To sketch, to depict, to describe

Lightly literary
4 min readFeb 24, 2022


I have given one or two academic presentations about Meiji period (1868–1912) writers and their discussions on realistic description, and I often talk about this in my classes, too. It’s a big and complicated topic, not least because of the slightly different terminology the main actors, Masaoka Shiki - Takahama Kyoshi and Tayama Katai - Tokuda Shūsei, are using.

The first pair, Masaoka Shiki - Takahama Kyoshi, are haiku writers, the first one fairly famous outside of Japan, too; you might have read about him being the “father of modern haiku& tanka,” a reformer of traditional fixed-form poetry. Takahama Kyoshi was his disciple, adhering to some of the master’s principles, but not all. Take shasei 写生, a term from the visual arts, which means “to sketch/ draw/ reproduce after nature.” In 1900 Masaoka used it to refer to a kind of realistic writing that does away with traditional symbolism and describes things exactly as they are. He called shasei “true description” and opposed it to “weak or symbolic description,” which is like a map and can only be decoded based on the readers’ prior knowledge and reason, while shasei appeals directly to their senses and emotions, like a painting.

Chikuma river drainage basin map, from Shimazaki Tōson’s『藤村読本』(1925)
丸山晩霞 Maruyama Banka『盛夏』Midsummer (watercolor, 1909). From Maruyama Banka Museum,

For Shiki, a poem about, say, the evening glory, should describe the shape and colour of the flower as it appears to the eye of the observer, without linking it to any historical or cultural meanings it might have. On the other hand, Kyoshi felt that this overemphasis on the object of observation and/ or its contemporary observer would end up stripping half of the meaning, the half that is embedded in previous texts and can be retrieved by educated readers: to them, for example, the Yugao is both a delicate flower opening in the evening in their garden, and the nickname given by Prince Genji to one of his lovers.

Only a few years later, from around 1906, Naturalist writers such as Tayama Katai and Tokuda Shūsei started using another term, byōsha 描写now commonly translated as “description,” but perhaps more accurately rendered as “depiction,” given that the first character, 描, means “to paint”— to refer to something similarly realistic, but actually opposed to shasei. As a matter of fact, Katai glossed his byōsha with the English “painting,” and defined shasei as a “sketch,” i.e., something that comes before/ is done in preparation for the actual, complete work. So, to Katai, between the map and the painting of Chikuma River I’ve shown above there was another stage, the one illustrated in the image below:

Sketch of the Chikuma River (by 竹久夢二 Takehisa Yumeji?) from Shimazaki Tōson’s『藤村読本』(1925)

This whole discussion might have got a little bit too technical; it all started with the fact that I’ve just come back from the very area sketched/ depicted/ described in the images above. For 5 or 6 years now I’ve been going skiing in Nozawa Onsen, a beautiful winter wonderland that deserves its own separate post; on the way between Iiyama station and Nozawa, there are a few places where the Chikuma River is visible, something like this:

Photo of the Chikuma River from the Nozawa Onsen Liner (by IH/ Lightly literary)

I wonder what Shiki and Katai would make of such photographic representations of the scenery. Photography (写真) did exist at the time they were writing their theories, but — alas! — was not (yet) considered an art. Later discussions contrast the novel with the film/ moving pictures (活動写真), which makes more sense because they both use time to unfold a story and develop a character. Come to think of it, the initial comparison between maps and paintings/ sketches worked only because it was based on short and very short poetic forms such as haiku& tanka or prose snippets like shaseibun, and Katai, even though he likely had the Naturalist novel in mind, illustrated his ideas of byōsha exclusively with one- or two-sentence examples.



Lightly literary

Student, teacher, and translator of Japanese literature; wannabe potter(er) and knitter, hiking and skiing aficionada; slave to two cats.