[review] Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko by David Jacobson, Sally Ito, Michiko Tsuboi, and Toshikado Hajiri

Though every elementary school student in Japan is familiar with Misuzu Kaneko’s poetry, relatively few in the English-speaking world are familiar with her work.

Marked by a refreshing ingenuousness, curiosity, and extraordinary empathy for the world around her, Misuzu’s poems resonate with people of all ages, demonstrating that quiet, gentle words have their own special power.

DEWDROP

Let’s not tell anyone.

In the corner of the garden this morning,
a flower shed a tear.

If word of this spreads
to the ears of the bee,

it’ll feel it’s done wrong
and go back to return the nectar.

Thanks to this breathtakingly beautiful picture book, a new audience of North American children can now read a selection of Misuzu’s poetry in English, learn about her short tragic life and the fascinating backstory of how her work was lost for half a century before being rediscovered in 1982.

 In Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko (Chin Music Press, 2016), author David Jacobson frames the story of Misuzu’s life with an account of how young student poet Setsuo Yazaki read one of her poems and was so impressed by it that he spent the next 16 years searching for more.

Art © 2016 Toshikado Hajiri

BIG CATCH

At sunrise, glorious sunrise
it’s a big catch!
A big catch of sardines!

On the beach, it’s like a festival
but in the sea, they will hold funerals
for the tens of thousands dead.

After scouring bookstores and trying to find people who might have known Misuzu, Yazaki finally tracked down her younger brother Masasuke, who was 77 at the time. Remarkably, Masasuke had a few photos and three pocket diaries containing all 512 poems Misuzu had written in her lifetime. Yazaki was then able to piece together the details of Misuzu’s life and help publish her poems.

At last, Misuzu Kaneko’s voice could be heard by readers all over Japan.

 

So, who was Misuzu Kaneko?

Misuzu was born in 1903 and grew up in Senzaki, a small fishing village in western Japan. Her father died when she was just three, and she spent a lot of time with her mother in the family bookstore.

Unusual for girls at the time, Misuzu attended school until she was 17 (her mother placed a high value on education). A thoughtful, sensitive child, Misuzu loved reading, being surrounded by books, and inventing her own stories.

To Misuzu, everything was alive and had its own feelings — plants, rocks, even telephone poles! She felt the loneliness of whale calves orphaned after a hunt. She felt the nighttime chill of cicadas who had shed their old shells. And she felt the tearful sadness of a flower wet with dew.

 

When she was 20 and working in the bookstore, she decided to send some of her poems to several children’s magazines. This is when she began using a pen name, “Misuzu” (her given name was “Teru”). Much to her surprise and delight, all four magazines accepted her poems, and as her work began to appear regularly in various publications, “she quickly became a star children’s writer.”

Despite her literary success, Misuzu was unhappy in her personal life. She had entered into an arranged marriage with one of the bookstore clerks, a bad unfaithful husband who frequented the brothels. She wanted to divorce him but discovered she was pregnant.

When her daughter was about a year old, Misuzu contracted a venereal disease from her husband. She was weak and in a lot of pain, and found it difficult to care for little Fusae. Moreover, her husband forced her to stop writing. Misuzu proceeded with the divorce, but her husband insisted on maintaining custody of Fusae as was his right under law.

As an act of protest, a heartbroken Misuzu chose to take her own life. Before she died, she wrote a letter asking her husband to give Fusae to her mother. Misuzu was only 26.

After her death, Misuzu’s work was completely forgotten until that fateful day, some fifty years later, when Setsuo Yazaki was hooked by “Big Catch.” But there’s yet another echo from this story.

Photo of Misuzu Kaneko courtesy of JULA Publishing Bureau

Misuzu’s work gained even wider prominence when her poem, “Are You an Echo?” was included in a televised public service announcement following the devastating 2011 earthquake-tsunami in Tohoku.

At a time when millions despaired of losing everything, Misuzu’s simple poem offered welcome hope and comfort, as almost a million volunteers flocked to Tohoku to help. A heartening example of how one person’s words can make a difference, it reminds us that what we say or do returns to us in kind. A meaningful echo can ricochet from heart to heart.

ARE YOU AN ECHO?

If I say, “Let’s play?”
you say, “Let’s play!”

If I say, “Stupid!”
you say, “Stupid!”

If I say, “I don’t want to play anymore,”
you say, “I don’t want to play anymore.”

And then, after awhile,
becoming lonely

I say, “Sorry.”
You say, “Sorry.”

Are you just an echo?
No, you are everyone.

Ten of Misuzu’s poems are interwoven with Jacobson’s compelling biographical narrative. Hearing Misuzu’s voice in this way adds a layer of poignancy to pivotal events in her life. After we read of her suicide, an eloquent statement about death is revealed in this poem:

 

COCOON AND GRAVE

A silkworm enters its cocoon
that tight, uncomfortable cocoon.

But the silkworm must be happy;
it will become a butterfly
and fly away.

A person enters a grave —
that dark, lonely grave.

But the good person
will grow wings, become an angel
and fly away.

The second half of the book contains 15 additional poems in English and Japanese that further showcase Misuzu’s sense of wonder, reverence for nature, unfettered imagination, and keen powers of observation.

There is also a deep humility about how she approaches her subjects, bringing attention to things that are unseen or not commonly recognized. Have you ever thought about the singular value of common dirt, or pondered a rock’s perspective?

Her skillful use of metaphor is evident in “Waves,” described as “erasers wiping away words written on the sand,” and “soldiers advancing from the open sea, firing their guns.” She voices a familiar childlike dilemma in “Treat,” (“Leave the second one. No, take it. No, put it back”), and there’s a wonderful moment of whimsical play in “Mommy Who Walks on the Sea” (“My Mommy’s so great. She’s so great she can walk on the sea!”).

Ultimately, Misuzu’s belief that everything was alive, that even inanimate objects had feelings, speaks to the interconnectedness of all living things, a welcome reminder to tread softly on this earth.

 

Co-translators Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi did a brilliant job of capturing Misuzu’s sweet, unassuming spirit, and her unique ability to express profound concepts in simple, unadorned language. The poems are wholly accessible to children while challenging adults to look beneath the surface for deeper truths. Having many Japanese friends, I also appreciate how the translators attempted to convey the “subtle feminine sensibility” that characterizes Japanese girls’ speech and graced Misuzu’s poems.

Toshikado Hajiri’s gorgeous paintings, rendered in subtle, muted tones, transport the reader to early 20th century Japan, with interesting details of life in Senzaki, the four seasons, and touching portraits of mother and child that tug at the heartstrings. I especially love the illustration of little Misuzu standing in front of the family bookstore looking up at the falling rain.

 

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.”

Though the poems can be enjoyed by younger picture book readers, the biographical text, with its mention of infidelity, suicide and a natural disaster are more suitable for a middle grade audience. Rest assured, these difficult subjects are handled with great sensitivity in a straightforward manner without being maudlin or melodramatic.

Misuzu’s story is a tragic one, but readers will be inspired by her love of reading and writing poems, her unique way of looking at the world, and the joy she took in so many things.  The creators have duly honored Misuzu’s life and work with thorough research, lyrical writing, adept translation, and stunning illustration. Also notable: this is the only children’s poetry book I know of that features Japanese poems in translation that are not haiku.

 

Are You an Echo? is a rare treasure, a unique hybrid of biography and poetry that’s bookended with a Foreword by Setsuo Yazaki, an Author’s Note from David Jacobson, and a Translators’ Note from Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi. Elegantly designed with textured endpapers and printed on thick creamy stock, it’s the kind of book you know is special from the first moment you hold it in your hands.

Don’t we especially need a book right now of quiet beauty and strength that promotes kindness in a harsh, unforgiving world? Thus far, Misuzu’s poetry has been translated into 11 different languages. I wonder what she would think of her poems echoing across decades and around the world?

*

 

ARE YOU AN ECHO?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
written and translated by David Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi
illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri
published by Chin Music Press, September 2016
Picture Book Biography/Poetry Collection for ages 9-14, 64 pp.
*Includes Foreword by Setsuo Yazaki, Author’s Note and Translators’ Note
**Starred Review from Booklist**

❤️ Visit the Misuzu Kaneko/Are You an Echo Website for more glowing reviews and a Teacher’s Guide.

❤️ Read this in-depth article, “Forgotten Woman: The Life of Misuzu Kaneko” by translator Sally Ito.

❤️ Don’t miss Janet Wong’s Behind the Scenes Interview with David Jacobson and Sally Ito at Poetry for Children!

❤️ Julie Danielson also interviewed David Jacobson for Kirkus here.

❤️ See some cool archival photos of Misuzu’s poetry as published in children’s magazines at Playing by the Book.

❤️ Here is the public service announcement that had such a huge impact in Japan back in 2011:

*

poetry fridayLaura Purdie Salas is hosting the Roundup at Writing the World for Kids. Drop by and check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared in the blogosphere this week!


Copyright © 2016 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

59 thoughts on “[review] Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko by David Jacobson, Sally Ito, Michiko Tsuboi, and Toshikado Hajiri

    1. I thought of you when I saw this book. I’ll ask David about obtaining her poems in original Japanese.

      Bummed that photobucket is down this morning, so you probably can’t see the images. The art is just beautiful.

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    1. Found her life story so tragic and poignant, and the backstory about her work being rediscovered after 50 years is something else again. This also speaks to the importance of poetry advocates; without Setsuo Yazaki’s keen interest and persistence, her work might have fallen into permanent obscurity.

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  1. I love the child-like wonder in her poems, Jama! Thanks for introducing me to a new poet! Putting it in our library’s suggest-a-title program since they don’t yet have it 🙂

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  2. I have just been gobsmacked at the way this book was researched, written and presented – it is truly beautiful and I’m so glad to know of this poet.

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  3. Jama, this poet and her poetry is a gem. The tragedy of her life is revealed in beautiful language. Thanks for the PSA. I might use that at my next PD session, plus I will add Misuzu to my list of next Wonder Poets when I present Wonderopolis.org to teachers.

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    1. I admire how David handled the difficult aspects of Misuzu’s life. Tricky thing for a young audience to be sure, but I’m glad these details were included.

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  4. Wow–I love her poems. They put me in mind a little of Valerie Worth’s work. This sounds like a terrific book–added to my tbr shelf. (By the way, the top two images don’t load for me.)

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    1. Sorry about the lack of images. I can’t believe Photobucket has been down ALL DAY. First time in 9 years. Usually when they do maintenance it might take an hour or two. Apparently they tried to upgrade something and ran into an “unforeseen issue.” Inexcusable, as major changes of this kind affecting millions of users should always be thoroughly tested before they implement them.

      But yes, I see what you mean about bringing to mind Valerie Worth’s work — which I really adore.

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  5. Thank you, Jama, and everyone for all your kind words! I’m sure JULA, Setsuo Yazaki and Fusae (Misuzu’s daughter, who is still alive) would be thrilled to hear that Misuzu’s words are so appreciated on this side of the Pacific.

    Misuzu’s poetry is available in Japanese in a 6 volume anthology (as well as in shorter collections). I bought my set in Japan, but they might be available at Japanese-language bookstores in the US, such as Kinokuniya. At the very least, Kinokuniya should be able to order them for you. Some are also available on Amazon secondhand. I’d be happy to offer more specific suggestions, if you’d like.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so much for writing this book, David, and also for the information about obtaining Misuzu’s poetry in Japanese. It truly is one of the most beautiful and “amazing” (as Betsy Bird described it) books of the year.

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    1. I hope things are back to normal by tonight — though the Photobucket team just posted an update on FB that they’re still trying to resolve the issue. Inexcusable to be down for over 12 hours!

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      1. I came back to read, wanted to read your review anyway, & will return to see those pics, Jama. I probably will order the book. It sounds fabulous. Thanks for taking the time to write this beautiful review of what must be a beautiful book.

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  6. Thank you for posting about the beautiful and poignant poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. I’m not sure I would have heard about it otherwise. I’ve requested the book from my local library and cannot wait until it arrives for pick up at my local branch.

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  7. I feel so fortunate to find this post, Jama.
    Appreciations for bringing to me this poet, Mizuzu, her heartbreaking personal story, with her exquisite word paintings in poems. I was so happy to learn that she grew up in a bookshop & then felt the oomph go out of her sails, upon knowing how that bookshop brought her the abusive life partner. Her mother must surely have felt responsible for forcing her into that impossible marriage. I am so sad that she thought her only option at 26, was to leave this Earth. I send her immensely observant and feeling Spirit hugs from this dimension.

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    1. It is heartbreaking that she took her own life at such a young age — she was so talented and full of promise. From what I understand, it was her uncle who arranged the marriage. Do read Sally Ito’s excellent article “Forgotten Woman” for more about the complicated set of circumstances.

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  8. How reassuring to get to the comments and find it’s not just my computer missing images – and they will be back in time. I’ll be popping back to see them. How sad her own story – the final chapters. Her words delight with childlike wonder and simplicity.

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  9. Thank you, Jama! What a wonderful way to start my Poetry Friday ramble. I take notes as I read (because there’s always too much good stuff and I forget otherwise) and this book title is definitely going to be in them. Misuzu’s poetry is, as you describe it, unassuming and gentle. Isn’t it amazing how one can sense those things in just a few words! Again, thanks for introducing us to this beautiful book and poet!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Violet. This unique book can be enjoyed in several layers — yes, we get a sense of Misuzu’s voice and vision, but I also appreciated David’s narrative as well as Sally and Michiko’s work. Translation is an art in itself, and we see a wonderful collaboration among all members of a fine team in this outstanding book.

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  10. Jama, this is such a rich book review. Thank you for sharing these poems and some of this poet’s story. I’m looking forward to reading the book.

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  11. The pictures are delightful and remind me of the busy woodcuts by Hokusai and others. We’ve ordered the book for the library and I await its arrival. Next comes the problem of where to shelve it.

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  12. Thank you, Jama–I’m so glad I stopped by today! Not that this book won’t have an impact on all my students, but I do have a Japanese-American boy in my class who doesn’t know yet that he is a born poet. The story is as remarkable as the poems.

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  13. Thank you for reviewing this incredibly beautiful book, Jama! I remember first hearing of it earlier this year, and have been looking forward to seeing it when it came out. Such beauty in her words and empathy in her insights.

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  14. Isn’t this book just stunning? Thank you for this fulsome post, Jama. I plan to run an interview with David (hopefully this Friday!) and will certainly link folks back here and to Janet’s interview at Sylvia’s. XO

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