Nishiwaki Junzaburō Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

Nishiwaki Junzaburō 1894–1982

Japanese poet, essayist, and critic.

A scholar of medieval English literature, Japanese poet Nishiwaki is recognized for introducing literary modernism in Japan with the publication of his poetry collection Ambarvalia. Fluent in Latin, Greek, German, French, and English, Nishiwaki translated many works of Western literature into Japanese, including Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. A devoted English professor for nearly sixty years, Nishiwaki was also a primary proponent of English literary scholarship at Japanese universities. In Donald Keene's estimation Nishiwaki "has probably exercised the greatest influence of any Japanese poet of the post-1945 generation."

Biographical Information

Born January 20, 1894 in Ojiya, Japan, Nishiwaki went to Tokyo in 1911 to pursue painting, but instead studied economics at Keiō University. Upon graduation in 1917 he had a brief stint writing for the English-language periodical Japan Times. In 1920 he began teaching in the English department at his alma mater. Two years later, Nishiwaki had the opportunity to travel to Oxford, England, where he studied Old and Middle English literature. Here, he became acquainted with the modernist writing and aesthetic theories of Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and French surrealist poet André Breton; he also published his first poetry collection, Spectrum (1925). Nishiwaki returned to Japan in late 1925 and began his lifelong work as an English professor at Keiō University the next year. Between 1928 and 1931 he regularly contributed essays and poetry to the influential avant-garde literary journal Shi to Shiron, which he used to launch Surrealism in Japanese verse. In 1933 Nishiwaki was hailed as a new kind of Japanese poet with the publication of Ambarvalia. He continued his English literary studies through the 1930s, but during World War II he stopped writing to protest the fascist policies of Japan. Nishiwaki broke his silence in 1947 when he published Tabibito kaerazu (No Traveller Returns), which marked a departure from his earlier poetry. He published several more books of poetry and English literary scholarship during his lifetime, and he was named Person of Cultural Merit in Japan in 1971. He died June 5, 1982 in Ojiya.

Major Works

Nishiwaki's poetic debut, the disjointed and allusive Spectrum, was written in English and shows the influence of Eliot's early poetry. Nishiwaki published his first volume

of poems in Japanese under the Latin title Ambarvalia, which denotes the pagan springtime crop processions. The modernist language of Ambarvalia revolutionized Japanese poetics with its free associations and its surrealistic, convoluted verse. Nishiwaki's next book of Japanese poetry, No Traveller Returns, represents a transformation of his poetic language. Comprised of longer narrative poems, this collection turns to Eastern poetics with its primary concern of transience and the culture of his native Japan. Other notable verse collections include Kundai no gûwa (1953), Raiki (1967; Record of Rites), Jûka (1969), and Jinrui (1979). In addition, Nishiwaki published a study of William Langland, an introduction to Old English literature, and criticism on Charles Beaudelaire, among many other prose works.

Critical Reception

Despite publishing some poetry in English, Nishiwaki is relatively unknown among English-speaking readers. Revered in Japan, Nishiwaki "has been widely acclaimed as the founder and teacher of a modern Japanese poetry of the world," according to Keene. Critics have commented on the European influences in Nishiwaki's Japanese poetry, which has led others to question the "Japaneseness" of his canon, particularly of his later poetry. For instance, Hosea Hirata suggested that Nishiwaki appropriated both Japanese and Western literary history in his No Traveller Returns to construct the text's "Japaneseness." Hirata, perhaps the leading English-speaking critic of Nishiwaki's work, has also studied the "translatory" nature of Nishiwaki's poetic language in Ambarvalia and the similarities between Nishiwaki's theoretical writings and those of French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida.