Matsuo Basho is the most famous haiku poet in Japan, but there is another haiku master who was just as prolific and talented – Masaoka Shiki.
Masaoka Shiki was born into a samurai family in Matsuyama (Ehime Prefecture) in 1867. He is said to have written 20,000 haiku, as well as poetry in other forms, and essays. He started writing haiku when he moved to Tokyo in 1883. He enrolled in the philosophy department of Tokyo Imperial University in 1890, but soon changed to the Japanese literature department. Around this time, he started to write haiku under the name “Shiki”.
“Shiki” is another name for the bird hototogisu, or “Lesser Cuckoo”. He chose this name, because in Japan, this bird is said to sing until it coughs up blood. Suffering from TB, and coughing up blood himself, he thought this name appropriate. He was diagnosed with TB in 1889. He was bedridden during his last years, but continued to write haiku and tanka from his sickbed.
His most famous work is arguably
Eat a persimmon
and the bell tolls
During a visit to Horyuji Temple, he stopped to eat a persimmon, which is an autumn fruit, and as he took a bite, the bell of the temple rang, and he could sense the season in its echoes.
He developed into a master poet, and has a lasting legacy in Japan. There is a museum dedicated to him in Matsuyama City in Ehime. In 2002, he was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. He was a keen player of the sport, until his illness took its toll, and in 1889 co-wrote Japan’s first novel about baseball – Yamabuki no Hitoeda. It was serialized over a year, and remained unfinished.
His life was tragically short – he died of TB in 1902 at the age of 34.