Poetry News

A Deep Dive Into Japanese Modernism

By Harriet Staff

At Sydney Review of Books, Alys Moody contributes an article marking the significance of two recently published collections by Japanese modernist poets Chika Sagawa (translated by Sawako Nakayasu) and Hirato Renkichi (translated by Sho Sugita). Moody traces the relationship between Ezra Pound's engagement with poetry from Japan, his innovations inspired by the nation's poetry; while Japanese poets looked to poetry written in English as a way to modernize their verse. Moody: "Read in this light, it becomes apparent that the Japan that Pound looked to in order to revitalise Western tradition was also looking to the West to revitalise its own." From there: 

By introducing Japanese literature of this period into the conversation about modernism, the conventional narrative of modernism as the unilateral appropriation of a passive Eastern culture by dynamic Western artists starts to fray. Instead, modernism is refigured as a complex and global system of cultural exchange, riven by inequalities and mutual misunderstandings, but nonetheless comprised of real cultural innovators on all sides, as Japanese and Western writers looked to each other to revitalise and reorient their traditions, both rent asunder by the tumult of modernity.

In this context, the recent publication of English translations of the collected works of two important Japanese modernist poets is a significant event, opening up our understanding of what modernism is and could be. Sawako Nakayasu’s 2015 translation of The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa and Sho Sugita’s 2017 translation of Spiral Staircase: Collected Poems of Hirato Renkichi each introduce an English-speaking audience to a key figure in Japanese modernism. Hirato Renkichi, born in 1893 in Osaka, has been hailed as Japan’s first futurist poet; Chika Sagawa, born in 1911 in a village on the northern island of Hokkaido, its first female modernist. Both were sickly adults who died tragically young: Renkichi from pulmonary disease in 1922, at the age of 29; Sagawa from stomach cancer in 1936, at the age of 24.

Despite their short lives, however, both poets were major innovators. But while they were influential within their immediate circles, their positions in the canons of international modernism and Japanese poetry have been less than assured. These volumes are in this sense recovery projects, aimed at creating a new readership for the poets and establishing their positions as major figures of Japanese and world literature. Their publication has importance for the reception of the poets themselves, but also for the light it sheds on modernism as a global phenomenon and on the particular Japanese contribution to modernist poetry. They suggest that if the Japanese have indeed ‘had the sense of exploration,’ it might have been more exploratory, more dizzying than Pound’s ahistorical reading credited.

Learn more at Sydney Review of Books, and please recall our recent "Open Door" conversation with Sho Sugita and Corina Copp.


Originally Published: February 13th, 2018