Poetry can be a vital record of the past. Anarchist and poet Genzo Sarashina (1904-1985) was the son of first-generation Japanese settlers in Hokkaido. Later he became an expert on Ainu culture, working tirelessly to conserve the language, fables and songs of Japan’s indigenous peoples and publishing over 35 books on the topic.

Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943, by Genzo Sarashina, Translated by Nadine Willems.
105 pages

Sarashina’s work is not widely known outside the prefecture, let alone abroad. Japanese history scholar Nadine Willems hopes to change that with her translation of “Kotan Chronicles,” the first of Sarashina’s works to be released in English. The slim volume includes selections from his 1930 collection “Seed Potatoes,” plus writings from the 1940s. Sarashina’s sparse, realistic imagery reveals a majestic, harsh frontier shared by the Ainu, Japanese settlers and representatives of the national government, whose policies aimed always at assimilation and resulted in the callous subjugation of Hokkaido’s indigenous people.

Willems discovered Sarashina by accident while researching a famous Japanese anarchist from the early 20th century, Sansho Ishikawa. As Willems told The Japan Times, “When we say the word ‘anarchist’ there is always a fear of violence or terror, but it is not at all that kind of anarchist; they were anarchists in the sense that they wanted to help the less fortunate, the downtrodden, the poor and oppressed.”

While researching, Willems stumbled on old poetry pamphlets Ishikawa had kept: “The references in the poems were so diverse: to the Ainu, to French geography and ethnologists, to the agrarian world and the drudgery of agricultural work, all alongside references to great natural beauty.”

Willems was reading the early work of Sarashina, who was a friend of Ishikawa’s. Intrigued as a historian and impressed by the writer’s direct style, Willems decided to translate the poems into English, although it isn’t her native language. She credits Paul Rossiter, her publisher, for the book’s success: “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Paul, who helped with putting the poems into poetic English and working on the different voices.”

The translation was stylistically challenging. Sarashina’s poems authentically represent the diversity of Hokkaido’s demographic landscape, firmly breaking from Japanese traditions by using a variety of voices and languages within a single poem to echo the multiple perspectives within early 20th-century Hokkaido.

It is the literary evidence of the shared connections, struggles and collaborations between the Ainu and the Japanese settlers that fascinates Willems. “His poetry complicates the assumptions we’ve got about modernization and how the development of Hokkaido took place,” Willems believes.

“When we look at this period now, we have these very clear-cut dichotomies of the oppressed versus the oppressor, the Japanese and the Ainu — as if people didn’t mix, didn’t learn from and empathize with each other. Of course, we know such humane encounters happened, and that it wasn’t so simple, but to show the complex reality so clearly through a medium such as poetry is important and intriguing.”

Willems continues: “You can glimpse details of how these people interacted and lived together. They were sharing space and sharing customs. Sarashina, for example, learned how to hunt and fish according to the Ainu ways, which wasn’t looked upon favorably by the authorities. … He deliberately uses their language, too, …which is a form of resistance to the established order, since the use of the Ainu language was very discouraged.”

Sarashina depicts these complex, interlocking themes of nature and culture, juxtaposed with other concerns, from the quotidian to the socio-political. Above all, Sarashina’s poems reveal an observer’s eye that is empathetic but never sentimental. His narratives resonate with the realism of the Ainu elder who speaks matter-of-factly of the rights of bears; of school children who wonder why their teacher has been dismissed for sharing authentic Ainu history; of the perpetually drunk veteran sharing the ironic story of his “Yamato spirit.” Willems deliberately kept in blank parts of the poems that were censored by government authorities to further illuminate the historical realities at the time.

Supported by the Daiwa Foundation, Willems traveled to Hokkaido, tracing Sarashina’s path through Ainu settlements: “Hokkaido is amazing,” Willems says. “I could not have translated properly without seeing these places.”

Circling back to the anarchists and Willem’s original research, she concludes: “They saw the world as more of a connected place where all organisms and living beings are interconnected in a relationship of solidarity and dependency rather than a world where competition means the strong eat the weak,” — and here Willems could be describing the Ainu. “Sarashina was a young man, idealistic, who wanted to help. The poems show he feels for people — not just the Ainu, but for any people who struggle. But he’s also critical. He’s critical of the Ainu, he’s critical of the Japanese government. So it is poetry from someone who was really a part of life, who reflected on it and tried to act.”

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