Friday, June 15, 2012

Post-War Japanese Poetry

After the destruction left by the Pacific war (1945), Japan’s poets were stunned, demoralised and left coming to terms with the shock of total defeat. The first poets to raise their heads in this bleak period, had to look hard at what they saw and along with their nation reinvent themselves. One of the earliest of the new groups to appear was “Arechi” (Wasteland) taking their name from the T.S Elliot Poem, translated by Nishiwaki Junzaburo  (1894 – 1982) which  received great critical acclaim. The name of the school chimed with the desolation of the landscape and the doom-laden atmosphere of those first years of peace. The Arechi poets mixed the influences of T.S Elliot and W.H. Auden with the Existentialist musings of writers such as Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre to express their perception of themselves and through that their country; prominent amongst this group were the poets Miyoshi Toyoichiro, Kitamura Taro, Kuroda Saburo, Tamura Ryuichi. Tamura’s writing from the early post-war period, rejected the Modernist Ideas of distance and art, replacing them with direct communication through the simplicity of mundane everyday speech as a way of dealing with the prevalent social and political world view, expressing vividly the destructive nature of the nations poetry in the late 1940’s. The Poet Ooka Makoto has written about this period stating that..

“The key subjects for poetry in this period were devastation, anxiety, desperation and death; this reflected the social circumstances just as prose writing does. Poets, living in grim uncertainty and suffering the horrifying aftermath of the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, generally expressed their pessimistic vision of the future of humankind through their works.”

Four Thousand Days and Nights
In order for a single poem to come into existence,
you and I have to kill,
have to kill many things,
many lovable things, kill by shooting, kill by assassination,
kill by poisoning.

Look !

Out of the sky of four thousand days and nights,
just because we wanted the trembling tongue of one
small bird,
four thousand nights of silence and four thousand days
of counterlight
you and I killed by shooting.


Out of all the cities of falling rain, smelting furnaces,
midsummer harbours, and coal mines,
just because we needed the tears of a single hungry child
four thousand clays of love and four thousand nights of
you and I killed by assassination.
Just because we wanted the fear of one vagrant dog
who could see the things you and I couldn't see with our
and could hear the things you and I couldn't hear with our
four thousand nights of imagination and four thousand days
of chilling recollection
you and I killed by poison.
In order for a single poem to come
you and I have to kill beloved things.
This is the only way to bring back the dead to life.
You and I have to follow that way.
                                                    RYUICHI TAMURA

By the  early 1950’s Japan, as a nation, had begun to  emerge from the poverty and the deprivation of the immediate post-war years and was starting to reappraise the Japanese values hastily  abandoned with the post-war surge to western idealism. Although by the beginning of the 1950’s the mainstream had coalesced around the Arechi group, by 1954, according to one of their founding members (Kuroda Saburo) they were losing their intensity. These changes were reflected in the poetry, in 1952 Tanikawa Shuntaro published The Isolation of Two Billion Light Years, hailed as the the first poet of the post-war generation. The following year he founded Kai (Oar) group with  fellow writers such as Yoshino Hiroshi, Ooka Makoto & Kawasaki Hiroshi. Members of the Kai School were lyric poets, expressing the new hopes of the Japanese at this time and acting as a counterpoint to the nihilism of the Arechi poets. In 1959 Wani (Crocodile) a neo–surrealist magazine and group came into being, co-founded by Yoshioka Minoru, Ooka Makota & leading surrealist poet Iijima Koichi and from the 1960’s Shintaishi (New Style poetry*)Poets extended their interests beyond the usual confines and into the areas of radio & television, specifically writing for children (Poetry & Stories) and also publishing works of criticism & translation. Also with the governments lifting of restrictions during this period, the possibility for poetry further opened up, allowing interaction with poets from other nations via travel and cultural exchange visits. At this point American poetry, in particular the Beat writers such as , Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder ( who learnt Japanese & translated Miyazawa Kenji )  were themselves being influenced by  traditional forms of Japanese poetry. Another major factor since the sixties is that the number of women poets has grown rapidly, poets like Isaka Yoko, Ito Hiromi, Ibaragi Noriko and possibly one of the better known Shiraishi Kazuko, who published her first collection of poetry in the early 1950’s & in the seventies developed as a performance artist. Most of these poets share a concern with language and the idea of creating new words and sounds, attempting to circumvent standard thought processes and create new ideas.

The 1989  the death of Emperor Hirohito is considered the official end-point of the post-war period. What was originally a reaction to the birth pangs of a new Japan, rising from total annihilation of the pacific war, became a liberation and released a creativity that could redefine itself how it saw fit, opening up new forms and experimentation. What it also did was give a literal and a metaphorical ground zero with the image of Japan as perceived before and after Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the atomic bomb.IMAG0151

This is a very brief image of the history of Japanese poetry in the post-war period and in no way does it justice, it merely helped to straighten out certain ideas for myself and as such can be considered no more than a synopsis, a map reference to a subject that has been dealt with by people with far greater knowledge than myself. The post was inspired by a book of poetry that I believe is out of print, but still readily available – Penguin Post-war Japanese poetry, edited and translated by Harry & Lynn Guest and Kajima Shozo, this was published in 1972. Whilst researching for this post I used ideas gained from Leith Morton's fantastic Modernism in Practice – An Introduction to Post-war Japanese Poetry, which I hope to write about some day as it’s well worth a read, also another wonderful book to inspire anyone interested in Japanese Poetry is The penguin Book Of Japanese Verse by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite.
When I was most Beautiful
When I was most beautiful,
Cities were falling 
And from unexpected places
Blue sky was seen.
When I was most beautiful,
People around me were killed.
And for paint and powder
I lost the chance.

When I was most beautiful,
Nobody gave me kind gifts,
Men knew only how to salute
And went away.
When I was most beautiful,
My country lost the war.
I paraded the main street
With my blouse sleeves rolled high!

When I was most beautiful,
Jazz overflowed the radio,
I broke the prohibition against smoking
Sweet music of another land!
When I was most beautiful,
I was most unhappy,
I was quite absurd,
I was quite lonely.
                    Ibaragi Noriko
Japanese Poetry(Wiki)
Japanese Poetry- Free Verse (Jiyu-shi)
Modern Japanese Poetry One hundred Years
Kenneth Rexroth
Translation from the JapaneseThe New Modernism - Japanese Modernist & Avant-Garde Poetry,                                  Translations, Explorations.
Nihon distractionsPost-war Japanese Poetry
Harry Guest (Translation both ways)

* The origins of Shintaishi or New Style poetry are from the late 19th century,  originally inspired by Japanese translations of Western Poetry (Shakespeare, Longfellow, Robert Bloomfield and Thomas Gray), it is usually traced  to the publication in 1882 of a volume of translation of the aforementioned poets. This was followed seven years later by Omokage (Semblances) a collection of new style poems many of the translations were by Mori Ogai, who at one point was the Surgeon- general in the Imperial army & a leading novelist.  It gradually evolved to retain the eloquent imagery of Japanese poetry but was more fluid and lengthier than the more familiar haiku and tanka.

I’d like to finish this piece with another Quote from Ooka Makoto, this one about the power of words.

“In the midst of this historical upheaval, ‘words’, the only weapon poets and literary men have, seem to fall short and offer no assistance. But I cannot but help believe that words do have the power to offer humankind genuine salvation and comfort, as well as hope and energy for the future.
Words may not be able to make any apparent difference in the world of politics and in society, but that does not mean that poetry is devoid of power. Poetry can quietly and softly penetrate our hearts and remind us that this world is still a wonderful place to live in, full of countless charms and things to love. In other words, poetry is an extremely delicate and intricate product of the human mind which can contribute immensely to harmonizing and regenerating the processes of the human mind.”

(Trans - Yasuhiro Yotsumoto)


Rachel Fenton said...

Beautifully written piece, Parrish; nuanced and insightful. You chose such moving examples of Japanese poetry I feel anyone would be mad not to follow your recommendations to read the collections you've highlighted.

One thing I pondered over was the Kai (Oar) School - the word Kai in Maori means food - I think something between the two captures what poetry is for me.

Thanks for this detailed post.

Bellezza said...

Brief synopsis, as you might call it, this post is full of history and interesting thoughts. One of the things that occurs to me is that I don't think our time is unlike the despair the Japanese poets expressed. Of course, it is unlike it terms of the terrible devastation they suffered, but I feel that devastation imminent upon our nations even now. We're never far, I think, from emotional, or physical, or violent disaster.

But, that's not to say I'm without hope. First and foremost, my hope is in my Savior, but there is also hope to be found as your ending quote so eloquently shows: "Poetry can quietly and softly penetrate our hearts and remind us that this world is still a wonderful place to live in, full of countless charms and things to love."

Finally, two phrases from the poems you wrote for us here that I especially loved. First, "the trembling tongue of one
small bird" which makes me gasp at life's fragility and secondlly, " the tears of a single hungry child." Those are such piercing images to me.

Col (Col Reads) said...

My father was part of the US's army of occupation in Japan during the 1950s, so I read this post with particular interest. I was moved almost to tears by Noriko's poem. The lines "When I was most beautiful, I was most unhappy," could almost be written about any teen -- and yet the average teen experience pales when compared with post-war Japan's. Thanks so much for your post -- I am sending the link to my dad.

Unknown said...

Good to hear about another side of J-Lit, one that doesn't get as much press as the novels :)

Amritorupa Kanjilal said...

I loved the examples you have chosen, they are as haunting as they are beautiful!

@parridhlantern said...

Thank you Rachel, the poetry is beautiful & provoking isn't it. Liking your definition of poetry. Also check the links to find more poetry.

Hi Bellezza, hope can be found in strange and sometimes fearful places, As can fear be found in places of comfort.

Hi Col, Will be interested in his take on this And totally agree with the teen comment.

Hi Tony, You know me, try to sneak in the odd pome where I can.

Thanks Amritorupa,They are aren't they, check out the links for more wonderful examples.

me. said...

Really great to read your post on this interesting collection, it would be great to see a similar volume dedicated to contemporary poets appear in the near future.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Me, That would be fantastic & if you come across one please let me know.

Anna said...

Wonderful post! I'll have to spend more time with the post post-war Japanese poets, and now I know where to start. :)

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Anna, for more Japanese Poetry, please check out the links, also Poetry International has some great Japanese Poetry on it, including one of my favourite poets Heiichi Sugiyama (

Rise said...

Fascinating broad historical context of modern Japanese poetry. In some ways it seemed to mirror the trends in Japanese fiction.

@parridhlantern said...

Hello Rise, I'm guessing the same issues of identity whether personal or national & also the state of the nation whether physical or spiritual effect all it's how they then project that back to the world that makes the difference.

Serena said...

I like the poems you included in this piece. I can't imagine what else the Japanese would discuss in their poetry after WWII.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a perfect submit and the evaluation, I'm completely impressed! Maintain stuff like this coming.

claire said...

Thank you for the Tamura poem you left on my blog. I found it so beautiful. Too bad that book isn't available anymore.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Claire, glad you liked the poem, as to the book, although it's out of print it is still quite easy to find, here's a link to amazon where you can find it