year unknown

mikke-zuki ya fugo hiki-ageru konure kana

sickle moon--
hauled up in the basket
just twigs
This haiku refers to a custom at a certain Buddhist temple in Kyoto. On the first Day of the Tiger of each year, pilgrims could purchase the temple's famous flint stones by lowering a basket with their money into a hole. Unseen monks below would then exchange the stones for the money. Here, the basket returns with only "twigs" (konure).

The moon is a "three-day moon"...just a sliver.
year unknown
oboro-zuki matsu denukete mo denukete mo
hazy moon in the pine--
passing through
passing through
As it rises in the sky, the moon passes through the branches of the pine. The season word in this haiku, oboro, refers to spring haze.

Sakuo Nakamura pictures the setting in high country, where Issa lived. There, "the hazy moon is rising up at our eye level; the tree is slender, and the moon can be seen through the young leaves."
year unknown
amadare wa tsuki yo nari keri kaeru kari
the bright moon in raindrops
from the eaves...
the geese depart
An amadare is an eavesdrop: a large drop of water falling from a roof's overhang. Shinji Ogawa points out that kaeru in this context can be translated as "return" or "leave." Since this is a spring haiku, the wild geese are leaving Japan (i.e., returning to northern lands).
year unknown
yûzuki ya nabe no naka nite naku tanishi
evening moon--
pond snails singing
in the kettle
This haiku has the prescript, "Hell." Pure Land Buddhists maintain that there are "Six Ways" of possible future life reincarnation: (1) as a sufferer in hell, (2) as a hungry ghost, (3) as an animal, (4) as an angry demon, (5) as a human being, or (6) as an enlightened saint in the Western Paradise. This haiku is poem 1 of a six-poem series on the Six Ways. Two versions of this series exist; one appears in the 1812 book, Kabuban, while the other was published posthumously by Issa's students in Issa hokku shû in 1829. The present haiku appears only in the later, 1829 version. Shinji Ogawa believes that the "singing" is the sound of the snails spitting water. Debi Bender theorizes that Issa is hearing the hissing of the shells, "making a noise, something like air escaping a tea-kettle, only not as loud." In an earlier translation, I rendered yûzuki as "night moon," but Shinji believes that the more literal "evening moon" is better. He explains, "To distinguish the evening moon from the night moon is rather important for the fate of the pond snails. The kettle may have been prepared for tonight, and the pond snails may not have tomorrow. But, the pond sails are singing. This seemingly tranquil scene well deserves to be described as Hell. Issa, in his well-disciplined way, keeping it low key, using plain everyday words and common settings without any adjective, without a drop of blood, describes Hell. Hell is not a matter of the next world, but here. It is a reality in which we must kill others in order to survive. Worse, we may call it a feast."



Year unknown

tsuki koyoi kokyô ni nizaru yama mo nashi

tonight's moon--
mountains just like
the ones back home

This is an early haiku written in the 1790s. Issa traveled far and wide during this period. His native village of Kashiwabara has plenty of mountains surrounding it. Perhaps Issa derives comfort from the familiar scene. Shinji Ogawa, who assisted with this translation, helped me to grasp the meaning of Issa's double negative: nizaru ("not resemble," "be unlike") and yama mo nashi ("not a mountain") together denote, "not a mountain is unlike" the mountains back home in Shinano Province (present-day Nagano Prefecture).

Visit David Lanoue's website:


Please login to post comment.