Kobayashi Issa

The last of Japan’s pre-modern hokku masters, Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) was born to a farming family in Kashiwabara in Shinano. He had an unhappy childhood, being tormented by his stepmother until he left home for Edo at the age of fourteen. After supporting himself with a range of menial jobs, he was eventually to enter the Katsushika poetry school and become a teacher there at the age of 28. Unfortunately, his style was too modern for such an orthodox establishment, and he resigned after less than a year, returning to Kashiwabara to visit his father, and renew hostilities with his stepmother and step-brother. Subsequently, he embarked upon a series of poetic journeys around Japan, but always returning to his base in Edo. He gained a considerable reputation as poet and teacher, and was much respected, even by higher-ranking samurai. He was also known for his irascibility and lack of respect for the conventions of the time: one anecdote relates how he once attended upon the daimyō of Kaga in his oldest clothes, and concluded their conversation by telling him that he thought little of aristocrats who treated poetry as a hobby. On leaving, the daimyô presented him with some rolls of cloth, which Issa promptly tossed in his midden on his return home, remarking to his students that it would have been impolite to refuse His Lordship’s gift to his face. After his father’s death, he became embroiled in a lengthy dispute with his step-brother, who refused to honour the terms of his father’s will, until Issa, in 1812, threatened to petition the Shōgun, and forced a resolution. At this late stage in his life, he married and settled in Kashiwabara, but once again was blighted by misfortune. His first wife bore him four children, all of whom died in infancy, and then died herself in 1823; and his second wife left him and returned to her parents after only a few weeks of marriage. Finally, in 1825, he married for a third and final time, and this union was to produce a daughter, born in the spring of 1828 following his death.

Issa’s contribution to hokku was to draw it out of the sterile confines of temples and schools, where it had been gradually ossifiying since Bashō’s day, and make it relevant to everyday life again. While Buson is today regarded as the greater poet, in his day his influence was largely confined to the old Imperial capital of Kyoto, and it was Issa who was to re-energise haiku composition in the shogunal capital of Edo with his sympathy for the vulnerable in life and his lively appreciation of the beauties of nature.

'Simply moving and elegant'