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Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3

Shikishima no Michi: Path of Poetry in these Ancient Islands
By Harold Wright

Part I

Invited to give the keynote talk to the Nihon Kajin Club (The Japan Tanka Poets’ Club), publisher of Atsuo Nakgawa’s The Tanka in English: In Pursuit of World Tanka in Nagoya a few years ago, I read a number of my own translations as well as some of my original tanka. I also read the following original English language choka, (long song). The choka, containing alternating syllables of 5,7,5,7,7, was a form of ancient Japanese poetry that was popular in 8th century Japan.

I had recently returned to Japan after living for a number of years in Ohio. It did feel a bit like I had returned home, but I was really talking about poetry:

The Prodigal Son
It’s a title I deserve
for wanting to leave,
to live in a far--off land
wasting my substance
on riotous poetry,
reading to guitars
and chanting to all that jazz
while letting others
till the fields in Yamato.
With my head hung low
I’m quite glad to have come home
(pass the fatted calf . . .)
I again count syllables
and walk Shikishima’s path.

Let me say more about the form and meaning of the poem.

"Shikishima" is both a place name and an alternative name for Yamato or ancient Japan. "Shikishima no michi" refers to the "Way of Poetry" in the Japanese past. Or more specifically, tanka. The term "waka" was also used to describe the 31 syllable tanka, but back in the time of the Manyoshu, it included other forms including the choka, a longer poem of alternating 5,7,5 syllable lines that ended in a 7,7 couplet. So we can see that the tanka, the favorite poetry form of the Japanese aristocracy for 1300 years, is the shortest possible choka, and thus the name "tanka" or "short song." Back in the old days, it seems that there was no distinction between poems that were sung or chanted, and songs that were written down as poetry. The word "uta" is written with the same character as the "ka" in "tanka" and still means both "ancient poetry" and "song."

The original verse above is a summary of sorts of my own treading along the ancient path of Japanese poetry. Let me share with the readers of Simply Haiku a memoir of my own, over 50 years of stumbling along that ancient path. I have recently retired from teaching Japanese language and literature at Antioch College and as I move my books from office to home shelves I see several collections I have translated that are still in print-- Ten Thousand Leaves: Love Poems form the Manyoshu, Waka Poetry of the Emperor Meiji, Waka Poetry of the Empress Shoken, Map of Days by the contemporary poet Tanikawa Shuntaro, and a few others, including The Selected Poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa, only found now, I suspect, in the dusty backrooms of used books stores both here and in Japan.

My involvement with the poetry of
Japan has been much like a journey in an unknown woods, an enchanted forest to be sure, with unmarked trails and paths that lead both to majestic heights and to nowhere at all. Tanka and other short imagistic Japanese verse has attracted me for over fifty years. My first love of Japanese poetry came with the discovery of the tanka of the 8th century Manyoshu in 1952, but there is more of this story than just finding a good book. The poetry of Japan has defined much of my life and livelihood. Let me begin the tale early.

Growing up in an Appalachian family near
Dayton, Ohio, I graduated high school in 1949. I joined the Navy "to see the world" and was assigned to the duties of a Sea Bee surveyor in Iwakuni, Japan. I was there from the fall of 1952 to the spring of 1955. My first duty was making a map of that old Japanese Naval Base being taken over by the U.S. Navy. But my real interest was exploring the exotic towns and villages outside the gate. I loved hiking and climbing old hills to look for castle ruins and the like. I was a bit of a romantic and even (secretly) enjoyed poetry in High School. I had even (secretly) jotted down a few lines of doggerel myself as I trekked along the mountain trails of Japan.

One day the thought came to me as I hiked the hills, "I wonder what kind of poetry the Japanese write?" I had not even heard of haiku or tanka!

I was learning to speak Japanese a little on my own, so I looked up the words for "poetry" in a pocket dictionary. I was given the word "shi," and then passing an old bookstore across the street from the train station, I dropped in and surprised an old man by asking if they had a book about "Nihon no shi.."  Now the word "shi" can mean "history" and even "death" as well as both Chinese and Western type of "poetry." It was not the last time over the years that old Japanese bookstore owners have been confused by my search. Once he realized that I was not intent on studying the history of dying, nor did I even read Japanese, he rummaged through his shelves and dusted off a real old book and handed it to me. I could see in English translation even some short phrases that indicated to me that the writing was not prose! I paid the reasonable price and went out to a riverbank or someplace to read the Lacquer Box by someone named Shoson Yasuda.

One of my favorite tanka at the time was Yamabe no Akahito’s

Harun no nu ni
sumire tuminito
koshi ware zo
nu wo natuskashimi
hitoyo neni keru

Or in Yasuda’s translation:

I am he indeed
come to gather violets
from the spring’s fair mead;
And I slept there through the night
so enchanted by their sight.

Well, over the years, especially after I leaned to read classical Japanese, I have become a little more critical of Japanese poetry translations, but those poems still excite in me the feeling of a romantic youth exploring mountain paths in the exotic
land of Japan. A more recent translation of my own goes:

To these fields of spring
I came to pick violets,
Yes, I am the one!
Having longed so for this place
I just slept here all night long.

I have written elsewhere that I even began to write imitation tanka and my first was to a girl named Kimiko, a seamstress in town. I don’t think she could appreciate a poem to her in English, or, for a matter of fact, even from me very much! My first English language tanka, composed in 1952, maybe 1953, goes:

Warm breeze that I breathe
that drifts from yonder mountains
in whose shade you dwell
Has been sweetened, I believe,
by blowing through your hair.

These early experiences with Japanese poetry motivated me to go to college after my discharge, and study Japanese language and literature seriously.

After leaving the Navy in 1955, I returned immediately to
Japan by freighter. It was my plan at that time to become a writer "like Lafcadio Hearn," and live in Japan forever. Maybe I could even go to college in Japan. But I lived for nearly a half year in a very cheap rent area of Osaka (actually the slums). I now chuckle at myself for ending up in Osaka in the 50s. Much later, I learned that some of “the best minds of my generation” had been gathering in Kyoto where they were involved with Zen meditation and other noble pursuits. Oh well, it was not easy for me to sit still for very long at all, and I did learn a few Osaka drinking songs.

I continued to write tanka in English and even eventually found publication in such international collections as Tuttle’s Japan: Theme and Variations, A Collection of Poems by Americans, with poems such as:

On the Tea Ceremony

I was to your left
as you passed the bowl of tea
for me to drink
Purposely I turned it round
to where your lips had touched.


On a Withered Bonsai

Dried brown pine tree
dead months ago from drought
and scorching sun
Why do I, starting now,
water you every day?

Also, living in a bombed out area of Osaka, and interacting with many of the post-war homeless, I began to write such free form poems as:


How loud is the tinkling of coins,
two coins even
copper coins even
That jingle in the pocket of a man
that is passing
with two coins passing
A woman sits on a closed store’s steps
begging the passing people
beseeching the passing people
While a child clings to a milkless breast
sleeping and hungry
dreaming it is not hungry
As it too listens to the clinking of coins
of the man’s passing
and the people’s passing.

On a trip to
Hiroshima, I was struck by the fact that the city was being rebuilt, but it took much longer for the trees to grow. Hiroshima in the early and mid 50s, was a bright sunny city. I wrote:


Hiroshima was destroyed in seconds
It took longer for the people to die.
and all of them didn’t.
Some crawled up from the cool rivers
To build and to love . . .
They reconstructed a city upon ashes
and built playgrounds for their children
But they are not joyful.
They sit on sun soaked benches in shadeless parks
And weep
For it takes years for a tree to grow
And their children are unable to play.

I soon found, however, that it was no simple matter to go off and just live in
Japan forever. The government was quite serious about visas for civilians, and I learned that I was going to be required to leave the country and change my visa if I were to either work or go to school in Japan. I was in a double bind. I was running out of money and I needed a job or to get enrolled in a school and start my G.I. Bill of Rights checks! Well, perhaps, I thought it was time for me to go to college somewhere other than Japan. An exchange of letters told me that I would be accepted at the University of Hawaii. My tuition would be $90 a semester. I could afford that anyway. It was before statehood. With much regret, I decided to catch a passenger ship to Honolulu. My berth was a bunk bed in a cargo hatch with a group of migrant workers from the Philippines. I arrived in Hawaii in January of 1956.

I studied the Japanese language, and even classical Japanese, on the GI Bill of Rights, at the
University of Hawaii. I remained in Honolulu through the rest of the 50s. I had a part-time job as a bag boy in a Japanese supermarket for several years. I think the owners found it funny that a red-headed haole boy like me could speak Japanese with the old ladies from Japan, as I carried their sacks of rice to the car.

While at UH, I began translating both classical and more contemporary Japanese poetry. I also remember writing a lot of original poetry both free verse and in the tanka form. I recall winning a state-wide creative writing contest for a collection of my English tanka. I also wrote plays and prose. During the late 50s I became aware of the Beat writers in
San Francisco and remember having regrets that I had not continued my transpacific journey as far as California. Had I not gotten off the President Cleveland in Honolulu in January 1956, to attend the University of Hawaii, I could also have been reading poetry in Berkeley! Oh well, the Path of Shikishima is a long and winding road. And there are no maps!

After staying at the
University of Hawaii from 1956-59, and again for another year to earn an MA degree, I applied for a Ford Foundation Grant to return to Japan to translate Japanese poetry. The reply was negative, but I was offered the opportunity to study Japanese anywhere in the US. I chose Columbia because of the famed translator of Japanese, Donald Keene. I wanted to learn translation methods from the renowned scholar. I arrived in New York in the fall of 1960. I remained at Columbia for two years. New York in the early 60’s was a heady place to be. The streets were full of "flower children" and poetry was all over.

Many of the
San Francisco beats were coming to NY after being arrested or run out of North Beach. I myself stopped in San Francisco briefly on my way from Honolulu to look up some contacts I had made at City Lights. I was told by the police, I had 24 hours to be out of town! My beard seemed to be communicating more than I intended. Saying I was a poet didn't seem to help! I gladly moved on to New York.

Manhattan, I became more and more involved with some of the poetry scenes at the time, but I tried hard to concentrate on my graduate work in Japanese at Columbia. The focus of my study was always poetry; sometimes old, sometimes contemporary, sometimes my own.

I even translated some tanka poems from the Kojiki and other early works for a language class with Donald Keene, and in papers for my Tale of Genji class at
Columbia with Ivan Morris.

The following is an exchange of poems, in translation, from the “Ukifune” section of the Tale of Genji. Ukifune is doubting the sincerity of her lover, Niou:

Though we have promised
to be in love forever
there is still sadness. . .
Since even in these lives of ours
mere tomorrow is unknown. Niou

Over human hearts
I would not be grieving
if I could just feel
In this fickle world of ours
it’s life alone that is unknown. Ukifune

On taking his departure, Niou writes:

Before I depart
for a bewildering world
I’m already lost,
Tears that form to fill my eyes
now haze out the path I’ll take. Niou

Since my narrow sleeves
cannot even halt flow
of my own tears,
How is it possible for them
to impede you leaving? Ukifune

But paths both in woods and life, as well as in poetry are not always straight. I actually turned a cold shoulder to Japanese short traditional poetry, as an academic pursuit, for a number of years, although I did translate a group of tanka or a sprinkling of haiku for term papers and the like along the way in the late 1950s and early 60s.

Even in
Hawaii, I had begun to win prizes and publish my own writings in terms of longer poetry, fiction, and even playwriting. In Greenwich Village, I continued my interest in writing, in poetry readings, even to jazz, and seriously began to wonder if I wanted to live an academic life at all. Being an expatriate poet in Tokyo or living on a houseboat in the Inland Sea seemed to me at the time to be a little more daring, maybe even real, than being cooped up in a college library. Still I was becoming more and more interested in the modern poetry of Japan.


Part II. The Modern Poets and Poetry of Emperors.
Tokyo 1962-65.

My real love of Japanese poetry, beginning with ancient tanka, however, had led me to the 20th century and the Japanese discovery of the colloquial free verse of
Europe. With modernization at the end of the 19th century many Japanese poets were turning away from tanka and haiku and writing in freer forms. At the same time, it is interesting to note, that early 20th century poets in the west were beginning to show deep interest in the short poetry of Japan!

Beginning with my
University of Hawaii days in the 1950s, I had written undergraduate research papers on the Japanese influence on European and American poetry, especially the Imagists and such poets as Ezra Pound. And, in turn, when it came time to write a MA thesis, in 1959, I decided to ask the question, "What influence did the West have on Japanese poetry?" Well, that opened up a whole can of worms of late 19th and early 20th century rejection of traditional poetry and a full embracing of modern free verse. My paper was a brief historical development of modern poetry from the first attempts to translate Keats, Shelly and even Shakespeare down to some of the Japanese poets we now know today: Kitahara Hakushu, Shimazaki Toson, Nishwaki Junzaburo, Kusano Shimpei and the one who became my favorite of the earlier poets. Hagiwara Sakutaro.

It was Hagiwara Sakutaro, now considered the father of modern Japanese poetry, who really was able to break away from the haiku and tanka tradition of 5, 7, 5 syllables and write kogo jiyushi (colloquial language free verse poetry) and still maintain that poetry is the "music of words." Most of my own translations over the next few decades were in the area of "modern Japanese" poetry.

One of the first poems in Sakutaro’s poems in his 1917 Tsuki ni Hoeru (Howling at the Moon) that is said to have changed the direction of Japanese poetry in modern times is his poem "Take" (Bamboo):


Hikaru chimen ni take ga hae,
Aodake ga hae,
Chika niwa take no ne ga hae,
Ne ga shidai ni hosorami,
Ne no saki yori senmo ga hae,
Kasukani furue.

Kataki chimen ni take ga hae,
Chijo ni surudoku take ga hae,
Masshigura ni take ga hae,
Koreru fushibushi rinrin to,
Aozora no moto ni take ga hae
Take, take, take ga hae.


From the bright earth bamboo grows,
Green bamboo grows,
Under the earth roots of bamboo grow,
Roots that slowly taper off,
Roots whose tips are sprouting hair,
Dimly, misty hair is growing
And faintly squirming.

From the firm earth bamboo grows
From the earth sharp bamboo grows
Lunging upwards bamboo grows;
Frozen in majestic joints
Bamboo grows beneath the sky,
Bamboo, bamboo, bamboo grows.

In 1962, I decided to leave
New York and Columbia, for a while anyway, and receiving a two year Fulbright grant, moved to Tokyo. It was my goal at the time to translate Hagiwara Sakutaro at Keio University, but I also was much involved with Tokyo literary scenes of all kinds. It was in Tokyo I was able to discover all the modern and avant-garde writers and poets I had only read about in New York. It was in Tokyo too that I retuned again to more appreciate traditional tanka poetry.

I found that Hagiwara had written tanka as a school boy, but he later turned solidly against such fixed form poetry when he discovered free verse of the west. In the same light as he, I myself started dismissing the early "thumping of counted out syllables." I found his flowing lines of free verse more appealing than his older tanka.

My first real serious return to traditional poetry, however, came in
Tokyo in 1963 or 1964. One day, I received phone call from the Chief Priest of the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. I had known the Meiji Jingu as the sacred place of enshrinement for the Emperor Meiji (1868-1912) and I remembered from reading somewhere that the Emperor Meiji, like all Emperors of Japan, wrote tanka (waka) poetry.

Chief Priest Takazawa said he knew of my reputation as a translator of poetry and as a student of Donald Keene of
Columbia. He then asked me if I would be interested in translating a few waka poems of the Emperor Meiji to pass out to the guests of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. I really hadn't translated much in terms of tanka since my undergraduate days at the University of Hawaii and a few more in term papers at Columbia. I think I said something like I would be interested in trying, and a car and driver was sent for me.

The Emperor Meiji’s gyosei (waka poems by an Emperor) poems I eventually translated were selected by the Chief Priest Takazawa and a committee made up of The Grand Chamberlain of the Imperial Household and poetry tutor to the Crowned Prince (who is now the Heisei or present Emperor of the country). My translations were also scrutinized by several professors of Shinto at a leading Shinto university in
Tokyo. We had a very long discussion, I remember, on the translation of the word kami which is the Japanese term for Shinto deities. Some of the advice I received contained comments like 'gods' or 'deities' perhaps, not a singular ‘God’, no capital letters, it should be plural . . . etc.

During one of the first of my many visits I was asked if I would like to meet the Emperor Meiji! Knowing that he died in 1912, I was not sure what to say, but finally muttered 'dekireba' (If it is possible…) I was then taken to the inner shrine to be purified and was formally introduced to the soul of the Emperor Meiji by Chief Priest Takazawa. "This is Harold Wright. We have asked him to translate some of your poems into English…"

At last, I was able to produce the translations, and they were passed out in a welcoming gesture to all the Olympic Guests in 1964. A couple of examples:

Yomo no umi
Mina harakara to
Omou yo ni
Nado namikaze no
Tachi-wawagu ran

It is our hope
That all the world’s oceans
Be joined in peace
So why do the winds and waves
Now rise up in angry rage?

Umi koete
Harubaru kitsuru
Marebito ni
Waga yamamizu no
Keshiki mesebaya.

By crossing oceans
From distant foreign lands
Our guests have arrived;
Oh, to have them see the views
Of our mountains and waters!

A few years later I was invited back to
Tokyo to participate in the 70th anniversary of the death of the Emperor Meiji. I was asked to translate more poems of both the Emperor and the Empress Shoken. Waka Poetry of the Emperor Meiji, Waka Poetry of the Empress Shoken, are still on sale at the Meiji Shrine. Also, the Chief Priest Takazawa personally took copies of these books to the over 200 embassies in Tokyo and requested that the poems be re-translated into the languages of their own countries. In the forward of the book, Chief Priest Takazawa wrote: "It is our heartfelt hope that these poems be further translated into the languages of friendly nations all over the world in order that people everywhere on earth can appreciate the 'magokoro,' or 'pure heartedness' of our Emperor Meiji and the global peace for which he strove."

The Emperor Meiji wrote:


Hisakata no
Sora wa hedate mo
Tsuchi naru kuni wa
Sakai aredomo


No line exists
Which sector off the sky
So high above
Though the nations of this earth
Are all bound by borders

One of the more international poems by the Empress Shoken goes:

Moto wa mina
Onaji nezashi no
Hitogusa mo
Kotoba no hana ya
Chiji ni saku ran.

In the beginning
People, like all of our plants,
Sprang from one root;
And the flowers of language
Bloom forth by the thousands.

Well, even back in the 60s, I thought translating Imperial poetry was an interesting experience, but I went back to translating more contemporary free verse. I was asked by Kodansha International to translate the poetry of a little girl who wrote poetry to ease the pain of her mother’s death. Her book, Okaasan no Baka, had become a best seller in
Japan. My version of Miyuki Furuta’s work was titled: Why, Mother, Why? It was published in 1965 with photographs of the girl by the famed photographer, Eikoh Hosoe.

One example is:

Why, Mother Why?

My mother
died of a brain hemorrhage
My bother’s gone skiing,
My father’s at school.
They have gone
leaving, me, Miyuki
all alone.
the rice-cakes you liked
have been delivered.
you were so good
at cutting rice cakes.
Why, Mother, Why?

[To be continued, Vol. 4, No. 4]


Harold Wright Harold Wright is Professor Emeritus of Antioch College, Visiting Professor of Foreign Civilizations and Language (Japanese), and Director of AEA's Japan Field Studies.

He is currently teaching a variety of courses dealing with Japanese culture, history, literature, poetry translation, and language. A recipient of numerous grants and scholarships, including a 1985 NEA Fellowship for Translators Award, he is also the author of eight books, including The Selected Poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa, a critically acclaimed volume published by North Point Press, and his second book of Tanikawa’s poems, Map of Days, published by Katydid Press in 1997. Ten Thousand Leaves: Love Poems from the Manyoshu, published by the Overlook Press, has been translated from 8th century Japanese. His current work is editing two more books of modern Japanese poetry he has translated, as well as editing a collection of his own original poetry written in Kyoto and Ohio. He is also an active storyteller in Ohio and other parts of the USA.