The Landscape of Identity: Poetry and the Modern in Japan

[This article originally appeared in Aufgabe issue #4 in 2004, edited by Sawako Nakayasu. See the link to Litmus Press/Aufgabe magazine on the blog roll.]

In 1989 the death of Emperor Hirohito officially brought Japan’s postwar period to an end. The category of “postwar”, born out of the cataclysmic events of 1945, had until that time been the major defining image of what contemporary Japanese poetry was all about. For poets standing at that border, poetry had to be reinvented just as Japan as a nation began reinventing itself. But while this was essentially a sense of creativity and liberation from militarist oppression, reopening the gates to new form and experimentation, this new boundary crossed in 1989 presented quite a different problem, and in a sense cut just as deeply into the sense of poetic and national identity. The basic grounding “postwar”, with its dependence on the stark differentiation between a Japan before and after the atomic bomb, was no longer available. Identity was no longer so clearly defined.

In 1990, a most loved and respected member of Japan’s avant-garde and a bridge between Modernist and Post-Modern practice unexpectedly died. Yoshioka Minoru, the very embodiment of what the postwar period meant to Japanese poetry, had influenced virtually all of the younger experimental poets, and received the admiration even of those outside the bounds of that genre. The event shocked and dazed Japan’s poetry community, rendering the confusion and loss of direction all the more graphic and painful. “Poetry has died”, wrote one critic in a commemorative publication a year later. Japanese poetry would again have to reinvent itself.

Already the limits of “postwar” were being exceeded in the work of Hiraide Takashi and Inagawa Masato. These two poets were blurring the boundary between poetry and criticism, poetry and prose, and questioning conventional ideas of what comprised the modern in Japan. At first glance what appears in Hiraide to be a kind of neo-surrealist imagery turns out to be in fact hyper-realism. Hiraide has also produced a book of tanka, the 5-line traditional form, thereby challenging Japanese literary orthodoxy in which modern (i.e. western influenced) poetry and traditional forms are to be kept far apart.

Poet/critic Kido Shuri, in his recent book delineating Japan’s postwar poetic landscape, questions the idea of there ever having been a postmodern in Japan at all. His claim is that the postwar period never completely broke with Modernism, and was instead merely the long, drawn out death of the modern. This may be so, especially when one considers the curious fact (at least curious to westerners) that Japan’s avant-garde, whether during its beginnings in the 1920s or in more recent years, has never been associated with leftist politics. The political writing of Japan’s “Proletarian Literature”, finally crushed by the rise of Militarism in the 1930s, is conventional in form. In fact, Modernist experiment in Japan during the prewar years poses some fundamental questions regarding modernization and cultural transformation. Derrida writes, “the frenzy of experimentation and proliferation of schematizations develops during epochs of historical dislocation, when we are expelled from the site of being.” How is it that literary experiment whose purpose in Europe was to bring established artistic, social, economic, and political structures under serious question becomes the foundation of the new in Japan – the modern, technological, urbanized and westernized Japan. The implications are enormous for Modernist and cultural studies in general.

Despite the interruption of the Pacific War, Modernism in its various forms became the lingua franca of poetry in Japan. The absence of a truly oppositional poetics in Japan, even amongst its experimentalists, may be due to the culture’s need first to assert its difference with the outside, to defend itself against total cultural domination by the west even as it so eagerly devoured all things western.

If anything along the lines of the oppositional could be said to exist, it is more in the voices of women who became increasingly prominent in poetry after 1945. Tomioka Taeko represents the postwar tendency amongst women poets toward direct address, plain language as opposed to high Modernist poeticization, and use of the narrative. Tomioka introduces what she calls the “story poem”, and carries out an exploration of Japanese women’s identity and experience through a multiplicity of voices. Tomioka, in her essays offers an alternative view of society and of Japanese literature. She attempts to rescue the lost work of women Modernists such as Sagawa Chika also included in this selection.

In more recent women’s poetry as well, one finds an exploration of the natural rhythms of speech, often in a specifically feminine language rather than a high, literary form, as well as the language of local dialects. All of these strategies are expressions of difference, whether sexual or regional, and map out shifting fields of identity in modern Japan against a backdrop of mass culture where these identities might otherwise be lost or overlooked.

Ito Hiromi takes this further in an attempt to deconstruct the Japanese image of the feminine, as well as to deconstruct the narrative. Ito looks especially to the thought of Julia Kristeva for the theoretical underpinnings of her work. Park Kyong Mi is a Japanese-Korean poet. Her choice of keeping the Korean reading of her name, rather than to use a Japanized version, which has been not only customary but a requirement for Koreans in Japan, points again toward the expression of particularity amongst women poets, as well as the subtle political strategies used. There is nothing politically overt in Park’s poetry, but the use of the name, and the subtle tilting off the linguistic axes speaks volumes.

Historically, women’s writing has played a major role in Japanese literature from classics such as the Tale of Genji on down to the present, however, women have tended to be more associated with traditional forms, especially the 5-line tanka. Foremost among these in 20th century literature is Yosano Akiko. There are a growing number of scholars who argue that the beginnings of Modernism in Japan are to be found at the end of the 19th century (much as we would see the roots of European Modernism in the work of 19th century poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud). According to this point of view Yosano, working in the traditional 5-line tanka and publishing her most famous work, Tangled Hair in 1901, would be Japan’s first Modernist. Yosano introduces personal emotion into the tanka, focusing on the unique experience of an individual ego (a new concept in Japan) in a more modernized version of the language rather than the archaic diction common to the tanka. Sexuality as such has never been taboo in Japan for either sex, but Yosano appropriates the sexual for her own purposes, becoming the agent of her own sexual feelings, and making use of male sexuality for her own pleasure. Yosano was one of Japan’s early Feminists, producing a series of essays calling for the improvement of women’s status in society.

By 1929 when Sagawa Chika arrived in Tokyo to begin her poetic activity, Symbolism, Surrealism and Dadaism had all been introduced to Japan via translations from the French and the writings of Japan’s own poets and theorists such as Takiguchi Shuzo and Nishiwaki Junzaburo, editor of Shi to Shiron (Poetry and Poetics), mouthpiece of Japan’s new Modernist movement. Tokyo was a teeming, modern metropolis only recently rebuilt after the earthquake and fire of 1923. This was the city of all things new where the “modan gaaru” and “modan boui” could be seen wearing the latest in western fashions, where one could dance the night away to American jazz. Fresh from the provinces and only 18 years old, Sagawa jumped into Surrealist experiment, producing a body of work that expresses the essence of her time. Filled with jarring imagery, odd juxtapositions and bright colors, her poetry puts into practice Kitasono Katue’s call to a visual poetry. Yet hers is a poetry of more than just surface. Sagawa produces an acutely personal world of warmth and depth, which hints at other meanings beyond a mere cataloging of the exotic, or dependence on technical experiment alone. Although she would live only until 1936, Sagawa published around 80 poems in the major experimental magazines of the time, developing relationships with major figures such as Nishiwaki Junzaburo, Kitasono Katue, Takiguchi Shuzo, and a group women writers also involved in Modernist work, including Ema Shouko. Although a collected works was published after her death, the poetry of Sagawa Chika soon fell into obscurity, and is only now being rediscovered.

At the same time this rush of experimental activity was taking place with Kitasono Katue’s VOU group and others, another more sinister movement was growing in reaction against the rapid Westernization that began in the late 19th century. This came in the form of militarist fanaticism and empire, but there were philosophical underpinnings to the anti-Westernism that was now growing, produced, ironically, by some of Japan’s European trained philosophers. Kuki Shuzo is the Japanese philosopher spoken so highly of in the first essay in Martin Heidegger’s On the Way to Language. Upon his return to Japan, Kuki both taught and wrote on aesthetic philosophy in an attempt to delineate what was unique about Japanese culture. Through the use of traditional Japanese literature, exoticizing images of Japan oddly dependent on Western stereotypes of the Orient, and an eroticized version of the traditional feminine, Kuki set the stage for a growing politics of cultural authenticity. Soon Japan’s Militarist government would take up the call and begin extending the tentacles of its control into the very minds of the people. This meant a “cleansing” of Japan’s artists and intellectuals. Anything that smacked of the foreign, of the “inauthentic” or unpatriotic, had to be cut out.

In 1940, Saito Sanki, an experimental haikuist, was imprisoned for the crime of writing haiku without any seasonal reference. Kitasono Katue was arrested in the same year and subjected to a grueling three-day interrogation by Japan’s infamous Thought Police. Virtually all of Japan’s Modernists were arrested, sent to the Manchurian front, or silenced. Nishiwaki Junzaburo, whose first book of poems was composed originally in English and then translated into Japanese, and who introduced the technique of Surrealist estrangement to Japan, found it wisest to retreat to his home town with his British wife, where he began research on the Japanese classics (a much safer pursuit during those times). The careers of many writers and artists were completely destroyed by the events of the war era. Not even the restoration of political freedom after the war could recover all of what was lost.

It is interesting to consider the possible affects of a rhetoric of cultural authenticity in which images of the feminine become central in the setting up of difference in relationship to the hegemonic West on literary canonization on into the postwar years. Yosano Akiko becomes a major figure in Japanese letters, in part because of the ability to reread her work and her literary persona within the framework of an authentic “Japaneseness”. Nishiwaki Junzaburo negotiates his literary survival after the war by editing his earlier work, removing some of the strangeness, and making a connection with Japan’s native literary traditions. Canonization in Japan involves a process of normalization, in which the foreign elements present in a poetry whose influences are essentially western are hidden or erased through a re-situating or reinterpretation of the work in relation to the broader culture and to the native tradition – a kind of cultural filtration process. Is it possible that the work of Sagawa Chika and other women Modernists of the prewar years was lost not only in the chasm of war and destruction, but in the politics of cultural authenticity whose echoes remained within academia and elsewhere for much of the postwar era?

One can see in the unfolding of Japan’s literary history over the past century a working out of identities, of possibilities and realities – a negotiation of constant change and shifts in the cultural landscape. Now again, with the death of the postwar, Japanese poetry is in the process of reinventing itself. In his recent work on postwar poetry, Kido Shuri writes, “An unheard of wilderness lies before us.” In this new frontier of poetry, will more room be made for outsiders; will women writers be able to recover their proper place in Japan’s literary and cultural life, a place in which they define themselves on their own terms. In these pages we see some hints of hope.

Suggested Readings:

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
Janine Beichman, Embracing The Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry, University of Hawaii Press, 2002
James A. Fujii, Complicit Fictions: The Subject in the Modern Japanese Prose Narrative, University of California Press, 1993
Seiji M. Lippit, Topographies of Japanese Modernism, Columbia University Press, 2002

Works in Japanese:

Kido Shuri & Nomura Kiwao, Tougi Sengoushi: Shi no Runessansu e, Shichousha, 1997
Hiraide Takashi (ed.), Gendaishi Tokuhon: Yoshioka Minoru, Shichousha, 1991
Ema Shouko, Shi no Utage: Waga Jinsei, Kage Shobou, 1995
Ohka Makoto (ed.), Gengo Kuukan no Tanken, Gakugei Shorin, 1969


One Response to “The Landscape of Identity: Poetry and the Modern in Japan”

  1. Jeffrey Angles Says:

    Great to see these articles being made available here!

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