Using Numbers in Haiku

May 2001

WHC Celebrations:Using Numbers in Haiku”

Centenary of the Death of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
A Study of Shiki’s Haiku Poems (1)

USING NUMBERS IN HAIKU
Susumu Takiguchi

keito no ju-shi-go hon mo arinu beshi

(Masaoka Shiki, at the Shiki-an Kukai, 9/9/1900)

Cockscomb –
I’m sure there are at least
fourteen or fifteen stalks         (tr. Donald Keene)


cockscombs…
must be 14,
or 15                                    (tr. Janine Beichman)


By the time this haiku was written, the Shiki-an Kukai had been in full
swing. On this particular day, nineteen were present, Kyoshi, Kakudo, Takashi and Mokichi among them.

Shiki loved cockscombs and from his sick bed watched them grow and change colours. Delightful water-colour sketches Shiki enjoyed painting during the last years of his short life do include the one of cockscombs in a flower pot. He even had a white sheet placed right behind them in the garden so that he could see them more clearly from distance, namely from where he was permanently bed-ridden.

However, few present liked this haiku. It was only Takashi and Mokichi who said anything in its favour. Takashi’s remark to the effect that the haiku in question was ahead of time and that no one today would be able to appreciate its excellence, was prophetic. In fact the kukai itself did not seem to fare well, producing no haiku poems deserving to receive the ten-chi-jin (the first, second and third places). There were only two “ka-ku” (honourable mentions).

Kyoshi, who was arguably the closest follower of Shiki, was particularly
unimpressed. Later, he went so far as to criticise against the haiku publicly.
He did not include it in his celebrated selected Shiki’s haiku poems. His
criticism centred on the expression of “fourteen or fifteen” as being
artificial if it’s a guesswork and vague if it’s meant to be accurate (After
four or five, the numbers would become meaningless and unsuitable for the
immediacy and concrete nature of haiku. “Seven or eight” was offered as an
alternative). The whole thing was finally escalated into the famous
“keito-ronso” (the Cockscombs Polemic), which probably and ironically helped this ostensibly plain haiku to gain recognition and fame.

Mokichi later felt obliged to defend the haiku, which he did in 1919 (nine
years after it was written) in his “Doma-Mango”, saying that the haiku was
testimony to the fact of how far Shiki’s implementation of the theory of
shasei had come. This put the haiku on the map. Yamamoto Kenkichi, an
influential haiku critic, praised it and pointed out that the “fourteen or
fifteen” (ju-shi-go) should not be judged merely from the point of view of
numbers. He asserted that the musical effect of the sound of “ju-shi-go” was just as important in truly understanding this masterpiece.

However, in 1949 Shima Yoshijiro once again attacked the haiku in his “The
Anachronism of Shiki’s Haiku” (in “Hyogen-Tai”, Nov. 1949), in which he
disowned it. This ignited yet another fierce controversy. However, by this time the haiku had already become well-known across Japan. Consequently, the controversy ended in the majority accepting the haiku as excellent, thus establishing its unshakeable position not only as a superb haiku but also as one of the best haiku written by Shiki. This was 50 years after it was composed.

You will recall that Shiki was one of the pioneers who introduced things
Western to the knowledge-hungry nation, trying to modernise itself
“overnight”. Thus, he had a predilection, among other things, for mathematics. Naturally, his penchant for numbers found expression in his haiku. Not a few of Shiki’s haiku, using numbers in a variety of ways are found, indicating that this was indeed a technique he tried to develop as part of tools of his trade. Some other such examples of Shiki’s haiku on the theme of cockscombs include: –

keito no shi-go hon aki no hiyori kana         (Masaoka Shiki, 1900)

cockscombs —
four or five of them,
sunny autumn day                  (a version, ST)

keito no juppon bakari hyakusho-ya            (Masaoka Shiki, 1899)

cockscombs —
about ten of them,
at a farm house                       (a version, ST)

Numbers were used by Shiki in a variety of different ways. Some examples: –

15 (persimmons), 3000 (haiku poems), 2 (persimmons), 2 (petals of peony), 40 (participants in the Buson-ki), how many years? (since he picked tsukushi=horsetail last), the second generation (of an actor), 150, 000 goku
(the size of Matsuyama-han, his own hometown’s feudal domain), 15 (of  haiku poets)

Susumu Takiguchi
Oxford, England
1 May, 2001

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