Ryūnosuke Akutagawa 芥川龍之介 (1892-1927), the Japanese novelist known for Rashōmon and Kappa, was also a talented kanshi poet. That is to say, he mastered the delicate art of composing classical style poems in Chinese like those aristocrats did in the Heian period. Living during the Taishō to Shõwa period, he beheld the rapid change of Japan to a modernized, militarized empire, in which the traditional arts like kanshi were gradually overlooked by the mainstream circle; and he was one of the rare examples of traditional literati who were classically trained in Chinese literature and poetry writing.
The very first poem in the collection of Akutagawa’s kanshi works was written at the new year’s eve in 1912. The then 20-year-old writer sent this poem with a greeting letter to his friend, describing a scene of himself composing the poem alone in his study, uninterrupted by the worldly affairs. May everyone who reads my translation on this poem get a glimpse of Akutagawa as a poet, and have a safe and joyful lunar new year.
Early in the spring chill, the plum branches have yet to see a bloom.
Soughing, soughing in the dark, the bamboo circling the little pond.
Under the curtain of my study, still, the new year has not arrived.
Burning the license and shut out the visitors, alone, I am weighing the words for a poem.
The last line of the original poem has an allusion to 推敲 (pushing/knocking the door), that the Tang poet Jia Dao 賈島 was so absorbed in composing a poetry that he kept weighing on the diction to decide whether to use “pushing” or “knocking” in a new poem.