Here is what I wrote in 2002 for a talk at a conference on literary translation held at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken. The school is the alma mater of the "mobile" artist Calder.
YOSHIMASU Gozo (1939-) is, to my eyes, the most intense and prolific of the contemporary Japanese poets. Wildly polyphonic and dangerously multilingual, his recent works testify to his developing poetics of the past decade, in which each piece is filled with inserted notes and other typographic innovations. Taking up his latest collection The Other Voice (2002), I will discuss his very peculiar and fascinating writing that is outrageously unique.
Let me begin with a simple fact. The central destiny of the Japanese writing is "kanji kana majiri," the mixed use of "kanji" (Chinese ideograms) and two types of "kana" (Japanese phonograms to transcribe all 51 Japanese syllables). The combination of these different systems of writing leads to a certain productivity that may be utterly unique in the world's writing culture. The modern Japanese orthography, that has been established through general compulsory education and mass media after the Meiji Restoration, serves to the kind of expressibility that is not altogether linear.
Yoshimasu, who started as an avant-garde poet of the 1960s, has also been a highly sensitive explorer of Japanese poetic traditions and linguistic conventions. Especially in the 1990s, he has come to create the kind of printed landscape (or "pagescape" if I may so call it) that no one has ever imagined before; the vastness and multilayered nature of the Japanese language seems to be fully traced in all directions. This highly experimental current of work culminated in the book The Other Voice.
There are several points to be noted, which add up to the striking typographical configuration that is blatantly apparent on each page. Let me point out three salient points:
1. Firstly, his pursuit of mixed writing characters. Not only the usual kanji, hiragana, and katakana, he uses the Roman and Russian alphabets, Korean hangul, and most interestingly, his own "man-yo gana"-like usage of Chinese characters. This may need some explanation. Man-yo gana is the peculiar usage of Chinese characters in ancient Japanese writing. Chinese ideograms are borrowed to transcribe the Japanese words, and usually the original meaning of each character is lost on the way. Yoshimasu uses Chinese ideograms in a similar way to transcribe the sound of words, yet vaguely retains the original meaning of each character. A very simple example is 居多 (there was/were). In his transcription, the word is magically turned into "there were many."
2. Secondly, his use of "rubi," small letters printed along the main line of the text. This may either designate the accompanying sound that may not be decidable without the author's specification, or express the possible hidden meaning or association that the author wants to add. The use of rubi has given much freedom to modern Japanese writing, for authors and readers alike. It had educational effects to the readers and it supplied the authors with another dimension of creativity. The use of rubi comes in very handy for authors who try to create his/her own personalized language (idiolect). Yoshimasu's abundant use of rubi has enabled him to considerably expand his imaginary horizon.
3. Finally, his use of parentheses to freely insert all the associations of intertextual resonances and actual occasions of verbal conception: where it began, how it came to him, who or what was behind the expression, etc.
Through all these devices, sounds disseminated throughout the text echo each other and respond to each other, thus initiating auto-proliferation within the textual universe. There are many instances of both semantic and phonetic skidding. What may be called "homophonic productivity" of the Japanese language is played at its limit to present polyphonic and polylogic orchestration. A good example is the case of his neologism like 蝶層 (the butterfly layer). 蝶層＝聴層＝鳥層（＝鳥葬）With what I call "homophonic skidding," "the butterfly layer" can become "the layer of listening," "the layer of birds" that touches upon a mythological dimension, and even latent "bird burial." He also likes to use a series of words with, for example, the character 雜 (miscellaneous, mixed, hybrid, rough, crude, unknown, unnameable). 雜層／雜草／雜神／雜巾／目雜 "Miscellaneous layer," "weed," "miscellaneous, lesser gods," "rag," and "miscellaneous eyes." And we may point out the possible equation of the word 蝶層 and 雜層 in The Other Voice that designate a kind of matrix where linguistic fertilization takes place.
Written in this way, his recent texts cannot be read linearly. You cannot fully vocalize them with a single voice. Rather, it is conceived as a sort of musical score.
This said, we have to remember that he is not a poet who considers the written text as the ultimate form of literary production. Ever since his beginning as a poet, he has been a very active oral performer, and he often gives reading sessions and lectures. In a recent reading session in Tokyo, for example, he read with an assistant (Konuma Jun-ichi who is also a poet) to represent the plurality of his text. In this case, Konuma was asked to vocalize the small "rubi" letters or words within parenthesis that Konuma himself had chosen. There was also accompanying improvised music by The Jasmin Quartet, the band that played Arab music using traditional Japanese instruments such as koto and yokobue (bamboo flute).
Yoshimasu's lectures are also a highly poetic event in which he reads aloud some of his own poems. In such instances he uses repetition and stuttering, accentuation and shouting to pluralize his vocalizing self. It is very dramatic. You should go and see his stage one day!
(P.S. There will be his reading with his wife the Brazilan actress Marilia on October 3 at Pit In, Shinjuku, Tokyo.)