By Andrew Wong, Tokyo
Enduring poetry lends itself to being read and reread over time, as it becomes colored by the issues of the day. The poem Ame ni mo makezu by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) heartened many people after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, which struck Miyazawa’s home region of Tohoku six years ago this month.
Miyazawa’s poem has since come out in a bilingual picture book edition: Rain Won’t. Translated by poet Arthur Binard and illustrated by Oscar-nominated animator Koji Yamamura, Rain Won’t first presents the text in its original vein and then reframes it in contemporary context, in an afterword.
Translated in first-person verse, this rendering immediately compels the reader to identify with the poet’s aspirations, at times adding sentiments implied in the original, at others preferring subtlety over wordy literalism. If Binard’s text stays true to the determined tone of the original, then Yamamura’s illustrations flesh out images of farmland and nature in Tohoku’s Iwate prefecture, which Miyazawa would have known so well.
On the cover is Mt. Iwate in the distance, and readers will just about make out a person walking past some stalks of rice in the rain toward paddies in the distance. Hidden in plain sight are other living creatures—a frog, a bee, a grasshopper. Together they frame the poem in its intended setting. The person remains at a distance in the book, acting as a guide or a projection of the poet’s aspirations, only coming at the end to stand close to the reader.
This textual and visual presentation is followed by Binard’s afterword, an interpretation of the poem post-March 11. It reframes and explains how the poem should serve not only as a source of strength, but also as a reminder and a rallying cry.
The book acknowledges other English translations of Ame ni mo makezu. Among them is “Strong in the Rain,” which accompanied actor Ken Watanabe’s reading of the piece on YouTube just four days after the earthquake (video from kizuna311.com), and “Unbeaten by Rain” which was read on April 11, 2011, in the interfaith service “A Prayer for Japan” at Washington National Cathedral (begins at 29:22 in video from cathedral.org).
Published in 2013 on the day the original poem is dated—November 3—Rain Won’t is available from Japan in the Japanese/English bilingual edition, and in Chinese and Korean editions.