On Oct. 11, 2011, seven months to the day after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region, I stood beside the sole surviving pine tree from a 350-year-old forest of approximately 70,000 similar trees on the coastline of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture. In the months following the disaster, this lone survivor had come throughout Japan to be known as “the miracle pine” and “the pine of hope.”
However in May 2012, the tree was finally pronounced dead: Its roots had rotted. After all, it had stood some 10 hours in seawater before the tide receded.
During those early months, the people of the Tohoku region were duly praised, not only by their fellow Japanese but also by people across the world, for their resilience, dignity and charity in the face of overwhelming suffering from one of the worst natural disasters ever to have visited Japan. Even in China and Korea, where public pronouncements of pro-Japanese sentiment are at a premium, people bowed their heads for the self-discipline and selfless behavior of the victims. Their suffering was reflected in the plight of that tree.
What is it that gives the people of this region in northeastern Japan heart and steels their mettle to go on?
I believe we can look to the work of two poets to try and find an answer: Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912) and Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933).
The two were born 10 years apart, about 50 kilometers from each other in Iwate Prefecture and attended the same middle school in the city of Morioka. Though long deceased, their work sends messages to the people of Tohoku today, messages that are as engaging as they are powerful.
It wasn’t long after the earthquake that Miyazawa’s iconic poem, “Strong in the Rain,” was being read aloud and incanted under the breath throughout Tohoku. In this poem Miyazawa urges himself — and, by implication, all of us — to be “strong in the rain/strong in the wind.” Actor Ken Watanabe’s beautiful reading of the poem just four days after the earthquake and tsunami has received more than one million views on YouTube.
Miyazawa saw himself not as being reflected by nature, but as an integrated part of it. Considering his drive toward self-sacrifice, it seems he would have stood there on the shore like that lone pine, to brave the force of the tsunami all by himself, a feeling expressed through his poem “Whatever Anyone Says.” Miyazawa wrote poems en plein air, throwing himself headlong into the vortex of extreme natural phenomena, as if to test his will. This gave rise to an ultimate resilience that has become an integral part of the spirit of Tohoku.
As for Takuboku, he was the rebel: socially and politically committed, in tune, if not entirely with his contemporaries, then with the young people of later generations. From the two tanka poems quoted, “Words” and “The First Thing in the Morning,” Takuboku’s identification with the downtrodden can be seen to go beyond the work of so many other Japanese poets.
What do these two iconoclasts have in common that appeals so profoundly to the people of Tohoku today? It is the stark honesty and incisive openness with which they view themselves.
It is their ability to view their own human condition and circumstances in an often harsh light that gave heart to the people who suffered in the aftermath of the tragedies of March 11.
Look to yourself for betterment and salvation; look into yourself to find truth. That’s what these two great poets continue to tell the people of Tohoku: It is possible to do this in a world where people make it a point to look elsewhere.
Poems translated by Roger Pulvers.
by Takuboku Ishikawa
My daughter is picking up words like
“Workers” and “revolution”
At the tender age of 5.
‘The First Thing in the Morning’
by Takuboku Ishikawa
An article about a homeless old man
Moved me to tears
Not long after I opened my eyes.
‘Whatever Anyone Says’
by Kenji Miyazawa
Whatever anyone says
I am the young wild olive tree
Dripping radiant dew
From my every branch.