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A Marvelous Sword (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Donald Keene. 2016.
The First Modern Japanese: The Life of Ishikawa Takuboku
New York: Columbia University Press
ISBN 9780231179720

In 1956, Donald Keene published Modern Japanese Literature (An Anthology), an accompaniment to his previous collection of Japanese poetry and prose up to 1868. One of the works it contained was the Romaji Diary of Ishikawa Takuboku, something he described a few years later as ‘one of the first [Japanese] works that strikes us as essentially modern’.[i] Now, fully 60 years later, towards the end of a career as perhaps the greatest English language advocate of Japanese literature, Keene has returned to Takuboku, delivering a literary biography that places the diary and his poetry into the context of his life.

Takuboku described his literary talent (or rather, his poetic talent – he was singularly unsuccessful in his efforts at writing novelistic fiction) as a ‘marvelous sword inferior to none’, but the rest of his life was chaotic: saddled with the support not only of his own wife and child, but with his sister and mother too, he veered from place to place and from job to job, unable to hold down steady work and reliant on a number of loyal friends and colleagues for economic support. Whether or not we accept the instability of his life as ‘inevitable in a poet who is a genius’, as Keene does, what emerges is a rich picture of the literary world of late Meiji/early Taishō Japan stretching from Tokyo literary salons to rural village classrooms and newspaper companies in provincial towns in the deep north. There are plenty of memorable moments, from Takuboku’s marriage in absentia and his 1907 whirlwind tour of Hokkaido to the tragedy of his final years, as he and his family fell victim to illness-through-poverty. Throughout it all, Keene illustrates the text with translations of the poetry that made Takuboku famous.

The intellectual biography has long been a staple of scholarship on Japan’s literature and history, but it is not without its challenges: source material is often in short supply and partial (especially for the early years, usually the first section of a study) and secondary literature can tend towards the hagiographic, so getting a critical dimension beyond simply retelling the subject’s own perspective can be hard. These sorts of issues mean that the genre might well be amenable to more radical approaches, but this is a conventional work, proceeding chronologically and built upon Takuboku’s diaries, augmented by posthumous works by his friends and family and a huge volume of scholarship in Japanese. Takuboku wanted the diaries burned after his death, but his executors and friends struggled with the request; eventually time won the debate for those who viewed them as an invaluable literary resource.

In a sense, the book’s strengths are also its weaknesses – it is a relatively straight retelling of Takuboku’s life, with relatively little interpretive work. For example, the title’s description of Takuboku as the ‘first modern Japanese’ is touched on relatively little, only at the start and end of the book. So one might feel the want of a slightly more analytical approach, at times. But conversely, the story of Takuboku’s life is not encumbered by the need to advance an argument or theory, and so the narrative is allowed to shine.

Given his haphazard life and early death, as well as the nature of his fame and work, the chief insight of the book for me was not so much a deeper understanding of his interior world or intellectual framework as it was the rich portrait of the literary world he inhabited. Takuboku was at once sui generis and yet also characteristic of some familiar patterns of Meiji era intellectuals: an indulged first-born son whose self-confidence often seemed to tip over into arrogance, and a northern poet who tied interest in the Tokyo literary scene to his love of his home. In Tokyo we get a glimpse of salons peopled by the greats of the age – Yosano Akiko and her husband Tekkan, or Mori Ōgai, for example, as well as the troubles involved in launching a new poetry journal. But we also see further afield, whether it is the provincial newspaper offices where Takuboku mostly failed to remain employed, or letters from the south from rural poetry aficionados (including a strange ‘catfishing’ episode). Prose fiction was emerging as the most highly regarded genre, but traditional forms of poetry, transformed by the likes of Takuboku, retained support across the country, and in many of the newspapers he wrote for.

There are a few continuity issues (especially towards the end), but conversely the book has an elegant, simple design which is a low-key pleasure – something true of a number of Columbia University Press books I have read.


[i] Donald Keene, Modern Japanese Literature, University of Toronto Quarterly 30(3), 1961: 336-344.

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