Yoshimoto Taka’aki, Five War poems translated by Manuel Yang


Composed a decade after Japan’s defeat in World War II, the following five poems appeared in the mid-1950s when their author, Yoshimoto Taka’aki resigned from his workplace at Toyo Ink after the labor union struggle he led against the company was defeated. For Yoshimoto, who would emerge in the early 1960s as an intellectual and literary inspiration to the New Left students who opposed both the conservative capitalist regime of the Liberal Democrats and the anti-democratic Stalinist vanguardism of the Japanese Communist Party, these poems were written on the occasion of his second greatest defeat (the first was the war and the third was the anti-Ampo -- Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Pact -- movement of 1960). It is not difficult to see how the first major defeat of the war metaphorically haunts the images of these poems. In contrast to the Old Left orthodoxy of postwar democrats and Communists who ideologically valorized peace and democracy without self-critically coming to terms with their own responsibility in the war, Yoshimoto’s refusal to subsume his “experience of defeat” to larger political causes, ideological forms, and illusions of national power is expressed variously here, not least through their persistent refusal of easy optimism or nihilistic despair. What fragilely holds together the invisible center of the unpunctuated, fractured lines, the vortex of war-haunted images that crisscross death and vanishing fighters, is Yoshimoto’s commitment to the necessity of fighting under other names the ghosts of many-headed alienation, just one of whose many names is “war”.

    Descending to the World

    of Odd Numbers

    Descending to the world of odd numbers, he seems regret-
    Ful
    To not have shared together the secret of an unassuming life
    With a girl in the remaining world
    Also to not have known the pleasurable sensation when
    A piece of desire turns into
    The rich fragrance of bread or into another person’s
    Deferential greeting of courtesy

    Even so
    The parting between that world and the world
    Was simple. On top of the burningly scarred
    Ruins of the capital the dark soul
    Emphatically said no to the rulers
    And a tattered war-disaster boy
    Quickly took his wallet and ran away
    At that moment his world was also taken

    Even the wind crossing like meshes
    Between one building and
    Another erected with no relation to each other, the seemingly happy
    Crowd and a joyful girl among them, even they
    Can’t scratch and make
    His heart ring
    Even a living body, even caresses that pour all over him
    Can’t determine his soul
    When you lose your reason to live
    Living, close to death
    You can’t search and find the reason to die
    Although his heart
    Descended at once to the world of odd numbers
    For ten years his body
    Walked among flashy crowds
    Surrounded by secret matters, what flowed through his breast
    were dreams that may never be realized
    An affair that is hungry and has no backing
    A love being erased
    After feeling ashamed of what was written on paper
    He stands up and departs for the future


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