The poetic power of skepticism


AMERICA AND OTHER POEMS by Nobuo Ayukawa, selected and translated by Shogo Oketani and Leza Lowitz. New York: Kaya Press, 2008, 152 pp. $14.95 (paper)

Nobuo Ayukawa (1920-1986) has in the West remained a relatively unknown poet. Though included in the “Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature” (as translated by J. Thomas Rimer), he is given only a footnote in Donald Keene’s multivolume history of Japanese literature.

This footnote, however, importantly encapsulates Ayukawa’s position. Keene quotes Ayukawa’s 1945 wartime diary, which is “full of hair-raising descriptions of Japanese brutality. Local Chinese who were suspected of being anti-Japanese were dragged from their houses and taken out into the country, where they were bayoneted to death and kicked into mass graves.”

Even when Ayukawa had himself later turned fairly conservative, as Shogo Oketani tells us in this important translation of the poet’s work, he “unlike other conservative writers, never aligned himself with those who tried to deny or whitewash Japan’s prewar and wartime history.”

One of the reasons that he had the strength to do this, believes Oketani, was that he had early questioned what is often conveniently called the “Japanese tradition.” (And the translator adds: “When politicians or conservative artists used the term ‘tradition,’ it usually represented the intent to discourage liberal thought.”)

Instead, in order to separate himself from the nationalism and fascism that was sweeping his country, he chose to be skeptical about almost everything. More than any other postwar poet in Japan, he “internalized and resisted political, societal and even culture pressure, and this resistance became the cornerstone of his poetics.”

It rested on a frame of reference that was, faute de mieux, European. Foreign poets such as T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden strongly influenced postwar Japanese poetry and it is no coincidence that the important poetry journal “Arechi,” which Ayukawa helped found, should take its title from the translation of Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”

As Oketani explicates: “The real reason people are interested in foreign literature is that [it] reflects their own worlds, mirroring or otherwise illuminating their own cultural crises, and emphasizing the themes that unite us.”

This was certainly true of the “Arechi” poets, to whom Japan was the new wasteland. In 1950 Ayukawa wrote: “Our sense of rebellion against the fake thing called ‘Japanese tradition’ during the war, has now become a kind of core psychology.” It is for this reason that the poet so bravely refused to put the past behind him, to weakly let bygones be bygones.

This extraordinarily well-translated collection gathers poems from 1946 to 1976. and through this lyrical and complex verse gives both a perspective on the Asian war experience and a unique view of the relationship between Japan and America.

Through these the reader is offered not only a very different view of Japan but also the presence of a poet whose defiance has made our viewing possible. The major English-language encyclopedia of Japan (Kodansha’s) calls Ayukawa “an active polemicist who insisted on the poet’s social and political responsibility.”

So he is, but he is also so much more. It is this voice, telling it as it is in the wilderness, that must be captured in any reading and in any translation.

And this is just what the Oketani/Leza Lowitz translation does. It won the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the translation of Japanese literature awarded by the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University.

Of translation Oketani writes: “Translators face the impossible task of translating a necessity of expression born of [the] writer’s disenfranchisement. The true mission of the translator is thus to translate works that embody this impossibility. It is my belief and my hope that Ayukawa’s poems do just that.”

This publication is available at Amazon.co.jp