Yo shi ro: the Japanese man scouring the world in search of a Romanian poet

/ August 26, 2016
Read this article in Romanian on PressOne.ro

However long a story might roam the world, its destiny is to eventually come home. The messengers of today’s story are unsuspecting, and the languages in which it has been recited have united poetry and myth, islands and continents, the Land of the Rising Sun and Tierra del Fuego.

This is the fascinating life path of Stefan Baciu, a writer long forgotten in his home country, but one who penned thousands of verses about Romania even after he had lost his eyesight. It took the discovery by a young Japanese man who started learning Romanian for this native of Brasov’s story to come to light after he passed away in Honolulu.
Yoshiro Sakamoto is a gentle Japanese man whose long slim fingers leaf through books that one reads from the end towards the beginning. He first came to Romania in 2005 as part of an exchange program between the universities of Kobe and Cluj where he enrolled in a preparatory class in Romanian held at “Babes-Bolyai”. It was there he met a Romanian girl as he was studying anthropology.

He took the bait that says Romanians are a “hospitable people” and figured he might get to know Ceausescu’s gloomy atmosphere better. Once in Cluj, he discovered he didn’t have a dorm room, although the Romanian-Japanese partnership was supposed to include accommodation for foreign students.

Nobody in the management was able to explain to him what had gone wrong. The dorm “receptionist” – as Yoshiro calls him – simply told him he couldn’t live there. So, he got “a little upset” and “decided to get out of this country”, he says.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

He traveled Europe for two months, saw places he had read about in books, and plucked up his courage to face the bureaucracy once more. After a few intercessions and overseas phone calls, his problem was solved. Yoshiro gave Romania another chance, and it was only then that he felt “the people have open hearts”.

He learned Romanian. And he learned the language so well he is now able to translate Romanian poetry in Bashō’s language. “It was a beautiful experience, after all”, Yoshiro concedes.

He even maintains the same love-hate relationship with Romania held by most native Romanians.

After seven months in this country, he went home. He returned to Romania ten years later, on a quest: to discover who Stefan Baciu was. And to his astonishment, he discovered very few Romanians had ever heard about the Brasov-born writer.

The poet Stefan Baciu in the 1980's.

Baciu emigrated from Romania in 1949 while working as a press attaché at the Romanian embassy in Switzerland. He left a huge gap in the Romanian post-war literature, kind of like a seat suddenly left unoccupied in crowded amphitheater and nobody can remember who was supposed to sit there and why they didn’t show up.

But while nobody talks about Stefan Baciu in Romania, he has followers and apprentices in Japan.

“One of my professors from Japan, the poet Keijiro Suga, had met Stefan Baciu in Hawaii. He learned Spanish there under Stefan Baciu’s guidance, who was teaching South-American literature at the time. By that time Stefan Baciu had lost his eyesight, and everyday he would ask a student to come over and recite or read literary masterpieces for him. That’s how they became friends”, Yoshiro says.

Keijiro Suga was young, strolling through Honolulu with an old blind man on his arm, an old man that hat put an ocean between him and communism.

Not long ago, Yoshiro finished translating several of Keijiro Suga’s poems into Romanian, as well as an essay on Stefan Baciu. The pieces appeared in the “Steaua”, a literary magazine published by the Romanian Writers Union. In other words, through intermediaries from halfway across the globe, an expat Romanian poet has returned among the survivors whose memories of him had been erased.

Stefan Baciu arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1949 as a journalist and foreign policy commentator. He became editor of “Tribuna Da Impresa“ magazine and Secretary General of the Brazilian Congress Association for the Freedom of Culture. He lived in Brazil for 13 years and traveled extensively throughout Latin America’s mainland and its archipelagos from Guatemala to Ushuaia. According to his Japanese biographer, Baciu might have been the first to interview Fidel Castro; and he “wiped the floor“ with the Cuban revolution. He read that information in a Spanish-language newspaper. It was also Baciu who wrote the first reader of surrealist Latin-American poetry.

He moved around a lot. It was his destiny to coagulate the poets and the Bohemian society of his time only to disappear and sink into oblivion. “The places he left behind lost the memory of him, his influence was lost. He knew many famous poets, Manuel Bandeira and others, and his home was a kind of a literary salon”, Yoshiro explains.

Stefan Baciu wrote over 100 books and around 5,000 cultural, political or literary essays.

Yoshiro Sakamoto’s second PhD coordinator, next to Keijiro Suga, is an anthropologist with an interest in the culture of the two Americas. Searching for references from the continent some time during the 1990s he came across Stefan Baciu, who had settled in Hawaii.

Convinced that a writer who had undertaken such extensive travels must “have imbued his body and mind with the entire culture of those places”, the Japanese anthropologist requested an interview. The response was an almost illegible letter, written in big, round characters by an insecure yet submissive hand.

“The writing was deformed, he must have written the letter with his forehead touching the paper because by that time he couldn’t see anymore. My professor was barely able to make out the time and place where they could meet”, Yoshiro explains.

The room where Stefan Baciu was waiting for him was full of papers, tapestried like a cozy nest with souvenirs and snapshots of his vagrant life. “There were heaps of paper on which he was writing quatrains. Everyday he was writing about his homeland and his wanderings. Many writers and poets featured in his life, and every day for a brief moment he would recollect something about them”.
Stefan Baciu’s biography appears to be shaping the life path of his Japanese students. Yoshiro is 31 and he’s already saddened by the fact that, come fall, his research grant in Romania will be over. To him, Japan is a meretricious society, where technology and the American model of life have smothered the fount of poetry.

He no longer fits in.

To speak about poetry, indeed about Romanian poetry, in the country that gave birth to the first human-looking android feels like a pointless undertaking. But Yoshiro is a dreamer. He agrees with Lucian Blaga that eternity was born in the countryside, but his heart beats for a place in the Amami islands in Okinawa, the Ryukyu archipelago. There, people believe that “Heaven is behind the ocean’s horizon”, and shaman women kindle sacrificial shrines.

“It is a beautiful and cheery state, we could dance and play traditional instruments late into the night. The archipelago is a storage place of poetry”, he says, passing his thin hand through his hair in a flitting gesture.

“We no longer know who we are”, he adds. A country of ant people, a country yet to come to terms with its moral obligations deriving from a war on Hitler’s side, a country in which students and mothers take to the streets against a law which would make it possible, for the first time after 1945, to deploy Japanese troops to NATO theaters of war.

Last year, Yoshiro married Isabel, who speaks Japanese despite being originally from Germany. He says they no longer have a “home” in the classical sense, so they chose to spend their lives always on the road.

Yoshiro wants to publish his book on Stefan Baciu in Japan for two reasons. The first is because Japanese is his most powerful instrument of eloquence.

“The second reason is that we have lost our roots and are all vagrants in a sense, even though we might inhabit the same space. And we don’t know what to do about it. Baciu roamed the globe, yet was always able to find a connection with the world, whether it was Romania, South America or Hawaii. He formulated a kind of cosmos with multiple dimensions, and he was a great influence on me”.

Yoshiro Sakamoto’s journey halted in Cluj for a couple of months, enough time to help him tell a story. His next stop will be Switzerland, following in the footsteps of his forgotten master.