Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko was a prolific writer who produced hundreds of poems for children in the early 20th century. She became a literary celebrity in Japan in the early 1920s and then, with her untimely death in 1930, her poems and her story were all but lost.
Born in the Yamaguchi Prefecture on Japan’s main island in 1903, Kaneko grew up close to nature and the sea, constantly fascinated by the world around her. She was raised by her mother – her father passed away when she was still a toddler – and stayed in school until she was seventeen years of age, which was unusual for girls at the time. She had a keen interest in reading and took work in her mother’s bookstore as she grew up – before long, she started writing her own children’s poems, submitting five to competitions in magazines across the country.
Four of those initial five were accepted and by her early 20s, she’d become a well-known name in Japan.
She published 51 more verses over the next five years.
Her poems are observations about the world around her and, often, the reader imagines themself as another person, another creature, another element spinning on this great, giant rock in space. They’re filled with empathy and crafted with such sharpness that they cut right down through
Kaneko was clearly in love with writing, but after marrying a clerk that worked in her mother’s bookstore, things took a turn for the worse. Her husband constantly engaged in extramarital affairs and contracted a venereal disease which he passed to Kaneko, eventually causing her great physical pain. To add to the physical pain, he told her that she could no longer write.
As sadness crept up on her, she divorced him but lost custody of her daughter under Japanese law.
Shortly before her 27th birthday, Kaneko bathed her daughter and shared a traditional Japanese sweet with her, wrote a letter to her husband asking for her daughter to be cared for by her grandmother and took her own life.
For the next 36 years, her poems were lost.
The world fell into the vice grip of World War II and, during a bombing raid in Tokyo, the only known collection of her poems was destroyed.
Then, in 1966, an aspiring Japanese poet named Setsuo Yazaki was poring over an old book and stumbled upon one of Kaneko’s poems. He was fascinated by it and began tracing her heritage, trying to track any copies of her work down. 16 years after his search began, he found Kaneko’s younger brother who, at 77 years old, still held onto three worn pocket diaries containing over 500 of Kaneko’s poems.
His tireless efforts put Kaneko back at the forefront of Japanese children’s literature as he published her lost poetry and children across the Land of the Rising Sun again familiarised themselves with her work.
In 2011, after a 9.1 magnitude earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, Kaneko’s poem “Are You An Echo?” was thrust into the national spotlight in an ad campaign designed to rally the Japanese people to each other’s aid.
Until 2016, much of her history and her poetry were confined to the islands of Japan, but with the inspired work of David Jacobson and Chin Music Press, English readers were finally able to read her work. Maria Popova over at the excellent blog ‘BrainPickings‘ unravels Misuzu Kaneko’s life in great detail. You can read Popova’s enchanting explanation of her life here.
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