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This poetic chameleon wore khaki

by Hiroaki Sato

SHREDDING THE TAPESTRY OF MEANING: The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katsue (1902-1978), by John Solt. Harvard University Asia Center, 1999, 395 pp., $49.50.

On Jan. 4, 1942, less than a month after Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor, Katsue Kitazono — the spelling that John Solt gives the name in “Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning” is the one that the poet devised for foreign consumption — wrote a poem, which may be translated as:

The winter day / opened with a wind / and darkened with the wind. // The frosty garden / remained a mire / all day. // Above the hazel tree / stars / shone in the wind. // Nevertheless / on various tropical islands / the Imperial Army was engaged in ferocious battles. // A! / Officers and men of fierce loyalty / shouldering East Asia’s fate for a thousand years! // Their bravery, / unprecedented / distant advances! // I / beside tiny tea utensils / faced my desk all day. // In the dark room / thoughts flowed, / faint light drifted.

Kitazono published this poem, titled “Fuyu” (“Winter”), along with 25 others, in his 10th book, “Fudo” (“Climate”), in early 1943, and noted in his afterword that the book contained 26 poems. In 1986, however, compiling an 881-page tome of Kitazono’s “complete poems,” Fujitomi Yasuo dropped “Fuyu” and changed the number of poems mentioned in the afterword to 25.

I discovered this sleight of hand almost by accident: Tanka poet Amy Heinrich found for me a fragile copy of the original edition of “Fudo” in the East Asian Library of Columbia University, of which she is director.

Why did Fujitomi do such a thing?

As Solt tells the story, Kitazono wanted “Fuyu” suppressed when the first attempt was made, in 1955, to put all his poems under one cover because it was “too blatantly militaristic.” In that collection, ” ‘Fuyu’ is listed in the table of contents . . . with an unexplained asterisk instead of a page number and the poem does not appear in the body of the text.”

In the new, posthumous edition of “complete poems,” Fujitomi, an admiring friend of Kitazono, went a step further. He not only dropped the poem from the table of contents and the text, but also changed the poet’s own afterword.

That the majority of Japanese intellectuals mouthed and penned sentiments supportive of the nation’s militaristic causes during World War II may be too well-known to repeat here. Many did so under duress. Japan was a police state. Those known for their familiarity with or advocacy of Western liberalism were arrested, interrogated or put under house arrest.

Some others supported Japan’s war, especially what was later called the Pacific War, willingly. They felt betrayed by the self-righteousness of the West and turned nationalistic, even jingoistic.

Either way, following Japan’s disastrous defeat, many such men of letters were subjected to accusations of “war responsibility” by their compatriots. At one point or another, Kitazono must have appeared on a list naming names. If an openly collaborative role was the issue, he was, in the midst of the Pacific War, one of the board members of the poetry branch of the government-sponsored Literary Patriotic Society.

He had written “patriotic poems.” Although none of the poems Solt meticulously dug up strike me as “blatantly militaristic,” Kitazono had started out as a “modernist,” infatuated with European notions. Thus, writing such poems could be deemed an intellectual betrayal.

In addition, he had tried to intellectualize his nonmodernist, traditionalist stance. He fancied a category for such poems, calling them “kyodoshi,” “poetry of the home country,” and defined it as “neither farmers’ poetry nor idyllic poetry,” but as an attempt to “explore and manifest the supremely idealistic posture of the folk.”

The Japanese word for “folk” here is “minzoku,” a potent term at the time. As might be expected, Kitazono put his call for kyodoshi in the context of a larger argument for the establishment of a culture based on “Great East Asianism” (“dai-toa shugi”) and a return to “folkism” (“minzoku shugi”).

Western ideas were no longer appropriate or sufficient. The title Kitazono chose for his wartime book of poems, “Fudo,” itself reflects the nationalistic sentiments of the day. In 1935, the German-trained philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro had published an influential treatise with the same title.

If writing such poems and intellectualizing about doing so were typical of the age, what’s intriguing about Kitazono is that he had begun to show his nativist side somewhat early.

As noted, he had started out as a modernist, taking wholeheartedly to Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism and Dadaism, and, before long, issuing “Japan’s Manifesto of Surrealism.” His first four books of poems, from 1929 to 1933, were marked by the kind of stylishness associated with the avant-garde West. He translated Paul Eluard and Stephane Mallarme.

In 1936 he wrote to Ezra Pound. Pound’s response and the ensuing correspondence between the two poets would enable Kitazono to give a cosmopolitan touch to his magazine VOU; he translated Pound and other foreign poets for it. Conversely, Pound’s promotion landed him in magazines in England, Italy and the United States, when few Japanese poets had a chance to see their poems in European languages.

(In 1938, James Laughlin, editor-publisher of New Directions, said that he was publishing Kitazono and his friends to “show, first of all, that militaristic imperialism has not wiped out artistic activity and, secondly, that there is live poetry in Japan.” )

In the same year, though, Kitazono published the first of his books of poems notable only for its deliberate Orientalism. He named it “Kon” — a fish of fantastic size famously depicted in the opening of the Chinese classic “Chuang Tzu.” He kept writing such poems to the end of the war and even collected some of those not included in “Fudo” long after the war. He also wrote conventional haiku.

So, one may ask: Did Kitazono write kyodoshi, including overtly patriotic ones, intellectualize about them, and serve, besides, on the board of a patriotic society under duress? Or was he a chameleon who shifted his color as his environment changed? After all, he resumed his avant-garde posture as soon as the war was over, didn’t he?

John Solt, who has studied Kitazono for many years and admires his constant poetic experiments, does not hand down a black or white judgment, focusing instead on what happened. Partly as a result, why Kitazono tried after the war to erase his wartime doings from his record remains a mystery.

“Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning” is a detailed account of a poet whose work may not amount to much. Solt’s analysis of Kitazono’s poems from the standpoint of various literary theories often appears overdone, at times ludicrously so, although such things may be an academic necessity. The book is fascinating nonetheless.

Particularly good is Solt’s description of the epistolary relationship between Kitazono and Pound. Neither poet probably understood the other, but they tried to profit from the situation.

I’ve mentioned what Kitazono did. For Pound, the correspondence enabled him to pretend he was on top of what was current in Japanese poetry. They wrote to each other until 1959.

(The reader of this paper may be intrigued to learn that, following an introduction from Kitazono, Pound wrote a column in these pages for a while.)

I should add that not all Japanese associates of Kitazono tried to cover for him. Unlike Yasuo Fujitomi, who compiled Kitazono’s “complete poems,” Yoshihisa Tsuruoka included Kitazono’s wartime prose pieces in a single-volume edition of the “complete critical essays” that he put out in 1998. In doing so, Tsuruoka noted that he wanted no part in perpetuating such a “heinous self-deception.”