みすゞ — Kaneko Misuzu

Welcome to the magical world of poetry by Kaneko Misuzu!

Called 'the brightest star among all the young writers of poetry for children'1, Kaneko Misuzu is one of Japan's most famous 20th-century children's poets. Kaneko's 512 poems are a fixture in Japanese schools, and are both delightful in their own right and an excellent way to learn Japanese!
Kaneko's works have recently been brought to broader attention in the West thanks to the efforts of Yazaki Setsuo, a Japanese poet and author who helped to publicize her life and works in Japan, and more recently David Jacobson, the author of Are You an Echo?, the first anthology of Kaneko's poems published in North America, with translations by Sally Ito and Tsuboi Michiko.
1. Introduction
Today, Kaneko Misuzu is one of Japan's best-loved children's poets. Her poems are taught in Japanese schools and are used in television commercials, and her face adorns postage stamps.
Kaneko in 1923, aged 20
Image Courtesy of Preservation Association of Misuzu Kaneko’s Works
However, it wasn't destined to be this way. Kaneko passed away in 1930, and although she was well-known at the time, her poems largely disappeared until their rediscovery in the 1980s after a multi-decade search by another Japanese poet, Yazaki Setsuo, as you can read in Kaneko on Kanshudo.
Kaneko's poems have a childlike quality that belies their depth — but at the same time broadens their appeal. The vocabulary and grammar are usually straightforward, making them suitable for any level of Japanese learner, but like the best poems of every language, there are layers of meaning which resonate and grow with time and multiple readings. We encourage you to explore Kaneko's poems on Kanshudo using the links below, and then to continue with the books referenced in Rediscovery and introduction to the world.
A note on the name
(Kaneko) is the surname, and みすゞ (Misuzu) is the given name, so it is more common to see 'Misuzu Kaneko' in English. However, in 2020, the Japanese government issued a request that the English versions of Japanese names be ordered the same way as the Japanese, i.e. with the surname first, and we are honoring that request! For more on this change, see Japanese name reversal.
Kaneko's name includes another unusual element — the ゞ of みすゞ. The hiragana form of 'zu' is ず, but ゞ is a special character used to indicate that the previous kana is repeated, but 'voiced' (in other words, 'su' becomes 'zu' etc.) This symbol is not common in modern Japanese, although it also appears in another well-known name, the car company いすゞ (Isuzu). For more on this and other repetition symbols, see 々, 〻, 〱, ゝ and ヽ  kanji and kana repetition symbols.
みすゞ itself is an interesting choice of name. It is a pen name (her real name was テル, Teru), and Kaneko chose it when she was first submitting poems for publication. It derives from a reference in the
(the Manyōshū, Japan's oldest and most famous collection of classical poetry2) and is based on
, a type of bamboo grass (very short bamboo that grows thickly and looks more like grass).
2. Who was Kaneko Misuzu?
Kaneko Misuzu was born in 1903 in
3 (Senzaki, literally 'hermit peninsula'), a fishing village on the northern coast of modern-day
(Yamaguchi Prefecture). Although Senzaki is close to the much more famous
(Shimonoseki)4, a location of famous battles as well as the starting point of the main sea route to the Korean peninsula, Senzaki was a quiet, unspoiled town, and Kaneko grew up, in a sense, close to nature. Senzaki looks directly out at
(Ōmi Island), a magical landscape of glittering ocean and rock formations.
(Ōmi Island)
Kaneko's mother owned and managed a local bookshop, and as a result Kaneko was able to spend much of her childhood reading and exploring. She stayed in school until the age of 17, which was relatively rare for females at the time. After finishing school, she began to work in the bookstore, and around the age of 20, she submitted several poems to monthly magazines. To her surprise, every one of her submissions was accepted, and she soon began to develop quite a following. Over the next few years, she published many poems and wrote hundreds more.
Alas, Kaneko's life story is both short and tragic. She married a clerk from the same bookstore and soon had a daughter, Fusae. Unfortunately, her husband proved to be a brute — forcing her to stop writing and stay at home. Kaneko ultimately decided to leave him, but Japan's law meant that she would also have to give up custody of her child. By this time she had also contracted a chronic illness, most likely resulting from her husband's promiscuity, and the desperate situation led her to take her own life at the young age of 26.
The Misuzu Kaneko Memorial Museum, on the site of Kaneko's family bookstore
Today, Kaneko's family bookstore has been turned into the Misuzu Kaneko Memorial Museum5 to showcase Kaneko's life and work.
3. Kaneko's poems
All of Kaneko's 512 poems are available in Japanese in the six-volume anthology
6. A selection of 25 poems, many in both English and Japanese, is available in Are You an Echo?7, the first anthology of Kaneko's poems published in North America (and also available in a Japanese version8).
Are You an Echo? is available on Amazon ⇗
For further study, we highly recommend Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko ⇗, which provides a fuller story of Kaneko's life as well as 25 or so of her poems in a delightfully illustrated book.
こだまでしょうか is available on Amazon Japan ⇗
Are You an Echo? is also available in Japanese translation as こだまでしょうか? -いちどは失われたみすゞの詩 ⇗. Each version of the book includes both English and Japanese for most of the poems.
Kaneko's poetry has been compared to The Little Prince, written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery9 10. Like Saint-Exupery's works, the simple words hide complexity and depth that speaks to readers of all ages.
One of the most unusual aspects of Kaneko's poetry is how her perspective shifts from that of the human observer to that of the animals, plants and objects being observed. Big Catch is the poem that first inspired Yazaki Setsuo, and it is a powerful example of Kaneko's style: short, yet laden with contrasting emotions. It shows us a singular situation from multiple viewpoints — in this case, a catch of fish from the perspective of the recipients and the fish themselves.
  Big Catch by
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Another characteristic aspect of Kaneko's style is how she shows us two sides to the same story. In the poem お
(Treat), both sides are all too relatable!
  Treat by
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4. Are you an echo?
One of Kaneko's most famous poems is called こだまでしょうか (Are You an Echo?). This poem is beguilingly simple as it speaks to the loneliness and yearning we all feel. After the
, the tremendous earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 201111, this poem was used as the basis for a simple advertisement encouraging the Japanese to feel compassion for each other and for those afflicted by the disaster. It was tremendously effective — more than one million people signed up to volunteer. In addition, it made Kaneko a household name for the modern generation.
You can read the poem in the Reading Corner:
こだまでしょうか  Are You an Echo? by
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You can also view the poem synchronized with the original television ad, so you can see how it was presented at the time:
こだまでしょうか  Are You an Echo? by
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A note on the English translations
As Sally Ito and Tsuboi Michiko (the creators of the English translations used in Are You an Echo?) point out, the original Japanese of Kaneko's poems often uses a feminine or childlike voice and is replete with echoes of classical Japanese. Both of these are hard to convey in English, especially while creating translations that are also poetry in English! Sally and Michiko took the approach of creating English poems which convey the same sense as the Japanese, if not the precise literal meaning of every word.
This can clearly be seen by comparing their translation of Are You an Echo? with the version used in the Japanese television commercial. Both translations are quite similar until the fourth stanza, そして、あとで、さみしくなって. The commercial uses 'Later on, I feel lonely', which lacks the poetic rhythm of Sally and Michiko's version, 'And then, after a while, becoming lonely'.
However, the final stanza best demonstrates the difference. The Japanese is こだまでしょうか、いいえ、
でも, a somewhat ambiguous phrase that is really the crux of the meaning of the poem. The subtitles in the commercial are 'Is this an echo to repeat anyone's words? No, it happens to anyone' in an attempt to spell out the deeper meaning underlying the Japanese words. Sally and Michiko do it much more elegantly with a version that mirrors the subtlety of the original: 'Are you just an echo? No, you are everyone.'
5. Kaneko on Kanshudo
Here on Kanshudo we are very pleased to be able to include several of Kaneko's best-loved poems for you to study. Several are linked from this article; just click on the ruby callouts for additional details and links to the poems themselves. Additionally, you can find all the poems collected in a special section of the Reading Corner.
とたんぽぽ  Stars and Dandelions by
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Some of the poems are also available with accompanying video, so you can study the poem while simultaneously listening and watching. Poems with video can be viewed / read from the teal callouts.
  Bee and God by
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6. Rediscovery and introduction to the world
The Japanese poet, author and professor
(Yazaki Setsuo)12 first encountered Kaneko's poems in 1962, by which time they had largely faded from the public eye, and so began a quest which was to shape his own life.
Professor Yazaki Setsuo
Professor Yazaki was so struck by the approachability and humility of Kaneko's poems that he decided to learn about their source and to find more. As he put it, "For Kaneko Misuzu, everything on earth — not just animals and plants, but lifeless things like stones and minerals as well — were part of a greater unity, living together and supporting one another to form a precious whole."13
In 1982, after tracking down Kaneko’s younger brother Masasuke, Professor Yazaki was able to get hold of a complete set of Kaneko's 512 poems, contained in three notebooks. And so his dream came to fruition, and Kaneko's poems were brought to light once more.
7. References and further reading
References used in the text above:
— see Wikipedia ⇗
Senzaki in Google Maps ⇗
Shimonoseki — see Wikipedia ⇗
(Kaneko Misuzu Children's Poem Collection)
— view on Amazon Japan ⇗
'It’s almost a companion to St. Exupery’s Little Prince!' Erin Moure, Montreal-based poet and translator, in a review of Are You an Echo? (Kaneko Press Kit ⇗)
Further reading
You can read more about Kaneko's life and work here:
8. Acknowledgments and credits
We would like to acknowledge the support and work of several individuals and organizations who have worked hard to bring Kaneko's poems to life and to a broader audience, and graciously given their permission for Kanshudo to use the material here. We are deeply appreciative. Thank you!
  • David Jacobson, author of Are You an Echo?
  • Chin Music Press ⇗ and Bruce Rutledge, publisher of Are You an Echo?
  • Sally Ito and Tsuboi Michiko, translators of Are You an Echo?
  • Hajiri Toshikado, illustrator of Are You an Echo?
  • JULA, a unit of Froebel-kan ⇗, which also publishes a six-volume anthology containing all 512 of Kaneko's works, considered the authoritative source of the Japanese versions of the poems: Kaneko Misuzu Doyo Zenshu (The Complete Poetry of Kaneko Misuzu).
  • Eve Kushner — creator of Joy o' Kanji and author of hundreds of in-depth essays on Japanese kanji.
  • Tilak Bhattacharjee — creator of the video we use to accompany the
    poem, and of a YouTube channel for Japanese learners ⇗.
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