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May 2009  Issue IX:2

Kaneko Tōta’s ‘fluorescent squid’:
Interpretive Translation and Commentary


                                    by Itō Yûki and Richard Gilbert,
                                         Kumamoto University, Japan, March 18, 2009



銀行員等朝より螢光す烏賊のごとく   金子兜太
ginkoin-ra asa yori keikō su ika no-gotoku        Kaneko Tōta (pub. circa 1955)

into the morning bank clerks glowing fluorescent as squid

(Note. This haiku is jyûritsu (‘free-rhythm’), is muki (non-seasonal), and contains no kireji. In our commentary, we have adapted these materials <>, and added original historical and biographical research to create the English text.)


Historical context
After the war, in 1950s Japan there were several main streams of haiku: Kachofûei (stemming from the realist, ultranationalism of Takahama Kiyoshi),the Humanity Inquisition School, and what is known as “ideological stylism.” The Humanity Inquisition School (Ningen Tankyû-ha) was composed of the three haiku poets, Nakamura Kusatao, Kato Shuson, and Ishida Hakyo, who would later become the founding members of the Haiku Poets Association. It can be seen that for the most part all of the above-mentioned poetic streams were based on visible scenes (realism) for their expression. In this modernist haiku tradition, the sense of author's subjectivity was actively suppressed (in both political and aesthetic senses). In this era, the emergence of Kaneko Tōta created a major impact.

Kaneko’s expression was that of “contemporaneity.” In his essay, “On  Zōkei” [造型 lit., “the molding” (of image), 1957], Kaneko cited his ‘fluorescent squid’ haiku and explained his philosophy concerning haiku, in particular “contemporaneity.”

During the war, in 1943, his 24th year, Kaneko entered the Central Bank of Japan because, “however the country may be ruined, it would remain.” But, only three days later, he was enlisted in the navy and sent to the battlefield of the Truk (Chûk) Islands.  On these islands, had occurred a major offensive known as “Operation Hailstone.” The massive air-raid lasted two days (February 17-18, 1944), leaving dead bodies and ruins. Kaneko arrived two weeks after this air-raid, in March. Facing this devastation he wrote this haiku:


空襲 よくとがった鉛筆が一本
kûshû     yoku  togatta enpitsu ga hitotsu

air-raid — 
the single well-sharpened


Before continuing with Kaneko’s postwar activities, we will briefly outline the historical context. With the Japanese defeat, in order to foster democracy in Japan, General MacArthur encouraged Japanese citizens to organize workers unions. Many unions were created, not only in private companies but also within public offices. One of the largest of the workers unions in public offices, the All Public Office Workers Union (Zen kankō-chō rōdōsha Kyōtō), gathered more than 2,600,000 members, including high-ranking officers in important administrative and financial centers, such as the Central Bank. On January 18, 1947, the All Public Office Workers Union stated that they would have a general strike on February 1. During the weeks, Jan. 18—Feb. 1, there were many demonstrations and riots with “red” (Communist-supportive) flags. If the general strike had succeeded, the economy of Japan would likely have been successfully halted, and a Communist revolution might have resulted. Fearing this possibility, General MacArthur reversed his policy, banning the general strike, and henceforth suppressed all workers unions.

As can be seen, the General Strike date of February 1, 1947 was a significant moment in postwar Japanese history; the date on which Japanese unions called for a general strike against General McArthur’s wishes. It was on this date that Kaneko Tōta, after experiencing 15 months as a prisoner of war, and having returned to Japan, re‑entered his union post at the Central Bank of Japan: the day of defeat for the workers’ movement. According to his statements, Kaneko himself was dubious as to the possibility for success of the general strike. He nevertheless dedicated himself to workers’ union activities—to a greater extent than his haiku activities (with the Gendai Haiku Kyōkai [Modern Haiku Association]), at the time.

In 1948, Kaneko became the Representative Commissioner (daihyō iin) of the Workers Union in the Central Bank of Japan (Nihon Ginkō jugyōin kumiai), and in 1949 became the first full-time Director-General (jimukyokuchō) of the Union, dedicating himself to supporting the Union in all of its activities. Moreover, he acted as a member of the Federation of the All-Bank Workers Union (zenkoku ginkō-in kumiai rengō-kai). However, in 1950, both the Korean War and the Cold War began. When Kaneko was “Red-purged,” he was sent from the main office of the bank to work in a small branch bank. This was where ‘fluorescent squid’ was composed. (Cf. Kaneko, Tōta, My Postwar Haiku History [waga sengo haiku-shi], Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten, 1985.) When Kaneko was "Red-purged," he wrote this haiku:


mushi no yoru huto kinzoku-on ga nodo o sasu

night of crickets,
a metallic noise pierces my throat     


Compositional concepts
Kaneko wished to compose a haiku about bank clerks, and has described an aspect of his compositional process. There were soroban (a Japanese abacus used for calculation), bills, and other materials in the bank. Contemplating such bank objects, he was however unable to express the  “perplexed and tattered emotions” of the bank clerks, including his own. Additionally, whether he were to write a haiku from “a damned situation or blessed state,” he felt that such a haiku would end up either as a sermon on the one hand, or on the other an expression of logical prose.

At this time, Kaneko found a creative key to his expression. While on holiday, he visited an aquarium, and was impressed by a scene: the image of a squid exuding a blue fluorescent light from its body. The next morning at the bank he noticed the fluorescent lights on the ceiling casting their blue-white lights on all the clerks, and felt a “sense (kankaku).” It was as if squid with blue fluorescent lights emanating from their bodies were swimming in the deep sea.

In order to examine this “sense” the term “creating-self” (tsukuru jibun) arose as Kaneko’s unique conception. This “creating-self” is Kaneko’s idiosyncratic coinage, indicative of the cognitive process of creating haiku. That is, “digging and selecting within one's consciousness as if mining for a jewel,” under the impact of perception.

In Kaneko Tōta's philosophy, Self (jibun) can be divided into “consciousness-with-time (jikan-sei o motta ishiki)” and “consciousness-without-time (hi-jikan teki na ishiki).” “Consciousness-with-time” can be linked to memory—imaged as in geological layers of earth. “Consciousness-without-time” can be associated with temporary sensual perception. When a poet activates “consciousness-with-time” and “consciousness-without-time” both—that is, activates “Self”—a plentitude of images arrive. As a result of this process, such a plentitude of images eventually settles into a singular sense of “image.”

When Kaneko composed ‘fluorescent squid,’ he writes, “In the gloom, the people in the bank settled in my mind as the image that each squid has a lonely fluorescence, and is a fresh, fishy creature of the sea with feelers.”(kurai asa no tennai no hito tachi wa, hitori hitori ga wabishiku keikō o daki, shikashi gyozoku tokuyu no namanama tosita sitai de imeiji no naka ni teichaku shita no deshita.)

In a poet’s cognitive space or world, there exist layers of the poet's memory, accrued through his or her experiences. Uniting such layers of memory with the impulse of temporal instantaneity (shunkan), and with bodily and sensual perception in the “creating-self”—this is, in brief, Kaneko Tōta's philosophy of haiku, known as Zōkei-ron.



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