Sakutarō Hagiwara Essay - Critical Essays

Hagiwara, Sakutarō


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.

Principal Works


Tsuki ni hoeru [Howling at the Moon] 1917

Aoneko [The Blue Cat] 1923

Chō yumemu [Dreaming of Butterflies] 1924

Junjo shokyoku shu [Collection of Short Songs on Innocent Love] 1925

Hyōtō [The Iceland] 1934

Shikumei [Destiny] 1939

Face at the Bottom of the World, and Other Poems 1969

Other Major Works

Shi no genri (criticism) 1928

Nekomachi [Cat Town] (short story) 1935

Kyoshu no shijin Yosa Buson (criticism) 1936


Donald K. Shults (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Hagiwara Sakutarō's Fitzgerald," in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 47, No. 2, Summer, 1973, pp. 174-77.

[In the following essay, Shults reviews Graeme Wilson's translation of Hagiwara's poetry in The Face at the Bottom of the World, and Other Poems.]

To most of us the dark vault of Asian literature would remain forever locked without the work of such men as the aviation expert, diplomat, scholar Graeme Wilson, one of that small band of occidentals literate in Japanese, a language that is often difficult even to those whose native tongue it is.

"Perhaps our greatest modern poet," said one Japanese scholar when asked about Sakutarō's work, "but...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)

Reiko Tsukimura (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Hagiwara Sakutarō and the Japanese Lyric Tradition," in Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, Vol 11, No. 1, January, 1976, pp. 47-63.

[In the following essay, Tsukimura provides an analysis of Hagiwara's poetic techniques.]

Hagiwara Sakutarō had published over 200 tanka before he began his career as a poet writing in the free modern style at the age of twenty-seven. His earliest published compositions are five poems in the tanka form which appeared in 1902 under the general title "One Night's Bond" ("Hitoyo enishi") in the alumni magazine of the Maebashi Middle School where he was then a third-year student. In them, the young Hagiwara...

(The entire section is 3737 words.)

Hiroaki Sato (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Introduction to Howling at the Moon: Poems of Hagiwara Sakutarō, pp. xi-xxvi. Tokyo: University of Tokyo, 1978.

[In the following essay, Sato offers an overview of Hagiwara's development as a poet.]

Hagiwara Sakutarō was born the first son of a prosperous physician in Maebashi, Gumma. Toward the end of his life Sakutarō described his birthplace as a "sanguinary, barbarous blank-paper zone utterly devoid of any cultural tradition," but to be fairer to reality, it was a place close enough to Tokyo for him to go there as he liked, yet far enough for him to yearn for "the city" until he finally moved there to live. Traditionally, the first son enjoys most of the...

(The entire section is 4051 words.)

Donald Keene (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Taisho Period (1912-1926)," in Dawn to the West, Japanese Literature of the Modern Era: Poetry, Drama, Criticism, Vol. 25, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984, pp. 255-91.

[In the following excerpt, Keene discusses the emotional characteristics of Hagiwara's poetry and his innovative use of colloquial language.]

Hagiwara is by common consent the chief figure of modern Japanese poetry. He is not an easy poet, and the exact interpretations of many works elude the exegesis of even his most devoted admirers, but his work both commands the respect of other poets and critics and is popular with the general public. The novelist and poet Fukunaga Takehiko gave a...

(The entire section is 5107 words.)

Further Reading

Ueda, Makoto. "Hagiwara Sakutarō." In his Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, pp. 137-83. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983.

Examines the concept of poetry that Hagiwara advanced in his theoretical writings and analyzes his works within this critical framework.

Wilson, Graeme. Introduction to Face at the Bottom of the World, and Other Poems by Hagiwara Sakutarō, pp. 11-32. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1969.

Discusses Hagiwara's contributions to modern Japanese poetry, noting the influences of European philosophy on his works and his success at integrating western...

(The entire section is 129 words.)