Japanese Poetry Since 1800 Analysis

Traditional Japanese Poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the long and powerful tradition of Japanese poetry continued to make possible the production of accomplished and moving poems in the great forms that had developed during various periods in the past: the thirty-one-syllable waka (also known astanka, the name by which the form is familiar to many Western readers), the seventeen-syllable haiku, and the more philosophical medium of kanshi, or poetry in Chinese, which permitted both greater length and the kind of philosophical abstraction that had long been deemed unsuitable for the shorter forms of classical Japanese verse. These traditions might well have ossified but for the spread of literacy and learning and the inspiration of Chinese poetry available from the continent, which made it possible to achieve new variations within old forms. For example, Kobayashi Yatar, known as Issa (1763-1827), a farmer from the mountainous countryside, had been able to create a style of haiku that could capture both the joys and the anguish of the plebeian world in which he lived, while kuma Kotomichi (1798-1868) extended the boundaries of waka to include an interest in human personality and psychology that gave his poems a strikingly modern flavor. Rai Sany (1780-1832), writing in Chinese, dealt with extremely diverse subject matter—including the presence of the Dutch in Nagasaki—in his lengthy and sometimes polemical poetry. The traditions of...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

First experiments

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Before it became possible to write effective poetry in the new forms, a period of experimentation was required. These experiments were undertaken by a variety of gifted poets and usually involved their attempts to translate Western poems into Japanese (a language itself moving quickly, under the influence of Western example, toward a closer alignment between the written and spoken forms than had ever before seemed possible). Their various enthusiasms assured that, by the first decade of the twentieth century, there would be examples in good modern Japanese of some of the finest examples of European and American poetry from all periods. These translated poems, in turn, inspired an efflorescence of high poetic accomplishment in the Japanese language that continues unabated today.

The first significant contribution to the acculturation of Japanese poetry appeared in 1882, when three Tokyo University professors, two of whom had studied in the United States, produced a series of fourteen translations and five poems of their own based on Western models. This small collection, the Shintaishisho (selection of new style verse), included a number of poems quite popular with nineteenth century English and American readers, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and “The Captain,” Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” as well as a few bits and...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

Changes in traditional forms

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The same influences that were to create the new forms in Japanese poetry also helped bring about enormous changes in the traditional forms. In fact, four of the most important poets of the modern period continued to write in the traditional modes, using the possibilities of personal involvement and fresh vocabulary that had opened up to them by the turn of the century. The first of these was the poet Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), who wrote both haiku and waka and did much to introduce the element of real and observed life into these forms. For Masaoka, the composition of poetry involved going out into nature to record what the poet himself could observe, and his principle of shasei, or “sketching from life,” brought new vigor and reality to traditional forms that had tended to be restricted to a fixed vocabulary and a narrow range of emotional attitudes. Yosano Akiko (1878-1942), a poet whose vibrancy recalls the women writers of the early classical period such as the waka poet Ono no Komachi (834-880), instead plumbed the depths of her own emotional responses to life in order to produce waka full of emotional force and sensual consciousness. In a somewhat similar vein, Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912) wrote waka that told unsparingly of himself, his moods, and his defeats. Toward the end of his short career, Takuboku also began to introduce an element of political consciousness into his poetry that gave him another important role in the development of the modern poetic consciousness.

Sait Mokichi (1882-1953) began his career as a doctor and studied neuropsychiatry in Vienna, yet he continued to make use of the waka form to record his intimate feelings and responses to the emotional complexities of his experiences. In the work of all of these writers, poetry became in a highly significant way an extension of their own...

(The entire section is 774 words.)

Japan and the European avant-garde

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Japanese free-style verse came of age with the publication of Hagiwara’s Howling at the Moon, a short book of poems, which, despite its debts to European Symbolism, revealed a mastery of colloquial language in the service of an authentic rendering of Hagiwara’s inner world—troubled, ironic, and highly colored. Hagiwara himself had never been abroad (“I thought I’d like to go to France,” he wrote in one of his poems; “France is too far away”). Howling at the Moon and the collections that followed contained poems filled with images that served as objective correlatives to elements in Hagiwara’s own neurotic sensibility. Some of these are drawn from nature (“blurred bamboo roots spreading”), some from his own imagination. The most famous poem in Howling at the Moon begins: “At the bottom of the ground a face emerging,/ a lonely invalid’s face emerging.”

Reading Hagiwara’s poetry while living in Europe, Nishiwaki Junsabur (1894-1982) realized that it might be possible after all to write poetry in Japanese rather than in English or French. Nishiwaki, who once described himself as a “beggar for Europe,” had decided that to participate in the creation of modern poetry, he would have to leave his homeland in order to shake off the weight of old traditions. Nishiwaki met Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot (he was later to become the definitive translator of Eliot’s works into Japanese) and began to publish in little magazines in London, but his encounter with Hagiwara’s revolutionary volume of poems brought him back to Japan and the beginnings of a genuine avant-garde movement there. Nishiwaki had become interested in Surrealism while in Europe and found a means to adapt for his own work that method of piercing through everyday reality (“like looking at a hole in a hedge into eternity,” he wrote). Nishiwaki’s difficult verse, filled with references to Blaise Pascal, Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Picasso, and other figures of European culture, represents the high tide of Japanese poetry in...

(The entire section is 838 words.)

War and postwar years

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The rich and sophisticated mix of poetry produced in the 1920’s and early 1930’s came to an end with the dark days leading up to World War II. Some poets, such as Hagiwara, retreated to the use of traditional forms; some, such as Takamura, wrote patriotic poetry. Cut off from European developments and beleaguered at home by a repressive government and the difficulties of everyday living, Japanese poets seemed to turn inward. It was not until the end of the war that new trends could develop. When they did, it was perhaps not surprising that, in the wake of the war and the destruction that it had caused, younger poets came to distrust their own cultural past, which in their view had permitted a complicity with Japanese war aims. For them, the Japanese past seemed tainted, and beginning in the 1950’s, poets looked again to Europe for their inspiration. In a sense, then, the war could be looked upon as an interruption in the internationalization of Japanese literature that had begun by the 1920’s. In the postwar period, however, the break with the past became more definite and often assumed political significance.

Two trends in particular characterized the immediate postwar years. Following the example of Nishiwaki, who remained an immensely powerful figure in literary circles, a number of younger poets drew on European poetry in their effort to create a new tradition for themselves out of the ruins of the past. Considering that time of despair, it is perhaps not so surprising that in 1947, Ayukawa Nobuo (1920-1986) and his colleagues formed a group they called Arechi (the wasteland), suggesting both the impact of Eliot and their own sense of destruction and hopelessness. Others, such as Yoshioka Minoru (born 1919), continued to develop highly idiosyncratic symbolism and poetic forms that call to mind the commitment to the expanding mechanisms of language first undertaken by Nishiwaki. In the work of writers such as these, the legacy of European experimentation was still predominant.

A second trend placed a number of poets in the role of social critics who used the insights of the lyric mode to deepen and intensify their critique of postwar society. In this position, they had a powerful predecessor in the figure of Takuboku, who toward the end of his life had become increasingly wary of what he took to be reactionary trends in the development of the Japanese government and had begun to write poems that expressed his interest in socialism, even anarchism. Among the postwar poets...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)

Late twentieth century onward

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In more recent decades, it has become more difficult to make any definitive generalizations about poetic practice, as the quantity and diversity of poetry published, both in traditional and contemporary forms, remain enormous. It is perhaps too early for the reputations of younger writers to be settled in the minds of the multitude of readers attracted to poetry. In the midst of such continuing vitality, the increasing prominence of women poets, among them Tada Chimako (1930-2003), Shinkawa Kazue (born 1929), and Yoshihara Sachiko (born 1932) is an important and welcome development. A range of new themes have also become possible, as the high reputation of Takahashi Mutsuo (born 1937), a poet dealing extensively with homosexuality,...

(The entire section is 1207 words.)


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Beichman, Janine. Embracing the Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry. Illustrated edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002. A study of the early life and work of Yosano Akiko, whose first book, Midaregami (1901; Tangled Hair, 1935, 1971), radically changed tanka poetry and became a modern classic. The author has included her own masterful translations of poems by Yosano and her contemporaries. Bibliographical references and index.

Bownas, Geoffrey, and Anthony Thwaite, eds. and trans. The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse. Rev. ed. London: Penguin...

(The entire section is 591 words.)