In “The First Modern Japanese,” Donald Keene pays tribute to Japanese poet Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912), who he calls “an extraordinary man, at times shameless but always absorbing and, in the end, difficult to forget.” Though I’ll take his poetry gladly, I struggle to revere this shameless man.

The First Modern Japanese, by Donald Keene
288 pages
Columbia University Press, Nonfiction.

This well-researched biography reveals an artist unable to flourish due to difficult circumstances, but Ishikawa’s repeatedly callous treatment of others and view of those around him as inferior quickly becomes tedious.

Keene reveals Ishikawa’s travels across Japan as a young poet — From Iwate to Tokyo, then to Hokkaido and back to Tokyo — as he struggles to find a way to survive as an artist.

His self-reflection, openness and honesty is indeed modern but uncomfortably recall the hyper-transparency of our own age, as we obsessively share our lives on social media. Ishikawa openly vents his jealousy and his moral superiority, and is cruel to those closest to him. Addicted to prostitutes and pornography, helpless to defend his wife against his viciously domineering mother, Ishikawa emerges as an petulant adolescent who never had the chance to mature.

That his life was cut short in 1912, from tuberculosis, is the underlying tragedy of the biography. One of his two major poetry collections, “Kanashiki Gangu” (“Sad Toys”), published two months after his death, remains a poignant legacy of his talent.

Keene’s finely wrought translations of Ishikawa’s poems glimmer ever more brightly, sandwiched between the dark episodes of the young poet’s short life.

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