Tag Archives: Japanese

Poetry of Arechi. Ryuichi Tamura.

Poetry of Arechi. Ryuichi Tamura.

Vanishing…. October 12, 2000

For Japan and its writers, the modern darkness deepens during the period of military fascism and World War II. With the defeat and unconditional surrender, immense shock waves rocked the entire culture calling into question the pseudo-Shinto and Confucian values Japan had based its society on for almost a century. As writers returned from one front or another of the war, they found a Japan devastated by the Allied bombing. Maebashi, for instance, where I lived for a few years, was reduced to rubble along with its bridges. Before long, the entire country was restructured by the Occupation. Japanese writers now understood much more deeply the experience of the Western World War I generation. Better than any other postwar poet, Tamura Ryuichi (1923-1998) registers, since his own hometown in the suburbs of Tokyo no longer existed, the shock and disorientation of the modern Japanese psyche. Briefly a student of Hagiwara Sakutaro, Tamura had little interest in classical Japanese poetry, which emphasized the unity of man and nature, but read widely in Western literature and was especially influenced by T. S. Eliot, Steven Spender, C. Day Lewis, and W. H. Auden, the last of whom Tamura eventually met in New York in 1971. In a literary magazine called Arechi or “wasteland,” Tamura and other postwar poets gave voice to the despair and horror they felt, unequivocally stating, in an early manifesto, “The present is a wasteland.” The first poem in which Tamura finds his true voice and distance from his material is the prose poem “Etching,” published in 1956:

Now he sees a landscape he saw in a German etching it appears to be an aerial view of an ancient city between twilight and darkness or a realistic drawing of a modern-day cliff being taken from midnight toward dawn This man the one I began to describe killed his father when he was young that autumn his mother went beautifully insane (tr. Christopher Drake)

The critic Ikuko Atsumi has said of this poem that it aims at a universal vision of East and West, ancient and modern. The extreme nationalism of the Japanese fascists now defeated, the “he” can view the fullness or “landscape” of Western culture, specifically German, declining into “darkness” or rising as “a modern-day cliff,” ominous, dehumanized, marked by loss and angst. Atsumi suggests the father “possibly refers to the emperor system in Japan, and the mother he made beautifully insane to Japan’s aesthetic consciousness.” Like the West, the East too descended into a wasteland of madness and violence, the ancient now discredited and rendered nugatory. This is the “Etching” come to light, etched into Tamura’s consciousness and all postwar Japanese writers of worth. Blending together the perspective of the subjective “I” and objective “he,” aware of the horror, Tamura introduces into Japanese poetry a voice of detachment, observing life outside his own personal existence with meditative restraint, seeking a deeper understanding of modern human experience.

Having known and read Tamura’s work for more than fifteen years, I have often thought of him as akin somehow to Robert Lowell. He has a memory of Japan’s past that he never idealizes, but works with and probes it, pondering always without sentimentality the modern and by-gone days. Like Lowell and so many postmodern Western poets, Tamura also goes through a time of fairly formalistic writing, but he seems to outgrow it and returns to engaging universal experience outside his own little personal consciousness. Many other Japanese poets, as in the United States, are still stuck in such solipsism. Saigyo and Basho both believed poetry must consider the transcendent and involve conceptual knowledge outside the self, not merely aesthetic formalism. As late as 1982, in what is one of his greatest poems, “Spiral Cliff,” Tamura looks soberly at modern world history. After the speaker reflects on a photograph of a deer “falling off a cliff” and wonders “what’s after it,” he says,

Our century ends without decadence/ after the night and fog of Nazi gas chambers/ after Soviet forced labor camps/ after two U.S. atomic bombs on Japan/ there’s no thrill left in killing,/ no fear of the soul, no crime in adultery. . . .

In “our century,” the values requisite for perceiving and defining “decadence” have disappeared, “crime and evil disconnected,” all restraining sense of the soul lost. As a result, unimaginable horror has been perpetrated in every region of the globe on an appalling scale affecting both the social and individual realms. Like a roller coaster, “our century ends on pure speed.” Recalling the photo of the deer, he thinks,

I’m afraid of high places/ the cliff in me/ am I the hunter/ or the prey?

The “high places” are both those of earlier mentioned “boardrooms / of huge corporations,” East and West, in a manner reminiscent of Kaneko Mitsuharu’s Book of Mud, and the “modern-day cliff” of confusion, now “the cliff in me.” The ambiguity of the question “am I the hunter / or the prey?” acknowledges the complexity of modern life where all are somehow complicitous in human tragedy. Terrified by “blank paper,” by “what dreams will live and die there,” Tamura accepts the writer’s obligation to struggle for values worthy of all human beings, not just Japanese.

Next in dream half nightmare, he sees his own inner cliff protruding “between dreams / spiraling” down. Waking in the dawn, lying horizontally across the bed, he reads the morning newspaper full of massacre and civil war:

Vanishing/ cliff dream/ vertical dream/ elementally/ Gone

All the dreams have vanished as off the edge of a cliff. Vertical dreams have been replaced by the horizontal, exactly the information that fills the newspaper. Like the best of modern writers, W. H. Auden or Robert Lowell, Tamura has the honesty and strength of intellect and spirit to recognize it is all “gone.” I believe his vision of modern life and Japan is true, for it has been my own experience, lived not only in Japan but also in the United States, where “without decadence” the culture sinks to ever more dehumanized levels of violence, depravity, and social fragmentation. The importance of  Ryuichi Tamura’s poetry has not been sufficiently recognized in the West, nor in Japan.

Frederick Glaysher



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Silent Cry. Kenzaburo Oe.

Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzaburo Oe

The Silent Cry: A Novel. Kenzaburo Oe.

The Global Cry…. June 24, 2000

Let me discuss “The Silent Cry” and Kenzaburo Oe’s work in general by first sketching in a broader view of Kenzaburo Oe’s literary interests.

No other Japanese writer has seen as deeply into Yukio Mishima’s suicide and the “vacuum” of modern Japanese life as has the 1994 Nobel laureate in literature, Kenzaburo Oe:

“His death was a performance for the foreign audience, a very spectacular performance. The relationship between Mishima and the emperor system was rather dubious; the Japanese knew that. But from foreigners’ point of view–say, an American reader’s point of view–the Japanese emperor system is something inexplicable. Therefore, that final act by Mishima, tied in with the emperor system, appeared to be a kind of mystical thing. In actuality, he did it in order to entertain foreign readers.”

As in this excerpt from a 1986 interview, Oe, also influenced early on by Marxism and existentialism, especially Sartre, has had the vision and strength to confront in his writing not only the nostalgia of Mishima but also the past and present implications of the emperor system for Japan. In 1971 his novella “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears,” written just after Mishima’s suicide, courageously explores the nature and meaning of emperor worship. Having known Japanese students and friends who fiercely supported the emperor, loathed him, or were simply indifferent, with most falling into the last category, I believe it may be difficult for Americans to appreciate fully the scope of Oe’s achievement in this novella. Oe tried to convey the challenge of his theme when he wrote in an essay, “A man who criticises Mishima and his works must have the determination to criticise the total culture that orients itself toward the Imperial hierarchy.” Far from falling short of this determination, Oe creatively confronts the Japanese fascist and wartime past in “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears” and thereby truly serves the Japanese people and, I would argue, the emperor as well.

Oe grew up in a small village on the island of Shikoku where the events of “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears” and many of his stories take place. While in a Tokyo hospital dying of cancer, the persona narrates the densely complicated events of his father’s fervent devotion to the emperor, filtered through his own consciousness as a child and a mentally unbalanced adult recalling his “happy days.” His Japanese mother, who grew up in China, and whose own father was involved in the Daigaku Incident of 1910-11, an attempt to assassinate the emperor, believes her son has never been mentally stable since the age of three. Lying in his hospital bed, he recalls “hate-filled exchanges” between his mother and father about the role of his grandfather. Later in his life, she had always refused to discuss anything with her son about his father, a military official who returned from Manchuria a few years before the end of the war and who died attempting to lead an uprising in support of the emperor after his 1945 announcement of surrender on the radio. Respected by the village people, the father, suffering from cancer, secludes himself in the family storehouse. For the boy observing his father, he becomes a “kind of idol,” obedient to the emperor. After his older brother deserts in Manchuria, the boy shouts in defiance at his mother, “I don’t have no traitor’s blood in my veins”:

“Even now he could recall, with extreme vividness and reality . . . wanting to shout Long live the emperor! so that [his father] would acknowledge that it was his young son who was the true heir to his blood.”

Oe slowly leads the reader to the realization that the young boy has grown up to repeat the obsessions of the father, destroying himself in the process. When the mother, “a simple old country woman,” visits him as a thirty-five year old adult in the hospital, she struggles to no avail to get him to recognize what an absurd, cowardly figure his father actually was, while cancer literally and symbolically continues to eat him up. Near the end she says to the persona’s wife, whose own marriage and life have been ruined, “Sooner or later the Japanese are going to change their attitude about what happened, and I intend to live to see it, yessir! THIS IS THE DREAM. THIS MUST BE THE DREAM!” This is clearly the dream of Oe and many Japanese. He more than any other modern Japanese writer has had the courage to write fiction that might help Japan to accomplish it.

Also set mostly in Shikoku, The Silent Cry (1967), presents two brothers who return to their country village nestled in a valley. Although a dialectical struggle takes place between them, reminiscent of Dostoevski’s Brothers Karamazov, the older brother Mitsusaboro is the central figure of the novel, which is told from his point of view. In the opening paragraph, Mitsusaboro thinks to himself,

“Awakening in the predawn darkness, I grope among the anguished remnants of dreams that linger in my consciousness, in search of some ardent sense of expectation. Seeking in the tremulous hope of finding eager expectancy reviving in the innermost recesses of my being . . . still I find an endless nothing.”

He crawls into a hole dug for a septic tank and claws at the sides with his bare fingers trying to get the walls to cave in on himself. At the end of the summer his best friend, who had been injured in front of the Diet demonstrating against the Japan-US Mutual Security Treaty, had painted his head red, stuck a raw cucumber up the anus of his naked body, and hung himself. Mitsusaboro reflects, “And I too have the seeds of that same, incurable madness. . . .” Beginning in the hole, haunted by despair, madness, and nihilism, he gropes and searches throughout the novel for something worth living for. At dawn sticking his head up “two inches above the ground,” he notices,

“the backs of the dogwood leaves were a burning red… a red that reminded me of the flames in the picture of hell that I’d seen in our village temple every year on the Buddha’s Birthday. . . .

Frederick Glaysher


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Woman in the Dunes. Kobo Abe.

Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes. Kobo Abe.

The Shifting Sands of Modernity…. June 24, 2000

Shortly after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 narrative writing became heavily influenced by Western literature. Although there are many excellent early fiction writers and those who, like Junichiro Tanizaki and Yasunari Kawabata, tend to reflect more traditional aesthetics, or those of the “I-novel,” Kobo Abe (1924-1993), a Marxist, is the first significantly modern Japanese novelist. His childhood in Manchuria helped him to look harder and more objectively than other writers at modern Japanese life, particularly in Tokyo, where Abe lived the rest of his life, while his growing up in Manchuria surely added to the sense of alienation that pervades his work. His early stories following World War II already express a profoundly existentialist angst and absurdity that has often led to his being compared to Kafka, Camus, Sartre, or Samuel Beckett. To my mind, though, it is precisely the fact that Abe is Japanese that is important and to view him as a mere imitator of the West would be a mistake. Rather than casting his experience into Kafkaesque terms, he is responding to his own experience of modern Japanese life. I believe Westerners need to think deeply about what that means for modern Japan, especially those dreamy Westerners who romantically idealize the traditional image of medieval Japan, as though it still exists.

In the short story “Magic Chalk” (1950), Abe tells the tale of “a poor artist named Argon.” Flat broke and starving, Argon discovers in his shabby apartment a piece of red chalk with which he mindlessly draws pictures of food and dishes on the wall. Falling asleep, he groans, “I’ve got to eat!” Suddenly, he is awakened by the sound of food and crockery crashing to the floor: “The pictures he had chalked on the wall had vanished.” Seeing food all around, he eats his fill and reflects, “the laws of the universe have changed.” He then draws a bed, since he lacks one, as well as other furniture and food. The realization hits him that he can create an entirely new world and spends four weeks contemplating just how to do it. Driven to despair by the burdensome responsibility, he finally decides merely to draw a door to the new world, but upon opening it finds, “an awesome wasteland glaring in the noonday sun.” He would have “to draw the world all over again” and begins with Eve, “stark naked,” to whom he identifies himself as Adam and “also an artist, and a world planner.” Eve, however, borrows his chalk, draws a gun, and shoots him. Other people in the building hear the gunshot: “By the time they ran in, Argon had been completely absorbed into the wall and had become a picture”:

“After everyone left, there came a murmuring from the wall. ’it isn’t chalk that will remake the world . . .’ A single drop welled out of the wall. It fell from just below the eye of the pictorial Argon.” (tr. Alison Kibrick)

Writing shortly after World War II, Abe understands modern Japan has lost something of immense value, and a mere artist can not replace it.

In Kobo Abe’s masterpiece The Woman in the Dune (1962), the protagonist Niki Jumpei, an amateur entomologist, travels to the seaside to collect specimens. He happens on a village built in the midst of the dunes with houses at the bottom of huge craters or cavities of sand. Peering down into one of the cavities at a small house “submerged in silence,” he muses, “no matter what they did . . . there was no escaping the law of the sand.” This “law” soon becomes clear when village men trick him into going sixty feet down in a cavity to spend the night at an old woman’s house. Before long, he realizes that there is probably no way to get back out. The “ceaselessly flowing sand,” “this shapeless, destructive power,” which “had no form” of its own, was continually pouring down on the little house threatening to destroy it and bury its occupants alive. Every night the woman shovels sand into baskets which the village men haul up by rope and carry away, just enough to prevent their suffocation. Watching her, Niki Jumpei remarks, “you’ll never finish, no matter how long you work at it.” Later, the narrator explains, “the only certain factor was its movement; sand was the antithesis of all form.” Despite his many appeals for help from the village men, the village benefits from the sand being fought back and they refuse to permit him to leave.

The men, however, are careful to provide the woman and man with the necessities of life as long as they continue to perform the nightly work of clearing back the everdrifting sand of reality, for the sand is manifestly symbolic. Upon his request, they even give Jumpei a newspaper. Reading the usual headlines of political, business, and domestic crimes and intrigues, Jumpei thinks,

“There wasn’t a single item of importance. A tower of illusion, all of it, made of illusory bricks and full of holes. . . . And so everybody, knowing the meaninglessness of existence, sets the center of his compass at his own home.”

This “illusion” is not the illusion of Buddhism, the floating world of Genji symbolizing a world of spiritual import. It is the illusion of everyday life through which the nihilist sees “the meaningless of existence,” at last confronted, the real truth of human experience. “The world,” Abe has Jumpei say in a simile, “is like sand.” Modern Japanese writers have found the transition easy to make from the illusion of samsara to the illusion of nihilism which is quotidian reality. Similarly, the old woman turns out not to be so old after all, and Jumpei learns social customs are merely illusions too, as he rapes her brutally and repeatedly while she at times enjoys or submits to it. When the opportunity for escape finally comes, drained of all inner meaning, strength, and purpose, he no longer has the will to leave.

In the story “Beyond the Curve” (1966), Abe writes about a man who, while climbing up a hill, comes to a halt before a curve in the road:

“For the life of me, I couldn’t visualize what lay beyond the curve. . . . I knew perfectly well that beyond the curve was the town on the hilltop where I lived. My temporary lapse of memory in no way altered the fact of its existence.”

He stands there agonizing in his mind about what might or ought to be around the curve until he is overcome by anxiety, fearing “the town’s very existence would fade away and then vanish.” He considers, “I myself was no longer myself, but some mysterious other.” Nausea overtakes him. He manages to turn around and walk back down the hill. His “old confidence was gone.” Taking refuge in a coffee shop, he wonders, no longer sure, who he is since he has forgotten his name and where he works. Frantically fumbling with the contents of his wallet and pockets, looking for clues, he realizes, “I had mislaid . . . myself.” Abe expresses here not only the universally modern sense of existential void but especially the Japanese fear of the loss of traditional identity under the onslaught of modernity. Abe’s persona significantly and desperately says, “Until I found that town beyond the curve, there could be no resolution.” And so it is for modern Japan. He takes a taxi up the hill, beyond the curve:

“Spatially, the town had a solid physical existence, but temporally, it was a vacuum. It existed–yet horribly, it had no existence whatever . . . the town I knew was gone.”

Though seeking answers from others, he “alone was lost, uncomprehending.” Physically, materially, like the West, Japan exists; in terms of social or psychological time, the “vacuum,” quintessentially the same as in the West, has swallowed everything: “The town I knew was gone.” What lies beyond the curve, if anything, remains to be seen.

Frederick Glaysher


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