Takuboku Ishikawa: engaged observer

Celebrated tanka poet rode the tumult of his times as he transformed from provincial romantic to national firebrand

by

Special To The Japan Times

The society of Takuboku Ishikawa’s era was in dramatic political flux, and its complex issues became his personal obsessions. After his death, Takuboku’s preoccupations came to be seen as a symbol of the social and emotional upheavals of his times.

The key word in the last two decades of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) was “polemics.” Intellectuals and socially conscious people were actively involved in a nationwide discourse, played out in all aspects of the culture — literature, theater, graphic arts, journalism — as to what the nature of future Japanese society should be. In essence it is the same current that continues to rage today: Should society be open to ideas on the basis of their true merit, creating a fluid situation that leads to the betterment of all classes? Or should the body polity be unified in thought and action behind one ethnic, religious or ideological idea, an idea that presumably makes the nation “stronger” and more successful at engaging in conflicts with other countries?

It is clear that Takuboku identified in his writing with those people who fervently wanted to liberalize Japanese society, and this at a time when the nation was on a mission to create an empire in its expanding hemisphere of influence.

Takuboku wrote about the downtrodden because he saw himself as one of them. Life for him, with a wife, daughter and mother to support, was a struggle for bare survival. The lack of job security that plagued Takuboku’s life, the necessity to move from place to place wherever there was work to be had, the anxiety caused by the fact that a person could be shunned for arguing against injustice, the introduction of restrictions on freedoms, the burgeoning oppression of people seen by the government as “radical” — these aspects of Takuboku’s times have once again become all too familiar in today’s Japan. This is reason enough to consider him our contemporary.

He is best remembered for his tanka (literally, “short poems”). The tanka is one of the country’s oldest native forms of poetic expression. Containing 31 syllables, the genre dates back to the eighth century anthology “Manyoshu,” and was refined in the “Kokinshu,” the primary poetic anthology of the Heian Period (794-1185).

One of Takuboku’s most famous tanka is “Labor” (I have given these short poems titles to sharpen their focus in translation). Here we see the struggle and the toll it takes on his psyche.

However long I work
Life remains a trial.
I just stare into my palms.

Another is “Revolution”:

Nothing seems to disconcert my wife and friends
More than my going on about revolution
Even when struck down by illness.

There are two crucial historical events occurring in Takuboku’s lifetime that affected him deeply. The first is the attempt on the part of activist Shozo Tanaka in 1901 to hand a petition to Emperor Meiji to do something about the toxic waste produced by the Ashio Copper Mine in Tochigi Prefecture that was polluting the waters at farms downstream. Though Takuboku was only 15 at the time of this incident, it had a serious on his consciousness.

Tanaka was one of the world’s first ecological pioneers, a committed agitator who propagated the works of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham in Japan. He was elected to the Diet in 1890, a fact that in of itself shows that Japanese democracy was sufficiently developed to accommodate such a visionary in the evolving new establishment.

The second incident affecting Takuboku, to an even greater degree, was that involving the socialist author, translator and journalist Shusui Kotoku, who was arrested for treason on trumped-up charges and executed with others on Jan. 24, 1911. This date has to be seen as marking the beginning of the decline of Japanese democracy, a decline that took the country down the dark spiral staircase to the dungeon of defeat on Aug. 15, 1945.

The cause and fate of Kotoku stunned Takuboku. Both men were enamored of the writings of the Russian scientist, philosopher and anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin, whose books were banned in Japan at the time. On June 15, 1911, less than half a year after the execution, Takuboku wrote the long poem that can be seen as a call to action to the young people of Japan, “After Endless Argument.”

The transformation from provincial romantic to national firebrand came with the tumult of his times.

Deep stabs at truth

Takuboku Ishikawa was born in Iwate Prefecture on Feb. 20, 1886, in a little village not far from Shibutami, where his family moved when he was 1 year old. Takuboku is a pen name; his given name was Hajime. His father was chief priest at a Buddhist temple. He attended primary school at Shibutami, and the school, with the very same classroom in which he sat, is beautifully preserved today in its natural setting alongside the museum dedicated to his life and work. He moved on to middle school in the prefectural capital, Morioka, where he first met and became infatuated with Setsuko Horiai. By age 16 he was producing work of such quality that his tanka were accepted by the premier tanka journal, “Myojo,” and he promptly dropped out of school to pursue a career in literature.

It wasn’t long before he was recognized by the likes of Tekkan and Akiko Yosano, the leading lights in the genre of tanka, as a brilliant new voice. At the beginning of May 1905 he published his first collection of poetry, “Akogare” (“Yearning”) and, at the end of the month, married Setsuko. The little home in Morioka that they moved into still stands and can be visited today. Takuboku, who was in Sendai scrounging loans from friends, missed his own wedding, obliging his bride to wait at the home for him until June 4. Since his parents and younger sister, Mitsuko, were also living at the house, the family discord that is a major theme of his poetry was to rear its head quite early on.

Setsuko gave birth to a daughter, Kyoko, at the end of December 1906. Adding to the domestic turbulence was the defrocking of his father for failing to pay dues to the temple, leaving Takuboku as the entire family’s breadwinner.

“Akogare,” a collection of 77 poems, is the kind of lyrical outpouring one would expect from a disaffected, sentimental and self-indulgent young man. He would not come into his own as the keenest observer of his life and times until 1910 and 1912, when his two major collections of tanka, “Ichiaku no Suna” (“A Handful of Sand”) and “Kanashiki Gangu” (“Sad Toys”), came out. “Sad Toys” was published in June 1912, two months after his death.

In 1907, Takuboku traveled alone to Hakodate in Hokkaido, becoming a substitute teacher at a primary school. However, the school burned down in a fire and he went to Sapporo, where, in August, he found work as a proofreader at a newspaper. By September he was in Otaru, this time writing for a daily, the Otaru Nippo. Alas, a violent altercation with an editor in December brought an abrupt end to that employment.

Takuboku moved to Tokyo in 1908, and the next year began work again as a proofreader, now at the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun. His wife, daughter and mother joined him there, but the atmosphere in the home was, at best, strained and, at worst, internecine. A son, Shinichi, was born to the couple in 1910, but the infant died three weeks after birth.

Takuboku himself was plagued by illness but could ill afford to see a doctor. He was urgently hospitalized in 1911 and diagnosed with chronic peritonitis, spending 40 days in hospital after surgery. His mother died of tuberculosis in March 1912 and on April 13, he passed away from the same illness, age 26.

After his death, Setsuko took Kyoko to Awa in Chiba Prefecture, where she gave birth to another daughter, Fusae. In September of that year, she returned to her family home in Hakodate with the two girls. In March 1913, Takuboku’s ashes were brought to Hakodate and interred there. Setsuko died of tuberculosis in May of that year, age 28. The daughters succumbed to illness in December 1930, Kyoko to pneumonia at age 23 and Fusae to tuberculosis at 18, both dying at a younger age than their parents were when they passed away.

Takuboku had begun writing diaries in 1902, the most famous of them being his “Romaji Nikki” (“Diary in Roman Letters”), which he wrote in that script as an obstacle to his wife’s reading it. In fact, his tanka taken together also loosely form a kind of diary of events, internal and external. Takuboku wrote that poetry itself was a report in detail of changes in an individual’s emotions. His diaries and his poetry are permeated with a sincere and searching self-examination. They are deep stabs at truth.

He fell hopelessly in love with a number of women, the most acclaimed in his poetry being Chieko Tachibana and the geisha Koyakko, whose real name was Jin Konoe. Tachibana, a fellow teacher in Hakodate, did not return his affection and married someone else. Takuboku was, after all, a married man. The truly beautiful Koyakko, however, had ardent feelings for him. She possessed an incisive intellect and recognized his talent. She also possessed the most famous earlobes in Japanese literary history (see sidebar). Koyakko died in 1965, outliving her poet lover by 53 years.

Stark sincerity

Shibutami is located in one of the most beautiful natural settings in all of Japan. The village is surrounded by mountains, the most majestic being Mount Iwate, rising just over 2,000 meters. The natural bounty of his home town formed a kind of crucible in Takuboku’s mind, a crucible whose contents continued to burn inside him until his death. Nostalgia for his old home is one of the most potent themes in his tanka. The sense of loneliness that pervades the tanka — a loneliness expressed in his often-used word kanashii (sad, sorrowful) — derives in large part from this nostalgia.

To Takuboku home was not just a place of natural beauty. The sounds of his native dialect were the music in his ears. The Meiji Restoration saw great waves of upheaval in all aspects of social life, and people were carried far on those waves. Large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka were the usual repositories for these waves of internal migrants. But many, especially people from Tohoku — an economically depressed region (with Iwate near the bottom of that scale) — chose Hokkaido as a developing region to make a fresh start.

He likened pining for his home town to illness, and he longed for the innocence that he had once wallowed in, for the ability to laugh and cry without being judged, for the freedom to express what he felt without fear of being censured.

Visits to the hospital by members of his family were special but awkward, as they can be in such circumstances. Setsuko also had tuberculosis, and she was forced to carry on with her household duties even though debilitated and unable to breathe properly.

During his long stays in the hospital, Takuboku’s world shrank. Witness him in “The Patient”:

One push of the door, a single step
And the corridor seems to stretch
As far as the eye can see.

And yet he never lost his compassionate gaze, evident in another tanka about a patient written while convalescing:

I called out to him but he didn’t answer.
When I took a good look
The patient in the next bed was weeping.

Unambiguous empathy, deep introspection, stark sincerity, the aspiration to be close to people and share their plight, even if unable to embrace or march with them — these are the qualities created in poetry by Takuboku Ishikawa.

He is a model for today’s self-sequestered youth, with his ardent commitment to life and word, his constant seeking of something better for himself, his family, to whom he was devoted in his own way, and his care for people who found themselves living in the lower economic and social strata in his country.

He is a model to all, not only for this candor and compassion, but for his insight into his own psyche and his willingness to share it unequivocally with us. There is nothing devious or calculating about Takuboku. Yet if such a tendency does show up, he is the first to put his finger on it and bathe it in a bright light.

In the mirror of his works we are compelled to examine the features of our own face in this bright and wholly revealing light as it reaches us, without diminishing, from another time.

Roger Pulvers’ collection of 200 translations of tanka by Takuboku Ishikawa is published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha under the title, “Eigo de yomu Takuboku no Tanka.”

Takuboku’s romantic, revolutionary tanka

On a lark

I lifted my mother onto my back.
She was so light I wept
Stopped dead after three steps.

Weather

The rain brings out the worst
In every single member of my family.
Oh for one clear day!

Intentions

A husband intent on getting away
A wife intent on scolding, a child on bawling …
Ah, the breakfast table!

Old love letters

There are so many spelling mistakes
In those old love letters.
I never noticed until now.

Jesus

It grieved me that my little sister
Looked upon me with such pity
When I said, “Jesus was just a man.”

At the station

I slip into the crowd
Just to hear the accent
Of my faraway home town.

Seeing off at the train station

My wife came with our daughter on her back.
I caught sight of her eyebrows
Through a blanket of snow.

Unforgettable

I can’t get them out of my mind …
Lovely Koyakko’s soft earlobes
Among other things.

The nasty carpenter’s son

It’s saddening. Among many
The young man went to war
To come back dead.

Indelible ink

I hear the autumn wind blowing
As I blacken in
A map of Korea.

In the hospital

Oh the joy of leaning out the window
And for the first time in ages
Catching sight of a policeman!

Prisoners

Every individual is a prisoner
Of the self. The heart cries out
Forlorn.

Trembling

I feel so sorry for the young nurse
Dressed down by the doctor
Because her hand trembled on my pulse.

For some reason

There is a cliff inside my head.
And day by day a fragment of earth
Crumbles off it.

Translated by Roger Pulvers

  • Carmen Sterba

    Thank you Roger for your insightful article on Takuboku Ishikawa and your
    translation of many of his poems. There is a large group of non
    Japanese poets writing tanka in various countries. Some of us are haiku
    poets, also. There is a Tanka Society of America, which has its own journal: Ribbons. Moreover, there are many online tanka journals. As is understood in Japan, tanka is suited to Twitter where they are sometimes called 5lines or micropoetry instead.

  • sasit93

    A very informative article it is on the life and activities of Takuboku Ishikawa. His specialty in writing poem of 31 syllables is really praiseworthy. “Tanka” poem by the Honorable poet is popular in Japan for it’s content and style I think. Though I have not read many a ;pieces, I hope this native form of Japanese poetry is not less famous than ‘Haiku’ poem of Japan. Thanks to the editor and the author for letting us know about Japanese floourished literature.