Archive for the ‘1’ Category

Hiraide Takashi: Excerpts from Portrait of a Young Osteopath, translated by Eric Selland

April 16, 2010

Opening Scene
Between the huge rocks where the water’s foam frothed upward to become irregular granules of fire and then fall, possessed by the shadow of a jellyfish just dead, one pair of gloves whirled round and round. The ten fingers, some broken off and others twisted, strained to reach out in every direction. But according to observation, only the stars of partial destruction existed on the tips of the various fingers. There I fixed my gaze still harder. Was it as much as fourteen seasons had passed; the burnt aroma of a beehive drifted out of the wide-mouthed cave half submerged nearby, and as if it were all signs, the corpse of one juvenescent piece of bark stood up out of the cave, pulling a bunch of sleep-disheveled hair along with it, up toward the indigo sky of early dawn. Pressing the palm of one hand against my pounding heart, I sensed a new way of thought welling up within myself. These rocks could be just mist congealing darkly in the moss. And the cave could be something like the hollow interior of an anatomical model of the human body which has begun to dissolve, a two-layered crucible as it were. Of course, the uncertainty about speculations such as these cannot be alleviated even with positive proof to the contrary. Then, just to add on for good measure, the following thing happened. The objects imagined to be stars up till that point, each scattered here and there in the branches of the expanding hair, suddenly spread wings of stone, and leisurely began to preen themselves. Later, pulling back so as to hide themselves, they let out a cry, and fell into the extremely shallow sea trench near the cave. It was because at this time the pair of gloves suddenly stopped spinning, and while the right hand flopped against the other churning up foam, the left snuggled up close as if to grasp a small gem, and though they were two, stood straight up from the surface of the water that I understood. It was this time the wind was a resin wind, a number of meters.
September 7, 1949, afternoon with sun beating down; I had fallen into the sleep of rotting isu trees on the shore near my birthplace. Sleep brought me sufficient material. I had found the stuff for a fine experiment which would allow me to perform a sort of osteopathy on all things living and dead, without simply leaving prosaic scratches.

Chest and Shoulder, or the Frantic Vortex
Moving the prism’s narrow roost up and down with a rustling sound as if he had been surprised made it look like a shadow play due to the slanting sunlight. Far, far away in what looked like the west, clouds were approaching at ease, so I kept on running lightly around in the manner of thread being wound around a spool, and occasionally stopping, made as if to peer into the middle from the mountain ridge stitch. For him it must be a terrible thing. The sun hazed. Behaving as if I were something with insect wings I became transparent like the bones of bony creatures laid out in the sun, and then in the shadows felt as if I were the clouds themselves which blurred myself and this tract of land. Upon which something giving way around the shoulders and something bubbling up around the vicinity of the chest showed signs of setting about the circulation of a boundless and ancient memory.
The sun shown, and my shadow also, vitreously in bold relief. By and by it sprung upward, and passing into two or three leaves again the sun came beating down. Now rest. As if I were a slender god playing with the movement and disappearance of my own black shadow.
November 14, 1949, 2:00 pm; I happened upon a certain method of criticism… am I my habits? If a vortex were to appear in the sky, holding my breath I would smash into its simplified network, what ought to be called its essence, the center of his absence, from below. He pulled the thread and then fell. He might be saved if there were a thicket below. The attack was a flash, the record posing extreme difficulty even for the observer. When the battle ended, I quickly fixed my makeup there on the sandy soil, and turning him over absorbed the liquid flowing from his mouth, also licking between the chest and hips. Occasionally I nibbled at the membranous base of the hip, but the purpose of this is obscure. At any rate, the children given birth from my poisonous characteristics, and who should be suspended in the empty sky, would no doubt leave his redolent glory behind in the earth in the form of one side of a huge jaw.
3:00 pm, the wind which collects resin, deeper now the sun hazed over. The fingers of the clouds which, lacking fingernails, could only raggedly part began to catch hold of me and my enemy despite our being two, and began to envelop us. He became sand from the shoulder on down and began to fall, while my chest began to flow out from itself. It was as if ascending above this purplish blue field now with one breath where generations had no doubt perished were mirrored in the eyes of someone hidden.

The Motif the Water Whispered
The leaves had already been cut out as if with a dressmaker’s pattern. I am the one who, feeling a slender bone in the intense sunlight which oozes out like waste matter, makes it into an artist’s tool and tries to paint several small hazy scenes taking place just before my birth and which grow increasingly hazy. Already the vascular strands of the leaves of the Isu trees had been severed.
The initial, excessively painful measures for the purpose of life’s bursting forth. It waits patiently for the leaves to droop limply over the others. When another man, shaking the tree’s trunk, awakens inside, it rolls up the leaves like lost letters in which his distressing future is endlessly wrapped, and cuts off the leaf with one last bite, sending it to the ground. It is a cradle unloosed, meant for my bone-writing soul.
Bones of boiling water, swamp bones, waterfall bones, bones of the beach. At the end of one of the ensuing precious moments which these things gradually enfold, a faucet rusts while continually shining, cut off facing the blue sky. I flowed out from there, faster than one could press one’s lips to it.
From February to March, 1950, the above was taught me by the whisper of the water all around.


Contemporary Japanese Poets: Hiraide Takashi

April 16, 2010

I’ve had the pleasure of following Hiraide Takashi’s poetry as well as translating his work since 1983, not long after he published his first book to attract broader critical attention – Kurumi no Sen-i no Tame ni. I was looking for some younger poets to include in a translation issue of a small English language magazine located in Paris and which I was co-editing. So Yoshimasu Gozo (a globe-trotting poet who seems to know virtually everyone) introduced us. A long association has sense ensued, which has included visits to countless unique and out-of-the-way night spots in Tokyo where Hiraide has demonstrated not only his fine sensibilities in food, drink and night life atmosphere, but a most notable ability to negotiate large amounts of liquid substances into his person. Perhaps Hiraide’s next book should be the handbook on unusual drinking establishments in Tokyo. After all, he’s already written the book on baseball. After a semester at the Iowa writer’s workshop in 1985 he made a very special pilgrimage to Cooperstown, the birthplace of baseball. How does he manage to do all this? Hiraide has stated in an essay that for him, poetry is a kind of baseball of sorts. I won’t attempt to explain this. But what I saw when I first attempted to translate some excerpts from the book mentioned above was surrealist prose poetry creating a strange atmosphere with images of subways and glowing lights. Over a glass of mizuwari Hiraide corrected me. In actual fact, these images were not surrealistic at all – they were extremely minute, almost scientific observations of his actual daily commute on the train between Shinjuku and Iidabashi where at the time he was working in book design for Kawade Shobo publishing. Hiraide’s work is not easy. He has now settled into a prose poetry style which is highly dense and complex. But it always retains a connection with the real, as can be seen in Wakai Seikotsu-shi no Shozo (Portrait of a Young Osteopath) – an imaginary naturalist’s notebook, and is also often filled with a kind of tongue-in-cheek sort of humor. One of Hiraide’s favorite American poets is John Ashberry, not surprisingly. I usually describe Hiraide’s poetry as having a certain focus on texture – there is the tendency to pull and stretch the Japanese syntax to see just how far it will go. This makes for very difficult translating. Both Hiraide and those close to him, with their critical awareness and interest in also writing theory and criticism, are probably the closest anyone in Japan comes to the type of avant garde tendencies seen in the U.S. in the eighties focusing on language. But I would call Hiraide’s poetry a kind of hyper-realism. Hiraide has become one of the most widely known and respected members of the younger avant garde set, those who emerged in the early eighties, now being included in the Shichosha collection of modern poets. He currently teaches literary and aesthetic theory at Tama Bijutsu Daigaku.
–Eric Selland
Note: Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, Translated by Sawako Nakayasu, is available on New Directions

Kitasono Katue – Poems (trans. John Solt)

April 2, 2010

Night Mechanist (1924)

the café girl
is completely transparent
continuing her pink breathing
she makes her expensive finger shine
and hides mint-colored talk
in a lobelia leaf
while playing the table’s piano
dreamer of chairs and curtains
bohemian of a pitiful city.
from the shadow of curacao
and peppermint
she flashes a seven-colored heart
seducer with stunning matches
on stove chimneys
ties passion ribbons
and dissolves her lovers
into cash register buttons—
mechanist of splendid night

from Human Dismantled Poems (1926)


on the back of the face
insert a blue lens
and peep everyday


burn sulphur
and weird smoke fills it up
a triangular ornament
tinplate nose
twist it
stuff a brush inside
and drag that spiral out from the rear!

Legend of the Airship

Book Review: Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning – The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1901-1978) , by John Solt

April 2, 2010

Book Review: Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning – The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1901-1978) , by John Solt, Published by the Harvard University Asia Center and distributed by Harvard University Press, 1999, 395 pages, $49.50 cloth, ISBN 0-674-80733-2. (Available on
Occasionally a book arrives that changes everything. Less, perhaps, in presenting something totally new, than in revealing that which had remained hidden, or forgotten. John Solt’s biography and extended literary analysis of the life’s work of Kitasono Katue, a major practitioner of avant-garde poetic forms from the 1920s to the 1970s, does just that. First in offering up the newest in that short list of very rare full-length studies of a modern Japanese poet, and second in its having laid open a forgotten history of dynamic artistic and literary development, as well as cultural exchange. A history, moreover, which intersects with our own, as becomes evident in the lengthy chapter on Kitasono’s many years of correspondence with Ezra Pound.
Kitasono Katue (Solt uses the Francophile spelling preferred by Kitasono himself in his dealings with foreign poets) originally wanted to become a painter, but after a literary friendship and time spent in Tokyo, broiling with new ideas and a cosmopolitan lifestyle (Hirato Renkichi published his Japanese Futurist manifesto in 1921), Kitasono decided to become a poet. By 1924 he had become involved with a group of young poets publishing Japan’s first Dadaist magazine, Ge.Gjmgjgam.Prrr.Gjmgem , thus beginning his many years of involvement with iconoclastic new forms. The new magazine introduced sound poems, dadaist absurdities and work harkening the eventual development of Surrealism in Japan. One more very important characteristic of the magazine was the introduction of the usage of katakana words in poetry. Foreign words and images were used liberally, appearing both in katakana script and the alphabet. We tend to be non-plussed now about these graphical innovations due to the common use of foreign loan words and Romanized script in the Japanese of the present, but at that time it was revolutionary, and would even become dangerous by the late 1930’s with the rise of militarism.
Kitasono went on to write Surrealist poems, such as appear in his 1929 collection Shiro no Arubamu , and in the 1930’s became the main mover of the VOU club, an experimental group through which he introduced his own poetic theories such as “ideoplasty”. It was at this time the correspondence with Pound began, and Pound eagerly promoted Kitasono and VOU in Europe and the United States, connecting Kitasono’s ideoplasty with his own ideogrammatic theory in Guide to Kulchur (1938). The VOU poets were given an introduction by Pound and published in a London magazine in 1938. Kitasono provided his own translations of his work, a few lines of which appear below:
In leaden slippers I laugh at the fountain of night, and scorn a solitary swan.
A parasol of glass she spreads, and wanders along the lane the cosmos flowering.
Over the cypress tree I image, to myself, a hotel marked with two golf-clubs crossed;
And move my camera on the sand of night.
[Excerpt from “Glass Coil” as originally published in Townsman, Jan. 1, 1938]
Kitasono carried out intensive exchanges with Pound and other Western poets during this period, and remade contact with the West after the war in the form of contacts with Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Rexroth and others. Robert Creeley even asked him to provide the cover drawings for the first few issues of the Black Mountain Review.
Rather than settling on one fixed form once found, as has been the case with many Japanese poets of the same period (including those who later lapsed into free-verse sentimentalism after an initial experimental phase), Kitasono went from one experiment to the next. After the war he introduced concrete poetry, then published a series of books each taking a further step toward the complete dislocation (or indeterminacy) of meaning, and finally attempted the leap beyond language itself in his production of what he called “plastic poems”, poems without words in which he utilized photography and design elements. Kitasono can almost be considered Japan’s first Post-Modernist in his willful ignoring of the boundaries between genres, levels of speech, and conventional meaning formation.
Solt explains in his introduction that his approach is a historical one, rather than one whose purpose is to advocate any particular literary theory, however, he does make use of the ideas of important theorists on the international 20th century avant-garde such as Marjorie Perloff, especially in his interpretations of Kitasono’s post-war work. More importantly, Solt’s study offers an exposition of Japanese avant-garde practice through much of this century which serves to tear away the imposition of Western generated Orientalist exoticisms often overlaid on the more immediate intellectual and social realities of Japan. The representation of Japanese literature in this country has often been effected by those more concerned with appropriating an overly idealized version of Zen and haiku for their own ideological purposes within a social and political milieu very different from Japan’s than in understanding the actual historical experience of a non-Western people in their coming to terms with the ideas and realities of their own times. Solt’s book gives us one of the rare looks at actual Japanese concerns within the poetic practice of the 20th century through the eyes of a Japanese poet, hence giving us a much needed breath of fresh air. The appendices, notes and bibliography give the serious reader important source information for further study. It is hoped that this will open the way to more research on the development of Japanese poetic practice, as well as other Japanese arts and intellectual trends of this century. It seems to me that there is much more creative potential for poets in this country in the consideration of the transformational processes involved in this period of intensive cultural cross-pollination, in the various acts of translation, literary readings and creative misreadings, than in the continued reliance on older, and often artificially exotic images invented by previous generations of Westerners with less of an opportunity to come into contact with the real thing.
Note: John Solt’s translations of Kitasono Katsue’s poetry are also available under the title Glass Beret, Morgan Press, 1995, 2979 S. 13th Street, Milwaukee, WI, 53215.

The Landscape of Identity: Poetry and the Modern in Japan

March 10, 2010

[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

New Books in Translation: Killing Kanoko, by Itoh Hiromi

February 26, 2010

KILLING KANOKO: SELECTED POEMS OF HIROMI ITO Translated by Jeffrey Angles (Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2009) ISBN 978-0979975547 ($16)

I want to get rid of or kill Kanoko
Before she spills my blood…
Congratulations on your destruction
Congratulations on your destruction

These words come from “Killing Kanoko,” one of the most controversial and dramatic poems of contemporary Japan. Published in 1985, this poem conveys Japanese poet Hiromi Ito’s exhaustion as a mother and her thoughts of infanticide. Ito was subsequently pilloried by the popular press for her writing, while feminist writers held her up as a hero, praising her for her bold and unflinching exploration of the dark, emotional underside of motherhood. The collection _Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Ito_ includes this famous poem, as well as many other exuberantly transgressive poems exploring gender, sexuality, language and the female body.

Hiromi Ito, born in 1955, is one of the most important contemporary poets and novelists in Japan. To date she has published over a dozen critically acclaimed collections of poetry, several novels and numerous essays. She has won many important Japanese literary prizes including the Takami Jun Prize, Hagiwara Sakutaro Prize, and the Izumi Shikibu Prize. She currently resides near San Diego with her partner and daughters.

Many critics have credited Ito’s dramatically direct poetry and psychological sophistication as singlehandedly igniting a wave of “women’s poetry” that radically transformed that people wrote about the body and physical desire in contemporary Japan. This book of English translations, rendered by Jeffrey Angles (winner of the 2009 Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature), makes her most famous, dramatic, and historically important work available to the English-speaking public.

Ito is also well known for her radical experiments with the Japanese language, producing writing that forces the unsaid into the realm of the spoken and that returns to the voice to poetry. For this reason, she has often been lauded as a “shamaness of poetry” or a poet who exemplifies Hélène Cixous’ notion of écriture féminine.

The book is available through as well as the Action Books website. For a limited time, the book will be on sold at a reduced, promotional price through the website

See more poem samples here:

Jeffrey Angles ジェフリー・アングルス
Associate Professor, Japanese Literature and Translation Studies Department of Foreign Languages, Western Michigan University

Translating the Untranslatable: Katoh Ikuya and the Language of Pure Signs

February 3, 2010

[Translating the Untranslatable was originally presented at the Association for Asian Studies conference in 2008]

“…that the poem can only fulfill itself in its own untranslatability.”
– Dennis Schmidt, “Thought and Poetry” , Word Traces

“As soon as there is language, there is interpretation, that is translation.”
– Kearney, introduction to Paul Ricoeur’s On Translation

Prologue: In a sense, to be a translator, to live ones life daily “in translation,” means to speak outside language. And in this same sense, translation is poetry itself at its most originary point.

The poems comprising Katoh Ikuya’s Kyutai Kankaku (Spherical Sense), published in 1959, could be described as a kind of illusion of sorts, a play of mirrors. The title of the first series of sequences is in itself a puzzle. The word ‘Kaishi’ is made up of the Chinese characters for ‘ocean’ and ‘city’. Simple enough, but this is not a common word. It is part of a meta-language, the language of seasonal words in haiku, having their own complex history of allusions and rigid rules (if one is orthodox) dictating their use. As a seasonal word ‘kaishi’ is associated with spring, and has still another meaning hidden below its literal surface – that of ‘mirage’. It is this layered quality, a mirage as it were, that perhaps keys us in to what Katoh is up to. Schooled in Japan’s new experimental poetry deriving primarily from French models, Katoh brings the influence of experimental Modernism to haiku. Yet he chooses to work from within the form, by employing the seasonal words and the proper syllabic structure, while at the same time emptying the seasonal word of its meaning, and shifting the haiku somewhat off-kilter through an unconventional parsing of the syllables, something like making use of enjambment in an English poem. Katoh also uses foreign words, sometimes even in Romanized script in the original, something that was both surprising and innovative in the 1950s.
The word is central in Katoh. Nouns – sometimes a seasonal word, or an archaic term quoted from the classics, even foreign words – have an iconic quality. Take for instance the following poem: Whistling wind / Leaves a bird / In Havana
The literal rendering is Tiger-wind-flute / Havana bird / Left behind.
The first line in the poem is comprised of one word made up of three Chinese characters whose literal reading is tiger-wind-flute. This is a seasonal word representing winter and a direct borrowing from the Chinese. The word is used in classical Chinese poetry to express the sound of the wind blowing through the bamboo in a winter storm. The Japanese reading of the characters, which gives us the five syllables required for the first line of the haiku, is mogaribue, literally mourning-flute (mogari actually being a very old word used to render the Chinese character for “lying in state”). Hence the poem is introduced with a noun having many layers of hidden meanings, so much so as to become completely opaque. This noun is then followed by another noun, the name of a foreign city, written in the rigidly rectangular katakana script. Finally, as if an afterthought, we are given a verb in the last line and a “cutting word” or kireji (the word keru in this case) which supplies us with the sense of something final and in the past tense. It is only the verb at the end of the poem, along with two sentence particles appearing in the second line, which give us any idea at all how to put together this collection of words and images.
In another instance, a phrase from the classics and its aural effects become the center of the poem: The circle of the moon / Plays on a reed / Of ancient Japan
Here Katoh employs the technique of vowel echoing in a sonorous repetition of open vowels more associated with Modernist poets such as Yoshioka Minoru than with haiku. The phrase in Japanese is Toyoashihara no ashi o fuku. The word translated here as “ancient Japan” literally means Land-of-abundant-reed-plains, a word taken from a passage in the Kojiki, it is one of the names given to the ancient kingdom of Yamato. Here Katoh relies not only on rhythm and sound for the central theme of this poem, but on the vast network of cultural meanings and images associated with the classical language itself. In other words, the poem relies on the archetypal nature of the word, its quality as a sign.
In Benveniste, language is understood as taking place on two separate planes – the semiotic and the semantic. The semiotic (the sign) is recognized, but it is only the semantic (discourse) that is understood. “We cannot transpose the semiotics of one language into that of another – this is the non-potential for Translation.” [Benveniste]
Katoh’s poetry plays in the margins between the semiotic and semantic fields, between the spoken and the written (graphic) sign. It constitutes a gesture which Agamben refers to as “the fall back into pure language,” in which discourse becomes a dictionary of mute signs.
To read Katoh’s text at all (in what we normally consider to be its “original” language) is itself a process of translation. Beneath surface meanings are the coded meanings of seasonal words, and yet knowing this is like opening a door to nowhere, for Katoh’s intent is to subvert haiku conventions. The translation of this work creates a host of problems, bringing all concepts of meaning, interpretation and accuracy into question. In a sense, like the veiled nature of Katoh’s poetry itself, the translation must always remain somehow incomplete, always underway toward a possible meaning or form. Perhaps Nabokov’s radically literal approach to translation would give the reader a better sense of their real difficulty, or a complete exposition of all the alternate approaches to their translation (in some cases as much as seven versions were made before deciding on a final one). For the problem of translation, particularly poetic translation, is not merely a linguistic problem – it is a question of interpretation. In other words, we are inevitably drawn to hermeneutics, the philosophy of meaning and interpretation, as a means of finding an approach to translation. Ultimately, the argument of fidelity versus freedom misses the point. Translation can never be complete, or completely accurate. It is an unending dialogue with the Other, in which the missing parts must be supplied in what amounts to an act of faith, the poetic act itself.


1. Katoh Ikuya Kushuu, Jinbunshoin 1975
2. Katoh Ikuya Shishuu, Gendaishi Bunkou 45, Shichousha 1990
3. Infancy and History, Giorgio Agamben, Verso 2007
4. Potentialities, Giorgio Agamben, Stanford University press 1999
5. On Translation, Paul Ricoeur, Routledge 2006
6. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, Paul Ricoeur, Texas Christian University Press 1976
7. Translating Heidegger, Miles Groth, Humanity Books 2004

Other Readings

Martin Heidegger:
On the Way to Language
Poetry, Language and Thought

Walter Benjamin:
The Task of the Translator
On Language as such and the Language of Man
(see the collected works)

Word Traces: Readings of Paul Celan, Edited by Aris Fioretos

Katoh Ikuya: Selections from Spherical Sense (1959)

February 3, 2010
Mirage Festival			Festival in a Coastal Town
(Note: Alternate readings appear to the right in italics)


Winter waves
Come to the winter pier
And are returned

Thought of two poems
About flowers
That do not mention flowers

Sunday on which
I do not go to pray
Choosing seeds instead

June -
Now the crane prays
For its own dead

Sand spills
From July’s

Convolvulus noon face
Still visible after noon –

Awaiting each bird
To the treetops
At sunset

At night
A spotted dove flashes
Like a firefly


Seeing a withered tree	
All things seem
As if absent

Memory of sand
On an autumn day

A bird passes
Through an idea
Slanting northward

Furnace lit –
Like being inside
A Mediterranean bowl


Winter trees standing
Yet they are counted

Pool of light
On winter castle wall	
No castle

Whistling wind			Tiger-wind-flute
Leaves a bird
In Havana

Cloud of memory
A sparrow comes and sings
In the hair

A mirage appears			Ocean city
The future erupts
Shines back

Wine in an ant hole
The subterranean

June’s blemishes
A parachute

Department of the Word

Saw the logos	
Bending back roof tiles
In the scorching sun

The old temple’s
Carved images – nearby
An Indian lilac	

Releasing a butterfly
An ancient smile
In the present moment

Flower that bears no fruit		Wasted flower
Flowers are far
On festival day

Someone with	
Ravel’s left hand


The trick to working
The hometown well-bucket
A whirligig beetle

Eye of the needle
Afternoon wanes
Nap over 

Returning from Mary
In a field of flowers
A flower cross

A dog passes
Over a fur coat
Over memory

Lute Without Strings		No Strings

Winter trees stand
And that which makes the winter trees stand -
A cyclorama

For Hino Soujou (1901-1956)

The sundial’s
Spring come again
Pointing, it overflows

The circle of the moon
Plays on a reed
Of ancient Japan			Land-of-abundant-reed-plains

At the boundary of the field
Crop fires beginning
Hope of renewal, prosperity		Farewell

A swan’s
White absence –
Reflections on the water

Contemporary Japanese Poets: Ryoko Sekiguchi

January 19, 2010

[This book review originally appeared in Jacket]

Ryoko Sekiguchi: Two Markets, Once Again, Translated from the French by Sarah Riggs, reviewed by Eric Selland
50pp. The Post-Apollo Press. US$14. 978-0-942996-65-4 paper
Available via Small Press Distribution at

By the same author: Heliotropes, La Presse, Iowa City, 2008

Ryoko Sekiguchi is also included in the Litmus Press anthology Four From Japan, edited by Sawako Nakayasu

This is the latest and possibly the culmination of the Post-Apollo pocketbook series which includes such luminaries as Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian, and Claude Royet-Journoud. Deceptively small, this little book packs a wallop. Sekiguchi is a master of the experimental prose poetry sequence:

Pages the letters fling themselves against which
could have been traced directly by this firm
 hand, chapters unaware of changes in line or
 punctuation, the act of reading that engenders
space, that surrounds us.

A text which proves upon further reading to be highly dense and multilayered despite the relative lack of torque, which I suspect may be due to its having travelled first through its French version, translated here by Sarah Riggs, an American poet living in Paris (generally the distance between Japanese and English creates more resistance in translation and hence more difficult sentence structures… but more on translation later). And the lines continue:

                                                 The exceptional
intensity in pronouncing the time clause at that
very moment caused us to whiten immediately,
alerting us to the error in reading it, but too late,
this intensity creates here a market instantly, a
market that had always existed, where we had
always lived.

Ryoko Sekiguchi is perhaps one of the most engaging poets of that generation now approaching mid-career currently writing in Japan. Though she maintains a recognizable relationship to developments in Japan’s late Modernism, she has stretched the available avant-garde vocabulary in the Japanese language to include, as seen in one of her earlier books, Luminescent Diapositive, graphic elements reminding one of Charles Olson, or the playfulness of the Japanese Dadaist cutups of an earlier era, something which was rejected by Japan’s Modernists as they grew older and more stuffy. In her more recent work, Sekiguchi has managed to mold this foundation in the highly controlled formal experiments of her predecessors to more recent interests in Japanese women’s poetry, which tends to explore the textures and patterns of feminine speech and experience. Sekiguchi’s own version of these more recent developments in Japanese women’s writing is, however, more intellectually dense, more highly complex than most other writers.

Sekiguchi has lived in Paris since 1997, is fluent in French and apparently a number of other languages, and translates/rewrites her own work into French. This in itself is quite an interesting cultural development, as in the recent past, it would have been extremely difficult to find acceptance as a poet in Japan and be an expatriate at the same time. Until recently, the assumption would have been that in order to be completely Japanese and completely authentic as a poet, living for such long periods of time in a foreign country, and especially, actually attaining fluency in the language, would somehow dilute whatever it is one is looking for in a writer, and in a work of the caliber that might be considered for inclusion in a ‘national literature.’ Obviously this is no longer the case in the era of writers like Haruki Murakami and the era of the internet, where physical space and ‘culture’ in the traditional sense seem to have lost some of the more precisely defined boundaries they once had. And perhaps it is also this shift in modes, in the location of the poetic topology from the actual to the imagined, from physical to virtual, that in an odd way informs this text.

Two Markets Once Again is an especially satisfying example of recent developments in the writer’s work. It is a landscape which is at once the imagination, the actual world through which the author travels in a mixture of distance and awe, and the text itself – text as field, as the eroticism of language, and as a topology of markers and signs.

Sekiguchi makes her way deftly through this landscape, taking the reader on a tour as it were, through the labyrinth of language. Here, identity of author, reader, and text, a text which itself is also the labyrinth of the mind, become intermixed.

Sekiguchi weaves in and out of this textual and textural landscape, occasionally allowing surreal glimpses of the actual world she travels through (texts were produced on trips to Syria and Iran), which exudes the smells of coffee and coriander.

The ‘market’ is the open space in the text, the gap or dislocation in language through which the reader/writer slips, as well as the strange, unidentifiable sense of place the traveler finds in the unknown country.

It is also a journey through a language being learned – the language of classical Arabic, as well as all the visual and sensual experience of being in that new environment.

The voice of the poem fights against the text, but is finally always drawn back in. And yet the gap or dislocation as represented by the market is also the site of all possibility and experience, ‘for this market, the act of writing, in itself, is always possible.’

It is the dislocations in language that make writing/poetry possible – the chiasm is poetry itself. And yet it is also ‘The trace of negation or refusal’ –

In every part, in the debris or the remainder of
text, we recognize the trace of negation or

The text is interspersed with Arabic, Latin, Italian, and Provencal — She quotes a line from the Latin text of the Stabat Mater; she quotes the poetry of the troubadours and Dante’s Inferno (most likely from the narration of the encounter with the ghost of Francesca Di Rimini, a name mentioned elsewhere in the text). There are also allusions to Greek tragedy (most likely Euripides), the voice of Persephone speaking in one of the poems of Sappho, Homer, and other classical Greek texts.

The more one reads and rereads the text, and the more languages you know or are willing to google, the more numerous and intricately interwoven become the meanings and allusions. This is most certainly a book that can bear many readings. Despite the fairly small number of pages in this little book, it is a gigantic work and has a far reach beyond all the assumed cultural and linguistic boundaries.

As for the question of translation, it would be more appropriate to understand this text as a recreation or ‘multiplication of versions’ in the words of Sekiguchi, and Sarah Riggs not merely a translator, but a partner in the creation of a collaborative work which has already travelled from Japanese to French and now finds its third extension in the English of this text.

Sekiguchi, speaking of her self-translation into French, notes that, ‘The very idea of an original text subsisting through the displacement of one language into another is therefore put into question…’ [tr. Chet Weiner, in Four From Japan, Edited by Sawako Nakayasu, Litmus Press]

The text itself is nothing but a particular and infinite instance… It is therefore no longer a question of depth but of stretching the surface of the text: such is the aim of this effort at self-translation/multiplication of versions.

Sekiguchi is a must-read, not only because of the intricacy and delicacy of her writing, a writing which carries both the density and weight of a fine-tuned intellect and yet offers turns of a certain lightness, the tongue-in-cheek, and the simple enjoyment of language, but because the increasing availability of hers and other works of contemporary and Modernist avant-garde Japanese poetry in English means there is no longer an excuse for American readers having a complete lack of familiarity with this dynamic and ever-changing modern tradition.

                                                            we read
and are read, we call and are called, in reading,
sounding out, the text remaining silent, we
ourselves becoming texts

The Modernist Tradition in Japan: Some Introductory Comments

January 14, 2010

(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