Ruth Linhart | Dissertation | Japanologie

Japanese Literature in the World (Book II)

Ishikawa Takuboku - Poetry: A Writer´s "Sad Toys"

The Japanese poet Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912) started his literary career as a tanka poet, and it is this literary genre which made him popular in Japan. Yet the poet´s attitude towards this literary form was rather ambivalent, and it is one of the tragic aspects of his life that, judging from his letters and diaries, he despised the genre in which he was so gifted.

In his essay Jidai Heisoku no Genjô (The Stagnation of the Times) he appeals: "What I demand from literature is criticism!" As lyric poetry seemed inappropriate to him as a means for "criticism of our times" and not to answer the need for social reform, he thought little of it. Nevertheless, at the same time, he was emotionally very much inclined towards tanka poetry. In his essay Uta no Iroiro (Aspects of the Tanka) he states: "Tanka are my sad toys." His poems, he explains, are but a means of self-expression, like a diary, "sad" because he wrote them when unhappy, and "sad" because of their uselessness to society. Moreover, there existed a conflict between his goal to become a successful writer of novels, which he could not achieve, and his inconsistent and immature character, which made him more suited for the little form of tanka.

This last sentence of Uta no Iroiro, "tanka are my sad toys" stimulated his friend, the poet Toki Aika, to call the collection of 194 poems, which was published in 1912 shortly after the death of the 26-year-old Takuboku, Kanashiki gangu (Sad Toys). Takuboku had already published a collection of tanka, Ichiaku no suna (A Handful of Sand) in 1910, many poems of which are among the best-known Japanese tanka, but not before Kanashiki gangu did Takuboku find a truly original lyrical expression. While in novels and essays he tried to deal with social problems and his ideas and ideals about society, Takuboku looks within his own self in Kanashiki gangu. The collection, in describing daily life during the last year before his death, depicts the gradual decay of all human life. Unlike his novels, which he wrote only out of a desire for prestige and money, his tanka responded to an emotional need. We read, that "on unhappy days" there was "no greater satisfation" for him "than to write tanka."

As mentioned above, he describes in the poems of Kanashiki gangu his last year of life. This year was marked by his deadly illness of tuberculosis (which also caused his mother´s death in the same year, as well as his wife Setsuko´s death in 1913), by discord with family and friends, and by severe poverty. He and his family lived at that time exclusively on money borrowed from friends or from the pawnshop. This was also the year of the Kôtoku high treason affair, when a group of anarchists was accused of having plotted to assassinate the Emperor. The incident aroused in Takuboku a string desire to work for social reform, but he was frustrated by illness and poverty.

This dark background produced tanka of a dark, desolate, and nihilistic view of life.

Compared with his first tanka collection Ichiaku no suna, where Takuboku, in a romantic and often sentimental way, wrote of personal reminiscences and events from a dream-world, in Kanashiki gangu we meet a concentration of themes, space and time, persons and emotions, all taken from the desperate circumstances of his everyday life.

When I say,
I believe that a new morning will come,
I do not lie, but ....

He unmasks and destroys his own hopes and illusions. Accordingly the 194 poems of Kanashiki gangu are a deeply pessimistic, but nevertheless cool and objective description of Takuboku´s last phase of life, a very moving autobiography as well as a work of high artistic value. In these tanka, which Takuboku wrote so easily and to which he attached so little value, he created lyrics of metrical and stylistic perfection that made him famous in Japan and touched the hearts of people everywhere.

Publiziert in: Ivan Morris, Donald Richie, Japanese Literature in The World (Book II), edited with notes by Yukio Suzuki, Kôichi Konno, Yumi Shobo, Tôkyô 1978, S. 32-35 (sowie in An Invitation to Japan´s Literature, publ. by Japan Culture Institute, Tokyo 1974, S. 107-109, sowie in Watashi no Nihon bungaku, hrsg. Nihon bunka kenkyûsho, Tokyo 1977, S. 149-152, und in arabischer Übersetzung).

Ruth Linhart | Dissertation | Japanologie Email: ruth.linhart(a)