American Poets and the Popular Perception of Japanese Poetry

Every translation is an interpretation. From the moment one chooses which poets to translate, one subtly, or sometimes not so subtly, defines the literature and culture of the source language. The popular perception of Japanese poetry in the United States has been heavily influenced by poets and their interests as can be seen in Kenneth Rexroth’s influence and the Beat Generation’s interest in Zen and the haiku. American poets during the postwar period gained many useful insights through the study of classical and shorter forms, but at the same time unwittingly contributed to a view of Japanese poetry that exoticized Japan.

What I am concerned with here is not the methodology used by a particular poet/translator, but rather the question of representation. How does the poet/translator represent a particular poetic tradition?  How is the work framed? How do choices in what to translate produce a particular representation of the culture?

For all intents and purposes, Japanese and Chinese poetry as they have been known traditionally in this country were invented by Ezra Pound. Pound made his interpretation of the Asian classics as well as the nature and function of the Chinese written character central to his Modernist poetics, hence this same interpretation, along with its focus on haiku and Zen, has remained as a scriptural element in American Modernism and Modernist influenced poetries. Pound’s errors (or what some might call “creative misreadings”) are well known. What is important here is that Pound’s approach originates with 19th century European Orientalism. Pound’s sense of Asian culture comes through Orientalists such as Ernest Fenollosa, H. A. Giles, and Arthur Waley, and also shares a background in American Transcendentalism.  Some scholars insist that the Orientalism of Pound and other Modernists is different from that described by Said in that poets were finding affinities in elements of Asian culture rather than otherness. In other words poets saw themselves in the mirror of the Orient. However, Pound’s approach is still essentially imperialist in its concern with the appropriation of bits and pieces of Asian culture and bringing “the spoils” home to enhance Western culture as can be seen in the poem “Epilogue”: “I bring you the spoils, my nation, / I, who went out in exile, / Am returned to thee with gifts.”

What makes Pound’s appropriation of “exotic” elements of Japanese culture not only Orientalist, but ultimately (though no surprisingly) Fascist, is his refusal to see Japan’s culture in the context of real social and historical processes. The desire to find an ideal beauty and cultural template that is unchanging, standing outside time. The actual reality of Japan’s contemporary society during the entire time Pound was establishing his Asian formula was one of intensive modernization and industrialization, and it is within this context that Japanese poets produced work which responded to the conditions of their own time, conditions which, in actual fact, were not much different than those in European countries.

Japan was completely modernized by early in the 20th century and had an economy based on heavy industry by the WWI era. Scholars now view Japan’s modernity as having been “coeval” with that of the West, rather than less advanced or less complete and attempting to catch up. Japanese poets during the Modernist period engaged in intensive correspondence with European intellectuals such as Breton, Marinetti, and Ezra Pound, and initiated their own local versions and interpretations (not imitations) of all of the contemporary avant-garde movements, including Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. In the high-paced urban environment of 1920s Japan, you could listen to Jazz at places like the Zebra club in Kobe or the Blackbird in Tokyo. A newly affluent middle class dressed in the latest fashions and engaged in “Ginbura” (strolling along the Ginza) purchasing imported luxury products. There were flourishing avant-garde art movements such as MAVO, and active revolutionary Marxist and anarchist movements. By the 1930s Kitasono Katue was developing what he referred to as “abstract poetry” which would lead to his later “plastic poems.” Nishiwaki Junzaburo, one of the founders of the Modernist magazine Poetry and Poetics (Shi to Shiron), was developing a poetics of translation, appropriation and allusion which rejected the idea that poetry should have anything to do with “communication.” His theories still resonate with more recent experimental movements in both Japan and the United States. Japanese poets during the Modernist period, nearly all of whom were translators and theorists, formed an intensely cosmopolitan society familiar with all the latest intellectual trends in Europe, a society which included intellectual women such as Sagawa Chika, surrealist poet and translator of Gertrude Stein, who bore little resemblance to Western stereotypes.

It is somewhat ironic that amongst Pound’s correspondents of the time were major avant-gardists such as Kitasono Katue. In other words, Pound was well aware of the interests most common among Japanese poets of the time, and yet he chose to write about and popularize his sense of the classic, the ancient, and the ideal (interests shared with Fascist thinkers).

During the Cold War the U.S. government needed to change public attitudes produced by wartime propaganda and cultivate positive feelings about Japan, which had become the cornerstone of its anti-Soviet defense strategy in Asia. It was during this time that images of Japan as a place of mystery and exotic beauty began entering the middle class American consciousness in the form of movies, novels and travel articles in popular magazines. The Zen boom took off with the publication of Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen in 1957. The figure of the Geisha became a central theme in the imaging of Japan at this time. The metaphor of the passive feminine serving the dominant male was useful as a means of both explaining and rationalizing American hegemony in Japan and the rest of Asia. Although this new form of American Orientalism generally took a positive view of Japan, it did not leave behind its roots in European imperialism.

It is within this context that Kenneth Rexroth receives a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948-49 to produce his first anthology of Japanese classical poetry, published in 1955. Rexroth takes a special interest in the feminine aspects of the classical work and produces fluid, lyric translations which, in many cases accentuate sexual content in a much more direct or literal way than in the original poems. A direct inheritor of the Pound tradition, Rexroth’s framing of Japanese poetry continues the sense of exotic, ancient beauty existing outside time. In classic Orientalist fashion, the white European male sets himself up as the expert able to explain the mysterious orient, while retaining a distance from the actual culture, never travelling there nor even truly mastering the language (Rexroth was travelling in Europe and America during this time). An important element is added to this formula when Rexroth publishes his second edition of classical Japanese poetry in 1974. Embedded cleverly in this volume are the poems of an invented contemporary woman, Marichiko, living in Kyoto near a Buddhist temple complete with an invented goddess of sex. Here Rexroth completes the tropes of Edward Fitzgerald in his rewriting of Omar Khayyam but one ups him in providing not only the ultimate heterosexual male fantasy, but precisely the image that American capitalism’s cultural hegemony in Asia desires. Another interesting, as well as ironic point here is that, of all the Japanese translations that Rexroth produced, it was the Poems of Marichiko, Rexroth’s own work, which most impressed and influenced poets such as Robert Creeley.

What is most interesting here is the way in which larger social and political forces intersected with impressions already established by Pound in his Orientalist influenced Modernism such that American poets would continue to represent Japanese poetry as something ancient and exotic, preferring to ignore the reality of Japan’s modernity and the intensely modern or contemporary nature of intellectual production by its writers and thinkers.

Both Rexroth and the Beats may have considered themselves rebels who were questioning American neo-imperialist concerns, but they ultimately played into U.S. interests and goals in Asia by supplying the public with material that merely supported the popular image of Japan as a place of quaint, charming customs, ancient wisdom, and cultural beauty existing outside time. The preference has consistently been to see Japan in an apolitical manner, not as a modern industrial power with the same complex and paradoxical processes as found in other modern societies.

Even Gary Snyder’s work, though coming out of ten years of actually living in Japan mastering the language, rejects Japan’s modernity and makes use of poet Miyazawa Kenji as a means of representing his own ideology, while ignoring the more complex, ambiguous, and intensely modern aspects of that work.

American poets translating Japanese poetry during the 20th century were ultimately less interested in Japanese poetry and language per se as they were in the creation of a new American poetics and new possibilities for the poetic imagination. Ever since the advent of Modernism the interest in shorter forms, in forms which were more compact or condensed than older English forms, has been central to American poetic concerns. This can be seen in major movements including the Objectivists, Black Mountain, and even some of the poets associated with LANGUAGE poetry. Hence the importance of the haiku and Pound’s theories regarding the Chinese character as a poetics, despite Pound’s colossal misunderstandings on a purely linguistic level.

When we look at Japanese poetry as understood by American poets during the Modernist and Postmodernist periods, what we are really talking about is American Modernism. Even the widespread interest in Zen served more of a self-referential function for American poets. Through Zen a poet could claim an existential and poetic authenticity. The poet could gain increased cache’ as well as appearing sophisticated and international, while at the same time remaining safely within the realm of the provincial.

Now we enter an era where for the first time we are able to see Japan in its modernity and in that context, Japan’s dynamic and creative Modernist tradition. This too may have its own social, economic and political background. In other words, Japanese Modernism becomes visible within the context of contemporary global capitalism, in which cultural ebbs and flows, subjectivities and national identities, become more fluid and ambiguous. In other words, we are now in an era in which we can both see and accept the reality of hybrid culture, which has in actual fact been the reality of culture throughout time.


One Hundred Poems From the Japanese, Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions, 1955

One Hundred More Poems From the Japanese, Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions, 1974

The Love Poems of Marichiko, Kenneth Rexroth, Christopher’s Books, 1978

Shiraishi Kazuko, Seasons of Sacred Lust , Editor, Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions, 1978

Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood, Princeton University Press, 2005

America’s Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy, by Naoko Shibusawa, Harvard  University Press, 2006

Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961, by Christina Klein, University of California Press, 2003

Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams, by Zhaoming Qian, Duke University Press, 1995

The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition, by Haun Saussy, Fordham University Press, 2008

The Poetics of Fascism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Paul de Man, by Paul Morrison, Oxford University Press, 1996

Japanese Hermeneutics: Current Debates on Aesthetics and Interpretation, edited by Michael F. Marra, University of Hawai’i Press, 2002

Mavo: Japanese Artists and the Avant-Garde 1905-1931, by Gennifer Weisenfeld, University of California Press (2002)

Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan, by E. Taylor Atkins, Duke University Press (2001)

Other Readings:

Advertising Tower: Japanese Modernism and Modernity in the 1920s, by William O. Gardner, Harvard University Asia Center, 2006

Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan 1913-1938, edited by William J. Tyler, University of Hawai’i Press, 2008

Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, by Miriam Silverberg, University of California Press, 2006

Miryam Sas, Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism, Stanford University Press, 2001

John Solt, Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning: The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1902-1978), Harvard University Asia Center, 1999

Hosea Hirata, The Poetry and Poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburo, Princeton University Press, 1993

Leslie Pincus, Authenticating Culture in Imperial Japan: Kuki Shuzo and the Rise of National Aesthetics, University of California Press, 1996

Leith Morton, Modernism in Practice: An Introduction to Postwar Japanese Poetry, University of Hawaii Press, 2004

Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism, University of Minnesota Press, 1997

Seiji M. Lippit, Topographies of Japanese Modernism, Columbia University Press, 2002

Harry Harootunian, Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture and Community in Interwar Japan, Princeton University Press (2000)

Robert N. Bellah, Imagining Japan: The Japanese Tradition And Its Modern Interpretation, University of California Press (2003)

Christopher Goto-Jones, Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (2009)

Some selections of experimental Japanese poetry:

Oceans Beyond Monotonous Space: Selected Poems of Kitasono Katue (1902-1978), tr. John Solt, Highmoonoon Books (2007)

For The Fighting Spirit of The Walnut, by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Sawako Nakayasu, New Directions (2008)

Four from Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays By Women, edited and translated by Sawako Nakayasu, Litmus Press (2006)

Sagawa Chika, translations by Sawako Nakayasu on Mind Made Books (chapbooks by subscription only. E-mail Guy Bennett at for back issues)

Two Markets, Once Again, by Ryoko Sekiguchi, The Post-Apollo Press (2008)

Heliotropes, by Ryoko Sekiguchi and Sarah O’Brien, La Presse (2008)

Tada Chimako

Links:         (see author pages for Eric Selland and Sawako Nakayasu to find translations of Japanese Modernist and contemporary poetry)


One Response to “American Poets and the Popular Perception of Japanese Poetry”

  1. Steven Breyak Says:

    Shuntaro Tanikawa is a fantastic contemporary Japanese poet widely available in translation. He’s also quite famous in the country, he outshines Billy Collins in a nation-to-nation comparison and has done so for decades. But you’re right, no one outside of Japan seems to care much about anything from Japan other than the East Asian forms, specifically the haiku.

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