On Sept. 21 on this page, in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the death of the poet, scientist and religious thinker Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), I turned to him for inspired insight into the Japanese view of nature.
Miyazawa threw himself into the natural world, seeing himself as a minuscule part of it and delighting in its most dramatic appearances.
Another poet, an early contemporary of Miyazawa, Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902), created a world, in his haiku and tanka, of a highly sharpened sentiment. Among his more than 20,000 poems, a great many depict the individual — often himself — in a natural setting. The result is a revelation about both the observer and the observed world.
In Nov. 2004, I wrote here about Shiki — the convention with this poet is to use his given name — as a pioneer of modernity in Japanese letters. Here I would like to take a look at him as someone who opened our eyes to the absolute and vital importance of nature to our understanding of ourselves.
Our feeling for nature starts early, and is part of our own physicality. A little child takes one step The green grass Under her sole
Here we can see that a single step on the young grass brings a child in direct contact with something else that is also growing. Another kind of joy is experienced when we return to our hometown after a long absence: Where did all these cousins come from In my hometown The peach tree is flowering
In Japan, peach blossom is a harbinger of spring. Depending of course on the region, the plum flowers in February; the peach in March; and the cherry in April. Shiki has gone home to meet his cousins who have been born in his absence.
Some of his haiku are classical in theme and composition. Continuing with the theme of spring, this classic image is somehow portentous: A crow has stopped On the earthen wall In the spring rain
Finally spring ends . . . A fleur-de-lis All the whiter For the end of spring
Shiki, who went off to the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) as a war correspondent and developed a serious case of tuberculosis, spent his last years in and out of a sickbed. Autumn for him implies decay: An autumn fly is resting In my sickroom On my warm window
It is still warm, perhaps even an Indian summer, but both the fly and the patient seem to be living longer than their alloted spans. The fly reappears often: Autumn fly The swatters are full Of holes
The notion that something can be full of holes, i.e. emptiness, is the kind of Zen image that Shiki savors. It is these holes, no doubt there due to previous blows, that save this long-lived fly. The persimmon tree is similarly a symbol of autumn in Japanese traditional poetry; this one tells of Shiki’s time confined to his room: I read through 3,000 haiku Ate two persimmons
Eventually, however, his thoughts turn to darker things: The gods are leaving me The spirits are leaving me As autumn gives in to winter
I mentioned decay; and surely the natural process of decay and dying away is a main theme in traditional poetry, which is deeply inspired by Buddhism. Winter brings to Shiki’s mind his own approaching fate: The tolling of the bell Comes to me in a ring On long nights
The “ring” here is the echo of the tolling as the sound leaves the temple and circles the neighborhood. Is the path in the next haiku one that he must take? The path drops off Just outside the front gate Into a wintry cluster of trees
Does the dawning of the first day of the year bring any hope? The morning sun on New Year’s Day Is dazzling, blinding So low in the sky . . . and so close
On this day, people generally make a pilgrimage to a shrine, but . . . Not many souls Are seen On New Year’s Day
While Kenji Miyazawa sees nature as a vessel that encompasses all creatures and everything that they see, for Shiki (who likewise died young of TB), nature is a mirror: You can see yourself reflected in it, but it is not a part of you. Both celebrate nature, but Shiki laments its losses. For Kenji, there is no true loss, because all life is recycled, reborn in another form.
Yet, even though Shiki is bedridden, he does not give up . . . I stretch my neck To catch glimpses Of the bush clover in my garden
Bush clover is one of Japan’s seven traditional plants of autumn. We see that there is still a life force in Shiki. He is striving to gain strength and joy from those glimpses. He wants to live, and to celebrate the bright aspects of life. In May in Japan, households hoist a carp pennant celebrating there being young boys in the family. Five daughters then finally a boy And the first carp pennant Is hoisted into the air!
Shiki loved baseball, which had been introduced into Japan in 1872, when he was age 5. But there is sadness when something’s season has passed . . . The white lines of the baseball diamond Are enclosed By thick tall weeds
And sometimes, nature is no friend of its recordists . . . All my blank sheets of paper Are taken by the wind Of a summer storm
Well, at least he hadn’t written anything on them yet, so perhaps the season was telling him to just watch and not record.
Here is a tanka of winter; inside is sickness, but outside we see an image of everyday life and activity. Confined the winter To my sickbed I wipe the frost From the sliding door glass To see tabi socks drying on the line
After Shiki came home from China, he returned to his native town of Matsuyama in the southern island of Shikoku, staying there with the novelist Soseki Natsume. It was at this time, I believe, that he realized how grave his illness was.
Looking down On the castle at Matsuyama The cold is piercing
Shiki Masaoka was Japan’s greatest poetic iconoclast. His haiku and tanka reveal a man whose humanity was profoundly involved in all the nuanced transformations of his country’s nature. There is a joie de vivre in him, mixed inextricably with reverence for things that decay and fall: the special kind of Japanese morbidity that harbors vitality.
When autumn arrives, he eats rice cakes, a symbol of the new year that he may or may not see . . . Every day in my sickbed Munching on rice cakes I’m in heaven
(All translations in this article are by Roger Pulvers.)
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