Since the early twentieth century, the concept shasei (“sketching from life”) has repeatedly been discussed in critical writing about Japanese haiku. It was originally included in the theoretical framework surrounding haiku by Masaoka Shiki. Presumably influenced by Western techniques of painting, he turned it into a method to gain creativity and into a specific style of writing. After Shiki, the concept has been at the center of many debates, and it has been defined in widely different ways.
Most research about shasei has focused on the early developments of Shiki and his followers, but in this paper, I will analyze how it has been discussed by Kaneko Tōta, one of the most influential poets of today’s avant-garde haiku. Tōta’s writing on haiku comprises a wide variety of texts. Some are easy-to-understand handbooks aimed at beginners, some are complex theoretical works aimed at the ever ongoing critical discussion within the haiku movement. Others are autobiographical reflections on his own development as a poet, and yet others are interpretations of his own poems and those of other poets. In these works he frequently touches upon the shasei concept, but not without ambivalence. Although he recognizes its importance, and frequently recommends composing in the shasei style to learn the art, he also criticises its limitations and the lack of coherence in Shiki’s writings about it.
I will, however, not only focus on Tōta’s outright discussions in which shasei is mentioned directly. In many of his arguments and interpretations, he proposes ideas that may be understood as a sophisticated development of the shasei theory, which casts light on the creative process behind his poems. It also raises several questions about the reading of his poems and other contemporary haiku.
10th Conference of the Nordic Association of Japanese and Korean Studies (NAJAKS), Stockholm University, 17-19 August 2016