With thanks to Hirokazu Kosaka and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center
The 1920s-30s was a golden age of Japanese-language literature in the United States. First-generation Japanese immigrants worked day jobs and supported each others’ writing, in all the ways poets still do today. Outside of the mainstream US publishing industry, they formed literary and social clubs, helped each other get published, formed their own presses, collectively funded and edited literary journals, and celebrated each others’ successes by going out to dinner.
The free-verse, Japanese-language poetry collection Where to Go was written in 1928 by twenty-four-year-old Morio Hayashida from Fukuoka, Japan. Today’s US publishing industry would be tempted to categorize the book as “foreign” literature, but Hayashida wrote it all while living on South Fedora Street, near Crenshaw in Los Angeles.
The day-to-day of being a Japanese immigrant in a hostile country — including feelings of melancholy, alienation, and ambivalence — forms an important subtext when reading Hayashida. By the 30s, Japanese and other Asian immigrants were being attacked by a long list of exclusionary anti-Asian court decisions and state and federal laws. This immigrant literature flourished even as white supremacy evolved its borders.
The US Japanese-language literary world allowed writers to develop an early Japanese American sensibility by exploring the complexity of being unable to return to Japan or call the US home. Though the golden age was effectively ended by World War II and the incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps, these issues were exacerbated for the following generations.
I was privileged to gain access to a treasure trove of this untranslated, Japanese-language literature earlier this year, just before the pandemic began. As the virus spread, so did anti-Asian hate crimes and Black Lives Matter uprisings, adding more kindling to the national dumpster fire we have found ourselves in for a long time. Locked down at home, it felt urgent to bring more attention to this archive of writing.
Hayashida and others were avant garde for their time. They were breaking traditional conventions in Japanese poetry, going free verse, and in conversation with trends back in Japan. Anglo-American poetry in the US was also experimenting, though its modernists drew inspiration from reading loosely-translated East Asian poetry.
I spoke Japanese at home as a child, but I was also a diasporic person in the US, and education facilitated the loss of my first language. At the same time, the language’s rhythms and logic have remained deeply embedded in my brain. Luckily I have a community of people, including my father, to turn to for help when I get stuck while translating the regional and slightly antique poetry of a century ago.
But in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, these poets are not in the past. They wrote here, about here. Their friends and descendants are still here. The poems live in the buildings and trees. Despite racism, war, incarceration, multiple displacements, and myriad shades of violence, here is still here. So in this political moment, it feels right to try to bring them to wider attention.
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