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Misuzu Kaneko: A deeper empathy for the natural world

by

Special To The Japan Times

In her brief life, Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko (1903-1930) produced a body of work with themes that are every bit as relevant today as when she first put pen to paper nearly 100 years ago. Ostensibly a writer of poems for children, Kaneko’s work reveals a deep respect for the environment and an awareness of the interconnected nature of all living things.

Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, by Misuzu Kaneko, illustrations by Toshikado Hajiri, text and translations by David Jacobson, Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi.
64 pages
CHIN MUSIC PRESS, Fiction.

In 2011, one of Kaneko’s most beloved poems, “Kodama Deshou ka?” (“Are You an Echo?”) was chosen by the Advertising Council of Japan to be used in a public service advertisement for TV following the Great East Japan Earthquake. Most companies withdrew their advertisements immediately after the disaster, and the council had to create filler ads, which were broadcast frequently in the proceeding weeks. As a result, Kaneko’s work reached almost every home across Japan.

The poem’s simple message — chosen to help comfort a shocked and grieving nation — is that we should treat others as we wish to be treated: with kindness and compassion. And Kaneko’s empathy extends far beyond humans. In one poem she even takes the perspective of fish after a “Big Catch”: “On the beach, it’s like a festival/ but in the sea, they will hold funerals/ for the tens of thousands dead.”

Although her poems remain almost unknown in the English-speaking world, a new book about her life and work is set to change this situation.

Calling “Are You an Echo?” a “picture book” hardly does the publication justice. It contains both lyrical English translations and the original Japanese versions of selected works, along with a sensitively written biography of the poet’s short life and an account of how Kaneko’s work was rediscovered after falling into obscurity following her untimely death. Full-color illustrations on every page help the sections blend seamlessly together.

Creating “Are You an Echo?” was a collaborative effort, one spearheaded by U.S. journalist and editor David Jacobson, who has studied and worked in Japan and wrote the biographical section of the book. He was “instantly smitten” after receiving a volume of Kaneko’s poetry in Japanese several years ago.

“I initially planned to produce an illustrated poetry book of hers for kids,” Jacobson says. “But after submitting a book proposal to Chin Music Press, the publisher convinced me that her life story was just as important as the poetry itself, and even informed the reading of it.”

Kaneko was born and raised in a fishing village in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where the simple pleasures of daily life and close connections with nature inspired her poetry. Unusual for a young woman of her time, she was permitted to stay in school until the age of 17 thanks to a mother who believed in the value of education. While working in the family bookshop, she found early success when several of her poems for youngsters were snapped up by literary magazines of the day, quickly establishing her as a popular children’s writer.

Sadly, things went downhill from there when, against her wishes, she was married off to a man who turned out to be unsupportive of her writing and unfaithful to boot. After she contracted venereal disease as a result of his philandering, Kaneko divorced him, but, in line with Japanese law at the time, he demanded custody of the couple’s small daughter. Exhausted physically and mentally, Kaneko took her own life when she was 26.

Although some of her most popular poems remained in the public eye, her name was gradually forgotten. That changed in 1982 when a 16-year search by writer Setsuo Yazaki resulted in the discovery of three notebooks of Kaneko’s work that the poet had passed to her brother before her untimely death. JULA Publishing subsequently released all 512 verses contained in the notebooks as a six-volume collection.

Yazaki now manages the Kaneko Misuzu Memorial Museum, located in the original building of the family bookshop where Kaneko grew up in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

“Her poetry transcends nationality — it’s universal,” says Yazaki, who also wrote the preface for “Are You an Echo?” He is delighted that Kaneko’s work is finally reaching a wider English-speaking audience. “No complicated explanations are needed, because her themes cover the simplest and yet most important things about the human experience.”

Jacobson believes that Kaneko’s poems will resonate with English speakers, even though they do not necessarily align with typical Western ideas of children’s poetry.

“A lot of English-language poetry for kids today employs humor or nonsense words and is girded in rhyme,” he says. “That may appeal to kids, but, I think, tends to mark such poems as only for kids. To Misuzu’s credit, she grapples with difficult issues and emotions honestly and in simple language that resonates with both kids and adults, like the guilt and sadness a child feels after taking a treat not meant for her,” Jacobson says.

Kaneko’s poetry had already been translated into 10 other languages by the time Jacobson and his team started working on the book.

“It was striking to me that she was hardly known in the English-speaking world,” says Jacobson. “I think that is because the first two English translations of Misuzu’s work (from 1995 and 1999, respectively), appear not to have been marketed extensively abroad.”

When deciding which poems to feature in the book, care was taken to include not only her best-loved work in Japan, but also those “that truly represented her characteristic empathy and sense of wonder,” says Jacobson. “But we excluded poems in which the imagery was very culturally bound and would have required substantial explanation for non-Japanese readers.”

Similarly, Toshikado Hajiri kept non-Japanese readers in mind when creating the illustrations.

“I took care with the details,” he says, “such as the shrines, wooden houses and aspects of a fishing village or the tatami mats, shoji (sliding paper door) and tableware inside the homes as I wanted to convey the beauty of the Japanese scenery and lifestyle from that era to people overseas.”

In a world beset by climate change, cultural strife and political polarization, Kaneko’s poems are timely reminders about the value of a deeper kind of empathy — not just for each other, but for the world itself.

David Jacobson, Toshikado Hajiri and translator Michiko Tsuboi will talk about Misuzu Kaneko and “Are you an Echo?” in Tokyo on Feb. 4. For more details, visit bit.ly/2hAQtRN.Fiction