日付変更線 International Date Line


For some time, I’ve been meaning to write a few words to say how bowled over I am by the newest book by the feminist writer ARAI Takako, a Japanese poet whom I think is one of the undiscovered geniuses of contemporary Japanese letters. Not only is her work socially involved and globally aware in a way that is unusual to find among contemporary Japanese writers, her use of vibrant, living, dialect-studded language gives her a voice that is utterly uniquely her own. 

Her new book 『ベッドと織機』(Beds and Looms), published in late 2013 by Michitani, is a probing investigation of labor, women’s status, desire, and disaster in contemporary Japan. Many of the poems in this collection are from her “Factory” series, which describes the experiences of her and the other women workers in her father’s small textile factory in Kiryū, a city in Gunma prefecture known for weaving. I have much to say about those poems, one of which I translated for Southpaw, the leftist journal of global art and writing, but for the moment, I’d like to comment on one of the poems in this collection inspired by the March 11, 2011 disasters.  

Arai has written that in the immediate aftermath of the disasters, her friends repeatedly urged her to write, realizing that they were living through momentous times and hoping that she could somehow come to grips with their experiences through language. In an essay written in 2013 for the Museum of Contemporary Japanese Poetry, Tanka, and Haiku, she wrote,

I believe, without a doubt, that people desired poetry. As the immeasurable anxiety brought about by the tsunami and nuclear accident continued to grow, I was communicating with my friends via e-mail and telephone. They spurred me on countless times, saying, “It is precisely because of this moment we are living through that you need to write poetry.” I was taken off guard because I felt this was the first time that I was told this sort of thing by someone who had no connection with poetry.  

Cited from “Kodama deshō ka, iie,” in Nihon Gendai Shiika Bungakukan, ed. Ashita kara fuite kuru kaze: 2011.3.11 to shiika, sono go. Kitakami-shi: Nihon Gendai Shiika Bungakukan, 2013, pp. 4-5.

In early May, Arai made a trip to Kesennuma, one of the coastal Tōhoku cities leveled by the tsunami.  While there, Arai found that shoes and clothing from the tsunami victims were still washing onto shore daily, and she decided to write about that in her work.  (In fact, the photographs of debris that I have posted above are ones that Arai took while in Kesennuma.)  The site of the shoes inspired her to write the poem “Katahō no kutsu,” which she read in numerous poetry vigils in mid-2011 as a eulogy to the victims of 3/11.  I have translated this poem as “Half a Pair of Shoes” for a collection of 3/11-related poetry that is currently under review.

In this poem, the poppy, which serves as a symbol of the poet herself, leans toward the wet, memory-soaked shoe, and the shoe opens its “eyes,” which have born silent witness to the disaster.  The eyes seem to morph into the eyes of the deceased child, and the poppy/poet imagines the visions reflected in his eyes in the final moments of his life.  The poem’s abrupt ending, however, suggests the problems of such a project.  The object, which seems so suggestive, seems to want to help the poet discover the story, dropping a shoelace deep inside, as if trying to provide a lifeline to the missing person and his memory.  Still, it is clear that the missing child cannot return, and his story is only knowable through guesswork.  The poppy/poet cannot offer any meaningful salvation to the child, who is already gone.  All it can do is drop its petals inside the shoe.  In other words, the poet cannot really recover lost lives; all the poet can do is invite the silent shoe to serve as the starting point for a story. 

Elsewhere, in commenting on her own pre-2011 work, Arai has noted that one of the major projects of her poetry is to provide a space that would allow the ghosts of the past to haunt her and her readers.  

Ghosts and spirits have the power to teach us the past. There is a part of me that believes that. We tend to forget everything so quickly, don’t we? We humans go through life in such an irresponsible way. That’s especially true now, when our societies and economic systems speed forward at full tilt leaving us to chase after them. Our amnesia extends even to our worst tragedies. That’s why I want ghosts and spirits to remain close, so they can be our teachers. 

The poem “Half a Pair of Shoes” is an attempt to do exactly what she has described here—to allow the ghosts of the recently deceased victims of the tsunami back onto the stage of history—even while remaining aware of the limitations of that project. As this poem reminds us, the desire to remember will always ultimately run up against the unknowability of traumatic experience, creating an insolvable epistemological problem. 

新しい映画『ゴジラ』 の感想

I went to the opening of the new Godzilla in IMAX 3-D last night. (The theater was packed with middle-aged, comic-book and sci-fi loving guys, many of whom had worn out their favorite Godzilla T-shirt.)

Of course, the visuals were astounding, but the writers had worked into the plot unmistakable echoes of 3/11 and 9/11, the two recent national traumas of Japan and America that have come to define our experience in so many ways the twenty first-century. In the parallel universe of the film, however, all responsibility for the tragedies lay with forces other than humanity. The final message seemed to be, “Work hard and do your best to prevent mishaps, but nature will naturally take its own course, and humanity should just let that happen. Things will cosmically work out somehow.” That message makes no sense in our current world, where humanity is responsible for virtually every large disaster. We have to be better than that.  

The always fantastic online literary journal Guernica  published my translations of the poem “at the side (côtés) of poetry” by the avant-garde Japanese poet YOSHIMASU Gōzō 吉増剛造. This poem is his response to a request byAsahi shinbun for a work about life in the post 3/11 world, and it appeared in an online collection of poets by major contemporary poets, as well as in the leading Japanese poetry journal Handbook of Contemporary Poetry 『現代詩手帖』.  This translation will also appear in a collection of Gōzō’s work currently being edited by Forrest Gander. 

Translating Gōzō’s work is not easy, considering how often it employs word play, sound associations, play across multiple languages, and even random-seeming personal asides; however, the results, I think contain many of the same playfully messy, challenging, and brilliant turns of the original.  Check it out by clicking here.


Connotations Press has just published online a bilingual sampling of contemporary Japanese poets, including some of Japan’s most brilliant writers, such as the Tanikawa Shuntarō 谷川俊太郎 (the fun writer sometimes known as “Japan’s national poet”), Takahashi Mutsuo 高橋睦郎 (who is nothing short of a staggering genius in my book), and others. There are a few of my own translations in here, and a more than a few poems that react to the disastrous earthquake last year. The selection was edited by Alan Botsford Saitoh, poet and editor of the annual Poetry Kanto.

Tanikawa Shuntarō, translated by Elliott & Kazuo
Tanikawa Shuntarō 谷川俊太郎
. Across the 60 years of Tanikawa’s publishing career he became and remains the most widely-read of all post-war Japanese poets

Nomura Kiwao, translated by Jordan A. Yamaji Smith
Nomura Kiwao
野村喜和夫 studied Japanese literature at Waseda University and pursued doctoral studies in French literature at Meiji University. Read more..

Tanaka Yōsuke, translated by Jeffrey Angles

Tanaka Yōsuke
田中庸介 (1969- ) is a research scientist specializing in molecular cell biology at the University of Tokyo. Read more…  

Hachikai Mimi, translated by Miho Nonaka
Hachikai Mimi
蜂飼耳 was born in 1974, in Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan. She received a Master’s degree in Ancient Japanese literature

Minashita Kiriu, translated by Leith Morton
Minashita Kiriu
水無田気流 was born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1970 and was educated at Waseda University. Her first book of poetry Onsoku Heiwa

Abe Hinako, translated by Hiroaki Sato
Abe Hinako
阿部日奈子(born 1953). “Born in Samarkand, Uzbek,” she once said of her life, “I moved south through China during the Cultural Revolution

Hirata Toshiko, translated by Jeffrey Angles
Hirata Toshiko
平田俊子 (1955-) is a prominent Japanese poet and novelist. During the 1980s, she, along with Itō Hiromi, emerged as one of the

Takahashi Mutsuo, translated by Jeffrey Angles
Takahashi Mutsuo 高橋睦郎
(1937-) is one of Japan’s most prominent living poets. Since first attracting the attention of the Japanese literary world

Yotsumoto Yasuhiro, translated by Leith Morton
Yotsumoto Yasuhiro
四元康祐 was born in Osaka in 1959, and was educated at Sophia University in Tokyo, and at the University of Pennsylvania.
Read more…

Sugimoto Maiko, translated by Carden & Tarcov
Sugimoto Maiko
杉本真維子 (b. 1973, Nagano) published her first chapbook in 1998. Read more…


From the WMU Soga Japan Center webpage

On March 11, 2011, a devastating earthquake struck northeastern Japan triggering a massive tsunami and the now infamous meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. One year later, on March 27, 2012, the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit held a memorial service at the Michigan State Capital’s Rotunda to commemorate the lives that had been lost and to showcase recovery efforts in the devastated region of Japan.

Dr. Jeffrey Angles, the director of Western Michigan University’s Soga Japan Center and an associate professor of Japanese, appeared alongside the Consul General of Japan Kuninori Matsuda, the mayor of Lansing Virg Bernero, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder at the memorial service. 

The Consul General Kuninori Matsuda (in photo below, at right) extended a special invitation to Angles, who was in Japan during the earthquake and lived through all the anxiety that followed, because over the last year Angles has translated and published numerous poems written by various poets about their experiences during and after the March 11 disasters.  For his contribution to the memorial service, he read English translations of three poems. 

The first, “Do Not Tremble,” was written by the feminist poet Toshiko Hirata during a time when the aftershocks were still rolling through northeastern Japan.  The second, “Thoughts Before a Blackout,” which Angles originally composed in Japanese, was written during the rolling blackouts and frightening uncertainty that followed the aftermath of the disasters.  The third, “Words,” was by Japan’s most popular poet, Shuntarō Tanikawa and optimistically describes the power of language and communication in helping to overcome the trauma of the disasters. The final poem appears in the newly published collection March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown

The memorial service was attended by about two hundred people.  Afterward, numerous people approached Angles to tell him how moved they were by the poems he read.

“One person told me that he especially appreciated them since the other speakers had emphasized the infrastructural and economic devastation of the disasters,” Angles said. “That listener told me he felt it was the poems that really gave the most dramatic, human face to what had happened. It was also wonderful to hear that ordinary Michigan residents, including elementary school students, had donated $268,000 to the Japanese Consulate’s office for the recovery efforts.” 

“The 3/11 disasters seem to have changed the way that many Japanese people think about their own lives,” Angles said.  “Many people lost their lives. It will be probably be well over a decade before northeastern Japan has fully recovered.  Our thoughts are with the people of northeastern Japan as they rebuild.” 

The Asahi Shinbun online is posting a series of poems about the earthquake written by some of Japan’s most important contemporary poets in commemoration of the first anniversary of the 3.11 earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster.  The poems come with a film of the poet reading his or her work.

Just now, I watched Takahashi Mutsuo’s contribution to the series, a stunning invocation of the effects of the triple disaster on language.  It begins “Language was what was broken / We did not realize this at the beginning / Because the destruction came so slowly.” He continues on through his reflections on the role of poetry and language in the wake of a catastrophe on such an enormous scale.

In his personal conversations with me, Takahashi lamented that after the earthquake, he went through a period of blankness, in which he felt that language was not enough to grasp, to conceive the scale of the horror inflicted upon the nation.  Nothing he wrote could cope with the scale of the disaster, and he did not know how to heal.  This coincided with his own realization of his advancing age—another concern reflected in this poem.  Still, in this poem, he seems to find the way forward, as he realizes that the world began with the destruction of the big bang and is hurtling toward entropy.  He cautions us that language is not always necessary.  It is not always necessary to pour trauma into language.  Waiting can sometimes be the path to heal. 

Takahashi is most recently the author of the book Two Thousand Years of the Poetic Mind: From Susanoo to 3.11 「詩心二千年:スサノヲから3・11へ」, published by Iwanami Shoten(岩波書店, 2011).