Misuzu Kaneko is one of Japan’s most beloved children’s poets. Born “Teru” in 1903 in a small fishing village in western Japan, she grew up in a family of booksellers and early on became a book lover herself. With the encouragement of her mother and grandmother, she stayed in school until she was 18, a rare achievement for Japanese girls at the time.
She began writing poetry at age 20, and signed her work “Misuzu”, in an allusion to classical Japanese literature meaning “where the bamboo is reaped.” On a whim, she submitted poems to four popular children’s magazines, and remarkably, all her entries were accepted. Yaso Saijo, a prominent poet who acted as an editor for one of the magazines, likened her work to the British poet Christina Rosetti’s. In 1926, she married a clerk from the family bookstore. A womanizer, Kaneko’s husband was fired from his job at the bookstore soon after they married. He infected her with gonorrhea, which unfortunately was untreatable at the time and left her increasingly debilitated. He also forbade her from writing.
In 1930, Misuzu decided to divorce him. But he refused to give up custody of their child, which was his right by Japanese law at the time. The night before he was due to take away the child she committed suicide. It was exactly one month before her twenty-seventh birthday. By the time of her death, she had only published about 80 poems.
Sadly, Kaneko and her work were nearly forgotten for the next fifty years. But a fellow poet, Setsuo Yazaki, recovered her poetry manuscripts in the 1980s and published them in their entirety, most of the poems appearing for the first time in print. Since then, her poems have numbered among Japan’s most beloved children’s poems, and appeared in songs and children’s elementary school textbooks. Her life story has inspired multiple television dramas. However, it was the broadcast of her poem "Are You an Echo?" in a public service announcement after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that solidified her reputation as one of Japan’s most beloved children’s writers.
For more information, see Forgotten Woman, the Life of Misuzu Kaneko. Written by Are You an Echo? co-translator Sally Ito, it is the most comprehensive account of Misuzu's life and work in English, after Elizabeth M. Keith's unpublished masters thesis, "Kaneko Misuzu and the Development of Children's Literature in Taisho Japan" (2001).
Courtesy of JULA Publishing Bureau