Who is Misuzu Kaneko?
Do you remember the feeling of coming upon a letter written by a dear friend from years ago, or even the feelings that rush in when you listen to a piece of music from a long time ago? An excitement entwined in nostalgia. That is exactly what the discovery of Misuzu Kaneko and her poetry feels like after what seems to be more than half a century. This Japanese extraordinaire is a one-of-a-kind poet, but has been understated thus far.
Misuzu Kaneko (1903-1930), born in a small fishing village in the Yamaguchi Prefecture, was brought up by her mother and grandmother after loosing her father at the tender age of three. Her mother ran a bookstore in this fishing village, and felt very strongly about reading and the value of an education. Kaneko too, read voraciously and had a most unlikely opportunity for a woman of that time; she was allowed to finish school at the age of 18. A rare accomplishment and was most unusual in the early 20th century because girls were made to end their education much earlier and attend to their so-called womanly duties.
That was not the case for Kaneko. Growing up in a family of booksellers, the allure of writing was more of a natural instinct. Her somewhat keen eye for the simplistic nature of her fishing village coupled with her childlike imagination made her put pen to paper and these were subsequently sent out to literary magazines. This brought her instant success. That was the begining of a twenty year old Kaneko’s career as a poet. Kaneko wrote extensively about anything that would catch her eye, snowflakes to fishes but all this slowly declined when she was made to marry.
Kaneko was married to the clerk who worked in her bookstore. Her husband was unsupportive of her writing and forced her to give it up. Along the way her philandering husband had also infected Kaneko with gonorrhea, a venereal disease. In 1930 Kaneko had decided to file for a divorce. Growing ill every day, the only light in her life of grief was her young daughter. Unfortunately, the laws of Japan state that the male takes custody of the child. One evening, it was said that Kaneko after bathing her daughter and sharing with her their favorite desert — sakuramochi, a pink ball of sweet sticky-rice wrapped in a salty cherry tree leaf - went into her study and wrote a letter to her husband requesting that he let her mother raise her daughter, and later took her own life, just a month before she turned twenty-seven. Her daughter was eventually raised by Kaneko’s mother and over the years, Kaneko’s poetry was gradually forgotten.
By the time of her death, Kaneko had only published 80 poems. The rest of her poem were left cold in the dark, until Setsuo Yazaki, a sixteen year old aspiring poet recovered her manuscripts in the 1980’s. The remaining 512 poems and prose were then published. In 2011, Kaneko’s reputation as Japan’s most beloved children writer was solidified, during the event of the monstrous Tohoku earthquake and Tsunami that devastated Japan. One of Kaneko’s most beloved poems, “Kodama Deshou ka?” (“Are You an Echo?”) was chosen by the Advertising Council of Japan to be used in a public service advertisement for TV. Her poems’ simple message of comfort and compassion was said to bring peace in the hearts of the Japanese in times of despair. Do unto others as you would do unto yourself.
ARE YOU AN ECHO?
If I say, “Let’s play?” you say, “Let’s play!”
If I say, “Stupid!” you say, “Stupid!”
If I say, “I don’t want to play anymore,” you say, “I don’t want to play anymore.”
And then, after a while, becoming lonely
I say, “Sorry.” You say, “Sorry.”
Are you just an echo? No, you are everyone.
Slowly seeing the light of the western world, Kaneko’s works still remains widely unexposed to many. This poet, who has the simulacrum of Whitman, the love of nature like Emerson, a childlike observation and an inquiring mind is no less than a feast to the soul.
At sunrise, glorious sunrise it’s a big catch!A big catch of sardines!
On the beach, it’s like a festivalbut in the sea, they will hold funerals for the tens of thousands dead.
I wonder whythe rain that falls from black clouds shines like silver.
I wonder whythe silkworm that eats green mulberry leaves is so white.
I wonder whythe moonflower that no one tends blooms on its own.
I wonder whyeveryone I askabout these thingslaughs and says, “That’s just how it is.”
Her art of simplicity is a great reminder in our times of complexity. Her poems exude the ideology of living in the present and to take in what we have around us and took look at it with eyes not short of wonder. Misuzu Kaneko is the mark of an educated female who had understood all her rights as a human being and had freely exercised her reasoning mind in a predominantly misogynistic era. Her attitude and masterpieces trump all the tragedy that had befallen upon her. Today she brings comfort, joy, passion and simply love to all those who read her words. A patron of words, that is who Misuzu Kaneko is!