The Modernist Tradition in Japan: Some Introductory Comments

(This article originally appeared in the Chicago Review, Vol. 39, 1993)

            Japanese poetry as currently practiced has its roots in French Modernism.1 The word for poetry in Japanese — shi — is itself a term originally coined for poems written in classical Chinese by Buddhist clergy and other members of the intellectual class during the early literary period (686-784 AD)2, and hence  has always carried certain connotations of foreignness. It was in this period that the Japanese cultural dichotomy between the native and the foreign developed as a result of an intensive exposure to cultural borrowings from T’ang China.3 A rigid delineation has existed since then between forms which are native (waka, renga, haiku, etc.), and those whose origin is foreign. Despite the existence of some outstanding examples of writers who have blurred the line between traditional form and modernism, when speaking of poetry in postwar Japan we are speaking primarily of work done in the European tradition. Those who have written haiku in a modern or experimental vein have most often been met with rejection by conventional haiku circles. Banished from the haiku anthologies, these writers have usually appeared in magazines and collections beside poets heavily influenced by Valery and Baudelaire. Indeed, Japanese poetry of the 20th Century owes a great debt to the French. Not to say that other influences have been absent (both Eliot and Pound, and more recently Olson and Ashbery, not to mention the Beats, have had avid readers in Japan). French poetry, especially that written by the early modernists, seems to occupy a special position for the Japanese. In an afterward to one of the more influential anthologies of modern poetry of its time4, the poet Ooka Makoto introduces the work of both his contemporaries and the major prewar modernists by way of Baudelaire, Valery and Mallarme. In a more recent critical work5, translator and poet Suzumura Kazunari focuses on poets Arthur Rimbaud, Edmond Jabes and Claude Royet-Journoud, along with the thought of philosopher Jacques Derrida in a continuation of the tendency to go to French sources in search of new directions for Japanese poetry.

            Japanese poetry of the postwar period can be said to have its beginnings in a movement which was the culmination of the modernist effort up to that time6. The voice of that movement was the magazine Shi to Shiron  (Poetry and Poetics), whose publication began in 1928. The magazine featured virtually all of the important modernists such as Miyoshi Tatsuji and Kitagawa Fuyuhiko, and included both surrealist poetry and theoretical writings by Nishiwaki Junzaburo, who would bring a great influence on later poets such as Yoshioka Minoru and others. The magazine also introduced the work and thought of Valery, Eliot, Breton and Pound through translations by Nishiwaki and Horiguchi Daigaku. Shi to Shiron  remained a dominant force in Japanese poetry until dispersing in 1931, less from the political pressure of the rising tide of militarism than from theoretical disagreements.7

            An anthology of 20th Century Japanese writing might very well be subtitled “The Anxiety of Influence”. Despite a certain tongue-in-cheek air to this suggestion, it would be appropriate, considering the fact that Japanese poetry has responded to virtually every major movement in the West with its own version of the same. Japan has had its own Symbolists such as Kitahara Hakushu, its Dadaists such as Nakahara Chuya and Takahashi Shinkichi, and Surrealists such as Nishiwaki Junzaburo. It has also produced a vibrant political poetry which was associated closely with the leftist movement of the ’20s. This is by no means to suggest that Japanese poetry has been merely imitative, or that it has less value because of its dependence on European ideas. As all critics know, patterns of influence can be immensely complex, and rarely lead to a mere carbon copy. In fact, the Modernist achievement in literature by the Japanese, as exemplified by poets such as Yoshida Issui and Tomisawa Kakio, can be ignored no longer. Cultural prejudice and a serious shortage of good translators (preferably these should be poets themselves) has prevented the best of Japan’s Modernist poetry from being properly presented to English readers. It is only now that Yoshida and Tomisawa are being given closer attention through the translations of Steven Forth.

            In his book-length critique of the work of modernist writer Yokomitsu Riichi8, Dennis Keene evokes both the cultural dilemma and personal ambivalence which a project so dependent on iconoclastic newness and cultural otherness brought on its author. Yokomitsu could never be completely comfortable with the European modernism which he had advocated, and later became a supporter of Japanism, and of the growing militarism of the late ’30s. In contrast, the poets of the postwar period have found themselves in a completely different situation. For them, the only literary choices available come from the Western tradition, or at least the only ones which could satisfy an intellect coming of age in a post-nuclear, post-industrial, post-modern, indeed, post-everything era. For the young Japanese poets of today, talking about the latest in French philosophy and criticism, or of the work of poets such as Octavio Paz or Paul Celan, is second nature. For most of these younger poets it is the only thing to talk about. Despite past examples of “cultural neurosis” as seen in Yokomitsu, or in the poet Takamura Kotaro9, it would be much more apt to say, especially in the context of the high-technology, information-intensive Japan of today, that Japan is, and has been for some time, an active member of contemporary cosmopolitan culture. And this perhaps explains more than anything else the involvement with recent European thought, something which American poets have a weakness for as well.

            After 1945 amidst the destruction left by the Pacific War, there was an immense flowering of poetry.10 The modernists, whose careers had been interrupted during the war, continued where they had left off, while younger poets felt the need to start off afresh. One of the first new schools of poetry which arose during this period was the Arechi Group (the Wasteland Poets). Deriving their name from Eliot’s long poem, The Wasteland, this group mixed the influence of Eliot and Auden with the Existentialist thought of Sartre and Camus to give expression to the feelings of desolation immediately after World War II.11 Besides Miyoshi Toyoichiro and Kitamura Taro, the best known member of this group is Tamura Ryuichi12, who rejected Modernist distance and “artiness” for the directness and simplicity of common speech as a means of dealing with the current social and political reality.

            During the ’50s numerous poetry publications, each advocating its own aesthetic and ideological stance, began to appear. Notable amongst these were the Retto (island chain) group which attempted a mixture of socialist realism and surrealist techniques, and Kai (oars) whose best known members Ibaragi Noriko, Ooka Makoto and Tanikawa Shuntaro were the first of Japan’s poets to write in a more popular lyric mode, giving public readings and writing poetic dramas for radio and television. Ooka Makoto later published studies of classical poetry and is well known as the “statesman” of Japanese poetry, while Tanikawa Shuntaro went on to become perhaps the best known poet of his generation due to the simplicity of his popular lyrics13. Tanikawa is also a successful copywriter with his own private office in one of Shinjuku’s expensive office towers. During this time Kusano Shimpei, best known for his child-like frog poems14, established the Rekitei-kai, which remains the largest institutionalized group of poets to this day. The Rekitei-kai embodies the officialdom of the more conventional, and popular side of Japanese poetry. On the more intellectual side, a neo-surrealist magazine called Wani (Crocodile) was established in 1959 by Yoshioka Minoru and Iijima Koichi.15

            Yoshioka had published his first book of poems, Seibutsu  (Still Life)16 just a few years earlier, but had already earned a reputation as a leading member of the avant-garde. He was inspired to begin writing after being exposed to the experimental haiku of Tomisawa Kakio. Later he was influenced by the surrealism of Takahashi Shinkichi, along with other early figures of Japanese modernism such as Nakahara Chuya and Hagiwara Sakutaro. Yoshioka was also an early reader of Horiguchi Daigaku’s classic translation into Japanese of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. His early poems utilized the aesthetic distancing of high modernism to create perfectly formed architectures — small worlds with their own intense reality, much like his favorite painter, Paul Klee. Later in his career, Yoshioka began experimenting with appropriation and collage, and became interested in the poetry of John Ashbery and Charles Olson. The fruits of these experiments can be found in one of his later, and perhaps most difficult collections, Kusudama 17, from which the selections included in this publication are taken. The word “kusudama” refers to the brightly colored papier-mache balls which could be found hanging in the covered market places of pre-war Tokyo, but the word literally means medicine ball — a grab-bag containing all manner of things. At the same time, “tama” also means “spirit”, and is especially connected with the ancient Japanese concept of the “kotodama”, or word spirits. In a sense, Kusudama  is itself already a translation in the original, “a translation of many worlds, times and modes of being. A world in which the sacred and the profane, the inner and outer, East and West, are inextricably mixed.”18 Yoshioka is considered to be an especially difficult poet. As a matter of fact, one hears the word “difficulty” used so often in regard to his poetry that I feel compelled to offer a definition of the term according to literary critic George Steiner, which may help not only in explaining Yoshioka’s own relationship to language and poetics, but also to place it in the context of world literature as manifested in the 20th Century. Steiner speaks of an “ontological difficulty” found in 20th Century writing:

Ontological difficulty seems to point to a hypostasis of language such as we find, precisely, in the philosophy of Heidegger. It is not so much the poet who speaks, but language itself: die sprache spricht . The authentic, immensely rare, poem is one in which ‘the being of language’ finds unimpeded lodging, in which the poet is not a persona, a subjectivity ‘ruling over language’, but an ‘openness to’, a supreme listener to, the genius of speech. The result of such openness is not so much a text, but an ‘act’, an eventuation of Being and literal ‘coming into being’.19

The mention of Heidegger here seems especially appropriate, as this German philosopher is considered to be a basic by many Japanese poets, especially those of the avant-garde. (The presence of Heidegger has been great in 20th Century Japanese thought, as can be seen in the writings of Japan’s most important philosopher of the century, Nishida Kitaro, founder of the Kyoto school of philosophy.)

            During the 1960’s, the possibilities for poetry opened up even further for the Japanese, as did the opportunity of direct contact with poets in other countries, due to the lifting of government restrictions on travel and foreign exchange. It was during this period that American poetry became truly influential for the first time, especially the poetry of the Beats, who themselves were being influenced by Zen philosophy and Japanese poetry (though mostly in traditional forms). Yoshimasu Gozo20 and Shiraishi Kazuko21 are representative figures of the youthful experimentation of this period. Poetic language was no longer privileged as in modernism, but was direct, expressive, musical and oral rather than existing only on the page. (It is interesting that both Yoshimasu and Shiraishi received so much encouragement from Yoshioka despite the opposite tendencies of the work). A new and significant development in the process of Japan’s cultural borrowing is that poets were no longer passively accepting Western poetic techniques via written texts. Instead, there was a much more dynamic and personal exchange occurring — influence was becoming a two-way street. Both Yoshimasu and Shiraishi had friendships with American poets such as Gary Snyder (who learned Japanese and translated the Buddhist-naturalist poetry of Miyazawa Kenji), Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth.

            Yoshimasu’s work shows an interest in the oral techniques of the ancient kataribe  (reciters of myths and stories in pre-literate Japan), and in shamanistic ritual. He often gives readings where the poetry is spontaneously created in performance, as in jazz improvisation. Shiraishi Kazuko first appeared on Japan’s poetry scene with a book of highly controlled, well-formed poems utilizing a Modernist aesthetic. She soon, however, became the main voice of Beat poetry in Japan — no longer would she write well-behaved poetry. Shiraishi embarked on a project meant to shock. She gave lively public readings with jazz back-up (and still does), and made the open expression of feminine experience and sexuality her central theme. She has been a leading member in the renaissance of women’s poetry in Japan (other prominent figures in women’s poetry during this time are Tomioka Taeko and Ishigaki Rin), and was included in Rexroth’s well-known anthology of Japanese women poets.22 

            As with many American poets active in the ’60s, lifestyle and political commitment became a central focus of the poetic project for some in Japan. Nanao Sakaki is one of these. A close companion of Gary Snyder, who translated some of his poetry while living with him on a commune in Japan, Sakaki’s major concern is environmentalism. Unlike his comrade, however, Sakaki’s work is now all but forgotten. This is due in part to the deflated status of social commitment in a post-war Japan where economic concerns have been, until recently, paramount, and where the average person tends to be decidedly apolitical. On the other hand, it may simply be the fate of a project where lifestyle and ideological subject matter take precedence over poetry itself.

            Before continuing on this admittedly arbitrary division into decades (after all, many of the poets mentioned here are still actively publishing), I should mention Irisawa Yasuo and Amazawa Taijiro who have continued the Japanese surrealist tradition through to the present. Irisawa is especially of note, having published a study on the work of Nerval, along with translations from the French. Irisawa is influenced by both Nishiwaki and Eliot, and has published a number of long poems considered to be some of the best of the post-war poets. Irisawa awaits more extensive attention through translation.23

            In the mid-1970’s Inagawa Masato24 began publishing a small magazine with Hiraide Takashi25 and Kawano Michiyo. This group of poets was influenced for the most part by the Japanese and European modernist traditions, though Hiraide has mentioned the “liberating” influence of Shiraishi, Yoshimasu and the American Beats. Yoshioka, however, has been the most prominent figure for these and other poets of the more recent avant-garde arriving on the scene from the late ’70s and on until his death in 1990. As with many American poets of this generation, these poets had become frustrated with the institutionalization of poetic language, the ease with which one willing to write in a way deemed “poetic” by the major magazines and universities could be published in an attractive, marketable volume, and the commoditization of language reflected in this new poetry publishing industry. This has brought about an interest in further experimentation with language, and with the testing of what Inagawa refers to as “the boundaries”. Inagawa refers to poetry as “the last frontier left to us today”. During the late ’70s and on into the ’80s the latest in European philosophy and criticism became available in Japanese translation almost as soon as it was produced. Japanese poets were devouring books by Derrida and Barthe, as well as the critical writings and aphorisms of Walter Benjamin which had become available in English around the same time. Hiraide has named Paul Celan as the European poet he admires the most, and to whose craft he aspires, and he has also found the poetry of John Ashbery an important influence. One sees a return to critical writing by poets during this period, and also the appearance of poetry which is itself a form of criticism (notice the parallel with the American Language Poets). Both Hiraide and Inagawa have published books of criticism considered to be important and influential by poets younger than them. Hiraide now composes in a densely textured prose poetry style which pushes the natural flexibility of the Japanese syntax to its outer limits. His more recent writing often focuses on minute observations of the natural world which form a sort of space of the hyper-real. Meanwhile, Inagawa’s interest seems to be the testing of various poetic languages. Despite his skepticism, and his criticism of recent ideas of the “poetic”, he still believes essentially in the existence, somewhere yet to be found, of a “pure” poetic language. His more recent books, such as Fuuin (Sign), published in 1986, mix the critical impetus with an informal, though driving prosody.

            Active during this same period is Fujii Sadakazu. Though operating outside of the Tokyo-centered poetry cliques, and with a focus on Japan’s own ancient past rather than Western borrowings, Fujii’s poetry also shows a critical bent. Decidedly post-modern in its mixture of worlds, past and present, poetry and prose, lyricism and critical statement, Fujii’s poetry is an attempt to “deconstruct” the past, bringing out elements of Japan’s culture and literature which have been historically marginalized.26

            Hirata Toshiko27 continues the tradition of women’s writing begun in the ’60s. As with many Japanese woman writers, she tends to focus on the personal and the familiar; her basic condition, social and sexual, as a woman. Interesting to note about these writers is not only the conversational quality of the work, but the unembarrassed usage of regional dialects. Another well-known woman writer who has shocked many in Japan with her matter-of-fact, and often graphic, writing about sex is Ito Hiromi.28 Ito, who has been called “the Kathy Acker of Japan” by one of her major supporters here, Jerome Rothenberg, has been translated skillfully by Leith Morton. A book of hers is expected out later this year on Garland Press.

            The modernist project, its particular relationship to, and engagement with form, continued into the ’80s through the person of Yoshioka Minoru and his highly personal contact with younger poets such as the Sentakusen  and Kirin Groups.29 The poets of Sentakusen  (Kido Shuri, Tsuruyama Koji, Tanokura Koichi), have been influenced by post-structuralist thought, and by recent experimental French and American poetry. Translation, with the strong philosophical and critical overtones which such a task infers in the serious poet-practitioner, has also been important to these younger poets. Kido Shuri has translated William Carlos Williams into Japanese, and while editor of the eclectic Gendai Shi Techo , Japan’s major poetry magazine, translated and introduced, with Eric Selland, the poetry of Michael Palmer, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian and other contemporary American poets. The Sentakusen  poets were also instrumental in bringing further attention to the work of Nagata Koi, a modern haikuist heavily influenced by the Zen philosophy of Dogen. Highly dense and abbreviated, Koi’s work, a kind of radical classicism, breaks too many rules to be acceptable to the boring institutionalism of current haiku composition in Japan. One of Koi’s disciples, Natsuishi Banya, writes wildly avant-garde haiku influenced by European Dadaism, and has also published highly intelligent and contemporary critical writings. All of the poets mentioned here write out of a total engagement, both personal and intellectual, with the reality of their time. The awareness crosses all of the traditional boundaries between cultures, genres and time. Contemporary painting, music and dance (especially the Butoh) have all been important. The most fascinating aspect of the ’80s in Japan as expressed through the arts, sociological and historical thought, and pop culture, has been the gradual emergence of a natural heterogeneity to the great consternation and disbelief of the conservative political powers. Now that the postwar period is officially dead, it should be interesting to witness the new directions such cross-pollination might take, as well as the possibilities of mutual translation by Japanese and North American poets.


1.             Dennis Keene, The Modern Japanese Prose Poem , Princeton Univ. Press, 1980

2.             Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner, Japanese Court Poetry , Stanford Univ. Press, 1961

3.             David Pollack, The Fracture of Meaning: Japan’s Synthesis of China from the Eighth through the Eighteenth Centuries , Princeton Univ. Press, 1986

4.             Gengo Kukan no Tanken: Gendai Bungaku no Hakken, Vol. 13  (Exploration of Language Space: The Discovery of Modern Literature, Vol. 13, Gakugei Shorin, 1969), Editors Ooka, Hirano, Hanada, Yoyogi

5.             Suzumura Kazunari, Kyokai no Shiko (The Boundaries of Thought, Miraisha, 1992)

6.             AR Davis, Introduction, Modern Japanese Poetry  , translated by James Kirkup, University of Queensland Press, 1978

7.             Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, Vol. II Poetry, Drama, Criticism , Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984

8.             Dennis Keene, Yokomitsu Riichi, Modernist , Columbia Univ. Press, 1980

9.             Takamura Kotaro, A Brief History of Imbecility , Translated by Hiroaki Sato, Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1992

10.          Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, Vol. II Poetry, Drama, Criticism , Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984

11.          AR Davis, Introduction, Modern Japanese Poetry  , translated by James Kirkup, University of Queensland Press, 1978

12.          Tamura Ryuichi, Dead Languages: Selected Poems 1946-1984 , Translated by Christopher Drake, Katydid Books, Oakland University, 1984

13.          Tanikawa Shuntaro, The selected Poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa , Translated by Harold Wright, North Point Press, 1983

14.          Kusano Shimpei, Asking Myself, Answering Myself , translated by Cid Corman, New Directions, 1969 (a new edition was printed in 1984)

15.          Yoshioka Minoru, Iijima Koichi, Celebration in Darkness/Stranger’s Sky , Translated by Onuma Tadayoshi, Katydid Books, Oakland University, 1985

16.          Yoshioka Minoru, Lilac Garden , Translated by Hiroaki Sato, Chicago Review Press, 1976. (The book is a selection of works including some from Still Life ).

17.          Yoshioka Minoru, Kusudama , Translated by Eric Selland, Leech Books, 1991

18.          ibid… Afterword

19.          George Steiner, On Difficulty and Other Essays , Oxford University Press, 1978, pgs 45-46

20.          Yoshimasu Gozo, Devil’s Wind: A Thousand Steps , Katydid Books, Oakland University. Editor, Thomas Fitzsimmons

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

22.          Women Poets of Japan , Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi, New Directions, 1982

23.         Irisawa Yasuo, Translated by Eric Selland in Moving Letters #2  , 1983, Edited and published by Joseph Simas out of Paris.

24.          Inagawa Masato, poems from Those Who Make Us Live , Translated by Eric Selland included inThe New Poetry of Japan , Edited by Thomas Fitzsimmons & Yoshimasu Gozo, Katydid Books, 1993

                Some of Inagawa’s early poems translated by Eric Selland appeared in Poetics Journal #8 , edited by Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten, 1989

25.          Hiraide Takashi, selections translated by Eric Selland, Moving Letters #2  , 1983, and selections from Portrait of a Young Osteopath , Translated by Eric Selland,  Lyric& #1 , edited by Avery Burns out of San Francisco.

26.          Fujii Sadakazu, Where Is Japanese Poetry? , Translated and introduced by Chris Drake, The New Poetry of Japan , Edited by Thomas Fitzsimmons & Yoshimasu Gozo, Katydid Books, 1993

27.          Hirata Toshiko, selections translated by Robert Brady & Odagawa Kazuko, The New Poetry of Japan , Edited by Thomas Fitzsimmons & Yoshimasu Gozo, Katydid Books, 1993

28.          Ito Hiromi, three poems translated by Leith Morton, collected by Jerome Rothenberg, in Sulfur #32, 1993

29.          Matsuura Hisaki (a member of the Kirin Group), selections translated by Eric Selland, in The New Poetry of Japan , Edited by Thomas Fitzsimmons & Yoshimasu Gozo, Katydid Books, 1993


5 Responses to “The Modernist Tradition in Japan: Some Introductory Comments”

  1. janine Says:

    very interesting article, which i just happened upon while looking up irizawa taijiro. by the way, “kevin keene” in the body of the article should be “dennis keene,” as in the footnote.

  2. janine Says:

    sorry, i meant amazawa taijiro in my previous post, not irisawa.

    • ericselland Says:

      Glad you ran across the new blog. I had neglected to send you the link. Thanks for finding the error (don’t know how I could have missed that). Speaking of Amazawa Taijiro by the way, he is on my list to go into the anthology, but we do not have translations yet. I’m not sure if anyone has ever translated him.

  3. Andy Says:

    This article is a real help, thank you Eric. Three Amazawa poems were translated by Harry Guest in Post-War Japanese Poetry (‘Seat’, ‘Revolution’ and ‘Blood Sunday’). Please let me know more about the planned anthology, I would love to buy it when it’s out.

    Best wishes,

    • ericselland Says:

      Thanks for letting me know about the Amazawa translations. I’ll look into it. There are also a few poems by Amazawa in the new anthology just published by Japan’s cultural ministry (101 Modern Japanese Poems, edited by Ohka Makoto), but though some of the translations are good, I don’t have many positive things to say about that anthology. It claims to give a solid introduction for students of postwar Japanese poetry through the 90’s and it clearly does not, focusing only on those poets approved of by Yoshida Takaaki and including only one poet born after 1950, so it’s really quite limited. You might want to take a look though just so you can keep up with what’s going on out there. I find the whole approach to this anthology to be a throwback to the mid-sixties. I’d be interested in your opinion.
      As for my own anthology, things are going very slowly, but I’m continually reminded of its necessity. I’d like to get back to that after completing work on a Hiraide novel which I’ve been commissioned to do by New Directions. I also just completed translation of Nomura Kiwao’s new book.

      Anyway, keep in touch. Both Sawako Nakayasu and myself appreciate interest and support either in the form of more translations or help in various forms administrative and otherwise.


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