Masaoka Shiki: The Great Haiku Master of Japan

Japanese haiku master, poem reformer Masaoka Shiki wrote around 900 Chinese poems, about 2300 tanka and composed over 25,500 haiku in his diminutive life. He is one of the four great masters of haiku along with Matsuo Basho (1644- 1694), Yosa Buson (1716- 1783) and Kobayashi Issa (1763- 1827). Masaoka Shiki (pseudonym Masaoka Tsunenori) was born in Matsuyama, Iyo province (now Ehime prefecture) on 17 September 1867 to a samurai family. He was called Tokoronosuke, later he changed his name to Noboru. In 1872, Shiki lost his father. He entered elementary school in 1873 and studied Chinese classics under his maternal grandfather Ohara Kanzan and calligraphy under an uncle.

Ohara died in 1875 and Shiki’s Chinese studies continued under other tutors. In 1878, he has written his first poem in Chinese. He entered Matsuyama Middle School in 1880 and in 1882, he composed his first tanka. He was withdrawn from school in 1883 and went to Tokyo where he entered Kyoritsu School. In 1884, he passed entrance exam of University Preparatory School (later higher middle school). In 1889, he wrote The Origin and Development of Poetry as essay for school and adopted pen-name Shiki (Japanese cuckoo hototogisu). At this time he begins to suffer from tuberculosis.

After graduation in1890, Shiki entered Japanese Literature department of Imperial University (now Tokyo University). In 1891, he skipped final exam and withdrawn from university. Then he became haiku editor of Nippon and started to reform of the Japanese poetic form. Traditional Japanese literature was attached to yugen (subtle, profound and tranquil beauty) and wabi (quiet refinement). He advocated a realistic, descriptive poetic style and a ‘third literature’ which would be non-imaginary and non-realistic at the same time. He avoided scholarly jargon and advised to use both imaginary pictures and real ones but favored the real ones.

At that time, the traditional seventeen-syllable verse form was considered incapable of expressing the complexities of modern life. Shiki wrote the theoretical text on how to improve haiku, Haiku Taiyo, The Element of Haiku. He introduced the term haiku to replace hokku. He launched the word shasei (delineation from nature or sketching) to describe his methodology of using contemporary language and realistic images. His haiku were characterized by visual description and a concise style.

He attacked on the Literary World and Some Remarks on Basho serialized in Nippon in 1893. In 1895, his illness was severely aggravated while working in China as a war correspondent with the Imperial Japanese Army during the First Sino-Japanese War. On return, he was hospitalized in Kobe. Then he stayed with Natsume Soseki in Matsuyama and leaded a group of young haiku poets. In 1897, he with his disciples founded the literary journal Hototogisu. The Haiku World of 1896 and The Haiku Poet Buson serialized in Nippon. At that time, he has undergone surgery for complications of tuberculosis.

In 1898, series of lecture discussion on Buson held at Shiki’s home. Letters to a Tanka Poet serialized in Nippon; he started to reform tanka. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Shiki with his followers refreshed the old tanka form, replace it 31-mora/syllables waka/poetry. Meetings of Negishi Tanka Society begin at his home. Records of the Little Garden published in Hototogisu and prose movement begin.

In 1900, his essay on Realistic Prose successively published in Nippon.

In spite of ill-health, he maintained a prominent position in the literary world. He frequently mentioned his illness in his poems but maintained an emotional detachment from his physical suffering. In 1902, volume one of Selections from the Haiku Note-book of the Others Den was published and A Six-foot Sickbed serialized in Nippon. He suffered from caries of the spine but he faced his illness and physical pain with dignity and ironic humor. At last, he died on September 19 1902.

Shiki’s most important writings are Dassai Sho-oku Haiwa (1892), Haikai Taiyo (1895) and Haijin Buson (1897). Basho Zatsudan (1894) was a critical examination of the principles of Basho. His two diaries, published in 1901-1902, combine qualities of the classical Japanese poetic diary with the self-revelation of modern autobiography. A volume called Songs from a Bamboo Village (1904) appeared posthumously. His other works are Bokuju Itteki (1901), Byosho Rokushaku (1902), Gyoka-manroku (1902), Take No Sato Uta (1904), Sh. Kushu (1909), Shiki Zenshu, 1975-78 (25 vols.), Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems (1998) etc.