Japanese poetry and the recognition of death from tuberculosis

Japanese poetry and the recognition of death from tuberculosis

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


The life of the Japanese poet Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) was short and blighted by ill health from a very early age. Hence, the words that flowed from Shiki were naturally impacted by the shadow of death. However, despite being blighted by tuberculosis from the 1880s – and until his ultimate death in 1902 – this didn’t prevent Shiki from engaging passionately in politics, philosophy, and other areas even if his highs would gradually fade.

Yet, in the world of poetry, he would continuously engage with the world that brought comfort to him based on traditions, while opening himself to the internal dynamics that were altering Japan during the Meiji Restoration. In other words, the artistic, cultural, and literature world of old Japan was now facing growing Western influence.

One can only imagine how his thoughts of freedom, the spirit of revolution, and new poetic thought patterns were tainted by the pernicious shadow of tuberculosis. After all, Shiki was blighted by ill health and natural dark thoughts during his early adulthood. Yet, he was also blessed by the innocence of youth and the spirit of hope despite the shackles of reality that would often engulf his world.

In another article, I comment, “Shiki in one poem simply speaks about the snow falling and him witnessing this through a small hole. In this itself, it implies how he isn’t seeing the bigger reality. Hence, he also stresses that this minor reality is all that is encompassing him at this moment in time.” 

The coldness of “lying here” and without interacting applies to many nuances that aren’t so difficult to imagine in this period of Japan based on cultural concepts. In other words, he felt no bounds of joy, nor the emotions of despair. Instead, he felt the bleak reality of this cold world that can’t be changed by emotions because the clock of time is waiting to devour all and sundry.

Despite the enormous adversity he faced – including the sorrow of his alcoholic father dying when he was only five years old – Shiki leaves behind an enormous legacy based on his poetry. Yes, of course, his poetry flowed from bouts of negativity based on his early childhood and tuberculosis – to periods of enormous hope during his early move to Tokyo. Likewise, the cultural changes he witnessed during the Meiji era also enabled him to expand his poetic thought patterns.

Hence, Shiki is fondly remembered for being one of the great masters of haiku. This is a remarkable achievement based on the many obstacles he faced. Therefore, his name reverberates along with Matsuo Basho, Kobayashi Issa, and Yosa Buson in the world of haiku.

In a past article I comment, “He wrote his last day is still unknown but that it was getting nearer. Therefore, seeds were planted by friends in a place that he cherished, in the hope that he would see a new autumn – in the knowledge that his early autumn was nearing for eternity.”

In the late stages of his life, Shiki wrote sickbed diaries titled A Drop of Ink, Stray Notes While Lying On My Back, and A Six-Foot Sickbed. These diaries and his life don’t denote the sense of any spiritual afterlife or the thought of redemption that impact on the followers of Abraham. Nor do you feel any notion of reincarnation or escaping the cycle of life in accordance with Buddhism. Instead, you feel the flow of Confucianism and the natural life cycle related to Shintoism. Therefore, in 1901 and 1902 he accepted that tuberculosis was now devouring his life and that only words would survive his passing from this world.



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