Obituary: Ono Tozaburo

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The Independent Online
As every British schoolboy should know, from Shelley's The Masque of Anarchy, written in 1819 and inspired by the Peterloo massacre, poetry and anarchism make good bed- fellows. One of the most distinguished representatives of this marriage was the Japanese anarchist poet Ono Tozaburo, whose life was one of perpetual poetic protest and revolutionary insubordination, attacking both traditional Japanese ways of life and traditional Japanese poetry, chiefly in the waka or tanka form.

It may surprise some to learn that there is a strong natural anarchist tendency in Oriental culture, but certain elements of anarchism can be found in Lao Tzu, and in the 18th-century Japanese thinker Ando Shoeki. During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the theories of Prince Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin were introduced into Japan, along with socialist and communist philosophies. Several Japanese groups were formed, both violent and non-violent Christian. One of my ancestors, Thomas Kirkup, in his History of Socialism (1892), writes that the Tolstoyan anarchist Dr Kotoku, together with his wife and 10 followers, was executed after a secret trial in 1911:

It is believed there was an actual bomb . . . but no evidence was forthcoming to justify such savage and wholesale punishments. The whole episode appears to be a blot on the fair fame of Japanese civilisation, which must be regretted by the many admirers of that interesting nation.

Ono Tozaburo was born in Osaka, an industrial city which at the beginning of the century was in the throes of a violent economic and industrial upheaval, with accompanying social unrest and political agitation. The future anarchist poet of industrial landscapes of total desolation attended middle school, and fortunately part of his early childhood was passed in the lovely temple city of Nara.

In 1920 he made his way to Tokyo and entered the university. But, like so many of Japan's modern poets and artists, he dropped out after only eight months. There is something in the Japanese artistic temperament that does not take to further education, a rebellious spirit, a natural anarchy found in many modern works in conflict with accepted notions.

Tozaburo, as if instinctively, gravitated towards the anarchist-socialist groups of the time, fully aware of the dangers lying in wait for those "nails that refuse to be hammered down" at the hands of the authorities. In 1923, he became a contributor to the newly founded Aka to Kuro ("Red and Black") anarchist magazine. Like most publications of its kind, it was suppressed, and ceased publication in 1924. To take its place, Tozaburo founded his own Dadaist-anarchist journal Dam-Dam which predictably had only one issue.

The Dada movement in poetry and art was becoming popular in Japan, but no publisher could be persuaded to issue Tozaburo's first collection of poems, Hanbun Hiraita Mado ("A Half-Opened Window"), so he published it at his own expense in 1926. He also took the risk of issuing another anarchist magazine, Dando ("Trajectory") which ran for a whole year (1930-31), in association with his fellow anarchist poet Kiyoshi Akiyama.

In 1933 he returned to Osaka. The industrial landscapes of Osaka and Osaka Bay form the backgrounds of many of his later poems. Here in the inter-war period he became the acknowledged leader and teacher of younger poets. He gradually shifted to the Marxist-realist position in his Furuki Sekai no ue ni ("Above the Old World", 1934) and Osaka (1939). He also took up literary criticism with a socialist tendency, with which he was able to exert a major influence. He published successive essays in the magazine Bunka Soshiki ("Organisation of Culture", 1940-43) which were collected in Shiron ("Essays on Poetry", 1947). He sought to reject musical quality and replace tanka-type lyricism by a visionary verse founded on a critical and rational spirit. His post-Pacific War collections include Daika-hen ("The Ocean's Edge", 1947), Hi-nomu Keyaki ("Fire-Swallowing Zelkova", 1952), Juyu Fuji ("Heavy Oil Fuji", 1956) and Ikyo ("Strange Land", 1966).

Sadly, in later years, with the decline of Japanese interest in literature, he became somewhat neglected. He appears in a very few anthologies of modern Japanese poetry, and is missing from our own Penguin Book of Japanese Verse - in so many ways an unsatisfactory compilation. However, he is well represented in my own recently published anthology Burning Giraffes (University of Salzburg Press). Beside is an example of one of my translations of his poems, from Daikai-hen (1947).

Ono Tozaburo, poet and anarchist: born Osaka, Japan 27 July 1903; died Osaka 10 October 1996.


The old reeds are dead

And the new shoots are few.

Sandpipers are flocking like clouds

across the river mouth.

Wild gales are sweeping the sand-

banks where

The spring tides churn up dirt.

In this deserted and disordered


I listen to the wind howling over the

wastes of heavy industry.

- Surely something must have

gone wrong.

Already it is worse than anything

I can imagine.

What I see before me is a ghastly

landscape of waste lands


Without sunlight without sound,

The indelible shadows of an

horizon buried

In iron, nickel, rubber, nitrogen,