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Japan Teaches Nothing But Simplicity:
Yone Noguchi's East Bay Legacy


by Nina Egert


Joaquin Miller was regarded most reverentially by Japanese as a sennin,
or "hermit who lived on dews."
…it was with more than curiosity that I climbed up the hills behind Oakland
to see him at the "Heights"…
It was the ideal spot on earth with…such a wonder of view…
I fell in love with the place at once…
It is not too much to say that one lived partly in the clouds at this place; …
look[ing] down over the San Francisco Bay…[a] floor of dustless silver!
…at evening…my eyesight reached far away [to] the gate of the Bay,
and lo! there the golden sun was sinking heavily down through that gate…
When I was told afterward by Miller that this was the very place
where John C. Freemont [sic], the path-finder, once pitched his tent
and was inspired to give the name of Chrysopylae or Golden Gate,
the place became thrice more romantic.

(from The Story of Yone Noguchi)

Yone Noguchi and Joaquin Miller
In the late 1800s, above the town of Fruitvale lay lush grassy rolling hills—once part of the Spanish land grant belonging to the Peralta family. The well-known poet, Joaquin Miller, had purchased these hills in the 1870s as a spot to host a writers' retreat. His friends—poets and authors of note, such as John Muir, Ina Coolbrith, Edwin Markham, and Jack London (all founding members of the California Writers Club) came often to picnic on Miller's land.

Into the middle of this literary scene strode Yone Noguchi, a college student from Tokyo, who had come to San Francisco hoping to improve his English language skills. After first finding work on a political newspaper for Japanese ex-pats, in 1896 Noguchi hiked up the hill to Miller's writers' retreat, where he apprenticed under the poet for the next four years.

Miller lived like a hermit, tended his rose garden, and dined each night with his elderly mother. Serving as Miller's personal assistant, Noguchi soaked up information, listening to the poet opine on nature, politics, and the arts. In between his housekeeping and gardening chores, the young man read voraciously: "…the Hokku poems by Bashō, Matsuo, and a book of the Zen philosophy of Kochi Zenji, besides my beloved Poe's poems…." (from The Story of Yone Noguchi)

Noguchi at his cabin
(Oakland History Room, Oakland Public Library)

In time, Noguchi found the courage to take up his pen, and attempt to write poetry in English. For subject matter, he chose the moments of joy and loneliness that colored his experience of the idyllic, country retreat.

I dwell alone.

Like one-eyed star.

In frightened, darksome willow threads.

In world of moan.

My soul is stagnant dawn—

(from "Mystic Vapour")

Through Miller's contacts, Noguchi readily found access to publication. After submitting several individual poems to the literary journal, The Lark, Noguchi published his first full set of verses, Seen and Unseen: Monologues of a Homeless Snail.

Song-forgotten, homeless meadow lark,

searching in vain

the gossamer waves of the harmless field;—

(from "My Poetry," Seen and Unseen)

For his second book of poems, Noguchi decided to seek artistic inspiration by embarking upon a literary journey modeled on the wanderings of the seventeenth century poet, Bashō. Equally inspired by the writings of a number of his Oakland compatriots, Noguchi chose to trek into the Gold Country to view the splendors of Yosemite described by John Muir.

I, a muse from the Orient,

where is revealed the light of dawn,


Harken to the welcome strains of genii

from the heart of the great Sierras —


I repose under the forest-boughs that

invoke the Deity's hymn from the

Nothing-air.

(from "Song of Day in Yosemite Valley," Voice of the Valley)

In 1898 Noguchi wandered southward to Los Angeles, interacting with the immigrant Japanese community en route. Weakened and ill from the hardships of his travels, Noguchi did not produce a set of poems from this second journey. However, Noguchi stored up all his impressions of rural and urban California, and described them with precision and insight when he shifted to writing prose.

In 1900, he left the Bay Area to foster his career on the East Coast. Once in New York, he hired a young woman, Leonie Gilmour, to tutor him further with his English. Gilmour served not only as a consultant to his writing, but became the mother of his son, Isamu Noguchi (who became one of the twentieth century's most important sculptors and then an internationally known designer). Also, while on the East Coast, Noguchi connected (possibly sexually) with Miller's friend, Charles Warren Stoddard (famed for his ethnological writings on same-sex relations in the South Sea Islands). Unquestionably, Stoddard's ethnographic writings had an influence upon Noguchi's literary perspectives.

Noguchi began to develop the idea for a novel about a young Japanese woman of means, chaperoned by her uncle, who traveled the routes taken by Noguchi, though in comfort and style. In The American Diary of a Japanese Girl, Noguchi outlined many of his personal experiences, thinly or thickly veiled with fictitious names and events. With ethnographic precision, he detailed his observations of nineteenth century American culture, noting how our social customs, fashion, technology, and interpersonal relations differed from those of the Japanese.

Beginning with this novel, Noguchi's writings found new maturity. His early poems, dripping with romantic sensibility, had been publicly criticized as plagiaristic of Poe. In prose, his sensitive analysis of American culture, viewed through the eyes of his protagonist, "Morning Glory," was rich with insight into the differences in cultural values:

[my American hostess] set two Japanese screens in the drawing room, moving them from her chamber. She sprinkled a great lot of exotic bric-a-brac about.

She opened a regular Chinese bazaar which expressed every poor taste. Such confusion!

Japan teaches nothing but simplicity. Simplicity is the philosophy of art.

I wondered how she lived there without learning it.

Every inch of [her] parlour means a heap of money.

But is there anything more displeasing than tasteless luxury? Sufficiency is grateful, but superfluity is nothing but offence.

I thought that Americans buy things because they love to buy, not because they have to buy.

Meriken jin has to study the high art of concealing…

(from The American Diary of a Japanese Girl)

Clearly, by the time that Noguchi published this novel in 1902, he had begun to favor the Japanese sensibility of bare simplicity over what he saw as American excesses in taste. Then, after a trip to Paris, where he came to understand more fully the influence that Japanese art was having upon French and American painters, like Monet and Whistler, Noguchi latched onto an idea of how Japanese poetry could similarly influence Western literary arts.

Among the major contributions of Matsuo Bashō (Noguchi's Japanese idol) to the development of Japanese poetry was the innovation of writing three-line, hokku, as stand-alone poems, [rather than combined with other verses in longer poems.] In hokku, thoughts were expressed in their entirety in a total of seventeen syllables, plus a few punctuation strokes. How greatly this concise poetic form differed from the broad romantic verses popular in America at the end of the nineteenth century—the form that Noguchi had studied hard to emulate as Miller's apprentice.

In 1904 Noguch composed a short essay for the periodical, The Reader. In "A Proposal to American Poets" he wrote: Hokku (seventeen-syllable poem) is like a tiny star, mind you, carrying the whole sky at its back…Noguchi suggested Western poets try their hand at expressing themselves using hokku. [note: Roughly around the same time period as Noguchi, Masoko Shiki was offering his own innovations to Japanese poetry, and suggested using the term, "haiku," to demarcate stand-alone, seventeen syllable verses.]

At the time, only a few of Noguchi's friends, notably Ezra Pound, experimented with the form. Perhaps if Noguchi had remained in the States, he would have had more influence in broadening the acceptance of his suggestion. But international politics intervened.

Disturbed about the Russo-Japanese war, Noguchi returned to Japan. Once back home, he continued to write in the English language, serving as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. He co-authored a book of poems, Japan of Sword and Love, with Miller, wrote a sequel to his novel, taught about American culture at Keio University (his alma mater), and produced dozens of volumes of poetry and nonfiction. Some of his work reached the West, but in the 1930s, politics impacted his ability to publish in this country, leading to the demise of recognition for his contributions to American culture.

Moon in the fountain at Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland, California

That recognition was instead redirected to the artistic contributions of his son, Isamu. In The Story of Yone Noguchi, Noguchi speaks briefly of young Isamu, whose mother, Leonie Gilmour, had brought the child over to Japan to live when the boy was two years old. This was an awkward situation, as Noguchi also had a Japanese wife and family. Gilmour eventually returned to the States, having first borne a daughter to an unnamed Japanese father. Isamu came to public attention when his sister's school chum, Martha Graham, needed someone to design the sets for her first big choreographic enterprise, Appalachian Spring. Over time, Isamu continued to design theatre sets, then public sculpture, modernist housewares, and numerous buildings. Museums honoring Isamu's work exist—one in Japan and the other in Long Island City, just outside Manhattan.

Sadly, Isamu grew up distant from his father, and the two were further separated by the politics of World War II. Fortunately father and son were reconciled, though only shortly before Yone's death from cancer in 1947.

Haiku finally rose to its current popularity after the war as well. Beat poets, especially Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Robert Blythe, re-introduced the form to the American public, and from the 1960s on, haiku has become a common poetic form in this country and around the world.


Author, photographer, and anthropologist Nina Egert has produced several photo-essays of her historical observations on California landscape and culture. Her new book is Noguchi's California: Poetic Visions of a 19th Century Dharma Bum, published by The Vinapa Foundation (www.vinapafoundation.org).


"Yone Noguchi in California: A Japanese Poet Among Oakland's Famous Writers," an exhibit of photographs from the book, and on the development of Japanese poetry leading up to Noguchi's introduction of haiku to the American writer, is currently on view, through January 31, 2012, at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, 388 Ninth Street, Suite 290, Oakland, (510) 637-0455, www.oacc.cc.

Also at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, on Sunday, November 13, 2:00, a dance concert incorporating Noguchi's poetry will be performed. Featured performers will include Butoh dancer Judith Kajiwara, artist-in-residence at Oakland Asian Cultural Center; musicians Roy and P.J. Hirabayashi, founders of San Jose Taiko; narrator/musician Steve Nakano; and guest dancer Yoshie Akiba.

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