[REVIEW] “Rin Ishigaki’s Poetry as Resilience” by Nadine Willems

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Rin Ishigaki (author), Janine Beichman (translator), and Paul Rossiter (editor), This Overflowing Light: Selected Poems, with an introduction by Janine Beichman, Isobar Press, 2022. 118 pgs.

When I share with my students the aerial photographs of Tokyo taken at the end of the Pacific War, they suddenly become quieter. Eyes wide open in disbelief, they gape at the degree of devastation inflicted on the city by the fire bombings of 1945. In just one night in March of that year, about 100,000 civilians died and a million more were made homeless. The assault from the sky razed 10,000 acres of urban land, with only a few concrete structures left standing in the targeted area, which was of mostly wooden buildings.

The bombing raids would last for another five months. In May, they burnt to the ground the family home of 25-year old Rin Ishigaki, but the family survived. After Japan’s surrender on 15 August, the young woman relocated with five close relatives to a tiny back-alley dwelling in the south of the capital. There, she was for many years the sole breadwinner for a six-person household, until she finally moved to her own place in 1970. She depicted with forceful visual imagery the hardship and deprivation of that period:

Japanese houses have low roofs
the poorer the family, the lower the roof,

the lowness of the roof

weighs me down

These lines are extracted from “Roof”, included in This Overflowing Light, a careful selection of Ishigaki’s poems translated and introduced by Janine Beichman, and edited by the demanding eye of Paul Rossiter at Isobar Press. For the first time, Ishigaki’s work appears in English in a dedicated publication, a project which I sense is close to the translator’s heart. Beichman has chosen texts from the four volumes of poetry that Ishigaki published in her lifetime, with an emphasis on the writings produced in the first two decades or so after the war. She has also added as a coda a non-collected poem penned in 1980.

Reading through at a slow pace, I find delight in Ishigaki’s offerings, each one a little story, altogether light and dark, grave and humorous, matter-of-fact and sensuous, anchored in mundane everyday life, yet infused with broader meanings. But as a historian of modern Japan, I detect a grander narrative and a searing lucidity too. The poems not only give a glimpse of the life of one of Japan’s most popular poets of the post-war era. They also document through a strikingly singular voice the country’s years of struggle and reconstruction, loss and soul-searching, and ultimate self-rediscovery. For what emerged from the flattened landscape of Tokyo was a poetry of resilience in the context of dire material conditions and greatly reconfigured social norms.

As Beichman explains in the introduction, Ishigaki encountered distressful events from a young age. She lost her mother when she was four years old, and then two other mother figures in quick succession. Two of her siblings would also die during her youth. Aged 14, she started working at the Industrial Bank of Japan, and would remain there for 40 years. Having to use her modest earnings to care for her relatives, including her ailing father, generated the emotional conflict between family duty and yearning for freedom that is so present in her poetry. She expressed these feelings with surreal irony in “The Pay Envelope”:

The inside is lined with twelve ragged tatami mats
and from the mouth of the envelope
my old parents and my younger brothers are saying
all right then, off you go to work again tomorrow

How can I throw it away
this little envelope with its corrugated tin roof
that a gust of wind would blow away
carrot tops and fish bones spilling out from the kitchen

Reading the poem, I too peer inside the envelope and surmise that the carrot tops and fish bones are all that is left from a modest meal, the kind which never sufficed to satisfy the family’s appetite. Ishigaki’s poetic output comprises numerous references to food, cooking, and eating. Poems such as “Before Me the Soup Pot the Rice Pot and the Bright Burning Flame”, “Little Clams”, “Living” and “The Rite” connect the preparation of food with staying alive. Fish heads are chopped off, clams ready to be gobbled up, “grains of lustrous rice” placed in a pot, chicken bones discarded on the kitchen floor. These acts relate to the most basic requirements for human survival. In Ishigaki’s words, they convey gratitude and a sense of awe for the cycle of life and death to which they belong. The poems remind us that devouring and being devoured, literally and metaphorically, define human life.

To my mind, the theme of cooking and eating also evokes hunger and the memory of hunger. Towards the end of the war, and at least up to 1949, hunger was an unavoidable experience for millions of ordinary families in Japan. Many had to get by with only about half of the recommended daily intake of 2,200 calories. Depictions of lavish meals in literature and film may well have helped compensate for empty bellies, or, later, warn of a possible return to hard times. It would explain for example why Stray Dog, a 1949 film directed by Akira Kurosawa, featured several scenes of plentiful food and enthusiastic eating.

The post-war years shaped Ishigaki’s poetic thought in other ways. As union activism grew in importance, it gave Ishigaki opportunities to publish in the union’s magazines while encouraging her to engage with social issues. Ishigaki, familiar with harsh living conditions herself, empathised with the plight of ordinary people whose destiny often seemed to be tossed around by institutional forces and the political elite’s ruthlessness. In “An Evening Tale”, she referred to the death by radiation sickness in 1954 of a Japanese fisherman. He had been contaminated by nuclear fallout in the Pacific Ocean following weapons testing conducted at Bikini Atoll by the United States:

When Kuboyama the fisherman
died of Bikini’s ashes
the newspaper headlines screamed
a pitiful spectacle it was,
the reporters of a penniless country splashing the story
on their front pages for their penniless public

This particular poem has a twist, as greed and envy end up making their entrance into the story. Ishigaki had an unsentimental eye for human failings.

That women suddenly acquired more rights after 1945, notably with regard to political participation, also mattered to her. She was a keen observer of the female experience, exploiting for literary purposes both the constraints and possibilities of womanhood in post-war Japan. The constitution of 1947, imposed by the American Occupation, recognised gender equality, but new rights and principles still had to contend with a deeply engrained patriarchal society. Ishigaki never married and renounced motherhood, forging, in spite of the odds, her own path as an independent woman. She is sometimes characterised as a feminist, but this is too constricting a label. I rather see her as a humanist, someone acutely aware of what bound people to one other, and to the world, for better or for worse.

This is why she was able to address the events of the war directly. She spent her youth in wartime conditions and, like the majority of her contemporaries, accepted the “patriotic” world view, only afterwards regretting her foolishness. In the 1950s, despite a general desire to leave the past behind, a culture of soul-searching pervaded the country. Intellectuals and artists explored in various ways the physical and moral devastation that Japan had inflicted and gone through. And so did Ishigaki, with poems that questioned human vigilance in the face of threats to peace, such as “Greetings”, and the farce of military honours conferred on the dead, such as “After the Ceremony”. The collective suicides of soldiers and civilians––many of them women––which took place on the island of Saipan in July 1944 inspired “Cliff”, a chilling poem evocative of the meaninglessness of war:

At war’s end, the women
pitched themselves off the top of
a cliff in Saipan oneafteranother

Out of virtue or duty or propriety
or something
Boxed in by fire, by men

They had to leap so they did
To the place you go when you’ve nowhere to go
(Cliffs always make a woman go head over heels)

And guess what
not one of them has reached the water yet
It’s been fifteen years
what’s going on
There, that

One woman. A hundred women. A thousand women. I imagine their bodies floating in the air, never touching the water. The poem enacts a lack of closure about these deaths. Almost eighty years have now passed since the Saipan suicides, yet, has the collective consciousness come closer to comprehending what happened?

Although not a very prolific writer, Ishigaki gained great popularity in her lifetime, winning several literary prizes. She died in 2004 at the age of 84, and if she remains to this day an especially well-loved author in Japan, it is in part due to the adoption over the years of several of her poems in school textbooks, including “Cliff”. The curriculum stresses the themes of womanhood, daily life, and war, as having defined her work. Left to the reader is the task of making sense of the slyly transgressive imagery that renders this poetic voice so unique. In “Sprouting”, I always stop at the following scene:

Octopus-like legs sprout
from my torso
four then five of them
then eight

And I smile at the extraordinary picture of multiple legs growing out of the poet’s own flesh, despite the dark symbolism that this “sprouting” signifies in the poem. After all, the new limbs will be gnawed off one by one by her family…

Ishigaki’s free verse uses a language that is highly accessible. She wrote in relatively “simple” Japanese, but with this simplicity, she could recreate everyday scenes brimming with scents, shapes, and atmosphere––the thousands of small worlds that made up Tokyo’s post-war rebirth. “The Women’s Bath”, one of my favorite poems in the volume, takes me straight into the welcome heat of a downtown public bath on New Year’s Eve:

On midnight of December 31, 1957
piping hot clouds of steam blanket the public bath
the crowd bobbing and bumping like potatoes
           washed in a barrel

And then, deep into the physical reality of a packed tub:

The bathwater
muddied with skin oils and grime
adrift with seaweedy wisps of twisted hair and what not
fairly bubbles, overflowing
with the humans in it and their abundant blood

Here, I marvel at the skills of the translator, whose choice of words and syntax produces the whirling effect of the bath water. There appears to be some kind of communion – an affinity, a deep understanding – between Beichman and Ishigaki, which shines throughout the book. It is evident in the dense introduction, in which the translator probes with nuance, affection, and intelligence the mindset of the post-war woman-poet-worker. Beichman’s text selection is all hers, but through it we are able to trace the arc and intensity of Ishigaki’s life. The voice that emerges from the translations is luminous. It captures with ease the rhythms of the original, conveying this “dimension of existence that words could invoke”–– the capacity for resilience that writing offered and that Ishigaki called “this overflowing light”.

This Overflowing Light is a book of moving, yet often witty poetry. I try again to fit Rin Ishigaki into a pre-existing category––feminist writer, leftist activist, post-war intellectual, traumatised orphan, unionised worker––but nothing really works. She was unclassifiable, independent, determined to shape as much as she could of her own destiny. She would have repeated, as in “Nameplates”, one of her iconic pieces:

Wherever you live nothing beats putting
the nameplate up by yourself.

She did put up that nameplate, displaying a resilience that reflected and helped to inspire the struggle for physical and moral reconstruction in the post-war era. We should be grateful that her remarkable poetry has been made further available to English readers by this collection.

How to cite: Willems, Nadine. “Rin Ishigaki’s Poetry as Resilience.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 20 Feb. 2023, chajournal.blog/2023/02/20/overflowing-light/.


Nadine Willems received a PhD from the University of Oxford in 2015 and is now Associate Professor of History at the University of East Anglia in the UK. She is an intellectual and cultural historian of modern Japan who has looked at transnational political activism, ideas in human geography, farmers’ movements, and the literature of dissent. Her first monograph, Ishikawa Sanshirō’s Geographical Imagination: Transnational Anarchism and the Reconfiguration of Everyday Life in Early Twentieth Century Japan, was published by Leiden University Press in 2020. Nadine has a keen interest in poetry and has explored the works of writers native to Japan’s northern regions of Hokkaido and Tōhoku. In 2017 she published Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems, 1928-1943 with Isobar Press, a book of poetry in translation by Hokkaido writer and ethnographer Sarashina Genzō. Her current project examines the experience of ordinary soldiers in Japan’s Siberian Intervention of 1918-1922. Prior to returning to academia, she was based in Tokyo where she worked for several years in business and as a foreign correspondent and journalist.

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