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Kobayashi Issa

Kobayashi Issa (小林一茶, born Kobayashi Nobuyuki, June 15, 1763, Kashiwabara, Shinano province [present-day Nagano prefecture], Japan; childhood name Kobayashi Yatarō; died January 5, 1828, Kashiwabara), Japanese haiku poet. Issa is revered in Japan and internationally as one of the greatest poets of the haikai tradition, ranked with Matsuo Bashō and Yosa Buson.

Family and early life

Kobayashi Issa
portrait from Issa Hokkushū (1829);
courtesy of the Issa Memorial Museum

Kobayashi Issa was born Kobayashi Nobuyuki on June 15, 1763 in the village of Kashiwabara, Shinano province (present-day Nagano prefecture), Japan, He died of complications from a stroke on January 5, 1828, in Kashiwabara.1 He was a writer of haikai (haiku), haikai no rengatanka, and haibun, a writer/artist of haiga (haiku painting), and a popular teacher of haiku in Shinano province. Issa—a haigō or penname that literally means “One Tea”—is revered in Japan as one of the greatest poets of haiku tradition, often ranked by Japanese readers and critics in third place after Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉) and Yosa Buson (與謝 蕪村). As a widely admired poet in translation, Issa is without doubt the second most celebrated haiku poet in terms of his international reputation. He was a prolific poet who participated in more than 250 renku sessions (that we know of) and who left behind in his journals more than 22,000 haiku (if we include variants of verses). Issa is known and celebrated for his compassion for both humans and animals; for his delight in children; for his deeply subjective verses about the joys and tragedies of his personal life; for his sincere devotion to Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land) Buddhism; for his irreverent humor; and for his daring willingness to satirize authority figures, both secular and religious, of the rigidly hierarchical society of early modern Japan. If Bashō is the most revered poet of Japanese haiku tradition, Issa is, arguably, the most loved.

Issa’s father (family name: Kobayashi; given name: Yagobei) was a farmer who lived with his wife Kuni in Kashiwabara village in mountainous Shinano province. On the fifth day of Fifth Month (June 15, 1763, by the Western calendar), Issa was born and was given the name Yatarō. He would have been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, raising buckwheat, rice, and other crops on the nearly two acres of family farmland, but a different destiny unfolded for him, shaped by personal tragedy. On the seventeenth day of Eighth Month in 1765, when Yatarō was three by traditional Japanese reckoning (according to which a child is age one at birth and gains a year each New Year’s thereafter), Kuni died. The memory of this traumatic loss of his mother and the sorrows that resulted from that event still stung the poet at age fifty-two, when he wrote this haiku, which he later identified in a headnote in Pale Blue Sky (浅黄空 Asagi-zora) to be a childhood memory. This initial version of the poem appears in his poetic journal Seventh Diary (七番日記 Shichiban nikki) in 1814:

ware to kite   asobu ya oya no   nai suzume

coming to play
with me …
orphan sparrow

Later, in 1819, Issa revised the haiku, giving it the form that is admired and memorized by children today—changing it from third-person description (“coming to play with me”) to a heart-felt command (“come and play with me”):

ware to kite   asobe ya oya no   nai suzume

come and play
with me …
orphan sparrow

This more popular version of the haiku appears in Oraga haru (おらが春, My Spring ), his poetic diary of 1819, where it is prefaced with a self-portrait of the poet as a lonely, morose child at age six, cruelly taunted by village children for being motherless. He would spend long days by himself, he claimed, crouched among the woodpiles and reeds behind the family garden. His life then was all “grief and sorrow.” In a different text, he supplied more details about the moment that inspired the haiku: “A parentless sparrow made himself known by singing pitifully, alone. In a little shack in the back yard, I cared for it all day.” This is one of Issa’s most famous haiku in which he addressed an animal as a friend and a peer. He felt not only sympathy for the motherless bird; he saw himself in it.

His father remarried when the future poet was eight. His new stepmother, Satsu, was cruel and abusive, according to Issa. His damning depiction of Satsu should be taken with a grain of salt, however, since when he wrote about her the two of them were embroiled in a bitter inheritance dispute. Regardless of the exact biographical details of the case, Issa’s childhood following the death of his mother was without doubt an unhappy one. “Stepchild Issa” saw himself in motherless sparrows, so when he wrote of them in haiku he was also portraying Yatarō: the little, wounded boy inside the man.

In 1776 Yatarō turned fourteen. Kana, his grandmother, died in Eighth Month, depriving him of the last vestige of maternal affection in the family home. Soon thereafter he grew deathly ill, but luckily for young Yatarō, his fever broke, and he survived. The following spring (1777, age 15) it was time for him to leave snowy Shinano. Years later, in his 1801 Journal of My Father’s Last Days (父の終焉日記 Chichi no shūen nikki), Issa described the situation that sent him on the road at such an early age. The speaker in the passage was his dying father, reminiscing:

Well now, from the time you were three and your mother passed, as you grew older you didn’t live in harmony with your new mother. Day after day spirits were injured; night after night flames of anger burned—never a peaceful moment for the heart. Suddenly I decided, as long as we all lived in one place it would always be thus—until you departed from our native village.… And so, in the spring of your fourteenth year, I sent you off to distant Edo.

When he reached Edo—present-day Tokyo—Yatarō encountered the disdain with which many citizens of the capital regarded impoverished peasants from the provinces. Migrant workers from farm country who sought employment in Edo were called derisively mukudori (椋鳥, gray starlings), perhaps an allusion to the way they swarmed the roads like flocks of migrating birds, as translator Nobuyuki Yuasa (湯浅 信之) suggests. Or as the editors of Issa’s Complete Works (一茶全集 Issa zenshū) believe, mukudori could be a reference to the plain, shabby clothes worn by the migrants. Either way, the term is derogatory and cruel. Years later, Issa would recall the experience in several haiku, such as this one:

mukudori to iu   hito sawagu   yozamu kana
those who call me “starling”
raise a ruckus …
a cold night

Early adult years

In 1787, eleven years after his arrival in Edo, twenty-five-year-old Issa was listed as a student of Chikua’s Nirokuan (二六庵) school of haiku.2 Three years later, in 1790, when Chikua died, he seems to have assumed for a brief time the role of master of the school, signing his work “One Tea” (一茶, Issa). Issa did not settle into a sedentary existence in the shogun’s city, however. Inspired by the example of Bashō, a year later he took to the open road with travel journal and bamboo brush in hand, on his first haiku-writing journey.

He traveled far and wide. Two years after his death, when his students gathered to publish his haiku in an anthology, Issa hokku shū (一茶俳句集, Issa Hokku Collection), they singled out in their preface the following verse to epitomize their departed master’s life and art:

matsu kage ni   nete kū roku jū   yoshū kana
in pine-tree shade
sleeping, eating …
sixty provinces!

The students commented: “As for the Old Man, after his ‘old pond’ there can be no other ‘old pond’ haiku. And as for Issa, after his ‘pine-tree shade,’ there can be no other ‘pine-tree shade’ haiku.” The “Old Man” is Matsuo Bashō, whose name is forever attached to the haiku, “old pond: a frog-jumping-into-water sound.” Issa’s “pine-tree shade” haiku, in similar fashion, made all other verses on that subject unnecessary, or so his devoted students claimed. They admired this poem so much, they erected a stone monument with an engraving of it in Issa’s native village of Kashiwabara on the third-year anniversary of his death. Their focus on this particular haiku of the many thousands that Issa wrote reveals his first audience’s first thought about their master. In the eyes of his disciples, Issa was above all else a traveler—one who slept and dined in the pine-tree shade of “sixty provinces”: a euphemism for the entire country of Japan.

In Third Month 1791, at age 29, Issa left Edo on his first walking tour, meeting with haiku poets in Shimōsa province, present-day Chiba prefecture. In Third Year of Kansei Era Travel Journal  (寛政三年紀行 Kansei san nen kikō ) he wrote, “This third year of Kansei [1791], Third Month, 26th day, leaving Edo behind, I anxiously departed. Frogs in the rice fields were raising a ruckus, the moon over the trees was veiled in mist; right away I set off on my journey.” This haiku followed:

kiji naite   ume ni kojiki no yo   nari keri 
pheasant singing—
it’s a plum blossom-filled
beggar’s world now!

The phrase “beggar’s world” (乞食の世 kojiki no yo), referred to the fact that Issa intended to beg for his meals and lodging along the way. Kaneko Tōta (金子 兜太), the most prominent modern Japanese critic of Issa, interpreted the mood of this haiku to be one of unbridled joy. Though a “beggar” now, Issa felt rich with plum blossoms and singing pheasants—and was ecstatic to be, at long last, following the example of Bashō, whose road journals, particularly his Narrow Road to the Far Provinces (奥の細道 Oku no hosomichi), provided the model for Issa’s own travel writing. In the opening passage of this same first travel diary, Issa caricatured himself as a “mad” drifter: “Rambling to the west, wandering to the east, there is a madman who never stays in one place. In the morning, he eats breakfast in Kazusa; by evening, he finds lodging in Musashi. Helpless as a white wave, apt to vanish like a bubble in froth—he is named Priest Issa.” Issa’s haiku name, “Priest Cup-of-Tea,” suggested the constant movement of his lifestyle and, as we shall see, hinted that his haiku way of being in the world was a deeply spiritual path.

The next year, in 1792 (Third Month, 25th day), Issa headed for the far west and south on a journey to Shikoku and Kyūshū. Leaving Edo, he wrote:

itsu awan   mi wa shiranuhi no   tōgasumi 
when will we meet again?
I’m off to the phosphorescent fires
in the far mist

An excellent illustration of how the spiritual discipline of travel can lead to an appreciation of transience, this haiku had the prescript, “Rain. Before setting off on my journey, saying farewell to the people staying behind.” This time, he was on his way to Shimabara Bay, a place known for ignis fatuus, that phosphorescent light known as “will-o’-the-wisp.” The answer to the poem’s question (“when will we meet again?”) is uncertain in this uncertain world: perhaps yes, perhaps no—one simply doesn’t know.

In 1795–97, from his thirty-third to his thirty-fifth years, Issa’s travels brought him to Matsuyama City on Shikoku Island, where the local poets embraced him. His reputation as a haiku poet was on the rise. At one point in 1796 he wrote,

shōgatsu no   kodomo ni natte   mitaki kana
becoming a child
on New Year’s Day …
I wish!

New Year’s Day, the first day of spring in the old Japanese calendar, is the most propitious day of the year. It evoked for people of Issa’s era notions of youth, vernal regeneration, and buoyant optimism. It furthermore inspired religious devotion for the native gods whose shrines they visited, along with deep, patriotic feeling at the outset of a new imperial year. The image of returning to a state of childhood served as a powerful and fitting symbol for the rapture of such a day. While one might read Issa’s hokku as mere wishful fantasy—to partake of the pleasures of the New Year’s season, from tasty rice cakes to bright-colored kites, with the innocent, wide-eyed enthusiasm of a child—it could also possibly be read as a sincere and serious intention. In fact, a close reading of Issa’s haiku about children and childlike awareness suggests that the notion of becoming a child not only pervades Issa’s poetry, it helps to explain, perhaps more than any other single factor, his greatness as a poet.

In Journal of My Father’s Last Days , Issa described his life using images suggestive of restless movement: “Like a floating cloud, thinking to go east then wandering west, with time passing like a wheel rolling down from the top of a hill, twenty-five years went by. Until my own head became white as frost, I kept distant from my parent.” The “parent” in the passage was Issa’s father, who was dying when he wrote this passage. In another entry of this diary, written shortly after his father’s death, the bereaved son contemplated his future. He wrote that he had promised his father to settle in the family home, but that his stepmother and half-brother had raised objections and blocked this from happening. Issa added, with resignation, that he supposed he would “once again become a cloud-water wanderer, hiding in whatever rocky crag or tree-shaded gorge, hating the wind and enduring the rain.” The phrase “cloud-water wanderer” (雲水 unsui) normally refers to an itinerant Buddhist priest, but Issa used the term to describe his life as a traveling haiku poet. His adoption of the moniker “priest” and his use of plainly Buddhist terminology to describe his lifestyle of constant motion—west to east, “rocky crag” to “tree-shaded gorge”—suggest that, despite all his playfulness and penchant for self-irony, Issa perceived his walk through the world as spiritual discipline, a Buddhist “way.” In several self-portraits recorded in his journals, he depicts himself as a walker, a wanderer, a drifting cloud, a stream of water—gliding and unattached. For wandering cloud-water priests such as Issa, the refusal to stay in one place made attachment to persons and things difficult. Constant movement, as a spiritual exercise, was a means of gaining insight into the transient nature of the universe.

Throughout Issa’s most rootless years, his stepmother Satsu and half-brother Senroku continued to oppose his return to Kashiwabara village and the family homestead, despite the fact that (according to Issa) his dying father’s request was for him to come home permanently. The following haiku, composed in 1810 (age 48), suggests his mood in that troubled period:

furu sato ya   yoru mo sawaru mo   bara no hana 
the closer I get
to my village, the more pain …
wild roses

The people of his native village did not embrace their returning native son, and so, approaching Kashiwabara, he felt pain instead of homecoming joy. In a prescript to this haiku in Seventh Diary, Issa reports that he entered Kashiwabara on the morning of Fifth Month, 19th day, 1810. He paid his respects at his father’s gravesite and then met with the village headman. While the content of their meeting was not revealed, it plainly had to do with the matter of Issa’s inheritance. He wrote tersely, “After seeing the village elder, [I] entered my house. As I expected, they offered me not even a cup of tea so I left there soon.” In another text dated that same year, he recopied this “wild roses” haiku and signed it “Issa the Stepchild” (継子一茶 mamako Issa). Stepchild Issa longed to return to Kashiwabara but met fierce opposition.

Later adult years

When he returned to Kashiwabara after years of restless traveling (Eleventh Month 1812), fifty-year-old Issa composed a haiku of transience that his disciples would later come to view as his death verse; they etched it on his gravestone:

kore ga maa   tsui no sumika ka   yuki go shaku
well here it is,
my final home?
five feet of snow

Issa’s final home (つひの栖か tsui no sumika) lay buried under five feet of snow, not unusual for Kashiwabara in wintertime. When he wrote this, he hadn’t yet resolved his inheritance dispute and so was staying in a rented house in the village: back in his hometown but not quite home. The outcome of the family struggle was still in doubt, so the question, “my final home?” reflects genuine uncertainty. In a later, undated revision he changed the middle phrase to pose a slightly different, though just as biographically grounded, question: “Is this, then, my death place?” (死に所か shii-dokoro ka). In both versions, Issa wondered if he was home for good. Snow covers the village, suggesting the coldness of a homecoming to a place with no loved ones to welcome him.

In Second Month of 1813, Issa was back in Kashiwabara, living in a rented house, determined to dig in his heels and settle the dispute with Senroku and Satsu once and for all. The family house was divided with a partition wall nailed down the middle, and the stepmother and half-brother vacated one side to make room for Yagobei’s returning firstborn. In autumn 1813 Issa moved in, thus keeping, after twelve years, his reported promise to his dying father.

In the following spring, Issa married. He was 52 by Japanese reckoning; his bride, Kiku, 28. On their wedding day, the 11th day of Fourth Month, he recorded in his diary, succinctly, “Clear weather. The wife came.” That same year, in Ninth Month, he wrote a haiku that playfully alluded to his late-in-life marriage:

hito naraba   go jū kurai zo   shika no koi
if you were human
it could take fifty years …
mating deer

Issa had finally married, but it had taken him over fifty years, which left precious little time for domestic bliss. Any young deer cavorting on a wooded mountain might seem luckier than such a groom.

After Issa and Kiku wed, the next order of business was making children. Kiku gave birth to the couple’s first son, Sentarō, on the 14th day of Fourth Month, 1816, according to Issa’s diary. However, in Fifth Month Sentarō, 27 days old, died. In Fifth Month, 4th day, of 1818, Kiku gave birth to a daughter named Sato, but, sadly, history repeated itself; the following year the baby caught smallpox and died. In Oraga haru Issa wrote a long, heartfelt prose description of her passing, which concluded: “In the end, on the 21st day of Sixth Month, together with the morning-glory blossoms, she withered. Her mother clinging to the corpse, burst into tears. At this moment, although I tried to resign myself to the fact that water, once it flows past, doesn’t come by a second time, or blossoms, once fallen, never return to the trees.… I couldn’t break the chain of love.”

After the funeral, on the occasion of burying Sato’s ashes, Issa revised an earlier haiku of mourning, written for Sentarō two years previously, creating a poem that many regard as his signature piece:

tsuyu no yo wa   tsuyu no yo nagara   sari nagara
this world
is a dewdrop world
yes … but …

In another text, he copied this verse and added the prescript “On losing a beloved child.”

In autumn 1820 (Tenth Month, 5th day) a boy, Ishitarō, was born, but once again the Buddhist truth of transience had personal, gut-wrenching consequences. Shortly after New Year’s 1821 (first Month, 11th day), this third child died of suffocation while bundled on his mother’s back. Issa mourned:

nade[shi]ko no   naze oreta zoyo   oreta zoyo 
why did the blooming
pink break?
oh why?

Later that year, he wistfully wrote about his third lost child:

ishitarō   kono yo ni araba   bon odori 
if Ishitarō
were still in this world …
Bon Festival dance

In another haiku of 1821, Issa hinted that he was giving up his dream of raising children:

akiramete   ko no nai shika wa   nakinu nari
to being childless
the silent deer

Nevertheless, he and Kiku tried once more. In 1822, Third Month (10th day), a male child, Konzaburō, was born, but he only barely outlived his mother. The wife fell ill and died in spring 1823 (Second Month, 19th day). Issa wrote with an almost audible sigh: 

kogoto iu   aite mo araba  kyō no tsuki 
if only my nagging 
companion were here …
such a moon!

In 1824 Issa remarried … briefly. The wedding took place in Fifth Month, the divorce in Eighth Month. His new bride, thirty-eight-year-old Yuki, was the daughter of a local samurai. Her name, “Snow,” fit her well, for she quickly turned a cold shoulder to the slovenly, “just-as-I-am” poet and fled to her parents’ home. Issa gave no indication in the diaries that he missed her. Only one haiku, undated, made reference to his ephemeral second marriage; it had the prescript “Divorce”:

hechima-zuru   kitte shimaeba   tanin kana 
after cutting
the snake gourd vine …

As easily and as irrevocably as snipping a garden vine, Issa found himself alone again, a “stranger” (他人tannin) to wife number two.

He tried one last time to make a family. In 1826 he married again, this time to a thirty-two-year-old local woman named Yao. Right away she became pregnant with a daughter, Yata, the only one of the poet’s children who survived to adulthood. Sadly, Issa never met her. The pregnancy began in the Tenth Year of Bunsei (1827), an especially hard period during which Issa’s divided house burned down in a village fire and the couple had to move into a grain barn on the property. The poet had a stroke and died that winter, on the 19th day of Eleventh Month (January 5, 1828). Yata was born five months later. The Buddhist theme of life and loving attachments dissolving to oblivion was no mere intellectual concept for Kobayashi Issa but rather the day-to-day reality that more than anything else defined his last years.

A discussion of Issa’s life would not be complete without mentioning two poems, each of which different commentators have claimed to be his last:

tarai kara   tarai ni utsuru   chimpunkan
from tub to tub …
empty babble

arigata ya   fusuma no yuki mo   jōdo yori
the snow on my quilt
from the Pure Land!

Texts of these haiku (here in Mackenzie’s translation) do not exist in Issa’s hand, so they are considered to be apocryphal. Nevertheless, some translators of haiku into Western languages have continued to present them as if they were Issa’s work. Though Issa didn’t seem to write them, the “tub-to-tub” and the “snow on my quilt” poems have been linked to him by posterity, possibly thanks to admiring disciples who felt the need for a last word from the master.

Major themes in Issa’s work


The dewdrop-like elusiveness of happiness in Issa’s life, a Buddhist theme that the poet himself raised in countless haiku, has led some critics to stress his human and suffering side within the context of Pure Land Buddhism. One of the first to take this approach was Nakamura Rikurō. His preface to Issa’s 1921 anthology, Issa senshū, is an early example of such criticism. In his introduction, Nakamura claimed that “Issa of Haiku Temple holds a unique position in the world of haiku. As a person, as a sincere human being, there is value in studying him, yet actually very few people are undertaking such a study.” Nakamura goes on to explain that the title “haiku master” (俳聖 haisei literally, “haiku saint”), which applies so fittingly to Bashō and Buson, is something that Issa himself would probably have rejected: “Issa followed the salvation-by-Other-Power sect. He believed in being saved by the Buddha while behaving humanly and without effort, despite bad karma and carnal desires. He presented himself as a grateful old man who trusted fully in the power of ‘Namu Amida Butsu,’ and thus he would have shunned the title of ‘master.’” Nakamura cites the concluding haiku of Oraga haru:

tomokaku mo   anata makase no   toshi no kure 
come what may
trusting in the Buddha …
the year ends

He comments: “Issa … suffered more than his share of pains and sorrows. The human misery of divorce and losing children afflicted his heart without end … Issa was an ordinary man who humanly suffered and humanly prayed.”

Many critics and readers, following Nakamura, have dwelled on the tragic, human side of Issa. However, in the 20th century, many books about the poet emphasized his pain and troubles (the deaths of his mother and grandmother in his childhood, his cruel treatment by his stepmother, his exile to Edo, the long and bitter dispute over his inheritance, the deaths of his first wife and four infant children, the divorce from his second wife, his bouts with paralysis, and the fire that destroyed his house and left him to spend his last year in a cramped, musty grain barn) but neglected to perceive these events the way that Issa did, through the lens of Pure Land Buddhism. Even when he wrote of mujō (無常, transience) Issa’s tone was most often cheerful and accepting. In Pure Land Buddhist terms, transience is not necessarily a bad thing; it means, simply, that there is nothing permanent in the world to which one can cling, so one must rely on Amida Buddha as the sole hope for rescue:

[a]mida butsu no   mite owasu nari   chiru sakura
Amida Buddha watches
them scatter …
cherry blossoms

Throughout his works, Issa’s hopeful faith in Amida’s compassion far outweighs the grumbling doubts of his darkest moments.

Compassion for and identification with animals and children

Issa’s compassion for fellow creatures, human and nonhuman, is a hallmark of his philosophical and poetic approaches to life.

ushi no ko no   tabi ni tatsu nari   aki no ame
the calf begins his journey … autumn rain

The calf has been sold and now is being led away, forever, from his mother. The image becomes even more pathetic and poignant if we take into account Issa’s loss of his own mother in early childhood and his decision to leave an unhappy home, dominated by a cruel stepmother at age fifteen. We have already seen how Issa perceived a deep connection between himself and the orphan sparrow, and although he doesn’t directly state this, he implies that the calf torn from his mother’s side is not only a real calf but, like the motherless sparrow, a projection of the poet’s sad and lonely inner child. The important common denominator between animals and children, for Issa, was their innocence. In his poetic diary Oraga haru, he wrote glowingly about his infant daughter, Sato, and how in her innocent state she was closer to Buddhist enlightenment than he.

I believe this child lives in a special state of grace, and enjoys divine protection from Buddha. For when the evening comes when once a year we hold a memorial service for the dead, and I have lit the candles on the family altar, and rung the bell for prayer, she crawls out swiftly, wherever she may be, and softly folds her tiny hands, like little bracken sprouts, and says her prayers in such a sweet, small voice—in such a lovely way! For myself, I am old enough that my hair is touched with frost, and every year adds waves of wrinkles to my brow, yet so far I have not found grace with Buddha, and waste my days and months in meaningless activity. I am ashamed to think my child, who is only two years old, is closer to the truth than I. 

The Year of My Life, trans. Yuasa, 94

Though in his translation of this passage Yuasa refers generically to Buddha, Sato’s prayer is more specifically directed to Amida Buddha, “Nanmu Nanmu” being a baby’s simplified and somewhat slurred version of the nembutsu prayer, “Namu Amida Butsu” (All Praise to Amida Buddha!). Issa’s comment that he has not yet “found grace with Buddha” thus refers, in his original text, to the grace of Amida. As a follower of Shinran’s Jōdo Shinshū, Issa believed it to be virtually impossible in a depraved age for one to earn rebirth in Amida’s Pure Land by meditation, asceticism, good works, or following Buddha’s precepts. Such self-powered efforts (自力 jiriki) are doomed to fail in our corrupt time due to the tainting influence of self-interested calculations in the service of the ego. If enlightenment requires surrendering the fiction of the ego, any ego-powered method to reach it, Shinran reasoned, can’t possibly work. For Shinran, the ideal candidate for rebirth in Amida Buddha’s Pure Land and subsequent enlightenment was not a clever or educated person, but—as D. T. Suzuki points out in his book Shin Buddhism—a simple, innocently faithful believer who whole-heartedly trusts without question the “Other Power” (他力 tariki) of Amida Buddha. In Issa’s religion (and/or philosophy, depending on how one chooses to understand Buddhism), a pure-hearted child is, therefore, closer to enlightenment than a self-interested, obsessively calculating adult—which is why Issa idealized not just children in his haiku but “innocent” animals as well.

tatsu aki mo   shiranu warabe ga   hotoke kana
not knowing that
autumn’s begun, a child

kesa aki to   shiranu enoko ga   hotoke kana
not knowing that
autumn’s begun, puppy

In these twin haiku Issa played with the Japanese expression “know-nothing Buddha” (しらぬが仏 shiranu ga hotoke), which signifies metaphorically “ignorance is bliss.” In the context of Pure Land Buddhism, however, the cliché has a literal, non-metaphorical layer of meaning. A puppy and a child are spiritually advanced, not despite their ignorance of autumn’s beginning but because of it. They revel innocently in the present moment without anxiety about autumn, loss, or the inevitable end of things. They are not Buddhists but, in fact, Buddhas, and as such, Issa suggested, their way of being in the world is worth emulating.

Issa celebrated the innocence, spontaneity, imaginations, and energy of children. A great example is perhaps his most famous portrait of childhood, and suggests how an adult poet might return to a state of primary consciousness in order to become, in his heart and imagination at least, a child again.

yuki tokete   mura ippai no   kodomo kana
snow melting
the village brimming over …
with children!

The first phrase provides an image of melting snow, and the second suggests a possible dire consequence: the village is full (一ぱい ippai). Is it perhaps flooded? The third phrase, however, ends the haiku with a twist and a surprise: the village is flooded … with children! After setting up the reader with images of snow melting and a village brimming over, Issa delivered his punch line. The children of the village have been cooped up in their homes during the long, cold winter. Now, as the snow finally liquefies under the bold springtime sun, they burst outside from their confinement, flooding the village: shouting, playing, laughing. In many of his haiku Issa similarly celebrated the spontaneous, non-calculating exuberance of children and animals.

daibutsu no   hana kara detaru   tsubame kana
from the great bronze
Buddha’s nose …
a swallow!


Since animals resemble people in so many ways, Issa took the next logical step in his poetic depictions: he spoke to them. In this next haiku, for example, he alerted a frog of a wonder to behold while at the same time exemplifying another of his poetic traits, irreverent humor.

shōben no   taki wo mishō zo   naku kawazu
get ready to see
my piss waterfall!
croaking frog

This is a haiku of two perspectives: Issa’s viewpoint, looking down at the frog as a sort of Gulliver among Lilliputians, and the frog’s perspective, from which Issa appears as a giant and his bodily function a roaring cascade. Both points of view are legitimate. Through his playful imagination, Issa has invited us to consider (and chuckle at) how the world looks through the eyes of another of the world’s citizens, a frog.

daimyō wo  uma kara orosu  sakura kana
the war lord
forced off his horse …
cherry blossoms

The poem is prefaced with a place name, Ueno. In addition to being a famous locale in Edo/Tokyo for viewing cherry blossoms, Ueno is a site where Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, was enshrined (in addition to his more elaborate shrine at Nikko). As Japanese critic Maruyama Kazuhiko has pointed out, in Issa’s day, out of respect for the first shogun’s shrine, a “Dismount Your Horse” placard was posted at the foot of Ueno Hill. Perhaps then, Maruyama suggested, the daimyo in the scene is simply obeying this sign, dismounting before continuing up the hill on his blossom-viewing excursion. Whether or not the daimyo has indeed seen such a sign, the poem presents a surprising reversal of expectations. The lord of the province enacts a gesture of humility before “mere” blossoms. 

Harold Gould Henderson, the great American Japanologist, also weighed in on this particular poem in An Introduction to Haiku. Henderson felt that it might allude to the protocol of the period, which required commoners to grovel by the roadside whenever a daimyo passed. Here, the blossoms surprisingly represent a higher authority to which even a daimyo must bow. In this remarkable haiku Issa not only repeated the motif of a man of war appreciating nature’s delicate beauty; he slyly suggested that this beauty, owned by no one and existing beyond the system of the human social ranking, outranks a daimyo.

Issa also poked fun at authority figures within the community of Buddhist priests.

sōjō ga   no-guso asobasu   higasa kana
the high priest
poops in the field …

Issa caught the high priest of a Buddhist temple literally with his pants down, not a very flattering portrait. However, by showing even an honored high priest defecating, Issa called to mind life’s plenitude, which includes not only sublime moments under moon and blossoms but also the universal mandate of bodily functions. This comic portrait, instead of disrespecting the high priest, might more accurately be understood to be humanizing him. However, because the priest does his business under a parasol, the reader might reasonably imagine a second person in the scene: a young acolyte, perhaps, holding the parasol and politely looking away. The implied presence of a lower-ranked parasol holder imbues the haiku with an added element of satire. The high priest ridiculously insists on the privilege of his social standing even in an undignified moment that reveals him to be just another of the world’s animals.

Issa used humor often for its own sake (“get ready to see / my piss waterfall!”) and often to satirize authority (a daimyo bowing to blossoms, or a high priest doing his business under a parasol held by an acolyte). In some cases his humor was highly intellectual and philosophical. In 1819, for example, Issa employed a humorous, ironic, and philosophically suggestive reversal of expectations in a famous poem about New Year’s Day, the titular haiku of his journal for that year, Oraga haru.

medetasa mo   chū kurai nari   oraga haru
my “Happy New Year!”
about average …
my spring

He described his New Year’s felicity as merely chū kurai (ちう位, about average), chū being another reading of the kanji 中naka (middle), thus expressing with deadpan humor Issa’s surprising lack of rapture at this normally rapturous time. His countrymen rejoice on the year’s most propitious day, the first day of spring. Nevertheless, Issa reports that this day, in his experience, is only “about average” or, as his language might also be translated, “just so-so.” Superficially, the haiku is a complaint, but on a deeper, spiritual and Buddhist level, it expresses the spiritual perspective of one who sees the world clearly. All is transitory and illusionary, even New Year’s hype.

Another type of humor invested with deeper signification in Issa was his many haiku that alluded—often with scandalous irreverence—to earlier classics of Chinese and Japanese literature. In a memorable example of this approach, he took on Prince Genji:

koi neko no   genji mekasuru   kakine kana
the lover cat
dandied up like Genji
at the hedge

Murasaki Shikibu’s eleventh-century Tale of Genji (源氏物語, Genji monogatari) is a classic of Heian period literature, a courtly tale of a “shining prince” and his adventures, mostly amorous. Issa’s original readers would have instantly recognized the scene in The Tale of Genji parodied in this haiku, either from reading the book or from having viewed popular woodblock prints of its key episodes. In Chapter 5, Prince Genji journeys into the hills north of Kyoto in springtime, seeking a cure for his malaria in the cave of a wise healer. While in the neighborhood, he peers through a wattle fence and catches sight of ten-year-old Murasaki, a pretty little girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman that Genji most yearns for, the Lady Fujitsubo, with whom he has recently had a love affair. Genji soon learns that the girl happens to be a daughter of Fujitsubo’s brother, Prince Hyōbu—the product of an affair that Hyōbu had with a lady who, thanks to Hyōbu’s vindictive wife, was later driven to a loss of health and death. Spying on the child, Genji decides instantly that he must adopt her and fashion her into his “ideal woman.”

Even to 11th-century readers, Genji’s behavior must have seemed pedophiliac, since he protests several times in the narrative that his intentions are not “improper.” In Issa’s haiku a tomcat steps into the role of this most famous courtly lover of Japanese letters, appearing at a fence in glorious, full adornment (めかするmekasuru). Of course, instead of silken, perfumed robes, the cat wears only fur that, perhaps, he has licked and combed for the occasion. The haiku elevates the cat or else denigrates Genji—or both—depending on how one chooses to read it. On one hand, Issa suggests that cats, too, can experience on some level the lofty emotion that we humans call love. On the other hand, he implies that Prince Genji, despite all his riches and refinement, is, in essence, nothing more than a sexually excited animal, a predator. The present moment of a lover cat posing by a fence mingles in the haiku with the literary memory of Prince Genji spying, and mentally staking his claim, on little Murasaki. The long-ago story not only glosses the situation in present time (a cat at a fence), but the situation in present time subtly critiques the long-ago story and the social norms that permitted the virtual enslavement and forced re-education of a child.


As we have seen, Buddhism pervades Issa’s poetry. His awareness of transience, his compassion for other beings, and his belief that children and animals are closer to enlightenment than most adult human beings … all of these notions plainly emerge from a Buddhist world view. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge Buddhism itself as a separate, major theme in Issa’s work. It is no coincidence that he called himself Issa-bō haikaiji—Priest Issa (一茶坊 issa-bō) of Haiku Temple (俳諧寺 haikai-ji). His priestly way of life, and way of thinking about that life, naturally and profoundly influenced his art. He lived and professed the precepts of Shinran’s popular Jōdo Shinshū (True Teaching Pure Land) sect but unlike the illiterate masses of its followers revealed a keen understanding of the seminal texts and subtle nuances of Shinran’s teaching. Priest Issa’s little poems often hinged on specifically Jōdo Shinshū concepts of sin, grace, faith, and salvation, as the following example shows:

hana oke ni   chō mo kiku ka yo   ichi daiji
on the flower pot
does the butterfly also hear
Buddha’s promise?

The revelatory phrase is the third, 一大事 ichi daiji, which literally denotes “one great thing.” In Jōdo Shinshū belief, the “one great thing” that the haiku refers to is the “original vow” (本願 hongan) of Amida Buddha (Sanskrit: अमिताभ Amitābha) to rescue all sentient beings who sincerely invoke his name, insuring their rebirth in his Western Paradise, the Pure Land—a mythic place as well as a metaphor for enlightenment. Here, Issa wonders if the butterfly also hears the good news of salvation, a universal salvation that applies to it as much as it does to the human poet and to his readers. Its stillness implies attentiveness. The butterfly on the flower pot embodies a Pure Land Buddhist ideal: innocent, natural, non-calculating piety. 

He was no mere “child’s poet,” nor was he, as D. T. Suzuki once claimed, a shallow Buddhist. When we examine closely Issa’s haiku in connection with Pure Land Buddhism, we arrive at a richer and more semantically grounded understanding of what “Priest Issa of Haiku Temple” was about as an artist and as a man. Consider this famous image of a pilgrim snail creeping up the side of Japan’s most sacred mountain.

katatsuburi   soro-soro nobore   fuji no yama
little snail
inch by inch, climb
Mount Fuji!

Issa composed this poem at some time in the Bunsei period, probably the mid-1820s. In it, he refers not to the real Mount Fuji but to an imitation Fuji: a small, sculpted hill (築山 tsukiyama) constructed in the garden of a shrine or temple. On the first day of Sixth Month, pilgrims, especially the elderly and infirm who were unable to climb the real mountain, reaped spiritual benefit by climbing the pseudo-Fuji. Issa encourages a snail to continue climbing such a hill, soro-soro (そろそろ, slowly, slowly—or, as I have translated it here, inch by inch). Its climb has both Shinto and Buddhist significance. For Shinto, Mount Fuji is the home of the great goddess Konohanasakuya-hime, enshrined near the summit. For Buddhists, it is the abode of Dainichi Nyorai (大日如来), the Buddha of All-illuminating Wisdom, and its snowy peak represents a supreme state of meditative concentration (禅定 zenjo). Figuratively, the snail climbs to the goddess’s blessing; the snail climbs to enlightenment.

In Oraga haru Issa wrote about the tragic drowning of an eleven-year-old child. He attended the boy’s cremation and was so moved that he composed a waka:

omoiki ya   shitamoe isogu   waka kusa wo   nobe no keburi ni   nashite min to wa
such is fate, to watch
sprouts of young grasses
so quickly
into the field’s fire
go up in smoke

He compared the boy to newly sprouted grass burned in a fire and turned to smoke too soon. Following this waka, the next entry in his journal was the rhetorical question: “Will not even trees and plants one day become Buddhas?” He answered immediately: “They, too; all will acquire Buddha-nature.” The next item on the page was the headnote for a haiku, the phrase, “Sitting alone.” This poem follows.

ore to shite   niramikura suru   kawazu kana
locked in a staring contest
me …
and a frog

Issa stares at the frog; the frog stares back, and neither blinks. Their standoff is more than the stuff of comedy. The previous entries in the journal—the waka about the boy who died so soon, a fresh sprout gone up in smoke, and the comment that even plants will one day become Buddhas—dispose the reader to consider this image of a man and a frog locked in a staring match as a visual statement of the egalitarian premise of reincarnation. Man and frog are peers and equals, for they are on the same path to enlightenment.

The concluding poem of Oraga haru epitomizes Issa’s Buddhist way of life and art.

tomokaku mo   anata makase no   toshi no kure
come what may
trusting in the Buddha
the year ends

Early in that journal, Issa mentions his poverty, describing his “trashy hut” (屑家 kuzu-ya) as a ramshackle structure that, he fears, a strong wind might blow away at any minute. But in the same passage, he goes on to describe himself as one “covered with the dust of worldliness” (俗塵に埋れて zokujin ni uzumorete), and so, he concludes, he has no recourse but to trust in the saving power of Amida Buddha (あなた任せ anata makase). This is exactly the proper attitude that one must cultivate vis-à-vis the “Other Power” of Amida, according to Shinran, the founder of Jōdo Shinshū. It is an attitude that pervades the haiku of Kobayashi Issa.


A fourth characteristic of Issa’s style is his penchant for transforming the personal into art. He did not hesitate to tell the story of his life in his haiku. We have already noted haiku that reference his emotional trauma in childhood as an orphan and mistreated stepchild. Issa’s complete works include thousands of verses that relate all sorts of situations and moods in highly personal, intimately autobiographical statements.

oboro-oboro   fumeba mizu nari   mayoi michi
in hazy night
stepping into water …
losing my way

It was a hazy night of spring in 1795. In the uncertain, dreamlike light, Issa stepped off a path into water. We know from his travel journal that he was attempting to visit Sarai, a friend and Buddhist priest, who, he soon discovered, had been dead for several years. After being told of his friend’s death, Issa begged Sarai’s replacement at the temple for a night’s stay, but was refused. He had come over 300 ri (1,178 kilometers), “without a soul to lean on, going over the fields and the yard.” In light of this biographical context, the phrase in the haiku, “losing my way,” has deep, troubling resonance.

Paradoxically, Issa’s most subjective and personal verses are often the ones with the most universal application. The “I” in Issa’s poetry is, at the same time, a flesh and blood person and an Everyman whose adventures, emotions, and insights reveal common human experiences: rootlessness, loneliness, compassion, joy, sarcasm, sorrow.…

Today, Issa is a world treasure. Though his popularity in Japan endures, with new books about him appearing every year, he is becoming just as recognized and admired in other countries, as more and more translations are published around the world. He is a poet who speaks to our common humanity in a way that is so honest, so contemporary, his verses might have been written this morning.

AUTHOR: David G. Lanoue

ADAPTED FROM: Lanoue, Issa, Cup-of-Tea Poems, Pure Land Haiku, Issa’s Best, Issa and the Meaning of Animals, and Issa and Being Human


Biography and criticism:

  • Edwards, Cliff. Everything Under Heaven: The Life and Words of a Nature Mystic, Issa of Japan. Richmond, Va.: Virginia Commonwealth University, 1980.
  • Edwards, Cliff. Issa: The Story of a Poet-Priest. Tokyo: Macmillan Shuppan, 1985. Not scholarly, but a short, lovingly written account of Issa’s life and poetry.
  • Henderson, Harold G. An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Bashō to Shiki. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958.
  • Lanoue, David G. “The Haiku Mind: Pure Land Buddhism and Issa.” Eastern Buddhist 39:2 (2008): 159–76. A scholarly essay about the relationship between Issa’s haiku and Pure Land Buddhism.
  • Lanoue, David G. Issa and Being Human: Haiku Portraits of Early Modern Japan. New Orleans: HaikuGuy.com, 2017. Print and e-book. A survey of Edo period Japanese society through the lens of Issa’s poetry. Also available as an e-book.
  • Lanoue, David G. Issa and the Meaning of Animals: A Buddhist Poet’s Perspective. New Orleans: HaikuGuy.com, 2014. A study of questions surrounding the ethical treatment of animals based on Issa’s poetic and religious treatment of them. Also available as an e-book.
  • Lanoue, David G. Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa. Reno, Nevada and Fukagawa-shi, Hokkaido, Japan: Buddhist Books International, 2004; reprint, 2016. The first book-length English-language study of Issa’s haiku in light of the Pure Land Buddhism to which he was so piously dedicated. Also available as an e-book.
  • Suzuki, D. T. Shin Buddhism. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.
  • Ueda, Makoto, trans. Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2004. Print. A fine, scholarly overview of Issa.
  • 一茶記念館 Issa Kinenkan (Issa Memorial Hall).一茶の生涯と文学Issa no shōgai to bungaku (Issa’s Life and Writings). Nagano: Issa Kinenkan, 2004. A guide to Issa’s life and work filled with colorful illustrations.
  • 吉田美和子 Yoshida Miwako. 一茶無頼Issa burai (Issa the Rascal). Nagano: Shinano Mainichi Shimbunsha, 1996. This biographical treatment of Issa pegs him as a scoundrel or outlaw, stressing his nonconformist lifestyle and attitudes.
  • 小林計一郎 Kobayashi Keiichirō. 小林一茶 Kobayashi Issa. Tokyo: Kissen Kōbunkan, 1961. A solid biographical study of Issa and his major works.
  • 小林雅文 Kobayashi Masafumi. 一茶と女性たちIssa to onnatachi (Issa and Women). Tokyo: Sanwa, 2004. A fascinating study of Issa and his relationships with, and poetic treatment of, women.
  • 村田昇著 Murata Shōcho. 俳諧寺一茶の藝術 Haikai-ji Issa no geijutsu (The Art of Haikai Poet Issa). Shimonoseki: Genshashin, 1969. An examination of Issa’s aesthetics through the lens of the Pure Land Buddhism that he practiced, a work that partly inspired Lanoue’s Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa (2004).
  • 藤本實也 Fujimoto Jitsuya. 一茶の研究 Issa no kenkyū (Research on Issa). Tokyo: Meiwa Insatsu, 1949. An early, compendious and scholarly study of Issa in 778 pages of text.
  • 藤沢周平 Fujisawa Shūhei. 一茶Issa. Tokyo: Bunshun, 2009; reprint 2017. A recent novel based on Issa’s life.
  • 金子兜太 Kaneko Tōta. 一茶句集Issa kushū (Issa Haiku Collection).Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1983; reprint 1984. Although titled a haiku anthology, the book is more accurately described as a work of literary criticism, as the foremost Issa scholar of the twentieth and early twenty-first century takes a deep and penetrating look at 108 haiku.
  • 金子兜太 Kaneko Tōta. 小林一茶漂鳥の俳人 Kobayashi Issa: hyōchō no haijin (Kobayashi Issa: Wandering Haiku Poet). Tokyo: Taishindō, 1980. A critical book about Issa’s life and poetry written by the foremost Issa scholar in Japan.
  • 黄色瑞華 Ōshiki Zuike. 人生の悲哀小林一茶 Jinsei no hiai: Kobayashi Issa (The Sorrow of Life: Kobayashi Issa). Tokyo: Shintensha, 1984. Like many critics in Japan, Ōshiki Zuike fixates on Issa’s biography and the personal tragedies that he suffered.

Issa’s work in Japanese:

  • 中村六郎 Nakamura Rikurō. 一茶選集 Issa senshū (Selected Work of Issa). Kyoto: Kyoto Insatsusha, 1921; reprint 1930. An early twentieth-century anthology in Japanese with a provocative preface.
  • 小林一茶 Kobayashi Issa. 一茶全集 Issa zenshū (Complete Works of Issa). Nagano, Japan: Shinano Mainichi Shimbunsha, 19 volumes. 1976–1979.
  • 小林一茶 Kobayashi Issa. 一茶Issa. Tokyo: Heibansha, 1930. A fine collection of Issa’s calligraphy in facsimile.
  • 小林一茶 Kobayashi Issa. 一茶の手紙 Issa no tegami  (Letters of Issa). Ed. 村松友次 (Muramatsu Tomotsugu). Tokyo: Daishukan Shoten, 1996. Includes commentary.
  • 小林一茶 Kobayashi Issa. 一茶俳句集 Issa haiku shū (Collected Haiku of Issa). Ed. 丸山一彦 Maruyama Kazuhiko. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1990; reprint 1993. 2,000 haiku with rich, scholarly commentary.
  • 小林一茶 Kobayashi Issa. 一茶生きもの句帖 Issa: Ikimono no kuchō (Issa: Living Creatures). Ed. 高橋順子 Takahashi Junko. Tokyo: Shogakukan, 2002. A collection of Issa’s haiku about animals with stunning photography by Okamoto Ryōji.

Collections of Issa’s work in Western languages:

  • Bly, Robert, trans. Ten Poems. No place: no publisher, 1992. 10 haiku by Issa.
  • Cholley, Jean, trans. En village de miséreux: Choix de poèmes de Kobayashi Issa. Paris: Gallimard, 1996. A fine French translation of a good selection of Issa’s haiku with interesting notes.
  • Collet, Hervé, and Wing Fun Cheng. Issa: et pourtant, et pourtant. Millemont, France: Éditions Moundarren, 1991, 2006, 2014. The 2006 edition bears the title Issa: maître de haiku: et pourtant, et pourtant. A good French translation of a substantial number of selected haiku by Issa with an excellent biographical preface.
  • Collet, Hervé, and Wing Fun Cheng. Issa: Maître de haiku: Et pourtant, et pourtant. Millemont, France: Éditions Moundarren, 1991, 2006.
  • Dombrady, Géza Siegfried, trans. Das Ora ga Haru des Kobayashi Issa. Munich: 1965.
  • Dørumsgaard, Arne, trans. Kobayashi Issa: Blad frå ein austleg hage: hundre haiku-dikt (Kobayashi Issa: Leaves from an Oriental Garden: A Hundred Haiku). Oslo: Dreyer, 1966.
  • Fukuda, Hanako. Wind in My Hand: The Story of Issa, Japanese Haiku Poet. With the editorial assistance of Mark Taylor. Haiku translations by Hanako Fukuda. Illustrated by Lydia Cooley. San Carlos, Calif.: Golden Gate Junior Books, 1970. For young readers.
  • Gollub, Mathew. Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa. New York and Hong Kong: Lee & Low Books, 1998. For young readers.
  • González Esteva, Orlando, trans. Kobayashi Issa: Hoja de viaje. Valencia, Spain: Ediciones Pre-Textos, 2003.
  • Hamill, Sam, trans. The Spring of My Life: And Selected Haiku. Boston & London: Shambhala, 1997. Print. Rather than an original translation, the book is a polishing job based on Yuasa Noboyuki’s English translation of Oraga haru and of other earlier translations.
  • Huey, Robert N. “Journal of My Father’s Last Days: Issa’s Chichi no Shūen Nikki.” Monumenta Nipponica 39:1 (1984), 25–54. An excellent translation of the haibun Issa wrote about the death of his father in 1801.
  • Kvær, Niels, trans. Spurvedans og sneglegang: Udvalgte haiku (Spruce Dancing and Snail Walking: Selected Haiku). Copenhagen: BoD—Books on Demand, Danmark, 2019.
  • Lanoue, David G., trans. A Taste of Issa. New Orleans: HaikuGuy.com, 2019. Print and e-book. Presents the same 1,210 haiku from Issa’s Best (2012) but this time including the original Japanese texts and comment notes.
  • Lanoue, David G., trans. Issa, Cup-of-Tea Poems: Selected Haiku of Kobayashi Issa. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1991. A seasonally-arranged selection of 234 haiku presented in vertical format with a preface.
  • Lanoue, David G., trans. Issa’s Best: A Translator’s Selection of Master Haiku. New Orleans: HaikuGuy.com, 2004. Print and e-book. 1,210 haiku by Issa in seasonal order, including an introduction to Issa’s life and poetry.
  • Livstecken: nittio dikter av haiku-mästaren Issa i svensk omdiktning (Signs of Life: Ninety Poems by Haiku Master Issa in Swedish Reinterpretation). Molkom, Sweden: Promenad, 1981.
  • McGinnis, Mark W. The Painted Kobayashi Issa. Translations and afterword, by David G. Lanoue. No place [Boise, Idaho?]: published privately, 2013. 100 haiku and paintings by the author.
  • Mackenzie, Lewis, trans. The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa. London: John Murray, 1957; reprint Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1984. A ground-breaking book with excellent information on Issa’s life and poetry; 250 haiku.
  • Maloney, Dennis, trans. Dusk Lingers: Haiku of Issa. New York: White Pine Press, 1981. Reprint Fredonia, N.Y.: White Pine Press, 1986; and Pittsburgh, Pa.: Lilliput Press, 2006. 21 haiku.
  • Merrill, Jean, and Ronni Solbert, selectors. A Few Flies and I: Haiku by Kobayashi Issa. Selected from translations by R. H. Blyth and Nobuyuki Yuasa. New York: Pantheon Books and Scholastic Book Services, 1969. 84 haiku.
  • Miyamori Asatarō, trans. and annotator. An Anthology of Haiku, Ancient and Modern. Tokyo: Chugai Printing Co., Ltd, 1932. 51 haiku.
  • Nobuyuki, Yuasa, trans.The Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa’s Oraga Haru. 2nd ed., Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972. An indispensable resource, this is a complete and competent translation of Issa’s greatest haibun. The translator’s decision to render the haiku in quatrains results in some unnecessary verbal padding.
  • Rodríguez-Izquiero y Gavala, Fernando, trans. Mi nueva primavera. Gijón, Spain: Satori, 2015; 2nd edition, 2017. A collection of selected haiku in Spanish translation with commentary that should be taken with a grain of salt (for example, the translator claims, strangely and without basis in fact, that Issa died in a fire!).
  • Sakaki, Nanao, trans. and calligraphy. Inch by Inch: 45 Haiku by Issa. Santa Fe, N.M.: Tooth of Time Books, 1985; reprint Albuquerque, N.M.: La Alameda Press, 1999. 45 haiku.
  • Seegan, Mabesoone, trans. Haïkus satiriques—Kobayashi Issa (Satirical Haiku—Kobayashi Issa. Paris: Editions Pippa, 2015.
  • Seegan, Mabesoone, trans. Haïkus sur les chats—Kobayashi Issa (Haiku about Cats—Kobayashi Issa). Paris: Editions Pippa, 2016.
  • Soletta, Luigi, trans. Issa: Haiku scelti  (Issa: Selected Haiku). Milan: La Vita Felice, 2001.
  • Stryk, Lucien, and Takashi Ikemoto, trans. The Duckweed Way: Haiku of Issa. Derry, Pa.: The Rook Society, 1977. 62 haiku.
  • Stryk, Lucien, trans. The Dumpling Field: Haiku of Issa. With the assistance of Noboru Fujiwara. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press of the Ohio University Press, 1991. 366 haiku.
  • Takada, Sakuko, trans. My Favorite Haiku of Issa. Tokyo: Toranomon Haiku Group, 1994. 88 haiku.
  • Titus-Carmel, Joan, trans. Issa: Haiku. Vendôme: Éditions Verdier, 1994. 100 haiku in French translations with a brief preface about Issa’s life.
  • Wahlund, Per Erik. Lövfällning: haiku-mästaren Issa i liv och dikt 1763–1827 (Falling Leaves: Life and Poems by Haiku Master Issa 1763–1827). Stockholm: Bonnier, 1978. Also audio book: Johanneshovsvägen, Sweden: MTM, 2015.
  • Williams, C. K., trans.The Lark. The Thrush. The Starling: Poems from Issa. Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1983.
  • Yaba, Katsuyuki, and Joy Norton, trans. Five Feet of Snow: Issa’s Haiku Life. Nagano, Japan: Shinano Mainichi, 1994.
  • Yanagisawa Kyoko, and Takahiko Sakai, trans. Issa Haiku: A Collection of 17-Syllable Poems with Cutout Pictures. Tokyo: Fujinsha, 1996.
  • Yuasa, Nobuyuki, trans.The Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa’s Oraga Haru. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1960. 2nd edition, 1972.

General haiku anthologies that include work of or about Issa:

  • Aitken, Robert. The River of Heaven: The Haiku of Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. Berkeley, Calif.: Counterpoint Press, 2011.
  • Barlow, John, and Martin Lucas, eds. The New Haiku. Liverpool, England: Snapshot Press, 2002. 1 haiku.
  • Behn, Harry, trans. Cricket Songs: Japanese Haiku with Pictures Selected from Sesshu and other Japanese Masters. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964. 4 haiku.
  • Behn, Harry, trans. More Cricket Songs: Japanese Haiku Illustrated with Pictures by Japanese Masters. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. 12 haiku.
  • Beilenson, Peter, trans. Cherry Blossoms: Translations of Poems by Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki and Others. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1960. 42 haiku.
  • Beilenson, Peter, trans. The Four Seasons: Japanese Haiku Written by Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, and Many Others. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1958. 35 haiku.
  • Beilenson, Peter, trans. A Haiku Garland: A Collection of Seventeen-Syllable Classic Poems by Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, Sokan, Kikaku and Others. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1968. 113 haiku.
  • Beilenson, Peter, trans. Japanese Haiku: Two Hundred Twenty Examples of Seventeen-Syllable Poems by Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, Sokan, Kikaku and Others. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1955/56. 33 haiku.
  • Beilenson, Peter, trans. A Little Treasury of Haiku: Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, Sokan, Kikaku, and Others. New York: Avenel Books, 1980 (©1958). Contains the 68 haiku of Issa’s in Japanese Haiku, The Four Seasons, and Cherry Blossoms.
  • Beilenson, Peter, trans. Lotus Blossoms: A Collection of Beautiful Haiku Poems, Reflecting with Delicacy and Charm the Wisdom of Japan’s Classical Poets.Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1970. 40 haiku.
  • Beilenson, Peter, and Harry Behn, trans. Haiku Harvest. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1962. 16 haiku.
  • Bly, Robert, ed. and trans.The Sea and The Honeycomb: A Book of Tiny Poems. Boston: Beacon Press, 1st edition. 1971.
  • Blyth, R. H. Haiku 1: Eastern Culture. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1949. 42 haiku.
  • Blyth, R. H. Haiku 2: Spring. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1950. 181 haiku.
  • Blyth, R. H. Haiku 3: Summer–Autumn. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1951. 162 haiku.
  • Blyth, R. H. Haiku 4: Autumn–Winter. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1952. 106 haiku.
  • Blyth, R. H. A History of Haiku 1. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1963. 233 haiku.
  • Bowers, Faubion, ed. The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1996. 36 haiku.
  • Bownas, Geoffrey, and Anthony Thwaite, eds. and trans. The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse. Harmondsworth, Middlesex / Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1964, 1972, 1983.19 haiku.
  • Brochard, Vincent, trans. L’Art du Haïku: Basho, Issa, Shiki. Preface by Pascale Senk. Paris: Éditions Belfond, 2009.
  • Buchanan, Daniel C. One Hundred Famous Haiku. San Francisco and Tokyo: Japan Publications, Inc., 1973.13 haiku.
  • Cobb, David, and Martin Lucas, eds. The Iron Book of British Haiku (1998). 1 haiku.
  • Corman, Cid, trans. Born of a Dream: 50 Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Taigi, Issa, Shiki. Frankfort, Ky.: Gnomon Press, 1988. 10 haiku.
  • Corman, Cid, trans. Little Enough: 49 Haiku by Bashō, Sodō, Ransetsu, Buson, Ryōkan, Issa, Shiki and a Tanka by Sōban. Frankfort, Ky.: Gnomon Press, 1991. 21 haiku.
  • Corman, Cid, trans. One Man’s Moon: 50 Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa, Hakuin, Shiki, Santōka. Frankfort, Ky.: Gnomon Press, 1984.10 haiku.
  • Corman, Cid, trans. One Man’s Moon: Poems by Bashō & Other Japanese Poets. Versions by Cid Corman. Frankfort, Ky.: Gnomon Press, Expanded edition, 2003. 39 haiku.
  • Cummings, Alan, ed. Haiku Love. New York/United Kingdom: The Overlook Press/The British Museum Press, 2013. 4 haiku.
  • Don’t Tell the Scarecrow, and Other Japanese Poems, by Issa, Yayū, Kikaku, and Other Japanese Poets. New York: Four Winds Press, [1969].
  • Hamill, Sam, comp. and trans. The Pocket Haiku. Boston and London: Shambhala, 2014. 50 haiku.
  • Hamill, Sam, trans. The Little Book of Haiku. Illustrated by Kaji Aso. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1995. 50 haiku.
  • Hamill, Sam, trans. The Sound of Water: Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets. Boston & London: Shambhala, 1995, 2000. 49 haiku.
  • Hass, Robert, ed. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1994. Versions, not new translations, of 131 haiku based on earlier translations of R. H. Blyth.
  • Haugen, Paal-Helge. Blad frå ein austleg hage: hundre haiku-dikt (Leaves from an Oriental Garden: 100 Haiku). Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget, 1965.
  • Henderson, Harold Gould. The Bamboo Broom: An Introduction to Japanese Haiku. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin for the Japan Society of New York, 1934. 1 haiku.
  • Ichikawa Sanki, et al., eds. Haikai and Haiku. Translations by the Japanese Classics Translation Committee. Tokyo: Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkōkai, 1958. 37 haiku.
  •  Halla István, selector and translator. Japán haiku versnaptár: Matsou Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa versei, Ando Hiroshige fametszeteivel (Japanese Haiku Poetry Calendar: Poems by Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa). Budapest: M. Helikon / NYIFÜ; Békéscsaba, Dürer, 1981.
  • Japanske rids: 366 haiku af Basho, Chiyo-ni, Buson, Issa og Shiki. Copenhagen: BoD—Books on Demand, Danmark, 2018. In Danish.
  • Kaneko Tohta. Ikimonofūei: Poetic Composition of Living Things. Translated by the Kon Nichi Translation Group. Winchester, Va.: Red Moon Press, 2011.
  • Kjær, Niels, Niels, ed. and trans. Japansk forår: 111 haiku af Basho, Buson, Issa og Shiki. Copenhagen: BoD—Books on Demand, Danmark, 2015.
  • Mackenzie, Lewis, trans. and intro. The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa. Tokyo, New York, and London: Kodansha International, 1984. 245 haiku.
  • Manzano, Alberto, and Tsutomu Takagi, ed. and trans. Haiku de las estaciones: antología de la poesía zen: Bashō, Buson, Issa, Shiki y otros poetas zen. Barcelona: Ed. Teorema, 1985.
  • Markova, V. N., trans. Вишня в цвету: японская классическая поэзия (Vishnya v tsvetu: yaponskaya klassicheskaya poeziya; Cherry in Bloom: Japanese Classical Poetry). Smolensk, Russia: Rusich, 2007. 45 haiku.
  • Tandori Dezső, trans. Majoros Valéria fotói: Napvilág Könyves Galéria, 1999. május 27. –június 28 (Photos by Valéria Majoros: Book of the Sunshine, May 27–June 28, 1999). Budapest: Napvilág / Intruder Kft, 1999. Haiku by Bashō, Buson, and Issa.
  • Miura, Yuzuru, selector and trans. उत्कृष्ट हाइकु  / Classic Haiku: A Master’s Selection. Translated into Hindi by Angelee Deodhar. Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 2006. Bilingual Hindi-English edition. 15 haiku.
  • Miyamori Asatarō, trans. and annotator. An Anthology of Haiku, Ancient and Modern. Tokyo: Chugai Printing Co., Ltd, 1932. 51 haiku.
  • Page, Curtis Hidden. Japanese Poetry: An Historical Essay with Two Hundred and Thirty Translations. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co./The Riverside Press, 1923. 4 haiku.
  • Porter, William Ninnis, trans. and compiler. A Year of Japanese Epigrams. London: Henry Frowde, Oxford University Press, 1911. 2 haiku.
  • Rexroth, Kenneth, trans. One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. New York: New Directions Books, 1955. 2 haiku.
  • Rosenstock, Gabriel. Where Light Begins: Haiku. Edited by Mícheál Ó hAodha. Dublin: Original Writing Ltd., 2012.
  • Stewart, Harold. A Chime of Windbells: A Year of Japanese Haiku in English Verse. Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1969. 29 haiku.
  • Stewart, Harold. A Net of Fireflies: Japanese Haiku and Haiku Paintings. Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1960. 34 haiku.
  • Stryk, Lucien, and Takashi Ikemoto, trans. Haiku of the Japanese Masters. Derry, Pa.: Rook Press, Limited edition. 1977. 7 haiku.
  • Svanascini, Osvaldo, introduction, notes, and translation. Tres maestros del haiku: Basho–Buson–Issa. Buenos Aires: Instituto Argentino-Japonés de Cultura, 1966.
  • Svanascini, Osvaldo, selector. Três mestres do haikai: Bashō, Buson, Issa. Translated by Maria Ramos. Rio de Janeiro: Cátedra, 1974.
  • Takahashi, Mutsuo, selector and introduction. Haiku: The Poetic Key to Japan. Translated by Emiko Miyashita and Lee Gurga. Tokyo: PIE Books, 2003. 1 haiku.
  • Tandori Dezső and Halla István, trans. Japán haiku versnaptár: Matsou Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa versei, Ando Hiroshige fametszeteivel (Japanese Haiku Poetry Calendar: Poems by Bashō, Buson, and Issa). Budapest: M. Helikon / NYIFÜ; Békéscsaba, Dürer, 1981.
  • Von Kager, E., designer. Through the Year 1965: A Calendar of Japanese Verse. N.p.: Rust Craft, n.d. [1965]. 3 haiku from Beilenson’s translations.


  • Kobayashi Issa 小林一茶.The Haiku of Kobayashi Issa. 2000– . Trans. David G. Lanoue. 10,000 of Issa’s haiku in English translation with commentary; the largest archive of Issa’s work in English on the Internet.


  1. Many reputable sources still erroneously list Issa’s death date as 1827. []
  2. Haiku master Kobayashi Chikua (小林竹阿; 1710–1790). []
Updated on August 16, 2023