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This review is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.

Cover of Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-43
Timothy HarrisItching Foot-soles & Winter Hooves
Genzō Sarashina, Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-43, edited and translated by Nadine Willems (Isobar), £10
This is a remarkable little volume with a remarkable story behind it. Nadine Willem is a lecturer in modern Japanese history, and while doing research into the history of exchanges between Japanese and European radical intellectuals before the Second World War, she discovered in a city library among the papers of the anarchist Sanshō Ishikawa some mimeographed poetry magazines to which Genzō Sarashina (1904-1985) had contributed. She was struck by Sarashina’s poems because of the sharp-eyed and sympathetic way they described everyday life in eastern Hokkaido and the interactions between the indigenous Ainu and the mostly poor Japanese settlers, and she decided to translate them. She has also provided an extremely illuminating introduction.

Hokkaido is a prefecture which few Japanese people know about, unless they are from Hokkaido itself, for until comparatively recently it existed on the extreme verges, as it were, of Japanese history. The island only became important in the latter days of the Shogunate and in the Meiji Era because of the threat from Tsarist Russia, and it was in the Meiji Era that Japanese settlement started there in earnest.

So, Sarashina tends to be regarded in Japan as a poet only of regional interest, if he has been heard of at all. He was also one of a generation of left-wing writers who were silenced or near-silenced in the late twenties and thirties, and who never really recovered subsequently what audience they had for their poetry and novels before that time.

He was the son of Japanese settlers ...

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