Japanese Poems by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902): The Shadow of Tuberculosis
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
The famous Japanese poet Masaoka Shiki was born in 1867 just one year before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Sadly, his time on this earth would be short because the shadow of tuberculosis would blight his life from 1888/1889 onwards. Therefore, pain and suffering that followed aspects of his early life, would follow him like a pernicious and deadly shadow waiting to devour his very existence.
I can see it through a hole
in the paper window
In this snow-covered house
all I can think of is that
I’m just lying here
In the above words, you can feel the alienation of the reality of the snow outside. No words of either joy or melancholy. Instead, a coldness of just “lying here” without any sense of happiness, the feeling of security, or the alternative feeling of despair.
It must be remembered that prior to tuberculosis blighting his young adulthood he also witnessed the demise of his father when he was only five years of age. Not only this, but his father suffered from being an alcoholic and one can only imagine the crushing reality of this to Shiki. Therefore, pain and the emptiness of life shaped deep thoughts of negativity despite his early years of hope when moving to Tokyo.
I used to meet in the mirror
is no more.
Now I see a wasted face.
It dribbles tears.
Despite the adversity of Shiki’s life he is regarded to be among one of the great masters of haiku. This is a great achievement for someone who would pass away at a relatively young age. Shiki is regarded by some specialists to be one of the four distinguished masters of haiku along with Matsuo Basho, Kobayashi Issa, and Yosa Buson.
The words of Shiki below certainly say much about his mind, spirit, and strength. He wrote:
I do not know the day
my pain will end yet
in the little garden
I had them plant
seeds of autumn flowers
In these words by Shiki, you do not feel the sense of redemption or a spiritual afterlife when thinking about the Abrahamic faiths. Nor do you feel the next reincarnation of Buddhism or the higher plane of escaping the cycle of life and death. Instead, you feel a sense of Shintoism and Confucianism that waits for nature to take its natural course given the circumstances of Shiki’s tuberculosis.
The last stages of Shiki’s life in 1901 and 1902 witnessed him writing three sickbed diaries. These are titled A Drop of Ink, Stray Notes While Lying On My Back, and A Six-Foot Sickbed.
Overall, this article about Shiki is meant to lure people into knowing more about this impressive poet. At the same time, to delve more deeply into the real poet of words who suffered such adversity but who leaves behind a powerful legacy.
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