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Faubion Bowers

Faubion Bowers (born January 29, 1917, Miami, Oklahoma, U.S.A.; died New York City, November 17, 1999), American scholar of music and theater, especially kabuki, Japanologist, military officer in the occupation forces after World War II, author, and translator. The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology (1996), Bowers’s book of translations of Japanese haiku, was his sole contribution to haiku scholarship yet exerted an outsized influence on the study and composition of haiku in English.


Early years

Faubion Bowers was born in Miami, Okla., on January 29, 1917, and finished high school in Tulsa in 1933. He attended the University of Oklahoma for two years, moving on to Columbia University in New York City in 1935, then the University of Poitiers, France, in 1936. He dropped out of each institution in turn and never received an academic degree. Returning from France, he enrolled in the Juilliard Graduate School of Music, where he studied piano in 1939. By the time he was 19 years old, however, he spoke French and Russian, had developed a fascination with things Japanese, and had read all he could find of Lafcadio Hearn’s work, and was a fine pianist keenly interested in the music of Scriabin.

Bowers in Japan

Bowers wanted to pursue a career as a concert pianist, but decided to travel to the Dutch East Indies to study Javanese gamelan music, which he had first heard at Juilliard. In 1940, when his ship stopped over in Yokohama, Japan, he was so enchanted by the country that he remained there for a year. He taught English at Hosei University in Tokyo in 1940–41 while learning Japanese at a local school for missionaries and pursuing his new passion for kabuki. He finally traveled to Java in 1941, but when anti-American sentiment increased in Japan and war came to the Pacific later that year, Bowers returned to the United States and was drafted into the U.S. Army as a private. He parlayed his knowledge of Japanese into a posting to the Japanese-language training facility at the Presidio in San Francisco. Bowers later claimed, “I was the first person ever in the American army to be commissioned on the basis of linguistic ability.”1 He served out the war translating Japanese documents and interviewing prisoners of war in the Allied Translator and Interpreter Service (ATIS) in Brisbane, Australia, eventually making the rank of major. 

Bowers liked to say that he was the first American to set foot in Japan when the Allies landed in August 1945. He served as translator for Gen. Douglas McArthur and as interpreter at the meeting between Emperor Hirohito and the American ambassador. In the military occupation government, Bowers was named censor of Japanese theater, in which capacity he was able to divert the attention of the Americans, who were bent of rooting out any vestiges of militarism and nationalism from Japanese culture from the feudalistic, often grisly themes of kabuki. For his preservation of the art, Bowers was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Japanese emperor and was the subject of a book titled The Man Who Saved Kabuki (2001).

After the war and the occupation

Bowers met Santha Rama Rau, daughter of the first Indian ambassador to Japan and herself a journalist and author of international repute. Together they traveled through northern China, Indochina, Siam, and Indonesia and were married in France in 1951. They had one son but were divorced in 1966. Bowers moved to New York City and, apart from frequent return visits to Japan and other travel abroad, lived there for the last 50 years of his life. 

Bowers never held a full-time job but made his living as a researcher, writer for the page and television, translator, mostly on a freelance basis, and occasional teacher at the New School for Social Research. His credits included ten books, including an important two-volume biography of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, a number of television programs about kabuki and other Asian cultural topics (including the award-winning The Cruelty of Beauty for PBS in 1981), and voice-over translations for several tours of the Grand Kabuki. Bowers spoke seven languages, including Japanese, Indonesian, Malay, and Russian. He died in New York on November 16, 1999, aged 82, of a heart attack. A memorial service was held for him at the Japan Society on January 29, 2000.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku

The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology (1996) is Bowers’s only book of haiku translations. It gathers 278 haiku from poets ranging from Iio Sōgi (1421–1502) to Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902), by an astonishing 42 different translators, including Bowers himself, who is represented by the translations of 16 haiku. The book includes rōmaji but not kana versions of the Japanese. Dick Pettit, reviewing the book for Blithe Spirit (7:4, 36), remarked that “the liberal footnotes are necessary and helpful.”

Bowers’s life was dedicated to bridging Eastern and Western cultures, so it is no surprise that his haiku renditions are workmanlike and compare favorably to those of other, more specialized translators. Bowers’s biography does not reveal any special interest in haiku or other types of Japanese poetry or prose, and his devotion to kabuki was as theater, not literature.

In his translations, Bowers used initial capitals without terminal periods, but was not bound by syllable count or even writing haiku in three English lines. In Issa’s やれ打な 蝿が手を摺 足をする yare utsu na   hae ga te o suri   ashi o suru (62)

Hey! Don’t swat:
the fly wrings his hands
on bended knees

he emphasized the aspect of supplication on the part of the fly at the expense of the witty parallelism of “wringing hands and wringing feet” that features in most other translations. In translating 月も見て我はこの世をかしくかな tsuki mo mite   ware wa kono yo o   kashiku kana, Chiyo-ni’s jisei, or death poem, Bowers pointed out that かしく kashiku “is an elegant woman’s phrase to conclude formal letters,” which explains and puts in context the stately, restrained nature of his version (on the left). This aspect is missing from Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi‘s translation in their Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master (190):

I’ve seen the moon
I sign my letter to the world
“Respectfully yours”
I also saw the moon
and so I say goodbye
to this world

Kashiku, these translators explain, “shows [Chiyo-ni’s] clear state of mind.” In addition they gloss the word “also” (も mo), saying that it “infers that she had experienced everything in life including the full autumn moon right before she died,” an aspect that is downplayed by Bowers. The version of this haiku by Yoel Hoffmann (who also explains the meaning of kashiku in a footnote) in Japanese Death Poems (152) has unfortunate echoes of a melodramatic “goodbye, cruel world,” for some readers at least:

I saw the moon as well
and now, world,
“truly yours …”

Because of its low price ($1.50 in a Dover Thrift Edition), good scholarship and explanations, and representations of all styles of haiku translations, Bowers’s The Classic Tradition of Haiku is a uniquely useful volume and probably one of the most-read books of haiku translation. Michael Dylan Welch wrapped up his review in Modern Haiku by observing, “In all, this is a pleasing collection, thoroughly researched, sweepingly representative, and amazingly inexpensive.” The book is widely used in haiku classes and was included in the Haiku Society of America’s haiku-teaching packet for schoolteachers.2

Author: Charles Trumbull

Adapted from: Trumbull, “In the Classic Tradition: Faubion Bowers: Research Note”

SOURCES / FURTHER READING

  • “Bowers, Faubion,” and “Rama Rao, Santha.” Current Biography, 1959.
  • “Faubion Bowers.” Japanese American Veterans Association website (no date). http://www.javadc.org/faubion_bowers.htm. Biographical sketch.
  • Bowers, Faubion, ed. The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1996. Translations of 270 Japanese haiku by 43 translators, 14 of his own.
  • Coldiron, Margaret. “The Man Who Saved Kabuki: Faubion Bowers and Theatre Censorship in Occupied Japan, by Shirō Okamoto.” Archive 3:1 (December 2000). Review.
  • Donegan, Patricia, and Yoshie Ishibashi. Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master. Boston and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1998.
  • Guest, Michael. “The Man Who Saved Kabuki: Faubion Bowers and Theatre Censorship in Occupied Japan, by Shirō Okamoto” [review]. Persimmon, Winter 2002. http://www.persimmon-mag.com/winter2002/bookre9.htm.
  • Hoffmann, Yoel, compiler. Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1986.
  • “Faubion Bowers.” Oral History, Marlene J. Mayo Oral Histories, Gordon W. Prange Collection, University of Maryland Libraries. Interview conducted July 22, 1982. Prange Collection website: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QZ8CGehVLt5tmoy5Xqp4CmWj-_WMwRt0/view; posted November 28, 2016.
  • New York Times, November 22, 1999, A 29:5.
  • Okamoto, Shirō.The Man Who Saved Kabuki: Faubion Bowers and Theatre Censorship in Occupied Japan. Translated and adapted by Samuel L. Leiter. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001. Available online via JSTOR: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wqjrb.
  • Pettit, Dick. “The Classic Tradition of Haiku—An Anthology, edited by Faubion Bowers.” Blithe Spirit 7:4 (November 1977), 36. Review.
  • Trumbull, Charles. “In the Classic Tradition: Faubion Bowers: Research Note.” Bottle Rockets 17 (9:1; Autumn 2007), 69–72.
  • Tulsa World, January 29, 2000.
  • Welch, Michael Dylan. “The Classic Tradition of Haiku—An Anthology, edited by Faubion Bowers.” Modern Haiku 29:1 (Winter–Spring 1998), 68–70. Review.
  1. “Faubion Bowers” Oral History, Marlene J. Mayo Oral Histories. []
  2. Curiously the book was never reviewed in the HSA journal Frogpond. []
Updated on November 21, 2020