‘Testament’: Poems that speak of life’s dark side

by Angela Jeffs

I meet two men in one: Tomonori Saito, who works for a shipping company in Tokyo’s Shinagawa district, and Saion, the nom de plume of a young Japanese poet.

Talking his way out of the office to meet at Starbucks, a copy of his first book of published poems, “Testament,” tucked into his briefcase, Tomonori is hardly recognizable in his neat salaryman suit. “I chose to write under the pen name Saion, which means ‘beautiful rhythm,’ for two reasons: I thought it sounded enigmatic, and I was frightened to use my own name. I thought the public wouldn’t take me seriously if they knew who I was really.”

Now he’s no longer scared, but thinks the name will help young people who like good bands and good music to relate. As someone who knows all about the dark side of life, that’s good, he says; it is this generation to whom he is speaking. One of his last poems in “Testament” is “Save Your Life, Save Your Soul,” about mass suicide incidents in Japan.

On the back of the promotional paper “obi” that wraps his book, he offers a message in English: “Do you feel you have a purpose — or a direction? I know this is a tough question. What do you think when you wake up in the morning? Do you feel a sense of ‘rightness,’ like you know what you are getting ready to do whatever you are going to do? It’s night time in Tokyo — you are probably sleeping — when you read this, try to think of what you thought when you woke up.”

“An American friend asked me this in Philadelphia, when I was in the States studying for eight months,” Tomonori explained. “It really made me think. How many Japanese dare ask questions about the purpose, direction and rightness of their lives? My poems ask them to try, explain why they need to try.”

Born in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward (“a typical middle-class bed town”), Tomonori was a happy enough child through elementary school, with classmates and teachers recognizing his poetic flair. It was in junior high that everything began to go wrong. “I made no friends, became isolated. My relationship with my older brother — my nemesis — went from bad to worse. This is when I began to fantasize, started writing stories and poems. Any other writers in my family? No, just me alone.”

If junior high was hard, high school was impossible. After three years, Tomonori describes himself as “decimated. I lost all sense of confidence, consciousness, life itself. The social system took me to the limit and then disposed of me, put me out onto the street as if I was less than garbage, nothing.”

By January 1995, Tomonori had experienced such emotional hurt that he’d collapsed physically. This is when his writing deepened to the point that he could only give up completely, or somehow use words to find his way back. He chose the latter path, and entered Temple University Japan. “Temple saved me. Stepping out of Japan into a cosmopolitan atmosphere, with different attitudes and values, helped restore my dignity and humanity.”

“Testament” describes Tomonori’s journey — his descent into hell and the tough recovery route. The first section, “Cradle,” written in 1995-96, can be likened to the experiences of a war veteran, losing his humanity but having to confront demons in order to survive. The poem “Long Long Distance” records the deepest sense of loss, but he has made the decision to live, is trying to find a way back.

Seeing the injustice and insanity in Japan’s system pushed Tomonori to pose more and more questions about humanity and offer proof of hope and love, while at the same time rebelling against the insanity of global issues today. “I was at Temple for four years, studying Eastern religions and theology. In the U.S. the curriculum includes Islam and Judaism, but not in Japan. It would have been helpful, I think.”

The poems in “Cradle” were in Japanese but often had English titles. In “Misery” — and the third part, “Maria” — he retreats into his own language. By “A Prayer of the Revenger,” he is fighting back, slowly regaining the sense of his own dignity. The turning point (explained via notes at the end of the book) was with “Memorial,” a poem inspired by hearing a Celtic harp at a Scottish festival. One of his poems in English (“It needed to be!”) is “Justice.” Speaking through an Afghan woman, who rails at U.S. policies in the Middle East, it begins “If you are really the chosen people, why did you kill my son? He was not born for the sake of your justice” and ends “Your justice doesn’t ask my name.” He commented, “I wrote the line ‘Your prayer is our despair’ after hearing ‘God Bless America’ being played so often after 9/11.”

He translated his work with the help with his most supportive teacher, Marianne (former director of Temple’s writing department, who now lives in Lancaster, England). “Marianne helped me a lot; she encouraged me to keep going.”

Because Tomonori is publishing “Testament” with his own money (“I could have bought a car, but a car doesn’t speak for you”) and could only afford a small initial print run, he knows he may not be able to change public opinion. “But for every buyer there are many more people he or she touches.”

All his spare time is now spent trying to get bookshops to take a few copies — one here, two there. “But Japanese publishers and bookstores hate poetry. Haiku and even modern ‘waka’ are OK, but contemporary free verse? It’s a long hard slog, but it doesn’t make me go away.”

The last 12 months have been good, he says. He’s studied creative writing, taken a voice workshop (in preparation for being asked to read his poetry sometime, somewhere) and is now preparing to go to New Zealand for a break in July. “I’ve made friends there through my work. I’m looking forward to meeting them. And tasting a lot of wine.”