A Living Nightmare ~ Haiku of Japan


As you may know if you've followed my haiku posts for the past few years, Issa was a pretty silly guy. Many of his haiku involve him talking to animals or making fun of himself in a humorous way. These things have led to his great popularity thru the years and are one of the things that propelled him to be considered one of the four greatest masters of haiku in Japanese history.

But his life was actually pretty tragic. His mother died young and his step-mother not only hated him and made his life hell, but forced his father to send him away at a young age, then denied his inheritance by his stepmother when his father died (he eventually won back half of his father's property). As bad as that might be, it gets far worse. All of his children died young and his wife died not long after the birth of his third child.

I can't think of anything worse than losing a child, let alone three of them and a wife. It's remarkable he was able to remain mostly positive and silly in his haiku with the nightmare tragedy of his life.

In accordance with this week's prompt, I submit the haiku he wrote about these deaths.


By Andre Rau

On the one-year anniversary of the death of his first son, Sentaro:

tsuyu no yo wa tokushin nagara sari nagara

it's a dewdrop world
this I understand
yes... but...

He reworked the above when his daughter, Sato, died two years later:

tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara

this life
is as the morning dew
yes... but...

This reworked haiku is generally considered his best haiku and is probably his most famous one.

For it, he wrote in his journal:

I knew that it was no use to cry, that water once flown past the bridge does not return and scattered blossoms are gone beyond recall. Yet try as I would, I could not, simply cut the binding cord of human love

In haiku, dewdrops are a symbol of the transience of life. As the morning dew vanishes with the sun, it has been a symbol for our fleeting lives in Japanese poetry since ancient times.

35 days later, he visited her grave and wrote:

aki kaze ya mushiritagarishi akai hana

The autumn wind...
She always wanted to pluck
The red flowers

(trans Janine Beichman. I'm not even going to try to word it better than she did)

Evidently he picked some of these flowers that she no longer could and left them on her grave.

When his third son, Ishitaro, died, he wrote:

nadeshiko no naze oreta zo yo oreta zo yo

Why did the pink break,
oh why did it break?

The Pink is a flower (see here) known for being especially delicate, so very like a helpless baby. The repetition of the second and third line sounds like sobbing in Japanese.

Upon the death of his wife, Kiku, he wrote:

ikinokori ikinokoritaru samusa kana

Outliving them
Outliving them all
Ah, the cold

Some time after she died, he wrote:

kogoto iu aite mo araba kyō no tsuki

if only she were here
to put up with my grumbling...
ah, tonight's moon

Annnnd, maybe that's enough. They are all beautiful haiku, but all terribly sad. As a father, these hit me especially hard. My heart goes out to anyone who has to suffer this living nightmare.

Despite all this, he found incredible joy in the world, perhaps in part because of the form of Buddhism he followed (Pure Land, which is a kind of faith-based Buddhism that promises rebirth in a paradise, not entirely unlike the Christian heaven).

Let's give a little relief from the depression and end this article with one of his lighter verses:

yasegaeru makeru na issa kore ni ari

puny frog
don't give up!
Issa is rooting for you

According to his diary, he stopped to watch two frogs fighting. He was cheering for the scrawny one.


Hi there! David LaSpina is an American photographer and translator lost in Japan, trying to capture the beauty of this country one photo at a time and searching for the perfect haiku.

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    In Chinese poetry it is the same to compare the fleeting life to dewdrops. Yeah, I believe that the religion has a strong curative effect, it can be a double-edge sword though. In my opinion, Issa is the Japanese version of Su Shi--one of the greatest Chinese poets through history. Despite being an official, Su Shi led a hard life, kept on being banished to the poor and remote places from the rest of his life, even once nearly being executed by those people who envied him.

    However, like Issa he could still love and enjoy life in a humorous way, seeking pleasure from the small things and turning suffering into art. (Maybe it is partly due to his own religion, partly due to the love and friendship from his younger brother)

    Su Shi not only wrote a lot of good poets/Ci, but also invented quite a few delicious food such as the well-known 东坡肉/Braised Dongpo Pork, Dongpo Doufu, etc. To my surprise, now I notice some information online unexpectedly shows 羊蝎子/Lamb Spine Hot Pot I mentioned firstly originated from Su Shi. When he was in Huizhou(a backward and impoverished region at that time) , the mutton in the market was rare and stinted only for the local officials in power. As an exile, Su Shi had no choice but to cook some waste cheap lamb spines under his unique recipe. Later during Qing dynasty a Mongolian noble found it delicious by accident, then it became a traditional popular dish. (another version of origin)

    I love this haiku of Issa!

    puny frog
    don't give up!
    Issa is rooting for you

    It is absolutely true that one person can make life hell, whereas one person can also make life heaven.
    Thanks for your encouragement and support to me again!


    This is the first time I'm seeing a Haiku this long. Never knew it can be long.

    I always love your write up.. Keep it up