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  • Tarō Naka, Music: Selected Poems trans. by Andrew Houwen and Chikako Nihei
  • Ryan Johnson (bio)
Tarō Naka, Music: Selected Poems. Translated by Andrew Houwen and Chikako Nihei. Tokyo: Isobar Press, 2018. Pp. 138. Paperback $15.00, isbn 978-4-907359-23-2

Though not yet a well-known figure outside of Japan, Naka Tarō 那珂太郎 stands at the crossroads of philosophical and artistic exchanges in twentieth-century Japanese literature. Not only was Naka a devotee of the great poet Matsuo Bashō 松尾芭蕉 and Kyōto School 京都学派 head and titan of modern Japanese literature Nishida Kitarō 西田幾多郎, but he was also versed in philosophy and art from Western Europe, with Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Baudelaire all having exerted a great influence on his poetry. Indeed, these "Western" figures influenced the Kyōto School itself; the work of Nishida and his acolytes and associates including Nishitani Keiji 西谷啓治, Watsuji Testurō 和辻哲郎, and Kuki Shūzo 九鬼周造 would have been remarkably different had these philosophers not encountered the fiction and poetry of Western Europe.1 Effectively, what we find in Naka's work is a different way of addressing the same problems that preoccupied Japanese philosophy in the early and mid-twentieth century, the question of how Western art and philosophy, themselves undergoing a crisis of identity as exemplified in the work of the French, German, and Russian figures I have just enumerated, could merge with traditional Japanese thought.

This concern puts him in the company of several other Japanese artists, ones already more famous and well-represented in English translations, such as Mishima Yukio 三島由紀夫, Takamura Kōtaro 高村光太郎, and, especially, Hagiwara Sakutarō 萩原朔太郎, a poet from whom Naka drew inspiration throughout his life. The aesthetical concern found in each of these writers for making the Japanese language and literary tradition meld with European ideas, such as, in Hagiwara's case, the philosophy of Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer and the music of European opera, continued in Naka's work. For Naka it was the Buddhist concept of mu 無 that held together all of his various influences. Among the concepts of modern Japanese philosophy to find fame abroad, mu has proven among the most widespread yet least understood. Often glossed as 'nothingness,' mu has fascinated Mallarmean poets like Paul Claudel and Victor Segalen and continental philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre alike. The result is an understanding of mu as nothingness in the existentialist, largely French vein. Consequently, outside of Japan there is a history of interpreting Japanese philosophical concepts by way of foreign glosses rather than through Japanese literature itself. Here partially is the importance of this translation of Naka's work. Like great figures in the history of Buddhism including Nagarjuna and Dōgen 道元, Naka communicates his philosophical insights through poetry. Yet the ideas remain philosophical regardless of the form in which they are disseminated, and they touch on concepts, like mu, that have been central to Buddhist thought for millennia, and concepts, like the blending of "Eastern" and "Western" thought, that have become more important in Japan since the Meiji Restoration and the advent of the Kyōto School. Naka's work, then, should be considered part not only of Japanese poetry but also of a larger movement in Japanese aesthetics and philosophy more generally, and as a way for non-Japanese speakers to enter into modern Japanese thought.

Andrew Houwen and Chikako Nihei's translations of Naka's poetry arrive at an exciting time for the reception of modern Japanese thought. The work of Graham Priest, Jay Garfield, and Yasuo Deguchi has opened up Japanese thought to a new field of philosophers, to logicians who previously would have considered Japanese philosophy to be peripheral or part of that "other" type of philosophical enquiry. In literary criticism, there is a push, by scholars such as Christopher Bush and Rupert Arrowsmith, to reconsider twentieth-century literary figures and movements from a more global perspective, to understand Ezra Pound and Modernism, for instance, as not purely Western but as constituted by a flow of information between East and West. There is, then, a cross-disciplinary trend towards reevaluating the meaning of national literatures and languages East and West in the tumultuous twentieth century.