Poetry / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Selected Poems

by Sarashina Genzō (1904–1985), translated into English by Nadine Willems

Translator's note:

Sarashina Genzō, poet, farmer, ethnographer, and politically engaged anarchist, was born into a Japanese settler family in rural north-eastern Hokkaido, where he continued to live until 1940, when he moved to Sapporo. During the 1920s and 1930s, in addition to farming, he worked for a while as teacher in an elementary school whose pupils were mostly of Ainu stock. He strongly opposed the Japanese government's colonial policies, whether social, economic or educational, and his unwillingness to teach Ainu children the required assimilationist curriculum led to his dismissal by the educational authorities.

He was prolific as a socially and politically engaged poet in the pre-war period. His first book, Taneimo (Seed Potatoes), was published in 1930; in the early 1930s he was co-editor of the magazine Hokui gojūdo (Latitude Fifty Degrees North), which was distributed, and attracted contributors from, all over Japan; his second book of poetry, Tōgen no uta (Songs of the Frozen Plain), was published in 1943. After the war, he continued to publish poetry while also becoming well-known as a historian and ethnographer of the Ainu people.

A number of his poems are about Ainu people, and in these poems he sometimes used Ainu words for key concepts, attaching the Ainu pronunciation to the Japanese kanji in the form of a transliteration into the Japanese hiragana syllabary. In addition to this, his work includes not only standard Japanese but also Hokkaido and Tohoku dialect, as well as a great deal of onomatopoeia. Because this kind of linguistic mix is such a defining feature of Sarashina's style, it is to some extent retained in the translations, with Ainu or Japanese terms immediately preceding or following the corresponding English words and appearing in different fonts.

These translations are forthcoming in Kotan Chronicles, to be published in Tokyo by Isobar Press in 2017.


On the track sometimes the dog's on top of the child
Sometimes the child's on top of the dog as they play together
The dog perapera licks the child's cheeks
The dog rolls the child over, the child's on his back
Above the tip of his nose, he can see the dog’s wagging tail
And the blue sky

Black kites are circling
Ever since kotan village people have been forbidden to catch the ichanui trout
Even if black kites come and wild chrysanthemums bloom
They feel only anger at the kites that eat the spawning trout
All that's left for them is to harvest the oats trampled by the shamo settlers' horses
Even weeds hardly grow now on the land assigned to them
And they lack the strength even to clear those away

Hapo mama went to the fields every day leaving the dog with the child
So the child had been friends with the dog from the time he learnt to crawl
When he was tired of playing with the dog, he would take aim at a shōchū bottle
Left empty by acha papa and fill it with piss
He grew up, and the dog learnt how to pull a sledge
The child grew skilled ki ki ki at making the dog pull the sledge
When tired they fell asleep together in the fields or even on the path

The child got sick
And after they were told it was serious
For the first time as far as he could remember
Hapo held him in her arms in daylight
And hadja bought him a caramel sweet
With a weak smile the child decided he liked being sick
Then happy to be feeling like this he died
The caramel he never tasted was put in the coffin
The dog went running korokoro to the field
And rubbed its back in the grass


It's a snowstorm
Nobody can see an inch ahead

Having to carry straw sacks on shirtless shoulders in this weather means that
A piece of firewood makes a handy cudgel which means that
Living people working like the living dead get beaten senseless which means that
Even though we're hated like demons we go on punishing them which means that
They're supposed to be grateful just for having a job which means that
The bottom of a snowdrift is the peaceful graveyard where all their accounts are settled
which means that
If they don't like it there's nothing else for them but to come up with a story that'll get
them arrested and looked after in jail which means that
They have no choice in the matter—
They understand it clear enough, right?
Don't they understand what's so obvious?

It's a snowstorm, a snowstorm
Nobody knows what’s an inch ahead


Poem for Sekko

For the first time in ages I was eating some akiaji salmon I'd been given
when Sekko walked in

– Sensei, so you don’t know much about hard times, then!
There's plenty of this at the spawning grounds where you go, isn't there?
No way! hapo mama brings home only guts and bones and we have to smoke those ready for winter
But if there's enough to smoke that’s pretty good, isn't it?
Naah. We have to smoke all of it now if we want to eat in winter

Fourth-grader Sekko knows what's not in any text-book
The deep-down layers of life

Make-Believe Work

There's such a commotion in the playground that I peek out
Yutaka-kachi who came back yesterday from "going away to work" is in the centre of things
The kids are yelling "let's pretend we're going away to work"
Yutaka-kachi is the boss, Yutaka-ji the employee
The two of them do it as they've seen it done on the mountain
Everybody says "let's do the same"
Put your back into it and you'll take home some cash
On the boss's orders everyone is chanting in rhythm and making a snowman
That's it        I did it        I did!        how much do I get?
You don't get anything      what you get is a punch
What's with that kusare rotten boss        wallop him        wallop him
Yutaka-kachi hunkers down and runs away
Everyone else in hot pursuit


Evening school's over
Right        a good fire lifts the spirit, let's start one
Sekko opened the bay window to get some wood
Wow!        lots of stars
I see the starlit sky showing off its gems
Look!        that's the North Star        leading the way
And the red one between the trees is Aldebaran
If all those were the kotan's cash we could buy anything, imagine that
It's cold        shut the window        a fire's better than stars
OK, let’s get the fire going—all star-gazing does for you is give you a stiff neck

Attendance Rate

Since the kids of the migrants who settled across the river started coming to school
The attendance rate has worsened
They shouldn't be lazy, they should be sent out to learn
I couldn't agree more, so the next day I visited the little house of the settlers
An old woman alone in a grass shack, the fire had gone out
She was sleeping with her head tied up in a scarf
I'd like to send him … but …
There was nothing to say so I left
On the newly opened-up land at the foot of the still snow-covered mountain
A small completely dirt-blackened child was carrying burnt brushwood
I joined in, chopped trees and cleared brush until nightfall

I went home without saying anything about attendance

Geographical Offence

People seek to live where the climate's good for growing things
When I talked about this during the geography lesson
One of the settlers' kids pulled a strange face
That kid came from the Kishū region where the mikan oranges grow
He came to this northern island in perfect disregard of geographical laws


The lake's warm enough for swimming now
Who cares about end-of-term reports, the summer break starts next week
Cherries are turning black and gooseberries red
Sparrows come to the cherries in the playground, the kids puff out their cheeks
Foot-soles are itching to go

In the classroom when the lesson's over
Let's go, they say, and run barefoot to the lake
They make the raft they've been thinking about in class since morning
They go round the lake        dive in the water
They all line up neatly
Roasting their willies in the sun they shout
Sensei, come on in too!        loaches        let's catch some!
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