March 11th of this year marked the fifth anniversary of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami near Tohoku that killed roughly 16,000 people. In the aftermath of that event, television commercials were put on hold and instead public service announcements were released; one of them featured the poem Are You an Echo? by the late children’s poet Misuzu Kaneko, who had nearly vanished into obscurity until her work was revived in the 1980s, and then was thrust into the spotlight via the post-tsunami PSA.
This September, Seattle-based publisher Chin Music Press will publish Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko – a book featuring both a narrative about Kaneko’s life and a collection of her poems. It marks the first time Kaneko’s poetry will be translated into English for children. The publisher has also created a website to accompany the title.
David Jacobson, editorial consultant at Chin Music Press, told PW he was given a book of Kaneko’s selected work in 2013, and was “immediately enchanted” with her poetry; he was inspired to translate Kaneko’s work and tell her life story to an audience of English-speaking children (while a household name in Japan, Kaneko is virtually unknown in the United States). Jacobson felt that the life story and work of Kaneko would make not only an interesting book, but also a saleable one. So, leveraging the skills he procured with his M.B.A., his writing and editorial chops, and his experience having worked in Japan, he wrote a proposal to Chin Music, which publisher Bruce Rutledge approved.
Jacobson wrote the narrative, and the book features Japanese-to-English translations of her poems by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi, and color illustrations by Toshikado Hajiri of Senzaki, the Japanese fishing town where Kaneko lived. The illustrations were inspired by a trip Jacobson and Hajiri took to Senzaki, and are drawn from actual locations, providing “a naturalistic view of what Japan looked like at those times pre-war,” said Jacobson. He described Senzaki as an “out-of-the-way provincial town” that has been turned into “somewhat of a shrine” to Kaneko. In the 13 years that the Kaneko Misuzu Memorial Museum has been in operation it has welcomed 1.52 million visitors, while the Walt Whitman Birthplace Museum in New Jersey receives only 16,500 visitors annually. “Poets are incredibly prominent in Japan in a way you can’t really imagine in the States,” said Jacobson.
Misuzu Kaneko, who was born in 1903, grew up in a bookshop. Her mother and grandmother began managing a bookstore in Senzaki around the time Misuzu turned three, following the death of her father. The bookstore occupied the street-facing rooms of the family’s home, and they lived in the rear of the first floor and on the second floor of the house. She lived there until she was 20, then moved to her stepfather’s home in nearby Shimonoseki, which was home to the main branch of the family-run bookstore. She moved away at 23, within a few months of getting married in February 1926.
Then, she turned to writing. “In the 1920s there was something of a renaissance of children’s literature in Japan,” Jacobson reported. “Up until then it had been primarily didactic. But in the 1920s a group of writers decided it was worth providing good quality literature for kids. Kaneko turned 20 just as that movement was starting to gain momentum, and she was able to become known by contributing at first under a pseudonym to the prominent journals in children’s literature.”
Yet Kaneko’s personal life was tragic. Due to a confluence of factors including illness and a philandering husband who forbid her from writing and took custody of their child when she divorced him, she committed suicide at the age of 26. For the next 50 years, her work drifted into obscurity until poet Setsuo Yazaki found the only remaining collected copy of her works, and republished it in its entirety in 1984. Her work then regained prominence, featured in elementary school textbooks and set to music by composers, and her life was fictionalized in teledramas. However, it was the poem’s appearance in the post-tsunami PSA that helped her to reach millions.
Jacobson added that while Kaneko’s work has been translated into 11 languages over the years, it has “barely made a ripple in English.” In addition, none of those translations was made for children. “We wanted to make it accessible to kids because that’s because that’s who she was writing for,” he said. “So many of her poems are about what it’s like to be a child. We wanted to make sure that the poems would be translated in a way that would ring true for children.”
Jacobson wasn’t sure initially if Chin Music would publish a story about Kaneko’s life, or translations of her poems, but Rutledge thought that her life story was so compelling, that hewanted to weave the two together into a children’s book. After more than 40 drafts, Are You An Echo?, edited by Cali Kopczick. will be published on September 13. The book is geared towards ages 7–10, partly due to the sensitive material about Kaneko’s life.
Publisher Bruce Rutledge founded Chin Music Press in 2002, with the initial aim of focusing on works from Japan. Since then the company’s focus has evolved to include works from throughout Asia, and to bring translated works to English readers. Commenting on a recent trip to Japan, Rutledge said, “So many global writers are translated into Japanese. You come back here and there is such a dearth of translated work.”
Are You an Echo? is the press’s first children’s book, and Rutledge noted, “That might not seem like a leap for people in the industry,” but for them it was a great deal of work to figure out how to work within the children’s market. Because of that investment, Rutledge said they will most likely publish a line of children’s books “because we’ve done so much groundwork to figure out how to do it.” For fall 2017, Chin Music Press will publish an as-yet-untitled children’s book about Yokai – Japanese mythical monsters.
As for Are You an Echo?, Rutledge said that the press had wanted to do a book about the tsunami and its aftermath, “but we didn’t want to just be reactive.” Rutledge said he hadn’t found the right book, until he discovered Echo. “This isn’t only a beautiful story about a poet who had a really rough life and wrote these beautiful, wide-eyed, empathetic poems,” he said. “It’s also about how these poems came back after the tsunami and gave solace to people after that disaster.”
As for the subject matter of Are You an Echo? being appropriate for children, Rutledge admitted that it was “one of the trickiest things we had to work out,” and that they debated for a long time about how to deal with the poet’s suicide. “We talked to so many people, but in the end we decided we had to trust the readers.”
His hope for the book is that it not only exposes children to poetry but adds to the diversity of voices that children are reading. Kaneko’s story is about a woman “who is trapped in an unsympathetic, unrelenting world,” said Rutledge. “1930’s Japan for a creative young woman was a bit of a nightmare. We want to reach kids who feel a little trapped or feel like there is no space for them. We want to show them the wonder of the world as seen through Kaneko’s eyes and her poetry.”
He added that if taught in schools, Are You an Echo? would allow children to discuss difficult topics as well as the resilience of people and the “power of books. I mean she grew up in a bookstore and that’s not lost on us. There’s so much here that could resonate with kids.”
Are You an Echo? by Misuzu Kaneko, text and translation by David Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi, illus. by Toshikado Hajiri. Chin Music, $19.50, Sep t. 978-1-63405-962-6