In summer 2004, Keiko Mitsumoto, who presides over a group devoted to tanka poetry, received an anonymous, but curious, inquiry seeking to join up.
The tanka anthology "Owari no Hajimari" ("The Start of the End") depicts the daily life and remorse of death-row inmate Kaoru Okashita. KYODO PHOTO
"Can I join your group and learn about tanka even though I am a death-row inmate?" the letter said. That was the start of an exchange of poetry and letters between Mitsumoto, 61, and Kaoru Okashita, 60.
Since then, Okashita, who was convicted of killing two people in 1989, has sent around 10 tanka every month to Mitsumoto in Nagano Prefecture, and she has returned them to the Tokyo Detention House with suggestions.
"I initially believed Okashita-san was a woman, because his tanka are very gentle," Mitsumoto said. Also, Kaoru can be a male or female name.
She finally met Okashita when she visited him at the detention house in January 2005. She had wanted to meet face to face so she could understand his tanka more deeply.
"He welcomed me gently and talked about his family, including his grandchildren, during a 20-minute conversation through a glass partition."
Two months later, his death sentence was finalized after the Supreme Court rejected his appeal, although he had been sentenced to life imprisonment at his first trial.
"Mr. Okashita started composing tanka because his poems would remain even after he died, and I wanted to acquire his poems before his execution," Mitsumoto said.
This led to the compilation of an anthology of Okashita's tanka, "Owari no Hajimari" ("The Start of the End"), which was recently published with financial support from the tanka group.
In his poems, Okashita depicts daily life in his cell:
I find small happiness even in the cell
When a little spider shows its face to me.
I still try to live
Although I have been put under a surveillance camera
All day and night.
"I sometimes wonder why Mr. Okashita, who is kind enough to feel deep affection even for an insect, committed such a crime," Mitsumoto said. "There must have been a time when he lived a nightmare."
Okashita also shows repentance and reflects on the past:
I pulled the trigger with this finger
Which had gently touched your breast.
I feel insecure about if my hometown will accept me
After I complete paying for my crime.
It snows in Tokyo
Please fall more to terminate my crime.
Mitsumoto's group, Mirai Sammyaku (Future Mountain Range), is working to create tanka that adopt colloquialisms and are not necessarily restricted to the traditional 31-syllable style.
Poems in which Okashita expresses love for his family are also included in the anthology:
I want to be scolded by my father
But he is not alive
I see my father when he was young
When I look into the mirror while shaving.
I absorb his wife's cheerfulness
Of gallantly going to work by red bicycle
Which you call "my Mercedes.''
After a death sentence is finalized, inmates' communication with the outside world is restricted mainly to family members and lawyers. Mitsumoto now receives Okashita's poems and letters through his wife. "My meeting with him (in 2005) may be the first and last one," she said.
Mitsumoto said that while she does not intend to campaign against the death penalty, she hopes readers of the anthology will understand what a death-row inmate feels.
"I do not know how long he can continue composing tanka. I do believe his conditions are tough (not knowing when he will be executed). But I expect him to describe his present state as long as he is alive."
Executions are carried out without prior warning to inmates, their kin or lawyers.
In his postscript to the anthology, Okashita noted, "I had been worried about whether a person in my position would be allowed to publish an anthology, but I decided to do so. . . . As a death-row inmate, I am obliged to tell people about the seriousness of my crime."
The Japan Times: Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007
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