Toshio Nakae
(Japan, 1933)   
Toshio Nakae

“He is a poet, first and foremost, ahead of any personal experiences”— Shuntaro Tanikawa. “A poet of constant change . . .  not through following fashion but by pursuing the essential freedom of poetry” —  Tooru Kitagawa. “He survives by singing about the infinite cosmos in which he lives” — Hiroshi Mio. These are some of the words to describe one of the most original poets in post-WWII Japan, Toshio Nakae.

Toshio Nakae was born on February 1, 1933 in Kurume City, Fukuoka Prefecture, the son of a military officer. His childhood was spent in many different places including Taiwan and mainland China where his father was stationed.

Reflecting on his youth, Nakae remembers himself aged eleven in his hometown, he was a troubled kid,“turning delinquent, cutting classes, having street fights, a little gangster with a knife in the pocket”. But in 1950, the 17 year-old Nakae experienced something that would change his life forever: he met well-known poetess Kiyoko Nagase who visited his high school to give a lecture on poetry. The impact she had on this lonesome and quiet student was immediate and long-lasting. Nakae started writing poetry energetically, and six months later, surprised the elder poetess by sending her a notebook full of his poems.

Kiyoko Nagase recalls: “I must have sowed wonderful seeds on that day at the high school, but, even then, Mr. Nakae had already developed all the desired qualities of a poet, although he himself might not have been aware of it: his purity, his sincerity, and his shyness. His loneliness. His imagination. The power to penetrate into things. The secret art of asking and extracting.”

Their encounter resulted in the publication of Nakae’s first book, Time within a Fish in 1952, which Shuntaro Tanikawa praises as “virtually the only book of the contemporary poetry I would call wonderful without any reservation”. The book won a prize given by the influential Wasteland Group. Nakae also joined another important poetry group Kai (Oar),  one of whose members, Hiroshi Kawasaki has also been featured on this site in the past. Subsequently, Nakae published more than 15 collections of poetry, translations, and stories. He has also been involved in the production of modern ballets and has written numerous radio dramas.

The poems presented here were selected by Shuntaro Tanikawa, Nakae’s close friend and a fellow member of Kai; he has chosen one poem from each book. Although they represent only a tiny fraction of Nakae’s oeuvre over a half century, one can still get a glimpse of the radical changes it has gone through, at least in style and technique, if not in spirit:

Softly things turn around.
At this, “Who is it?”, a word asks
and, having raised both hands,
runs away into near darkness.

From ‘Sounds’, 1952

The sensitive and lyrical, almost metaphysical style of his early years quickly developed into surrealistic prose, which may remind one of Jules Supervielle:

    Without the help of any classical designer or avant-garde architect, a house is built somewhere in a corner of the sky.
    With no sound of a hammer and with no concrete mixer, a house is built . . .  House-shaped crystals of countless trembling sighs.  Set apart without roads, they constitute a city.

From ‘A House for Stars’, 1963

And on to the famous ‘Vocabulary List’, a gigantic list of words chosen and arranged by association or word-play, which started in 1965 and continued for 10 years until it reached Chapter 162!

Despite these changes, however, one thing remains the same throughout his long career, and that is his faith in and devotion to language:

We can no longer heal the words love and death. The words run, jump and walk are extremely exhausted, like wounded soldiers. / We should at once blank out every page of the dictionarly . . . Only in the age of our great grandchildren would we allow people to utter words one by one, just as if they would build houses.

From ‘Words’, 1959

As both Kiyoko Nagase and Shuntaro Tanikawa pointed out, Toshio Nakae had been a poet even before he started writing poems and has always been a poet. And he has managed to do so not only in words but also in action: stubbornly refusing any compromise in his poetic credo, he has been an outsider both to society and to the literary circle. It is our pleasure to introduce the poems of this modern Japanese hermit, with translations newly made for this occasion by William I. Elliott, Kazuo Kawamua, and Takako Lento.

© Yasuhiro Yotsumoto



Sakana no naka no jikan (Time within a Fish), Daiichi Bungeisha, Kyoto, 1952
Ansei no uta (Song of Dark Stars), Matoba Shoten, Tokyo, 1957
Kyohi (Refusal), Bundohsha, Kyoto, 1959
20 no shi to chinkonka (Twenty Poems and Requiems), Shichosha, Tokyo, 1963
Chinmoku no hoshi no ue de (On a Silent Star), Uchuujidaisha, Nagoya, 1965
Nakae Toshio Goi shuu (Vocabulary List of Toshio Nakae), Okada Shoten, Gifu, 1969
Nakae Toshio Shishuu - Gendaishi Bunko #39 (Selected Poems), Shichosha, Tokyo, 1971
Goishuu (Vocabulary List), Shichosha, Tokyo, 1972
Nakae Toshio Shishuu I (Complete Poems Vol. 1), Yamanashi Silk Center Publication, Tokyo, 1973
Nakae Toshio Shishuu II (Complete Poems Vol. 2), Sanrio, Tokyo, 1976
Nakae Toshio Shishuu III (Complete Poems Vol. 3), Sanrio, Tokyo, 1976
Hi to ai (Fire and Indigo), Seidosha, Tokyo, 1977
Busahoh mono (An Ill-Mannered Man), Shichosha, Tokyo, 1979
Tou tou soku sei (Head to the East, Feet West), Henshuu Kohboh Noa, Osaka, 1984
Usouta (Songs of Lies:poems for children), Rironsha, 1986, Tokyo
Shuukohsha tachi (People Launching Out on their First Voyage), Sigakusha, Tokyo, 1987
Kitaijo (A Gaseous State), Midnightpress, Tokyo, 1994
Nashino tsubute no (No Response), Midnightpress, Tokyo, 1995
Inaka Shihen (Poems of the Countryside), Shichosha, Tokyo, 1997

His poems are also included in numerous anthlogies.


Eien densha (Electric Train of Eternity), Shirakawa Shoin, Kyoto, 1977


Shi no shozo matawa watashi jishin (Portrait of Poetry or Myself), Shoshi Suimusha, Tokyo, 1980


Chikyu no susurinaki (Le Sanglot de la Terre), Jules Laforgue, Chuhsekisha, Tokyo, 1978


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