Shiki is regarded as a major figure in the development and reform of modern Haiku and Tanka poetry and is credited with writing nearly 20,000 verses during his short life.
Shiki was born named Masaoka Noboru, in Matsuyama City to a Samurai class family of modest means. His father was an alcoholic who died when Shiki was five years old and his mother was the daughter of a Confucian scholar.
At the age of 15 Shiki became something of a political radical, attaching himself to the Freedom and People's Rights Movement and getting himself banned from public speaking. Around this time he developed an interest in moving to Tokyo and did so in 1883.
While studying at the University Preparatory School the teenage Shiki enjoyed playing baseball.
He entered Tokyo Imperial University in 1890 but by 1892 he was so engrossed in Haiku writing he failed his final examinations and dropped out.
Contemporary to Shiki was the idea that traditional Japanese poetic short-form poems, such as the Haiku and Tanka, were waning in the modern period. There were no great living practitioners at the time although these forms of poetry had retained some popularity.
In 1892, the same year he dropped out of university, Shiki published a serialized work advocating Haiku reform. In 1898 he urged reform of the Tanka poetry form believing that a new literary spirit was needed to free poetry from centuries-old rules prescribing topics and vocabulary.
His particular style rejected "the puns or fantasies often relied on by the old school" in favour of "realistic observation of nature". Shiki, like other Meiji period writers borrowed a dedication to realism from Western literature which is evident in his approach to both Haiku and Tanka.
Throughout his life Shiki suffered from tuberculosis. In 1888 he began coughing up blood and soon adopted the penname "Shiki" the Japanese name for lesser cuckoos. Because of its sad song, the Japanese cuckoo is said to sing until it “coughs out blood” which explains why the name "Shiki" was adopted.
Suffering from the early symptoms of TB, Shiki sought work as a war correspondent in the First Sino-Japanese War.
Living in filthy conditions in China apparently worsened his TB. Shiki continued to cough blood throughout his return voyage to Japan and was hospitalized in Kobe. After being discharged, he returned to his home town of Matsuyama city.
Although bedridden by 1897 Shiki's disease worsened further around 1901. He developed Pott's disease and began using morphine as a painkiller. He died of tuberculosis in 1902 at 34 four years of age.
Shiki may be credited with salvaging traditional short-form Japanese poetry and carving out a niche for it in the modern Meiji period.
He argued that short-form poetry should be judged by the same yardstick that is used when measuring the value of other forms of literature which is something that was contrary to views held by prior poets.
Shiki firmly placed short-form poetry in the category of literature, and this was unique.