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The Angry Poet – Nakahara Chuuya

The Angry Poet – Nakahara Chuuya

Sometimes a poem inspires you to be a poet. Such is this story where the author describes how the poet Nakahara Chuuya has inspired her through his work. East India Story introduces Doel Nath

Reading books is a blessing for the most part but at times, it can result in side effects, that given the context can be either a boon or a curse. For example, discovering new authors that you eventually become dangerously obsessed about. Or, finishing a really good book that makes you feel comfortably satiated and miserably empty at the same time. Or, becoming inspired. This last consequence, the most terrifying of them all, is what had befallen me right in the middle of the last year.

The subject of my inspiration was a poem by the Japanese poet, Nakahara Chuuya. (Note: since this article is about Japanese Literature, I will be addressing names in the traditional Japanese format, namely, ‘surname-name’ instead of the usual ‘name-surname’ one, so here, Nakahara is the surname, and Chuuya is the first name. I will also be using honorifics to address people, such as ‘Sensei’, which among other things, is used to address great masters of Art and Literature.)

Although Nakahara Chuuya is the name he is most well-known by today, the early Shōwa era poet was born in 1907 as Kashimura Chuuya, to a wealthy family, with a highly decorated and respected army doctor as a father (his father, Kashimura Kensuke was adopted into the Nakahara family after his marriage, and officially changed his surname to Nakahara). However, things were not exactly fortunate.

As the first child to be born to his parents after six years of trying, Nakahara Sensei’s birth was celebrated for three days. But this situation resulted in his parents being excessively overprotective about him to the point that he was isolated as a child and not even allowed to play with friends. As if growing up lonely wasn’t bad enough, his upbringing was brutally strict. His punishments for minor offences included burning his feet with cigarette embers and making him sleep out in the barn in the cold winter nights. This abuse was somehow meant to make him into a strong, responsible man capable of following in his father’s footsteps. But Nakahara Sensei had different dreams.

Nakahara Chuuya with his parents, age 3
Nakahara Chuuya with his parents, age 3

As a consequence, Nakahara Sensei grew up to be a rebel, and suffered from a life-long problem of anger issues and violent, drunken outbursts. He was infamous for starting bar fights and bullying and picking random drunken fights with fellow customers at bars, some of whom had accompanied him there. One of his famous victims was the celebrated and genius author, Dazai Osamu, who was initially quite nice to Nakahara Sensei and was even somewhat of a fan, but they gradually started to despise each other after Nakahara Sensei began to bully and harass him. They remained life-long haters of each other.

But whatever flaws he may have had, the man was a gifted poet, and it was poetry that he found solace in. A follower of the Dadaist school of Literature, Nakahara Sensei wrote poetry to forget his misery and to tame the demons in him. His poetry reads like he poured all his sadness, all his hopes and dreams and all his soul into them. The words seem to weep the tortured memories of the man who penned them down. Nakahara Chuuya suffered tremendous losses throughout his life, starting with the death of his younger brother Tsugurou. Nakahara Sensei was only 8 at the time.

Nakahara Chuuya (right), 5 years old, with his younger brother, Tsugurou
Nakahara Chuuya (right), 5 years old, with his younger brother, Tsugurou

Another great loss was the death of his best friend, the poet, Tominaga Tarou in 1925 (at the same time, another trusted friend, the literary critic Kobayashi Hideo eloped with Nakahara Sensei’s mistress at the time). However, his greatest loss was the death of his first son, Fumiya, who at the time was only a month older than two years, in 1936. The shock that Nakahara Sensei got from this never left him, and many of his consequent poetry are lamentations and expressions of his endless grief. Although a second son was born the next month, the loss of Fumiya had broken Nakahara Chuuya to the point of no return. In the poem, ‘Spring Will Come Again’, he says, “Spring will come again, people say. /Yet I’m heartsick./ Nothing will happen when spring comes;/ That child will not come again.”

Nakahara Chuuya went to eternal rest the next year, in 1937, at the tragically young age of 30, from tubercular meningitis. His second son, Yoshimasa died of the same disease two months later. But in his short life, Nakahara Chuuya produced a treasure trove of literary works, more than 350 poems that are still read and loved not only throughout Japan, but worldwide. One such lover of his poetry is me. And it’s the one that inspired me to write my own version that I’m going to talk about next.

Nakahara Chuuya diary entries about Fumiya
Nakahara Chuuya diary entries about Fumiya

The poetry in question is called ‘Kojou’ (湖上) or ‘On the Lake’, first published posthumously in 1938 as part of a compilation called ‘Arishihi no Uta’ (在りし日の歌) or ‘Songs of Bygone Days’. The following is an English translation of the poem that I found online, part of a collection of Nakahara Chuuya’s poems called ‘Five Poems’. However, it doesn’t mention the full name of the translator, only ‘R. B’.

It should also be noted that English translations of Japanese works are far from exact translations, and are sometimes even unrecognisably different from the original works. This is because English is almost diametrically different from Japanese as a language, both grammatically and structurally. Hence, it’s almost impossible to translate a vast amount of Japanese words and expressions accurately into English. English just doesn’t have the necessary equipment. This becomes a hundred times more problematic when translating poetry, which has various requirements such as maintaining a certain rhythm and cadence, and expressing emotions adequately using the limited number of words and syllables needed for maintaining that cadence.

Nakahara Chuuya with Fumiya in 1935
Nakahara Chuuya with Fumiya in 1935

Furthermore, there are a multitude of examples in Japanese where you can express a complex emotion with a single word, but English either needs a string of multiple words to express that same emotion, or it doesn’t have the tools to express it at all, making it especially ill-suited for translating poetry. Compared to Japanese, English is sadly limited in its grammatical capabilities. It’s even more difficult when the subject matter of the translation is very lyrical in nature, like with Nakahara Chuuya’s poetry. In fact, many of Nakahara Sensei’s poems have been put to music owing to their lyrical nature.

However, the translator of ‘Five Poems’ has tried best to maintain a cadence similar to the original, and while it’s not really the same, it’s seriously impressive to have achieved such a feat, given how incredibly hard it is to translate Japanese works into English as accurately as possible. So, without further ado, this is ‘On the Lake’ by Nakahara Chuuya:

On the Lake
Nakahara Chuuya

When the crisp moon ventures out,
We’ll climb into the little boat.
The waves will lap in gentle sets,
With breezes also joining us.

The water will be draped in darkness
And the sound of dripping oars –
Between the pauses in your voice –
Will be an intimate of ours.

The moon will listen in on us,
And will even dip a bit,
Will be just above our heads
When we begin to kiss.

And you’ll begin to talk again,
You’ll pout and chatter on –
I’ll listen without a drop of sound,
My hands rowing faithfully along.

When the crisp moon ventures out,
We’ll climb into the little boat.
The waves will lap in gentle sets,
With breezes also joining us.


For those interested, this is the original Japanese version, ‘Kojou’ (湖上):





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After reading this poem, I did something that I don’t really do normally – I wrote a poem myself, based on it, or rather, my own version of ‘On the Lake’. And funnily enough, the language that my brain wanted to use for it was English, not Japanese.

And this is what I wrote:

The Lake
By Doel Nath

In that old boat,
Small, rickety and worn,
It’ll be just you and me.

The oars will be still
And stiller will be the air,
Cool, life-giving, suffocating.
The still water below us,
Separated by rotting wood
Will be a great black mirror,
Reflecting the world, reflecting
Us and our sins.

In the middle of the black lake,
With a hauntingly beautiful
Cold, white moon mocking us,
You will look at me with hollow eyes.
When we lean in to kiss,
The dark silk of the lake
Will show ribbons of white in protest.

In that old boat,
Small, rickety and worn,
It’ll be just you and me.

First of all, please forgive me, Nakahara Sensei. I don’t really know why I wrote this, but for some unknown reason, I felt like I had to (however cheesy it may sound.) I rarely write these days, but there are some literary works that suddenly push me to, for whatever reason. ‘Kojou’ was such a push.

Nakahara Chuuya is just one of the many Japanese authors who move my soul in a way that makes me immensely happy and hopelessly sad simultaneously. Like him, many others of my favourite Japanese authors died very young and very tortured. When I think of how much life they still had to live, how much of their souls they still had to pour out in the form of ink, and how they suffered in the short span of their brilliant lives, my heart breaks. But I’m thankful for the gift they left behind for the whole world to cherish, for evermore.

They may not have thought much of themselves, but they helped and inspired entire generations of people through the power of their words alone, while struggling through their own unfortunate circumstances. And for that, they’re my heroes.

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  • Being a stern enthusiast of Japanese literature and culture I was dumbstruck by the possibility of coming around such a master as Nakahara Sensei. In my many years of toil over literature and art I never came across him once, as someone with similar interests would generally do. Even though the discovery is sudden, there’s this unknown spark, an unwavering energy that truck me so quick and moved me heavens. Both the poems were soothing and I loved the follow-up of the author’s emotive nature.

    This is a great article to savour but an even more greater articulation to be honest. This is something new, something I would like to get drowned with for the next few weeks until I lose the juice.

  • This was a great introduction to Chuuya Nakahara, learnt lots of things about him! Your poem is very good, and a nice little contrast to On the Lake.

  • As a Japanese language enthusiast and lover of Japanese literature, it was a great pleasure to read this very insightful, truthful and honest , well written piece!

    Nakahara Sensei’s life was not a bed of roses, that’s a fact, but each stage of his life adds dimension to his character as a whole, getting to know more about such a maestro, his struggles which forms the layers in his literary career has been a prize to me.

    The pain, rage, solitude and every other emotions, always struck the chords of my heart. 湖上(Kojou) by Nakahara sensei followed by this article’s author’s version of “The Lake” is strikingly beautiful! It was very much to my liking but more so, it made me believe even more to have a different take on things in life.

  • Masterly written fresh & thought provoking intro to such a legend, Nakahara Chuuya Sensei’s short life tragic journey….kudos !

  • A fantastic experience for me. Just unable to express my feelings. To me poets have the privilege of some God gifted powers to put in an enormous story, filled with love, emotions, pains and pleasure into just a few lines, called “Poem”. The great poem of Japanese poet Nakahara Chuuya, it’s translation in English and above all the poem of Doel Nath, inspired by the poem is superb. Wish her all the best.

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