Masaoka Shiki: One of the Great Haiku Masters

One of the many industries that shaped the history of the world is the art industry. While some people may argue that art is not a necessity, several occasions have proven that pieces of art have the capacity to move people into taking action that shaped the world. These pieces of art can be in the form of paintings, pictures, and words. In general, poems are considered as a form of art as well as expression. To be more specific, there is a type of poem that originated in Japan known as haiku. Numerous Japanese people from different periods of time have invested their time and effort in developing haiku poems. One of these people is Masaoka Shiki.

The Biography of Masaoki Shiki, A Baseball Fan

By 正岡家 (新潮日本文学アルバム) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Born on the 14th of October in the year 1867, Masaoka Noboru was a well-known author and haiku poet in Japan. Coming from the Meiji period, Masaoka Noboru was also known as a literary critic. In the literary world, he was much better known as Masaoka Shiki, his pen name. He played a significant role in developing modern haiku poetry. With his expertise on the subject, many regard Shiki as one of the four great haiku masters, along with Yosa Buson, Matsuo Basho, and Kobayashi Issa.

Hailing from the city of Matsuyama in the province of Iyo, which is now known as Ehime Prefecture, Masaoka Shiki comes from a samurai class family with average means. He was originally named as Tsunenori but was called Tokoronosuke when he was a child. When he came of age, his name was altered to Noboru.

At the age of 5, his father, who was an alcoholic, passed away. His mother Yae remained to take care of Shiki. Yae was a daughter of Confucian scholar Ohara Kanzan. As a result, Kanzan served as the first extra-school tutor of Shiki. With Kanzan as his tutor, Shiki started reading Mencius at the tender age of 7.

The first school that Shiki attended as a child was Matsuyama Middle School, which was located in his hometown. From there, he met Kusama Tokiyoshi, who was known as the leader of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement. Shiki soon became a member of the said association and turned out to be a radical in politics.

As a result, he was prohibited by the principal of the school from public speaking. After some time, he started to think of moving to Tokyo. With the help of his maternal uncle, he was finally able to move to Tokyo in the year 1883. Then, he started attending Kyoritsu Middle School. Eventually, he went on to attend University Preparatory School. As a student, Shiki was known to enjoy playing baseball. He was also able to meet and befriend Natsume Soseki while in school.

In the year 1890, Shiki enrolled at Tokyo Imperial University. However, Shiki flunked his final exams in the year 1892. Because of this failure, he was forced to leave the Hongo dormitory, which was initially a residence provided to him as part of his scholarship. Eventually, Shiki dropped out of college. The reason behind Shiki dropping out of school was said to be tuberculosis.

Masaoka Shiki was known to love baseball since he was a teenager. Just in the year 2002, he was inaugurated into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. While he played baseball when he was young, he had to quit due to his sickness. Nonetheless, Shiki remained a fan of the sport. In fact, he was among the many people who popularized baseball in the country through his literary craft.

Tanka and haiku poems about baseball were written by Shiki during his time. His first four haiku poems about baseball were written in the year 1890. Nine in total, these haiku poems were included in one of his books. He also wrote tanka poems about the sport in the late 1890s. One of his haiku poems about baseball went, “spring breeze; this grassy field makes me; want to play catch.”

How His Works Developed Through the Years 

By Taisyo (photo taken by Taisyo) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Masaoka Shiki is most famous as a haiku poet. However, he actually composed poems of other genres as well. He dabbled into prose criticism of poetry, short prose essays, and autobiographical prose. One of his oldest works that still exists to this day was a school essay entitled “Yoken Setsu,” which stood for “On Western Dogs.” In this essay, Shiki highlighted the numerous uses of dogs in Western countries in comparison to dogs in Japan.

During the time of Shiki, it was apparent that the popularity of several traditional short forms of poetry in Japan was declining. These forms included the haiku as well as tanka. This decline may be attributed to its lack of congruity in the modern Meiji era. One of the causes of this decline may also be attributed to the passing of several living practitioners of this literary art.

Despite the decline of these forms, Masaoka Shiki was still interested in these types of poetry. So much so that only a year after he arrived in Tokyo, Shiki started to write haiku poems. Around the same time that Shiki dropped out of college, he also published a serialized work that promoted haiku reform. This work was entitled “Dassai Shooku Haiwa,” which stood for “Talks on Haiku from the Otter's Den.”

Thanks to this piece, Shiki got a job offer as a haiku editor in Nippon, the paper that published his work, in November of the year 1892. It was the beginning of a close relationship between Shiki and the journal that went on for the rest of his life. The same paper also published another serial entitled “A Text on Haikai for Beginners” by Haikai Taiyo in the year 1895.

The original piece written by Shiki in Nippon was followed up by several other serials. This included “Meiji Nijūkunen no Haikukai,” which stood for “The Haiku World of 1896.” This serial contained Shiki’s praises for the works done by his disciples, namely, Kawahigashi Hekigoto and Takahama Kyoshi. Another serial written by Shiki was entitled “Haijin Buson,” which stood for “The Haiku Poet Buson.” This piece shows Shiki’s idea of the poet from the 18th century.

Shiki also wrote a piece that showed his motive for reforming tanka poetry. This work was entitled “Utayomi ni Atauru Sho,” which stood for "Letters to a Tanka Poet.” It was published in the year 1898. It showed the expansion of focus of Shiki during the latter part of his life. He spent the last four years of his life focusing on tanka poetry as a topic.

In his deathbed, Masaoka Shiki still continued to write to his heart’s desire. The last three works that he did before he passed away were “Bokuju Itteki,” which stood for “A Drop of Ink”; “Gyoga Manroku,” which stood for “Stray Notes While Lying on My Back”; and “Byosho Rokushaku,” which stood for “A Sixfoot Sickbed.”

Selected Haiku Poems by Masaoka Shiki

By Jyo81 (ja: User) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Masaoka Shiki had written numerous haiku poems throughout his entire life. One of the many topics that he liked writing about was nature. He composed several haiku poems based on the beauty of the four seasons in Japan. One of his haiku poems that were inspired by the spring soon went, “Yote nete / Yume ni naki keri / Yamazakura.” It translated to, “I got drunk, a sleep. And wept on the dream. A wild cherry blossoms.”

Another haiku poem that he composed based on this season went, “Hira hira to / Kaze ni nagarete / Chou hitotsu.” It translated to, “Flutteringly, Floating in the breeze, A single butterfly.” Even certain towns during the spring season inspired him. An example of this went, “Nara no machi no / Mukashi-kusashi ya / Obor-zuki.” It translated to, “The town of Nara is / Really old-fashioned. The hazy moon.”

The summer season also inspired Masaoka Shiki to compose haiku poems. One such poem went, “Kisha miru-miru / Yama wo noboru ya / Aoarashi.” It translated to, “The steam train very quickly / Climb the mountain. The wind blow through fresh verdura.” Another one went, “Chu wo fumu / Hito ya aota no / Mizuguruma.” It translated to, “People step in the air. The water wheel / At the green paddy fields.”

This season was and is still known as the season for festivals known as “matsuri” in Japanese. Hence, it was no wonder that Shiki also wrote haiku poems inspired by these events during his lifetime. One of these poems went, “Natsu no tsuki / Chochin ooki / Chimata kana.” It translated to, “The summer moon. There are a lot of paper lanterns / On the street.”

During the fall season, trees in Japan turn into a vibrant orange or red hue. Several temples in Japan are surrounded by these beautiful trees and provide a picturesque view. Shiki was inspired by the Horyuji Temple one autumn season and wrote, “Kaki kueba / Kane ga naru nari / Horyuji.” It translated to, “When I ate a persimmon, The bell rung. The Horyuji temple.” Another poem went, “Akatonbo / Tsukuba ni kumo mo / Nakari keri.” It translated to, “The red dragonfly. At the Tsukuba, no cloud / Is seen.”

Shiki was also quite observant, which was deemed useful when he was writing about nature. One of his haiku poems went, “Shirahagi no / Shikirini tsuyu wo / Koboshi keri.” It translated to “The white bush clovers / Drop the dewdrops / Frequently.” Places were usually his inspiration during the fall season. One such poem went, “Matsuyama ya / Aki yori takashi / Tenshukaku.” It translated to, “Oh, Matsuyama. Higher than autumn, The castle tower.”

Masaoka Shiki was quite inspired by the cold winter season as well. One of his haiku poems written during the said season went, “Samusou ni / Haha no netamou / Futon kana.” It translated to, “It seems as cold, My mother has a sleep / In the futon.” At the time when he could no longer go outside due to his sickness, he composed a haiku poem that went, “Ikutabi mo / Yuki no fukasa wo / Tazune keri.” It translated to, “Repeatedly, How is the snow depth? I asked.”

How His Life Ended at the Age of 34

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The one sickness that Masaoka Shiki greatly suffered from was tuberculosis. The man started coughing up blood in the late 1880s. Because of this disease, he came up with the pen name “Shiki.” This name stood for “hototogisu” in Japanese, which was a type of bird that coughed up blood whenever it sang. He likened himself to the bird hototogisu.

Shiki wanted to work as a war correspondent during the First Sino-Japanese War. At the time, he was already experiencing the early symptoms of his sickness. He eventually attained his goal following the Treaty of Shimonoseki being signed on the 17th of April in the year 1895. Apparently, he had a terrible time in China, as he was constantly being harassed by Japanese soldiers.

Because his living conditions in China were terrible, his condition only worsened. Even as he was returning to his homeland, Shiki continued to cough up blood. Upon arriving in Japan, he was hospitalized in Kobe. Eventually, Shiki was discharged from the hospital and went on to return to his hometown. He proceeded to take on disciples and teach a style of haiku that focused on attaining inspiration from their own experiences with nature.

Shiki’s disease took turn for the worse in the year 1901 when he developed Pott’s disease. To decrease the pain that he felt, he resorted to using morphine. With continued usage, he became dependent on the drug. Sadly, he passed away in the year 1902 due to tuberculosis.

While Masaoka Shiki met his demise at a considerably young age of 34, his influence and contribution to the industry of haiku poetry were undeniable. In fact, many consider him to be one of the saviors of this traditional literary art. While he is no longer with the world, his works and art live on until today.