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BOUND TO PLEASE / A poet’s beautiful voice, recovered from oblivion

The Japan News

By Mai Niimi / Japan News Staff WriterAre You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko

Poems by Misuzu Kaneko

Narrative by David Jacobson

Translated by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi

Chin Music Press, 64pp

The voice of a once-forgotten poet reached many of us six years ago when the nation was struck by the Great East Japan Earthquake and its accompanying measureless hardships.

It was a poem titled “Are You an Echo?” by Misuzu Kaneko. The question is also the title of a new book introducing the poet’s life and work.

In 2011, the poem was repeatedly read out in a public service announcement on TV at a time when many companies refrained from airing commercials. The poem is actually repetitions of simple dialogue. But it reminded us of a precious theory of our lives which we tend to forget: How we behave will be reflected in how others behave toward us. People around us are a mirror to show us ourselves.

Though it was written nearly a century ago, the poem did not sound out of date at all. Rather, those who did not know the name of Kaneko would be astonished to learn that she was born late in the Meiji era (1868-1912). 

Kaneko was born in what was then the village of Senzaki, now part of Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture, and began writing poetry at the age of 20 while working at a bookstore. The young woman from a fishing village was soon praised as “a giant star in the children’s poetry world.” Despite her spectacular debut, her first collection of poems was not published until half a century after her death.

Kaneko died when she was 26. It was suicide, as depicted in this book, which introduces 25 of her poems translated into English alongside 15 originals in Japanese, as well as telling the story of her life in its first half.

With color illustrations by Toshikado Hajiri on every page, “Are You an Echo?” appears to be a children’s book, but the tragic aspects of the poet’s life, including how it ended, are mentioned. David Jacobson, who wrote the biographical narrative, explains in the afterword, “I felt that Misuzu’s ‘story’ was not complete without bringing up her sad tale, and we didn’t want to shortchange even our youngest readers.”

While life treated her quite roughly, Kaneko’s poems are known for her affectionate eye on all creatures on Earth, including those who are weak and who cannot speak up for themselves. One of her most renowned works, “Big Catch,” which appears in the book, refers to funerals held by sardines while people on the shore celebrate a big catch. Without using any fancy or sophisticated wording, Kaneko expressed her empathy for both animate and inanimate things in ways that sometimes take our breath away. 

The same thing happened to Setsuo Yazaki, who “rediscovered” Kaneko’s works after they had been buried in oblivion for years, when he came across “Big Catch” by accident in 1966. Yazaki, then a college freshman, was prompted to gather Kaneko’s other works. In an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun in 2014, he said that he still clearly remembers the impact of his first encounter with the poem.

“In only 10 lines, her view to counterpose the people’s joy and empathy for [other] lives is condensed,” he said.

Regardless of its softly colored appearance, such encounters await in this book, even for grown-ups.

Where to Read

Sitting relaxed on a sofa or at a corner of a garden at your parents’ house, if you have an occasion to visit there. It may help you to better relate to Misuzu Kaneko, if you remember what you thought and how you felt in your childhood.

Maruzen price: ¥3,311 plus tax (as of June 23, 2017)Speech

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