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Late freedom-loving poet dedicated life to protesting war

Tota Kaneko speaks about the past in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun at his home in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, on Aug. 9, 2017. (Mainichi)

Tota Kaneko, a leading figure in the postwar haiku world for over 70 years, left this world for "the other world" on Feb. 20. He was to turn 99 -- considered a fortuitous age to be in Japan -- later this year.

The avant-garde poet created and employed the "zokei" (molding) method of haiku, generating fierce debate in the haiku world. At the same time, his warm personality shone through the humor detected in his words. Kaneko loved children, broadened haiku's horizons and was a modern-day "mediocre and free man," as he described himself, unmatched by no one.

Kaneko's origins as a haiku poet came from the horrific experiences he endured when his career at the Bank of Japan was interrupted and he was deployed to the Micronesian Chuuk Islands as a paymaster first lieutenant in the Imperial Navy. Following the end of the Pacific War, as his compatriots died left and right of starvation, Kaneko organized haiku gatherings as a way to cope with life as a prisoner of war. Along with others who survived, Kaneko set up a simple stone marker for those who did not make it.

As the ship that was to bring him back to Japan set off from the island chain in 1946, Kaneko stared at the islands as they grew smaller and smaller. On the deck of that ship, he wrote a haiku lamenting that he was leaving behind the dead under a stone marker in the blazing sun. For the rest of his life, he remained true to his commitment to create a world without war for the sake of his fallen comrades.

People protesting against security-related legislation hold up placards reading "Abe seiji o yurusanai" (We will not tolerate Abe's politics), written by Tota Kaneko, in Tokyo's Nagatacho district in July 2015. (Mainichi)

Seventy years after the end of World War II, in the summer of 2015, security-related legislation was railroaded through the Diet. Placards reading "Abe seiji o yurusanai" (We will not tolerate Abe's politics), which Kaneko wrote in Japanese calligraphy at the request of author Hisae Sawachi, lined the streets surrounding the Diet building during daily protests. The slogan, written with a brush and ink, remains a symbol for those who raised their voices in front of the Diet in Tokyo and around the country, and continue to protest against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration.

"Kaitei," a haiku magazine that originated with Kaneko's haiku gatherings in Chuuk, became a forum for poets to go against the haiku elites' grain in the 1960s -- which at the time was a return to tradition -- and practice the "zokei" method of haiku, which Kaneko created in search of free and unique expression. Kaneko called the Modern Haiku Association that was established soon after the war when Japan was still largely a pile of ashes, his "home," becoming its chairman in 1983 and its honorary chairman in 2000. He contributed to the development of the association and the popularization of haiku, and served as a judge for the Mainichi Haiku Contest run by The Mainichi Newspapers Co. since its start in 1996.

Kaneko appeared in a wheelchair at the Modern Haiku Association's 70th anniversary ceremony in November last year, at which he was given a lifetime achievement award. He smiled and sang a line from his favorite song, "Chichibu Ondo."

The Chichibu region of Saitama Prefecture was where Kaneko was born and raised. It was at gatherings for "Wakaayu" (the haiku magazine run by his father, haiku poet Isekiko) that Kaneko was exposed to the natural landscape and men of Chichibu, and cultivated his stance of creating haiku about human nature.

In the latter half of his life, Kaneko lived in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture. Around the time of his mother's death in 2004 and his wife's death in 2006, Kaneko chose to delve into research on Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) and Taneda Santoka (1882-1940), both monks and poets who lived in isolation from society. Kaneko identified with Issa's characterization of himself as "a mediocre man who cannot rid himself of earthly desires, but wants to continue living as he does," and lived by that motto.

In 2009, Kaneko published his 14th collection of haiku, called "Nichijo" (The everyday), and said, "Living life in a matter-of-fact way constitutes digging the spring of poetry. We live as much as we can, and when our time comes, we die. Even after we die, life continues elsewhere. That is what I call the 'other world'" -- which in Japanese, is another word for dying.

According to Kaneko's 69-year-old son, Matsuchi, Kaneko had been in a Kumagaya hospital for aspiration pneumonia since Feb. 6, and passed away at 11:47 p.m. on Feb. 20, with Matsuchi and his wife at his bedside.

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