“Have you ever tried to translate Mount Fuji?”
“You translate nature and it all turns human. It’s noble, or great, or heroic…”
—Natsume Sōseki, Sanshirō
For most of Japan’s literary history, Fuji was a distant, rather mystical presence, only seen by adventurous souls far from the western capital. Take Manyōshū poem #317, by Yamabe no Akahito:
Heaven and earth:
Since the time they parted,
Of manifest divinity,
Reaching the heights of awe,
In Suruga stands
The high peak of Fuji…
…And so on. By the time Japan’s center of cultural mass shifted east to Edo a thousand or so years later, though, Fuji had become a much more everyday presence. Some people reacted to this by taking it more seriously than ever and building religious sects around it. Others preferred to make light of it, like Bashō with his famous bit about it being nice to not see Mount Fuji for once.
It wasn’t until the Meiji restoration, however, that Mount Fuji really attained its current status as national symbol. It was perfect for the job: awe-inspiring yet simple, unique to Japan yet easily-grasped as a concept by outsiders, and convenient to access through public transport. Once the existing body of work in praise of the mountain was retconned into proto-nationalism, Mt. Fuji became the perfect white screen on which everybody could project their agenda.
Yosano Akiko’s short poem “Mount Fuji at the Dawn of the Year” (「元朝の富士」) is a product of this trend. Written while the Japanese body politic was high as a kite on the economic and diplomatic successes of World War I, the poem is as subtle as a brick to the head. It begins with the portentous line “Now, the first sun of 1919 shall rise” and wastes no time in describing Mount Fuji as the “eruption of a new world” at the “edge of the eastern sky.” Then it gets better:
Behold! There stands
The silhouette of some giant Dante,
Colossal in the center of the Heavens.
It is that young poet’s form
As painted on a Bargello wall:
Blue hat, red robes,
Handsome gaze turned to the skies,
There, there, the Dante of La Vita Nuova. […]
O people, in this first year after war,
If you would you see the mysteries I do,
Lo! Gaze heavenwards with me,
At Fuji in this vermillion dawn.
Yosano’s vision has a striking universalism to it. In one line, Mount Fuji is described as an amalgam of exotic and primitive materials (coral, lava); in another, it is an echo of High Art or an avatar of one of European civilization’s greatest poets. Parallels to Japan’s post-Meiji drive to preserve an unsullied core of “Japaneseness” in the belly of a national machine built on the best ideas of the West could not be accidental.
In retrospect, of course, Japan at the time looks more like the Dante of the Inferno (mi ritrovai per un selva oscura/ ché la diritta via era smarrita) — and once everything went to hell, being hitched to the nation’s bandwagon became a liability for the mountain.
Hmph — so you’re Miss Fuji?
That classic white New Look reflected
In the clear and unkind mirror of mirror
Honestly/ Who are you supposed to be?
From Tokyo with its barrack roofs
You’re a regular “crane on a pile of trash“.
Now Fukao was just as cosmopolitan as Yosano (who, incidentally, she rsepected as a teacher). By the time World War II broke out, she had taken three trips to Paris, where she discussed literature with Colette and took flute lessons from Marcel Moyse. So the poem’s pastoral epigraph in praise of Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc (!) is not empty Occidentalism; it was intended to soften the readers up for the bloodthirsty hatchet job that follows.
You can look at the poem as a furious Howl hinging on the contrast between the idealized hyper-Fuji and the reality of postwar Tokyo. The city is drawn as a grotesque, a “holy place” swarming with “flies and lice and two-legged beasts” “where we are all unclean.” Describing herself derisively as “Holy Mary Magdalene,” Fukao’s narrator lists the stations on the way to Damascus:
Methane gas/ Acetylene/ Yakitori/ Ammonia
Pickpockets/ Bag-snatchers/ Pachinko/ Charinko/ Robbery/ Murder/ Homeless/ Abandoned dead/ Orphans/ Hell/ Bosch
“Miss Fuji” is attacked as a phoney, and the nationalism it supported as an opportunistic fraud. There is no compromise, no suggestion that Fuji has any inherent majesty that remains unsullied. No: the mountain’s ability to survive unchanged and even thrive is exactly what is so obscene. In short, Miss Fuji is a collaborator.
Like Whitey says, right?
Fuji-yama, sakura, geisha girls.
This is what you’re bragging about?
In the timeline of Fuji-related literature, though, Fukao’s poem is overshadowed by Kusano Shinpei’s celebrated Mount Fuji cycle. Kusano’s Fuji poems, the first batch of which were actually published before the war ended, emphasized the mountain’s inhuman scale and place in the natural world, and this apolitical, mystical view — almost a return to the Manyōshū model — proved resilient. As Tokyo recovered, the anger that fueled Fukao’s position died away, and the poem froze into place as a period piece. But was it cathartic while it lasted? Oh yes.
[…] Listen, Miss Fuji,
Is nothing special
You’re just a slightly oversized barrack roof yourself
And with those dry, freezing winds besides
Ahhh/ I need to piss.
(Mount Fuji declined to comment for this article.)