Staring Down the Muzzle from Yamoto to Baghdad

Memory and Urgency in the Poetry of Yorifumi Yaguchi

Birky's essay, "Staring Down the Muzzle," relates Yaguchi's life and experience, during World War II and since, to his poems and his activism for peace in Japan. The original version of Birky's essay was presented at the "Mennonite/s Writing: Beyond Borders" conference on Mennonite literature at Bluffton University in 2006. That conference paper, in turn, was a follow up to Birky's earlier paper on Yaguchi at the "Mennonite/s Writing: An International Conference" at Goshen College in 2002, when the question of Mennonite poets writing on peace was first raised.

Yorifumi Yaguchi's poem, "A Muzzle," records an autobiographical moment of terror extending for sixty years from his youth to the present. The immediate setting is a commercial junior high school attended by Yaguchi right after the traumatic end to World War II with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the school's "backyard," he faces a Japanese petty officer who points a pistol's "muzzle" directly into his face, with his finger on the trigger, and berates him for speaking English to American occupying soldiers. Though the muzzle is eventually lowered, poet Yaguchi confesses that, even after fifty years, when speaking with an American, he sometimes is carried back to that "chill moment of despair."

This dramatic poem is only one of a lifelong series of poems based on Yaguchi's life. While he writes on a broad range of subjects, from the lives of his school friends to mysteries of the universe, his poetic impulse is to write from highly concrete experiences in his own life. Indeed his autobiography, reviewed below by John Fisher, includes thirty-six poems explicitly contributing to the story of his life: encounters with parents, grandparents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, GIs, seminary classmates, and succeeding waves of wars and rumors of wars throughout the world. This paper will focus on his poetic commitment to the way of peace. He may be unique in the extent to which he integrates his work as poet, teacher, pastor and international peace activist.

Yaguchi's question to the Mennonite/s Writing conference in 2002 still stands: What are poets and novelists in the West writing in the wake of the advent of war on American soil with 9/11, and the resulting escalation of global conflict? We cannot answer that question, but will seek to address the ways in which Yaguchi answers it for himself in a fully integrated life of teaching, poetic "making," preaching and political action in the aftermath of growing up during World War II in Japan. While the "preacher" occasionally crowds out the poet, Yaguchi does achieve remarkable success in this integration. He succinctly presents his own poetic in an interview with one of his translators, Scott Watson: "Poetry is like an arrow. An arrow coated with poison and medicine."

Yamoto: Early Years and "The Great Pacific War" (WWII)

Though Yaguchi was born in Ishinomaki, he lived in Yamoto from early grade school through World War II and its fairly immediate aftermath. Yaguchi experienced there many of the "normal" pains of growing up, amplified by the events of the war-including the dramatic "Muzzle" episode already cited. Both his poetry and his autobiography record an early innocence, as well as a nationalistic war fervor learned from his father and schoolteachers. That the deified emperor of Japan would emerge victorious was not in question. The third-grade Yaguchi joined his classmates in celebrating the successful bombing of Pearl Harbor. He shared their excitement in watching the Japanese "dragon swallower" bombers take off from the nearby air force base, and records his boyhood dreams of glorious martyrdom in the cause of a superior fatherland—assured that "my soul would be enshrined then forever in the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo." He even cites his own schoolboy reputation as "Fighting Yaguchi."

But even then there had been modifying influences: his maternal grandfather was a gentle and revered Buddhist priest whom the young Yaguchi accompanied on his pastoral rounds. A Japanese bombing pilot sharply warned the schoolboys against their "insane" dreams of glory. He discovers that his mother, whose hymnbook he finds later, had attended a Christian church while a nursing student in Tokyo, and he comes to see himself as a sort of "poetic midwife" in her image, helping to bring life into the world with his poems.

Then the war dragged on, and Yaguchi records its vivid realities in his poems: the first U.S. air raid, breakfast table prayers for Japan's victory, processions of residents fleeing to hide in a coal mine, children diving into rice paddies to escape the strafing of U.S. fighter planes, a father fallen "like a rotten tree" on the road. But there were also moments of normalcy:

When the weather became hot, we swam in the bomb pool in the middle of the rice field. It was filled with clear water....The sky was blue, the birds chirped, and the air was filled with the sound of cicadas. Had it not been for the enemy planes, our lives would have been as peaceful as ever. (Autobiography ms.)

But of course that was not the norm. Yaguchi writes of a kind young Japanese officer, a frequent visitor in the Yaguchi home, who "went mad" from the stresses of killing, stabbed a nurse to death at a Red Cross hospital, and declared that he "had just slaughtered a chicken." Yaguchi's own father died just four months before the war ended, as news of Hiroshima and Nagasaki exploded upon the national consciousness. Yaguchi describes the widespread disillusionment:

...the emperor was a human embodiment of God, Japan was a nation of God, the Imperial Military never lost....our faith in them was destroyed. The feeling that overcame me was that...all [was] an illusion and that I had been taught a lie....There was no god to believe in, no god to depend on....We were all left rootless. (Autobiography ms.)

Life did go on—but with significant changes. American GIs appeared on the scene. Yaguchi's poetry records traumatic episodes of watching a teacher's rape under a tree in the school yard, seeing the older sisters of schoolmates become prostitutes to GIs, and an occasion of a family's returning home to find a GI with muddy boots sleeping in a bed. But there were also new opportunities for the bright young Yaguchi. His industrial school, temporarily focused on war efforts, once again became a commercial school—and offered him the opportunity to study English. He began to practice English with GIs, and later even earned money translating letters for Japanese young women whose GI lovers had been transferred to Korea.

But this period also brought two significant events that were to point toward radical change in his life. The first was the "muzzle incident" already cited-a galvanizing moment of personal violence that was to contribute to his lifelong commitment to peace. The second, near this same time, was his discovery of a bundle of dirty Christmas cards discarded in the town's trash incinerator by GIs. In "The Child and the Soldiers" he ponders a troubling paradox: "Why did they worship such an innocent Child?" but "When they saw girls, they chased them with dirty words"? Although he once also attended "a Christian meeting in the town hall" where he was given his first small Bible, and later heard a sermon by an eloquent chaplain on the U.S. military base, he continued to puzzle over the paradox of a gentle infant deity preached by conquerors in war.

Growth, Waiting, and a Poetry of Transformation

The period from high school through college was a time of growth and exploration, but not of dramatic religious change. Yaguchi continued to develop his English, served as class president during his junior year in high school, participated in a regional English speech contest in Sendai where an American judge gave him very high marks, and felt lucky to be accepted at Tohoku Gakuin University in Sendai-sponsored by the United Church of Japan. There his growth and questioning continued, but without dramatic change. One professor tried to distinguish among Protestant congregations, and dismissed the Anabaptists as a small pacifist sect. Another introduced him to T. S. Eliot, and Yaguchi did his senior thesis on Eliot's "The Four Quartets." But he continued to puzzle over why both missionary and Japanese Christian professors had participated in war in spite of Jesus' teaching to love your enemies. So while this period of growth and "waiting" did not answer his deep questions about war, it did introduce him to Christian thought, to the idea of pacifism practiced by a small "sect," and to an important range of poetic discourse.

Then came dramatic change. Yaguchi moved to Hokkaido for his first teaching assignment in a small fishing village, and was regarded by some as a "failure" for not landing a position in Tokyo, experiences he records in several poems of this time. Two years later he took a teaching position in Kushiro, where he had a revolutionary encounter with Mennonite missionaries Ralph and Genny Buckwalter. After attending church several times, he paid a visit explicitly to challenge Ralph about his participation in the war against Japan—"Were you a soldier," he asked, against the words of a "Jesus of the New Testament [who] teaches the love of enemies?"

Then he records his shock at Buckwalter's personal story about how he had "opposed the war," had been "taking care of the handicapped" in lieu of fighting in the war, and had "prayed for Japan." Unconvinced, Yaguchi asked again to be sure he was hearing correctly, then in shock yielded his unbelief to "a feeling of joy." After further study and exploration, especially of the thought and practice of the historic peace churches, Yaguchi was "baptized on Easter of 1958 by Mr. Buckwalter," a symbolic moment of resurrection toward which he seemed destined.

This dramatic moment is captured by poet Yaguchi—not in the sentimental tones one might expect, but in two fine poems. While I had suspected the reality behind these cryptic poems, his autobiography confirms their source. The first is "The Kite," a poem in subdued tones capturing the everyday reality of children at play with their kite, yet also an elusive awareness of the mysterious sound of "Somebody" from beyond "spreading around the world."

The other poem, "Someone," is more dramatic in using weapon imagery: "a word like an ax" thrown by an all-powerful presence directly into the human heart. Yet the poem draws carefully upon powerful Christian images: being wounded in order to be healed, dying to one order of reality in order to be born into another, the power of the poetic word/Word, the images of the fish and of the dance, the annihilation of a felt cosmic emptiness, and the faint echo of the crucifixion itself.

Thus we find that Yaguchi's embrace of the Christian faith was a result of his growing commitment to the way of nonviolence rather than, as one might expect, its cause.

The Poet as Prophet: Toward a Poetic of Social and Political Transformation

It is of some interest that Yaguchi's most "prophetic" poems, at least those in English, tend to emerge primarily during the later phases of his career. It is true that an entire section of eighteen poems in his first volume, A Shadow (1966), most written during his seminary years at Goshen College in the early 60s, give poetic shape to his own experience in World War II, and many of the other Shadow poems portray a haunting emptiness left in the wake of war. Further, his entire second volume, Resurrection (1972), is a highly personal lament for the suffering and death of his first wife Reiko due to cancer. But in this early period, the writing is more personal, often starkly existential in its portrayal of a void left in the wake of war and personal grief. In some sense, this may be regarded as a period of waiting.

Then with the publication of How to Eat Loaches in 1984, and Jesus in 1989, roughly twenty years after his seminary studies and his first book Shadow, the more "prophetic" poems begin to appear, along with many of the excellent "nature" poems familiar to the Japanese haiku and related traditions. This "turn" is progressive in his work, as more and more of his poetic energies become focused on issues of war and peace. As one might expect, his success as "poet/prophet" is mixed. He is at his best when he lets the waste of war speak for itself, or when he allows his powerful images to speak in the presence of paradox.

Yaguchi's autobiography leaves no doubt about his overarching commitment to the way of peace, or his personal sense of calling as a poet/prophet in the mold of Jonah, Isaiah and Jeremiah. In his autobiography he directly states that "one of my main concerns" as a poet has been "to write on Biblical themes in terms of our contemporary social problems." In "Jonah" he portrays his own calling as a poet/prophet whose reluctant voice nevertheless marvels to see "peace and righteousness begin to flow...Like milk and honey." He identifies with the "small mosquito's voice" of Isaiah, who speaks of a messiah coming "in the form of a servant." But in "Jeremiah" he portrays the reluctant prophet upon whose tongue "are words / Which quickly start to burn" until he spits them out as "arrows of fire" to attack his hearers until they "knock him down, and hold his tongue"-and he fears that "His life will be sought after by his government."

Indeed, the autobiography records the activist Yaguchi's own refusal to pay his community "dues" to the local Shinto shrine in a poem "The Festival," on grounds of its relation to the Yasukuni war shrine where the gods of the war dead are worshipped. Yaguchi is currently one of the plaintiffs in lawsuits, filed against the government of recent Prime Minister Koizumi, for illegally trying to send troops to Iraq and in other ways undermining the peace of Japan. He is associated with some fifty Hokkaido lawyers who volunteer their time in this effort, and reads his anti-war poetry at their meetings-including "The President and Prime Minister" in which he charges Koizumi of worshipping former war dictator Tojo at the Yasukuni shrine: an act as reprehensible as if current German leaders were to bow to the image of Hitler. Indeed, Yaguchi asks directly in the manuscript of his autobiography: "How can a Christian poet be effective in such a non-Christian society?"

He writes of exchanging anti-war poems, during the Gulf war, with William Stafford and Denise Levertov, to whom he sent his own "Army of Justice." He had much earlier written the more powerful "A Shadow—or Hiroshima" as a testament to the almost unfathomable horror of war. In his How to Eat Loaches (1984) he included a dozen anti-war poems, some fairly didactic, such as the anti-nuclear "We Shout" and "The Demonstration," which portrays the war-fervor of demands for the return of Okinawa. More effective are the poems that let images carry the impact, such as "The Image" (an airman shooting out of his plane imagines that the humans he sees in his sights are merely deer), or the tear-filled eyes of a Japanese narrator/poet pondering the monuments to centuries of colonialism in "At Westminster Abbey."

While, on the whole, satire is not Yaguchi's most effective style, he does achieve some success in this mode with "God of War," written in the wake of the war fervor following 9/11. In it he imagines Lucifer as the maestro of a mighty chorus whose crescendo of war frenzy extends from church to mosque and envelops the whole globe. This poem was circulating informally and discussed at the 2002 Mennonite/s Writing conference in Goshen. And in at least one recent instance of "ready response" in poetry, Yaguchi writes a plaintive appeal to the Iraqi abductors of the four Christian Peacemaker Team members in December 2005 in a poem quickly published on Gene Stoltsfus' blog and the Christian Peacemaker Tteam website under "Poems and Songs." Hence the title of this paper, "Staring Down the Muzzle from Yamoto to Baghdad." For that galvanizing personal moment of "staring down the muzzle" in Yamoto during Yaguchi's teens is a riveting memory, and a symbol of his commitment to the alternative way of peace from the time of his challenge to Ralph Buckwalter in the late 1950s to the current violence in Baghdad and beyond.

I conclude with reference to two fairly recent poems that illustrate Yaguchi's lifetime work of continuing to "stare down the muzzle." These two poems are markedly different. The first conveys the horrors of war in most graphic yet poetically distanced form. In "A Military Nurse" he records the horrific nightmares of a now-aging nurse who had long suppressed her memories of atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in the Nanjing massacre in China, to which she was witness. In this stark poem, set in a nursing center, the former nurse shouts of human heads "lying all over" at her feet, and of human intestines "oozing out" as the atrocities of war finally refuse to be suppressed, even as the new millennium has started and the current Japanese politicians continue to live in official denial.

The other poem, "In My Garden," is a masterfully restrained image of possibility in a world torn by the violence to which we are all witness. Like the poem's "legless katydid," "wingless grasshopper" and "snail with its broken shell," we are all "refugees" of war, maimed by hatred and violence on a global scale. But we—like the insects of the poem who begin a "kind of tuning up" to become a "maimed orchestra" playing under the "harvest moon"—are always capable of the music of our Maker in a world torn by violence.

The essay above was adapted from a paper presented at the "Mennonite/s Writing: Beyond Borders" conference held at Bluffton University in October 2006. Readers may wish to refer to three books, both as sources for the above and for additional reading on the poetry and life of Yorifumi Yaguchi. The Poetry of Yorifumi Yaguchi: A Japanese Voice in English. Wilbur J. Birky, editor. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2006 (150 poems from throughout his career). Yaguchi's published autobiography, The Wing-Beaten Air: My Life and My Writings. Intercourse, PA: Good Books. [2008]. 214 pp. Thirty of Yaguchi's poems appeared in Three Mennonite Poets (Good Books) 1986, still in print. Also recently published in Japan, in English, is Poems of War and Peace: Voices from Contemporary Japanese Poets. Osaka: Chikurinkan Press, 2007. It presents nearly seventy poems by ten Japanese poets, including eleven by Yaguchi-some of which may appear on this website. Four earlier chapbooks of his poems in English are out of print, as is Jesus. Goshen College: Pinchpenny Press, 1989. W.B.

About the Author

Wilbur Birky

Wilbur Birky, who worked at Goshen College from 1964-2002, first as Professor of English and later as Director of International Education, has become Yaguchi's major interpreter. They became good friends when the Birkys and the Yaguchis lived as neighbors in Japan during Wilbur's sabbatical leave in 1977. In addition to his two conference papers on Yaguchi, Birky has edited The Poetry of Yorifumi Yaguchi: A Japanese Voice in English (Good Books 2006). The poems published there are preceded by an extensive biographical sketch of Yaguchi, as well as an analysis of recurring themes in his poetry. Yaguchi's autobiography is currently being prepared for publication by Good Books.