Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women
Introduction & translations by Sawako Nakayasu
Additional translations by Cole Swensen, Ryoko Sekiguchi, Chet Wiener, Yu Nakai & Malinda Markham
Kiriu Minashita was born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1970. Since beginning her poetic activities around the year 2000, she has come to be acknowledged as one of the representative poets of the "00 generation." After receiving the Gendaishitecho Prize in 2003, she published her first collection of poetry, Sonic Peace, in 2005. The same book was awarded the Nakahara Chuya prize in 2006, also having been nominated for the H-Prize. In 2007, her second book of poetry, Border Z was published through Shichosha’s New Poets series. In addition to poetry, Minashita is known for extensive critical writings on literature, as well as numerous academic papers concerning topics such as health care ethics and welfare sociology. She also teaches courses on subjects which range from sociology and public policy to philosophy and literature, at several universities in Tokyo.
Kyong-Mi Park was born in 1956 and is a second-generation Korean living and writing in Tokyo. Since publishing her first book of poetry Supu (Soup) in 1980, she has continued to publish numerous works of poetry and prose in major Japanese publications including La Mer, Waseda Bungaku, Ginka, and Asahi Weekly. She is noted for her translations of Gertrude Stein: The World is Round (1987) and Geography and Plays (co-translation 1992), in addition to other translations such as Over the Moon by Mother Goose (1990). Her essays have been collected in The Guardian Spirit in a Garden: Words to Remember (1999), and There are always birds in the air (Goryu Shoin, 2004), while recent collections of poetry include That little one (Shoshi Yamada, 2003), and The cat comes with a baby cat in its mouth (Shoshi Yamada, 2006). In 2001 she participated in the exhibit Dialog 2001: Artists in Banff (Canadian Embassy Gallery, Tokyo). Park’s work has been translated into English, Korean and Serbian. Park currently teaches at Wako University and the Yotsuya Art Studium.
Ryoko Sekiguchi was born in 1970 in Tokyo, and has lived in Paris since 1997. Her books in Japanese include Cassiopeia Peca (1993), (com)position (1996), Diapositives Luminescentes (2000), Two Markets, Once again (2001), Tropical Botanical Garden (2004), all published by Shoshi Yamada. Since 1999 she has translated her own writing into French, including Calque (P.O.L., 2001), Cassiopée Peca (cipM/Les compoirs de nouvelle B.S.), as well as The Other Voice by Yoshimasu Gozo (Caedere, 2002), and other works by Japanese poets. Apparition is the title of a collaboration with Rainier Lericolais (Les cahiers de la Seine, 2005). She has also translated from Dari to Japanese the book Earth and Ashes by the Afghan writer and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi (Inscript, 2003).
Takako Arai was born in 1966 in Kiryu City, Gunma Prefecture to a family involved in textile manufacturing, a major industry in Kiryu. Her first book, Hao Bekki, was published in 1997, and her newest collection of poetry, entitled Tamashi Dance, was published in 2007 and awarded the 41st Oguma Hideo Prize. She was a founding editor of the journal Shimensoka between 1992 and 1995, and since 1998 she has been a contributor to, and eventually editor of Mi’Te, a monthly publication featuring poetry and criticism. Arai has also been a contributor several publications focusing on folklore and customs, as well as a series of writings on the poet Sakutaro Hagiwara, and the butoh dancer, Kazuo Ohno. Arai currently teaches Japanese language to foreign students studying at the Center for International Exchange at Saitama University.
Sawako Nakayasu was born in Japan and has lived mostly in the US since the age of six. Her most recent books are The Ants (Les Figues Press, 2014), and Texture Notes (Letter Machine, 2010). Her recent translations include The Collected Poems of Sagawa Chika (Canarium Books, 2015), and Tatsumi Hijikata’s Costume en Face (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015). Other books include Hurry Home Honey (Burning Deck, 2009), and Mouth: Eats Color – Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations, & Originals, which is a multilingual work of both original and translated poetry. Her translation of Takashi Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut (New Directions, 2008) received the 2009 Best Translated Book Award from Three Percent. She has received fellowships from the NEA and PEN, and her own work has been translated into Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese.
Litmus and Belladonna have produced a gorgeous volume… The collection also reminds me that the most daring poems do not experiment merely for the sake of innovation: they innovate so we may discover.
Four From Japan showcases a diverse and reflective body of Japanese verse and other writings that is strongly recommended reading, a seminal addition to academic library poetry collections, and a welcome contribution to Japanese Cultural Studies supplemental reading lists.
by Sawako Nakayasu
Two female poets stand out when it comes to their contributions to late 19th — early 20th century Japanese literature. One wrote in traditional Japanese forms, the other wrote free lyric verse that incorporated influences from French surrealism, American modernism, and visual arts. One wrote of women’s issues: love, motherhood, passion — and the other wrote of insects, color, and “mucous expelled from nostrils.” One spoke out against the Sino-Japanese war, the other translated work by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. One had many children, the other died young. The former, Akiko Yosano, was canonized in Japanese literary history, while the latter, Chika Sagawa, was not.
This is certainly not to say that Akiko Yosano should not be canonized. She had an extraordinary presence as one of the more vocal feminists of the early 20th century, breathing new, feminine and sexual energy into the old tanka form. But while Sagawa (along with other fellow Modernists such as Junzaburo Nishiwaki) was busy experimenting and engaging with developments in the West, Yosano’s poetry represented an “archetypal Japanese feminine, and in doing so…she became important in the process of defining cultural identity and authentic Japanese-ness during a period of intensive borrowing from the West,” says translator and scholar Eric Selland.
However, in the process of seeking out other female poets of Japanese Modernism and beyond, it appears that a narrow definition of women’s writing that focuses on identity still prevails. In Sagawa’s case, “[her] relationship to the foreign brings her cultural authenticity into question,” says Selland. (Nishiwaki himself is known to have revised some of his earlier writings to make them sound more ‘Japanese.’) Not only did Sagawa not write a purely Japanese poetry, but she also did not write poetry that ‘represented’ the Japanese woman.
This ‘representation’ of the Japanese woman has no doubt developed in remarkable ways. Of particular note is the period around the 1980s, which saw the emergence of poets such as Hiromi Ito, who explosively deconstructed, then recomposed, Japanese ideals of femininity. This, combined with her outspokenness and general moxie influenced many younger female poets. And yet right alongside these pockets of explicitly female poetries, there has always been a ‘poetry by women’ that does not fit into a prescribed category of women’s writing. These poets — including Sagawa, as well as the four presented in this book — represent, if anything, a contemporary border crossing of identity and gender. This may happen through the male speaker’s voice in Takako Arai’s “Gyobakeshi,” the unidentified and ever-changing ko (child) in Kyong-Mi Park’s Sonoko series, the katakana disembodiment of Kiriu Minashita’s grammatical turns, or the catalog of near-definitions of plants in Ryoko Sekiguchi’s Heliotropes. Similarly, the sources of influence and inspiration for these poets are vast — from the contemporary otaku culture in Akihabara, to botanical gardens in Europe, to a form of peasants’ rebellion in late Edo- period Japan, to Korean culture and music.
Having come to the production of poetry in a post-internet age, Minashita’s writing was initially made available mainly through online sources — web journals and zines, as well as her own website — where a peek into her online diary (she is one of the earlier Japanese-poet-bloggers) will quickly expose her other passions, ranging well beyond poetry, to computer games (for example the Metal Gear Solid series) and sports (soccer, baseball).(1)
Kiriu Minashita is a pen name, “Kiriu” being lifted out of the middle of a phrase coined by the haiku poet Basho, fuekiryukou, which refers to the principles of fluidity and immutability that are central to haiku. And thus her writing is a unique combination of such. In particular, her work reflects a continuation of recent trends towards redefining and reinventing usages of the three different scripts used in written Japanese. In her poem, “Border Z/Delete and Rewrite,” her experiments with katakana — which often have the effect of imposing a rather digital, inorganic quality to the text — are merged with alternative usage of the furigana system commonly used to annotate the pronunciation of kanji.(2) In recent years, the use of the internet and e-mail has lead to more playful usage of the various scripts, though katakana has always been decidedly un-literary, un-poetic: it is the script of telegrams, imported words, and all things digital, virtual, or electronic. And it is one of the things with which Minashita experiments, reflecting an internationalized Japanese language that is delivered through layers of (at times conflicting) meaning which subvert the standards of Japanese literature.
Non-standard usage of furigana is employed in Arai’s “For Amenouzume-san” as well, but it should be noted that this has been incorporated mainly in the interest of translation, to help reveal qualities of the poem which are rooted in characteristics of the Japanese writing system. Amenouzume is a mythical goddess — an interest in mythological figures, as well as homophonics, has led Arai to the creation of this poem, which repeats the phonetic phrase, “Amenouzume-san” through a myriad of kanji variations. It shares its process with the way children are named in Japan, on one hand conveying information aurally, and on the other, conveying meaning through kanji.(3) As a Japanese-language instructor for foreign students, Arai has developed a sensitivity to the endless and fascinating homophonic possibilities of Japanese — though they present, of course, quite a hurdle for her students.
The relationships between poetry, sound, and music that are explored in Arai’s poems travel into the corners of Japanese history. Her “Eh-janaika” poems (of which one is included here) depict the story of a phrase that evolved into a song and dance, which then spread throughout Japan in the form of peasants’ rebellions. Similarly, her studies in myth and folklore have led to a number of poetic experiments, one of them being the difficult-to-translate “Fox, Appearing” (“Gyobakeshi” — literally, “line-changing-poems”). It tells the tale of a fox disguising itself as human in order to conduct its trickery, but the trickery in the poem is that Arai has translated her own poem homolinguistically, while maintaining two contrasting narrative threads. Needless to say, the English version of this poem is at best only a partial and approximate translation of the original.
These texts are full of namings — in all their multiplicity and endlessness — from Arai’s variations on the name “Amenouzume- san,” to the catalog of plants witnessed in Sekiguchi’s Heliotropes, to Minashita’s essay regarding the naming and titling of poems (as well as the world). And yet Park takes a different approach in her book, Sonoko. A series of twelve poems all bear the same title “Sonoko,” meaning, roughly, “that one,” “that little one,” or “that girl” (although gender is not explicitly suggested in this word).
Park, a translator of Gertrude Stein, shares an ‘everyone is anyone’ sensibility with Stein. Her “Sonoko” poems (not included here) employ colloquial phrases that are unique to Japan, universal in Japanese: they are easy to understand, yet difficult to translate. The poems translated in this book, however, are from the latter half of Sonoko, and tend to operate more like montage. In “Weather Patterns,” for example, several scenes are layered against each other, from which a shifting, physical and emotional weather arises, changing color and weight over the course of changing seasons: “Always folding the evening in like this at the mouth of spring, that’s me.”
Park is a second-generation Korean-Japanese who also speaks English. Although she writes poetry exclusively in Japanese, she never lets go of the fact that language is always only borrowed, and is transient in nature. Thus her poems demonstrate a firm, yet gentle touch on this ‘borrowed’ language. Although the subject matter may be derived from the personal, “poetry is that which is taken in from the external; it is not some kind of internal voice,” she claims. As suggested in Minashita’s essay, Sekiguchi takes the act of naming, and the boundaries of such, as one of her central issues. “If it doesn’t flower for a while, you find you can’t name it, and so it remains a naked noun.” In Sekiguchi’s Heliotropes, the natural world is identified, classified, given form on the page in such a manner that maps out continually shifting and growing relationships between humans, nature, and the language of both, floating through a range of diction — at times more scientific, at times more sonorous, often engaging with the words of sculptor Isamu Wakabayashi, with whom she corresponded. In the endnotes to her book, she also mentions that the book takes its form as a response to the Muwasshshah — an Arab poetic form practiced in Andalusia in the Middle Ages. Sekiguchi’s books tend to be conceived as singular objects, rather than collections of poems. After moving to France in 1997, she has found that many French poets share this inclination, and has since continued to create a body of work that is experimental in the visual and physical encounter that a reader has with each book.
In recent years, Sekiguchi has actively translated contemporary Japanese poetry, including her own work, into French. In addition to translating Stein, Park is also deeply involved with traditional Korean music. Minashita is a frequent reviewer of contemporary Japanese poetry, while Arai is responsible for having produced 88 issues of a monthly zine, Mi-te, which publishes poetry, essays, and features including a series of translations of Turkish poetry and critical reviews of the butoh dancer, Kazuo Ohno. As the artistic abilities of these four poets have been seeping into various genres of art, this book enables their already expansive poetic activities to seep out further into a universal poetic.
It is also here that I learned that Hello Kitty wanted to be a poet when she grew up.
Japanese is written with a combination of kanji (Chinese characters), hiragana (a phonetic syllabary), and katakana (a simplification of hiragana, mainly used for foreign words, onomatopoeia, technical or scientific words). Furigana, consisting of small hiragana or katakana letters placed alongside (or above) kanji characters, indicate the pronunciation of the kanji, and are often used in childrens’ books, comic books, and official forms.
There are even “tricks” hidden in the text, manipulating the reader’s perception of the kanji, based on the context.