Out of his struggles: the poems of Kosuke Shirasu

Art and auctions, Books, Insight, People and Places — By on October 16, 2017 at 12:54 PM

Articulating the cause.

Out of his struggles: the poems of Kosuke Shirasu

By James Brewer

Don’t ever give up. This resonant line from a poem by a principled labour activist in the thick of harsh repressions in 1920s and 1930s Japan typified his courage, his championing of the interests of his fellow workers, and his humanity.

Kosuke Shirasu (1905-1943) was among other attributes a brilliant poet, and thanks to the recent publication of a collection of his verses, readers in Japan, the UK and elsewhere can appreciate his talents in that field.  His words come from the heart, directly “out of his struggles.”

Jun Shirasu, grandson of Kosuke, worked with British poet Bruce Barnes to translate (they prefer here the word “interpret”) some of the most compelling poems in a volume with the title Out of his Struggles.

The two admirers are bringing the word to wider audiences, through their readings in London, Tokyo and elsewhere. The publication and the performances are in memory of Kosuke’s daughter Ichiko Shirasu, who made a life in London in journalism and study of law and died in 2008, cutting short a career of much further promise.

As well as a tribute to a heroic and enlightened individual, the book lends a fascinating insight into a period little known in Europe about a nation that was to become a major actor in World War II, then rebuild its industry to become the world’s second largest economy, and in the last few years be the third most important economy after the US and China.

Bruce Barnes and Jun Shirasu.

At a dedicated evening on October 13, 2017, at Housmans Bookshop, an independent stockist of radical literature a short walk from King’s Cross, Jun read movingly in Japanese a selection of the free-verse stanzas, with Bruce orating one by one the English versions. Their immaculate diction and mastery of expression held their audience in rapt attention.

Kosuke was born in Tokyo, and worked as a journalist and pamphleteer, recounted Bruce. His involvement in the Communist Party of Japan was mainly in Akita City, producing and circulating a newsletter for local workers and documenting farmers’ riots against landowners. In 1928 he joined the All Japan Federation of Proletarian Arts, contributing to its official magazine, Battle Flag, keen to record the everyday experiences of workers. By 1930 he had collected and published many of these articles in his pamphlet Strike.

Defying restrictions on free speech and state censorship, proletarian writers and militants like Kosuke faced harassment by the secret police and risked arrest.  The big crackdown came after the February 1928 general election, in which the outlawed Communist Party supported legal socialist parties to achieve many successes. Prime minister Giichi Tanaka triggered the 1925 Peace Preservation Laws as a basis for the mass arrest of known communists and suspected sympathisers, in what became known as the March 15 incident.

Kosuke Shirasu poetry on display.

Some 1,200 people were rounded up all over Japan, clamped in chains and dragged through the courts to be sentenced in 1932 to long jail terms. Those who recanted their ideology were pardoned or given much reduced terms. Kosuke fretted over the impact on morale of the renunciation of communism the following year by the party’s two most experienced activists, Manabu Sano and Sadachika Nabeyama.

Kosuke mobilised his spirited writings as weapons for the cause and assembled simple yet often anguished phrases into short chronicles about injustice and the struggles of the subjugated.

Jun and Bruce began the evening with a poem which Kosuke described as a “song” dedicated to transport workers who went on strike in 1930, paralysing the city for five days. Although the strike was defeated, Kosuke declaims: “Here’s to the day of our victory.”

In The Strike Declaration, a woman bus conductor writes to her parents of the frustration of trying to get the chairman of a mass meeting to put a motion for industrial action.  She knows what must be done: “Stand up the damned of the Earth/ stand up the prisoners of starvation/ Reason thunders in its volcano/ this is the eruption at the end.”

Housmans, the event venue.

The Road to Rebuilding is dedicated to a leading comrade who has “disappeared” into jail.

In railing against the Communist Party members who called for a less doctrinaire approach to working with other parties, Jun wrote ironically A Letter of Apology, slamming an opponent in these words: “Who do you think you are/ the new Amazon of left wing politics?”

He writes To Mum, with news from my Workplace, which is a factory where he senses that a strike will eventually erupt. This is where the admonition “Don’t ever give up, make a life for yourself” is couched in a dialogue of mothers.

One of the most moving compositions is Three Sisters in which three young girls (one of them only 12 years old) have been sold to a bookbinding factory, work a 13-hour day under the control of a boozy manager, and are given pitiful wages on which “they could not afford two dried sardines.” The sisters are set to work folding thousands of sheets. Their fingers freeze to the folder plate, “folding, folding into rigor mortis.”

Japan’s militarism is another theme. In Letter from North Manchuria about the 1931 invasion of north-eastern China, the adventure is stripped of its glory: “The decorated soldier is to my mind a bare human being.”

His sympathy for conscripts and recruits is plain in Let’s return to our village, as landlords threaten to repossess the land of peasants if they refuse to join up.

War left nothing pictures a war widow, for whom “the pittance of the pension/ was in the hands of the loan shark.”

Jun spent four years searching libraries and journals for the writings of Kosuke and then shared his partial English translations with Bruce through email exchange. With his partner Joy, Bruce travelled to Japan earlier in 2017, and they were delighted at the reception that the book received at readings in Tokyo, and in the village of Oshika, near Matsumoto.

Bruce Barnes was among the circle of friends of Ichiko Shirasu, the poet’s daughter. She was a BBC World Service journalist, translator, and a polymath “who kept faith with her father’s socialist principles by demonstrating them through her kindness and generosity,” say those who knew her. Sadly, her untimely death meant that she never saw come to fruition her hopes for the international dissemination of her father’s poetry.

Jun Shirasu ​is noted for his prints, stone etchings and ceramics. His works have been much appreciated in countries including Portugal, a land of the azulejo glazed tile, and where he lived for a while in Lisbon. Among his most recent output was a series of azulejos named A viagem da camelia (the voyage of the camellia). Jun’s work is seen by thousands of people every day: his large mural Tres Jardins decorates the train station of Palmela, 25 km south of the capital – and it won the Joana Abranches Pinto prize awarded in 2011 by the embassy of Portugal in Japan.

Jun has authored a treatise on the use in Japan of Prussian blue pigment, which he documents as invented in Berlin in 1706. The use of the pigment spread quickly over the world, via Holland, being taken up later in the century in Edo period Japan. A Chinese ship brought the first cargo of the pigment to Japan in 1782.

Bruce Barnes was born in London, where he was to become joint co-ordinator of Islington Poetry Workshop and a member of the Blue Nose Poetry Collective. He has lived subsequently in Bradford, where he runs poetry and writing workshops and is a member of Beehive Poets. His poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, and he has read and performed throughout Britain, and in Canada and the US.

Two days after the Housmans Bookshop event, there was a further reading at Torriano Meeting House in Kentish Town, London NW5.

Out of His Struggles: the poems of Kosuke Shirasu. Utistugu Press (37 Wilmer Rd, Heaton, Bradford BD9 4 RX) ISBN 978-0 -9545585-2-9. Price £7.

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