Saturday, June 15, 2013

My father’s death

‘Today is my last chance to chase flies away from his sleeping body. Thus the day ended. From the basin of water by his pillow, all I could do was wet his lips without hope.’ This is Kobayashi Issa, the great Japanese haiku poet, writing in a diary about the death of his father in 1801. And today - the 250th anniversary of his birth - is a good one to remember him.

Issa was born in a farmhouse on 15 June 1763 in Shinano Province (present-day Nagano Prefecture, 120 miles or so northwest of Tokyo). His mother died when he was three, and he was brought up by his grandmother until she too died. His father remarried, and had another child, causing strained relations between Issa and the rest of the family. Aged only 14 he was sent to Edo (present-day Tokyo) to work. In time, he studied haiku, and travelled through Japan. By 1790, he had already established a reputation as a poet with several publications.

Issa’s father died in 1801, and he entered a bitter legal struggle with his step-brother over the inheritance which took more than a decade to resolve. In the early 1810s, he returned to his native village, married a young woman, named Kiku, and rose to a position of regional eminence as a poet. His wife and his young children all died young, and he married twice more before dying himself in 1827. He is said to have written 20,000 haiku (many of them on insects and small creatures), as well as other literary works. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, Kirjasto, or the Kobayashi Issa Museum website.

One of Issa’s most enduring works is a diary describing the last days of his father’s life, Chichi no Shuen Nikki, published in English as Last Days of Issa’s Father (which has its own Wikipedia entry). It was written on the back of sheets of Saitancho, or New Year’s memorandum paper, and was passed down by generations of the descendants of Kubota Shunko, one of Issa’s disciples. It is held today by Issakan, a museum dedicated to Issa in Takayama-mura, Nagano Prefecture.

For a detailed analysis of the text, and several good extracts (including the one below) see The Death of Kobayashi Yagobei by Scot Hislop, National University of Singapore, in Early Modern Japan. Several extracts can also be found in the anthology Early Modern Japanese Literature, edited by Haruo Shirane, and partially viewable at Googlebooks.

The twentieth day, fifth month
‘Father’s fever continued to worsen. In the morning he ate just a bowl of gruel. Around noon his face became pale. Eyes half closed, his mouth moved as if he were trying to say something. With each breath phlegm rattled around as though it were attacking his life and so he became weaker and weaker. As the sun streaming through the window approached the hour of the sheep, father could no longer make out the faces of people. The situation was hopeless. I would have gladly traded my life for his if I could but once more see him alive, strong, and eating. It was so desperate that even the most famous doctors in the world such Kiba and Hen Jaku would not have had the skill to save him. Without the intervention of the gods there was nothing left but to invoke Amida.
Today is my last chance to chase flies away from his sleeping body.
Thus the day ended. From the basin of water by his pillow, all I could do was wet his lips without hope.
The moon of the twentieth night shone through the window. The neighbors had quieted down and gone to sleep. At about the time that the cock should start to crow, the sound of father’s breathing died down and the phlegm that rose from his heart sometimes blocked his throat. Even if I could not save his life, I should have at least liked to have cleared the phlegm. But since I am not as great a doctor as Ka Da, I have no extraordinary skill as a healer. There was nothing left to do but wait, with deep sadness and pain, for the hour of my father’s death. The gods did not take pity on us and as the dawn began to break, just after the hour of the rabbit, father stopped breathing and seemed as if he were asleep.
We surrounded the corpse. I prayed that this was but a dream from which I would soon awake. Be it dream or reality, it felt as though I were left without a candle in the darkness and that nothing remained in the world to rely on.
Beckoned by the wind, the fickle flowers of spring scatter. In this world of ceaseless change the autumn moon often hides behind clouds. Moreover, those who are born must certainly die and those who meet must assuredly part. It is the way of the world. It is the road that all must travel once. But not knowing whether my father would travel it today or tomorrow was foolish. Even though evening after evening I nursed my father in earnest, it all came to naught in an instant. Those who had been fighting with my father until yesterday surrounded the corpse and began to wail. The voices of those chanting the name of Amida were hoarse. Now they realized that the duties of those who grow old together and share the same grave had not been fulfilled.’

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