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Monday, Oct. 27, 2003


War perspective of poets oceans apart

NEW YORK -- A gentleman named Paul Preusser, describing himself as "a composer and fresh graduate from the New England Conservatory," has recently written to ask if I could help him with poems of Kotaro Takamura (1883-1956). He has been commissioned to compose "a song cycle using poetry which is influenced by war," and plans to include poems in six languages: English, French, German, Polish, Russian and Japanese.

With Takamura, he'd like to use a jingoistic poem as well as one expressing regret over his stance during the war.

Preusser's preliminary research was correct. Takamura wrote both kinds of poems. In his youth a powerful advocate of "Western values," among them the need for an artist to be independent and true to himself, rather than, say, digesting and mastering traditions, he began to accept and uphold his country's nationalist causes during the 1930s as Japan's military meddling in China faced mounting international criticism. Many of the poems he wrote from the end of the decade until Japan's defeat, in 1945, were certainly jingoistic, studded as they were with rightwing slogans and self-serving arguments, such as that Western powers were in East Asia "for profit," while Japan was "for justice."

When the Japanese regained some footing from the furies of war, a serious charge, albeit literary, was leveled against Takamura. "Among the many poets, Kotaro Takamura not only directly bears the greatest war responsibility to the people," a prominent leftist scholar thundered, "he must take the supreme responsibility for the degradation of poets as a whole."

Such a highhanded indictment could be made because of Takamura's seeming betrayal of the values he championed when young and because of his service during the war as head of the poetry branch of the patriotic literary association formed under government pressure.

Partly in response to the accusation, Takamura "exiled" himself from Tokyo and in time wrote a sequence of 20 poems titled "A Brief History of Imbecility." More than anything else a reflective account of the spiritual journey of someone who was at once intimidated and exhilarated by the West in his youth -- he studied sculpture in New York, London and Paris, from 1906 to 1909 -- and then was gradually caught up with his country in danger, the sequence is not an outright expression of about-face remorse. Still, it ends with the poet expressing readiness to "submit to the extreme penalty," if that was what society wanted.

I translated a body of Takamura's poems years ago, but in newly translating for Preusser some of the poems he wrote around the outbreak of the Pacific War, I couldn't help contrasting Takamura with some of the American poets at the time. It's not that, at present, the United States is at war amid worldwide criticism; it's that I've been reading "Poets of World War II" (Library of America, 2003), which my poet friend Harvey Shapiro edited.

The first thing that comes to mind is that only ordinary American people may have been unaware of the imminence of war in the Pacific in the fall of 1941. I have read so many stories of American men and women who reacted to Japan's "sneak attack" with towering indignation. But Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), for one, knew something was afoot. A resident of Carmel, California, he began "Pearl Harbor" by saying:

Here are the fireworks. The men who conspired and labored

To embroil this republic in the wreck of Europe have got their bargain, --

And a bushel more.

I can't tell when Jeffers wrote the poem, but it clearly was not long after the assault, for he ends the poem telling the reader to enjoy the "great beauty" restored along the "long shore" of California as a result of the attack:

. . . our prudent officers

Have cleared the coast-long ocean of ships and fishing-craft, the sky of planes, the windows of light.

That was after the fact. About three weeks before the fateful day, Takamura wrote a poem whose title may be translated as "A Time of Certain Death" or "A Desperate Time" (the poet uses both Chinese and Japanese senses of the word hisshi). It is a hortatory piece telling the reader that the destruction Japan is about to face is likely to be deadly. Not that Takamura was privy to the planned top-secret assault on Pearl Harbor. Earlier in November, Yukio Mishima, then just 16 years old, had written to a friend of his: "We appear to be going to war with America, but I think it's too late now" -- too late because Germany's general offensive against Moscow was thought to fail. It did.

Whereas Takamura's forebodings of the impending war typified a people who felt impossibly hemmed in, Jeffers' reaction after the initial attack was one of disbelief that, to quote Allen Tate (1899-1977), "the puny Japanese" dared assault the giant, America. While fulminating against the warmongers of his country, Jeffers reminded himself:

Oh, we'll not lose our war: my money on amazed Gulliver

And his horse-pistols.

There was also a similarity between the Japanese and American poets. Despite his sense of doom, Takamura spoke of "Nature's grace in certain death." While deriding "our leaders" for making "orations" about a war they provoked, Jeffers spoke of "the prehuman dignity of night," which came back as a result of the black-out, "as it was before and will be again."

Takamura of course exulted at the news of Pearl Harbor:

Remember December the 8th *

that split world history into two, he wrote.

There was no way for him to know either that "Remember Pearl Harbor" would become key to a merciless retribution or that it would change America's military strategy forever after the war. (* The assault took place on Dec. 7th, Hawaiian time, but on the 8th, Japan time.)

For that matter, Takamura also exulted at the news of the Feb. 15 fall of Singapore, where the British Empire had maintained its "impregnable" fort:

They possessed it, it meant trouble.

We possess it, it means justice.

Those suffocated over the years are about to be liberated.

Little did he know that, even as he wrote, the Japanese military was rounding up and killing large numbers of inhabitants of the Lion City, drowning many in the Strait of Singapore, on suspicion of harboring anti-Japanese sentiments. The total of those so massacred is put anywhere between 5,000 and 50,000. Those at the home front seldom imagine what may ensue after such a "victory."

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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