Obituary: Ryuichi Tamura

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The Independent Culture
IN JAPAN, poets usually join a group of like-minded beings, simply in order to help each other to become better poets. They also usually publish their own magazine, and such groups are called coteries - as always in Japan, a foreign word or name is supposed to lend a touch of class, or even of mystery and defiance of traditional Japanese ideas.

Unlike the very disunified British poetry groups of the war and post- war era (the Apocalytics, the Beats, the Angry Young Men), the Japanese groups were not self-publicising and self-serving ego-burnishers: they were devoted to the cause of poetry alone, and to the acquisition of knowledge about contemporary Western developments in the art, from which they had long been cut off by censorship and lack of contact with their Western brothers.

Members of the groups paid a membership fee, which gave them entry into the group's magazine. Otherwise it was difficult for a young, unknown poet to get his name and work published anywhere. They also printed small collections of poetry, paid for by the poets themselves, and this was never considered dishonourable, as it is in the West .

The most influential coterie post-war called itself Arechi ("The Waste Land"), in tribute to what was then considered a masterpiece by T.S. Eliot, but that most Japanese poets had not read, or, if they had, could not understand. However, the first thing that struck them was the typographical layout of the work, with its varieties of verse forms and its dialogue, its contemporary imagery and references to European culture, particularly art, which some of the Japanese poets had experienced at first hand before the war.

Among the leading members of Arechi were Nobuo Ayukawa, Toyoichiro Miyoshi, Saburo Kuroda, Masao Nakagiri, Taro Kitamura, Koichi Kihara - and Ryuichi Tamura. Though their magazine's name was a tribute to Eliot, the heavy hand of existentialism had already reached Japan through the works of Sartre and Camus. In the epoch-making "Dedication to X" (X e no Kenji) which appeared at the beginning of the first Arechi anthology in 1951, there was this declaration of intent:

The escape from destruction, the protest against ruin are our will to rebel against our own fate and are also testimony to our existence. If there is to be a future for us and for you, it depends on our not despairing of our present life.

In the following year a much older and already famous poet, Junzaburo Nishiwaki, born in 1894, who had spent several years in London before the war at a time when The Waste Land was first published, translated the whole of Eliot's poem into Japanese - a considerable feat. His own poetry was to be permanently scarred by that encounter.

The phenomenon of the coterie in Japan can be attributed to the atavistic Japanese desire to "belong", which led them in literature to attach inflated importance to Western groupuscules like the Movement, motivated only by its members' rigorous exclusion of all those who wrote about "abroad" and therefore could have no place in that elitist mutual-admiration society. In Japan, only Nishiwaki resisted that larval impulse. (When he was head of the library in the Tokyo university where I was teaching in the Sixties, he once asked me: "To what movement do you belong?" I replied, "To none. I am my own movement, a movement all on my own." He gave a delighted crow: "Me too! Me too!")

The Arechi group of poets were all much younger than Nishiwaki, in their twenties mostly, and they had suffered hardship in the war under military rule. But now all the traditional authority in Japan had become a thing of the past, a past which the poets rejected in disgust. The first issue of their magazine had appeared in 1939, but the war and harsh censorship of foreign "degenerate" art and influences prevented it from re-appearing until September 1947, after which it struggled to appear mainly in the form of anthologies. The poets were all dedicated individualist thinkers and artists, and became the most celebrated of the post-war era.

Ryuichi Tamura was born in 1923 in Otsuka, Tokyo. He graduated from the Third Tokyo Commercial School in 1940 and from an arts course at Meiji University in 1943. At the end of that year he was conscripted into the Yokosuka Second Naval Barracks and served as an instructor with the Naval Flying Corps. At the end of the war he worked for three years as head of the editorial department of the publishers Hayakawa Shobo. Then he turned to teaching, the fate of many contemporary poets, and was lecturer at Tokyo Metropolitan University.

His career as a poet had started well before the war, in his teens, when, with his fellow student Taro Kitamura, he contributed to the coterie magazine Shin-ryodo ("New Territory"), a title in homage to Michael Roberts's anthology of contemporary English poetry New Country. Assisted by Kitamura he became a leading member of the Arechi group in the early post-war period.

Later, he joined Shimpel Kusano's Rekitei ("The Course of History"). Much of Tamura's earlier poetry, however, was published in Arechi. His first individual volume, Yonsen no Hi to Yoru ("Four Thousand Days and Nights"), appeared in 1956, followed in 1963 by Kotoba no nai Sekai ("World Without Words"), which shared the 1963 Takamura Kotaro Prize, and Midori no Shiso ("Green Thoughts") in 1967.

Tamura was also an insightful and sympathetic critic of his fellow poets, and produced a volume of critical essays, Wakai Arechi ("Young Wasteland"), in 1968 that is still valuable as a source book for information about poets of that period. He also made a number of translations of English and American literature, and one of his later works, Shinnen no tegami ("New Year Letter"), influenced by Auden's work of the same name, appeared in 1973.

Tamura's poetry has a note of slight hysteria, always on the edge of crisis, but touched with redeeming satirical humour. He uses paradox, innovative metaphors, and sharp, fresh imagery in a kaleidoscopic whirl of sensation, yet always with a deeply poetic sensibility. A good example of his style can be found in the poem "Emperor" - just to use that revered word as the title of a poem was something of a challenge in conservative Japan. It appears in my anthology of contemporary Japanese poetry, Burning Giraffes.

EMPEROR

There are eyes in the stone, the eyes

closed in grief and fatigue.

The man in black passes my door -

You, the Emperor of Winter,

my lonely Emperor, walking to your own

grave in Europe,

your white forehead shadowed by

civilisation

your back to the sun.

Your self-punishment is so painful,

Flowers! You stretch out your hands to

them.

But universal winter has set in

after the era of reason and progress.

European beauties are nothing but

fantasies.

Who will kiss your hands

whose fated palms are dark and dry and

barren?

Flowers! Those scars are flowers.

Ryuichi Tamura, poet and critic: born Tokyo 18 March 1923; died Tokyo 26 August 1998.

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