo he to mo omowanu o-kao kana

not giving a damn
that plum blossoms fall…
his saintly face

The haiku has the prescript, “Picture of Great Master Dharma.” Dharma (Bodhidharma) was the Buddhist patriarch who brought Buddhism from India to China. In the haiku, Issa imagines that Dharma considers the falling of the plum blossoms “less than a fart”–not important in the least. In this way Dharma embodies, and silently teaches, a lesson in Buddhism. The passing of the blossoms–life to death, being to non-being–doesn’t put a frown or even a wrinkle of concern on the face of the enlightened one; instead, he accepts the world’s transience with sublime indifference, like a good saint should. Thanks to Shinji’s explanation of the colloquialism at the heart of the haiku, its religious meaning reveals itself in my translation.

Here’s another religious poem that Shinji helped to decipher:

yûzuki ya nabe no naka nite naku tanishi

night moon–
pond snails singing
in the kettle

Again Issa provides a prescript: “Hell.” Pure Land Buddhists maintain that there are Six Ways of possible future life reincarnation: (1) as a sufferer in hell, (2) as a hungry ghost, (3) as an animal, (4) as an angry demon, (5) as a human being, or (6) as an enlightened saint in the Western Paradise. This wonderfully alliterative haiku (nabe no naka nite naku) begins a six-poem series on the Six Ways; as such, it is Issa’s haiku portrait of hell–this much is clear. Less clear is what he means by pond-snails “singing.” Originally, I had assumed that this was fanciful hyperbole, but Shinji asserts that the snails’ song is real: the splish-splash of them spitting water.

Intimate knowledge of Issa’s biography is essential for making sense of some of his haiku, like the following:

medetai to iu mo futari no zôni kana

“Happy New Year!”
we say, with rice cakes
for only two

Shinji surmises that “this haiku alludes to the sadness of his son’s death the year before last…in the year before last they were three, now they are two.” The bereaved couple share zôni, a New Year’s dish of boiled vegetables and glutinous rice cakes, one assumes, silently. If Shinji is correct in his reading, Lewis Mackenzie completely misses the boat when he claims that the haiku is a happy allusion to Issa’s marriage (39). I think Shinji is right, and so I have inserted the “only” in the third line. This word doesn’t appear in Issa’s original, but his domestic situation implies it.

Here’s another haiku that becomes much clearer in the context of Issa’s life:

oboro-oboro fumeba mizu nari mayoi michi

in hazy night
stepping into water…
losing my way

The season word, oboro, refers to a hazy night of spring. In this uncertain, dreamlike light, Issa steps off a path into water. My friend, Hiroshi Kobori, notes that the poet’s state of mind is like the misty night. He feels insecure and bewildered, aware of the uncertainty of his own future. According to Lewis Mackenzie, the haiku alludes to the death of one of Issa’s friends, a Buddhist priest. On a journey, Issa went to visit him only to find that he had been dead for several years. Mackenzie translates the last phrase, “Ways of delusion!” (30). In Saigoku kikô (“Western Provinces Travel Diary”), Issa provides an explanatory prescript of which Shinji Ogawa offers this paraphrase:

After hearing of his priest friend Sarai’s death, Issa begged his replacement for a night’s stay at the temple but was refused. Counting on Sarai, he had come over 300 ri (900 miles), “without a soul to lean on, going over the fields and the yards…”

Here’s a haiku that I was positive I understood until Shinji wrote me about it:

haru tatsu ya shi jû san nen hito no meshi

spring begins–
forty three years
fed by strangers

Literally, the food is “rice” (meshi). In traditional Japan the first day of the year was also the first day of spring. On that day–not the birthday–a year was added to a person’s age. Shinji helped me to grasp Issa’s meaning in the phrase, “people’s rice” (hito no meshi), which I formerly translated, “human food.” Shinji explained that hito in this context means “unrelated persons,” and so the haiku alludes to the poet’s long, bitter exile from his native village–yet another example of biographical information shedding light on a haiku.

At times, Issa’s thought in a particular haiku eludes even Japanese experts, as in this example:

shira-gumo no sakura wo kuguru toyama kana

creeping through white
cherry blossom clouds…
the mountain

Although Lewis Mackenzie (25) and Kai Falkman (50) contend that toyama is the name of a particular mountain, the word denotes any mountain located near a village; this was pointed out to me by Robin D. Gill, who went on to say that Issa is painting a picture here of

white clouds wafting through cherry blossoms on mountains seen from below. The humour, then, for Issa is never without it, lies in the mixing of two types of clouds.

Shinji Ogawa offers three ways to read this haiku: (1) “At Toyama hill, the white clouds creep through the cherry blossoms” [Robin’s theory]; (2) “At Toyama hill, we creep through the cherry blossoms in a white cloud”; (3) “Toyama hill creeps through the cherry blossoms in a white cloud.” Although he dismisses the third possibility as the least likely, I find it a compelling poetic image and have redone my translation in this direction. White blossoms form a “cloud” so thick, the nearby mountain seems to slither its way through it.

A haiku about a skylark is equally befuddling:

furu sato no mienaku narite naku hibari

its home village
no longer in sight…
singing lark

The village is out of sight, but to whom? In his translation, Lewis Mackenzie implies that the village is out of sight to Issa, but he can still hear the lark there (55). Shinji, however, again lists multiple ways to picture the haiku: (1) Issa’s home village is out of sight to Issa. Issa hears the skylarks that are plentiful in his village, reminding him of it; (2) After his home village is out of sight, Issa notices the singing lark; (3) The singing lark flies high, trying but no longer able to see its home village; (4) Issa’s home village is no longer in sight to Issa, but from the vantage point of the singing lark, the village may be visible. Shinji comments,

Due to the short form, ambiguity is one of haiku’s properties. In my opinion, haiku poets should minimize ambiguity. Implication and ambiguity are two different things.

In my translation, I go with option 3: I think the lark personifies Issa. The lark is thinking about his own sad departure from his home village, a slantwise suggestion of the poet’s emotion.

In my next installment of this series, I look forward to sharing more highlights of commentary sent by my website visitors. I’m hoping that Shinji continues to contribute to my growing comment file, but he need not be the only one. If you have insights about a particular Issa poem or my translation thereof, please email me ( Perhaps next time I write this column I’ll not only have fresh updates from my hermit friend Shinji Ogawa, but your comments and corrections as well.


Falkman, Kai. Understanding Haiku: A Pyramid of Meaning. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2002.

Haiku of Kobyashi Issa (website), David G. Lanoue:

Kobayashi Issa. Issa zenshû. Nagano: Shinano Mainichi Shimbunsha, 1976-79.

Mackenzie, Lewis. The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa. London: John Murray, 1957; rpt. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1984.

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