James Kirkup in Japan

James Kirkup (23 April 1918 – 10 May 2009)

"A haiku a day / keeps the doctor away"

James Kirkup was a prolific English poet, novelist, playwright, translator and travel writer, having become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1962. After first visiting Japan in 1959, he was to be largely based there for the next 30 years of his life, holding various positions at Japanese Universities and producing many publications of both his own poetry as well as translations of Japanese works. His achievements in writing haiku, tanka and senryu were acknowledged by an invitation to the Imperial New Year Poetry Reading in 1997.

James Falconer Kirkup was born in South Shields, County Durham on 23 April 1918. He studied Modern Languages at Armstrong College (later part of the University of Durham), where he was involved in the production of the poetry magazines Dint and Fulcrum. Some of Kirkup's early surrealist poems appeared in these publications, and in Platitude, a literary magazine based at Oriel College, Oxford. During the 1940s, Kirkup became involved in the poetry readings organised by the Progressive League in London.

After writing simple verses and rhymes from the age of six and the publication of his first poetry book, 'The Drowned Sailor' in 1947, Kirkup's published works encompassed several dozen collections of poetry, six volumes of autobiography, over a hundred monographs of original work and translations and thousands of shorter pieces in journals and periodicals. His skilled writing of haiku and tanka is acknowledged internationally. From 1950 to 1952 he was the first Gregory Poetry Fellow at Leeds University, making him the first resident university poet in the United Kingdom. After his Gregory Fellowship, Kirkup went on to take up various academic posts, mainly abroad. From 1953-1956 he was visiting poet and Head of the Department of English at the Bath Academy of Art (run by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis.

In 1956 Kirkup took his first job abroad as a travelling lecturer in Sweden for the Swedish Ministry of Education; and in 1957 was appointed to teach English at the University of Salamanca. Kirkup went on to hold a number of lectureships and professorships of English in Japan (Tohoku University 1961-1962; Japan Women's University 1964-; Nagoya University 1969-1972; Kyoto University of Foreign Studies 1977-1989), founded the literary magazine Poetry Nippon in 1966, and in 1969 became President of the Poet's Society of Japan. He also held posts in the United States (Amherst College, Massachusetts, 1968; Ohio University, 1975-1976); and held further fellowships/residencies in the United Kingdom: an Arts Council Creative Writing Fellowship at Sheffield University (1974-1975); and the position of Playwright in Residence at the Sherman Theatre, University College, Cardiff (1976-1977). He won many awards for poetry and other branches of literature, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1962. He moved permanently to Andorra in the late 1980s.

Kirkup was a prolific writer, publishing altogether over 150 volumes of poetry, translations, autobiography and travel writing during his lifetime, as well as many short articles. His last volume of poetry, Marsden Bay was published by the Red Squirrel Press in 2008. James Kirkup died in hospital in Andorra, aged 91, on 10 May 2009.


A selection of James’ work:


In the village pond
the full moon is shaken by
the first falling leaf

Mountain berries ripe -
even the droppings of birds
are a deep purple

The pond's dark waters -
only stepping stones covered
with the first snowfall

As they toll for Mass
bells start shaking off first snow
deep in the valleys



Your Christ is a Jew,
your new car is Japanese,
and your couscous is
Algerian. It is Greek,
your democracy — or was.

Your coffee comes from
Brazil, your wristwatch is Swiss,
your shirt is Indian,
your radio Korean,
You holiday in Turkey,

Tunisia or
Philippines. Your chocolate
is from Ghana
your figures are Arabic
your letters come from Latin.

– The whole world lives in
your house, your office, your street.
So will you tell me
how you can treat a neighbour
as such a total stranger?

The antiracist
is not the one who proclaims
the equality
of races, but who affirms
the human race as one.

(from TANKA TALES, University of Salzburg Press, 1997)


Extensive information:







His works: