The Moment When Shiki Breathed His Last

Vol 1-2 August 2001

The Moment When Shiki Breathed His Last
Shiki haiku: ototoi no hechima
WHC Translation Project of Masaoka Shiki Haiku Poems (2)

Susumu Takiguchi

ototoi no hechima no mizu mo torazari ki

Masaoka Shiki

since the day
before yesterday, not even gourd water
has been collected

Version by ST

The first image which comes to my mind’s eye whenever I read the three death poems by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), especially in his own calligraphy, is a totally unrelated scene of Michelangelo lying on his back on the top of the high scaffolding at the Sistine Chapel. Because of the confined space, it was the only position he could take to do his ceiling painting.

No one actually saw Shiki die. That is why the time of his death was only an estimate, i.e. around 1 o’clock in the morning of 19 September 1902. During the previous day, Kawahigashi Hekigodo (Hekigoto, according to some) was attending to Shiki from morning to early evening. Around 6 p.m., he decided to leave Shiki’s house (Shiki-an) to do some proof-reading for the forthcoming issue of the Hototogisu. Hekigodo was one of the two most important followers of Shiki. He handed over the vigil to Takahama Kyoshi, the other follower. As he was not at Shiki’s house (Shiki-an), Hekigodo could not send off Shiki, a fact over which he subsequently agonised. However, Hekigodo was not only right with Shiki, but also helped him when the mentor wrote the now world-famous death poems.

Shiki’s condition had significantly deteriorated at the beginning of September, since when he had been, to all intents and purposes, preparing to die. As was mentioned, Hekigodo was not with Shiki when his mentor died. However, he witnessed an amazing scene from start to finish: Shiki writing the very death poems, about 13 to 14 hours before he breathed his last. The scene is enshrined in one of the finest and most moving writings of the kind, which Hekigodo did much later on in “Zeppitsu” (on death poems), Shiki Genko-roku, ed. Kawahigashi Hekigodo, December 1936.

On 18 September, Shiki’s condition became worse still. Hekigodo was hurriedly summoned to Shiki-an at around 10 am, finding Ritsu and Mrs. Katsunan Kuga, the wife of Shiki’s boss and guardian who lived next door, in distress. They all discussed whether to ask Kyoshi to come too, when Shiki suddenly told them to do so. Hekigodo went to the Kuga residence to telephone Kyoshi, but when he came back the tense situation had already moved to the next dramatic stage.

On Shiki’s right-hand side was Ritsu, sitting and making Japanese black ink by rubbing an ink stick against an inkwell with water. There was a Chinese rice paper stuck on a sketch board. Ritsu held the sketch board with the rice paper facing Shiki. Hekigodo dipped a thin calligraphy brush, which Shiki had been accustomed to using, into the ink, and helping the dying man to hold it with his right hand. This is the image I associate with Michelangelo. For some time now, Shiki could only lie on his back (called “gyoga”) and could not assume any other posture, just like Michelangelo lying on his back to continue his ceiling painting. Shiki steadied the sketch board by holding the left bottom corner with his left hand.  He then started to write a poem in the middle part of the paper (the first 5):

hechima saite (snake gourd has flowered)

When Shiki came to write “saite” (has flowered), the ink started to run out of the brush. Because of this, it seemed to Hekigodo that Shiki was finding it a little bit difficult to go on writing. So, Hekigodo took the brush and gave it some more ink. Taking the brush, Shiki then started to write the middle 7 on the left side of the first 5, and a little bit lower:

tan no tsumari-shi (choked up with phlegm)

Again the brush started to run out of ink towards the end of the middle 7, so Hekigodo gave it some more ink. He had been reading the first 5 and the middle 7 that Shiki had just written intently, and now he became really curious about what comes next in the last 5. Shiki started to write again. The last 5 turned out to be:

hotoke kana (ah, Buddha!)

Hekigodo felt as if he had been stabbed in the chest. Finished with his writing, Shiki put down the brush, almost throwing it away, and, turning his head sideways, coughed two three times rapidly, trying to clear his throat of the phlegm. He did not succeed and looked really in pain. Shiki said nothing. He then started to cough again. This time he seemed to have been successful, as he began to wipe the phlegm with waste paper which he handed over to Ritsu. Until this instance, he had never let anyone touch the dirty and infectious item, but had fetched the spittoon himself and spat the phlegm into it, even if the pain was unbearable. So, he must have been so weak now, that he did not have the strength even to fetch the spittoon.

Four or five minutes passed. Without a word, Shiki suddenly gestured toward his sister to hold the sketch board up once again. Automatically, Hekigodo dipped the brush into the ink, without a word himself. This time, Shiki did not seem to have enough strength to support the edge of the board with his left hand. He let Ritsu hold it steady, then started to write on the left margin, which was still left blank after the first poem was written. He wrote the first 5 and the middle 7 in one go:

tan itto hechima no mizu mo (a barrel of phlegm/ snake gourd water too)

The ink was becoming thin after the word “tan” (phlegm), and nearly run out with “mizu mo” (water too). Hekigodo gave the brush some more ink. This time Shiki wrote the last 5 rather quickly in the left bottom corner, which was hardly enough room to write these five letters. When he finished, he again almost threw the brush away, then suddenly began to cough violently. Witnessing all this so closely, Hekigodo’s heart was beating fast as he seemed to be struck by premonition and fear.

Once again, some four or five minutes passed. Once again, Shiki gestured his desire to write another haiku, and had the sketch board to be held for him. He found that the way the board was held not quite right, but without asking Ritsu to correct it, he started to write the first 5 and the middle 7 in one go on the right hand margin. His lines were running rather diagonally than vertically because of the way Ritsu was holding the board.

ototoi no hechima no (the day yesterday’s )

He could not finish the middle 7. Moreover, he made a mistake in that he left out a letter “to”. As a result, Hekigodo thought it was “ourai no” (of the street) rather than “ototoi no”. While he was wondering what on earth Shiki was trying to write, the dying man added “to” on the right hand side of the first line and also wrote in a proof-reader’s insertion symbol. Thus Hekigodo could understand what Shiki wanted to write. Shiki went on to add “mizu mo” (water even) to complete the middle 7 and wrote on its right hand side the last 5:

torazari-ki (did not gather!)

Shiki again threw the brush and it hit the white sheet of the futon and soiled it. Hekigodo picked up the brush and put it away. Ritsu put the finished work against the shoji sliding door. Shiki seemed to be looking at what he had written for a while. Hekigodo did not know whether or not he should say something as comment on Shiki’s three poems. It seems there was no room left on the paper to write another poem, and Hekigodo was unable to leave the calligraphy kit just in case Shiki wanted to write more. However, Shiki did not try to hold the brush again.

The original of Shiki’s three death poems by his own hand can be found at the National Diet Library in Tokyo2. Looking at it, I cannot help thinking that Shiki probably wanted to write only one haiku, at least on this particular format. This is because the first of the three poems occupies the central area of the paper, and covers about two thirds of the paper’s total size. The distribution of the poem in an artistic four lines, with the balance and layout of the calligraphy, is more or less perfect. If this were done in normal circumstances, no more poems would be added. Of course, these poems could have been written spontaneously, on the spot. Yet Shiki could have been composing them for days, perhaps with some more poems. These are mere speculations, but the way these three poems are written is most unusual, to put it mildly. One of the two most obvious possibilities is that he had in mind these three “shortlisted” works for his death poems then, when the time came, he chose the first one, which he actually wrote; but, then during the event, he suddenly wanted to write the second one as well, and the third, until both he and the space on the paper were exhausted.

The other possibility is that he was hoping he could write these three poems on separate papers, but suddenly he realised he did not have enough time left to do so.

It is estimated that Shiki took no more than a quarter of an hour to complete writing down his three death poems, generally held to fall roughly between 10 a.m. (when Hekigodo arrived at Shiki-an) and 11 a.m., 18 September. It is more likely to have been around 11 a.m. No precise time is recorded, but soon after he finished writing, Shiki lapsed into a coma. Yamashita Kazumi, an eminent scholar in haiku literature, gives an excellent account of the day1. Based on his description, let us recreate 18 and 19 September 1902. As Shiki fell into coma, Doctor Yanagi was called, who subscribed a medicine to clear Shiki’s throat of phlegm. He also recommended that a telegraph should be sent to Shiki’s relatives, advising that Shiki’s condition had become serious.

Kyoshi came to join Hekigodo soon afterwards (six of Shiki’s followers including these two had for some time been taking turns to stay with Shiki and to be on the vigil as well as doing anything necessary for him). The two decided that Hekigodo should stay with Shiki. Hekigodo sent two postcards to Shiki’s relatives about his worsening condition. It is rather surprising that he did not send telegraphs as was advised by Doctor Yanagi. Shiki had been very ill for so long that people may well have become a bit desensitised, a kind of “cry wolf” situation.

Then, just before 5 p.m., Shiki woke up and complained of a severe pain. He was given a strong pain killer, but it did not work. Around 5:30 p.m., Doctor Miyamoto came and gave Shiki an injection. Shiki relapsed into a coma until he woke up just before 8 p.m. He drank a glass of milk through a tube. Afterwards, he asked who had come to see him, to which Ritsu replied that Samukawa Sokotsu, Kyoshi and Shizu (Hekigodo’s elder sister) were there. Soon Shiki lapsed back into a coma.

About 8 p.m. Kyoshi sent a letter to Ohara Tunenori (Shiki’s uncle on his mother’s side), stating Shiki’s condition. Again, it is rather surprising that Kyoshi still did not send a telegraph. However, there was no fax or e-mail, and telegraph was very expensive allowing only the briefest of brief messages (rather like haiku). Apart from that, when one thinks about it, it is not that easy to pass the right judgement exactly when such a telegraph should be sent, for doing so could only mean one thing: namely, the imminent death.

However, Kyoshi consulted with Shiki’s mother, Yae, and this time they agreed that a telegraph should be sent to Tsunenori. It said, “shiki-yamai-omoshi” (Shiki-illness-grave). Kyoshi did not use “the” word for this sort of circumstance, i.e. “kitoku” (dangerous, or critical, meaning a condition just before death). This may or may not be the famous Japanese euphemism. The wording could also have been influenced by the gentle and mild personality of Kyoshi, who may have avoided a strong expression even in these critical hours. It may also have reflected Kyoshi’s ardent wish, or wishful thinking, for Shiki to survive the crisis. Kyoshi had, in the past, nursed Shiki back into health.

Whatever was going on in Kyoshi’ mind and in the mind of those who were present, it was decided just after 11 p.m. that Ritsu and Kyoshi should take a short nap while Yae and another lady would remain on the vigil. After midnight, Shiki was still groaning with pain from time to time but became quiet. However, the two ladies succumbed to sleepiness in spite of themselves. At the critical moment, there was no one around who was awake.

Kyoshi never forgave himself for sleeping at the wrong time, such is the importance in Japan not to let a person die alone. Soon afterwards, he later wrote an article about the moment when he knew of Shiki’s death. Shiki-shi Shuen-no-Ki (A Memoir of the Ending of Shiki),published in the Nippon Daily, 25 September 1902, which says in part:

… there were noises around where I was sleeping. Shiki’s sister woke me up. To my surprise, Shiki’s mother was touching him on the forehead and calling him repeatedly, “Nobo-san, Nobo-san, Nobo-san……” (Nobo-san was both diminutive and respect). Another lady was also repeating, “Nobo-san, Nobo-san….” I myself was in a state and totally at a loss as well. I joined them in calling, “Nobo-san, Nobo-san, Nobo-san…”. Shiki had both his hands on his stomach, facing slightly left, and looked extremely peaceful as if in deep sleep. However, his hands were already cold and there was only a hint of warmth on his forehead … .

Ritsu hurried to the neighbouring Kuga household to call Doctor Miyamoto, reporting her brother’s death. Kyoshi also went out to tell Hekigodo and Sokotsu of the death of their mentor. He saw the bright moon of the 17th night of the lunar calendar. Thus:

Shiki yuku ya jushichi-nichi no getsumei ni


Shiki has died, ah!
under the bright moonlight
of the seventeenth

Version by ST 

(1.) Yamashita, Kazumi, Haiku de Yomu Masaoka Shiki no Shogai, Nagata-Shobo,


This entry was posted in Haiku, Shiki, Vol 1-2 August 2001 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Moment When Shiki Breathed His Last

  1. Pingback: Jisei – the Last Handwritten Haiku – Cafe Haiku

  2. Pingback: Verses Written on her Death-Bed at Bath – Poetry Prof

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