Empathy is a dominant theme in the work of celebrated Japanese children’s poet Misuzu Kaneko, who died in 1930. Her poems are about making connections and identifying with others – so much so that she considers the points of view of fish in the sea, singular snowflakes, and even a telephone pole.
Her most famous poem, “Are You an Echo?,” ponders how the world responds to what we give it. The poem was broadcast on Japanese television in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, a reminder that everyone could play a role in recovery, and that a single person’s actions could have sweeping ramifications.
So it seems fitting that Are You an Echo?, a book that brings Kaneko’s work and life story to English readers, is also an exercise in connection. The effort is a unique collaboration between American writer and translator David Jacobson, Canadian translator Sally Ito, Japanese translator Michiko Tsuboi (who studied at the University of Alberta), and Japanese illustrator Toshikado Hajiri. Editor and translators’ notes explain the fascinating creative process involved in this genre-bending mash-up, including on-the-ground research in Japan.
The book begins with the rediscovery of Kaneko’s poems in the 1980s after decades of obscurity, and then delves into her life story, with biographical details illuminated by select poems. The text doesn’t shy away from darker aspects of her short life, including a troubled marriage that left Kaneko with debilitating gonorrhea, the loss of her child, and death by suicide at age 27. The second half of the book consists of 15 of Kaneko’s poems in both English and Japanese, each with an accompanying illustration.
Children’s poetry may seem incongruous alongside references to venereal disease and suicide, but the biography and poetry inform each other. The poet’s unhappy history complicates the question of the book’s intended audience, however. While the draw is not exactly general, it still remains wide: the poems themselves will appeal to children, while the book as a whole will speak to readers who are interested in Japanese literature and culture, in poetry and translation, and anyone who finds inspiration in poetry’s immortal nature.