Eco-Poetry in contenporary Japanese Poetry
Japan has a long and illustrative love affair with using nature in art that spans the entirety of the nation’s history. The poem anthology, Like Underground Water: Poetry of Mid-twentieth Century Japan, by Naoshi Koriyama and Edward Lueders captures the best and most potent of Japanese poetry from the late eighties to the early 2000s. Despite being such a high-tech culture, finding poems in this anthology that use nature references and nature imagery was no difficulty. In Japan, the creative arts, music, literature, and poetry are still deeply intertwined with nature without being trite or cliche. There is a freshness in these that doesn't just come from the foreign nature of the work, but of the constant pushing of artist boundaries.
Contemporary poetry in Japan has been shaped in part by poetry all around the world but mostly has been shaped national or within the Asian poetry scene. This means that these poems have a very different feel than western poems. This does not mean that there are not the same universal themes of love, loss, meditation of the self and questioning our place in a larger universe, but they are explored and expressed in completely new and fascinating ways. I have always been deeply impressed and inspired by Japanese poetry. My Japanese is not as good as I wish and the anthology has critically acclaimed translations so I rely on the translations to draw meaning from these works.
The first poem that caught my eye was Island by Rin Ishigaki. This poet is known for combining the mundane with the profound. Since she was a working woman, housewife and artist Ishigaki was fascinated with not just the juxtaposition but the combination of heavy topics such as post-war japan with everyday scenes such as bathhouses or a kitchen. (197) In the poem Island, she combines a mirror with a meditation on identity. Ishigaki careful word choice and delicate phrasing give the poem a distinctly gentle yet deeply profound voice. Island is about a woman studying her body and herself in relation to not only the outside world but to herself. The first stanza is simple and so sparsely worded but it’s so strong that it could stand on its own. The second stanza goes into detail explaining so lovingly the aspects of the island and makes it clear to the reader that the author has a good relationship with her body and her physical presence in the world. The third stanza explores the enigmatic aspects of the author’s being, her spirit. Despite being in your own brain because you are trapped in your own brain, it’s impossible to truly and fully see and understand yourself. The last two lines are symmetrical to the first line, like a reflection in the mirror.
The two stanzas could possibly represent the experience of looking in the mirror; of seeing and recognizing your physical form but that initial moment is interrupted by your eye turning inward to your inner self. The second stanza is the feeling of frustration over the inability to understand the expression of our personality into the outside world since we ourselves can not bare witness to it. The comparison of an island to a sense of self is so profound not only because it so perfectly captures feelings of alienation from the outside world but also how it manages to touch on the feeling of being apart but yet a part of the larger world. Islands are isolated by water but they are an island because they exist in proximity to a larger body of land, or the outside world in the case of this u poem. A sense of self cannot exist without a sense of others or outside which Ishigaki capture so delicately in this poem.
Dobashi Jiju’s poem, The Endearing Sea, has a distinct voice that creates a mystical and atmosphere, unlike any poem I have read before. Only a couple of Jeju's poems were featured in the anthology and he did not have a small biography like some of the more famous poets did. For most of the poems the original text was provided and despite my Japanese not being the best, having the original text did allow me to gain deeper insight into the poem. The original text was not provided for this poem so I had to rely solely on the translation. The first couple lines of the poems establish a mundane baseline for the more abstract and fantastical lines to build upon. It creates a beautiful contrast between the normal and dreamlike passages and makes the later imagery much more potent. The line, “it became like a dot, no longer looking like a sea,” is so compelling because the sea is not just a dot in the physical sense but in a mental sense. The author no longer can conjure up definitive images of the ocean, only symbolic and accurate concepts of what he thinks the sea to be.
The most striking line of the whole poem is, “I felt compelled to go the movies/to see the sea/on the screen.” I can not fully explain why this line fascinated me so because it’s a complex feeling that the author is conveying quite beautifully. By going to the movies instead of the sea itself the author manages to capture the longing for an object for not only the object in itself but what it represents. In this case, the sea is an object not only of nostalgia but also a longing for a larger purpose or meaning. The Japanese have not been a religious population since World War II but they still have a very strong spiritual culture that permeates their poetry. In The Endearing Sea Jiju writes, “But when I slept at night,/the sea came to me,/pushing down my chest/and raising clear blue waves.” Jiju is summoning the spirit or mystical presence of the sea as not quite a anthropomorphized presence but a sentient one all the same. The last lines of the poem have a beautiful dream like quality to them that reflects not only the fact that the sea comes to the author when he is asleep but also blurs reality to allow for this fantastical experience of the sea interacting with the author. This is a poem that lingers in the mind of a reader long after it’s read.
Due to her unique voice and worldview, Chimako Tada is perhaps one of the most well respected and venerated modern day Japanese poets. She is a poet that never quite followed along with the literary trends at the time but instead cultivated a startlingly new take on Japanese poetry. Her words are so beautifully crafted and capture so exquisitely and with such sensitivity the atmosphere of humanity in all shapes and forms. Japanese poetry often is about the invocation or creation of a highly specific feeling or experience for their readers the experience. Chimako Tada wrote both long form and haiku. I chose a couple haikus that really caught my attention. The first haiku, about the winter sun, is my absolute favorite, “The winter sun having ripened trembles at the treetop”. The beauty of these haiku comes from the specificness of each description and the attention to detail, like how the sun is described as trembling.
In her longer work, Boys of Summer, Tada uses the same haiku format and attention to detail to capture the experience of being a young boy during summer break. The haikus transcend the simple experience of enjoying summer time as the poem evolves to include the boy's growth into men. Tada pays careful attention to the atmosphere as she conjures up a nostalgic hot dusty summer day. When you read the poems you can hear the raucous shouting of the boys as they roar around on a summer’s day. The last line, “ And with our butterfly nets over our shoulders/ We depart for another, even taller summer,”, creates such a beautiful ending by juxtaposing the butterfly nets with the taller summer as the boys are growing up. Tada has a precise and sensitive voice that creates such evocative pieces.
The last poem I chose to include in this analysis is Yukio Tsuji’s, The Rain. Despite having a very modern style I’d say that Tsuji’s poem is the most like a traditional Japanese poem of the whole lot. His style is very iconic with its use of cultural references and mentions of native Japanese plants and animals. Like a true Japanese poet, Tsuji is more focused on created an atmosphere than he is with capturing abstract concepts or specific experiences. Unlike his contemporaries, at the time Tsuji enjoyed capturing the emotionality of a moment. The Rain is meant to evoke a very specific feeling of being in the rainy season or Tsuyu, that is not quite wistful and forlorn and borders on daydreaming. As someone that grew up experiencing the Monsoon Season in India, I’d say this poem perfectly captures that experience, but prior experience is not needed to enjoy the poem.The whole meditative movement of the piece and the references to sound, like the horse fly, the tv, and the rain, gives this piece the vivid sensory detail needed to craft a monsoon experience. Tsuji’s is the master of invoking highly specific feelings in his reader, whether they’ve experienced the emotion before or not.