Issa and Ichitaro


. WKD : Kobayashi Issa 小林一茶 .

and his son Ishitaroo、Ishitarō, 石太郎 Ishitaro

1820 : Isa Age 58: Second son, Ishitaro is born. He dies the following year.
source : en.kobayashi-issa.jp

Hokku at the time of Ishitaro

やれうつな 蠅が手をすり 足をする  
今年から 丸儲けぞよ 娑婆遊び 
もう一度 せめて目を開け 雑煮膳
蝶見よや 親子三人 寝てくらす
陽炎や 目につきまとふ わらひ顔

yare utsu na hae ga te o suri ashi o suru

don't swat the fly!
wringing hands
wringing feet

Tr. David Lanoue

source : kohei-dc.com


Ishitaro, if only
you were in this world --
I dance with your soul

Ishitarou kono yo ni araba bon-odori

This hokku is from 1821, the year Issa's infant second son, Ishitaro, died on 1/11 after being born three months earlier, on 10/5 of the previous year. Issa and his wife had already lost their first two children, and they gave their second son a name that contained their prayer that he grow up to be healthy and strong: Ishitaro means something like Big Rock. Soon after the child's birth, Issa wrote two hokku reflecting his hopes for the boy:

grow quickly
Ishitaro, my small stone
into a great boulder

iwao ni wa toku nare sazare Ishitarou

stand firm,
Ishitaro, push back
the hard winter wind

kogarashi o fumbari tomeyo Ishitarou

Ishitaro suffocated to death while tied loosely to his mother's back as she worked. Carrying babies tied or bundled to their backs was the standard method mothers used to carry their babies, but for some reason Ishitaro became unable to breathe or cry out. Issa was inconsolable and bitter for a while, but by early autumn, when he wrote the first hokku above, he was recovering.

The first hokku was written at the time of Bon, the Festival for Returning Souls, that reached a climax at the time of the full moon in the 7th lunar month (August), that is, on the nights of 7/14-16. It was a partly Buddhist and partly shamanic festival in which the souls of the recent dead returned and communed with their families and friends who were still alive. There were actually six such full-moon festivals for returning souls during the year plus an ancient shamanic festival for returning souls at the time of the full moon in the first month (1/15), but the Bon Festival in the 7th month was by far the biggest, and preparations for it began at the time of the Tanabata Star Festival on 7/7, when many purification ceremonies were carried out. The high point of the Bon Festival is dancing the great Bon circle dance, in which the living and the dead dance together to drum and other music for several hours a night in one or more large circles. In Issa's time it was believed that the invisible souls of the dead were dancing right beside the living dancers, and many of the living dancers wore masks or cross-dressed -- for example, some women wore imitation swords and warrior robes -- in order to please the souls, since it was believed that in the other world all things were the reverse of the way they are in this world.

For Issa, this year's Bon Festival will be the first time his son Ishitaro's soul has returned to see him and his wife. The "first Returning Souls Festival" was always an emotional experience, and Issa still finds it hard to believe that instead of holding Ishitaro in his arms he is dancing in a great circle with his son's invisible soul.

Chris Drake

. WKD : Bon dancing, bon odori 盆踊 .


His third son, Konzaburoo 金三郎 Konsaburo

daita ko ya haha ga kuru tote kane tataku

in my arms my son
strikes the festival gong
to greet his mother

This hokku is from the 7th month of 1825, the month in which the Bon Festival for returning souls is held at the time of the full moon (7/14-16). It is almost certainly about Issa's third son Konzaburo and written almost exactly two years after Issa held his son at the Bon Festival in 1823, the first Bon Festival to which Issa's dead wife (Konzaburo's mother) would return. The tote in the second line indicates what Issa has told his sixteen-month-old son when he visited the boy in 1823 at the house of the woman who was breast-feeding him. The words are not spoken by the sickly baby, who does not know the comparatively abstract word haha at this age and may not be able to talk coherently at all yet but represent what Issa has said to the boy as understood by the boy. Issa is happy because the young child seems to have understood at least some of what he said, probably as much through body language as through words.

It is the time of the Bon Festival, when the souls of the dead return to enjoy a good time with their descendants and those they have left behind, and Issa wants to make his son happy, so he tells him his mother is coming back. The child of course thinks his mother is about to physically appear, and as Issa holds him near one of the small festival hand gongs, the boy participates in the festival by striking it a few times and making high, metallic, clinking sounds. No doubt he smiles as he makes the sounds, not realizing that they are part of a festival ceremony to greet dead souls. The hokku takes on even more pathos when the date of its composition in 1825 is remembered, since the weakly and undernourished Konzaburo died in January 1824. At the Bon Festival in 1825, soon after which this hokku was written, Issa greeted not only the soul of his wife and three other dead children but Konzaburo's soul as well.

Issa wrote a similar hokku, probably from the 7th month (August) in 1823:

katami-ko ya haha ga kuru tote te o tataku

my motherless son
claps for joy when he hears
mother's coming

This hokku was written at the time of the Bon Festival for returning souls, so it must refer to the 7th month (7/14-16) in 1823, the year in which Issa's wife died on 5/12. This Bon Festival was the first time Issa's dead wife, and Konzaburo's mother, would be returning as a soul to see her family during the festival, and Issa has told his young third son Konzaburo that his mother is coming to see them (Maruyama Kazuhiko, Kobayashi Issa, Oufuusha, 1977: 208). If it was not written then, it must have been written later as a reference to the time of the Returning Souls Festival of 1823. In any case, in the hokku Issa feels very happy that his son, only a year and four months old, has understood his words about his mother returning, since the boy claps his hands for joy.

Issa mentions this Returning Souls Festival, the first to which Issa's wife will return as a dead soul, in a haibun piece called "Grieving for Konzaburo," Konzaburou o itamu, written in the 5th and 7th months in 1823. In it he mentions that at the time of the festival he traveled to meet his son, who was being cared for by a wet nurse. After his wife's death, the boy became malnourished, so Issa put him in the care of a wet nurse in another village. When Issa saw his son in the 7th month of 1823, Konzaburo was only a little better, but the boy nevertheless smiled a big smile when he saw his father.

There is also a photo and a clip of a small-scale and very traditional Bon festival on Tanegashima, a small island to the south of the large southern island of Kyushu. In this remote place the villagers have tried to maintain the spirit and appearance of a Bon dance that started in 1628, and this festival has some of the few remaining Bon dances that must resemble the Bon Festival dances Issa saw two centuries ago. Many contemporary Bon dances have been choreographed into gaudy shows, but the dances on this small island still retain their spiritual orientation. If you scroll down, in the third photo a man on the left is striking a small gong that is probably similar to that struck briefly by Issa's son. You can hear the sound if you scroll further down and watch the well-made video.

Most of the musicians and inner dancers wear masks, while the outer dancers wear broad hats with paper streamers hanging down to hide their identity. Someone at the town hall there told me today that the people wearing masks were villagers and those with the hats represented visiting souls. Both hide their faces because the dance is shamanic. The only way the ancestors can appear is by gently and benignly possessing the bodies of the living villagers. During the time of the dance all secular identities are temporarily transcended. The dance in the video is a bit solemn, since it includes a requiem for the soul of a woman who died in 1628 in addition to greetings that welcome village ancestors, so the Bon Festival dances Issa saw may have had a slightly faster beat, but at the Bon Festival in Issa's hometown many people probably hid their identities with masks and wide hats, just as in this video.

Chris Drake

The kanji used for KANE here is , which is not the large temple bell as described above. It is a small kind of prayer gong.

. kane 鉦 prayer gong .


hana no ki ni satto kakururu segare kana

suddenly the boy's
vanished into blossoming
cherry trees

Tr. Chris Drake

This hokku is from the beginning of the third month (April) of 1811, when Issa was living in the city of Edo. It was written while the cherry trees were in blossom, and the hokku on both sides of it in Issa's diary are about cherry blossoms, so I take the hokku to be about a grove of cherry trees. The phrase "blossoming tree(s)" can also refer to plum trees, which bloom earlier in the spring, but here the reference seems to be to cherries.

In Issa's time the word segare had two common meanings: 1) a humble reference by a father to his son and 2) boys in general.
In the same way, musume meant one's own daughter and also girls and young women generally. Since Issa wasn't married when he wrote the hokku, he seems to be referring to a boy who was standing near the cherry trees one moment but has vanished a moment later. Has the boy really disappeared that fast into the blossoming grove or has Issa also been so captured by the blossoms that he didn't notice when the boy walked into the grove? In this hokku both the boy and the onlooker seem equally transported by the sight of the cherries, though the boy is more direct and fearless and walks right into their midst, while the observer Issa has learned to be more careful about powerful things like cherry blossoms.

Chris Drake


kosegare wa chi ni naku hana no sakari kana

my baby boy
cries out for mother's breast
when the blossoms are in full bloom . . .

Tr. Gabi Greve

The cut marker KANA is at the end of line 3.


hana no yo wa ishi no hotoke mo oyako kana

the world blossoms --
both father and son
carve stone Buddhas

This hokku is a variant of a hokku Issa wrote as the second of three verses during a pilgrimage he made to two small temples near big Zenkoji Temple, a few miles from his hometown, in the third month (April) of 1818. Issa is writing not about stone Buddhas or parents in general but about some stone Buddhas carved by a famous father and son, so a few words about Issa's pilgrimage may be valuable. The first hokku written during the pilgrimage says it was written at Karukaya Hall, the name of a small Pure Land-school temple dedicated to honoring and praying for the soul of a man named Karukaya. The hokku evokes plum blossoms and the stone statue of the bodhisattva Jizo carved by Karukaya's son, who sculpted the statue so that it would stand next to a similar statue carved earlier by his father. The son's grave is at this temple, and the statue he carved marks his grave. The second hokku of the pilgrimage, translated above, has four different extant second lines, though all have similar meanings. The third hokku is about petals -- probably of cherry blossoms -- scattering to the ground at a nearby Pure Land temple where the father's grave is located. This grave is also marked by a stone statue of Jizo, this one carved by the father, and beside it stands similar statue carved later by his son. The graves of father and son at different temples are both marked by a pair of Jizo statues, one carved by the father and one by the son.

Issa seems almost envious of the distant but obviously mutual love felt by this father and son pair, who expressed their feelings through their sculptures. Most of what is known about them comes only from legend. Karukaya is said to have been a local lord in northern Kyushu who suddenly gave up the world and went to study Pure Land Buddhism with Honen in Kyoto. He left behind a pregnant wife, and when their son had become a young man he went on a journey to find Karukaya, who was then on the monastery mountain of Mt. Koya. Karukaya, never disclosing his identity, protected the boy on Mt. Koya and tutored him in Buddhism for some time until he left to make a pilgrimage to Zenkoji Temple, where he decided to live. He spent the rest of his life there in two small temples, where he prayed and carved two statues of the bodhisattva Jizo. After Karukaya's death in 1214, his son discovered his real identity and went to Zenkoji, where he lived for the rest of his life in one of the small temples in which his father had lived. There he prayed for his father's rebirth in the Pure Land and carved two stone statues of Jizo that resembled those carved by his father. Jizo is a merciful bodhisattva who is believed to protect children and pregnant women, and, if they die, he guides their souls safely to the other world. Therefore it is likely that Karukaya carved the Jizo statues as prayers for the safety and wellbeing of the son he left behind, and the son's grateful return gifts to his father of two similar Jizo statues were probably an expression of his desire to be with his father forever -- symbolically while he was still in this world and then together with him in the Pure Land.

The stone Buddhas mentioned in the hokku above are the four stone statues of Jizo carved by father and son that mark their mutual respect and devotion to each other in this world and the next. Issa visits the statues while plum and cherry trees bloom, and the petals falling on the statues hint at the more important blossoms of love that opened between the stern Karukaya and his sincere, devoted son. In Issa's case, his mother died when he was only two by western count, and though his father did not abandon him before his birth, he did send his son away to Edo when he was only fourteen by western count, and it was only by chance that Issa was back in his hometown for a visit when his father rather suddenly died. Issa's journal of the days when his father was dying is sincere and passionate, and like Karukaya's son, he found himself living the rest of his life in the place in which his father had lived. Issa must have noticed the things he shared with Karukaya's son, so during his pilgrimage it seems likely he was also thinking deeply about his own parents and praying for their rebirth in the Pure Land.

Chris Drake


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. WKD : Kobayashi Issa 小林一茶 .



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