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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. 

During this reading at Stanford University on May 2, 2014, Itō Hiromi will appear with me as her translator. We plan to read from her work about the 2011 disasters in Japan, as well as from the translation of her long, narrative poem Wild Grass on the Riverbank, which will be forthcoming from Action Books in fall 2014.  This award-winning, book-length narrative poem, called by critics “unprecedented” in the history of modern Japanese literature, deals with transpacific migration, linguistic isolation, and the question of what it means to belong to a place.


During this reading at Stanford University on May 2, 2014, Itō Hiromi will appear with me as her translator. We plan to read from her work about the 2011 disasters in Japan, as well as from the translation of her long, narrative poem Wild Grass on the Riverbank, which will be forthcoming from Action Books in fall 2014.  This award-winning, book-length narrative poem, called by critics “unprecedented” in the history of modern Japanese literature, deals with transpacific migration, linguistic isolation, and the question of what it means to belong to a place.

Poems about March 11, 2011 disasters in Japan

The March 11, 2011 earthquake that shook northeastern Japan also reverberated throughout Japanese society, forcing it to reconsider many of things things that it had taken for granted—its usage of energy, its relationship to the natural environment, its relationship with the government, and its modes of organizing at the grass-roots level.  Almost immediately, writers took action.  Many figures known for their involvement in social issues, writers such as Ōe Kenzaburō, Tsushima Yūko, and Ishimure Michiko, began respond and publish statements to the press, helping to use their influence to help shape reconstruction efforts and talk about new directions for the Japanese nation.  

Perhaps the segment of the Japanese literary world where the seismic forces of 3/11 were felt most strongly, however, was the poetic world.  Many Japanese newspapers include regular columns that include free verse (shi), tanka, or haiku poems, but in just the few days after 3/11, poetry began to emerge from those small columns and take a more prominent place in the news, eventually finding its way into a central position in the discourse that had started unfolding across the nation. Poetry exploded into the mainstream, serving as one of the ways that the nation thought about and processed its own complicated feelings about the disasters. 

Because I was in Japan at the time and experienced the quakes, numerous aftershocks, and anxiety personally, I have been unable to forget it.  After a few weeks of uncertainty and great worry, everything I had come to Japan to do was cancelled, and so I cut my stay short and returned to the United States ahead of schedule.   As one way of working through the experience and my complicated feelings about returning to America, I began translating a number of poems about the quake and the resulting disasters, mostly poems written by poets whom I admire.  Most of those translations have been published in various journals, mostly online. 

Here is a collection of links to some of those translations.  Some appear with the original Japanese.  Most of the poems first appeared in the May 2011 special issue of Handbook of Contemporary Poetry 『現代詩手帖』dedicated to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.  Some were also published in a special section in the daily newspaper Asahi shinbun published in commemoration of the first anniversary of the quake.  Others were published in various magazines or newspapers, but still, these poems are only the tiniest tip of the iceberg.  There are thousands upon thousands more poems out there.

TANIKAWA Shuntarō: “Words” 

WAGŌ Ryōichi: Pebbles of Poetry (Part I)

TAKAHASHI Mutsuo: “These Things Here and Now”

YOSHIMASU Gōzō: “at the side (côtés) of poetry”

ITŌ Hiromi: “Cooking, Writing Poetry”

ARAI Takako: "Half a Pair of Shoes" and "Galapagos"

HIRATA Toshiko: “Do Not Tremble” and "Please"

TANAKA Yōsuke: “Screaming Potato Field”

OHSAKI Sayaka: “Noisy Animal”

Jeffrey ANGLES: “Return After Earthquake”

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.


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).

The poet WAGŌ Ryōichi 和合亮一, who was in the heart of the earthquake/tsunami zone on March 11, 2011, documented his experiences in a powerful and poetic Twitter feed, which quickly earned over 14,000 followers on Twitter.  He later published the feed under the title “Pebbles of Poetry” 「詩の礫」 in the journal Handbook of Contemporary Poetry 『現代詩手帖』。  Below is my translation of the early part of the work. 

Pebbles of Poetry (Excerpt)


The earthquake hit. I went to the emergency evacuation area, but things calmed down, so I returned to go to work. Thanks everyone for worrying about me. Your words of encouragement are greatly appreciated.

Today is the sixth day since the disaster. My ways of looking at and thinking about things have changed.

Everywhere I end up, there is nothing but tears. I want to write about this, writing with all the power of an Asura.

Radiation is falling. It is a quiet night.

What meaning could there be in harming us to this extent?

The meaning of all things is probably determined after the fact. If so, then what is the meaning of that period “after the fact”? Is there any meaning there at all?

What is this earthquake trying to teach us? If there is nothing it is trying to teach us, then what can we possibly have left to believe?

Radition is falling. It is a quiet, quiet night.

I was told that when I came back in from outside, I should wash my hair, hands, and face. We don’t have any water to wash ourselves.

I hear that no supplies have reached Minami Sōma, the city where I used to live. They say that’s because no one wants to go into the city. Please save Minami Sōma.

What does your homeland represent to you? I will not abandon my homeland. My homeland is everything to me.

They say the radioactivity isn’t enough to immediately cause abnormalities in our health. If we turn the word “immediately” around, does it become “eventually”? I am worried about my family’s health.

Maybe so. There are clear limits to things and to meaning. Perhaps that is what draws us away from meaning.

The day before yesterday, the corpses of a thousand people were washed onto the shores of Minami Sanriku, the same place that I used to like to go to from time to time to get away from the heat.

If we are to search for meaning in all of this, it is probably not meaning we would find but, rather, something close to the darkness of non-meaning—that temporary stillness lodged inside whenever we look directly at things, head on.

As I was writing this just now, the earth rumbled again. Everything shook. I held my breath, got on my knees, and watched the trembling until it was over. I am betting with my life. In the rain of radiation, I am all alone.

For a longer excerpt, please see the website of the Handbook of Contemporary Poetry.

Songs about the Great East Japan Earthquake

After the earthquake, the Japanese poet WAGŌ Ryōichi 和合亮一, who lives in the disaster zone, wrote about his experiences in short bursts of poetry using his Twitter feed.  The result was a daily diary in verse that documented his experiences during and after the quake, tsunami, and subsequent destruction of his home region.  The poetry journal Handbook of Contemporary Poetry 『現代詩手帖』 has collected these Twitter feeds and published them in their May 2011 issue under the title “Pebbles of Poetry” 「詩の礫」.  Over the last few weeks, this collection has been receiving a great deal of critical and public attention as Japan explores the psychological affects of the devastation.

The important Japanese composer NIIMI Tokuhide 新実徳英 has taken segments of “Pebbles of Poetry” and set them to music.  The result is a series of nine bittersweet songs called “Pebble Songs” 「つぶてソング」.  The composer himself made videos of the songs and loaded them to Youtube.  Here is the first of the nine songs. The rest of the songs can be found on the Youtube channel of his wife, the singer Niimi Minako 新実みなこ

Radioactive monster Godzilla stomps through a city and eats a commuter train in a scene from Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, directed by Ishiro Honda and Terry O. Morse. The 1956 film was a re-edited version of the 1954 Japanese film Gojira, directed by Honda.

Radioactive monster Godzilla stomps through a city and eats a commuter train in a scene from Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, directed by Ishiro Honda and Terry O. Morse. The 1956 film was a re-edited version of the 1954 Japanese film Gojira, directed by Honda.

Movie Mutants Give A Face To Our Nuclear Fears

Within the first few days of the threefold tragedy in Japan, Wikipedia trend-spotters noticed a startling spike in searches … for “Godzilla.”

It feels callow to be discussing popular culture at a moment when bodies are still being pulled from rubble, says Grady Hendrix, co-director of the New York Asian Film Festival. “The Godzilla movies don’t have anything to do with what’s going on now,” he says.

But Hendrix admits that those Wikipedia searches prove how much our perception of the world is shaped by cultural images. Still, he takes exception to the idea that you can infer something about Japan’s current catastrophe from a movie made almost 57 years ago.

Sure, he says, the Godzilla films are about radiation — from 1945, when the U.S. bombed Japan, twice. “And,” he adds, “what happened in 1954, when the U.S. detonated a thermonuclear device in the Bikini Atoll and irradiated a Japanese fishing boat.”

Hendrix says that incident was the main inspiration for the wave of Japanese mutant monster movies that followed.

But, notes historian Bill Tsutsui, Japan hardly has a corner on the genre. He points to Them!, a 1954 American movie about irradiated 8-foot-long ants that came out the same year as Godzilla.

Enlarge  Hulton Archive/Getty Images: The ghouls in the 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead were a byproduct of radioactive contamination.

"Radiation needed a face in the 1950s, and the giant ants in Them! and the monster in Godzilla provided a horrible external representation of what that could be,” Tsutsui says.

Tsutsui says people didn’t understand radiation in the 1950s. So the U.S. government enlisted Disney to assuage their concerns with the film Our Friend the Atom. Still, fears about radiation helped launch an entire genre of horror into the next decade.

The zombies in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead (called “ghouls” in the movie) were a byproduct of radiation. Lisa Lynch, a professor who studies nuclear culture, says until the end of the Cold War, fears about mutation were conflated with fears of radiation. Then, fear of global pandemics started to overshadow concern about radiation in popular culture.

"So all of a sudden you have these mutation movies," she says, citing films ranging from Outbreak (1995) to 28 Days Later (2002). “But they’re not radiation produced. They’re mutated viruses.”

Lynch says nuclear fears went in another direction, first about nuclear power plant accidents — like in Silkwood (1983) or The China Syndrome (1979). Today, the popular imagination is more concerned with acts of deliberate terrorism. “Hijacking nuclear power plants, stealing nuclear power plants, stealing fissionable material, dirty bombs,” Lynch explains.

But there’s also something about this moment that seems to resonate with a more heroic side of radiation — one imbued with midcentury optimism. Broadway’s most-discussed musical, after all, begins with a radioactive spider bite. And one of the summer’s most anticipated action movies is also based on a Marvel comics superhero whose powers come from radiation — Captain America.

Hollywood is even remaking Akira, a Japanese anime classic set in a nightmarish post-apocalyptic Tokyo after a nuclear explosion. (The Warner Bros. version is said to take place in New York.) Some of the characters are children given strange powers by radiation. Unlike Spider-Man or Captain America, they’re victims.

"When you make a movie, you’re able to say, ‘Hey, here’s something I’m scared of. Let me see what it’s like,’ " says Grady Hendrix. "When I visualize it, does it make me more scared? Less scared?"

Whatever it is, Hendrix says, he hopes Wikipedia searches for Godzilla don’t distract us from real human suffering and real human costs in Japan.

A whirlpool is seen near Oarai City, Ibaraki Prefecture, northeastern Japan, March 11, 2011. (REUTERS/Kyodo)

A whirlpool is seen near Oarai City, Ibaraki Prefecture, northeastern Japan, March 11, 2011. (REUTERS/Kyodo)