Translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwait
In my youth
I was opposed to school.
And now, again,
I’m opposed to work.
Above all it is health
And righteousness that I hate the most.
There’s nothing so cruel to man
As health and honesty.
Of course I’m opposed to the Japanese spirit
And duty and human feeling make me vomit.
I’m against any government anywhere
And show my bum to authors’ and artists’ circles.
When I’m asked for what I was born,
Without scruple, I’ll reply, ‘To oppose’.
When I’m in the east
I want to go to the west.
I fasten my coat at the left, my shoes right and left.
My hakama I wear back to front and I ride a horse facing its buttocks.
What everyone else hates I like
And my greatest hate of all is people feeling the same.
This I believe: to oppose
Is the only fine thing in life.
To oppose is to live.
To oppose is to get a grip on the very self.
Mitsuharu Kaneko (1895–1975), one of the most prominent poets of twentieth-century Japan, is unique in many different ways. He was arguably the only poet in Japan who continued to write anti-war poems during the Second World War. In addition, he was an outsider to the homogeneous Japanese society, spending many years abroad and, more importantly, retaining the eyes and mind of an exile even after returning home. Furthermore, Kaneko was exceptionally intellectual for a Japanese poet, although his vast knowledge of classical Chinese and Western literature was usually concealed by his unpretentious, down-to-earth style.
This poem reflects his anti-establishment and rebellious attitude to everything that is considered as normal by the vox populi. Each stanza in the poem debate antithetical urges of the poet and expresses his disdain of all conventions. His outlook is summarised by the lines, “When I’m in the east, I want to go to the west”. These lines suggest his constant longing for what he isn’t already exposed to.
The key to understanding the poem is in the final line, “to oppose is to live”. By opposing against the default lifestyles that have been defined by society as “normal”, a person is able to see the world and live a life from a different perspective and give expression to his true creative urges. Over the years, society has established what is considered as the “normal” way of life. Society established schools, ethics, and what is known to modern man as “right” or “wrong”. The way the world works has mostly to do with what has been created by people as part of different evolutions and revolutions. To subjugate oneself to traditions, rules, conventions and customs is to tame one’s innate spirit. It is this aspect that the poet passionately pinpoints here.
The final line of the poem poignantly expresses his defiant spirit: “To oppose is to get a grip on the very self. Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” bears some similarity in its theme to this one.