October 2003 Birkyw

Yorifumi Yaguchi: International Mennonite Poet and Prophet of Peace


Abstract: Yorifumi Yaguchi is a leading Mennonite poet, both in English and Japanese. He is best known in the West for his thirty poems in Three Mennonite Poets (Good Books, 1986), but his published work in English includes nearly 300 poems in five volumes. A child of World War II, he writes poetry that bears witness to the evils of militarism from Shinto nationalism to Hiroshima, then extends to Vietnam and the aftermath of the events of September 11. But his poetry also draws upon Zen Buddhism. He is an international peace activist whose poetic friendships have included William Stafford, R. S. Thomas, Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov. His poetic and prophetic voice extends to his roles as professor, poetry editor and Mennonite pastor in Japan. While the Buddhist temple bell still sounds in his work, his commitment to peace and to the word/Word is personal, global and revolutionary.

Yorifumi Yaguchi, schooled in the Buddhist temple of his grandfather, trained in the Shinto Japanese nationalism of his father, and personal witness to the violations and horrors of World War II as a child in Japan, became an unlikely Mennonite in the 1960s and a pioneering voice in Mennonite poetry. He draws from the wells of Japanese haiku and Zen Buddhist meditation, and to a lesser degree from Shinto animism, but most strikingly from the international peace witness of the Mennonite church. His poems are both deeply religious and very earthy. His faith is expressed in the presence of ambiguity, pain and mystery’personal, national, existential and international. His poetry has borne prophetic witness to the evils of war’starting with the twin evils of Japanese Shinto nationalism and the American nuclear bomb, and extending to Vietnam, the cold war and September 11.

But Yaguchi’s work is not necessarily didactic. It ranges from the meditative styles drawn from Zen and the haiku poetic tradition to somewhat metaphysical reflections on biblical stories to biting satire to deeply personal laments. Perhaps the most pervasive characteristic of Yaguchi’s poetry is the creation of a personal narrator, usually first person, who bears witness’to deep personal suffering, to the horrors of war felt at the personal level, to vague premonitions of encounter with essences on the other side of the horizon, to sudden flashes of poetic illumination, to biblical ambiguity, to an irrational faith in a compelling but often distant or unreasonable God. But his voice is finally revolutionary, bearing witness to the compelling imperative of the word/Word as peace in a world torn by violence among nations.


Yorifumi Yaguchi’s early biographical journey is still represented most graphically in two essays. ?The Bible Was Nonsense to Me’[1] was written during the early 1960s while Yaguchi was at Goshen Biblical Seminary. It tells of his radical conversion to Christianity after studying poets such as T. S. Eliot at Tohoku University, and taking graduate studies at International Christian University. Later, in ?What the War Did for Me,?[2] Yaguchi remembers his childhood and early adolescent encounters with U.S. bombing raids, air-raid shelters, Japanese nationalism, the Hiroshima bomb and the prostitution of some of his friends to American GIs. This poignant essay was later included, slightly revised, in the 1993 poetry collection A Forlorn Dog.[3]

But his story starts well before these dramatic events. Yaguchi was born Buddhist in 1932?in Yamoto, north of Tokyo and near the Matsushima islands famed for their inspiration of the great Japanese haiku poets. He began writing haiku as a teenager, and while he has broadened his stylistic range extensively, the haiku influence is still evident. Yaguchi’s religious history borrows from three primary sources. His grandfather was a dedicated Buddhist priest whose beautiful chanting of the Buddhist scriptures in the temple is a compelling part of Yaguchi’s memory, and is still heard in his poetry. From his father he learned the Shinto way, including emperor worship and a powerful Japanese nationalism. His mother had a strong interest in Christianity and attended Christian worship, though she never formally professed a Christian faith. Yaguchi credits his mother’s interest, together with his studies, as influential in his personal conversion in his late twenties. By 1962, at age 30, Yaguchi was studying biblical literature and Mennonite theology at Goshen Biblical Seminary, where he earned his B.D. in theology in 1965. During these Goshen years he was also writing poetry in English, publishing not only in Goshen’s literary magazine Foolscap but also in The Mennonite and in national publications such as Christian Century and the National Poetry Anthology.[4] In fact most of the fifty poems published in A Shadow were written in English during this three-year period in the U.S.

Back in Japan in 1965, Yaguchi took up his career as poet, professor, editor and Mennonite pastor. Most of Yaguchi’s formal career has been at Hokusei University in Sapporo, where he taught poetry, American literature and biblical literature for nearly 35 years. Both complicating and intensifying his career was the death of his first wife, Reiko, in 1970, due to cancer. This experience prompted the 24 poems published as Resurrection in 1972, three of them written by Reiko herself. In ?retirement? he took up teaching at Hokkaido Bunkyo University until 2003. In 1976-77 he carried an appointment with the American Council of Learned Societies at SUNY Buffalo, and in 1977 he was visiting professor of poetry at Eastern Mennonite College (now university). In 1967 he was one of the founding editors of Poetry Nippon, an international journal of poetry in English, serving as its poetry editor until the death of the original managing editor in the late 1990s. In 2000 Yaguchi himself revived this journal as Poetry Nippon, Second Series. Yaguchi’s work as pastor in a number of small congregations in Sapporo has been continuous, including his current leadership in a university fellowship. Yaguchi’s patient and sometimes poetic simultaneous translation of Sunday worship for me and my wife Fanni during a sabbatical year in 1977-78 remains a powerful personal memory.[5] While Yaguchi is both poet and pastor, he notes that ?most of my readers are outside of the Mennonite context,? but also that many Japanese poets and readers know not only that he is Christian, but that he belongs to a ?strange small church known as Mennonite.?[6] He appears fully comfortable with this mix.


Since the full range of Yaguchi’s poems is not readily available, it may be useful to account for the basic ?canon.? Having majored in English in Japan, Yaguchi writes in both Japanese and English. While in the U.S. he wrote most of his poems in English. This included the poems in the early A Shadow (1968),[7] most written while he was a seminary student in Goshen. But sometimes he translates his own Japanese poems’especially those he wrote first in Japan. Still other poems have been translated from Japanese into English by others, such as most of the poems in Resurrection (1972)[8] translated by Mary Alene Miller, and all of the poems in Jesus (1989) translated by Ross L. Bender.[9] The other primary volumes of his poetry in English are How to Eat Loaches (1984)[10] and A Forlorn Dog (1993).[11] Some of his Japanese poems he initially wrote for the church in Japan or for publication in Japan, and then later translated them. While Yaguchi has written many more poems in Japanese than in English, this essay concerns only those in English. Since a number of Yaguchi’s works have been circulated informally, or published in English sources only within Japan, and since quite a few were published in multiple collections, there may well be gaps in my account of his canon in English. Yaguchi’s work is likely known to the North American Mennonite audience largely through the thirty poems in Three Mennonite Poets (1986).[12] These represent his best work well, but are only a small fraction of the more than 280 poems in English.


In Yaguchi’s first major volume in English, A Shadow (1966), he establishes his primary mode and themes. This work deserves extensive discussion both because it points the direction of most of his work and because its poems are less well known. Of the fifty poems in this first collection, only seven appear in later collections and only five in Three Mennonite Poets. In A Shadow Yaguchi establishes himself as an international and Mennonite writer who bears poetic witness to the horrors of war and the way of peace. The first eighteen poems portray his wartime memories through the eyes of a child-poet whose innocence is lost in poignant encounters with violence in the name of deity and patriotic fervor on both sides. Most of the rest of the poems constitute a sequence announced by the title poem ?A Shadow,? (a ?shadow? different from that of the better known Hiroshima poem bearing the same title). These poems often suggest absence or vacancy in relation to a mysterious or distant horizon.

In the first sequence of poems the narrator recalls the first night as a child when he was awakened by tanks rolling through the streets, and of taking shelter from air raids in a coal mine where ?chill drops of water/ Drip/ Drip down/ Like snakes from rocks.?[13] He remembers seeing ?a boy lying on the road/ stretched like a dried frog.?[14] He recalls that ?I was leaping/. . . I was laughing? when suddenly ?A small black swarm/ of airplanes/ Appear/ Above the mountain? to chase him down with machine gun fire from which ?I run/ Run/ And run/ Breathless/ Into the rice field? where bullets splash the water ?Ten inches away/ From my right arm.?[15] Here also is the first appearance of ?A Shadow,? the well known poem that presents the horrific image of a human form printed on stone ?at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945? by the vaporizing heat of that first atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima.[16] But he then returns to the child-witness and the death of innocence in the ?dull silence? of school children ?made to stand in rows on the school ground? to hear the emperor’s ?withered voice? of defeat over a crackling radio.[17] Additional poems recount the war’s stark aftermath in deeply personal terms: the suicide of a young school friend soon after he sees his sister as a ?street girl? in the arms of a GI,[18] and the rape of his school teacher by ?armed soldiers in a/ Bamboo bush under a/ Shinto-shrine.?[19] He remembers the ?US soldier? guarding a ?US airbase/ . . . Where the birds never fly /A small USA/ In Japan’[20] These poems are stark, honest, real’war as seen through the eyes of a child.

After these haunting memories of war, the narrator bears witness in a poetic series of existential absence. In this sequence, it is as if the narrator is in a space between the past violence and a haunting vacancy beyond the horizon. He sees ?A skeleton bird . . . frozen to the sky at night.?[21] He experiences a timeless waiting ?Alone on a cold bench’In a station? until ?finally the last train’s gone by.?[22] He opens the door of an empty house to be met by lonely and clinging children.[23] He observes an unnamed woman with a large stone in her womb ?looking at the horizon.?[24] And perhaps most striking is ?A Skater,? a poem republished in later volumes including Three Mennonite Poems. In this poem an unknown skater ?crossed the icy-field in me? and left only ?two lines’beyond the horizon.?[25] Even the narrator’s horse points ?to something invisible/ Which lies far beyond the horizon? toward which it runs ?like a whirlwind’Until at last it exhausts itself and lies down/Again upon grasses like crumbled sands.?[26]

Then suddenly two rather traditional poems appear. The first invokes the sound of the makkuri, a small musical instrument of the indigenous Ainu people, which draws the listeners into harmony with flowing water in a ?big stream? and the primordial dance of fishes ?swimming with fins rustling? as ?an old Ainu and a girl? emerge in a canoe ?from the upper stream.?[27] In this poem I can almost hear Yagachi’s reverent ?Ahhh . . .? as I once heard it on an evening stroll in traditional Kyoto: ?Ahhh . . .? he said, breathing deeply and mysteriously, ?this is ooold Japaaan . . . Ahhh . . . this is ooold Japaaan.? The companion ?Tea Ceremony? is even more evocative of the lure of Zen-type meditation.[28] In this poem Yaguchi surprisingly turns to a traditional western form’the 14-line sonnet (without rhymes, however). In the context of the still-young Yaguchi’s poetic presentation of the stark images of war, and the subsequent haunting of existential absence lying just beyond the horizon, this poem also stands out for its mysterious sense of oneness with the eternal cycles of life through disciplined ritual: the tasting of tea in a ?dance/ Producing eternal stillness,? the context of the ?small tea hut? and bamboo’all ?In which lies something big as/ The ocean? where words like birds ?are flying from one heart/ To the other,? and all in a ?time born out of the/ Stone.? In this poem, one hears the symbolic sound of the Buddhist temple bell from Yaguchi’s childhood, but perhaps also the early influence of T.S. Eliot. Since this poem does not appear in any other collection, I include it in full:[29]


Any action of making the tea,

Any action of tasting the tea is

The dance

Producing eternal stillness,

While through one or two

Leaves of words

Birds are flying from one heart

To the other most

Frequently in this small

Tea hut made of

Thin branches of trees and of bamboos,

In which lies something big as

The ocean, and the time born out of the

Stone is turning slowly around the silent two.

After these two pivotal poems comes a subtle change. The remaining fourteen poems are less directly related to the war than the first eighteen, and while they frequently share in the existential vacancy of the ?horizon? poems, they now hint of eternal ?presence? from beyond that same horizon. But the narrator’s role continues in this sequence’?bearing witness? not only to war, to loss of innocence, to a painful absence beyond the horizon but also now to the troubled sense of ?presence.? Some depict a very grim presence, as in ?Because. . . .? when a guest arrives with a ?chill of frozen wind/ Laying waste my secret room? which it takes a thousand years to warm and to become ?born right again’?though it does in fact suggest rebirth.[30] Another presents children looking after their lost kite ?suddenly swallowed up/ Into the windless sky,? a felt vacancy but also a more insistent presence: ?Somebody . . . in the darkness/ Drawing in the string/ Quietly . . . And its sound is heard/ Spreading around the world/ Like a wind.?[31] Still others present only absence, as in ?A Winter Story? where stand ?dead horses. . . . In the blackened snow-covered world,/ Which is as continuous as eternity.?[32] But in ?Then . . . ,? apocalyptic images of ?growling fangs? and voices ?from the bottom/ Of the bottomless darkness? give way to ?the world beyond the sea? in which the ?cliff/ Was split like a womb? and a ?wind/ Blowing in the stone . . . flowing toward me? and a ?voiceless voice echoed like a shade/ High above the sky all around.?[33]

This sequence points toward the later poems in Jesus’poems of struggle and absence lived by many in the troubled drama surrounding the original Christ encounters, with the possibility of renewal beyond this absence, this violence, this crucifixion experienced in each generation. Perhaps it also points to the title and related poems in A Forlorn Dog’a title that Nick Lindsay has suggested refers to Jesus. ?Maybe,? Yaguchi says, with a noncommittal chuckle.

In any case, after the poems of a remembered childhood in wartime, after the vacancy of absence felt in the receding absence of the horizon, after the struggle with the disturbing presence or wind and sound from beyond that horizon, and after the stark ?conversion? poem in ?Then’,? Yaguchi presents two more poems of children’a haunting remembered self, the child of war, and the continuing struggle to ?give it up and leave it alone.? In ?That Child? there is the ritual attempt to leave the nightmare of war behind, the nightmare embodied in ?Big, red eyes in its soiled face,? its clenched teeth, its ?leaf-like hands’hardened into iron,? even though, as is stated in the final version of a refrain appearing in four different variations in the poem:

How long the time may pass, and

Whatever I may do, never

Will it be attached to me, and

That child is never attached to me,

I know in it solitude

Is Glittering like hungered eyes. [34]

Similarly haunting is ?A Lonely Season,? embodied in ?the fact of this child,/ Left alone by the roadside,/ Standing vacantly in the darkness? and later looking/ Through the window at/ The darkness, in which/ Nothing is seen.? [35] These two poems bear witness to the permanent memory of the horrors of war, as well as to the honesty of the Yaguchi narrator whose conversion to Christianity and hope is not an easy panacea, but a continuing struggle.

Significantly, the last two poems of A Shadow, this first volume, turn to issues of social justice and Yaguchi’s prophetic voice to both Japan and the West. In these two poems, he turns to racism’a form of western social injustice that he observed in the U.S. during the civil rights movement while a student at Goshen Biblical Seminary. The first, ?On Some Bus Stop,? portrays an old black man with a little girl, probably his grandchild, who get on a white bus by accident and experience hostile glances, while the girl ?was/ Seizing old man’s hands,/ Trying hard not to cry? until they are able to get off’whereupon normal conversation and peaceful smiles resume on the bus.[36] The other poem in this vein is ?A Big Negroe [sic] Woman,? whose title Yaguchi says he would re-name if writing it now. Here he presents an image of a woman ?walking along a street? proudly, laden with the bounties of the earth, ?her shoulders shaking as if dancing.?[37] Thus at the end of A Shadow, Yaguchi points forward to his abiding concern for social justice both as a poet and a churchman. Yaguchi’s best known and most collected poem in this vein is the title poem of his 1984 book How to Eat Loaches, discussed below.


We have seen that a primary characteristic of the early Yaguchi narrator’s stance is ?bearing witness’? to the evils of war, to the mysteries of nature, to both absence and presence in human experience, to social problems such as racism. His later work both continues and broadens this basic stance. Once when casually asked to define poetry, Yaguchi says he replied without thinking: ?It’s like an arrow. An arrow coated with poison and medicine.?[38] This image suggests pointedness, purpose, suddenness’the power to puncture and wound, as well as to heal. In Yaguchi’s work, it suggests the power of radical conversion, the exposure of the false gods of nationalism and war, the portrayal of human suffering and isolation, the daily encounters with dogs or a sudden wind, the profound silence available to those who will listen and hear.

Ross L. Bender, in the ?Translator’s Foreword? to the Jesus poems rightly notes that in these poems ?The encounter with Jesus tends to produce a lot of commotion: The Gerasene domoniac is hurled to the ground, Lazarus is seized by the thundering voice of Jesus.?[39] He is right, not only regarding these poems, but many throughout the canon that are not necessarily literal encounters with Jesus, but nevertheless disturbing and potentially life-changing encounters with God in the natural world, in calamitous events on a global scale, in both horrendous nightmares and unexpected stillnesses. This ?commotion? comes in many forms’sometimes chosen but frequently unexpected. In his ?Afterword? to Jesus, Yaguchi himself notes that he has sometimes been labeled a ?porno-poet? in Japan because of many poems dealing with sex. He further explains that his Jesus poems are essentially the only ones to be ?explicitly linked to Christianity? and that he very often portrays violence as a form of human degradation’the ?actual condition of their lives.? Significantly, he says that even the Jesus poems were not written as ?proof for the Christian faith,? but rather to present ?however faintly, the breath of God.?[40]

The broader range of Yaguchi’s poetic styles is well represented by Dale Law, editor of the 1984 collection of poetry How to Eat Loaches. In his introduction[41] Law finds in Yaguchi the essential connectedness of human experience, the ?oriental? meditative style, the shock value of some of the sexual/animal poems, the theme of war and peace, the humor which often turns shocking, the focus on words themselves’all amplified by the special flavor of a poet writing in a second language. Law summarizes this range of qualities in the Yaguchi poetic in moral terms that ring true to my own reading: ?Yaguchi’s imperative is love, and his quest is for the justice and peace that that love implies.?[42]

One special quality that lies in the Yaguchi tension between his Buddhist roots and his Christian faith manifests itself in his biography, in much of his subject matter and in his poetic style. The biography is clear and nearly unambiguous. As evident in his essays, his conversion from Buddhism to faith in Christ was dramatic and forceful. But his attraction to his grandfather, a Buddhist priest, clearly persists, and the sound of the temple bell remains strong in his consciousness. This is evident in a number of poems, most notably in ?Buddhas,? available in English only in the Autumn 1996 issue of Poetry Tokyo.[43] Because it is fairly long, I include here only twelve of the thirty-three lines, from the beginning, middle and end:

In the Asian rooms

of the New York Metopolitan Museum,

Buddhas dwell, seeing us

with eyes half-way closed. . . .

One day I walked into their forest.

Then my grandfather, a zen monk, who had been

living in me, tried to stop and chant a sutra

in front of each one, as he had done while he was alive. . . .

Then behind us

all Buddhas began to utter

their silent voices together

just like cicadas in the midsummer.

The poem presents the inner struggle of the narrator with his grandfather, still ?living in me,? and demanding meditation and chants in order to achieve enlightenment. The tug of the past is clear. So also is the poet’s determined rejection of ?their silent voices . . . like cicadas in the midsummer.? How strong that tug is, or whether it is increasing or decreasing with age in the poet, may be an open question. Yaguchi sometimes speaks of Japanese Christians who have returned to Buddhism in their later years. In any case, the starkly honest Yaguchi here recognizes the inner tug of the beauty of his Buddhist past represented by his grandfather. A more accessible poem is the oft-collected and exquisite ?Silence,? in which the sound of a leaf falling on a lake:[44]


my silence

like the explosion

of a

temple bell

Indeed, in this poem there is more than a tug, more than Zen-like meditation; rather an ?explosion? of the poet’s competing religious cultures. However, poems such as ?My Cousin? present a very different perspective. The encounter is with a cousin after many years, wild in youth but now feeling trapped as a Buddhist monk. This encounter depicts an awareness of two roads taken, but with no apparent ?tug? or regret by the poet/narrator.[45]

If the biographical/psychological/religious journey of Yaguchi presents a continuing clash, there seems to be no such clash in many of the Zen-like poems. A very large portion of Yaguchi’s poetry is meditative, pointing toward nature, waiting for enlightenment. These poems offer a rich dependence on the Japanese haiku style of close observation of nature, an attitude of meditation, the bridging of opposites, and the moment of enlightenment. Of course there need be no basic clash, for the Hebrew and Christian traditions are also rich with meditation on nature’from the Psalms to western meditative and romantic poetry. It is no accident that Yaguchi developed strong personal and poetic friendships with both William Stafford and R. S. Thomas, or that they admired each other’s contemplative poetry. However, the Yaguchi poems in this style are generally less ?enthusiastic? than that of the romantics, and less overtly directed toward God than those of meditative poets; but the expectation of enlightenment, of access to the larger and spiritual sphere through careful attention to nature is very similar. I will examine several examples:

In ?Lying in the Boat on my Back? the narrator experiences the simultaneous ?shake? of boat, sea, sky and self; the nature of this ?shake? is left to the active imagination of the reader but it is clearly multi-dimensional.[46] In ?A [thin leaf]? the narrator watches a dragonfly in the delicate dance of encounter with ?a thin leaf,? as one imagines other such delicate connections of self and other.[47] In ?A Mosquito? Yaguchi takes an interesting turn, as both the mosquito ?perched on my arm? and the narrator engage in a mutual intoxication of life-giving exchange’one receiving physical nourishment and the other the poetic illumination of connection.[48] Some of his one-line poems are clearly in the style of brief encounter and sudden illumination, as for example, ?The winds blush in full bloom all over the mountain? and ?Each time the fallen tree breathes, the grass moves faintly.?[49] Yaguchi wrote a number of poems in this style through his long friendship with a well known Hokkaido painter, Kaneo Hino (now deceased). They drew inspiration from each other and portrayed the rich and often complex simplicity of encounters in nature. Hino-san’s visual style is best available to us through ten of his images reproduced for inclusion in Yaguchi’s Resurrection. Hino’s titles suggest the images: ?Baby Donkey and Wild Roses,? ?Bathing Nymphs,? ?Little Lambs? and ?Sweet Brier.? Many poems follow this basic tradition. However, in others such as ?A Tree? the author takes a comic turn that is also vintage Yaguchi:[50]

I didn’t know

I was a tree

till I tried to

walk. . . .

Perhaps the most significant blending of East and West, of the Zen poet and the Christian poet, lies in the theme of words and the Logos. As an artist who devotes himself to the craft of words, Yaguchi is repeatedly aware of the difficulty of naming in a language that connects divine essence and human limitation’painfully aware that this gap is bridged more by the life lived than by the craft of the poet, yet driven as poet in multiple languages to find an approximation through words. The attempt is pervasive with Yaguchi, a defining characteristic of his work.

?Naming? and then ?Gravestones? together articulate both the amazing power of words and the impossibility of mastering them. In ?Naming? a child discovers the awesome power of a word to command essence: he is ?filled with wonder? when he can utter ?bird? and invoke its presence to himself and others.[51] This is the birth of the poet, the encounter with essence through the act of naming. Yet in ?They Go Away? scattered words fail to obey his call to ?Gather!? and even when he catches a few they ?don’t stay put? and he finds himself giving up and ?looking up at the sky.?[52] Similarly, in ?Gravestones? the poet succeeds in catching some ?raging? words and ?finally pinned them down? only to find them ?groaning in death agony? and ?changed into gravestones.?[53] In ?Words? he knows that they emerge from a mysterious darkness, and that it is not the words themselves but their ?silences that speak to us.?[54] In ?On the Beach? he finds himself digging in the sand where ?once in a/ rare while, I find one/?deeply buried? but still held on to by ?so many hands/ of the dead.? [55] Yet in ?Many winds? he knows that ?a wounded word,? picked at by vultures and left as a bone ?half buried in the sand’sharpens into a razor.?[56] This basic metaphor he develops into an explicit poetic statement of the incarnation in one of his best poems, ?Someone,? in the Jesus collection. The drama of the incarnation is swift and dramatic, as ?Someone/ From afar’threw a word like an ax? and ?pierced/ my unprepared heart.?[57] His overall poetic lies in faith in the Logos and the parallel calling of the poet. His Christian poetic lies in this dichotomy. The Logos cannot be reduced to words on a page. Yet the calling of the poet is to capture words and to wrestle them to earth.


The story of Yaguchi as a war child during World War II, his conversion from both Shintoism and Buddhism, his subsequent study at Goshen Biblical Seminary in the early 1960s and the war themes in A Shadow in the 1960s have already suggested his international stature and his commitment to the way of peace. But there is more to that continuing story. It begins with Japan, always home base for his international activity. Yaguchi lives and breathes poetry, and that vocation is seamless, extending to all aspects of his life, including his roles as professor, pastor and editor. The poetry for his least typical collection Jesus was initially written for the Protestant church in Japan[58] This work is not so much an apology for the way of peace as it is the drama of ambiguous encounter with the figure of Jesus. But especially in the last eight poems Yaguchi the poet/teacher addresses both the cause of peace and the difficulties of bridging the cross-cultural issues that so often cloud the spreading of the good news. In ?Pendulum? he sees the twin terrors of Abel and Cain’to be betrayed and killed or to betray and kill’as emblematic of essential human choice (69). In ?Bird Feeder? he sees the ?works of God? in chirping and fluttering forms, as did St. Francis, even while in the world he sees hurt and destruction (74). ?In the Public Bath? (76) and ?In a Village? (77) directly address the cultural complications of presenting the good news. The former presents the image of a Westerner entering the Japanese public bath without bathing himself first’as a culturally repulsive form of crucifying the very Christ whose amulet he wears. ?In a Village? exposes cultural ignorance in a missionary’s dismissive disgust for demon worship as he ironically offers a cold religious tract to a man bowing to the goddess of compassion. But in ?To Follow Christ? Yaguchi’s narrator once again acknowledges his own choice to reject the continuing tug of the militarist passions of the ?gods and buddhas,? to follow the one ?who was killed, but did not kill? (78). In such work, he poetically represents the way of peace to the Protestant church in Japan.

A further manifestation of this activity is a series of poems in Japanese based on selected stories of the martyrs in The Martyrs? Mirror. These poems Yaguchi wrote originally for the Japanese church as explorations of the Anabaptist commitment to the way of peace. Thirteen of them will also appear in a Japanese translation of Mirror of the Martyrs. One of these, ?On Jan Luyken’s Etchings,? he has translated into English but not yet published.[59] Yaguchi has also provided an active peace witness to the Japanese state. This effort is best available in his ?Shintoism and Miltarism in Japan,? an essay published in The Role of the Church in Society: An International Perspective.[60] As president of the Mennonite Peace Committee in Hokkaido at the time, Yaguchi represented the formal call of the Hokkaido Mennonite Church to the government to engage in international talks on disarmament.

But more extensive is Yaguchi’s contribution to the cause of peace as teacher and editor. For thirty years Yaguchi was poetry editor of Poetry Nippon, a national journal of poetry in English. This journal is also international, publishing both Japanese and other international poets; some written in English, others translated into English. This is not a religious journal. But its poems frequently address issues of war and peace, often but not always related to Hiroshima or its impact. With the illness and death of the former managing editor, this journal temporarily ceased publication, but in 2000 it began its ?Second Series? with Yaguchi as editor. In the 2001 issue Yaguchi’s own poem is a fairly traditional exploration of the power and elusiveness of words.[61] But seven ?Hiroshima Haiku? by Yasuhiko Shigemoto and twelve ?Tanka Poems in English? by Neal Henry Lawrence show the continuing interest of Poetry Nippon in international collaboration on issues of war and peace under Yaguchi’s leadership.

The Yaguchi poetic connections, collaboration and impact are truly international. He has maintained a longstanding correspondence and personal relationship with the Welsh poet and clergyman R.S. Thomas and with the Brethren poet William Stafford, both of whom shared his poetic of nature and peace. Yaguchi notes that Stafford’s ?A Tree From Mongolia? was written in response to a shared walk in the woods behind the Yaguchi house in Sapporo. In ?By the Memorial Gate,? published in The Christian Science Monitor, Yaguchi and Stafford each wrote alternating lines.[62] Then upon Stafford’s death in 1998 Yaguchi and Robert Bly collaborated on a linked poem ?Listening to a Storyteller: In Memoriam to William Stafford,? published in Poetry magazine in August 1998.[63] These connections to well known American and international poets have been extensive. Among them is Denise Levertov, another poet of dual religious heritage. Incidentally, Yaguchi, Levertov and Stafford have all appeared in the distinguished S. A. Yoder Memorial lecture series at Goshen College. Yaguchi found in Kenneth Rexroth a kindred spirit during long association in Japan. Robert Creeley was an especially close associate during Yaguchi’s year at SUNY, Buffalo, in 1976-77 under appointment with the American Council of Learned Societies. Through Creeley, Yaguchi interviewed most of the above poets, as well as Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, for his Japanese book on American poetry. The poet and editor Cid Corman was also an associate with whom he collaborated in Japan. As noted by the editors in the 1986 Three Mennonite Poets, Yaguchi has published his English poetry in at least England, Australia, India and the U.S.,[64] as well as of course in Japan. A whole book of his poetry has since been translated and published in China as A Tree Staying Awake. Also according to Yaguchi, some fifteen of his poems have been translated into Greek, and published in Macedonia, and several also in Hebrew.[65] Clearly poet Yaguchi is part of an international community of poets, many of whom share a vision for the power of the poetic word to help create an alternative view of peace in a violent world.

Seven of his poems, including ?Silence,? ?Many Winds? and ?Into Waves,? were set to music by the Canadian composer Jacques Desjardins, who has won several awards with them, including the International Choral Competition of the Canadian Music Center’Qubec. His ?Cycle Yaguchi? brings together five Yaguchi poems. Desjardins notes that in 1997 as he was searching for a text that would catch his imagination, he ?landed on ?Silence? by Yorifumi Yaguchi, and heard immediately the piece in my mind from beginning to end.? That particular piece was recorded by the McGill Chamber Singers and performed in concert on March 15, 1998 in Pollack Hall in Montreal, winning first prize for contemporary music, as well as first prize in vocal music by PRO-CAN in May of that same year.[66]

While the canon of more than 280 poems in English has a somewhat larger portion in the ?traditional? variety, the ?war and peace? theme has continued throughout the years, and in the primary collections these poems are grouped together. The first eleven of the sixty-four poems in How to Eat Loaches (1984) are poems about war. These range from poems about U.S. air raids remembered from childhood, to patriotic clashes in the midst of war fervor, to a grand party in which the dancers are oblivious to the violence in the world. This volume also includes two poems from the Vietnam era’sharply satiric ones, but now somewhat dated in their focus on the evangelist Billy Graham’s alliance with the cause of war. One, set in Westminster Abbey, is more reflective. In the presence of proud nationalism the poet/narrator confesses his own feelings as ?An aged Japanese, professor of English literature, standing / Still in front of the poet’s corner, eyes with tears overfilled? in the face of ?blood-soaked marble? from ?What you have done in Africa and Asia through the centuries.?[67] And then the title of the very next poem turns to ?Prague on August 20, 1968? with a poetic lament: ?ah what is it that changed . . . your soft, warm hands into such / bony fingers on the triggers’?[68] Interestingly, in the later A Forlorn Dog (1993) the twelve war poems (of forty-one) are placed at the end rather than at the beginning as in Loaches. The first five are memory poems ranging from nightmares of war to the involuntary inner attraction of the narrator to uniforms and guns. ?Army of Justice’[69] and ?The Just War’[70] are bitterly satiric: tanks and battleships are sent by ?all-triumphant hymns,? and the ringing ?Hallelujah? accompanies mutual bombardment justified by the biblical injunction to ?let every person be subject/ to the governing authorities.? While satire is not the characteristic Yaguchi style, it appears fairly frequently in his anti-war poems.

Of special interest is ?How to Eat Loaches.? This shocking and well known poem is included in the ?war? section of both its title volume and A Forlorn Dog. It appears in all of the Yaguchi collections after A Shadow. It of course attacks racism and its attendant violence in any society. Its interest arises from its blending of personal experience with the frequent poetic image of animal transformations, the surprise at the end that in this case results in satiric shock, and its inclusion with the anti-war poetry. This blend may in fact be emblematic of the Yaguchi poetic. The poem’s epigraph provides the context: ?Some people say raw loaches are good for the heart. . . .? Then the poem opens with the innocent explanation that ?you just swallow/ the loaches living.?[71] The reader may know that a loach is a small leech-like fish, but likely does not know that Yaguchi-san in fact used to swallow loaches for his health. This fact establishes the first stage of recording an innocent personal experience while remaining alert to its possible surprise. Then the poem moves from the innocent medicinal act to the loaches? point of view (awareness of being swallowed), to the more predatory but still ?natural? image of the snake swallowing mice, and then to the sudden recognition of one race preying upon another as if it were part of the same natural course of survival. This is vintage Yaguchi’starting with experience, remaining keenly alert to significant encounter, being open to illumination and stimulating the same sudden illumination in the reader.

A new anti-war poem, still unpublished but circulating informally in the wake of 9-11, is ?God of War.?[72] In it he imagines the God of War as a grand maestro ?on the platform with his baton? in the wake of his ?work of Terrorism,? simultaneously conducting in one mighty chorus the legions of both church and mosque to ?Make wars? and to ?Kill.? As the chorus extends to the ?Yasukuni shrine? in Japan, the poet observes that ?His kingdom had been/ The battle-field, but now it is the whole globe.? Yaguchi is not shy about spreading his vision. During the final editing of this essay, Yaguchi sent me by e-mail[73] the following 3-line poem that he sent directly to President Bush together with other anti-war poems:

Made in USA

?Hello!? ?Hello!? ?Hello!?

Bullets greet each other,

As they criss-cross in the air.

Given the force of his international peace commitments, it is not surprising that Yaguchi indicates a growing interest in the Christian Peacemaker Teams and that he is now working on some poems related to this movement. He recognizes his calling as poet/prophet in a recent poem ?Jeremiah.? He agonizes that words are ?somehow placed/ Upon his tongue’to fly out as arrows of fire . . . without his knowing? even as he ?hides himself in the darkness,/ groaning? and protesting that he does ?not know how to speak.?[74] He knows, and he speaks, but he is keenly aware that his words have their origins from beyond the horizon.


Yorifumi Yaguchi is a leading Mennonite poet whose international work as poet, editor, teacher, pastor and prophet is nearly seamless. His poetic work in two languages reaches from his Japanese students and colleagues to internationally acclaimed writers. His peace witness is unambiguous in its recognition of the roots of war in the human heart. His commitment to words is personal, poetic and religious. He is bold in his voice, but he is brutally honest with his own feelings, and about the similar causes of war extending from Japan and the U.S. in World War II, to Vietnam and on to the aftermath of the bombing of the twin towers in New York. He continues to practice a Japanese poetic rooted in the meditative tradition, but his range of styles extends to comic recognition and incisive satire. He writes unapologetically in an adopted language and reaps the benefits of multiple voices and an occasional poetic dissonance. His work is rich in nuance, yet unambiguous in commitment. The sound of the Buddhist temple bell still resounds and enriches his vision, but the imperative of the word/Word is personal, revolutionary and global, as in his poem ?Someone,? to which we return:[75]

From afar

he threw a word like an ax

It cut to pieces

the night’s empty sky

It pierced

my unprepared heart

In an instant the ice split

water danced up like a fish

[1]. Among other testimonial essays edited by J. C. Wenger as They Met God (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1964), 176-9.
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[2]. Translated by Mary C. Miller, Festival Quarterly (Spring 1986), 7-9, 21.
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[3]. Retitled as Growing Up Next to an Air Base (Sapporo, Japan: Kyobunsha, 1993), 50-65.
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[4]. ?Acknowledgement,? A Shadow (Sapporo, Japan: Hokkusei University, 1968), unnumbered page prior to table of contents.
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[5]. This year marked the beginning of a long though intermittent association. Many of the facts and interpretive comments in this paper come from informal association and conversations that began in 1977 and have continued to the present.
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[6]. Yaguchi e-mail to author, August 2002.
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[7]. Sapporo, Japan: Hokusei University.
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[8]. Privately published in Japan in 1972, no publisher or city indicated. The untitled preface indicates that this volume contains about half of the poems published in a Japanese version, Fukkatsu. It also indicates that the first three poems were written by Yaguchi’s wife Reiko, and that the last five poems he wrote in English.
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[9]. Ed. David Hershey, Goshen, IN: Pinchpenny Press.
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[10]. Ed. Dale Law, Dumaguete City, Philippines.
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[11]. Sapporo, Japan: Kyobunsha.
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[12]. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.
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[13]. ?The Coal-Mine’An Air Raid Shelter’?, 3.
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[14]. ?A Boy,? 5.
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[15]. ?It Was in Autumn,? 6-8.
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[16]. Also, in October 2002 Yaguchi noted to me his historical error in the poem which uses 9:10 instead of the correct 8:15 as the time of day; he also hand-corrected and initialed this error in the Mennonite Historical Library copy of the book.
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[17]. ?It Was in August,? 14-15.
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[18]. ?I Remember’,? 17.
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[19]. ?We, Her Pupils’,? 21.
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[20]. ?The US Soldier’..,? 22.
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[21]. ?A Skeleton Bird,? 24.
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[22]. ?I Was Waiting,? 25.
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[23]. ?I Opened’,? 26.
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[24]. ?A Stone,? 38.
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[25]. 34.
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[26]. 33.
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[27]. ?Makkuri,? 41.
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[28]. 42.
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[29]. Yaguchi permission to the author by e-mail, July 2003.
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[30]. 43.
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[31]. ?The Kite,? 48.
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[32]. 51.
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[33]. 55.
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[34]. 56-7.
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[35]. 58-9
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[36]. 60.
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[37]. 61.
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[38]. ?The Poet’s Afterword? in ?A Selection from Yaguchi Yorifumi’s Yobu Koe [Calling Voice],? versions by Scott Watson, Tohoku Gakuin University Journal, September 1994, 291-2.
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[39]. 7.
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[40]. 81-83.
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[41]. Vi-xii.
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[42]. Xii.
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[43]. 20-21.
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[44]. Three Mennonite Poets, 52. This poem also appears in A Forlorn Dog and How to Eat Loaches.
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[45]. ?My Cousin? is available in English only in Tohoku Gakuin University Journal, ?A Selection from Yaguchi Yorifumi’s Yobu Koe [Calling Voice],? versions by Scott Watson, September 1994, 290-1.
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[46]. In How to Eat Loaches, 28.
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[47]. Ibid., 48.
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[48]. In A Forlorn Dog, 13.
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[49]. ?Nine One-line Poems,? available to me via an offprint of ?11 English Poems? from the Journal of Hokkaido Bunkyo University, No. 1, 2000
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[50]. How to Eat Loaches, 36. Not to be confused with a very different poem by the same title in 11 English Poems.
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[51]. Ibid., 49.
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[52]. In A Forlorn Dog, 16.
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[53]. In Three Mennonite Poets, 66, and How to Eat Loaches, 55.
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[54]. In Three Mennonite Poets, 61, and How to Eat Loaches, 50.
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[55]. In A Forlorn Dog, 24.
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[56]. In Three Mennonite Poets, 63, How to Eat Loaches, 54, and A Forlorn Dog, 18.
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[57]. 68.
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[58]. Ross L. Bender, ?Translator’s Foreword,? 10.
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[59]. Author interview with Yaguchi, October 2002.
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[60]. Ed. Urbane Peachy (Carol Stream, IL: International Mennonite Peace Committee. March, 1988), 105-8.
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[61]. Titled ?A Tree,? this poem is very different from two others with the same title, one in How to Eat Loaches, and the other in 11 English Poems.
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[62]. December 4, 1984. A note accompanying the poem indicates ?A Japanese form: odd numbered lines by Yorifumi Yaguchi, even numbered lines by William Stafford.?
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[63]. Vol. CLXXII, No. 5, August 1998, 255.
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[64]. ?About Yorifumi Yaguchi,? 43.
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[65]. Author interview with Yaguchi, October 2002.
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[66]. All information from an e-mail to author from Desjardins, October 22, 2002.
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[67]. In How to Eat Loaches, 12-13.
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[68]. 13.
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[69]. 44.
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[70]. 45.
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[71]. How to Eat Loaches, 1, and A Forlorn Dog, 41.
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[72]. Received first by e-mail from J. R. Burkholder in September 2002, later given me by Yaguchi in October 2002.
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[73]. July 12, 2003, with permission to use in this essay.
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[74]. Unpublished poem given the author by Yaguchi in October 2002
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[75]. In Jesus, 68. Yaguchi permission to author to reprint in full, July 14, 2003.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Yorifumi Yaguchi: Mennonite Poet and Prophet of Peace
*Wilbur Birky is Professor Emeritus of English and of International Education at Goshen College. In 1977-78 he was Visiting Professor at Hokusei University in Sapporo, Japan, where he was a colleague of Yorifumi Yaguchi.