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Masaoka Shiki: The Misunderstood Reformer, Critic and Poet

Shiki lived in the modern Meiji Era Tokyo when traditional Japanese poetry faced extinction. Bed stricken, he poured all his energy into reform.

By Carmen Sterba

on Oct 8, 2011


The life of poet Masaoka Shiki in modern Meiji Era (1868-1912) was worlds a part from the life of poet Matsuo Basho in the pre-modern Tokugawa Era (1600-1868). Although Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa and Shiki are considered to be the most significant haiku poets, only Basho and Shiki are known as reformers who passed on new poetry aesthetics and techniques to their disciples.

Masaoka Shiki was born in 1867, a pivotal time in the history of Japan and its life. Japanese intellectuals and college students were lapping up the chance to read literature and poetry from Britain, France, Prussia, Russia and the USA. Shiki became interested in the study of literature as a student of the Imperial University, which is now the University of Tokyo. Once he contracted tuberculosis, he quit the university, and began to write critiques on haiku and tanka for a major newspaper as a critic. He also wrote haiku and tanka from his bed until his death. His ability to formulate his own theory for writing haiku grew out of his desire to make reforms before these genres lost their relevance and immediacy; otherwise, the popularity of Western poetry styles would have predominated.

Shiki's reputation is often misunderstood for several reasons. First of all, Japanese and Western poets tend to connect Shiki's style only to his realistic observance of nature, which he named "sketch from life" (shasei). Secondly, poets have over-reacted to Shiki's criticism of Basho. Such a way of looking at Shiki ignores his intentions and overall contribution.

A "Sketch from Life" was One of Shiki's Many Techniques

According to Japanese poetry expert, Ueda Makoto, "Shiki mentored numerous amateur poets; therefore, he devised the sketch-of-life technique to avoid "decorative words, ornamental language, and self-conscious imaginings." In Modern Japanese Poets, Ueda shares that Shiki believed it was vital to write from experience and saw "at least two fatal flaws" to avoid: The falsification of fact and the tendency to be overly intellectual." Some other suggestions Shiki gave were (1) to "pay more attention to lesser-known locales" rather than famous places, (2) to walk and observe nature, but afterwards write at home, (3) to focus on "material and theme in a way that will reveal [your] individuality," (4) to read other's haiku to be informed, and (5) to know something of the history of tanka (originally called waka). Ueda also suggests that Basho wrote about the "beauty of external nature" and Shiki wrote haiku based on "internal, psychological reality of what is truthful (makoto)."

Shiki Admired Basho Even While He Criticized Him

Author Janine Beichman, in her book Masaoka Shiki, writes, "While it is true that Shiki deserves credit for the rediscovery of Buson's greatness as a haiku poet, a careful reading of his works shows that it is not true that he dismissed Basho's poetry. . . Shiki valued Basho because he believed that Basho had been the first realistic poet in haiku and second, because many of his poems had possessed 'sublimity and grandeur.'" The crux of the reason why Shiki was critical towards the idealism towards Basho was simply because after his death, master Basho had been literally worshiped by his fans for two hundred years, whereas other masters like Buson, in particular, had been ignored. By the end of the Tokugawa Era, haiku had become more of an amusement instead of a serious genre, so Shiki wanted to elevate haiku.

In the Tokugawa Era, Confucianism from China became the philosophy that was most relevant at that time and has continued as a basis of thought and morals in Japan. Shiki was a rationalist who had studied Confucianism deeply. From modern times, most Japanese are cultural Buddhists and Shintoists, though temples and shrines are visited at New Year's, for flower viewing, festivals and grave visiting. Thus, it is very difficult to compare Shiki with Basho, who was a devoted Zen Buddhist whose best haiku had a spiritual depth.

In Meiji, many modern political, educational, art and literature reformers, who were first enamored with everything Western, lost their excitement towards Western philosophy and returned to Confucianism. This was also true of Shiki. The influence of Zen Buddhism on Japanese poetry was more influential when Chinese Zen priests first came to Kamakura (late 1200s) until the Tokugawa Era. However, Zen remains influential in traditional Japanese art, pottery, gardening, architectural design, and in the minimalist way of looking at things that includes haiku. Some Japanese haiku poets say that Zen Buddhist meditation is more popular in the West than in modern Japan or China.

Shiki's Last Years and the Importance of His Friends

Even from 1900, when Shiki was clearly dying, he continued to write haiku and tanka as well as work at Nippon newspaper as a poetry editor to support his mother and sister who took care of him. His haiku and tanka at this time reflect his condition. He himself did not always write haiku of the "sketch-of-life" variety, especially when he was limited to his room year-around, and then he wrote more from his memories or juxtaposed the beauty of nature with his poor condition.

In "old garden" below, he juxtaposes an item for an invalid with the moon. As his life source is flowing out, so does the water from the bottle, and it reflects his immortality:

"old garden / under the moon, she empties / a hot water bottle" (translation by Carmen Sterba)

In "again and again" Shiki uses a conversational form for haiku. He is speaking to his sister with the insistence of an invalid:

"again and again / I ask how high / the snow is" (translation by Janine Beichman)

Shiki was well known during his life, and some of his friends became famous also. One was Natsume Soseki, an important modern novelist. They had become friends at school and were both from Matsuyama. Shiki mentored his haiku. According to Beichman, Soseki's prose in his novels, I am a Cat and Pillow of Grass, were influenced by Shiki's sketch-of-life technique. Soseki left to study in England and did not return until after Shiki died. Another friend was Nakamura Fusetsu, a Western-style painter, who taught Shiki what he had learned about realism. Fusetsu left for France to study and paint. Shiki's closest disciples were Takahama Kiyoshi and Kawahigashi Hekigotoro, who visited their bed-ridden mentor continually. Kiyoshi was editor of the journal that Shiki started, Hototoguisu (cuckoo), which continues today to be edited by Kiyoshi's descendants.

As a haiku poet in touch with international poets who study and compose haiku, I understand that Basho and his life are idealized not only in Japan, but also in other countries. That is understandable as he was greatest haiku poet; however, Basho lived in an era that no longer exists. When Basho reformed haiku it was called hokku in linked verses called hai-kai (renku), Shiki chose the name haiku and reformed it again at the start of the modern era. Without Basho and Shiki, we may not have these short but compressed verses that have caught interest around the world. Reformist poets in Japan and worldwide still continue to push the envelope when composing haiku, while others prefer traditional haiku or something in between.


  • Beichman, Janine. Masaoka Shiki: His Life and Works, Boston: CHeng & Tsui Company, 2002.
  • Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983.

Copyright Carmen Sterba

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