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May 2009  Issue IX:2

2 New Issa Ku

translations and commentary
Hiroaki Sato (I.)
David G. Lanoue (II.)



Two Newly Discovered Haiku (Hokku) of Issa

A few months ago Gene Reeves, an eminent Buddhist scholar friend of mine, spotted a news item on the discovery of a poem of Miyazawa Kenji (宮沢賢治:1896-1933). Now Scott Metz has spotted two news items, one in Japanese, the other in English, though of the same daily Mainichi Shimbun, on the discovery of two hokku of Kobayashi Issa (小林一茶:1763-1827) and, by way of sending me the news, asked me to translate them:


Na no mushi ha keshite tobikeri asa no tsuki


Hane haete na-mushi wa tobu zo hikigaeru


These are “typical” Issa in that they describe small creatures and, on the face of it, both are easy to grasp. Once you try to translate them, though, two or three questions immediately arise: What is the best word for na 菜? Though we can be pretty sure Issa here is talking about a butterfly by mushi 虫, is it? We know many insects undergo metamorphosis. Also, should the mushi 虫 be given as one or two or more?

As to this last question, I know cabbages, for example, can have plenty of worms crawling all over their leaves one day and swarms of butterflies flying around their flowers the next day. When I was growing up, my family had vegetable patches. We did not use any insecticide, let alone chemical fertilizers (the fertilizers we used consisted wholly of our own excrements, as in Issa’s days), so worms and butterflies – and yes, dragonflies and all other “bugs” – freely ruled the world. Alas, in the decades since, Japan has become more like America!

Anyway, suppose we imagine Issa describing a single larva (though he does not use a more technical sanagi), how about translating the two hokku thus:

The worm on the veggie has changed and flown: morning moon
Wings grown the veggie worm flies, look, cane toad

Yes, “transmogrify” is more appropriate for kesu 化す than “change,” but the reflexive verb takes up too much space. No, the toad here is not identified as “cane toad”; I added “cane” simply because Issa uses the full name of the critter, hikigaeru, rather than hiki or gama. “Look” is for the emphatic zo.

One question the news account raises is the allusion Issa might have had in mind. Most likely accepting the words of the professor mentioned in the article, an Issa specialist no less, the Japanese account says these two hokku allude to a fictional character called Tamamo-no-mae 玉藻の前 who appears in a tanka anthology of the Edo period. (If what the Japanese version says is correct, the English version gets it wrong, for it says the character appears in a poem).

I cannot ascertain the story, simply because Issa’s diary, known as Rokuban nikki 六番日記, of which these two haiku are said to be part, is scattered and not even its fragments are included in the largest Issa volume I have, Vol. 15 of the Koten haibungaku taikei (Shūeisha, 1970). Also, my encyclopedia of tanka (waka), Waka dai-jiten (Meiji Shoin, 1986), does not list a tanka anthology named after Tamamo-no-mae, Lady Tamamo – not that the news account says there was such an anthology.

However, the character with the same name, Lady Tamamo, is the heroine of a rather famous eponymous fairy tale, and Bashō refers to her in Oku no hosomichi. But the tale has to do with a fox who transmogrifies herself into a beautiful, wise young woman to seduce a young noble, so to me the allusion remains moot.






The following two hokku by Issa, dated Fourth Month, Second Day 1808, were recently discovered in Japan (2009). They were found on a page of Issa's "Sixth Diary" (Rokuban nikki), on a hanging scroll held by the Issa Memorial Museum in his native village of Kashiwabara. Sakuo Nakamura, Emiko Miyashita and Toru Kiuchi all assisted with my translation.


                                    hane haete namushi wa tobu zo hikigaeru

                                    hey toad
                                    the caterpillar will grow
                                    and fly away!


Issa ends his haiku with the toad, but since he seems to be addressing it, I moved this to the beginning in my translation for the sake of clarity. Is Issa consoling the toad, telling him that he will have the garden all to himself once the caterpillar becomes a butterfly and flies away?


                                    ha no mushi wa ka shite tobi keri asa no tsuki
                                    a butterfly emerges
                                    and flies away . . .
                                    morning moon

Emiko Miyashita notes that the Japanese characters for "leaf" and "insect," added together, become the character for "butterfly." Indeed, it seems that the leaf-eating insect is a caterpillar that, in the haiku, "emerges and flies away."

Editor’s Note.

As stated by Katsuyuki Yaba in the original Japanese article in the Mainichi Shinbun, and alluded to by Hiroaki Sato (above), it is thought that the two hokku by Issa were inspired by the story of Tamamo-no-Mae.

Tamamo-no-Mae is a famous figure in Japanese mythology. Originally a sinister, nine-tailed fox who transformed into a beautiful, intelligent courtesan, Lady Tamamo appeared during the period of Emperor Toba (1107 - 1123). Japanese folklore has a long and rich mythology of foxes being magical, turning themselves into many things, most often human beings, in order to trick people, though oftentimes to help them as well — all of which has played a part in the creation of many haikai, hokku and haiku through the ages.

Lady Tamamo was said to have always smelled wonderful, to have had an uncanny intelligence, and to have been greatly loved by Emperor Toba. One day though the emperor fell ill. The court’s fortune teller/astrologer, Abe no Yasuchika, figured out the plot, as well as Lady Tamamo’s true identity. Discovered, Lady Tamamo transformed back into a nine-tailed fox and fled. Hunted down, the fox was struck by an arrow. Instead of dying though, the fox magically transformed into a huge rock: Sesshoseki, or, The Killing Rock.  A wide range of literature in Japan is based on this mythological legend, including kabuki and noh plays, fiction and poems. 

Toru Kiuchi, a Japanese poet and editor, has noted that the rock emanates a sulfuric gas, so butterflies and other small insects die on it. He believes that Issa went to see the rock and was moved by the red color and size, as well as the smell, because he already knew that Bashō wrote about it in The Narrow Road to the Interior.

Ad G. Blankestijn notes on his website that: “Bashō describes this (The Killing Rock) as emitting poisonous vapors: ‘Dead bees, butterflies and other insects lie in heaps near it, hiding the color of the sand.’ Apparently, there is a vent . . . on the volcano through which sulphuric gasses escape. Surprisingly, Bashō does not say much about The Killing Stone in the Narrow Road. He even skips the legend behind it.”

He also adds that, “(Bashō’s) straightforward haiku does not appear in the Narrow Road, but was copied by Sora.”


ishi no ka ya natsu kusu akaku tsuyu atsushi

the stone's stench
even reddish summer grass
has hot dew


trans. by Jane Reichhold, [#53, p 134], Basho: the Complete Haiku, Kodansha International, 2008)

So, the associations and allusions seem to be inspired by both Bashō’s visit and writing about The Killing Stone and the legend behind it (which Issa clearly knew of since Bashō did not write about it). The transmogrification of the “veggie bug” and “worm” (Sato)/“caterpillar”and “butterfly” (Lanoue) softly alludes to Lady Tamamo’s own metamorphoses. It seems The Killing Rock’s sulfuric gases would have likely killed the butterflies/worms in Issa's ku. In the ku though, they escape. Very Issa, no?

The “morning moon” we are left with in the one seems to symbolize the “true pure land” of Pure Land Buddhism (Issa’s religion). The toad/frog, in the other ku, is also interesting, though a more mysterious choice. In the west, of course, there is the famous story of The Frog Prince, wherein a prince was turned into a frog, then back into a prince upon being kissed by a princess. One wonders if the toad, in the ku, represents someone as well (the frog itself being a creature of metamorphosis, as well as an amphibian, or something that can live a double life), or is a symbol/metaphor for something else. Or perhaps the frog represents Bashō himself, Issa alluding to his infamous frog/pond ku. Without explication from Issa himself, it seems one can only have fun guessing. 


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