Social change is a volcanic phenomenon. The first rumblings may not be widely seen or heard; then there is an eruption that takes society unawares. All of a sudden — or so it seems — a new generation with new needs and demands is born. Until that happens, society often outwardly appears placid, calm and devoid of disturbance.

I frequently write that young Japanese must be taught to look to their own cultural past for inspiration on how to deal with detachment, stagnation and the malaise of social cynicism. But the question arises: Where in the past to look for such inspiration?

Feb. 20 is the 125th anniversary of the birth in 1886 of Takuboku Ishikawa, one of Japan’s greatest and most innovative poets. Known by his nom de plume, Takuboku’s personal awakening from plaintive romantic to keen radical is a transformation that can rouse today’s introverted young people to active awareness of their nation’s “dilemma of disconnectedness.”

Takuboku wrote tanka, short poems with a set number of syllables (usually 31, but, in his case, not always). I have chosen and translated poems primarily with an eye to social or political themes. Of course, every Japanese studies Takuboku’s most well-known tanka at school. But what our century needs is a focus on his dismay and anger at the misery faced by Japanese disenfranchised by an iniquitous system.

I shut myself up at home
So as not to look
At the beastly face
Of my fellow Japanese

Takuboku was revolted by the lack of interest on the part of ordinary Japanese in the injustices so blatantly before their eyes; at the deterioration of their freedoms that they seemed to accept without resistance.

In “I shut myself up at home,” he is referring directly to the reaction to the case of Shusui Kotoku, a socialist journalist and activist who, with others, was executed 100 years ago last month on trumped-up charges of plotting to kill the emperor.

The so-called Taigyaku Jiken (Case of High Treason) galvanized Takuboku into giving new thought to the very nature of his poetic outlook on his society.

I can’t get it out of my mind
That Russian name . . .

Here he is referring to the Russian revolutionary anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), who used the name Borodin.

The terrorists seem distant from me
And yet, some days
Their sorrow and longing
Are close to my heart

These are provocative sentiments even for our day, echoing a deep empathy for the plight, if not the methods, of the dispossessed — specifically, in this poem, those he terms, using English, “terrorists.”

Takuboku’s poems can be seen as a chronicle of events, both public and private, in his lifetime. His life and work have been meticulously studied, and virtually every detail about his life is known.

Born and raised in Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Honshu, he went to Morioka Middle School, from which he dropped out at age 17. He was already writing serious works, and published his first collection of poems, “Akogare” (“Longing”), when he was 20.

By 21 he had become a substitute teacher in Hokkaido. Soon he was writing articles for the Hakodate Nichinichi Shimbun daily newspaper. But that job lasted only four months. He moved to Sapporo and Otaru, where he also wrote for dailies. Two years later he was back in Tokyo, where he landed a job at the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun as a proofreader. His bitterness at the comedown from reporter to proofreader is evident.

I only I could have written
In this paper
Imagine what I could have said!

The theme is taken up in a personal poem of his I like very much:

Old love letters
So full of misspelled words
That I failed to see!

Having to support a wife, two children, his mother and, occasionally, his sister on a meager salary was a struggle.

My friends
Do not despise the beggar
I too was one of their number

Takuboku’s personal struggle to make ends meet is illustrated in one of his most famous poems, published in the Asahi Shimbun on Aug. 4, 1910. It is a poem that inspired writers of the so-called Proletarian Literature school in the decades following his death.

I work and work and work
But my life gets no easier
I stare into my palms

The Japanese capitalism of his day was ruthless; and Takuboku, a member of what is called today “the working poor,” knew it firsthand.

His first major book of poems, “Ichiaku no Suna” (“A Handful of Sand”), was published in December 1910. This is a book, full of sighs, pity and resignation, that reveals a romantic, fatalistic and stunningly sensitive young man. But his second collection, “Kanashiki Gangu” (“Sad Toys”), published posthumously, is written in a drier and, at times, more documentary style. Here we can see a portrait of Takuboku the revolutionary.

Perhaps his most important essay is “Jidai Heisoku no Genjo” (“The Stagnation of Our Times”). In this — which is in part a response to the injustices of the Case of High Treason — he bemoans the listlessness of his compatriots in the face of repression from an increasingly authoritarian state.

Takuboku was stricken with tuberculosis, spending long periods in bed.

Ill for four months now . . .
How it distresses me
To see how tall
My daughter has grown

And his care for his mother, who died a month before him, is profoundly moving.

I lifted my mother onto my back
Just for fun
She was as light as a feather
I wept, and could not
Take three steps

Takuboku died of tuberculosis on April 12, 1912, aged 26. After his death his reputation began to grow, with at least three major publishers bringing out variations of his complete works, including poetry, essays, articles and prose. The Taisho Era, which began with the death of Emperor Meiji on July 30, 1912, and ended with Emperor Taisho’s death on Dec. 25, 1926, was one of high polemics, with energized and proactive radical movements in politics and culture. Takuboku was certainly one of the most revered and quoted inspirers of the democratic radicals.

On this anniversary of his birth, we can recall his genuine concern for the disadvantaged. But he doesn’t just offer them tea and sympathy. In the last few years of his short life, Takuboku was in the process of becoming a committed activist. Restless, introspective and distressed by public lassitude, he speaks for the youth now. Is there activity under the Japanese volcano in 2011? Takuboku wrote:

There is truth to the words
“A new dawn will come”
I know
But when . . . ?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.