ISHIGAKI RIN (1920 ~ 2004) Pt. 4

Ishigaki Rin, Part 4: In the Shadow of the Economic Miracle (Environmental Pollution)
(See Also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

If WWII resulted in the brutal dismantling of Japan’s urban spaces, then the recovery effort was a vast re-imagining of local landscapes. Construction projects expanded cities and domesticated rivers, locking national territory into an efficient, corrective brace. The highly successful economic growth policies implemented by the conservative ruling party quickly brought Japan affluence, urban problems, and rampant environmental pollution.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, environmental pollution resulting from the recovery effort found direct expression in the biology of citizens suffering from various kinds of chemical poisoning. In Toyama prefecture cadmium pollution led to the Itai Itai Disease (“It Hurts It Hurts Disease”); in Kumamoto and Niigata, mercury poisoning brought about Minamata Disease I & II; and in Mie, sulfuric acid gas led to Yokkaichi Asthma. All of these illnesses carried permanent symptoms.

Around the time of the second outbreak of Minamata Disease (1964), the central government began scrambling to organize a regulatory body. But it would be another 7 years before the official founding of the Ministry of the Environment as an independent organ in 1971. In the meantime, citizen groups rallied to file lawsuits in the late 1960’s, and pollution scandals over a decade old grabbed national headlines.

In the wake of the heady postwar rush to increase production capacity,  social infrastructure had been left sorely underdeveloped. But in the years between 1960 and 1970, pollution, social participation, and welfare issues rapidly gained considerable political weight.*(1)

This 4th and final post dedicated to Ishigaki Rin will focus on the poet’s handling of pollution as a poetic theme.
(All notes are included at the bottom of the post)

Translations by Zack Kaplan.

・   ・   ・   ・   ・   ・

Mistake (「あやまち」)
Summer 1970, Yokkaichi

I’m sending you an album depicting Yokkaichi.

There’s no story
Or any real incidents
It’s         Just a photo collection.
Albums, most of the time,
Are left behind like this.
Nothing at all
If you had to say,
they’re usually taken on peaceful days
And eventually they become
Small keepsakes of memory.

Incidents always         occur afterward
And make each picture seem
Sometimes nostalgic
Sometimes sad.
How could one ever know
The record of one summer
Whether it will later become a source of joy
Or lament.
However         here         unmistakably
Something         was beginning.

Just as wars         are always prepared
before they even begin.

One step ahead. Here. Something
Is beginning.

It isn’t war, but—-

What         could it be?

・   ・   ・

Ishigaki Rin has a number of poems dealing with the theme of pollution. However, one set stands out in particular. The 22 subsections of the poem Ayamachi (“Mistake”), the first section of which has been translated above, were read aloud as part of a 1970 documentary by the same name. Produced by the Tokai Television Broadcasting Co., Ltd, Mistake was dedicated to an exploration of the industrial city of Yokkaichi, located in Mie prefecture.

Smell (「匂い」)

An elementary teacher commuting to Yokkaichi said it.
When you reach Shiohama station, you’ll know even if your eyes are shut.
It stinks.
Television is no good—
It doesn’t transmit the smell.


Over the course of 22 poems, Ishigaki Rin paints a picture of life in Yokkaichi, lamenting the cost of industry and depicting the struggles of the local residents.

Profit (「利益」)

Sell the seas for a quick 10 yen
Sell the mountains for a quick 10 yen
Sell the skies for a quick 10 yen
Sell your health for a quick 10 yen
The business of a society more terrible
Than the past of Anju and Zushio
And Sansho the Bailiff, who bought slaves.*
Sell the old for a quick 10 yen
Sell the children for a quick 10 yen
Sell tomorrow for a quick 10 yen
Small profits and fast returns on limited capital,
Sell the seas for a quick 10 yen
Sell the mountains for a quick 10 yen
Sell the skies—.

On the one hand, Ishigaki Rin’s direct, undecorated use of language encourages the reader to understand the poems as a sort of reportage—a photo album of Yokkaichi and profit-driven modern society. And indeed, the poems retain a readily apparent historical value as just such an album. Although Japan’s pollution problems have long faded, their legacy—both the lawsuits and the illnesses—remain, many still unresolved over 50 years later, and most forgotten by the public.

Crowding the corners of the photographs, the shadows of war, profit, death, and the authority of the state gather together, appearing in turns; the problem isn’t limited to pollution.

The Lady from the Udon Shop (「うどんやのおばさん」)

My husband died in the war.

In Tokyo, I was caught in an air raid.

I’ll never forget how
At the foot of the Komatsugawa Bridge
Human corpses wrapped in reed mats were piled up in mountains.

I fled here to Yokkaichi
And was bombed out again.
The last of my meager belongings disappeared completely.

Isotsu is my hometown.
I was born and lived here until I married
and I came back when the war left me with nothing.
Back to this familiar seaside town.

This udon shop, I started it after the war
And now that I’ve somehow found a way to keep it going
This time it’s sulfuric acid gas.
A single change of the wind and it comes surging in.
It stinks terribly.
The smell is unbearable.

How long must we go on living, constantly dogged like this?

For country
For profit
For whatever—.

Droplets (「雫」)

One person by the school gate
The figure of a mother appears
She cuts across the large school yard, heading this way
Sucked into the school yard
Another two
The figures of mothers appear
With the weight of droplets flowing along electric wires
With the weight of anxiety
With the weight of breasts
Hurrying along the road
They gather together.

In one chest, two problems
In three heads, five worries
The goal of one hundred is to gather into one.
The joy of living.

In the kitchen they left behind work that can never quite be finished, so
They gather together.
A Mother’s Convention*
The name is terrible
It’s more like a well-side meeting*
Let’s wet our hands and talk.

Of course, the poems are never simple. Over the course of Mistake Ishigaki creates a rich poetic field dense with irony, symbolism, and metaphor.
Beneath the plain speech and direct subject matter Ishigaki spins webs of irony (one key poem early in the series (Sansū, “Math”), bears the unexpected declaratory note: “This is not a parable”), and between starkly realistic accounts like The Lady from the Udon Shop and Smell, she introduces poems like Children and Rust.

Children (「子供」)

Children jump out.
Children start running.

Between factories and         Highways
Out from between yesterday         And tomorrow

The children         Are trying to get ahead
The children         Are in a great hurry.

No matter how foul the skies smell
No matter how polluted the seas
The children are trying to grow
Their hands
Their legs
Their eyes
Their ears
Rushing to grow
The children start running.

Rust (「錆びる」)

In Yokkaichi
Galvanized iron rusts
Bicycles rust
The metal fittings of Buddhist altars rust
The new school anthems rust
Everything rusts very quickly.

・   ・   ・

Still more dramatic examples exist in other collections, such as the poems Morning Life and The Banks of the River, which display Ishigaki’s keen use of irony.

Morning Life (「朝の生活」)

The Tsukiji Fish Market

The unloading dock is the sea’s cutting board
On the wet paving stones
The city prepares its meals

The fish are held by their tails
The people are held by account books detailing profits and losses
The hand carts are held by their shafts
Simply unable to move freely
It’s another morning on the cutting board

The fish steel themselves and proclaim
Though we may die, we have no intention of rotting

It’s the resolve that matters
The resolve to be eaten
The resolve to feed
Quite so!
They don’t have that resolve, that grit—that’s what they lack.
Their headbands knotted at the forehead
The men lament in the dawn

Hearing this
In the Diet Building
In the companies
In the parlors
All the chairs held their sides and laughed
No kidding
After all, a lot of them can’t be had these days
That voiceless voice
Didn’t reach anyone’s ears

In the kitchen beneath the blue sky
Absent of any hierarchy
A boat puts on its white apron
And mutters quietly,
“You know I just can’t make the same food today
as I did yesterday”*

The Banks of the River (「川のほとり」)

Inside the river, fish swim.
Inside the fish, blood flows.
Inside the blood, a river lives.
Into the living river, quicksilver mixes.
The river of quicksilver enters human mouths.
Inside of people, the river flows.
To the tributaries of black strands of hair, the quicksilver rises.
A school of strange fish.
Everyone’s started calling them “Kigyou.”*

・   ・   ・   ・   ・   ・

This is the last entry in a series of 4 posts introducing the poetry of Ishigaki Rin as interpreted by Zack Kaplan.
Notes can be found below.

*(1) Samuels, Richard J. “Local Politics in Japan: The Changing of the Guard.” Asian Survey 22.7 (1982): 631-633

See here for an outline of the story of Anju, Zushio, & Sansho the Bailiff.

*「母親大会」- Mother’s Convention (also translated as “Mother’s Congress,” “Mother’s Conference”). First held in 1955 to provide a meeting place for “mothers of the world to join hands to prevent nuclear war and create a world where mothers and children can live without anxiety.” [Quotation taken from Vera Mackie’s Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment, and Sexuality (Cambridge University Press, 2003)]

*「井戸端会議」-It was common for row houses to share a single communal well. In order to do the day’s housework, women would gather together and take turns filling wooden buckets with water until they had enough to complete their chores. A well-side meeting refers to how the women would talk while waiting to draw water for chores.

Morning Life
*「きのうと同じお料理をするわけには/いかないのよ」Usually this phrase would be interpreted as “I can’t just make the same thing as yesterday,” (the implication being that it’s a homemaker’s statement of pride or duty) but the context twists the meaning in an ironic and unexpected direction. I attempted to leave room for both interpretations in the translation above.

The Banks of the River
*”Kigyō” (=”corporation”) is written in katakana (「キギョウ」). The reduction of the word’s usual signs to their phonetic representation opens up an entirely new field of interpretation, wherein the final syllable (or morae, to be precise) “gyō” overlaps phonetically with the Japanese morpheme meaning “fish” (ギョ, “gyo”). Suddenly the word for “corporation” (“kigyō”) seems to signify some strange variety of fish.

Note: The “o” vowel in “Kigyō” is elongated, formally composed of two morae (“gyo-u”), while the “gyo” that signifies fish is short, composed of one mora (“gyo”). Although this is a notable difference, the phonetic similarity and word usage in the poem makes the comparison completely unavoidable. (Students of Japanese could note that in traditional Japanese fixed verse, such pairs of morae are regularly counted as a single mora, effectively decimating any hard prosodic difference between “gyō” and “gyo” within the context of verse.)


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