Finding Rabindranath Tagore in Japan

It was mid-summer in 1916. The Indian philosopher-poet, Rabindranath Tagore, opened the window of the Shofukaku or Pavilion of Wind Swept Pines that he was lodging at, in the Sankeien gardens of the Japanese port city of Yokohama. A salty breeze wafted up the bluff that overlooked the ocean, holding inside it a poem:

Stray birds of summer come to my window

to sing and fly away.

And yellow leaves of autumn,

which have no songs,

flutter and fall there with a sigh

This poem became the title-piece for Tagore’s collection of short verse, Stray Birds, a book heavily influenced by the Japanese aesthetic tradition. It is filled with images of blooms, fireflies and clouds.

Asia’s first Nobel Laureate stayed three months as the guest of silk-merchant Tomitaro Hara in the Sankeien gardens. He had stopped off in Japan en route to the U.S. It was his first visit to Japan and caused considerable excitement in Japanese intellectual and artistic circles. At the request of the artist Yokoyama Taikan, Hara, who was a patron of the arts, offered to put up Tagore at his family estate.

More than a hundred years later, the essential landscape of the gardens remains the same. Toshikazu Yoshikawa, manager of the Sankeien Foundation, points to a large lotus pond on the fringe of the outer garden. “These lotuses would have been blooming through part of Tagore’s stay. He felt they had a resonance for him, as a familiar flower from India.” The gardens are strewn with temples, teahouses and historic residences, some of which Hara transported from Kyoto and Kamakura. Gnarled pines, delicate plum trees and majestic ginkgos form an arboreal symphony that changes tune in every season.

While in Japan, Tagore refined his attempts at developing a language to express the amalgamation of both the universalist and particular Asian values that he believed in

At a museum dedicated to Hara’s art collection, one wall is hung with sepia-tinted pictures of Tagore. The poet, dressed in his trademark jobba, a long robe-like garment that is not unlike the kimono, is seated among various artists supported by Hara.

While in Japan, Tagore refined his attempts at developing a language to express the amalgamation of both the universalist and particular Asian values that he believed in. His stays at Sankeien fed into this search. He was, however, increasingly discomfited by Japan’s drift towards belligerent nationalism. At a speech at Keio University, he warned against imitating Europe’s tendency to “imbue the minds of a whole people with an abnormal vanity of its own superiority, to teach it to take pride in its moral callousness and ill-begotten wealth…”.

Intimacy with nature

What impressed him most was the Japanese intimacy with nature. “You have known her (nature’s language of lines and music of colours, the symmetry in her irregularities, and the cadence in her freedom of movements.” He acknowledged that his sentiments might seem impractical. “Yet, when standing on the outskirts of Yokohama… I watched the sunset in your southern sea, and saw its majesty among your pine-clad hills… the music of eternity welled up through the evening silence, and I felt that the sky and the earth and the lyrics of the dawn and the dayfall are with the poets and idealists.”

Shofukaku, Tagore’s residence in Sankeien, was damaged in a 1923 earthquake. A part of the structure survived, but is off-limits to visitors. The ocean view that Tagore referred to is greatly changed. Concrete buildings and construction cranes punctuate the horizon. And yet, the gardens’ elemental beauty endures for all the ‘poets and idealists’ in whom Tagore’s spirit lives on.

Pallavi Aiyar is an author and journalist based in Tokyo.