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Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) - pseudonym of Masaoka Tsunenori


Japanese writer usually credited with reviving the traditional Japanese poetic form of haiku. Masaoka Shiki was the founder of the magazine Hototogisu and despite his brief life he became a highly esteemed critic in his time. His role as a charismatic literary figure has shadowed his merits as a poet and diarist.

Facing away from me
Darning old tabi -
My wife.
When the loofah bloomed
He choked on phlegm
And died.

Masaoka Shiki was born in Matsuyama in present-day Ehime Prefecture. When he was an infant, the family house was destroyed by fire. His father, Masaoka Hyata, was a low-ranking samurai, and an alcoholic, who died when Masaoka was at the age of six. Shiki's mother, Yae, taught sewing to girls of samurai class in order to support the family. After his father's death his maternal uncle became the family guardian.

Boys of the samurai class were required to compose poetry in Chinese. While still at at school, Shiki began to write prose and poetry, but he did not begin to compose haiku until he was in his early twenties. Being left-handed,  he got teased by his classmates. Shiki was forced to convert to right-handed writing. Moreover, as a child, he was small and overweight, and slow in learning new words and pronouncing them correctly. This also made him a target of bullying.Shiki's sister Ritsu said of him that he was a crybaby.

Under his maternal grandfather, Ohara Kanzan, who was a Confucian scholar and a "samurai's samurai," Shiki studied Chinese classics. Later he said, that being "a constant witness to the respect he was shown in all quarters, I too wanted to become a scholar, to be his equal." In 1880 Shiki entered Matuyama Middle School. He planned to go into law or politics, but eventually he realized that he liked writing best. Shiki also studied English at a cram school. In 1883 he moved to Tokyo, making the journey by boat and wearing a new kimono, which was sewn by his mother.

Between 1883 and 1885 Shiki attended University Preparatory College. In 1884, he met Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), who later gained fame as a novelist and short story writer. Despite their different backgrounds, they became friends. Shiki was astonished that Sōseki, born and raised in Tokyi, did not know what rice seedlings look like. After becoming fascinated by philosophy, he read Herbert Spencer's Philosophy of Style and wrote the essay 'Shiika no Kigen oyobi Hensen' (The Origin and Development of Poetry), in which he utilized Spencer's argument that "The shortest sentence is the best". Upon graduating, Shiki entered the Tokyo Imperial University, where he studied classic Japanese literature, but eventually he stopped attending classes: "the only studying I did was of haiku and novels." During this period he began to travel around Japan. 

Shiki's studies were abrupt because of health problems. In May 1889 he coughed blood; The rest of his life he devoted to the writing of haiku and waka (or tanka). After withdrawing from the Imperial University, Shiki was a haiku editor of the newspaper Nippon, publishing there in 1893 Indiscriminate Attacks on the Literary World, Some Remarks om Basho and other writings. In 1892 Shiki began his reform of the poetic form. At that time the Japanese poetry was still dominated by images of cherry blossoms and colored autumn leaves. Shiki turned his back on the traditional seventeen-syllable verse form which he considered incapable of expressing the complexities of modern life.

Regardless of his poor health, Shiki went to China as a war correspondent in 1895, saying, "What point is there in having been born a man unless I can accompany the army?" However, he never witnessed any action, because the war ended before he reached China. Shiki fell seriously ill; beset by tuberculosis, he remained an invalid for much of the rest of his life. On his return trip, he had a lung hemorrhage and was expected to die. Shiki convalesced at Natsume Soseki's two-storied cottage in the city Matsuyama, adjoined by a celebrated hot spring resort. During his stay, he introduced the new haiku style to a group of young haiku devotees and wrote Haikai Taiyo (The Elements of Haiku).

After returning to Tokyo, Shiki continued to advocate the reevaluation of the haiku and loosening its tight conventions, which he saw dangerous for its development as an art form. He published several essays on the subject, first attacking the great haiku master, Bashõ, but later softened his views. His home became a meeting place for his friends and followers, who gathered there to discuss literature. Shiki often spoke about Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables (1862). In 1897, Shiki and his disciples founded the literary journal Hototogisu. Next year he turned his attention to tanka in Letters to the Tanka Poets. During the last years of his life, Shiki was bound to his six-foot sickbed – or as he described, "If I stretch my hand a little, I can touch the tatami mat, but I can't stretch my legs beyond the end of the futon to make my body confortable." Unable to go for a walk or do any other form of exercise, Shiki's primary physical enjoyment become food. Shiki also suffered from caries of the spine, but he faced his illness and physical pain with dignity and ironic humor, as can be seen in the autobiographical Byosho rokushaku (A Six-foot Sickbed), which was serialized in Nippon in 1902. Curiously, his appetite remained good. Masaoka Shiki died in Tokyo on September 9, 1902, a few weeks before his thirty-fifth birthday. On the last day of his life, he wrote three haiku, his farewell to life. Shiki's essays are still widely read. He never married. Despite the fact that Shiki disliked outdoor activities, baseball attracted him and he made translations of baseball terms.

Initially a prose writer, Shiki devoted a major portion of his short life to the collection and composition of haiku. He advocated realistic observation based on the technique of "sketching" (shasei) in the presentation of images. Shiki himself adopted the practice of going out into nature with notebooks and making there "sketches", thus abandoning the traditional subject matter of haiku. His advice for an aspiring poet was, "Use both imaginary pictures and real ones, but prefer the real ones." For Shiki, the traditional form of poetry was a means for artistic, personal expression. In one tanka he wrote: "people in our world / down their sake / to appear smart, knowing: / me – I devour persimmons / and look like a monkey". In this and other writings Shiki avoided scholarly jargon. Through Shiki's work the haiku gained the prestige it had enjoyed during the Tokugawa period in the 17th century. With his followers and influential writings, he also helped to modernize the tanka.

Shiki's most important writings on the subject were Dassai Sho-oku Haiwa (1892), Haikai Taiyo (1895), and Haijin Buson (1897). Basho Zatsudan (1894) was a critical examination of the principles of Bashõ. In Buson Yosa he found an example of a gentleman who was gifted in poetry, calligraphy, and painting – until Shiki published his essay, Buson's poetry had been ignored.

At first Shike had defended traditional Japanese painting, but his friendship and discussions with Nakamura Fusetsu (1866-1943), a Western-style artist, who had studied in Paris, turned him into an advocate of realism. His two diaries, published in 1901-1902, combine qualities of the classical Japanese poetic diary with the self-revelation of modern autobiography. Posthumously appeared a volume called Songs from a Bamboo Village (1904). The recurring theme in his works is the juxtaposition of the author's own inevitable fate with the ongoing life of nature and the human world. Unable to move out of his room, the poet continued to record what he saw around him: "again and again / I ask how high / the snow is".

Haiku: Japan's most popular unrhymed poetic form. Haiku consist of 17 syllables arranged in three lines containing five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. Outstanding haiku masters: Matsuo Bashõ (1644-1694), Buson Yosa (1716-1783), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827). Haiku's emphasis on the immediate and concrete influenced early 20th century Imaginism in Europe and America, especially through the efforts of Ezra Pound. Both Masaoka and his successor Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) saw haiku as a poetry of a single object. Tanka: A Japanese fixed form of verse of 31 syllables and five lines, the first and third of which have five syllables, and the other seven (5-7-5-7-7). Tanka focuses on the essence of one static event, image, mood. Until the sixteenth century, near all poetry written in Japanese took the tanka form.

Shiki's and Bashõ's haiku on the theme of summer:
In cleft on cleft-----------------------An ancient pond –
on rock face after rock face ----  Then the sound of water
wild azaleas -------------------------- Where a frog plops in
For further reading: 'Masaoka Shiki and Tanka Reform' by R.H. Brower, in Tradition and Modernization in Japanese Culture, ed. by D.H. Shively (1971); Landscapes and Portraits by D. Keene (1971); Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology (1976); Masaoka Shiki by Janine Beichman (1982); A History of Japanese Literature, vol. 3, by Shuichi Kato (1983); Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death by Yoel Hoffman (1998); Masaoka Shiki: His Life and Works by Janine Beichman (2002); The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki by Donald Keene (2013) - Suom: Shikin runoja on suomennettu antologioihin Kirsikankukkia (1951) ja Japanilaisia runoja (1953). Vuonna 1999 ilmestyi Orientan kustantamana Shikin haiku-runoja, ryhmiteltynä neljälle vuodenajalle. Suomentajina oli Heikki Mattilan johdolla ryhmä Japani-Killan jäseniä: Tanja Häkkinen, Miia Hämäläinen ja Marko Kempas. Ruotsiksi on ilmestynyt Orientan kustantamana kokoelma Masaoka Shiki, Japanska haiku-dikter, ruots. Noriko Thunman ja Per Erik Wahlund

Selected works:

  • Dassai Shooku haiwa, 1892 (Talks on Haiku from the Otter's Den; essay, in Shiki zenshū, vol. 4)
  • Basho Zatsudan, 1894 (Thing's about Basho)
  • Haikai Taiyō, 1895 (Essentials of Haiku; essay)
  • Haijin Buson, 1897 (The Haiku Poet Buson; essay)
  • Bokujū Itteki, 1901 (A Drop of Ink)
  • Byōshō Rokushaku, 1902 (The Six-foot Sickbed)
  • Gyōga Manroku, 1902 (Stray Notes While Lying On My Back)
  • Take no Sato Uta, 1904 - Songs from a Bamboo Village: Selected Tanka from Takenosato Uta (translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda, 1998)
  • Shiki kushū, 1909
  • Shiki zenshū, 1924-1926 (15 vols., eds. Hekigoto Kawahigashi et al.)
  • Masaoka Shiki shu, 1928 (edited by Sokotsu Samukawa)
  • Ishikawa Takuboku, Masaoka Shiki, Takahama Kyoshi, 1967 (eds. Donald Keene et al.)
  • Masaoka Shiki shu, 1972 (edited by Toshihiko Matsui)
  • Peonies Kana: Haiku by the Upsasak Shiki, 1972 (translated by Harold J. Isaacson)
  • Shiki zenshū, 1975-78 (25 vols., eds. Chusaburo Masaoka et al.)
  • Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems, 1998 (translated by Burton Watson)
  • Masaoka Shiki no e: Shiki 100-nensai in Matsuyama = Shiki 100th anniversary in Matsuyama, 2001
  • Baseball, 2015 (translated by Shelley Marshall)
  • A House by Itself: Selected Haiku of Shiki, 2017 (Masaoka Shiki, John Brandi, Noriko Kawasaki Martinez)
  • Yonenkan, 2017

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