The Winter Sun Shines In PDF Print E-mail

The Winter Sun Shines In
A Life of Masaoka Shiki
by Donald Keene
Columbia University Press  © 2013
ISBN: 978-0-231-16488-7

A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Very few books in the English language cover the life of Masaoka Shiki. Considering the influence Shiki had and still has on Japanese short form poetry, both in Japan and in the English-speaking world, a new book, delving into the poet's life from a perspective not already covered, is a gift to be anticipated.

Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature and University Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, Donald Keene's newest book, The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki, is a well-researched, insightful look into the life and mindset of the man who renamed hokku, haiku, renamed waka, tanka, and set the wheel turning for the Western colonization of Japanese short form poetry.

Writes Keene:

"Many self-appointed masters of the haiku [hokku] made a living by correcting poems written by disciples and by transmitting to them (in return for suitable fees) the secrets of composing haiku [hokku] in the style of Basho. A very large number of haiku were turned out by such teachers and disciples, but not a single poem of this period is remembered today except by specialists. A similar situation prevailed among poets of the tanka, the other major poetic form.

The dismal condition in poetry was saved by one man, Masaoka Shiki, whose poetry and criticism of poetry, at first known mainly in the provincial town of Matsuyama, before long were read and imitated in all parts of the country."

Hokku and waka were deeply inset into the cultural fabric of Japan prior to the Meiji Era. Japan's Emperor Meiji ruled a country that had cut itself off from Western influence. This changed when American Admiral Byrd came to Japan with an formidable naval armada and forced the Emperor and his court to open up Japan's borders to the West unconditionally. The result was a tidal wave of foreign influence that did as the Emperor had feared: Japan would never be the same. In time, during Meiji's reign, Japan would adopt the German-based university system, reformat its language to acquiesce to the Western mindset, and leave the feudal system of Imperial rule in the dust.

Enter Masaoka Shiki, a poet-painter who readily adopted the Western mindset and applied its precepts to painting and poetry. As Donald Keene mentions, poetry in Japan had sunk to its lowest depth and was in danger of becoming extinct, especially in light of the Japanese intelligentsia's thirst for a fresh perspective and direction in literature, poetry and prose. Poetry was overtly influenced and directed by the Confucian-infused Imperial Court, using waka and hokku, to keep poets and the people willingly under their thumbs, via state-sanctioned poet masters.

Basho had been deified as a State Shinto god. Temples and shrines were built in his honor. Head teachers, called masters, of various schools of poetry, wanting the Imperial Court's favor, taught hokku, each claiming to be channels of his teachings, secretly transmitted through the decades. Being a hokku school's master sensei was a profitable business and garnered the Imperial Court's favor. Money was made, influence garnered favors, competition between schools, the name of the game, each wanting a bigger, more profitable piece of the pie. The result was the dissipation of hokku. After Kobayashi Issa's death, hokku spiraled downward into a chasm of mediocrity.

Shiki did what no other poet or intellectual had the nerve to do. He challenged the Imperial Court's authority, said Basho was just a man, downplayed his poetry, and sought by his writings, teachings, the media, and by example to reform hokku into a genre palatable to people in Japan and the Western world.

Writes Keene in his book's Introduction:

"The haiku [hokku] and tanka were all but dead when Shiki began to write his poetry and criticism. The best poets of the time had lost interest in short poems.  Shiki and his disciples, finding new possibilities of expression within the traditional forms, preserved them. The millions of Japanese (and many non-Japanese) who compose haiku and tanka today belong to the school of Shiki, and even poets  who write entirely different forms of poetry have learned from him. He was the founder of truly modern Japanese poetry."

Keene's book introduces readers to the influences that made Shiki who he became. It is impossible to study Shiki's poetry and criticism with any credence without having insight into his life and mindset. Who was Shiki? Why did he believe what he believed? Why was he impatient? What was his strategy and reasoning for attacking the poetry of Matsuo Basho, the deified hokku god? Was there more to him than just a love for poetry?  How could he accomplish what he accomplished in such a short time?

Donald Keene delves into Masaoka Shiki's life with an insightful zest. Hardly a textbook (the text itself, sans notes, is only 201-pages long), The Winter Sun Shines In, is, instead, an everyman's guide to Shiki's life and mindset.