Picture Book to Share the Poetry, and Life Story, of Misuzu Kaneko

by David Jacobson, Seattle, Washington

“Who was Misuzu Kaneko?”

That’s what my colleagues and I at Chin Music Press asked when we set out to create our forthcoming picture book, Are You an Echo?  The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko (release date: Sept. 13, 2016). The question is probably the first one that comes to mind among those not familiar with this wonderful children’s poet, who, amazingly, is little known in the English-speaking world.

 

Wonder

I wonder why

the rain that falls from black clouds

shines like silver.

I wonder why

the silkworm that eats green mulberry leaves

is so white.

I wonder why

the moonflower that no one tends

blooms on its own.

I wonder why

everyone I ask

about these things

laughs and says, “That’s just how it is.”

By Misuzu Kaneko

Translation  © Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi, 2016

Kaneko has a remarkable story. Born in 1903, she grew up in rural Yamaguchi prefecture but became quite well educated for a woman of her time. She was an immediate success when she began submitting her poems for publication in the 1920s, and was one of only two women admitted to a prestigious national society of children’s poets.

At the height of her fame, however, Kaneko suffered tragedy in her private life. She was forced to marry a philanderer who not only infected her with gonorrhea but ultimately forbade her to write. She divorced him after four years, but he refused to give up custody of their one child, which was his right by Japanese law at the time. The night before he was due to take away the child, she committed suicide, exactly one month before her twenty-seventh birthday.

Sadly, Kaneko and her work were nearly forgotten for the next fifty years. But a fellow poet, Setsuo Yazaki, recovered her poetry manuscripts in the 1980s and finally published them in their entirety, most of the poems appearing for the first time in print. Since then, her poems have numbered among Japan’s most beloved children’s poems, and appeared in songs and children’s elementary school textbooks. Her life story has inspired multiple television dramas.

However, it was one poem’s broadcast in a public service announcement after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that solidified her reputation as one of Japan’s most beloved children’s writers.

So what is Misuzu Kaneko’s real “story”? Is it her poetry alone? Should it include her not-so-kid-friendly biography, if the goal is to make her work accessible to kids? And do we bring in the story of the loss and rediscovery of her poetry, and of the impact of her poetry after the tsunami?

While putting together the book, we debated over whether to abandon one of these threads or another. Some contested the claim that the broadcast of her poem after the tsunami had a real impact in Japan. I also heard from an experienced book reviewer that we might consider dropping the frame of the rediscovery of her work, as it might not interest kids. In the end, however, we decided that all these threads were important and that we could not tell her story without them.

And so the book has come together after much intense but fruitful collaboration. With the involvement of co-translators Sally Ito in Canada and Michiko Tsuboi in Japan, illustrator Toshikado Hajiri in Japan and me in the United States, Are You an Echo? is the product of a truly transcultural effort to introduce Misuzu Kaneko to English readers.

Are You An Echo?

 

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