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Avant-garde shamaness takes a poetic journey to the Californian suburbs

by David Hoenigman

Special To The Japan Times

In a YouTube clip from February 2011, Hiromi Ito begins a reading of an excerpt from her narrative poem “I Am Anjuhimeko (Watashi wa Anjuhimeko de aru)” at the Museum of Modern Aomori Literature by banging the palm of her hand loudly and repeatedly on the desk in front of her. She sits down, squares her shoulders and launches into a recital that at first borders on frantic but soon escalates to a point that would be hard to describe otherwise. Her voice portrays urgency, confusion, panic and a desperation to convey a complexity of ideas at a rate that’s nothing short of alarming:

none of that really matters anyway, but that’s not what father says, he says let’s try burying her in the sand and waiting three years, mother was willing to just go along with that, that was a big disappointment, but, well, here’s the problem, I’m just a newborn who can’t even see, and I can’t even utter a word to talk back, so I was wrapped in my mother’s silk underclothes and buried in a sandy spot near a river

“I Am Anjuhimeko” is based on an oral text passed down for more than 2,000 years in the northeastern countryside of Japan. In this gruesome story, the titular infant is maliciously disposed of but rises from her would-be grave and sets out on a journey of preposterous abuse and hardships to find her missing parents. Ito is not merely retelling the ancient tale, she is finding a place within herself where she can channel the spirit of Anjuhimeko (and at times in the poem, the girl’s mother). She is offering herself up for possession to past mythical souls and the generations upon generations who have kept these stories alive. She is experiencing the horrors of the long-ago journey transcendentally first-hand. Hence the urgency, panic and desperation.

Ito ends the poem, accentuating the last number of lines with sharp violent hand slaps on the desk at the conclusion of each one. With a final slap she seems to regain self-awareness. She closes the book, gives a slight bow, and takes a sip of water.

Based on this performance, it’s small wonder that the word “shamaness” is often used in journal, newspaper or magazine articles about Ito. It’s a word that has significance for her, and is a distinction that she is willing to conditionally embrace.

“I don’t have that ability,” she told The Japan Times in a recent interview from her California home. “But my grandmother and my mother were those kind of people. Some people can reach God and tell you what’s going to happen in the future or something like that. Before World War II shamanistic ideas were accepted in Japanese society and people with those abilities helped other people’s lives. I never thought about if I really believed in it or not, but when I started doing poetry readings, I thought maybe what I was doing wasn’t so different from that. The kind of ecstasy I could approach while reading, the feeling that I’d reached something. I began to feel a kind of connection to my mother and grandmother.”

Born in 1955 in Tokyo, Ito first came to prominence as a poet in her early 20s while teaching Japanese at a junior high school. Her poetry collection “The Plants and the Sky (Kusaki no Sora)” won the Gendai-shi Techo Award in 1978. She went on to spearhead the 1980s boom of women’s poetry in Japan, a movement that also included Toshiko Hirata, Yoko Isaka and Koko Shiraishi. Ito’s groundbreaking collections “On Territory 1 (Teritori ron 1)” in 1985 and “On Territory 2 (Teritori ron 2)” in 1988 were landmarks of female expression that dealt with themes hitherto ignored in Japanese poetry: intimate insight into women’s sexual desires, the workings of the female body, and the physicality and emotional turmoil of pregnancy and childbirth. Ito would almost instantly be labeled a feminist, but in many ways the term was an oversimplification.

“When I was in my 20s or early 30s, I really didn’t like being called a feminist,” she said. “People were trying to categorize me, classify me as a feminist poet and I hated it. I wanted to be a poet, not a woman poet. I was really against the way men tried to push us aside and not let us into the mainstream of poetry.”

That she has misgivings about the term “feminism” — because she thinks it goes without saying that she’s just as capable as a man — is an irony that is not lost on Ito. When explaining that she tweaked her 2001 translation into Japanese of Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in The Hat” to make it appear to Japanese readers that the cat is giving equal attention to the girl while addressing the brother-sister duo, she quipped good-naturedly, “See, I’m a feminist.”

Ito’s most well known poem is the unforgettable “Killing Kanoko (Kanoko-goroshi).” It’s an intensely personal account of a severe bout of postpartum depression following the birth of her first daughter. She juxtaposes chilling infanticide fantasies with the wave of congratulatory well wishes from family and friends.

Happy Kanoko

Bites off my nipples

Congratulations congratulations

Gleefully I would like

To get rid of Kanoko

Without melancholy, without guilt

I want to get rid of Kanoko in Tokyo

Congratulations

Congratulations on your destruction

Congratulations on your destruction

More than three decades after receiving her first poetry award, Ito’s work became available to English speaking readers for the first time with the 2009 release of Jeffrey Angles’ translation “Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Ito.” In the intervening years much had happened. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s her acclaim spread across Japan, rendering her among the most highly regarded poets of her generation. She married and divorced twice. She gave birth to three daughters. She traveled extensively: Poland, Mongolia, Germany, and the United States. She began writing prose. Nominations (the 1998 and 1999 Akutagawa Awards among some) and awards (the 2006 Takami Jun Award among others) rolled in for her novellas and novels. In 1997 she moved to the U.S. with her daughters (then aged 12, 10 and 1), met her current partner, British artist Harold Cohen, and settled in Encinitas, California. Far from the shores of her home country, Ito set to the task of guiding her older daughters through their teenage years and her infant daughter through childhood in the strange new world known as suburban America.

The ostensible reason Ito moved to the U.S. was to pursue her passion for Native American poetry, though she also cites an eagerness to distance herself from a recently disintegrated marriage as having been a driving force. Nowadays, she often returns to Japan to visit her father in Kumamoto Prefecture and take part in poetry events throughout the country. However, during the first few years in California, as the focus was on acclimating herself and her family to a new society and culture, trips to Japan were few and far between. It was a hard time for Ito.

“The hardest thing was the language. I’m a poet so it almost felt like I was choking, like I didn’t have oxygen,” she said. “I forgot so much Japanese, it was really scary. And I felt the publishing world back home in Japan was forgetting me, I didn’t know what to write, and I felt very far away from my audience. I really didn’t know if I was going to survive, I really didn’t. I struggled for several years. Then I started to write in my own style and tried to grasp what I was writing. Then I realized living in America, surrounded by English, and writing in Japanese was not such a bad thing for me, I could make it work. It took a long time for me to feel I didn’t regret leaving Japan.”

Now, with 15 years as an expat under her belt, when asked to compare life in the U.S. to life in Japan it’s no surprise that her assessment of the two cultures is centered around the development of her daughters.

“Some points of America are better but some points of Japan are better. Two of my daughters were partially brought up in Japan but the youngest is really American. She’s pretty laidback, especially with the California mentality, sometimes I’d like her to work a bit harder. Sometimes I feel the U.S. lacks a sense of discipline. But I watch her with her friends and they express themselves so well, it’s nice.

“I’ve done readings at universities in America and in Japan,” she continued, “the kids are very different. In America the kids are open with themselves and ask me questions without hesitation, I want my daughters to be like that. In Japan the kids don’t do that, it’s so sad to watch them. But sometimes I meet really outgoing and self-confident students in Japan as well. So I’m not so depressed about that, even if the society doesn’t encourage it, people sometimes get that kind of sense on their own.”

And who better to make such an assessment? Self-confidently overcoming societal obstacles has become old hat for Ito, be it the conventionality of her homeland or the unfamiliarity of overseas.