Issa Sumida River


. WKD : Kobayashi Issa 小林一茶 .

. Little Cuckoo, Cuculus poliocephalis, hototogisu ホトトギス, 時鳥 .
- and
Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, kankodori 閑古鳥
..... kakkoo カッコウ

river Sumidagawa in Edo

sumida-gawa motto furubiyo hototogisu

Sumida River,
sings the nightingale,
be ancient again!

This hokku is from lunar 4/3 (May 11) of 1804, when Issa was living in a poor area of Edo, trying to become a haikai teacher and going to lectures on ancient Chinese and Japanese literature and thought. In the hokku Issa hears a nightingale (hototogisu) and takes it to be addressing the Sumida River. There are no case particles, but the Sumida in the first line seems to be the object to which the bird sings its request. Hototogisu are small, sweetly singing birds with no exact equivalent in English whose mysterious, almost otherworldly song is fervently waited for at the beginning of summer. The Japanese hototogisu is not found in western Europe or the Americas, and its cry is rather different from that of the cuckoo-clock-like song of the common cuckoo (kakkō, Cuculus canorus), which in Japan begins singing at about the same time of year. In Japanese the most common song of the hototogisu is commonly thought to sound like the words hozon-kaketaka, which mean, "Did you hang up your Buddha image?" In the hokku the hototogisu seems to be strongly asking the wide Sumida River flowing through the center of Edo to reveal that it is an even older river than it usually seems to be. The hokku is elliptical, so it's possible that Issa is asking the nightingale to lend its timeless, haunting voice to the riverbank and thus make the river seem older and more primordial, but the above interpretation seems more probable.

By older Issa seems to have at least two meanings in mind. One is that the river is part of timeless, primeval nature. Since Edo is the biggest city in Japan (and perhaps the world at this time) the Sumida's banks are now covered with houses, docks, warehouses, and vegetable patches, and the river itself is usually covered with commercial, agricultural, and administrative boats of all sizes, so it must have been easy to forget the river's ancient power, except, perhaps, during floods. Another meaning of older here seems to be the feeling of being closer to ancient Japan and China than Edo is as a cityscape and as a cultural center. Edo was a relatively new and sprawling city that existed for the sake of shogunal rule and for commerce, and since it had existed as a city for only about two centuries, it had few obvious architectural or landscaping links, as Kyoto and Nara had, with ancient Japan.

The Japanese nightingale is found in the earliest waka collections, and it was often regarded as a messenger from ancestors in the other world and from gods residing in the mountains. Its voice was regarded as both transcendent of ordinary reality and as emotional and deeply moving. There is also something liquid about the bird's voice that made waka poets frequently compare its song to crying and tears. Perhaps this primal watery quality attracts Issa and leads him to hear the timeless nightingale's song to the river as providing momentary access to the ancientness of the river and the land on which the modern city of Edo stands -- or perhaps floats like flotsam with its human-centered "floating world." On the day Issa wrote this hokku he also wrote another about a passage in the ancient Chinese I Ching (Yijing), the divinatory Book of Changes, so his mind seems to have been in transcendental mode.

Chris Drake


Here's another apparent hokku semi-sequence from Issa.
This one is from his diary at the end of the 3rd month (early May) in 1812 :

outside the front door
blossoming canola
and the Sumida River

1. na no hana no kado no kuchi yori sumida-gawa

Namu Amida
in my little patch
even canolas bloom

2. namu amida ore ga homachi no na mo saita

my dead mother
whenever I gaze at the sea
at the sea

3. naki haha ya umi miru tabi ni miru tabi ni

when will I ride
Amida's purple clouds
across the western sea?

4. murasaki no kumo ni itsu noru nishi no umi

just ignore all the crowds
and bustle in Edo

5. hototogisu hana no o-edo o hitonomi ni

escaping into the night
from the emperor's palace

6. hototogisu oo-uchiyama o yonige shite

nightingale, sing out
even above Amida's name
chanted for the unknown dead

7. muenji no nembutsu ni make na hototogisu

since we don't understand
your song is just noise

8. warera-gi wa tada yakamashii hototogisu

The first two hokku evoke the view from a place Issa is renting on the outskirts of Edo, a city bigger than London or Paris at the time. It's early May, though still at the very end of lunar spring, and bright yellow canola flowers stretch out in a small field, their color so strong it seems to flow into the great Sumida River just beyond them.

The second hokku indicates that the canola plants are being secretly grown by Issa along with vegetables he will eat, so presumably he won't have to pay any taxes on them. In many hokku Issa associates canola flowers with the Pure Land, and here, too, Issa links them with the Pure Land by saying a prayer to Amida Buddha in the first line of the second hokku and by associating the dazzling yellow flowers with flowing water and ultimately with the ocean, into which the river and Edo Bay flow.

In the third and fourth hokku river water explicitly becomes the ocean. Issa's mother died when he was only two, but he has some strong primal memories of her that return every time he looks out across the sea. In the fourth hokku, he thinks about his own death and about Amida coming to greet his soul on a purple cloud, a traditional Pure Land Buddhist image. To this he adds an image from Japanese folk religion of a "western sea" commonly believed to represent the other world. Issa overlaps this sea with the Buddhist notion of the sea lying between this world (This Shore) and the other world (the Other Shore) -- a shore which for Issa is a stop on the soul's journey to the Pure Land. He doesn't long for death, but he clearly believes that someday he will be reunited with his mother's soul in the Pure Land.

The image of Issa's soul flying on purple clouds to the other world and the Pure Land leads to a series of hokku about hototogisu, or what I've called nightingales. As we discussed earlier, there is no definitive English translation for hototogisu, that is, Cuculus poliocephalis, since the bird is found only in Asia and isn't represented by a word in everyday English. The hototogisu is often confused with the larger common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), which has a distinctive cry imitated by cuckoo clocks. The common cuckoo was called kanko-dori in Issa's time, and today it is called kakkou, a name that, like "cuckoo," resembles its cry.

The hototogisu, on the other hand, has quite a different song with a deep, watery, almost otherworldly sound that is often compared to weeping in Japanese poetry: many waka poets claim it brought tears to their eyes. Part of the song of the hototogisu vaguely resembles the song of a nightingale, though nightingales are not found in Japan and are not a direct match. I use nightingale as a translation, however, because some of the habits and legends surrounding the two birds are similar. The hototogisu is famous mostly for its song, which in rural areas is rarely heard. Still, the bird is generally heard rather than seen, especially because it is fond of singing at night more than in the day, while the common cuckoo prefers to sing during the day. It was loved by waka poets for centuries, and hearing its haunting call somewhere in the night or in the woods or even a field was considered a rare experience.

Among commoners, hototogisu were believed to stay with ancestors in the other world during the winter, and when the birds returned in May, they were believed to be the souls of ancestors arriving to help out the living villagers with their all-important rice planting work. Some early waka also speak of them as ancestors' souls "scolding" the living because they aren't doing things the right way. Legends about people's souls becoming hototogisu are also known, and because of the red color inside their mouths they are said to "cry blood": they were especially linked with the souls of people who had died from tuberculosis. It's interesting that Issa writes at the beginning of his Record of My Father's Last Days that a hototogisu was singing nearby when his father collapsed while working in a field. The hototogisu has many epithets, but two of the most common are "bird of the other world" (meido no tori) and "bird of impermanence" (mujou-dori). Its cry is represented several ways, but the most common is "Have you hung up your Buddha image?" (hozon/honzon kaketa ka).

In hokku 5 Issa addresses a nightingale visiting Edo for the first time. The environment is very different from that in the country, but he tells the bird to stay cool and take everything in stride, despite all the commotion and human-centered artifacts around it.

In hokku 6, Issa seems to evoke a nightingale that has been singing at night in a garden of the old imperial palace in Kyoto, where aristocrats and traditional poets still wait and strain to hear the calls of the bird. The bird is so popular that it has to escape into the darkness. Or perhaps Issa is suggesting that, like an aristocrat, the nightingale has managed to have a tryst with one of the ladies in waiting in the palace and is now leaving before dawn comes in order to escape detection.

In hokku 7, Issa again encourages the nightingale, since it must sing louder in the noisy city of Edo than it does in the country. He uses an extreme example -- a temple dedicated to praying for the souls of the unknown dead and for those with no relatives to pray for their souls. The biggest such temple in Edo was and is the Pure Land school Eko-in, which began in 1657 as the mass grave site of 180,000 people who had been killed in the great fire of that year. Other fires, earthquakes, and floods followed, and many people in Edo were immigrants from the country and without relatives, so the monks at the temple offered prayers for such souls that consisted mostly of chanting Amida Buddha's name day and night. The sound of the constant chanting was intense, so Issa is justly concerned that the nightingale's cries won't be heard by many Edoites or by other nightingales in Edo. At the same time, in Edo nightingales have few trees to perch in, so they often sing their night songs in trees right next to people's bedrooms, causing, no doubt, a lot of insomnia and even cursing.

In hokku 8 "we" seems to refer to these people, including, at times, Issa. He tries to be polite to the nightingale that's regaling his nights with loud, otherworldly laments, though it's unlikely he expects the nightingale to understand.

There are several other nightingale hokku in Issa's diary here,
but I hope the general flow of this possibly conscious hokku semi-sequence is already clear.

Chris Drake


kankodori kanarazu ware ni ayakaru na

listen, cuckoo
don't even think
of imitating me!

Tr. Chris Drake

This summer hokku was written in Kozuke Province while Issa, 29, was traveling near rugged Mount Myogi as he made his way back to his hometown to visit his father and stepmother for the first time in fifteen years. The hokku is part of a haibun travelog entitled A Trip in the Third Year of Kansei (寛政三年紀行) and seems to have been written on 4/13 in 1791. The hokku is an intimate part of the haibun, which shows that the hokku is anguished and existential, though with a trace of black humor. It seems to be an expression of a serious identity crisis Issa was passing through during an important period of change in his life.

The trip was made mainly to say goodbye to and get donations from sponsors and colleagues in order to make a long haikai journey to Kyoto, Osaka, the western part of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, a trip he also wanted to tell his father about. Issa was by nature a wanderer, and he also wanted to see more regions and people as well as to study and pray at temples, shrines, and famous places visited by waka, renga, and renku poets of previous centuries, especially Basho. In addition, he wanted to develop his haibun, meet various haikai poets, and learn various different styles of haikai in addition to the style he'd learned as the assistant and scribe for the head of the Katsushika school of haikai in Edo. He was beginning to gradually separate himself from the Katsushika master, even though his goodbye before making his trip was not a formal separation from the school. The proposed long journey eventuially became many journeys, and Issa didn't finally return to Edo until 1798. The first step in the journey, described in the above travelog, was made mainly for collecting donations and then visiting his hometown.

As Issa sets out for his hometown, he expresses anxiety over exactly what his purpose in life is, and at the beginning of the travelog he refers to himself with a haikai name he'd been using for a couple of years, Issa-bou, Monk One Tea. He says he is a "madman," and he wanders here and there as long, apparently, as the bubbles in the froth at the top of a cup of green tea remain in existence. Another interpretation of the name Issa, given by the poet Seibi, is that Issa the poet pours the whole universe into a single teacup. In any case, in order to make his journey, Issa shaved his head and wore a monk's travel clothes, which was customary for traveling haikai poets, though just how much he was dedicating himself to Buddhism and how much to haikai remained a point of tension and uneasiness for Issa. He even confesses that he "doesn't receive the protection of the gods and buddhas" as he wanders.

This conflict caused by following different paths at the same time becomes acute in the travelog shortly before the above hokku appears. Issa writes that he begs an old farmer couple to let him stay the night at their house because he has no other place to stay. The kind couple allows Issa to stay the night, and the wife, taking Issa for a monk, asks him to say prayers for the soul of her dead son. Issa doesn't know any sutras by heart, but, not wanting to disappoint the woman, he imitates a monk as best he can, chanting a few lines he knows and repeating Amida Buddha's name. Later, when he looks at the memorial tablet, he finds that the son's name had been the same as his and that he and the son were born on the same day in the same year. Shaken by this coincidence, which may have suggested to Issa that he was dying to his old role as faithful follower of the Katsushika school and awakening to his own style of haikai, Issa treks the next day toward the house of a friend near Mt. Myogi. On the way, he begins to severely criticize himself for imitating a monk. He feels like a hypocrite, since he knows he is filled with desire for fame and material wealth and comfort. This guilt is mixed with consciousness of his failure so far to become an independent haikai master with enough income to support himself, something he must soon confess to his father. Instead, he feels more like an entertainer or jester, stopping at various students' and patrons' houses and saying fake things he knows they'll like. The travelog contains a very serious internal debate between various voices within Issa, and on this day, at least, he concludes that a wandering beggar monk who is able to properly pray for the peace of dead souls is contributing more to the world than the kind of fake haikai poet he has been so far -- an in-between existence who is neither a monk nor an independent haikai poet with his own vision.

In the travelog the hokku addressed to the cuckoo comes directly after Issa's praise for sincere, dedicated beggar monks. Issa's praise for ordinary beggar monks is not rhetorical, and he is obviously suffering deeply because he is still unable to find the proper way to be sincere and true to his beliefs and to be a haikai poet at the same time. The cuckoo seems to have been following or coming gradually closer to Issa as he walks along, and Issa senses a feeling of friendship being offered by the bird.

At the same time, he warns the cuckoo not to come too close to him or to copy him, because he doesn't have any answers and will only lead the bird astray. The implication seems to be that the cuckoo, living in the midst of nature, has not compromised and prostituted itself and lost its true identity the way Issa and most humans have and that the best advice he can give the cuckoo is not to follow his own example. Issa doesn't seem to be complaining. Rather, by giving this sincere, objective advice, Issa shows friendship and respect for the bird, and the strong colloquial language shows warmth and friendship that aren't fake. Actually there is something worth copying in Issa's negative advice, since in setting out on a long journey the "madman" Issa is showing the bird that he is hoping to travel beyond imitation and toward himself. This is not a light-hearted hokku, and its gentle yet firmly negative tone seems to be Issa's attempted gift to the bird. It's also surely a sign to himself that he hasn't compromised himself completely.

Chris Drake


yama orite sakura miru ki ni narinikeri

I survived the peak --
it's time to look closely
at cherry blossoms

Issa stops and visits sacred Mt. Myogi, where he makes a pilgrimage to the Shinto shrine of its main god at one of its peaks. Rugged Mt. Myogi is famous not only for the powers of its several gods and Buddhas but also for its steep slopes and many unusual rock formations, which suggest to pilgrims that they have traveled to another world.

Read the full comment by
. Chris Drake .

myoogisan 妙義山 Mount Myogi
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. Little Cuckoo, Cuculus poliocephalis, hototogisu ホトトギス, 時鳥 .
- and
Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, kankodori 閑古鳥
..... kakkoo カッコウ

. Namu Amida Butsu 南無阿弥陀仏 the Amida Prayer .

. River Sumidagawa 隅田川 Sumida River .


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. WKD : Kobayashi Issa 小林一茶 .



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