Sakutarō Hagiwara Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

Hagiwara Sakutarō 1886–1942

Japanese poet, critic, and essayist.

Hagiwara is considered by many critics to be the father of modern Japanese poetry. He was among the first poets to break away from the traditional, strictly metered forms of Japanese poetry as practiced in the writing of tanka and haiku. He also established a new aesthetic in Japanese poetry in which he attained a sustained poetic lyricism by using colloquial Japanese speech in free-verse poems. Hagiwara was deeply influenced by European nihilistic philosophies, and his poems, which often center on existential anxiety, are pervaded by melancholy and nostalgia.

Biographical Information

Hagiwara was born into a middle-class family in the provincial town of Maebashi, where his father was a successful physician. While in middle school he took a keen interest in literature and began submitting traditional tanka poems to the literary magazine Bunko. He later withdrew from school due to poor health, and he made sporadic attempts to earn his high school degree into his twenties. At home Hagiwara devoted himself to poetry and the study of Japanese and European literature. He also had an aptitude for music and became accomplished on mandolin and guitar. By 1910 Hagiwara had become a regular contributor to several poetry journals. He spent several years living a somewhat bohemian life, drifting between his hometown and Tokyo. During this time he explored his interest in Western philosophy and literature, and for a brief period he attended Christian churches. His lifestyle drew criticism from the Maebashi bourgeoisie, and his poetry includes many spiteful remarks about his native community. In 1916 he cofounded the magazine Kanjo with Muro Saisei, an author whose poems he greatly admired. The magazine featured a new style of modern Japanese poetry that was distinct from the highly intellectual poems that other magazines of the day were publishing. The following year Hagiwara published his first poetry collection, Tsuki ni hoeru (Howling at the Moon). The collection, which introduced Hagiwara's extraordinary talent for using colloquial speech in a free-verse style, gained wide critical acclaim and established his reputation as a significant new voice in Japanese poetry. He followed this success with several more volumes of poetry, criticism, and literary theory. Despite his high standing in the world of Japanese letters, Hagiwara relied on his family for financial support throughout his life. In 1919 he married Uedo Ineko, with whom he had two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1929. His second marriage, to Oya Mitsuko in 1938, lasted only eighteen months. Much of Hagiwara's poetry conveys the isolation and loneliness that he felt, and his later works, particularly the poems in his 1934 collection Hyoto, are characterized by an increasingly despondent and nostalgic tone. He taught at the University of Meiji in Tokyo from 1934 until his death in 1942.

Major Works

Hagiwara's first poetry collection, Howling at the Moon, had a wide and immediate impact on the Japanese literary community. Although the collection contains some traditional tanka, many of the poems use colloquial language and are written in a loose, unmetered form. Hagiwara's success at elevating common Japanese speech to a poetic form was unprecedented. In this volume, commentators noted, Hagiwara essentially created a new aesthetic in modern Japanese poetry. In the preface to the work Hagiwara wrote: "Before this collection not a single poem had been written in colloquial language of this style, and before this collection the animation in the poetry one senses today did not exist." Critics also note that the poems in Howling at the Moon were among the first in modern Japanese poetry to address questions of existential anxiety. In the title piece Hagiwara likened the desperate psychological state of humanity to a lonely dog plaintively wailing at the moon. Throughout the collection Hagiwara created characters who are ridden with despair. Hagiwara's second collection of poems, Aoneko, achieved even greater critical acclaim than his first. The poems in this volume reveal Hagiwara's personal interest in the nihilistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and the pessimistic ideology of Buddhism. The collection centers on abstract, metaphysical themes in which characters are nostalgic for times and places that they have never experienced. Hagiwara published a second "definitive" edition of this volume in 1936, in which he included the poem "The Corpse of a Blue Cat." The piece is a sad and nostalgic love poem in which time and memory are displaced. In it, the speaker says, "We have no past, no future, / And have faded away from the things of reality." Hagiwara's last major collection of poetry, Hyoto (1934), received mixed critical reviews. In this volume, Hagiwara abandoned his innovative use of colloquial Japanese and returned to writing in a more formal language in metered verse. The poems in the volume are set in a more realistic context, and they convey an over-whelming sense of despair and bitterness. In the autobiographical poem "Returning to My Parents' Home," for example, Hagiwara recounted the anger and rejection that he felt after his first wife left him. In addition to his poetry, Hagiwara was widely respected for his volumes on poetic theory. His most noted theoretical work, Shi no genri (1928), laid out his conception of what he contended should be the principal aims of poetry. In aphoristic statements Hagiwara asserted that poetry should strive to convey transcendental themes and be critical of reality.

Critical Reception

Critics agree that Hagiwara's poetry profoundly changed the face of modern Japanese poetry. His use of vernacular Japanese demonstrated that the language of the people could also be a poetic language, full of artistic depth and resonance. While other poets had attempted to write in the vernacular, the effect had always been that of everyday speech. It took Hagiwara's skillful use of words to prove that vernacular Japanese could in fact be used artistically in verse. His first collection, Tsuki ni hoeru (Howling at the Moon), met with enthusiastic critical acclaim and was recognized as a thoroughly modern expression of fear, a fear that Hagiwara described as a "physiological fear" that threat ens man's mental well-being. Another important contribution to modern Japanese poetry was his successful creation of a body of poetry motivated by the existential angst of a modern individual. Greatly influenced by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Hagiwara embodied the Western attitude of pessimism and despair. The bleak poetry of Howling at the Moon and Aoneho represented the first instance of Japanese poetry imitating modern Western philosophical ideas. His interest in free verse and colloquial language represented a watershed in modern Japanese poetry, and irrevocably brought the Japanese poetic tradition closer stylistically and philosophically to that of Western literature.