Are You An Echo: The Remarkable Story of the Forgotten Young Woman Who Became Japan’s Most Beloved Children’s Poet

A celebration of indiscriminate empathy and a sensitive reminder that the tragic and the transcendent can coexist.


Are You An Echo: The Remarkable Story of the Forgotten Young Woman Who Became Japan’s Most Beloved Children’s Poet

In 1966, while leafing through an obscure book, a 19-year-old Japanese aspiring poet by the name of Setsuo Yazaki discovered a poem that stopped him up short with its staggering generosity of empathy and existential truth conferred with great simplicity:

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.

The poem had been written many decades earlier by a young forgotten poet named Misuzu Kaneko (April 11, 1903–March 10, 1930). Yazaki hungered to know more about her life and work, but was met with a near-total vacuum. The only known copy of her poems had been destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII. The bookstore where she once worked was long gone. No one seemed to know if she had any surviving family.

Yazaki spent sixteen years trying to track down this ghostly genius. In 1982, by then in his mid-thirties, he finally made a breakthrough — he found and met with Kaneko’s 77-year-old younger brother, who brought her three worn pocket diaries containing the only extant record of the 512 children’s poems she had written in her blink of a lifetime, most never published.

Misuzu Kaneko, January 1930

Her poems have something of Whitman in their empathetic reverence for the splendor of the earth and its creatures, something of Blake in their precision of insight into the nature of things, and something of Plath in both the largehearted appetite for loving the world and the poet’s heartbreaking death. Her short life is a rare reminder that the tragic and the transcendent can coexist, and that the barely bearable emotional porousness with which some people are endowed is the common root of both their sorrowful sensitivity and their uncommon capacity for compassion.

Yazaki set about enchanting the popular imagination with the grounding and elevating power of the lost poems he had found. Over the years that followed, as he published these forgotten treasures, Kaneko was resurrected as Japan’s foremost poet for young readers. Children in public schools could recite her verses by heart. Her gentle face adorns a national postage stamp. When a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, television companies stopped commercials and instead played her poem “Are You an Echo?” as a public service announcement that adrenalized nearly one million volunteers to flock to the site of the disaster.

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 a while,
becoming lonely

I say, “Sorry.”
You say, “Sorry.”

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

But despite her immense popularity in Japan, the English-speaking world has been deprived of Kaneko’s poetry for nearly a century — until now, thanks to Seattle’s independent Chin Music Press: Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko (public library) introduces young readers to the life and work of this extraordinary woman, whose writing continues to salve generations by wrapping the delicate consciousness of words around what so many unconsciously feel but cannot articulate.

A labor of love by David Jacobson, who first fell in love with Kaneko’s poetry in its original Japanese, this unusual bilingual book translated by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi tells the story of the poet’s life alongside some of her most beloved poems, illustrated in tender watercolor by Japanese artist Toshikado Hajiri.

Kaneko was born at the dawn of the twentieth century in a small fishing village. Her mother, who became a single parent after the girl’s father died when she was three, ran a bookstore and felt strongly about reading and education. Unlike most Japanese girls in that era, whose formal education ended after sixth grade, Misuzu remained in school until the age of seventeen. A precocious child, she read voraciously about faraway lands and was animated by a sympathetic curiosity about the natural world. Like Oliver Sacks, who would lie in the garden and wonder what it’s like to be a rose, young Misuzu would puzzle over what it’s like to be snow and how orphaned whale calves grieve their parents after a whale hunt.

SNOW PILE

Snow on top
must feel chilly,
the cold moonlight piercing it.

Snow on the bottom
must feel burdened
by the hundreds who tread on it.

Snow in the middle
must feel lonely
with neither earth nor sky to look at.

In her early twenties, Kaneko began writing short poems for children based on vivid memories from her own childhood. She submitted some of them to five magazines that held regular competitions for young writers. To her amazement, four of the five accepted her poems and printed them in the same month of 1923. Soon, her poems began appearing in magazines all over the country. Barely in her twenties, she became a literary celebrity.

In a sensitive insight, Jacobson considers how Kaneko must have felt as she released her art into the world, and finds an analogy in one of her own poems:

FLOWER SHOP MAN

The flower shop man
went to town to sell flowers
and sold them all.

Poor lonely flower shop man.
The flowers he cared for are all gone.

The flower shop man
is now alone in his hut
as the sun goes down.
The flower shop man
dreams of happiness
for the flowers he sold.

But while the public shone its adoring attention on Kaneko, darkness was brewing in her private life. The man she had married — a clerk in her family bookstore — turned out to be a terrible, unfaithful husband. As Jacobson tactfully puts it, she “contracted a disease from her husband that caused her great pain.” To compound the physical agony, he forced her to stop writing.

The little girl they had together was the light of Kaneko’s life, but when she finally decided to rise from the pit of unhappiness by leaving her husband, she collided with further heartbreak: Japanese law automatically granted the father indisputable custody and Kaneko’s husband didn’t hesitate to use it — he declared that he was to take their daughter away. Bedeviled by debilitating bodily pain and anguished by the loss of her daughter, Kaneko sank into further despair.

One evening, after bathing her daughter and sharing with her their favorite desert — sakuramochi, a pink ball of sweet sticky-rice wrapped in a salty cherry tree leaf — Kaneko went into her study, wrote a letter to her husband asking that he let her mother raiser the girl, and took her own life a month before her twenty-seventh birthday.

STARS AND DANDELIONS

Deep in the blue sky,
like pebbles at the bottom of the sea,
lie the stars unseen in daylight
until night comes.
  You can’t see them, but they are there.
  Unseen things are still there.

The withered, seedless dandelions
hidden in the cracks of the roof tile
wait silently for spring,
their strong roots unseen.
  You can’t see them, but they are there.
  Unseen things are still there.

The grandmother eventually did get to raise the little girl. Jacobson offers a touching ending to a tragic story:

Every year on the anniversary of Misuzu’s death, grandmother and granddaughter would share a sakuramochi. Together, they remembered Misuzu’s kind and gentle soul.

Given the harrowing undertones of Kaneko’s life-story, the decision to make a children’s book about it is a courageous refusal to sugar-coat the complexity of life and a reflection of Neil Gaiman’s admonition against protecting children from the dark. (The ghost of E.B. White resounds: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”)

Complement the tender and touching Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko with Wabi-Sabi, a lovely children’s book based on the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in impermanence, and Little Tree, an uncommonly beautiful and subtle Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life, then revisit this collection of children’s book celebrating great artists, writers, and scientists.


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