Intro: A Snapshot
In contrast to the angst-ridden, gloomy post-war Japanese poetry as exemplified by the leading Arechi (Wasteland) poets Tamura Ryuichi, Ayukawa Nobuo and Kitamura Taro, Tanikawa Shuntaro’s poetry carved a new path and became known for its musicality, its pop culture references, its detachment and, not least, its buoyancy. (For a culture as group-oriented as Japan’s, it is noteworthy that his 2011 retrospective poetry collection in English is titled “The Art of Being Alone” (Cornell East Asian Series)). He writes a kind of ephemeral autobiographical verse with a rhythmic exploration of its sources in jazz music, comics, modern painting, etc. His is not an intellectual but a post-modern voice both shamelessly child-like and ruthlessly detached. There’s an androgyny to his voice seldom found to this extent in the West.
In the hyper-rational culture of the West there exists the mind-set where in order to speak one has to “break” the silence and where distinctions in language are made, it often seems, at the exclusion, even obliteration, of what lies beyond. In the more traditional East, on the other hand—as in the modern Japanese lyric-- the act of speaking preserves, or honors, silence as its root. Or in Sugimoto Maiko’s words, “Poetry is a thing that emerges upwards out of silence.”
What Japan’s modern lyric poets offer is more than a critique of modernity—they embody the effort to think outside modernity. If the ethics or essence of Japan is as “a non-accountability organism”, according to contemporary artist/blogger Hikosaka Naoyoshi, and if it is true, as he says, that “power structures of Japan have a sweetness and looseness, with roots in primitive cultures, not in civilization as in China or the West” [unofficial translation], then its poets and artists contemplate the root-world, the non-West world in such a way as to authenticate the reality of the tree in its wholeness, reminding us how, without its unseen roots, the tree falls.
The issue we are all facing-- what I would call ‘The West Issue’-- is critically a male and female issue. Artists and poets have the incredible capacity to cultivate the third eye, to see the symmetry of the underground or invisible world, not only History as linear ‘male’ narrative but Time as ‘female’ cycles with sources found in non-Western cultures, tales, songs, lullabies, nursery rhymes, prayers, chants, and so on. If the West is the upper world of the tree, the East is the lower world of the roots: reality and imagination; tangible and intangible; seen world and unseen world. To balance these forces in a give and take is what true and enduring art accomplishes.
Offered here, then, by the kind graces of Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, is a sampling from the wide spectrum of voices in contemporary Japanese poetry, including Tanikawa Shuntaro, Abe Hinako, Nomura Kiwao, Tanaka Yosuke, Takahashi Mutsuo, Toshiko Hirata, and Yotsumoto Yasuhiro, along with younger female poets who have come into prominence such as Minashita Kiriu, Hachikai Mimi and Sugimoto Maiko. Allow me to thank all the poets for their permission to feature their poems in this column, as well as to acknowledge the generous efforts of the translators whose contributions (poetry translations, essay, interview and commentary) have been assembled here--they each cannot be thanked enough.