The word shasei (“sketching from life”) is frequently used in critical writing about haiku. It has played an important role in the formation of modern haiku, but has also been a reason for never-ending controversies.
The use of shasei as a concept in poetics originates with Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) and it has been used by haiku poets ever after. Shiki started using this concept as he thought that poetry composed from imagination tended to become imitative. Searching for inspiration in the outside world, the poets would constantly make new discoveries which would stimulate their creativity. It is usually maintained that Shiki’s source of inspiration was Western painting, in which sketching was frequently practiced. It was thus a consciously applied foreign technique, which sometimes also was used to make fresh readings of premodern poetry.
In this paper, I will discuss how this concept was formed through the interaction between some aspects of indigenous Japanese poetics and the influence of Western techniques. My hypothesis is that ideals close to shasei had already been developed in the premodern period, but that these, by the end of the 18th century, had become stuck in conventions. The incorporation of Western techniques, however, made it possible for poets to rediscover these ideals as a mimetic means of expression and develop a new way of composing poetry which had an even stronger such focus.
By understanding shasei in modern haiku as such a development from a uniquely Japanese poetic ideal in dynamic interaction with a practical technique coming from the multitude sources described as “Western” and resulting in a new form of aesthetics, we may avoid the common stance that shasei is an “impure” influence. Instead we may see this concept as essential for analysis of an important aspect of the expression in haiku.
Japan - Premodern, Modern and Contemporary. “Dimitrie Cantemir” Christian University, Bucharest, Romania, 1-3 September 2016.