Masaoka Shiki on Beauty and Pain

by Kenny Blacklock

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) is frequently mentioned along with Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa as one of the four greatest haiku poets of Japan. Besides his haiku, Shiki is also known for his tanka (a 31 syllable Japanese poetic form), literary criticism, and diaries. Much of Shiki’s work was originally published as newspaper articles during his lifetime. Shiki caught tuberculosis at an early age and died a few weeks before his thirty-fifth birthday, after years of pain and suffering. He was completely bedridden for the last five years of his life. Nevertheless, he was quite prolific, producing over ten thousand haiku, over two thousand tanka, and numerous other works, all of which amount to twenty-two volumes in the modern Japanese editions of his complete works.

Shiki came from a low-ranking samurai family in an era when the samurai had lost all political power and fixed-sources of income. Shiki’s father died when he was five, so he was raised by his mother and educated by his grandfather in the Confucian classics. Shiki received an exceptional literary education yet grew up in poverty.

Shiki’s major contribution to Japanese literature was his insistence that haiku and tanka were valid literary forms and that the future of Japanese literature depended on their preservation. This may seem obvious in this age in which haiku has become well known worldwide and has even become something of an international poetic form. Yet, in Shiki’s time, many young Japanese poets were patterning their poetry after Western models because they had more or less accepted the judgement of Western literary critics that haiku and tanka were too short and too trite to be considered literature. Also, the writing of haiku and tanka in Japan had degenerated into a kind of parlor game that followed many strict rules. In this context, Shiki argued that haiku poets should throw out the rules, eliminate triteness, and take a good look at what the great poets Basho and Buson had tried to do with the form. Furthermore, Shiki declared that haiku was literature, and that it was is one of the great native forms in which Japanese poets could find their voice. Shiki’s tanka reform was along the same lines. One interesting point is that haiku and tanka were considered so different in Shiki’s time that it was unheard of for a single poet to write in both forms. Shiki changed this as well. He saw that each form had its uses and felt that a good poet could use either form effectively.

Shiki’s literary aesthetic can be summarized in the term, shasei, which means, “sketch from life.” Shiki borrowed this concept from Western painters who took their subject matter from real life as opposed to some imaginary subject worthy of artistic depiction. Here is an example of how this aesthetic applied to haiku composition. Traditional haiku poets often started with a theme, which might have been given to them by a teacher or another poet. They then tried to imagine various situations that fit this theme and wrote haiku based on these imaginary creations. Shiki’s approach was quite different. Shiki told poets to look around and observe carefully. Then, write a poem that describes what you see. Shiki said, “The materials for poetry are around you in abundance.”

One of my favorite illustrations of Shiki’s shasei aesthetic is the following haiku:

Red apple
green apple
on the table.

This poem is reminiscent of a still life painting. What does it mean? Does it capture an instance of beauty? Is it effective? The total lack of subjectivity is startling. Where is the poet in this poem? One might argue that a child could have written it, but does that make it any less of a poem?

Another interesting aspect of Shiki’s life is that despite his many years of suffering and pain, he never sought solace in religion. Up to the moment of his death Shiki was a lover of beauty. He sought beauty, and the expression of beauty in spite of the pain of his illness, yet he never developed a mystical attitude towards beauty. He never seriously turned to religion, or even philosophy, in search of an answer to the puzzle of his afflictions. To the end of his life, Shiki painted, wrote in his personal diary, published regular entries in a poetic diary, and wrote haiku and tanka. Much of Shiki’s writing from his sickbed is tied very closely to his immediate surroundings. This is where the power of the shasei aesthetic is revealed. Shiki sees poetry where any ordinary person would have just seen a dreary, depressing existence. Of course, unlike the haiku above, the subject is very much a part of these works. How could it be otherwise? Shiki attempted to enter into and understand his environment through observation, not just based on his imagination.

Here are some selections from one of Shiki’s great poetic diaries, A Drop of Ink, written in 1901, the year before he died.

April 15: There are ten goldfish in a glass bowl on the table. I watch them intently from my sickbed as I struggle with my pain. I feel the pain and I see the beauty.

May 11: I placed a small amount of poison near my pillow as a test. Let’s see whether or not I take it.

May 17: When I cannot bear the incessant pain, I think of some China pinks [dianthus chinensis] I saw growing in a nursery in Azuma-mura fourteen or fifteen years ago.

Shiki often playfully reflected on death. Here is a haiku he wrote in 1897:

When I’m dead:

You should say,
I was a haiku lover,
who ate persimmons.

This is an example of the “sketch from life” in its most subjective aspect. The poet looks at himself and describes what he sees. Perhaps Shiki’s great poetic discovery was that sometimes the simplest observations are the most profound.

Shiki in English

Beichman, Janine. Masaoka Shiki. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1986. An excellent overview of Shiki’s life and work. Includes numerous translations of Shiki’s haiku and tanka as well as excerpts from his diaries and critical works.

Goldstein, Sanford and Shinoda, Seishi. Songs from a Bamboo Village: Selected Tanka from Takenosato Uta by Shika Masaoka. Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1998. Translations of 298 of Shiki’s tanka along with a comprehensive introduction and detailed notes on each poem.

Sato, Hiroaki and Watson, Burton. From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. This large anthology of Japanese poetry includes translations of thirty-nine haiku and fifteen tanka by Shiki.

Watson, Burton, translator. Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. A small, but exceptionally well translated anthology of Shiki’s poetry. Includes haiku, tanka, and kanshi (Chinese style poems).

Kenny Blacklock is a musician and Japanese translator.

bandcamp button-bc-circle-white-32

© 2022 Kenny Blacklock