Yojūrō Yasuda: Poet and Nationalist
by Chōkōdō Shujin
Chōkōdō Shujin explores the fervent yet restrained intensity found in the poetic and critical works of Yojūrō Yasuda, along with his profound sense of nationalism.
Yojūrō Yasuda remains a controversial figure in Japan to this day. Almost entirely unknown abroad, Yasuda was a leading figure in the Japanese Romantic School, the Nippon Roman-ha, as well as being one of the nation’s foremost critics of art and literature. He is perhaps best known for his maiden work, “Japanese Bridges,” or “Nippon no Hashi,” an intensely nostalgic and introspective essay that could perhaps be more accurately described as a long prose poem, an ode to the physical and metaphorical bridges that link together various aspects of Japanese history, tradition, and religion. The piece was especially beloved by early Shōwa-era militarists, this being the reason for Yasuda’s controversial status. Such a reputation is unwarranted. Yasuda was proudly a nationalist, and few have so beautifully and evocatively expressed their deep love of Japan’s aesthetic and cultural traditions. One could easily describe Yasuda as the greatest of the Shōwa traditionalists, and no one had approached his talent or his finesse as a steward of the nation’s culture.
While Yasuda was a nationalist, he took little interest in political matters, often dismissing the modern era as one of corruption and decadence. He detested those who embellished their war memoirs, and it was his contention that Hideyoshi advocated “killing for the sake of killing” during his conquest of Korea, all the while recognizing Hideyoshi’s contributions to the preservation of Japan’s elegant artistic traditions. When reading Yasuda, one must keep in mind that his definition of the modern begins with the haiku poet Bashō, during the Genroku era – that is, during the late seventeenth century. Always poetic in his language, Yasuda was a classicist in the purest sense of the word. His soul was not one tainted by modernity, and following his banishment from public life following the American occupation of Japan, he retired to Kyoto, the heart of ancient Japan, where he lived a life of artistic seclusion much like his beloved poets of the dynastic era. Often seen as coldly intellectual, Yasuda was in fact a man of great intensity, a spiritually wounded man who depicted the inherent tragedy of the human condition with the sorrowful alacrity of any of Japan’s greatest artists. There was no place in modern Japanese society for a man so deliberately anachronistic as Yasuda, and for this reason, he remains an elusive figure. As befitting the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware, or the transience of things, perhaps this is what Yasuda would have preferred.
So, if you are going to explain to us the heart of the rambling, longing poetry that flows through this work, let those who specialise in Japanese literature, after having come into contact with it, expound more profoundly on this beautiful sentiment in the history of Japan, illuminate it in the tradition of Japanese beauty, and discover it in the language of our people.
Yojūrō Yasuda, on the Sarashina Diary
Yojūrō Yasuda’s passionate spirit is one of the elements of a great poet. Not a few poets understand the deep and the quiet, the depth of mystery and the purity of character, but only a great poet can possess true passion. There are many poets who have both artistic sensibilities and exquisitely cultivated intellect, but they lack passion and are therefore not true poets. The critic’s brush, without passion, may be complete with half satire, but it cannot engrave the realities of human nature. The greatness of Yasuda is not only in his criticism, but also in the intensity of his passion. The critics may differ among themselves, but if they have no passion within them, they cannot exceed the directness of their critiques. “Moreover,” Yasuda wrote, “today we have lost the basis of our own critique. In the midst of this feeling of wanting everything to be clear, our era has created an atmosphere of uneasiness.”
But it is in tragedy that the need for passion is most acute. Here, Yasuda also argued that the element of tragedy is sincerity. Sincerity, or passion, after all, is the only source. A sacred purity that lacks passion is akin to a dry voice from the pulpit, and is not suited to either the evolution or the evaluation of art. Purity without passion is like an innocent description, and is not suitable for poetic change. Even the most beautiful of phrases, if lacking passion, is but an empty form of poetry, which does not resonate when touched. Although it has the beauty of the clarity of the abyss, it does not have the poetry of the trembling of rocks as a great waterfall is suspended in the sky. The most graceful, the most majestic, and the most beautiful of artworks must necessarily have passion at their core. Yasuda often used liturgical language in his works of artistic criticism, which bestows a transcendent quality upon a piece that would otherwise be a mere recitation of history. Passion is the thing which, when it is inwardly inhuman, then emits a different kind of light outwardly; passion is the thing which gives this thing a strange baptism, a special kind of evolution; it is the reason why the words “sacred” and “pure” have so much of their own flavor, and why they are, after all, to a certain degree comparatively ordinary. Art begins with a connection with the passions, and finally, through the final ablution of the passions, it presents an almost absolute strangeness. Yasuda captures this quality masterfully.
“In order to give my impressions of the Sarashina Diary, written by a woman of the dynasty, I am not going to follow the usual methods used these days to define the book’s place in the history of dynastic narratives, or the stages of its aesthetic worldview,” Yasuda wrote in his exquisite commentary on the piece. “Nor do I need to follow the nearest and most common way of looking at the three stages of development of the author’s psyche in this narrative diary.” Rather than following any conventional system of literary criticism, Yasuda employs his own poetic method, documenting his own emotional and artistic impressions in a manner that is both passionate and intensely intellectual. He manages this without excessive sentimentality, and the result is a piece that can only be described as pure. The piece is nostalgic, suffused with longing, yet without ever falling into the maudlin.
In this piece, more than any other, Yasuda establishes himself as a poet of the highest degree. The poet criticizes mankind indiscriminately, and “holiness” and “purity” are not to be measured by a certain scale, but to be observed as a living human being, limited only by “time” and “place,” obsessed with a certain religious form, or mired in a certain moral formula. Yasuda never allows himself to rely on such methods, and as a result, his writing has a striking vitality that criticism often lacks, especially in the modern era. It is an abomination for a poet to criticize life by being obsessed with the form of a certain philosophy or by neurotically following a certain moral system. To see the realities of life, one must have a very calm and active eye. We see this in Yasuda’s commentary on the Sarashina Diary, on his affectionate descriptions of the writer, a woman who died nearly a thousand years before his birth. “Above all, I hear the voice of purity in Sarashina. It was like a sad yet precious harshness, which was extremely poignant and subtle in the aesthetic atmosphere of the dynasty,” Yasuda wrote. A similar quality is apparent in his own writings. “I want to see the heart of beauty dyed in the colors of the times in these pale, one-colored things. It is not something that lies on the surface of a literary work, nor is it a logical aspect of the content of a literary work. I would like to try to extract the poetic spirit that flows through and depicts this masterpiece in some way or from various angles.” Naturalistic realism is not to be accepted by any means, but reality of realism varies in its focus, and some depict only the ugliness of human beings, while others are intent on dissecting the deranged mind. This is the result of a growing tendency toward realism, which is not beneficial to life, nor is it beneficial to the progress of art. I am not averse to realism, nor was Yasuda, but realism made for the sake of vulgarity is not a thing of beauty. If realism is not based on passion, it is difficult to avoid the evil of realism for realism’s sake. If one is both realistic and idealistic, how can one attain such beauty without passion? We see such expression of subtle yet passionate beauty in the following passage.
“There has always been a fatalistic sentiment similar to what occurs when one stares intently at a faint melancholy feeling, even in novels, for example, when human feelings are divided between one’s own and those of others. It is the wisdom of early modern times that has sought to reveal the artistic mood and structure created in the subtle intervals of those faint thoughts that slightly touch each other, and to give it a rigorous foundation. It is certain that people in the Middle Ages and ancient times also had a world similar to this, but it was only the ancient people who first inhabited it and already made it their daily breath.”
No matter how exquisite one’s technique may be, if one lacks passion, it cannot be said that one has exhausted the beauty of the art of poetry.
While it cannot be said that passion is the opposite of constraint, in passion there is persistence, rather than mere release. Where there is passion there is inevitably persistence, hence a great poet is inevitably posessed of a kind of faith, necessarily a kind of theology. It was Yasuda’s contention that this refined and constrained passion was especially present in the dynastic era. “Knowing the aspect of conflict, I am drawn to the expression of aesthetic experience that ripened and permeated in this era.” In Homer we see the spirit of the ancient gods of Greece, in Shakespeare we see the faith of the English, in Bashō we see the religion of Japan. This timeless quality is present in the writings of Yasuda, as well. “Even the deepest abyss of tragedy the ancient aesthetic world may not be so different from ours today,” he wrote. The only reason why we cannot see these expressions of faith with the secular eye is that they are religions that stand apart from all rituals and all forms. “Not only in our present, but also in the present of the people of the past, the question was in the form of something more certain and tangible. All that is left of us now may be the expressions of the emotions of people from the past.” Their religious conception cannot be physical, but to say that there is no religion because of this is the view of those who do not know what religion is. Can a deep sympathy for mankind be called a part of religion? Can it be called part of religion if it urges us to reflect on our own sorrowful criticisms for the sake of mankind? Tragedy can be a religion, and criticism can be a religion. But do not misunderstand, I am not in any way in support of the unspoken conflation of religion and literature, but rather in support of the principle that Yasuda was so determined to cling to the concrete form of both. Speaking of the ancients, he wrote, “They were there for the sake of a cultural consciousness that was close to the Absolute.”
Religion, as Yasuda would call it, is without doubt a major factor in the development of the passions. If there is no religion that has the greatest power to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, it may well be that a more brutal passion is obtained, but a passion that has excellence, holiness and beauty is not to be expected. What is it but the power of religion that awakens mankind, who is driven by a spirit of abject selfishness, and makes him realize the mystery of the love between all things, and the mutual relationship between mankind? How can we underestimate the power of a passion that has not left its religious instincts to give art an evocation of the strange?
No matter how profound the philosophy may be, poetry without passion cannot produce vivid art. “It is an attitude that must show contempt for the everyday life of those who love it the most. In the case of beauty, it is the heart that makes new in the midst of mannerism, and while nihilistically lamenting that mannerism, still wishes to rest in the same thing at last,” Yasuda wrote. No matter how exquisite one’s technique may be, if one lacks passion, it cannot be said that one has exhausted the beauty of the art of poetry. “The aesthetic beauty of the dynasty, which is said to have been florid, is also a kind of beauty without such a transformation of reality, only the human consciousness is so intense that it is difficult to understand.” The source of the extra emotion in art is the artist’s inner vitality, which should not be obtained merely from the artist, but from the artist’s own passion. This is why a simple imitator cannot move people. Great creation is accompanied by great passion, and in the end, creation and imitation must be judged by the presence or absence of passion, but if the artist only imitates meaningless artifacts and is only concerned with deliriousness, then it is a mistake not to understand passion in the first place. “There was always a violent collapse in this tranquillity of consciousness, always on the verge of downfall,” Yasuda wrote of the dynastic poets. This precarious balance of consciousness is perhaps the source of the transient, melancholy beauty that is so characteristic of the era, unique to Japan. The illness of today’s writers is largely based on a lack of passion, and it is impossible to see in today’s writers a sense of solemnity and sacrifice in their view of mankind. The purity that should be loved and the delicacy that should be pitied are not to be found in today’s writers. Instead, these qualities live on in the works of writers such as Yojūrō Yasuda. “And so the author of Sarashina left us with a sharp feeling of despair,” Yasuda wrote. “Whether or not she was aware of despair is not a question we should brutally ask. At the very least, we know the present day as a day of despair and downfall. Not only that, but we also know that the will for the future exists only in this consciousness of decline.”