Shinjiro Kurahara was an artist of multiple genres – he sketched, wrote short stories, and later in life devoted himself to poetry, publishing six volumes. Kurahara’s poems are at once elegant and stark, simple and possessed of a comforting depth. His poetry has attracted renewed attention in recent years with the release of Iwana (‘Char’), a bilingual edition of his final works, in 2010.
Kurahara was born into the noble Aso family in Kurokawa Village, Aso County, in Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1899. His birth name was Koretaka Kurahara. His father Koreaki was a Shinto priest descended from the founder of the prestigious Aso Shrine. His mother Iku was the younger sister of Kitasato Shibasaburo, a prominent microbiologist. Shinjiro lived in the village until seven and then moved to Kumamoto City with his family. At nineteen he went up to Tokyo intending to enter an art school but soon enough gave up the idea in order to spend one year preparing to enter the Department of French Literature in Keio Gijyuku University. While in university, he happened to encounter Hagiwara Sakutaro’s poems and fell subject to his fateful influence. Indeed, although at around twenty-five he was engrossed in writing poetry, he made his debut in 1927 as an author with the publication of a collection of stories: Landscape with a Cat.
After a silence of twelve years he published a second collection called A Specialist of White-Eyes, which received the acclaim of Yasunari Kawabata. However, at the same time he published his first collection of poems in 1939 at the age of forty (The Full Moon in the East), and established a presence as a poet. He then gave up writing novels in order to cultivate only this sole career path. Then, as now, a writer can rarely live on poetry alone, but if we look for a writer who pursued the same course as Kurahara, the name Thomas Hardy springs to mind. Like Hardy, Kurahara, too, was a unique case.
That he devoted himself purely and unmistakably to Eastern thought is seen in his collection The Full Moon in the East, and yet when Japan plunged into the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War, he was labeled as a poet who celebrated the war even, though he himself was unconscious of such matters altogether. When the war ended in 1945, he moved from Tokyo to Hanno in Saitama, dragging along his heavy, grief-stricken heart. That was his choice after two decades of living in Tokyo, and he broke off relationships with everything he had built up. In a way he chose a hermit’s lifestyle and dedicated himself to it utterly for twenty years until, finally, he passed away in 1965.
Through his passionate love for pottery form his early years on, and through his choice of the hardest way of poetry, abandoning the way of the novel, he consequently fought his way to an almost ascetic devotion to nurturing his skill. These poems were selected from a bilingual edition of Kurahara’s work, based on his Char: The Definitive Edition, which has passed through strange vicissitudes of fortune. One year before he passed away, the fellow members of his poetry circle, who knew much about his poor but honest life, prepared funds as subscription fees for publishing his poems. Kurahara crystallized all of his gifts in this work as if responding to deep thoughtfulness, permeated with human warmth.
This book Char (not The Definitive Edition) was warmly received in magazines as well as in newspapers, and was deservedly given the 16th Yomiuri Literary Prize in the following year, 1965. Just one and a half months after the Yomiuri Literary Prize was awarded, Kurahara died of leukemia. He was not fully contented with his selection of ur-Char published in the previous year, because he was a perfectionist, so he asked a reliable disciple to publish another version of the definitive edition. So here we have, happily, Char: The Definitive Edition as a posthumous publication brought out in the same spirit that his kind friends mustered in pooling their resources all those years ago.
Shinjiro Kurahara’s biography and poems on Poetry Kanto
‘Sheer delight of graceful Kurahara’, a review of Iwana in The Japan Times