Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) was an important poet and literary critic of Japan's Meiji Restoration. Though he was a significant writer of tanka, he is best known for being the last of the four great masters of Japanese haiku. Through his innovations, Shiki was responsible for insuring that the haiku became a relevant, vibrant art form in the 20th century. Just as the haiku was born with Matsuo Basho, traditional haiku ends and modern haiku begins with Shiki.

He was born Masaoka Tsunenori or Masaoka Noboru, depending on which source you consult, in Matsuyama on Shikoku. "Shiki" was a pseudonym chosen in 1889 when he was suffering from hemorrhaging in his lungs. Shiki means "cuckoo" in Chinese, a bird which, according to tradition, continued to sing even while it spit blood. The hemorrhaging was caused by the spinal tuberculosis he contracted in 1888, an ailment he suffered from all his life and which would eventually cut him down at age 35.

At the University of Tokyo, Shiki became the center of a group of poets passionate about the possibilities of haiku, but he left the school after two years without graduating and began to write articles for the newspaper Nihon (or Nippon). During the Sino-Japanese War, he served as a war correspondent in China, but the tuberculosis forced his return to Japan.

At Nihon, Shiki became editor of the haiku pages, an influential post in the literary world. He shocked readers with his audacious articles and pronouncements, and he and his followers became known as the "Nihon school". They started a monthly magazine called Hototogisu (Japanese for "Cuckoo"), which became the most influential haiku magazine in Japan.

Shiki is credited with severing haiku from renga and causing the term haiku to gain wide circulation. In reality, Shiki merely formalized trends that were evolving throughout the history of haiku. Haiku began as hokku, the opening verse of renga, a form of collaborative poetry that served as a sort of poetic party game. The word haiku is a combination of the words "hokku" and "haikai"(a humorous type of renga), but was not widely used before Shiki. Shiki felt that the haiku should be a fully autonomous product of a singular vision, and the use of the term haiku served to fully sever the lingering connection to renga.

Shiki and the Nihon school wanted to do away with all the arbitrary rules embraced by traditionalists that had rendered the haiku lifeless and irrelevant by the 19th century. He proposed eliminating all these rules except the count of 17 onji and the kigo (season word). Their ideas are laid out in this manifesto that Shiki wrote for Nihon in 1896, which labeled the Nihon school as "we" and the traditionalists as "they":

1. We strive to appeal directly to emotion. They often strive to appeal to knowledge.
2. We abhor trite motifs. They do not abhor trite motifs as much as we do. Between a trite and a fresh motif, they lean toward the former.
3. We abhor wordiness. They do not abhor wordiness as much as we do. Between a diffuse and a concise style, they lean toward the former.
4. We do not mind using the vocabulary of ancient court poetry or of modern vernacular slang, or words loaned from Chinese and western languages, as long as the words harmonize with the tone of the haiku. They rebuff words of western origin, confine the use of Chinese words within the narrow limits of contemporary convention, and accept only a small number of words from ancient court poetry.
5. We do not attach ourselves to any lineage of classical haiku masters or to any school of contemporary haiku poets. They associate themselves with lineages and schools, and are smugly confident that they are especially honoured poets because of those associations. Accordingly they show an unwarranted respect for the founders and fellow poets of their own schools, whose works they consider unparallelled in literary value. As far as we are concerned, we respect a haiku poet solely for the merit of his poems. Even among the works of a poet we respect, we distinguish between masterpieces and failures. To define our position more precisely, we respect not the poet but the poem. 1

The most controversial moment in Shiki’s career was no doubt his attack on the great master of haiku, Matsuo Basho. Shiki claimed that most of Basho’s haiku were mediocre and held another master, Yosa Buson, up as more worthy of acclaim. This act of sacrilege is akin to a major Western literary critic dismissing William Shakespeare in a major newspaper.

To be sure, the young radical Shiki no doubt preferred Buson’s colorful and exotic haiku to the serenity of Basho’s. But it is important to understand the context of his attack. The 19th century traditionalists held up Basho as an object of worship and a means to promote their own poetry. By attacking Basho, Shiki was able to make a shocking, public attack on the traditionalist schools that might have been ignored in the form of a direct critique.

Many anthologies and histories of haiku use Basho and Shiki as a pair of bookends to encapsulate the history of the form. This is unfortunate, as by characterizing Shiki as the end of haiku, it gives short shrift to his innovations and his reinvigoration of poetry. It also slights Shiki’s followers like Kawahigashi Hekigodo and Takahama Kyoshi and the poets who followed them, whose innovations were increasingly radical and influenced by Western literature.

1. Quoted from and translated by Makoto Ueda, Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology, 1976, an invaluable resource on post-Shiki Japanese haiku poets.