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Spring 2007, vol 5 no 1

The Sky from Shiki's Room: Lie, Look and Record!
by Masako Hirai

Shiki's last house at Negishi, Tokyo, was located in the quiet traditional neighbourhood of small houses, between the Ueno mountains and the traditional entertainment area, and the subway on the Yamate line could be heard intermittently even during Shiki's days. The house was one of the coupled buildings for rent, which used to be inhabited by lower-class samurai during the Edo Era1 which immediately preceded Shiki's time. It had a sitting room, a small bedroom (Shiki's room), two more still smaller bedrooms (his mother's and his sister's), a tiny kitchen and a modest little garden with a few trees and plants, which Shiki cared for. Shiki was twenty-eight when he moved into this house, having quit Tokyo University and started his career as a journalist and critic two years earlier, and here he spent his last eight years, except during his brief visit to China as a war correspondent which ended with his coughing up blood, his hospitalization at Kobe, and several months' rest with Souseki at Matsuyama. Soon after he returned to Tokyo, Shiki was forced to stay in bed, so for six and a half years he lay and suffered increasing, almost interminable pains. He continued to write haiku, essays and criticism which laid the foundation for modern haiku and influenced poetry in general, and he made those watercolours, whose secret I wanted to find in his room.

It was a cloudless day both on the fourth and fifth of May, when I visited Shiki's house which is now a museum. I carefully took off my shoes and stepped up into the small entrance. Right in front, I could see the sitting room, which must have been packed when as many as 22 people gathered to make haiku, as in Izan's picture. From this sitting room Shiki's bedroom could be observed, but on the threshold stood the sign, "Do Not Enter." It was a sacred room where the poet died. Fortunately, I was granted special permission to enter the room after the museum was closed.

As soon as I entered the room, I lay down, first imitating Shiki's posture in the photograph on display. He was lying on his right side, as his left side and hip finally had seven open wounds oozing pus, while his left knee, bent, could never be stretched for the pain. From this terribly limiting position I first observed the blue, blue sky which took up as much as two-thirds of the view, both from the open space and through the glass slide-doors which Kyoshi managed to get for him. Since his padded bedding was laid out flat on the tatami floor, he looked up and had a view which was unimaginable to anybody in the standing or sitting position in the room, or to anybody outdoors for that matter. I took out my notebook and a fountain pen, but my right hand was numbed by pain from being pressed against the tatami-matted floor. I decided to lie back, slightly lifting up my left side and hip.

In this way I observed and sketched the sky, the overhanging trellis of bamboo branches which cut out triple rows of blue squares or trapezoids in the sky, which must have impressed Shiki with the perspective, the square windowpanes which also lined up neatly to show the blue sky, and the green shrubbery which looked so low and small though it was near. The room was half in shadow, with slanting sunbeams lighting up, as if to carve out, the rush mesh of the tatami and emphasizing its black cloth borders which divide the floor. What was most amazing was the blueness and brightness of the sky which seemed to come through the great space full of light dancing in the breeze. Something shook in the sky – only a few leaves on the trellis, but, oh, how they danced in the breeze, so free and full of light.

All this while I sketched, holding my notebook tightly in my left hand. To keep it up required an effort. If Shiki wanted to draw a flower, he held it together with his drawing board in his grip. My drawing was frequently interrupted by the drying up of the pen because I had to hold it upwards, lying back on the floor. Constantly I had to shake the fountain pen to let the ink down. Shiki must have had a similar problem, and I realized how much trouble and patience went into Shiki's dipping his brush or asking somebody else to do it for him. My neck and shoulders began to ache, and my hands and elbows were getting stiff, but I was determined to sketch at least for half an hour so that I could have an inkling of what it must have been like for Shiki to "lie and record" – the meaning of Gyouga-Manroku.

Then I recalled that in his self-portrait Shiki drew himself on his hands and knees, holding up a brush, to paint a picture. He also painted a mantis which, with big eyes, long, shackled knees and a large bottom showing through its wings, held up its sickle-hand as if about to bring it down – a symbolic resemblance of his own painting figure. Facing the garden, I lay on my front and raised myself a little, dragging the stiff and crooked knee which, I knew, gave Shiki so much pain. My hands, supporting most of my weight, it seemed, soon got numbed, and sharp, electric pains ran through the elbows when I pulled each out, one at a time, to shake it. If he took up this position during the earlier period of his lying-and-painting, he could not do so towards the end, when his sister or friend had to hold up a drawing board for him.

There are contrastive views of Shiki's diary. Some people are attracted by his cheerfulness, simplicity and courage. Others emphasize the long suffering, loneliness and self-pity which illness brought. A critic points out its painful effect as Shiki's "freezing detachment", even in his essay on his once favourite walk. An earlier romantic critic, some twenty years after Shiki, interpreted the effect as the "beautiful refraction" of his eyes which turned his illness into a symbolic sacrifice to the spirit of his age: the devotion of his finer, poetic talent to the "almost-futile effort" of living in an age which demanded prose, the Meiji Era with its symbolic Emperor demanding service. Unfortunately, I do not have space to discuss the historical context, but I have something to say about Shiki's life which cannot be written off as a heroic, romantic sacrifice. It is not the "distortion" of his vision but his simple, straight communication with the sky that I observed from his prostrate position in his room. This was no escapism, nor mere naiveté, as I shall illustrate below.

I find a terrible simplicity both in Gyouga-Manroku and some other essays in which Shiki describes his illness and the view from his room.

I lie down again, exhausted by having the bandages changed. "Today is so warm, shall I clean your room?" Mother asks. I agree. Mother lays out another bedding in the sitting room, and says, "You go." The mere distance of 2 yards seems like 4,000km, which daunts me. Eventually I make up my mind, raise myself and manage to be on all fours. But my left leg is immovable because of the pain. I put a "foot-pillow", about the size of a foot, under the left knee-joint, and drag myself thus, inch by inch. Having crossed the dangerous threshold, I meet no accident on the way before I reach the bedding in the sitting room. I climb into the futon2 and lie down, this time putting my feet towards the paper slide-doors [towards the garden] and my pillow in the north. After this unusual exercise I suddenly feel hunger, I am glad. Mother stands abstracted on the edge of my room, looking outside, with a broom in her hands with which she meant to sweep the floor. "I hear the voices of the athletic meet at Ueno," she mutters to herself.
(Shiki, "My Illness" – translation, mine)

Here is something like a magnified view of a wounded fly, doing a desperate exercise to reach his goal. No heroism, no romanticism, not even self-pity exists in this simple recording of details, though they appeal to us as powerful reality. What a sigh of relief and achievement when he reaches the futon! Not far from him, his mother stands abstracted, looking outside with a broom in her hands, and mutters half to herself about the voices of young athletes she hears in the distance. Something in this mother, and in the space behind her, surpasses all ideas and sentiments. She has stood by and watched, helplessly, all the sufferings and endeavours her son has gone through. She no longer cries dramatically at loss or gain, but simply cares for her son and takes and feels each day as it is given. It is the voice and soul of such a mother we hear in the words: "I hear the voice of the athletic meet . . . ." Are the mother and the son jealous of the athletes? Do the young voices give them pain and despair? I do not think so. As if forgetting his daily pains and crumpled-up state, the mother and the son look up at the brilliant sky, breathing the air through which the voices come. There are ripples of freedom and gratitude in the air. The moment must have dropped upon Shiki's extraordinary simple, human mind which could be "glad" with the "hunger from this unusual exercise". The mother's abstracted figure, her simple words, and Shiki's eyes which involuntarily follow her eyes into space, I believe, compose one of the most memorable images in Japanese prose.

In another essay Shiki describes his garden. At first the garden was small and almost bare, with a few ordinary trees and flowers brought by his neighbours, but he calls it "my heaven and earth" when he returns to it after a year, having survived serious hemoptysis on his return from China. He also names his last short essays "Sick-Bed, 6-syaku" (about 6 feet) to signify his world, now confined to the size of his bed.

The garden now has a more appealing shade, than last year, and one or two crooked clumps of white chrysanthemums bloom in their wild fashion. Facing this view and recalling the days gone by, I am overwhelmed with emotions. My frail body overcome by the joy of simply having survived, I mutter a chanting-prayer, but tears fall unawares. These ordinary flowers, and this little, cramped garden - how could I dream of their moving me so much!
(Shiki, "My Little Garden" – my translation)

On the one hand, his world is extremely small; on the other, he claims he has found "heaven and earth" in his garden. I believe it was not only the relief of his survival that made him think so. Neither did he escape into a sentimental or aesthetic world centred on himself. Some of us have had the experience of watering a flowerpot which looks dead, just continuing to tend it in case it is alive, and oh! the surprise and joy one day when we notice a young shoot, frail but with tiny green leaves. "Well done, little plant. You are beautiful!" we cry. Here is a cue to Shiki's experience.

In those "one or two crooked clumps of white chrysanthemums" Shiki discovered heaven and earth, for "recalling the days gone by" also meant recalling the days when those chrysanthemums persevered through the seasons, living unknown, and bloomed with such "wild" vitality, to meet his return. He wept because he was moved. In those one or two chrysanthemums Shiki found eyes to see all life on earth, which breathes in the air and light under the unbounded sky.

Obviously Shiki did not always see the blue sky. Gyouga-Manroku records his death wish, in the drawing of a knife and an awl, with the words, "Kohaku says, Come." However, the sky he saw, lying and recording it, was spacious, vivid and full of light. Breathing this light and this air of freedom, Shiki's flowers and his literature lived.



1 Edo Era (1600-1867) – The Tokugawa government of samurai leaders ruled Japan.

2 futon – bedding padded with cotton and covered with cloth, to be laid on tatami.


name Masako Hirai is a Professor in the English Department at Kobe College in Nishinomiya, Japan, where she has taught since 1977. She received a BA from Kobe College, an MA from Kobe University, and a DLitt from Kyoto University. As a high school student, she stayed with an American family near Chicago in 1967-68. She did her research in England in 1986-88, as a Visiting Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge, where she has been a Life Member since. She has read papers at various international conferences, including ICLA, Lawrence Conference, and Wordsworth Conference. Her publications on English literature include Sisters in Literature: Female Sexuality in Antigone, Middlemarch, Howards End and Women in Love (Macmillan, 1998); "From Oedipus to Sons and Lovers via Hamlet" (Études Lawrenciennes 17); "The Everlasting Underground in Women in Love: Medieval Brotherhood, Industrial Art, and the War Imagined"; D. H. Lawrence: Literature, History, Culture, ed. by Michael Bell and Keith Cushman (Kokusho-KankoKai Press, 2005); and books and articles on Lawrence, Forster, George Eliot, and 19th and 20th Century authors. Her more recent interest in modern Japanese literature led her students to translate Shiki Masaoka's last diary, which, together with her own essay, was published as Now, to Be: Shiki's Haiku Moments for Us Today (U-Time Publishing: Japan, 2003). In May 2004 she gave a lecture for the Japan Week at Clare Hall, Cambridge on "The Birth of Modern Japanese Literature: The Creative Exchange in the Letters between Souseki in London and Shiki in Tokyo". In March 2005 she gave lectures on modern Japanese literature at the Japanese Embassy of London and at the University of York. She lectured in Dublin in 2006.