Books

William I. Elliott's lifetime passion for Japanese poetry

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Poet, translator, professor and writer: William I. Elliott has spent a lifetime in Japan devoted to modern poetry. It all started in 1964 in Yokohama, when Elliott opened the pages of a local newspaper to discover the poem “Humanism” by Shuntaro Tanikawa.

Now one of the most widely read living poets in Japan, Tanikawa had already established himself as a popular modern poet, but Elliott did not yet know anything about him. As he remembers, “At first I was simply excited because I could read it, as the poem was in hiragana.”

Then a lecturer at Kanto Gakuin University in Kanagawa, Elliott had been a literature major back in the States and a poet, but his path to Japan had to that point given him little chance to discover the country’s poetry. There wasn’t even a literature department at Kanto Gakuin. With the discovery of Tanikawa’s poem, though, Elliott’s mission in Japan was decided.

A chance pairing with a Japanese roommate while studying at Ottawa University in Kansas had first taken him on the path to Japan. “I was assigned a roommate from Himeji (Hyogo Prefecture),” says Elliott, “and he told me I would enjoy Japan and Japanese culture. I had never heard of such a thing. I wasn’t military, I wasn’t a diplomat, you know this is 1949 I’m talking about. And there were no exchanges of any kind that I knew about, but there was one way to do it, and that was through a missionary society.” Intrigued by the idea, Elliott decided to try, “since I happened to be a Baptist, although not a ‘devout’ missionary myself.”

After graduating from university in 1953 with a degree in literature, Elliott entered the Berkeley Baptist Divinity School, applying to the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society in 1954, requesting a position in Japan. After more training in theology, Elliott was appointed a missionary in 1956 and sent to the Institute of Far Eastern Languages at Yale to learn Japanese. According to Elliott, “I was still considered a little too liberal and young for Japan, so they decided I needed more education.” The Society next sent him to earn a Masters in Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Finally, in 1960, Elliott arrived in Tokyo, first for more language training before settling in Yokohama to teach at Kanto Gakuin, which was established in 1884 as the Yokohama Baptist Theological Seminary and, by 1960, had become a fully established university.

Reading Tanikawa’s poetry for the first time inspired Elliott to create a way for him to come in contact with more poetry in Japan. “During those first years, I was really an educational jack-of-all-trades, teaching for all sorts of departments any class they would give me. Of course, I missed literature and, with the poem, I came up with the idea of starting a poetry center at Kanto Gakuin.”

At that time there were no poetry centers like the ones Elliott knew in the States. “It was unprecedented here, and that was the first challenge, to try to communicate in Japanese and explain the concept,” he says.

Elliott enlisted the help of colleagues to convince the university of the importance of modern poetry. He also translated “Humanism” himself, publishing it in The Japan Christian quarterly. His perseverance eventually paid off and, together with his Japanese colleagues, Naoyuki Yagyu and Kazuo Kawamura, the Kanto Poetry Center was launched in 1967. Run unofficially from Kanto Gakuin, the center also published Poetry Kanto, a popular bilingual poetry journal in print until 2012, the longest-running publication of its kind in Japan.

As part of the center’s original mission, regular bilingual poetry conferences would be held in Japan. Naturally, Elliott got in touch with the poet who first inspired him, Tanikawa.

As Elliott credits, Tanikawa’s response was “immediate and helpful,” and the two were soon planning the first annual Summer Seminar for poetry in Japan, held at Kanto Gakuin’s Kanazawa-Hakkei campus in the summer of 1968.

Although Elliott was forced to take a 14-year break from Japan due to his daughter’s health needs, his new university in Oregon established a sister relationship with Kanto Gakuin, and his relationship with the Kanto Poetry Center strengthened, thanks to his new work with the Summer Seminar, sabbaticals and translation trips back to Japan. Elliott returned to Yokohama and Kanto Gakuin permanently in 1982, where he is now a Professor Emeritus. In 1983, Poetry Kanto relaunched its successful bilingual journal, with the help of co-translators Kazuo Kawamura and Katsumasa Nishihara, and it became a mainstay of poetry in Japan for over 20 years.

Now, having lived in Japan for more than 40 years in total, Elliott has published widely, from literary criticism and his own poetry to over 70 translations of Japanese poetry. Today, at 87, he has returned to his original inspiration: “I decided that Tanikawa’s poetry was more important than my own. So I decided to devote my major energy to translating his works and doing all of it, the whole business.”

With a career spanning decades, Tanikawa (who is coincidentally the same age as Elliott) has published over 60 works of poetry. Elliott, working first with co-translator Kazuo Kawamura, and later pairing with Katsumasa Nishihara, has published 54 volumes of Tanikawa’s poems online through Tokyo-based publishers Iwanami Shoten, in addition to various print publications.

“Tanikawa is the most inventive of any modern Japanese poet,” says Elliott. “Experimentally in form, but also in his subject matter and sheer universality. I am also unaware of any modern Japanese poet whose complete works have been translated into English. There are always bits and pieces, but we think it is important to translate one great poet’s complete works for future generations.”

It’s a typical attitude for a lifelong teacher who still thinks of himself as a student. “I came to Japan to teach and learn. And I’ve learned much more than I’ve taught,” Elliott concludes.