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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

Youth Spotlight: Thomas Cantrell

ETSU Senior Researches Japanese Poet

By Dottie Havlik | March 25, 2008

East Tennessee State University senior Thomas Cantrell enjoys studying Japanese. He came upon the works of Ozaki Hosai, and chose the poet as the subject of his honors thesis, evaluating the impact of Buddhism on Hosai's works and translating his poetry into English.

Little information is available here about Hosai, so Cantrell went to Japan on dual grants from the ETSU Department of English and Honors College. Now back at ETSU, he took time to answer a few questions.

— - Have you had a long-time interest in Japan?

I've had an interest in Japan for a very long time. As funny as it may sound, my initial exposure to Japanese culture was through the video game, Pokemon, when I was 11 years old. I grew more interested while in high school when I dated a girl who was studying the language. I didn't feel the desire to go to Japan until I took classes at ETSU under Prof. Tezuka and started reading Japanese literature.

— - Why did you choose Hosai?

Hosai (was featured in a book I studied), and his work stood out to me most of all. One poem in particular really reminded me of a short Japanese animated series I like, Haibane Renmei, and a book that inspired it. I've continued to read Hosai and do my own translations, mainly because of the uniqueness of Hosai's work. He disregards the traditional 5-7-5 syllable haiku, often making it shorter, personal and deeply introspective.

— - Will there be a book of the translated poems?

At the moment I'm concentrating on having things finished for my thesis so I can graduate in May. I will present this thesis a few times at various meetings, but as for a book, I'm not sure yet.

— - In translating Hosai, what's been the challenge?

While understanding the pre-WWII dialect is difficult, the biggest problem is figuring out how to translate words that just don't have similar words in English. Within Japanese poetry, haiku especially, there are 'words' that are sometimes used at the end of a line that don't have a real meaning so much as a feeling. Conveying this feeling in English can be a challenge.

— - What are the major differences between Japanese and English?

The biggest differences are the sentence structures and the alphabets.
English is subject-verb-object. Japanese is special in that it is subject-object-verb; sentences usually end with the verb and the object that's being acted on is right before it. The most noticeable difference is the one that discourages most people from studying Japanese — the alphabets. Japanese has three, unlike every other language that only uses one.
— - Have the travel and study changed your life?

Immensely. I find it hard to express just how much I learned in Japan. My views of life have been changed by the classes I took on Buddhism and living with a Buddhist family. I saw how closely man and nature can live together by hiking in the mountains next to Kyoto and seeing the deer living in Nara. When I visited Shodoshima, where Hosai lived the last part of his life, I spoke with other monks and local scholars who love this poet as much as I do, and I came to understand the kind of community in which he lived and died.

Before going I was directionless on what to do after I graduate, but now I have a goal. I want to study in Japan at a Japanese intensive language school and go on to graduate school there. I want to build cultural understanding between not only America and Japan, but also the rest of east Asia.

I've met many Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people, and I want to help maintain stability and peace through understanding so that others can read and produce beautiful works like the poetry of Hosai's. Being so close to North Korea when they tested their first nuclear weapon was a strong reminder of how fragile this peace really is.

Dottie Havlik is Vice President of the Board of Directors of Arts Alliance Mountain Empire (AAME) and chair of AAME's Arts for Youth Committee.

April is National Poetry Month

Thomas Cantrell visited Shodoshima Temple, the home of Japanese poet and monk Hosai.

A view of Japanese poet Hosai's grave.