Hirato Renkichi and Japanese Modernist Poetry

Note: This is the original, non-edited version of my afterward to Sho Sugita’s translation of Hirato Renkichi (Spiral Staircase, Ugly Duckling Presse). I am posting this earlier, and longer version because it relates to the development of Japanese Modernist and avant-garde poetry in general.


It is impossible to overstate the importance of this book’s arrival, because for the first time ever, readers of poetry in the U.S. are given the chance to encounter the poetry of one of Japan’s pioneers of the Modernist avant-garde. It’s been awhile now since Japan’s own Modanizumu[1] became widely recognized by academics as one of the alternative or global modernisms, but it is still hard to find translations other than those tucked away in the appendices of academic studies. This publication therefore fills the gap in that a general readership can now get a taste of what was going on during the early years of Japan’s avant-garde just after WWI.


For poets practicing experimental poetics throughout the 20th century, the basic assumption or belief has been that the process or act of breaking through the barriers of conventional form, meaning, and poetic language, is synonymous with the liberation of human consciousness.[2] Poets felt that they were unveiling an essential human truth by virtue of tearing down literary and social convention. The discovery of the new in an age of rapid change brought on by new technologies was no doubt part of it, but that was not all. The point I would like to make here, and what this publication impressively demonstrates, is that Japanese poets pursuing avant-garde methodologies felt the same way about their activities as did European poets and poets all over the world. This relationship to poetry as discovery or a kind of intellectual enlightenment is one that was largely ignored by scholars and critics in both Japan and the West until the 1990s. American scholars with a certain Neo-Orientalist bent tended to prefer the traditional, and Japan’s avant-garde was usually accused of being merely imitation, not the real thing as it was in the West. Moreover, according to the assessment of some of Japan’s most influential postwar poets and critics, Japan’s early experimental poems were immature, showing a lack of depth and development, as well as the all-important Japaneseness required for acceptance into the canon. Japan’s experimental poets were tainted by direct foreign influence. This stands in contrast to those few poets from the period who were accepted by academia – these poets were seen as having some kind of lyric sensitivity and essential Japaneseness which others did not have. But in order to reposition poets who had their beginnings in Dadaism and Surrealism as uniquely Japanese, their work had to be decontextualized and placed in an ahistorical vacuum, the greatness of their work associated with special personality traits, such as sensitivity and talent in making use of a Japanese language assumed to have a unique beauty and purity. This misinterpretation and refusal to understand the period is profound, but what is truly ironic is how Japanese critics relied on what are basically Neo-Orientalist and neo-colonialist attitudes (precisely the racist imperialist attitudes held by Westerners pooh-poohing Japan’s supposed imitation of the West) in order to prove their point in devaluing these poets.[3]


But just what were the historical and social forces in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century that allowed for the appearance of Modernism? Intensive efforts towards modernization began with the advent of the Meiji era in 1868 when Japan first established itself as a nation state along the European model. At first the concern was mainly the import of European institutions and new technologies, but most importantly for literature, changes were made to the language as well. Standardization of the spoken language was gradually taking place through the new nationalized education system, but it was the complex writing system and its distance from how the language was actually spoken which demanded attention. Over time, Chinese characters (or kanji) as used in Japanese were simplified and new words were invented using kanji to express Western concepts and to ease the process of translating Western languages into Japanese. The genbun itchi movement was key in bringing the written and spoken languages closer to together and allowing for the expression of colloquial language in writing. This process of modernization and standardization of Japanese was complete by the end of the 19th century.


Once the Meiji period rush to modernize was well underway, poets began to take part in their own way, feeling that it was also important to create a new, more cosmopolitan literary culture. Part of the concern was how to translate Western literary works. This required the invention of a new poetic language and forms which could mime those of European poetic forms. The Shintaishi poets (poetry in new form) then began applying this approach to writing poetry in a new European influenced form. Their poetry was for the most part Romantic and Symbolist in approach. There were three existing genres of poetry in Japan as of the end of the Edo Period – tanka, haiku, and kanshi. Tanka is the oldest form of poetry in Japan using a total of 31 syllables in sections of 5-7-5-7-7, while haiku has 17 syllables in sections of 5-7-5. Kanshi is poetry in classical Chinese forms, which was written and read by the Japanese with the help of a system of diacritical marks which allowed the reader to “translate” the Chinese into Japanese in his head as he read along. Shintaishi poets worked with what they already had available to them, and hence used various syllabic patterns of 5-7-5 and so on. The poetic language they used, though it was called “new”, tended to be classical or neo-classical in form. Hence for Renkichi and other poets of his generation who had available to them a whole new language which was closer to the actual language spoken, the poetry of the previous generation was already old-fashioned, overly formal and unwieldy.


Japan was completely modernized by early in the 20th century and had an economy based on heavy industry by the WWI era. The quick pace of industrialization and urbanization, the sudden tearing away from the traditional lifestyle of the rural village to be thrown into the high-paced life of the big city, was an alienating experience for many poets, and is likely a factor behind the development of Japanese Modernism, including the angst-ridden work of poets such as Hagiwara Sakutarō.[4] But it was also a time of great excitement and intellectual discovery. 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 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). There were flourishing avant-garde art movements such as MAVO, and active revolutionary Marxist and anarchist movements.[5] Kitasono Katue was developing what he referred to as “abstract poetry” which would lead to his later “plastic poems.” Nishiwaki Junzaburo,[6] one of the founders of the Modernist magazine Poetry and Poetics (Shi to Shiron), was developing a poetics of translation, appropriation and allusion. 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,[7] surrealist poet and translator of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. This is the milieu into which Hirato Renkichi leads us as he stands on that corner of Hibiya Park in 1921 distributing his Futurist Manifesto to passersby.


Japanese writers and intellectuals in the interwar period negotiated a complex terrain of rapid social, political, and technological change while engaging in important formal and linguistic experiments that would literally redefine the very nature of Japanese literature. This process was one of cultural and intellectual negotiation, involving translation, interpretation, creative thinking and writing, as well as argument and discussion with fellow writers and thinkers. The final end of the process is one of transformation as is all poetry.


[1] I use the term Modernism as it is commonly understood by poets and scholars in the U.S. In Japan, Modernism in poetry, or Modanizumu shi, usually refers only to that group of poets associated with the magazine Shi to Shiron (Poetry and Poetics) who called themselves modernists. The magazine was published between 1928 and 1931 edited by Haruyama Yukio, with important input from Nishiwaki Junzaburo and Takiguchi Shūzō.

[2] I refer here to Jeremy Rothenberg’s introduction to the first volume of his anthology of the international avant-garde, Poetry for the Millennium, in which he outlines the qualities shared by avant-garde poetry movements worldwide.

[3] An excellent overview of this situation in Japanese literary studies is to be found in William J. Tyler’s introduction to his Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan 1913-1938.

[4] See Howling at the Moon, by Hagiwara Sakutarō (trans. Hiroaki Sato) Sun & Moon (2002).

[5] See For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature, Edited by Norma Field and Heather Bowen-Struyk (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

[6] See The Poetry and Poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburo: Modernism in Translation, by Hosea Hirata (Studies of the East Asian Institute: Princeton Legacy Library)

[7] See The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, Trans. Sawako Nakayasu (Canarium Books, 2015)


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