Photo/Illutration“Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko” has been published in the United States.

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Simple messages of compassion written a century ago by a Japanese poet whose life ended tragically are resonating in an overseas and increasingly divisive country.

“Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko,” an illustrated book featuring Kaneko’s works in English and Japanese, is the result of long-distance communications and painstaking attention to detail and nuance.

It was published in the United States in September, and 5,600 copies have been printed.

Representative of the poet’s unique world is the well-known phrase, “We’re all different, and that’s just fine,” penned by Kaneko (1903-1930) in the poem “Bird, Bell and I.”

“Amid the trend where different cultures and values are being removed, Kaneko’s words with a great deal of affection and acceptance of diversity resonate with the readers,” said David Jacobson, 52, who came up with the project and wrote Kaneko’s biography in the book.

Jacobson, an editor at the book’s publisher, Chin Music Press, said Kaneko’s poetry was written in Japan around 100 years ago but it still touches people’s hearts regardless of nationality or era.

“I am glad to see that Kaneko’s heart full of sympathy for others has reached people in the United States, where people have recently been calling for ‘America First.’”

Kaneko was born in Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture, at a time when women were given few choices on how to live their lives. Her husband prohibited her from writing, and she killed herself at the age of 26.

The book describes Kaneko’s short life and features 25 of her poems, including “Bird, Bell and I,” “Big Catch” and “Whale Memorial.”

In “Big Catch,” Kaneko watches people full of joy over a large haul of sardines on a beach, but she imagines the fish are mourning under the sea.

In “Whale Memorial,” the poet depicts the grief of a calf of a whale caught by hunters.

“Kaneko put herself in others’ shoes instead of being self-centered,” said Sally Ito, 52, a Japanese-Canadian who translated Kaneko’s poems into English for the book. “I think people in North America will be awakened by Kaneko’s words that express loneliness and sadness from the perspectives of others.”

Jacobson, who studied at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo and worked as a reporter for a Japanese broadcaster and a news service agency, was “introduced” to Kaneko five years ago through a poetry book given by his Japanese friend.

The Japanophile met Ito through her blog, which suggested that she and her aunt, Michiko Tsuboi, 69, were already translating Kaneko’s works.

He asked Ito, who lives in Canada, and Tsuboi, who resides in Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, to join the project.

Artist Toshikado Hajiri, 36, who lives in Anan, Tokushima Prefecture, was chosen from 500 candidates to provide the illustrations for “Are You an Echo?”

Through Skype and e-mail, the four project members for two years discussed details of the book, including how to explain Japanese society when Kaneko was writing as well as whale catching, which is generally criticized in the United States.

“It was a challenge translating into English what is written in Japanese, in which subjects are often dropped, and feelings can be expressed by putting simple words such as 'noyo’ and ‘ne’ at the end of sentences,” Tsuboi said.

Hajiri recalled: “I struggled with how to depict Kaneko committing suicide.”

He eventually drew a silkworm transforming into a white moth that flies into the darkness.

Kaneko’s books have already been translated and published in Asian countries, including China, South Korea, Nepal and Mongolia.

But her works were not well-known in English-speaking countries, according to the Preservation Association of Misuzu Kaneko's Works.

That is now changing.

“Are You An Echo?” has been introduced in the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

It was also among 20 works in the 2017 Notable Poetry Books selected by the National Council of Teachers of English in the United States.

In addition to the biography, Jacobson wrote in the book how Kaneko’s works were discovered half a century after her death.

He also wrote how Japanese resonated with Kaneko's “Kodama de Shoka?” (Are You an Echo?)--a poem from which the title of the new book comes--after it was featured in a TV commercial following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.