Dark Existentialism + Modern Japanese Poetry

As Japanese authors gained confidence in their place amidst a rapidly expanding transnational culture in the early twentieth century, they sought to boldly employ newfound literary ideologies. They took full advantage of the new freedoms of thought and style afforded by Western learning, and challenged traditional written structures in order to create literary works of both great abstraction and interiority. Of the many founding authors of modern literature in Japan, perhaps the most distinct and revolutionary contributions to the movement were those of the poet Hagiwara Sakutarō (1886-1942). His powerful mastery of words reformed vernacular Japanese as a literary language, and as a result of the evolved existentialism in his work he was able to not only reclaim, but to strengthen the aesthetics of the traditional Japanese artistic spirit.

Sakutarō’s primary concern with the state of poetry in his time stemmed from the Japanese language itself. Although daily conversation style had changed immensely over the centuries, poets were still confined to the formal written verse of the Heian period (Ueda, 7). In his 1928 critique of modern poetry, Shi no Genri (Principles of Poetry), Sakutarō wrote that Western free style was rooted in vernacular language, whereas the poetry in Japan had long been confined to traditional Chinese structure (155).  “Since language acquires its beauty and suggestiveness only when it is used in art, the everyday Japanese language—because it is used only for practical purposes—has long remained as an uninteresting, desultory, and vulgar language for everyday life, never being refined or enriched” (Sakutarō, 152-3). Hence he found that the colloquial language of Japan was unsuitable for modern poetic form as it lacked “artistic refinement.”

Sakutarō suggested that modern free verse structure was “a literature based upon the beauty of rhythm,” but lamented that the vast separation between colloquial and literary language in Japan had left the charm of such rhythmic quality nearly impossible to capture (149). He further believed that, prior to the adoption of waka and haiku, Japanese poetry had existed as free verse in the colloquial language. He thus sought to revive the aesthetic of Japanese poetry to its original state, before the bonds of Chinese structure had clearly separated vernacular speech from the formal literary language.

In order to find the elusive rhythm of colloquial Japanese, Sakutarō wrote poetry similar in style to his peer in poetics, Miyazawa Kenji, who called his own art not poetry, but verse in the form of “mental sketches.” The flow of Sakutarō’s poems were hence instilled with a wandering and dreamlike moodiness, blurred atmospheres, and shadowed identities. His lines often jumped from one aspect to another as if to enforce an air of vague existence, as well as to demonstrate the meaninglessness of physical being. The muddied surreality of his poem Take (Bamboo, 1915) illustrates this sense of disintegrated existence which was so prevalent in his work:

Something straight growing on the ground,
something sharp, blue, growing on the ground,
piercing the frozen winter,
in morning’s empty path where its green leaves glisten,
shedding tears,
shedding the tears,
now repentance over, from above its shoulders,
blurred bamboo roots spreading,
something sharp, blue, growing on the ground.

Objects in Sakutarō’s poetry embody a consciousness that is neither human nor nature, but rather seem to be all things—and nothing—simultaneously. The “something” in Take seems to represent a mysterious state of nothingness; it is devoid of identity and disembodied from physicality. The lines of the poem flow rapidly from “something” to tears, to bamboo roots, as if each subject was melded to the last; the ambiguity of each object makes it artfully unclear as to what is actually growing, from where the tears originate, and whom or what was repentant. With the creation of pure intangibility, Sakutarō was able to offer a dark existentialism in order to achieve a transcendent, cosmic state of nothingness which could not be caged by specificity.

To Sakutarō, the commonly held truths of reality were merely an illusion. His poetry thus ventured into the unknown vacuum of existentialism in an effort to discover a higher plane of truism. He wrote in Shi no Genri, “for subjectivists, life is not ‘what now exists’ but ‘what ought to be.’ They are dissatisfied with the actual world which is defective, evil, and deceitful. The world that ‘ought to be’ must not be as ugly and repulsive as the actual world is, and it must be found in the world of ideas which transcends reality” (22). Through his poetry, he thus sought to abandon the nefarious nature of reality for the world of ideas. Whether or not his view of a corrupt physical world was horribly skewed remains a question of one’s own opinion, but the fact that he despised the visible plane of mundane existence to such an extent allowed for his work to, as he put it, “soar above reality.”

Perhaps it was to escape the ugliness of the world or to reflect on the devils which consumed his mind that Sakutarō spurred a new generation of idiosyncratic poetry in Japan. Graeme Wilson said of the “artist” that his “function is to hold up mirrors that transmit not the photographers literal reality but the artists individual, even his cracked, perception of the universe” (Wilson, 15). It is unmistakably evident that Sakutarō drew his inspiration from such dark subjectivity. The poem Guntai (The Army, 1923) illustrates the overbearing nature of Sakutarō’s existence with the lines:

Under the dark oppressive sky
a heavy machine of steel passes
innumerable dilated pupils pass;
the pupils, open in the heat,
rove vainly, powerlessly
in the shadow of the yellow landscape the terror.

The nebulous structure with which he brought forth unrestrained darkness was a clear departure from traditional poetic forms. He wrote from a state of depressed and diminished identity; his consciousness seemed neither to belong to Japan nor to humanity. His poems were instead an amorphous pool of thought and anguish which desperately searched for meaning and purpose. Makoto Ueda noted in a 1983 study that “modern pessimism, rooted in Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, blossomed in Japan in the poetry of Hagiwara Sakutarō” (Ueda, 137). By utilizing Western free-form techniques, his poems were able to radiate a romantic nihilism which was both hauntingly alluring and beautifully austere. The following excerpt from Neko no Shitai (The Corpse of a Cat, 1924) personifies the melancholic beauty of waning existence found in Sakutarō’s work:

We have no past, we have no future,
then too, we’ve disappeared from actual things
In this landscape that looks peculiar,
why don’t you bury the corpse of the muddy cat?

To Sakutarō, the realm of reality was one of cold austerity and his poems reflected a dark existentialism unlike any of his literary predecessors. His poem Jimen no Soko (Sickly Face at the Bottom of the Ground, 1917) similarly defined the beauty of the estranged, bleak, and melancholic in a structure which was far removed from traditional poetic verse. The at times incomprehensible nature of the poem produces a lingering sense of withered beauty, evoking a true wabi spirit; an aesthetic which is ubiquitous in the heart of Japanese culture. His work thus fully actualized the Taisho moto: “Western learning and the Japanese spirit,” which initiated an entirely new age of modern Japanese literature.

At the bottom of the ground a face emerging,
a lonely invalid’s face emerging.
In the dark at the bottom of the ground,
soft vernal grass stalks beginning to flare,
rats’ nest beginning to flare,
and entangled with the nest,
innumerable hairs beginning to tremble,
time the winter solstice,
from the lonely sickly ground,
roots of thin blue bamboo beginning to grow,
beginning to grow,
and that, looking truly pathetic,
looking blurred,
looking truly, truly, pathetic.

in the dark at the bottom of the ground
a lonely invalid’s face emerging.

The existential despair which permeated Sakutarō’s work truly redefined poetry in early twentieth century Japan. Poets before him had found themselves confined to the limits of their mundane reality, and were contented in the simple expressive rhythm of traditional written language and form. With the free verse poetic style of the West, Sakutarō not only challenged the artistic limits of colloquial Japanese, but explored the universal fragility of the human ego while maintaining a uniquely Japanese mien. As is made evident by the abstract confessional style of his “mental sketches,” his own inspiration came from a dark subjectivity that was set apart from the masses, whose minds were tethered to what he viewed as a nightmarish reality. His narrative voice thus soared into a dreamlike realm which existed above the plane of physical being in order to penetrate the deepest crevices of his own mind. Due to such explorations of interiority and existence, the modern literary movement in Japan was marked by a heightened self-awareness that pushed toward the establishment of modern individuality.


Works Cited

  • Hagiwara, Sakutaro. Principles of Poetry = Shi No Genri. Ithaca, N.Y.: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 1998. Print.
  • Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature. Stanford, California.: Stanford UP, 1983. Print.
  • Sakutaro, Hagiwara. Translation and introduction by Graeme Wilson. Face at the Bottom of the Ground and Other Poems. Charles E. Tuttle Co. Inc. Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo, Japan. 1969 Print.

© 2015 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved.


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