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