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  • Ayukawa NobuoPoet of Arechi
  • Shogo Oketani (bio)
    Translated by Leza Lowitz (bio)

Ayukawa Nobuo (neé Uemura Ryuichi) was born in Tokyo in 1920. A leading poet in Japanese Sengo-shi, or "postwar poetry," he was one of the founding members of Arechi (Waste Land), a poetry group that was heavily influenced by European modernists, including T. S. Eliot, and that had a strong impact on the direction of Japanese poetry after World War Two.

Ayukawa had first been drawn to Eliot after encountering "The Waste Land" when it was translated into Japanese in the 1930s. He had been captivated by Eliot's modernist language and radical use of imagery, and found that the sociopolitical environment of pre-fascist Europe and economically depressed England resonated for him, as it reflected the situation in his own country at the time. Just as Eliot would capture the bleak landscape of post-World War One Europe, the Arechi poets bore witness to the disillusionment of postwar Japan a few decades later, in a new language inspired by modernism and deeply colored by their personal experience during the war.

In September 1942, Ayukawa had to leave college due to the war. Because he lacked enough credits in the required subject of military training, he lost his military exemption, which was a privilege afforded to most college students at that time. In May 1943, at the age of twenty-two, he was sent to Sumatra. Many of his poems express the agony of a soldier deeply conflicted about sacrificing his life for a fascist country that no longer had any value to him. This experience marked Ayuikawa's true beginning as a postwar poet. While there, he contracted malaria. This, ironically, saved his life. In April 1944, he was sent back to Japan to recuperate on a hospital ship.

Most of the Arechi members were not as lucky. Half of them died in the war. Ayukawa considered his survival an "accident," one he would describe as shinisokonau, a Japanese word that contains a sense of regret and can be translated as "failing to die." This deep sense of survivor's guilt would inform his work for decades.

After the war, most Japanese were willing to accept Japan as reborn. Japanese democrats, socialists, and communists flattered themselves by taking credit for the country's newfound peace and freedom. At first, Ayukawa felt that way [End Page 67] too, but he had spent his student days under oppressive fascism, intensively studying European thought and literature, which were based on individualism. In a series of essays written from 1954 to 1959, he directly challenged those who pretended to be poets of resistance but who did not acknowledge the fact that Japan's postwar freedom had been brought about by outside forces, not by the Japanese. He railed against people who didn't have the will to assert themselves as individuals. At the time, the tide of Japanese poetry was against him, and for many years, no one made a sincere attempt to respond to his call for social responsibility. Ayukawa was the only poet of his generation who publicly shouldered this responsibility. He harshly criticized older poets, for their lack of independent thought.

Ayukawa's poetic style shifted in the 1970s. In the decades after World War Two, he had forced himself to look straight into his experience on the battlefield. He wrote as a soldier, a stance that he kept for two decades. But in the 1970s, the image of the soldier who failed to die all but disappeared from his poems. Yet Ayukawa never forgot his wartime experience. The dead were still with him, roaming the deserted streets, floating between the lines of poems.

Ayukawa stopped writing poetry in 1982. In the last four years of his life, he concentrated on writing criticism and magazine columns. He died in 1986, at the age of sixty-six, from a cerebral hemorrhage. After having lived so long with a self-critical awareness of having failed to die, he seems to have passed away calmly in the end. [End Page 68]

Shogo Oketani

Shogo Oketani was awarded an NEA fellowship and Japan–U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for his...