Happy Birthday Kazuko Shiraishi!

Kazuko Shiraishi, Tokyo, October 1988 -photo: Allen Ginsberg, courtesy Stanford University Libraries / Allen Ginsberg Estate

Kazuko Shiraishi, “the Allen Ginsberg of Japan”, as Kenneth Rexroth memorably described her, (or, to quote another encomium (from Donald Keene),”the outstanding poetic voice of her generation of disengagement in Japan”, turns 92 today (impossible to imagine!)
– Happy Birthday Kazuko!

Born in Canada in 1931, she moved with her family to Japan in 1938shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. The contrast between laid-back Vancouver (her birthplace) and the fervent nationalism she encountered in Japan was a formative influence on her life-long disengagement. At age 17, she became involved with the Japanese avant-garde, centered around the legendary Katsue Kitasono (and his VOU group). Aged 20, she published her first collection of poems. In the late ’50s, she moved to Tokyo and, as one critic has it, “almost single-handedly creat(ed) the Japanese “Beat Generation.”  She made vital connections with American jazz musicians and indeed pioneered the development of the performance of live jazz and poetry.

She also, in these early days,  translated Allen Ginsberg into Japanese.

Allen was later to return the favor. Here’s his translation of Shiraishi’s December 1982 poem “リトルプラネット (“Little Planet”) – (a translation initially inscribed on a paper napkin in Paris, many years later appearing in the 2009 English-language volume, My Floating Mother, City):

“This little planet begins to have a headache/Since humans occupied it and took it out of God’s hand/ Green blood dries, earth’s veins wither/The Whale gets harpooned before he sends singing Telepathy of Love/ Big jet-flies circle the planet’s head and turn the occident into a skull/Planets break their necks all thru 21’st century/Meanwhile killers get high on the God of Science/ & cheer the big Arms race on/Kicking the globe in the head and puncturing its skin/Earth looks like it won’t recover, too many humans busy watching T.V./
And no one says anything about saving the planet/Will anyone witness our little Noah’s Ark planet drown in the Universe?/Only if they’re able to dig up a Time Capsule named the Future.”

Here she is performing the poem at the 9th Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín, in el Cerro Nutibara, Teatro Carlos Vieco, in June of 1999:

Here she is performing, back in 1982, in Amsterdam (Allen reads in English two of her poems (“A Chinese Ulysses” and “Falling Egg City”), Kazuko reads the Japanese, Allen accompanies her on harmonium”)

Here’s those poems (and others) read and performed two years later in Bisbee, Arizona (another recording from the Ginsberg Stanford archives)

Her poems have been translated into numerous languages, German, Spanish, Korean (to mention but three), besides being rendered (by various hands) into English.
More importantly, she has traveled and performed extensively, throughout the world, becoming, at one time something of a fixture on the international poetry circuit – Rotterdam (consistently), Medellín, Manila, Warsaw, Hamburg, Durban, Vancouver, Murcia, London, Paris, New York, San Francisco… The list could go on

In Japan,  she’s had an extraordinary publishing career, over two dozen volumes of poetry and prose (among them – Isso no canoe, mirai e modoru (A Canoe Returns to the Future), Sunozoku’ (Sand Clan), Moero Meiso (Burning Meditation), Hira hire hakobarete ikumono’ (One Who is Carried off, Fluttering), Arawareru mono tachi wo shite’ (Let Those Who Appear), Roba no kichou na namida’ (Precious Tears of the Donkey), as well as volumes of essays on music, art and film, children’s books).  Again, too many to enumerate here.

Her most famous book, (perhaps unfortunately, since it came at a still-early stage and it’s somewhat branded her), is Seasons of Sacred Lust, (published in English by New Directions in 1978, at Rexroth’s insistence). That book, a thoughtful and representative selection of early work, to which Rexroth wrote the introduction, remains a pivotal and essential text.

“Shiraishi’s metier”, he writes, “is something else. Modern Tokyo in the third quarter of the twentieth-century is the international megalopolis pushed to the extreme. One cannot say to the ultimate for god knows what the ultimate may be. Shiraishi doesn’t write of the ukiyo, the Floating World, now utterly gone, but of a maelstrom, a typhoon in which lost men and women whirl through toppling towers of neon. Shiraishi’s Tokyo is straight out of Dante but Paola and Francesca seem only to get together for a moment to realize estrangement. Music – jazz and rock – and poetry provides something resembling values. Sex seems to only ease the pain and fear…”

“Her poetry can be soft and sweet at times”, but mostly it has a slashing rhythm read in what she refers to as her “Samurai movie voice”. Her effect on audiences is spectacular. There is the secret of Shiraishi as a person and as a poet. She is a thoroughly efficient performer and her poetry projects as does that of very few other poets anywhere..”

Rexroth notes the challenges of translation – “This selection is the work of five people who constantly consulted one another. The principal initial translator of these poems was Ikuko Atsumi, a close friend of Shiraishi’s, who herself writes poetry in both Japanese and in English, assisted by John Solt, of whom the same may be said. The translations were then revised by the American poet, Carol Tinker and by Yasuyo Morita and by Kenneth Rexroth, who also translated several additional poems.”

New Directions followed it many years later (over a quarter of a century later!) with Let Those Who Appear (2002)

As the publishers then observed – “Seasons is but a prelude to Shiraishi’s greater accomplishments. It has (since) been followed by more than fifteen new collections in Japan and, moving beyond her early Beat-related work, her poetry has developed an impressive range and depth”

Let Those Who Appear is a selection of poems first published in Japanese between 1988 and 2000.  The title poem is from her 1996 book which received three prestigious awards in Japan – the Yomiuri Literature Award, the Takami Jun Poetry Award, and the very special Purple Ribbon Medal ((Shijuhosho) presented by the Emperor of Japan.
Translations are by Samuel Grolmes and Yumiko Tsumura.
Read an informed and enthusiastic review of this important volume – here

and following that,  My Floating Mother, City (2009)


Here she is performing  with the great Chilean trumpeter,  Cristian Cuttarufo  (from 2005)

and from 2008  at The Tokyo Poetry Festival :

and  with Itaru Oki, that same year, in Osaka:

“La Musique et la Poésie 2” – A performance  featuring Kazuko Shiraishi (poetry), Yusei Kaneko (trumpet), Jyoji Sawada (contrabass) and Marcos Fernandes (percussion) that took place at Saravah Tokyo, on September 4, 2013

The most recent collection of her poems from New Directions is the 2017 volume  Sea, Land, Shadow (translated by Yumiko Tsumura)   Hiro Sato, arguably the preeminent translator of contemporary Japanese poetry, reviews it (and her) for the Japan Times here

Don’t miss also this essential review by Taylor Mignon in the Kyoto Journal – (Mignon delves deep into the issues of translation)  – “The Allen Ginsberg of Japan”

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