The poet known as Issa was born Kobayashi Yatar in 1763 in the village of Kashiwabara, a settlement of approximately one hundred houses in the highlands of the province of Shinano. The rugged beauty of the region, especially the gemlike Lake Nojiri two miles east of the town, led to the development of a tourist community in the twentieth century, but the harsh winter climate, with snowdrifts of more than ten feet not uncommon, restricted growth in Issa’s time. The area was still moderately prosperous, however, because there was a central post office on the main highway from the northwestern provinces to the capital city of Edo (now Tokyo). The lord of the powerful Kaga clan maintained an official residence that he used on his semiannual visits to the shogun in Edo, and a cultural center developed around a theater that featured dramatic performances, wrestling exhibitions, and poetry readings.
Issa was the son of a fairly prosperous farmer who supplemented his income by providing packhorse transportation for passengers and freight. His composition of a “death-verse” suggests a high degree of literary awareness. In the first of a series of domestic tragedies, Issa’s mother died when he was three, but his grandmother reared him with deep affection until Issa’s father remarried. Although his stepmother treated him well for two years, on the birth of her first child, she relegated Issa to a role as a subordinate. When she suggested that a farmer’s son did not need formal schooling, Issa was forced to discontinue his study of reading and writing under a local master. When her baby cried, she accused Issa of causing its pain and beat him so that he was frequently marked with bruises.
According to legend, these unhappy circumstances inspired Issa’s first poem. At the age of nine or so, Issa was unable to join the local children at a village festival because he did not have the new clothes the occasion required. Playing by himself, he noticed a fledgling sparrow fallen from its nest. Observing it with what would become a characteristic sympathy for nature’s outcasts, he declared:
Come and play,little orphan sparrow—play with me!
The poem was probably written years later in reflection on the incident, but Issa displayed enough literary ability in his youth to attract the attention of the proprietor of the lord’s residence, a man skilled in calligraphy and haiku poetry, who believed that Issa would be a good companion for his own son. He invited Issa to attend a school he operated in partnership with a scholar in Chinese studies who was also a haiku poet. Issa could attend the school only at night and on holidays—sometimes carrying his stepbrother on his back—when he was not compelled to assist with farm chores, but this did not prevent him from cultivating his literary inclinations. On one of the occasions when he was assisting his father by leading a passenger on a packhorse, the traveler ruminated on the name of a mountain that they were passing. “Black Princess! O Black Princess!” he repeated, looking at the snow-topped peak of Mount Kurohime. When Issa asked the man what he was doing, he replied that he was trying to compose an appropriate haiku for the setting. To the astonishment of the traveler, Issa proclaimed: “Black Princess is a bride—/ see her veiled in white.”
Issa’s studies were completely terminated when his grandmother died in 1776. At his stepmother’s urging, Issa was sent to Edo, thrown into a kind of exile in which he was expected to survive on his own. His life in the capital in his teenage years is a mystery, but in 1790, he was elected to a position at an academy of poetics, the Katsushika school. The school had been founded by a friend and admirer of Bash who named it for Bash’s home, and although Issa undoubtedly had the ability to fulfill the expectations of his appointment, his innovative instincts clashed with the more traditional curriculum already in place at the school. In 1792, Issa voluntarily withdrew from the school, proclaiming himself Haikaiji Issa in a declaration of poetic independence. His literary signature literally translates as “Haikai Temple One-Tea.” The title “Haikai Temple” signifies that he was a priest of haiku poetry (anticipating Allen Ginsberg’s assertion “Poet is Priest!”), and as he wrote, “In as much as life is empty as a bubble which vanishes instantly, I will henceforth call myself Issa, or One Tea.” In this way, he was likening his existence to the bubbles rising in a cup of tea—an appropriate image, considering the importance of the tea ceremony in Japanese cultural life.
During the next ten years, Issa traveled extensively, making pilgrimages to famous religious sites and prominent artistic seminars, staying with friends who shared his interest in poetry. His primary residence was in Fukagawa, where he earned a modest living by giving lessons in haikai, possibly assisted by enlightened patrons who appreciated his abilities. By the turn of the century, he had begun to establish a wider reputation and his prospects for artistic recognition were improving, but his father’s final illness drew him home to offer comfort and support. His father died in 1801 and divided his estate equally between Issa and his half brother. When his stepmother contested the will, Issa was obliged to leave once again, and he spent the next thirteen years living in Edo while he attempted to convince the local authorities to carry out the provisions of his father’s legacy. His frustrations are reflected in a poem he wrote during this time: “My old village calls—/ each time I come near,/ thorns in the blossom.”
Finally, in 1813, Issa was able to take possession of his half of the property, and in April, 1814, he married a twenty-eight-year-old woman named Kiku, the daughter of a farmer in a neighboring village. Completely white-haired and nearly toothless, he still proclaimed that he “became a new man” in his fifties, and during the next few years, his wife gave birth to five children. Unfortunately, all of them died while still quite young. Using a familiar line of scripture that compares the evanescence of life to the morning dew as a point of origin, Issa expressed his sense of loss in one of his most famous and least translatable poems:
This dewdrop world—yet for dew dropsstill, a dewdrop world
In May, 1823, Issa’s wife died, but he remarried almost immediately. This marriage was not harmonious, and when the woman returned to her parent’s home, Issa sent her a humorous verse as a declaration of divorce and as a statement of forgiveness. Perhaps for purposes of continuing his family, Issa married one more time in 1825, his bride this time a forty-six-year-old farmer’s daughter. His wife was pregnant when Issa died in the autumn of 1828, and his only surviving child, Yata, was born after his death. Her survival enabled Issa’s descendants to retain the property in his home village for which he had struggled during many of the years of his life.
In his last years, while he was settled in his old home, he achieved national fame as a haikai poet. His thoughts as a master were valued, and he held readings and seminars with pupils and colleagues. After recovering from a fairly serious illness in 1820, he adopted the additional title Soseibo, or “Revived Priest,” indicating not only his position of respect as an artist and seer but also his resiliency and somewhat sardonic optimism. As a kind of summary of his career, he wrote a poem that legend attributes to his deathbed but that was probably given to a student to be published after his death. It describes the journey of a man from the washing bowl in which a new baby is cleansed to the ritual bath in which the body is prepared for burial: “Slippery words/ from bathtub to bathtub—/ just slippery words.” The last poem Issa actually wrote was found under the pillow on the bed where he died. After his house had burned down in 1827, he and his wife lived in an adjoining storehouse with no windows and a leaky roof: “Gratitude for the snow/ on the bed quilt—/ it too is from Heaven.” Issa used the word jdo (Pure Land) for Heaven, a term that describes the Heaven of the Buddha Amida. Issa was a member of the largest Pure Land sect, Jdo Shinsh, and he shared the sect’s faith in the boundless love of Amida to redeem a world in which suffering and pain are frequent. His final poem is an assertion of that faith in typically bleak circumstances, and a final declaration of his capacity for finding beauty in the most unlikely situations.