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This is a translation with commentary of an essay by the Japanese poet/naturalist Ishikawa Takuboku. It deals with the tension between the frontier spirit of the artist and the complacency of modern urban existence.
Frontier spirit: Takuboku’s First Sight of Otaru
Dr. David Petersen
The poet Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912) is best-known as a naturalist – a keen observer whose perceptions have a vividness and immediacy born of unflagging fidelity to truth. First Sight of Otaru presents another facet of his expressive power. The essay is a political statement about the inherent tension between society and the artist, as well as a portrait of its author as a pioneer on both the figurative and literal levels.
Composed in 1907, the work provides an interesting glimpse into Takuboku’s journey as a naturalist writer, a process that would lead him away from his literary contemporaries just as surely as it fed his wanderlust for hinterland. The poet’s interpretation of the naturalist movement is made clear in his critique of Katai and other writers of the time. For Takuboku, naturalism is not about reality, which was synonymous for him with the surface trappings of everyday life, but about truth - particularly that of inner experience.
Typically, one of the first truths to spring from introspection is the primacy of desire. Yet for Takuboku, “desire” meant something distinct from the sexual drive, which had been so effectively addressed through Tokio and other contemporary fictional protagonists. Instead, his writings are infused by a broader urge to bring forth newness and to shape the world to reflect a personal vision. Ultimately, this form of creativity would prove no less provocative: respect for the inner life means above all advocating the legitimacy of individual expression, a stance that provokes resistance from the status quo in the guise of the guardians of social mores.
Just as biological productivity requires a womb for gestation, the creative instinct calls for a protected space, hallowed ground where ideas can germinate before bearing fruit in the real world. Takuboku realized that artistic products are all too often stillborn, thanks to the chill from repressive and conservative tendencies inherent in the social contract. The irony for the poet is that society itself is defined in retrospect by the emergence of extraordinary artistic (scientific, cultural) achievements. The genius is responsible for the cultural history of her people, and yet culture conspires to smother novelty at birth with a cloak of conventionality.
For the artist of integrity, there are few choices available. One is advocacy for social change. The other is to escape society altogether in search of a space more conducive to artistic production. Part of Takuboku’s genius is the unique form of his solution. By leaving the stultifying atmosphere of the main island for the back country of Hokkaido he was realizing his dream of finding a place where he could externalize his inner vision. And through writings such as this essay, he was simultaneously challenging others to learn from his travels at the outskirts of conventional society. There is more Thoreau here than Zola, a fact that encapsulates the difference between Takuboku and other writers of his time.
First Sight of Otaru
It is a time when no new voices are raised, and people find none capable of becoming law. And thus, it is a time shaped by the totality of social conventions, both of class and convention. A time when new voices have already ceased in society, when people dwell stubbornly on the past and present, and new futures are neglected. A time when conservation and attachment and the aged are as prevalent as owls in the night. When all of life conspires to suppress new dreams and actions. In an age when the best of our natural human inclinations have fallen into such a state of suspended animation, when movement has been quelled at ever deeper levels, people refer to this state as “society” and say that we have arrived at a cultural plane. The steely view of a certain historian that “Civilization is conservatism” is a scathing condemnation of our so-called culture, sparing basically nothing.
I am not one to debate here the significance or the characteristics of civilization. However, if a situation like what I’ve described so far is called true civilization, it is apparent that what everyone boasts of is anything but a blessing. People, no matter who they are, thirst for freedom. Deference and self-control may be the human virtues of the age, but nothing great comes of squelching life and merely strengthening this thirst for freedom. No one who agrees even grudgingly with Carlyle’s argument that history is the biography of a few individuals can deny the great authority of this drive and the magnificence of its victory. The thirst for freedom is not simply for the emancipation of personal will from administrative and economic constraints. Rather, it is the desire to create, develop and rule over a world of one’s own, through the expression of one’s own capacities. It is the desire to be one’s own sovereign, to make use of every ounce of one’s ability. People differ in strengths and weaknesses, some are great and some are small, but those in whom this desire burns brightest are called geniuses. For in the end, what is genius if not creative capacity? In other words, world history is simply a description of the ceaseless ebb and flow of intense personal desire for autonomous creativity. If you disagree, imagine trying to completely eliminate the artistic hero from history. Surely what you would have left would be painfully insipid, a carcass unbearable even to contemplate.
Despite this, the desire for freedom is always abhorred like a viper, and feared as Satanic by conservative society, pre-formed as it is from a morass of dead rules. There is no way around it: those who wish to develop themselves and the world they live in must naturally first adopt a demeanor of struggle. They must act as aggressors against a society that constrains individual rights with decades and centuries and millennia of conventions and rules. With the fury that comes of being hemmed in on all sides, hands are ultimately raised to resist and to tear down. And those of us bound by ropes of our own design - the social mores of class and custom – those of us who idle away our time in the narrow confines of our own creation, are then thrown into confusion and indignation. The blood rises and with any means at our disposal we set out to persecute our noble aggressors. Thus life becomes an eternal battleground - the individual fights with society, and youth with the aged. The spirit of enterprise and freedom grapples with conservation and attachment, and the old clash spears with the new. The winners of these battles become stars in the firmament of history, the sweet glitter of their genius illuminating a thousand generations. And after crushing defeat, the losers lick their wounds interminably, weeping long and with feeling. The winners are few and the losers many.
At this point, countless adventurers, their hearts burning with the vital flame of youthful life, take the lead and head for unexplored realms, whether physical or spiritual, to construct a new history for themselves through their own devices. The spirit of the settler and that of the new frontier endow people with unexpected might. Think about it - since Europe emerged from the deep slumber of the dark ages, a myriad of brave adventurers have set their sights on manly adventure in America, Australia and much of our Asian region. Think too how to this day, what was once called Yezo island, now the island of Hokkaido, has taken in countless adventurers from the mainland.
Our Hokkaido is the land of freedom, thrown open for us as citizens of Japan. The children of freedom across the country, acting with spirit and bravery, have doubtless been stirred by that untamed land stretching out as it does like a continent. By the mountains of white clouds and setting sun, where not a single human step has been planted since the dawn of the world. By the hinterland of the great verdant forests. By the great planes, expanses of desert reticent of rural Russia. And by the limitless oceans, frothing white and swarming with fish. All abandon their familiar lives in the lands of their ancestors, and gallantly cross with the quick tides of the Tusgaru Straight.
I too am one of these people, a visitor to Hokkaido from May of this year, wandering freely in what is still early spring. If the young in body are adventurers of chance, coming and going with the wind, growing thin but following their hearts, naturally they dream of making their fortunes at one fell swoop. But in my case, I crossed the Tsugaru Straight only to breathe the air of freedom, so plentiful in the land of Hokkaido. The air of freedom! If I can breathe such air, then I will not have even the slightest regret. Even if I must sleep like a dog in fields of withered grass, the sky will be limitless and blue.
My first stop was Hakodate, at what is called the throat of Hokkaido. Mainlanders think that if they’ve seen Hakodate, they’ve seen the island. But the closer to the mainland, the closer in spirit to the mainland. When I say the spirit of the mainland in the frontier of Hokkaido, I mean an encroaching sense of order, courtesy of a million dead laws. Even after spending more than 120 days in Aoyagi-cho, I was unable to find the satisfaction I craved. The great fire on the night of August 25th was heaven-sent, purging completely the hidden natural vices in Hakodate. I rejoiced in the building of a new, a second Hakodate, and abandoned the ruins of the fire behind with the autumn wind.
My arrival at Sapporo brought my first opportunity to get a true sense of the spirit of Hokkaido. Mabara is situated in a grove of trees at one corner of the largest plain in Japan. Here grass grows beside the expansive roads, cows bleat, horses bolt, and both nature and man somehow find themselves in a benevolent and relaxed mood. Even if you stick to the roads, you don’t end up walking with the airs of city folk on the main island. The autumn wind blows from morning to night, and a great sense of the countryside pervades everything you see and hear. This was a town full of gentle love, a town where poets should live, I thought, and I felt indescribably happy.
However, I was forced to admit that Sapporo was lacking in one regard. And that was the opportunity for the manly activity that would sustain me for a lifetime. I left Sapporo during the second week. And after leaving Sapporo, I arrived at Otaru. Here for the first time I saw manly activity with a true frontier spirit, brimming with the true essence of the pioneer. Manly activity stirs up the wind, and this wind is the atmosphere of freedom.
People from the urban centers on the main island shuffle along when as walk, gazing fussily as if searching for something they dropped. People from gutted Hakodate also acted as if from a vulgar nature. The people of Sapporo seemed intimidated by the stillness of the continent, and walk quietly and leisurely as a result. But the people in Otaru are not like this. They look as if ready to gather up something much bigger than a lost article in the road. Under stress from their surrounding, they have come to possess the strong vitality of an indomitable spirit. As a result, people in Otaru do not so much walk as charge ahead. Japanese infantry excel at charging, but the soldier dashes only at the last moment. The way the people in Otaru dash around from morning to night is a sight to behold.
Thinking figuratively about their activity, it is difficult to find anything to compare it with. Moreover, I don’t feel a particular urgency to do so today, so I will simply call it a town of manly activity. The roads in this town of action are reputed to be the worst in Japan. And for better or worse, gaining national recognition is already manly, is it not? I can imagine a day when the town will decide to clean up these bad roads, but then go too far, imposing dead rules of class and custom. Thus I say leave the roads in Otaru as the worst in Japan – let them stay that way until the end of time. Even if I have to buy a dozen – no, two dozen pairs of shoes a year.
The distinctive quality of the people of Hokkaido, especially those in Otaru, is that they answer without hesitation, regardless of the question. Which is to say without a strong feeling of attachment. Precisely due to this lack of strong feelings of attachment, some criticize these townships as incapable of promoting civil projects. But I raise both hands to praise the spirit of determination found in the people of the North Sea. They are a people who trust that there are green hills everywhere - masters of their realm who show remarkable flexibility, simply moving on when land is unproductive. And if you have freedom and activity, there will enough to eat even if you cannot order sashimi and baked sole.
I plan to be a wanderer like the wind, to the very limits of my ability. I will be a wander throughout the whole country. I will charge about from morning to night together with the people of Otaru. I will act with them to the limits of my strength, until my weak feet give out. I am satisfied merely to have come to Otaru, this place of freedom and activity. To see the color of the ocean of this fierce activity with my own eyes, to hear the march of this thrilling activity with my own ears, and to write with a pure heart. Ours is a time when the fulcrum of the world trade has shifted to the Pacific region, and economic relations between the formal rivals of Japan and Russia center on an oblique line running across the Japan Sea from Otaru to Vladivostok. But I am simply and inexplicably happy to have joined the community of Otaru by happenstance, and to travel along the worst roads in Japan.
Honda, H. (1959). The Poetry of Ishikawa Takuboku. Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press.
Rubin, J. (1984). Injurious to Public Morals: Writers and the Meiji State. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Suzuki T. (1996). Narrating the Self: Fictions of Japanese Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Takuboku, I. Hajimete mitaru Otaku. Nihon Bungaku Zenshu. Vol. 12. Shueishia, 1967.