Issa and Animals


. Kobayashi Issa 小林一茶 in Edo .

Issa and Animals


Tr. anc comment by Chris Drake

saoshika ya eishite nameru kesa no shimo

stags stand close
licking morning frost
off each other

This hokku is from the ninth lunar month (October) in 1819, and it is also found toward the end of Year of My Life, Issa's haibun evocation of that year. In the hokku it is late autumn, the mating season, when stags have grown their antlers again and male hormones are flowing. In autumn stags tend to become competitive and assertive, often fighting and sometimes seriously injuring themselves in their desire to imitate the local alpha male, and they also also spend hour after hour plaintively crying out to does. All this assertion and exhibitionism causes the stags to lose many pounds of body weight, and often they are quite haggard, so Issa seems deeply moved by a scene of cooperation, closeness, and friendliness between them early in the morning, before they have become preoccupied with separateness and mating rituals. Frost comes early to the mountainous plateau on which Issa's hometown is located, and for the moment the stags have put away their defenses as they warm up their fellow stags with their tongues.

This harmony and warm spirit of cooperation shown in the midst of fierce competition, even though it is during a temporary period of rest, is obviously important to Issa, who as usual feels animals have much to teach humans. The two hokku preceding this hokku in Year of My Life make this even clearer:

when I was completely lost

night bitterly cold
a neighing horse guides me
to the piss ditch

shoubenjo koko to uma yobu yosamu kana

hey, migrating birds,
no squabbling -- you'll never
make it home alone

kenka su na aimi-tagai no watari-dori

Together the three hokku form a short sequence of related poems that make a strong impression and ask human readers to take them seriously. In the hokku about the horse, Issa seems to have become disoriented after waking up in the middle of the night. Still half asleep and shivering, he has completely forgotten where the ditch for pissing (used by both men and women) is, and he can't see anything in the dark. At that moment a horse in a stall inside one end of the farmhouse hears him moving and makes neighing sounds, allowing Issa to orient himself, since the ditch is just outside the end of the house in which the stall is located.

Issa seems to feel the horse deliberately neighed because it sought to communicate or at least to be harmoniously together with another creature, so he is extremely grateful to the horse for its kind help. Even if the horse was not consciously telling Issa where the ditch was, Issa says the horse 'calls out' (yobu) to him, so he assumes that horses and humans share a basic desire to communicate with each other, even if they do not possess a formal common language. On the other hand, in Issa's time farm horses lived inside the same house the farming family lived in, and Issa may make midnight trips from time to time, so he may feel the horse, a family member, was consciously guiding him.

In the last hokku, some migratory birds who winter in Japan seem to have stopped briefly in Issa's hometown on their way south. They are having a loud quarrel about something, worrying Issa and causing him to offer some advice. He speaks to them as a fellow life-traveler and reminds them they shouldn't quarrel with those they are closest to and on whom they are most dependent for their very survival. In Issa's diary, the hokku before and after this hokku are about singing Amida Buddha's name, so Issa seems to be treating birds and humans in a parallel way, and he surely considers chanting or singing Amida's name in both human and bird languages to be a good way of ending dissension and increasing mutual sympathy.

Following this hokku about birds in Year of My Life is the first hokku translated above about stags. By creating a series consisting of three separately written hokku, in Year of My Life Issa more effectively overcomes superficial conceptual distinctions between humans and other animals, and he may be hinting at Amida's presence as well.

Chris Drake


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. WKD : Kobayashi Issa 小林一茶 - Introduction .



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