As a young woman, the poet Takako Arai watched helplessly as her family’s 400-year-old heritage was literally demolished.
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“One day a shovel car came to our family’s textile factory and destroyed almost everything, not only the physical constructions but the forests, the gardens, everything, even the gods,” she says. “Of course, this was not just my family’s reality, as modernization affects many communities across Japan and the world.”
Arai grew up in Kiryu, a small town in rural Gunma Prefecture considered to be the heart of Japan’s once-thriving textile industry. Her family’s sprawling factory grounds were gradually reduced by economic recession, and now only one small building remains.
For Arai, it was a turning point in both her personal and poetic life. She admits to a creative fascination with how places can be shaped by the changing whims of fate, from natural disaster to economic collapse, all bringing devastation and rebirth amid the rubble of what once was.
“Many industries suffer during economic downturns or because of changes in technology. In some ways, the decline of the factories is a symbol of Japanese modernization,” she says. “Modernization makes many good things, of course, but also brings negative effects, so I wanted to focus on this modernization of Japan from the perspective of the women workers at the bottom layer of society.”
Her newest poetry anthology in English, “Factory Girls,” edited and selected together with her longtime translator, Jeffrey Angles, takes readers into this vanishing world from an insider’s perspective. Divided into three sections, “In the Factory,” “Into the World” and “Of Gods and Small Animals,” the poems together reveal a craftsperson at the height of her creative powers. Using invented dialects and inverted structures, Arai asserts her reputation for stylistic innovation. In this anthology she takes on various personas to reveal the factory’s days and nights of both toil and triumph, drawing on her own and her mother’s often intimate relationships with the women.
“Growing up, the factory workers mixed freely with each other and with family members. It was like a small village, very free with a kind of local modern feeling with all of these independent, working women,” she says.
“Although technically my family would be considered the boss, the status always felt equal among the women. I had so many mothers and elder sisters among the women workers, and my mother, as an only child, had a lot of pressures with the changing circumstances. I want my readers to feel the traditions of this lost world.”
In “The Healds,” for example, Arai explores the constant tensions between these independent women workers and the underlying opportunity for exploitation always present in Japanese patriarchal society. Her language expertly reveals the limitations of their freedom: “The healds are/ No, we are/ Being manipulated, allowing ourselves to be manipulated, manipulating him/ to manipulate us.” In “Nylon Scarf,” the speaker keeps the sad mystery of Mat-chan’s secrets, also a testimony to the garbled inconsistencies of memory: “I didn’t tell, I didn’t tell/ Anyone at all/ Did she take what she didn’t want to show a soul/ And dissolve it in the warm water?”
Yet “Factory Girls” looks far beyond the confines of the textile world to consider the global implications of modernization with poems that examine issues such as fast fashion, corporate corruption and our consumer society’s unending layers of hypocrisy. “Clusters of Falling Stars” juxtaposes the imagined auctioning of a traditional dye factory with real details from the arrest of Horie Takafumi, Japanese entrepreneur and founder of Livedoor, who served 21 months in prison for securities fraud.
Arai’s imagery is “vivid and vermicular,” as fellow poet Forrest Gander describes, and “all but crawl under the reader’s skin.” The result is poetry that is consistently thought-provoking and always viscerally appealing.
The poems also reach into the Tohoku area and the lingering devastation of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake. In “Half a Pair of Shoes,” Arai’s perceptive eye snapshots the full tragedy of a single shoe washed ashore from the tsunami, and “Give Us Morning” details how survivors “count the dead” with the sunrise. Arai admits she felt an instant connection with the Tohoku people when she volunteered in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, in the aftermath of the disaster.
“I saw so much widespread destruction, but it also brought a sense of deja vu, as I felt the tragic similarities between any area facing devastation. I really wanted to know the Ofunato people’s feelings, so I began to visit Ofunato many times.” These visits led to her most recent project in Japanese, a translation of the works of Tohoku poet, Ishikawa Takuboku, into the local dialect with a group of elderly local women, a project that was also documented by the filmmaker Yoi Suzuki.
During the filming, Arai discovered a further connection between Tohoku and the factory women of her childhood. “Many women in Ofunato left as young girls to find work in the factories in Kiryu. A very close friend who was a worker in my father’s factory was from Fukushima,” she says.
Although Arai’s poetry is centered from her personal perspective, her vivid words read both universal and timely; “Factory Girls” gives voice to women struggling to adapt to a changing world.