Miyazawa Kenji

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Miyazawa Kenji: Selections offers new translations by Hiroaki Sato of the poems of one of Japan’s most celebrated early twentieth century poets. Even though Kenji Miyazawa published just one anthology of his poetry during his lifetime, Haru to shura (1924; spring and asura), the efforts of his friends to publish his works after his death assured him a place in the canon of contemporary Japanese poetry.

The English-speaking reader who encounters the poetry of Kenji Miyazawa for the first time in this anthology is struck quickly by Miyazawa’s modernism. Miyazawa deftly combines classical Japanese themes and Buddhist beliefs with images and words taken from the industrial age that entered Japan in force by the later years of the Meiji era (1868-1912) when Miyazawa was a boy. Thus “Proem” opens with a modern view of the fragility of the self: “The phenomenon called ‘I’/ is a blue illumination/ of the hypothesized, organic alternating current lamp” that also casts flickering landscapes and creates a whole universe that may be nothing but an illusion of the mind. The modern image of an electric lamp is complemented further by the persona’s use of scientific geological and meteorological terms such as “the glittering frozen nitrogen/ at the top stratum of the atmosphere” that contributes to his observed reality.

“Spring and Asura,” the popular title poem of Miyazawa’s sole lifetime anthology, presents the persona as “Asura incarnate” who is “spitting, gnashing, pacing back and forth.” As Hiroaki Sato’s excellent introduction tells the reader, an Asura is a Buddhist demon who loves to quarrel. An Asura lives just below the realm of the humans in Buddhist cosmology. Japanese critics have stated that for Miyazawa, the world of the Asura most closely resembles that of real life full of war and struggle, where Buddhist compassion is needed most.

Though even what the Buddha spoke is absent in his world for now, for “(the True Words are not here,/ Asura’s tears fall on the earth),” Miyazawa’s Asura uses his eyes to observe a world that takes scant notice of him. Life can be a struggle in Miyazawa’s poems, but like the angry and sad little Asura, humanity is well advised to persist. The spiritual reward may be such life-affirming visions as that described in the optimistic poem “Daybreak.” Reflecting on a winter sunrise, the persona observes, “The rolling snow/ gets bright peach juice poured into it” as darkness recedes.

The cycle of poems written on November 27, 1922, the day Miyazawa’s beloved sister Toshiko died from tuberculosis, “The Morning of the Last Farewell,” “Pine Needles,” and “Voiceless Grief” as well as the later “White Birds” are among to the most moving elegies of modern Japanese poetry. The first poem opens with the haunting realization of the persona that “Before the day ends/ you will be far away, my sister.” After observing the incongruity of brightness on a dark November day with sleet falling, the poet interjects the voice of Toshiko in brackets as she asks her brother for a last favor: “(Please get me some rain-snow).”

As the persona obliges this request that is repeated as a motif later throughout the poem, he gathers “two chipped ceramic bowls/ with blue water-shield designs” to gather the sleet. He approaches a snow-laden pine branch to gather drops of snow that, like Toshiko lingering in the state between life and death, “maintain the pure-white two-phase system of snow and water.” Again, Miyazawa intersperses modern scientific terms into his poetry before giving expression to the paradox that “From that terrifying, disturbed sky/ this beautiful snow has come.” Similarly, in Buddhism, death can be occasion for achieving heavenly happiness beyond all suffering. This is exactly what the persona wishes for his sister to achieve at the end of the poem.

With “Pine Needles,” the next poem of the Toshiko cycle, as is the case with other key poems of this anthology, Sato chose to juxtapose some of his own translations of Miyazawa’s poems with previous ones, most often those by American poet Gary Snyder done in the early 1960’s. This technique calls the reader’s attention to the fact that any translation, and especially that of poetry, remains a somewhat subjective act.

What Snyder rendered as “some raindrops still clinging/ I brought you these pine boughs” for Miyazawa’s opening lines, Sato translated as “Here’s the beautiful pine branch/ I took the sleet from.” While the next lines show more convergence with Snyder’s “you look like you’d jump up/ & put your hot cheek against this green” and Sato’s “Oh, you almost leap to it/ pressing your hot cheeks to its green...

(The entire section is 1960 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 18 (May 15, 2007): 16.