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Volume 35.2
Summer 2004


book review:

Now, To Be! Shiki’s Haiku Moments for Us Today
edited by Masako Hirai


reviewed by David Burleigh

Now, To Be! Shiki’s Haiku Moments for Us Today / Ima, ikiru! Shiki no sekai, edited by Masako Hirai (Osaka: U-Time, 2003), 56 pages, 21.5 cm x 30.5 cm, perfectbound. ISBN 4-86010-040-9 C0093. ¥2,800 plus tax and postage from booksellers, or U-Time Publishing, Inc., 1-5-3 Takaida-Nishi, Higashi-Osaka 577-0067, Japan.


This is a curious book, resulting from a student project at a women’s college in Japan, and published to coincide with an international conference on D.H. Lawrence. The idea was, the editor tells us, to show visiting scholars some aspect of Japanese culture. Masako Hirai, who was the students’ professor, first introduced her wards to Shiki.

As it turned out, the museum commemorating Kyoshi, one of Shiki’s main disciples, not far away at Ashiya in Hyogo prefecture, had a recently discovered manuscript of a Shiki notebook, known as the Gyôga-manroku. The book under review, which is beautifully illustrated, presents selected pages from this journal in photographic reproduction, with transcriptions in modern Japanese, and translations into English. Since the journal contains pictures, the illustrations in the book give us some of Shiki’s sketches and watercolors.

The impression created by all of this is very vivid, much as a display of the document might be, but there are some mysteries about the provenance. While remarking that the journal was found by chance only a few years ago, Hirai does not explain how it relates to other material about the poet that has already been collected. Is it simply the original of a notebook that had been copied already and formed a part of Shiki’s works, or is it something wholly new?

The answer would seem to be that it is the original of something already known, since the title appears in Shiki’s collected works, and the contents are discussed in works written or compiled about him. Some of the prose translation tallies with certain passages quoted by the scholar Janine Beichman, in her book Masaoka Shiki (first published in 1982); indeed the editor quotes Beichman in the sections in Japanese. Of notable interest is an extract from what Beichman calls the “Stray Notes While Lying on My Back,” where Shiki expresses a death wish. Hirai only includes half this portion (page 30), since it is all on one page, but this includes two sketches and a final quotation, which is omitted from the end of the longer Beichman version (126).

It seems generally agreed that the notebook was a private one, never intended for publication. Seventeen extracts have been printed, though there is no indication of how much of the original notebook this represents. But all the extracts—some with haiku, some with paintings, some with prose—are extremely interesting. Not being intended for publication, these notes are extraordinarily direct about the poet’s physical condition, and honest in complaint. As Beichman says, there is no persona for public consumption here, but real suffering, and the intense, because restricted, pleasures of the invalid.

Shiki records, in paintings and in haiku, the flowers blooming in his garden and the sky beyond, or the colorful Korean costume worn by a young girl visitor, and in prose the food he ate and the progress of his ailments. There is an excellent picture of a morning glory, for example, but one of the most surprising pictures is of a food label. “Peerless Chicken Loaf” was an American import, its rectangular label divided diagonally into two triangles of red and yellow, with a black strip across the middle carrying the name. It is quite a startling image, like an Andy Warhol soup can, among the garden views, but reminds us of the poet’s interest in all things new. It was Shiki, remember, who first translated Bashô into English.

It is a comment on Bashô, where Shiki unfavorably compares that poet’s literary skill, in a verse about the Mogami River, to a more factual verse about the summer rains by Buson, that reminds the reader where the present international orthodoxy comes from. Affixed to the top of the page is a sketch of a bridge across a river sent to Shiki by an artist friend in Paris. Shiki’s own prose and haiku are not particularly well translated here. Most of the haiku are given as sentences:

A single morning glory in a small
pot has withered.

Even where not quite a sentence in the English version, no attempt has been made at suggesting breaks with lineation:

Morning frost, there is nothing
blue in the small yard

Should not that in any case be “green”? There are explanatory essays at the beginning and end, and the word “haiku” is italicized throughout.

Some of the notes, explaining things like futon and tatami, are rather quaint, but they are comprehensive. Despite its shortcomings, this is a well-designed book that whets one’s appetite for more. It can be viewed on <amazon.co.jp>, though it will be necessary to give the title in Japanese. The students must have enjoyed compiling the book, and their comments are recorded in it.



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