by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
In 1895, Japan was at war with China for supremacy over Korea, which was China’s most important client state. Japan wanted access to Korea’s coal and iron, and to use it as a buffer zone to prevent Chinese or Russian incursions.
Only 42 years earlier, American Commodore Matthew Perry, aboard the frigate Susquehanna, led his squadron of two steamers and two sailing vessels into Tôkyô harbor. After 200 years of Japan’s Sokoku (closed country) policy, which limited trade with Europe to a single Dutch factory (trading post) at Dejima in Nagasaki, Perry’s version of “gunboat diplomacy” forced Japan, which had no Navy whatsoever, to make a trade agreement with the United States. Other Western nations were quick to follow.
When the First Sino-Japanese War began in 1894, China looked like an obvious winner. But Japan had been on a modernization crash-course since the arrival of Commodore Perry, and their forces were better equipped and trained. They scored decisive victories, invading Manchuria and commanding sea approaches to Beijing. By 1895, China was suing for peace. The Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to recognize Korea’s independence, and ceded Taiwan, the Pescadores, and Manchuria’s Liaodong Peninsula to Japan.
Mitsuharu Kaneko 金子 光晴 (1895-1975), poet and painter, was born in a year of great change, just as Japan was taking its place as a world power, and still undergoing a huge cultural shift from its isolated past. He was born the third son of a failed businessman, and his original given name was Yasukazu.
Demons and a Poet
The poet saw a pillar towering in the sky amid the fires of hell, or
A long beard flaring up into the sky filled with wild snow.
He saw the shadows of demons stretching across the sky where clouds moved hurriedly, or
Their shadows crouching.
Only the eyes of the poet can see
Tiny demons crawling in and out of nostrils,
Demons counting money, demons who like women,
But these are unworthy even of being sneezed at.
Demons like caricatures who take with tongs
The moon from a big pot,
These too are unworthy, and are
Pretentious and tiring.
I am waiting for
Demons like poppy seeds who have just leaped out of the smelting furnace.
They themselves do not know what is what.
If we were to touch them, we would blister.
We would join them, jumping around, crying,
“Make a poem! Set a fire!”
Sumi, the 16-year-old childless wife of Sohtaroh Kaneko, took a fancy to him, and her indulgent husband, a successful company executive, persuaded the Kazukichi family to allow the Kaneko family to adopt the boy when he was two years old. (Names have been given Western style – in Japanese, the family name comes first, followed by the personal name.)
Yasukazu was sent to the prestigious Gyohsei (Venus) School, which was established in 1888 by French Catholics, but he was an academic failure who had to repeat a grade. His home life must have been very strange, for his adopted father spent most of his spare time in the pleasure quarters, and seemed indifferent when his wife took a younger lover or even when his 16-year-old adopted son started bringing women from the pleasure quarters home with him.
To A Certain Unmarried Woman
A woman became naked. But
not to wait for caresses.
In transient daylight
the faint scent of skin.
of the thin flowerpetals
of a woman who has not known sensuality.
Like bruises that are ripe,
smears of light blue color,
those marks which remain all over her body
are traces of fingers of the people who touched her passing by.
The same as unsold fruit
at the shop-front of a fruit store.
A woman became naked. Just for a while
to change a summer dress into an autumn dress.
The failed student was however a prodigious reader, especially Chinese classics and Edo literature (a time of great poets like Bashō, Buson, and Issa). He read Western writers he probably hadn’t encountered in his Catholic school: Baudelaire, Wilde, Poe, Whitman and Schopenhauer. He enrolled and dropped out of Waseda University, the Tokyo School of Arts and Keio University between 1914 and 1916. He was also prone to lung-related illnesses at this time.
Song of a Jellyfish
could be seen through like this.
But to be swayed is not a comfortable thing, you know.
From the outside I can be seen through. Look !
Inside my digestive organs
is a toothbrush with worn-out bristles
and also a small amount of yellowish water.
That dirty-looking thing called my soul
does not exist anymore now.
Together with the tubes of my belly
it was snatched away by the waves.
Me? What I am
is a thing of emptiness, you know,
emptiness swayed by the waves
and again swayed back and forth by the waves.
Shriveling up and then soon afterward
night after night
burning a lamp.
No, that which is being swayed about actually
is only the soul which has lost the body
that is the soul’s wrapping
of thin rice paper.
No, no, so much emptiness came from
tossing, tossing pain’s
fatigued shadow which is all that it is!
In 1916, his adopted father died, leaving him a substantial sum of money. An antique dealer, who had been his father’s business associate, offered to take Kaneko to Europe as an apprentice in the business if he paid his own way. In February, 1919, they left for Europe.
After two months in London, the dealer knew Kaneko wasn’t suited to antique-dealing and sent him to Belgian netsuke collector Ivan Lepage. Kaneko lived just outside Brussels for nearly a year and a half, studying Belgian and European art, as well as ukiyoe, (Japanese painting and woodblocks depicting everyday life) and long hours reading European poets, including Emile Verhaeren and Verlaine. He moved briefly to Paris in 1920, then returned to Japan.
Early in 1922, he became editor of the poetry magazine Rakuen (Paradise), with its editorial office in his house. He had chosen a new personal name: Mitsuharu, which in Japanese is associated with intellect, independent thought, and a strong drive to succeed.
His first non-self-published book of poems, Koganemushi (Japanese Beetle), came out in July 1923 – two months before the Great Kanto Earthquake left over a million people homeless, including Kaneko.
In July, 1924, he and poet-novelist Mori Michiyo (1905–1977), were married. Their son was born in 1925.
In March 1925, he published his translation of Verhaeren’s poems, and in August his translation of a collection of French poems. By the middle of that year he had run through his inheritance, and he became a vagabond for seven years. Short of funds, he sometimes made money by painting – often the subjects were pornographic.
In my youth
I was opposed to school.
And now, again,
I’m opposed to work.
Above all it is health
And righteousness that I hate the most.
There’s nothing so cruel to man
As health and honesty.
Of course I’m opposed to the Japanese spirit
And duty and human feeling make me vomit.
I’m against any government anywhere
And show my bum to authors and artists circles.
When I’m asked for what I was born,
Without scruple, I’ll reply, To oppose.
When I’m in the east
I want to go to the west.
I fasten my coat at the left, my shoes right and left.
My hakama I wear back to front and I ride a horse facing its buttocks.
What everyone else hates I like
And my greatest hate of all is people feeling the same.
This I believe: to oppose
Is the only fine thing in life.
To oppose is to live.
To oppose is to get a grip on the very self.
He and his wife spent time in China and Southeast Asia, then Michiyo went ahead to Paris, while Kaneko visited plantation owners in the Malay Peninsula, to sell them his paintings. By the end of 1929, he had made enough for his passage. He arrived in Paris in January, 1930. After over a year of financial hardship, Michiyo had gone home, and he appealed to Ivan Lepage, who arranged a showing of some of his paintings in Brussels, which raised enough cash to get him to Singapore.
— from Seals
Them. Those so-called ordinary folks.
They are the ones
who drove Voltaire out of the country, threw Hugo Grotius into jail.
They are also the ones who churn this globe up
with dust and talkativeness, from Batavia to Lisbon.
The ones who sneeze. The ones who spit bits of food out of their mustaches. The ones who fear, point at those who stifle yawns, show stand-offish gestures, and break rules, and shout, Rebels! Lunatics! and gather together, babbling. Those. They are husband and wife for each other. Mistresses. Sons who inherit their true natures. Toads with dingy blood. Or factions. Or again their connections. And countless matings; the body-to-body walls seemed to block the ocean currents.
Onto the sea they’d been pushed into like a flow, the sleety sun poured down.
Along the boundlessness of the sky they’d look up at, there always was a metal net.
. . . Today’s their wedding celebration.
Yesterday was their Flag Day.
All day, in the slush, they heard an icebreaker hitting the ice.
Constantly bowing, rubbing flippers with flippers, rolling their torsos like barrels, bustling with nothing but their repellence, emptiness, they went on soiling the seawater visibly with the bubbles of their own urination.
Warming one another with their body temperatures, hating the cold they’d face if they left the down-and-out crowd, they searched for commiserating looks, called to one another in thin voices.
Kaneko and his wife both published poems and travel books, which improved their financial situation. He produced the book of poems Same (Sharks) in 1937, and a prose account Mareh Ran’in kikoh (Malay and Dutch East Indies Travelogue), in 1940. His family started a cosmetics business, and hired him as a copywriter, which gave him a small but steady income, even while he continued to travel.
In Japan, the 1930s and 40s brought increasing repression in the arts, and international criticism of its aggressive expansion into China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which made 90 million Chinese refugees in their own country, and killed an estimated 10-15 million more, many from starvation.
Kaneko was one of the very few Japanese writers who continued to write anti-war verse and prose all during WWII, even though none of it could be published, and circulating it privately was very risky.
The Song of Loneliness
A state is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”
— Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
On 5 May 1945, Boys’ Day
Finally these guardian deities of the lonely spirit brought the war.
You are not to blame. I, of course, am not to blame. Everything is the doing of loneliness.
Loneliness made them carry guns, even made them, with the bait of loneliness, shrug off their mothers and wives
and leave toward where the flags flapped.
Trinket makers, cleaners, clerks, students,
all turning into folk shaken with the wind.
Every and each one, no distinction among them. All taught to die was best.
Petty, timid, good-natured people, their thoughts darkened in the name of the Emperor, went off like brats, delighted, hubbubbing.
But on the home front, we’re nervous,
fearful of an arrow with white feathers,
forcing ourselves to push aside skepticism and anxiety,
we try to spend just this one day, we’re all doomed anyway,
drunk on the sake given out.
Egoism, and the shallowness of love.
Bearing it in silence, women wait for rations,
linking themselves like beggars.
People’s expressions growing sadder day by day,
the fate of the folk of an all-out nation,
I had not seen, since my birth, a loneliness so immediate, so profound.
But I no longer care. To me, such loneliness doesn’t mean anything now.
The loneliness that I, I now truly feel lonely about
is that I can’t feel, around me, any desire, not even of a single person,
holding his ground in the opposite direction of this degradation, trying to find the very …………………………………………………………………………………………………………..roots of loneliness
as he walks with the world. That’s it. That’s the only thing.
During Kaneko’s long life he saw Japan rise, fall and recover, fluctuate between infatuation and resentment toward the West, then post-war imitation of Western industrialization. Through it all, he stuck to a bohemian life. He was a loner who seemed to get along well with a whole range of people; not a leftist, but a poet of resistance. And through it all, he was full of doubt, wondering if any of what he did mattered, yet doubt didn’t stop him from doing it.
Deep in a forest where it rains
Beyond pale darkness
their echoes respond.
Elegant-looking tips of the trees
are hearing the silent fog that is coming down,
that fog turning into drops of water on twigs
and softly dripping down.
On the path that continues into the fog
I stop walking and listen
to voices of lonely cuckoos.
Droplets of water make a separating curtain,
and from an eternal end is heard
that monotonous repetition.
I look back at the lengthy time
of my short life,
estrangements of affection and
a period of many betrayals.
Beloved persons who have departed too,
scattered-away friends too,
all of them have gone inside this fog
and perhaps exist somewhere in the end of the fog.
Now already there is no way to search.
From end to end
the enveloping fog thickens and thickens.
All the loneliness for what cannot be regained
is swept along very quickly.
Here and there in the ocean of fog
like spirit and spirit that call to each other
cuckoos are crying,
cuckoos are crying.
- “Demons and a Poet” – May 1956 issue of Poetry magazine — https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=26949
- “To a Certain Unmarried Woman” from Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry © 1972, translated and compiled by Edith Marcombe and Yūki Sawa, Charles E. Tuttle Co
- “Song of a Jellyfish” from Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry © 1972,translated and compiled by Edith Marcombe and Yūki Sawa, Charles E. Tuttle Co
- “Opposition” – https://interestsinclude.wordpress.com/2009/07/29/5-opposition-by-kaneko-mitsuharu/
- “Seals” – Part 2 from Same (Sharks) © 1937, translated by Hiroaki Sato, Jinnminnsha
- “The Song of Loneliness” from Rakkasan (Parachute) © 1948 by Mitsuharu Kaneko, translated by Hiroaki Sato, Nihon Miraiha Hakkosho
- “Cuckoos” from Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry © 1972, translated and compiled by Edith Marcombe and Yūki Sawa, Charles E. Tuttle Co
- First Sino-Japanese War 1894-95 – https://www.britannica.com/event/Sino-Japanese-War-1894-1895
- Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) – https://www.britannica.com/event/Sino-Japanese-War-1937-1945
- Kohro (The Censor), private edition, Tokyo, 1916
- Sekido no ie (The House of Red Clay), private edition, Tokyo, 1919
- Koganemushi (Japanese Beetle), Shinchosha, Tokyo, 1923
- Mizu no ruroh (Wanderings of Water), Shinchosha, Tokyo, 1926
- Fuka shizumu (The Shark Sinks), co-authored with Mori Michiyo, Shinchosha, Tokyo, 1927
- Same (Sharks), Jinminsha, Tokyo, 1937
- Rakkasan (Parachute), Nihon mirai-ha hakkosho, Tokyo, 1948
- Ga (Moth), Hokutoshoin, Tokyo, 1948
- Onna-tachi e no eregii (Elegies to Women), Sogensha, Tokyo, 1949
- Oni no ko no uta (Songs of a Devil’s Child), Jyuhjiya Shoten, Tokyo, 1949
- Ningen no higeki (Human Tragedy), Sogensha, Tokyo, 1952
- Hijoh (Merciless), Shinchosha, Tokyo, 1955
- Collected Poems (5 volumes), Shoshi Yuriika/Shoushinsha, Tokyo, 1960–1971
- He no yoh na uta (Songs Like a Fart), Schichosha, Tokyo, 1962
- IL, Keisoshobo, Tokyo, 1965
- Wakaba no uta (Songs of Young Leaves), Keisoshobo, Tokyo, 1967
- Complete Poems, Chikumashobo, Tokyo, 1967
- Aijyo 69 (Love 69), Chikumashobo, Tokyo, 1968
- Hana to akibin (Flowers and Empty Bottles), Seigashobo, Tokyo, 1973
- Marei Ran’in Kikoh (Malay and Dutch East Indies Travelogue), 1940
- Shijin (Poet), Heibonsha, Tokyo, 1957, an autobiography
- Dokuro-hai (Skull Cup), Chuoh kohron sha, Tokyo, 1971
- Nemure pari (Go to Sleep, Paris), Chuo kohron sha, Tokyo, 1973
- Nishi higashi (West and East), Chuoh kohron sha, Tokyo, 1974
Works in English
- 99 Poems in Translation, New York, Grove Press, 1994
- Photograph of Mitsuharu Kaneko
- Lone crane in flight – artist not identified
- Post card – Bruxelles 1919 – maisons du Grand Duc de Lorraine et du Prince d´Orange
- Post card – Tokyo, Japan circa 1930
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud