Using Same Themes

May 2001

WHC Celebrations: “Using Same Themes”

Centenary of the Death of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
A Study of Shiki’s Haiku Poems (2)


by Susumu Takiguchi

Horyuji no chaya ni ikoite

kaki kueba kane ga naru nari Horyuji (Masaoka Shiki, 25-26/10/1895)

Maegaki (foreword) says “Resting at a tea house of Horyuji Temple”.

Kaki=persimmon/ kueba=as I eat/ kane=bell/ naru=rings/ nari=an adverb/ Horyuji=Horyuji Temple

as I eat a persimmon
the bell starts ringing
at Horyuji Temple

(version by ST)

I bite into a persimmon
and a bell resounds –

(tr. by Janine Beichman)

Like many other good haiku poets, Shiki had his favourite topics on which he wrote haiku over and over again. Persimmons were not only such favourite haiku theme for him but also his favourite food. Before going through other examples, let us look at the one quoted above. This is arguably the most famous of all haiku poems written by Shiki. It is believed that he wrote 25,444 haiku poems during thirty-four and eleven months of his life (*). This particular haiku, therefore, must be something special.

The poem gives out the impression of a calm and peaceful scene in late autumn where Shiki is having a rest in the garden of Horyuji Temple in Nara, perhaps sipping some tea, eating persimmon and listening fondly to the ringing bell. However, like many of his other haiku, there are sadder and more sombre realities behind this poem.

For a start, this was to be his last journey. He visited Nara in October 1895 on his way to Tokyo from where he never subsequently left as his illness made it an impossibility. For a person who loved travelling so much, this must have been a devastating blow. Earlier that year, he had experienced traumatic events. In April no sooner did he go to China to cover the Sino-Japanese War as a war correspondent than the War ended. On 17 May, he had serious hemoptyses (spitting of blood) in a boat on his way back to Japan and fell into a critical condition.

He spent the next three months in hospital and health resort in Kobe and Suma until he finally went back to his hometown, Matsuyama, to convalesce. The next fifty-one days or so was the important period for Shiki who not only got better but, living in the same house as Natsume Soseki, greatly advanced his haiku theory and skills, elevating haiku as a genre of [modern] literature.

Having recovered physically and mentally, Shiki decided to return to Tokyo in October. However, when he reached Osaka his lumbago caused by vertebra caries came back in vengeance and it became impossible for him to walk. The doctor who saw him gave him drugs which enabled him to continue his journey. He decided to visit Nara and it is possible that he may have thought that this could be his last chance to go there.

Having absorbed all these facts leading to his visit to Horyuji, one can no longer read Shiki’s haiku in question in the same way as before. For instance, one can now feel the intensity of pleasure which Shiki must have been savouring from both the bell’s sound and the taste of his persimmon.

At first the poem also gives the impression that a sightseer was resting, while coincidentally the bell started to ring – all natural sequence and no contrivance whatsoever. Not quite so. It is believed that Shiki was in Nara on 24, 25 and 26 of October. He wrote quite a few haiku poems during these three days, including some on persimmons. He later wrote that it was the best time for persimmons in Nara and its environs. At an inn where he was staying he asked a maid to bring him a bowl of persimmons. The maid pealed and cut them for him, which he enjoyed eating when he hears the bell of Todaiji, telling the start of night. He loved this moment so much that he could not wait the following morning to hire a rickshaw to take him to Horyuji Temple, which he apparently preferred. In other words, he consciously went to Horyuji Temple in order to enjoy the bell and the persimmons there and to write a haiku.

This poem is famous also because it is regarded to be the first haiku where Shiki was successful in using “haigo” (juxtaposition) of Nara (in the shape of Horyuji Temple) and persimmons. According to Janine Beichman, the point of this poem is “… the juxtaposition of the bit and the bell…”. She further points out that the juxtaposition works on many levels, namely, “between the sharpness of the act o f biting and the long, mellow peal of the bell, as well as, on a more metaphysical level, the mortal moment of one human being biting into a piece of fruit and the broad, eternal expanse of time symbolized by the bell of the ancient temple.”

Shiki’s other haiku poems on the same theme of persimmon include: –

kaki ochite inu hoyuru Nara no yoko-cho kana   (1895)

a persimmon falls
and a dog is barking –
in a lane at Nara

(ST’s  version)

shibugaki ya arakabe tuzuku Nara no machi         (1895)

astringent persimmons
rough walls go on and on,
the streets of Nara

(ST’s  version)

kaki bakari narabeshi Suma no komise kara          (1895)

only persimmons —
small store in Suma

(ST’s  version)

kaki kuu ya Dokan-yama no bah ga chaya      (1896)

eating persimmons
at an old woman’s teahouse
of Dokan-yama

(ST’s  version)

kaki jukusu guan ni saru mo deshi mo nashi    (1897)

persimmons ripen
no monkeys nor disciples
at my humble abode

(ST’s  version)

yaya shibuki hotoke no kaki wo morai keri     (1897)

a bit astringent persimmons,
offerings to the spirit,
were given to me

(ST’s  version)

mihotoke ni sonae amari no kaki jugo         (1897)

after offering to the spirit —
15 persimmons

(ST’s  version)

aru hi, yoru ni kakete haiku hako no soko wo tatakite

(Foreword: one day haiku entries reached the bottom of the box towards the night)

sanzen no haiku wo kemishi kaki futatsu    (1897)

having examined
three thousand haiku poems –
two persimmons

(ST’s  version)

sabishige ni kaki kuu wa go wo shira-zaran    (1898)

eating a persimmon
in a lonely way –
doesn’t know how to play go

(ST’s  version)

mizukara mizukara no te wo utsushite

(Foreword: sketching my hand myself)

tarugaki wo nigiru tokoro wo shasei kana       (1899)

the way I hold
tarugaki persimmon –
I sketch

(ST’s  version)


(Foreword: stomach ache)

kaki mo kuwade zuimon-zuito so-shikeri      (1899)

not eating
even persimmons,
I drafted Zuimon-zuito*

(ST’s  version)

*Zuimon-zuito or Random Questions and Random Answers

kaki kuu mo kotoshi bakari to omoi keri       (1902)

this could be the last year
that I eat persimmon –
the thought occurred to me

(ST’s  version)

Note (*): Kazuko Murooka, Shiki Hyakushu Hyakku, with Kanichi Imanishi, Izumi Sensho, 1990

[To be continued]

Susumu Takiguchi
Oxford, England
5 March, 2001

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

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