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Historic ‘Tanka’ Poem Rises from Japan's Nuclear Ashes

[All links lead to Japanese language pages, except when otherwise noted.]

マッチ擦るつかのま海に霧ふかし 身捨つるほどの祖国はありや

Striking a match / momentarily / I see the foggy ocean – / is there a motherland / I can dedicate myself to?

[ The translation of above quote is by Ms. Kozue Uzawa and Ms. Amelia Fielden cited from Kaleidoscope [en]: Selected Tanka of Shūji Terayama.]

This famous tanka [en], a type of Japanese poetry, is from “Wareni Gogatsu wo,” the first anthology from Shūji Terayama [en], a Japanese avant-garde poet, dramatist, writer, film director and photographer.

It was published in 1957 right after World War II [en], a period of high economic growth. Kenshiro55 [jp], a blogger who reviews Japanese poetry, explains the historical context of this tanka:

霧に閉ざされた海のイメージは、当時の社会に広がり始めた不安や虚しさを象徴している。
また、「身捨つるほどの祖国はありや」という切迫した問いかけに、国家ばかりか、命をかけて信じるほどのものは、自分には何も無い、という宙吊り状態の不安定な気分を聞き取ることができる。

The image of a foggy ocean symbolizes the uncertainty or emptiness that was spreading in Japanese society at that time. “is there a motherland / I can dedicate myself to?” : the tone of this question sounds tense, I see the author's feelings of insecurity: there is nothing to believe for his life, including his own country.

suspended Pinocchio

Image by Flickr user JR_Paris under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On November 4, 2012, Blogger kmirua adapted the poem to express his feelings towards recent issues in Japanese society. He included a list of words and terms like – evacuation, radiation, shutdown and rumors – which have become contemporary jargon in Japan following the 2011 nuclear disaster:

Striking a match / momentarily / Moldy air fills the garden

In the British east coast,
I forgot where it was

damp
cool
humid

Gently I open the door
Silently step out of the kitchen

A dark cloud stagnates the air even more.
The air supposed to be cold
I feel a damp shirt clinging.
feel a humid air on my chest.
Or better yet if I put off my shirt

The air somehow cool,
squatting there,
smelling the salty breeze like sediment,
wet bricks,
mold,
garbage next door,
and that scent beyond bearing,
I murmur that song.

Striking a match
momentarily I see the foggy ocean
is there a motherland I can dedicate myself to?

Explosive phenomenon [1]
Planned evacuation[en] [2]
Cold shutdown [en]
Radiation controlled area [3]
Harmful rumors [en]
Fukushima Health Management Survey [en]
The Secretariat of the Nuclear Regulation Authority [en]
Democracy
Kenka no Iroha [the ABC of the fighting] [4]
Reconstruction budget [en]

empty words filled the freight train
Sitting in a cool drizzling German autumn,
I catch a fleeting whiff of that moldy air in the Britain

Are there words I can dedicate myself to?

On her death, I would turn the cardiac monitor off
Without saying so, the doctor reached up
trying to turn it off

Please don't.

The doctor put his hand down in surprise and turned to me,
and said in a low voice,
You wouldn't look at such a machine

I shook my head

I am accustomed to numbers
I treat lives with numbers
That's my job

please don't stop it

Even lives don't have reality.
Are there words I can dedicate myself to?

[note: The hyperlinks in the poem have been added by the author of this post, not by Kmiura.]

What do you see in this modern piece created more than half a century after the original?

When we contacted the Poet to ask permission to place his piece on Global Voices, he asked us to include references to two of his other posts to add context to the poem. One is “Discontinuity and deception” (June 1, 2012) which takes a doubtful look towards the operations of a nuclear power plant. The other is “She passed away” (April 7, 2009) on the bereavement of his wife.

translator's notes
[All links in English otherwise noted]

[1] The “explosive phenomenon” is a phrase used by Yukio Edano , Chief Cabinet Secretary at a press conference[ja] on March 12, 2011, when nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi power plant underwent a hydrogen explosion after the Tohoku Tohoku Earthquake.

[2] After the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster in March 2011, the Japanese government asked people to evacuate dangerous areas [ja], which is defined as a region where residents are at a risk of being exposed to 20mSv of radiation in a year, (an internationally standard set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.) Though the government named this area a “planned” evacuation zone, it has been unclear what was actually planned with the gradual extension of the area afterwards.

[3] Radiation controlled area [ja] is defined by laws in order to keep people from unnecessary exposure to radiation, where people may not enter. In Japanese, the words sound as if the radioactive emission itself is under control in the area.

[4] Kenka no Iroha: Meaning the basic fighting skills. This word was used in a provocative remark by Naoki Inose , the former vice Governor of Tokyo ( he is now Governor), who commented on Twitter in response to the illegal action of members of the Hong Kong Baodiao movement committee[zh] who landed in the disputed Senkaku Island (note  China refers to the island as Diaoyu, Taiwan as Tiaoyutai ). His remark referred that the basic fighting skills we should be using is to drown swimming people from above the shore.

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