Saturday, June 23, 2012

Anata ga Saigo no Saigo Made Ikiyo to/ Mukidashide Tachimukatta Kara (Because You Bravely Put Up a Fight Right to the Very End), by Yohei Suto

The arresting cover design of this slim volume of poetry by Yohei Suto is an apt representation of the powerful tangle of human emotion and drama expressed within. Its title, Anata ga Saigo no Saigo Made Ikiyo to/ Mukidashide Tachimukatta Kara, means—and I am no poet so I won’t even attempt to translate this poetically—‘Because you bravely put up a fight right to the very end.’


Yohei Suto lives in Minami-sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, a town devastated by the tsunami waves on March 11, 2011. The poem from which the title is drawn, Sanzan to Orishikiru Ame no Sora ni (In the sky from which the rain pelts down), is about Suto’s uncle, whose body was found washed up on a mountainside wearing a life vest. This uncle had been important to Suto because of his encouraging words when life was difficult; Suto has suffered from Tourette syndrome since he was ten. The poem expresses Suto’s regret at having continually let his uncle down because “I didn’t have the courage to go on living in this body” but, struck by the tenacity of his uncle to cling to life, Suto is inspired: “I want to save people from suffering.” He resolves “To live in love,” like his uncle, who he believes is watching over him from up “In the sky from which the rain pelts down.” It’s a very personal poem about the relationship between Suto and his uncle, yet it expresses the universal desire to find meaning and purpose in the senseless deaths of others, especially those taken away under such unimaginable circumstances. In being both a requiem for the dead and a self-portrait, it encapsulates the two thematic strands in this volume.


An afterword by Suto’s elder brother, Yuichiro, explains the background to the publication of this book; his brother’s illness, what happened on March 11, the aftermath as the community struggled to recover and Suto felt increasingly isolated and tormented. It expresses the hope that it become an answer to the question to that Suto tormented himself with: “Why did I survive?” While knowing something of Suto’s story certainly adds to a comprehension of the poems, they are not so obscure as to be impenetrable without it.


Writing poetry, it seems, was a matter of life and death for Suto. He was originally inspired by Shuntaro Tanikawa's  poem Kore ga Watashi no Yasashisa Desu (This is My Kindness) to start writing poetry at the age of 25, after years of suffering from isolation and prejudice due to his illness, symptoms of which included involuntary grimacing and foul language. He thought that he would “put out a poetry collection as proof of having lived, and then die.” Four years later he privately published a volume entitled Michinoku Teppoten (Michinoku Gun Shop), which won the Chuya Nakahara Prize for contemporary poetry in 2007. After winning the prize he wrote a few poems upon request but found it difficult to continue writing because of his condition—that is, until 3/11. On the day the earthquakes struck he had been visiting a hospital in Sendai to receive an official diagnosis of his condition, and was forced to take shelter in evacuation centers there for a week before being able to return home to Minami-sanriku, where he was met by a scene of total ruin and devastation. His family home, however, is located on a cliff, and both it and his parents had survived. Their great joy at seeing him alive, described in the poem Hareruya (Hallelujah) as “Crying like crazy and holding each other like we were kneading mud,” is something he “will never forget my whole life.”


In the days that followed, however, Suto was cruelly prevented from joining in the community reconstruction effort by a pathological shyness and fear of people—a complication of his illness—and as he came to feel more and more alienated and useless, he tormented himself with the question of why someone like he had survived when so many others didn’t.


And so he began writing poetry again, writing from the heart as proof that he was still living, the poems a means of bridging a deep need for human connection. Bakemono (Monster), the title poem for the second section of the book, poignantly expresses that need. It describes a period of his life when he lived in Tokyo, but was published—and probably written—post 3/11. In Tokyo, Suto made friends with the man living next door, an unusual experience for him because “…people around me had never treated me like a human, and/ I’d never even thought of myself as human.” He became friendly with the man’s girlfriend as well, but betrayed his friend by sleeping with her: “Just once, I wanted to hold a flesh and blood woman.” In anger at the betrayal his friend called him a monster, confirming Suto’s opinion of himself. But no matter how much time passed, “I could never forget the touch of her feet as our bodies were softly entangled.” It’s a heartrending poem, expressing as it does a fundamental human longing for connection and intimacy so often denied to social outcasts. The depths of Suto’s self-loathing in the period after 3/11, can perhaps be gauged by Hajisarashi (Disgrace), another poem published after the disaster. It describes a baseball match he took part in during junior high school, when he was mercilessly teased by the opposing team, and later suddenly punched by the coach. “Even now I can never forget his expression as he looked down at me.” A reminder that acts of cruelty, as much as acts of kindness, leave a lasting impression.


If the Bakemono section constitutes a self-portrait, the longer first section of sixteen poems, is a requiem. This section is entitled Sanzan to Orishikiru Ame no Sora ni (In the sky from which rain pours down), after the poem about his uncle. In this section he comes into his own as a poet, portraying through a careful selection of emblematic detail, the aftermath of unimaginable disaster as a community struggles to rise up again, and giving voice to things that cannot be described, such as another body turning up, in Gansho (Reef): “Face dissolved, hair fallen out, she wears only a brassiere they said,” or the despair at having to go on after so many have died, “walking through the jagged rubble,” in 20195 Nin (20,195 People). The poems, some of which are dedicated to the memory of particular people, are a tapestry of moments and scenes shot through with a complex gamut of emotions—grief, joy, despair, acceptance, anger, pain, resignation, quiet comfort, gratitude, and remembrance—that form a portrait of a devastated community. My favorite is Kodomotachi e (To the Children), ostensibly a message to children without hope for the future who may be thinking that god doesn’t exist. The poem begins with an exhortation to “Eat delicious food and appreciate how good it tastes/ Look at beautiful things and appreciate the beauty,” because this is the best way of honoring the memory of the dead. It finishes up with the lines “Carry on with life, and one day when you can be calm about it/ Let’s get on a big elephant and go on a pilgrimage to see god./ Then we’ll give him a grilling about the meaning of that day.” I think that’s about the best sense anyone can make of it all.


Suto’s poems are an antidote for sensibilities blunted from living in a hyperlinked, hyped-up world. They give a voice to the dignity and humanity of outsiders in any society, and are a window on the suffering and grief of tsunami-devastated communities. To read them is to be reminded of some basic truths about life and death, and the interconnectedness of mankind, that “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Ultimately, however, they are fine poems in themselves and worth reading for that reason alone. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Hanto e, Futatabi (To The Peninsula, Again), by Kaoru Hasuike

Big breath, here goes, my first attempt at blogging. I'd like to dedicate this post to Lisa Hew, who gave me the idea for this many years ago.

I thought it fitting that my first post be about a book by somebody who is a blogger, a translator and a source of inspiration. If Kaoru Hasuike can get the hang of all this despite the long gap in his experience of computer technology, then surely I can too!

The author of Hanto e, Futatabi ([To the Peninsula Again] Shinchosha, 2009), Kaoru Hasuike, and his future wife were literally snatched off the beach in Japan by North Korean agents in 1978. They were held captive in North Korea for 24 years, during which time they married and raised a family, before being repatriated after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit there in 2002. Their two children were later able to join them.

I had long been fascinated by the story of the abductees; what their lives in North Korea had been like and how they had managed to adjust to life in Japan again after such an experience. After their return, however, they quite understandably revealed little in public for the most part, but I thought that one day someone would speak out. That person turned out to be Kaoru Hasuike, and he did so in order to keep the plight of the abductees still in North Korea in the public eye. Hanto e, Futatabi was published in 2009 and won the Shincho Documentary Award. It is not directly about life in North Korea as such, but it does contain many fascinating vignettes.

The book is basically in two parts. The first is a travel narrative, an account of a trip to Seoul he undertook in order to fill in the gaps in his experience. Hence the title: To The Peninsula, Again. After returning to Japan, Hasuike eventually found his niche as a teacher and translator of Korean. He had been a law student at the time of his abduction, and did actually complete the law course eventually, but found that his long absence from Japan made taking up a career in law difficult. Becoming a translator and teacher was a way for him to turn his experience into something positive; making the language of his captors into a weapon he could use to salvage the lost years. In Seoul he gets to meet some of the authors he has translated, visits a bookshop and scenes from novels. Every place he goes to see he has thoroughly researched in advance, and often it has poignant overtones, triggering memories of and comparisons with North Korea. One of the most moving passages was his description of the lights of Seoul, and the memory it precipitates of the lights of his hometown Kashiwazaki in Niigata, which was his last glimpse of Japan the night he was abducted.

The second part of the book is a compilation of his blogs. He recounts how he became a translator, how this work has enriched his life by providing opportunities to meet Koreans and Japanese from different walks of life, thus increasing his appreciation of literature and its power to bring people together—definitely a man after my own heart! He also writes amusingly of his Rip Van Winkle-like experience in returning to Japan to find everything changed; things like the advent of computers, the spread of manga culture, and—for some reason—the improbable improvement of dentists' chair-side manners.  There's also an amusing discourse on how junior high school baseball training was good preparation for life in North Korea.

Even when going into lengthy historical and cultural detail, Hasuike's writing is never dry. You get a very strong sense of his personality—his intelligence, curiosity, frankness, mischievous sense of humour and evident thirst for life—together with the clear sense of mission he feels in his chosen role as a bridge between Korean and Japanese cultures, and his deep sense of responsibility for the other victims of abduction still trapped in North Korea. Goodness knows, they need all the help they can get, because the Japanese government certainly isn't doing anything for them.