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Review of Issa and Being Human: Haiku Portraits of Early Modern Japan

Lanoue, David G. Issa and Being Human: Haiku Portraits of Early Modern Japan. New Orleans, LA;, 2017. 5.25 x 8 inches. Perfectbound, 228 pages. ISBN 978-0991284054. $9.99 from <>.

Issa and Being Human: Haiku Portraits of Early Modern Japan is Dr. David Lanoue’s second book in what I hope will become a series of thematic reader response analysis of haiku by Koayashi Issa. In his first collection, Issa and the Meaning of Animals: A Buddhist Poet’s Perspective, Lanoue examined how Issa’s haiku portray animals as sentient beings, like people, deserving care and compassion. In Issa and Being Human he examines how Issa’s haiku portray people from his own time, Early Modern Japan.

Lanoue begins with two translations and an in-depth reading of Issa’s haiku:

naka-naka ni hito to umarete aki no kure

quite remarkable
being born human . . .
autumn dusk (p. 6)

just so-so
being born human . . .
autumn dusk (p. 7)

These alternative translations provide the contrasting view of being human as “remarkable” or “just so-so”. In both haiku the setting is “autumn dusk” suggesting endings, the coming winter, the ephemeral nature of human existence. Lanoue uses the dual meaning of the opening line to explore Issa’s “vision of the cosmos and the human role in it” — how being human is both remarkable and ordinary. By examining hundreds of haiku translations, Lanoue invites us to join him in an exploration of “What did ‘being born human’ really mean to Japanese haiku poet, devout Buddhist, and famously comic, though sometimes darkly serious, social satirist Kobayashi Issa?” (p. 11)

The book is organized by people from various social categories in Early Modern Japan: children; farmers; priests; samurai; artisans and merchants; entertainers; prostitutes; beggars, outcasts, thieves; and the old. In each chapter, Lanoue reveals that Issa does not simplify the lives of any of these people into stereotypes. Instead, Issa writes directly from observation and compassion to understand their humanity or to comically satirize their pretensions.

Chapter 1 focuses on Issa’s haiku portraits of children. His haiku on children admire the innocent, pure-hearted perspectives of children and their playful, spontaneous imagination and energy. Lanoue argues that Issa’s haiku are not merely about how children are cute, but show the way children live and respond to their surroundings, which represents both spiritual and aesthetic ideals. He claims, “Issa most likely came to value the child’s perspective through some quite grown-up readings of foundational texts of Buddhism” (p. 14). Even though Issa’s own childhood and his own experiences as a father were full of sorrow, Issa’s haiku “are upbeat celebrations” (p. 17). For example:

daikon de tataki autaru kodomo kana

a battle royal
with radishes . . .
children (p. 19)

Lanoune notes that what is “Not pictured in the poem, but implied, are the children’s parents: grownup farmers stooping in a field, pulling up radishes. The children’s lively creative play contrasts with the dull drudgery of the adults” (p. 19). Throughout this chapter Lanuoue shows that Issa admires the child-like openness evident in his observations of children. He concludes that “Issa’s journals are filled with haiku that reiterate the theme of valuing and emulating childlike consciousness” (p. 29).

While I will not discuss each chapter in depth, I will provide samples of similar conclusions about Issa’s perspective on other social groups. Chapter 2 explores Issa’s haiku on farmers, the social class he was born into. Issa admires farmers for their hard work, their closeness to the earth, and their sacrifices to feed the nation. Also, Lanoue notes that Issa “never, ever forgot where he came from” (p. 50). Chapter 3 features Buddhist priests “as down-to-earth, diligent workers” who are both remarkable in their spiritual discipline and ordinary in their daily lives. Lanoue notes that Issa’s haiku on samurai and daimyo often satirize and humanize them through humbling situations. In Chapter 8 on beggars, outcasts and thieves, Lanoue shows how Issa enjoyed portraying himself as an impoverished beggar-poet wandering on journeys like Bashō. He also shows that Issa portrays beggars, outcasts and thieves as humans worthy of compassion and understanding.

One of the most interesting chapters explores the lives of prostitutes, who are portrayed as suffering the confinement of their situations, which contrasts with the creative playfulness in such circumstances. Issa conveys both compassion and understanding of their plight, as in this haiku:

keisei ga kawaigari keri ko sekizoro

the beautiful courtesan
pets the child . . .
Twelfth Month singer (p. 124)

Lanoue discusses the literal scene in the brothel, but notes the deeper psychological insight Issa provides: “the courtesan’s profession is to provide entertainment and sex to customers in a fantasy world of costume, music, drinking, dance, flirtation, and poetry. While she might give (or might have already given) birth at a secret maternity hospital, she is not allowed to play the role of mother beyond that” (p. 124).

Lanoue acknowledges that “Issa’s first critics in Japan . . . understandably single out ‘human feeling’ (ninjō) as a hallmark of his poetic style” (p. 121). Throughout this collection of translations, biographical notes, and discussion of contexts of Issa’s haiku, Lanoue shows that Issa portrays people with compassion and heart. For example, Lanoue writes, “Issa portrays prostitutes as people more than sex objects: born into and bound by the restrictions of an oppressive, often sordid social world. Like millions of fellow members belonging to the vast class of the downtrodden in that world, these women do what they must to survive. They dream, they regret, they love, they wait . . . hoping for something better” (p. 137).

Issa and Being Human: Haiku Portraits of Early Modern Japan is an excellent collection of translations, with Dr. Lanoue serving as our reading response guide. The translations are very clear and written as quality haiku poetry in English. The readings help us understand the context of each haiku and provide us with an understanding of Issa’s lifetime of haiku writing. Lanoue concludes the book with a broad answer to the opening question — how do Issa’s haiku portray what it means to be born human. Lanoue writes, “Issa’s vision of humanity is a compassionate vision of social divisions mattering less than what people hold in common: a loving excitement for nature that begins early in childhood and continues throughout life for those lucky adults who manage to learn, as Issa did, how to access their open, accepting, nonjudgmental childlike consciousness” (p. 184).

— Randy M. Brooks

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