January in Japan: The Poet Yosano Akiko

Yosano Akiko: River of Stars (Selected Poems), trans. Sam Hamill and Keiko Matsui Gibson, Shambhala, 1996.

For my last #JanuaryinJapan or Japanese Literature Challenge 15 contribution, I picked one of my favourite Japanese poets, who wrote both in freestyle ‘Western-type’ verse but also in the traditional Japanese tanka. The last time I wrote about a tanka poet was back in 2012, soon after starting this blog, and it remains one of the perennial favourites of my blog posts. It was about Tawara Machi, who exploded onto the literary scene in the 1980s and modernised the traditional tanka format. However, long before Tawara became the symbol of her generation of women, there was another woman writer who provoked scandal, ire, but also great admiration. That poet is Yosano Akiko and she is a true giant of Japanese literature, who deserves to be better known outside her own country.

She was also quite a contradictory person both in her personal life and in her writing. Born in a very traditional and reasonably well-off Osaka merchant/shopkeeping family in 1878, she demonstrated a precocious talent for poetry and, thanks to a family tradition of scholarship, was allowed to continue her education until she graduated from high school. At the same time, she was barely allowed to go out even in daylight without an escort.

Nevertheless, once she started participating in the literary circles of Osaka and Tokyo, she became involved with Yosano Tekkan, a still-married poet and editor. She soon joined him in Tokyo, they married and had no less than thirteen children, but he continued his affairs with other women, including his former wife. Akiko seems to have been devoted to him, but was also willing to engage in love triangles with her husband’s female admirers, with whom she even wrote poetry. Although eleven of her children survived to adulthood, she repeatedly protested against motherhood being the primary source of identity for a woman.

Above all, she continued her literary endeavours, co-editing the literary journal, publishing 20 volumes of poetry and many volumes of prose and essays, translating the epic novel Genji Monogatari and the Manyōshū (earliest collection of Japanese poetry) into modern Japanese, founded the first co-educational cultural college in Japan, and also became renowned for her feminist and pacifist activism. She dared to be openly critical of the Japanese Emperor during the Russo-Japanese War at a time when no one else raised their voice, saying that militarism was a form of ‘barbarian thinking which is the responsibility of us women to eradicate from our midst’… yet appears to have supported the rise of Japanese militarism in the Second World War (maybe it was what she had to write under censorship: she died in 1942).

For me, however, she is above all the poet who completely revitalised the traditional tanka form. By the late 19th century, writing a tanka had become a party trick more than anything else, following rules very closely, cliche-ridden, unimaginative. Akiko blasted through all the fussiness and cobwebs with her highly individual and erotically charged poetry in her debut collection Midaregami (Tangled Hair – or Bedhead in contemporary parlance). There hadn’t been that kind of frankness and sensuality, that uninhibited description of women’s passion for centuries. I think we do find some of it in the Heian period with Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, and it’s not surprising that Yosano Akiko revered and translated these women writers, but she also added Western Romanticism and Modernism to the mix.

きのふをば千とせの前の世とも思ひ御手なほ肩に有りとも思ふ

Was it a thousand years ago or only yesterday we parted?

Even now, on my shoulder I feel your friendly hand.

ゆあみして泉を出でしやははだにふるるはつらき人の世のきぬ

Fresh from my hot bath I dressed slowly before the tall mirror,

a smile for my own body, innocence so long ago.

くろ髪の千すぢの髪のみだれ髪かつおもひみだれおもひみだるる

My shiny black hair fallen into disarray, a thousand tangles

like a thousand tangled thoughts about my love for you.

What was even more scandalous was the way she provokes (and somewhat mocks) the Buddhist priest who has renounced love and fleshly delights.

You’ve never explored this tender flesh or known such stormy blood.

Do you not grow lonely, friend, forever preaching the Way?

Throughout her love poetry, we find this contradiction between absolute confidence in her womanly power and the sadness or despair at never quite achieving the love she seeks. Some of it is no doubt stylised (see Genji Monogatari for similar examples), but some of it feels very personal, reflecting her own life. Compare:

In return for all the sins and crimes of men, the gods created me

with glistening long black hair and pale, inviting skin.

with:

Yesterday you spoke of your love life’s history. Alone and sleepless,

twisting, my jealousy burns through the merciless night.

The gods wish it so: a life ends with a shatter – with my great broadax

I demolish my koto, oh, listen to that sound!

Yosano Akiko

Finding Yosano Akiko’s work in English is not easy, so I suppose I should be grateful that this translation is available (out of print though, quite expensive second-hand), but I have some issues with this book. This has to do both with the selection of the poems (which do not necessarily give quite as comprehensive a view of her poetry, which is really versatile), and with the translation. Japanese poetry (especially tanka and haiku) is so full of allusions, ellipsis, references to classical poetry that the same poem can be translated in wildly different ways, for example:

“Spring doesn’t last,” I said to him…
“You don’t believe in permanence, do you?”
And I took his hands in mine
Leading them
To my young full breasts. (Roger Pulvers)

This autumn will end.
Nothing can last forever.
Fate controls our lives.
Fondle my breasts
With your strong hands. (Kenneth Rexroth)

Gently I open
the door to eternal
mystery, the flowers
of my breasts cupped,
offered with both my hands.

The final translation is the one contained in this volume, and it feels quite far removed from the original, as if the translator has already done all the thinking and feeling for the reader. As a translator, however, I am often tempted to do the same. What do you think? Do you like to have a puzzle to figure out when you read a translation, or do you prefer to have the work done for you?

The anime Yosano Akiko. Long may her memory live on!

P.S. For manga/anime fans amongst you, I should point out that Yosano Akiko is a popular character in Bungo Stray Dogs, the doctor of the Armed Detective Agency (an advocate of rather hardcore treatments, but also a feminist and pacifist).

11 thoughts on “January in Japan: The Poet Yosano Akiko”

  1. I love those examples of her work that you shared, Marina Sofia. I’m no literary expert, but I can see what you mean about her impact on poetry. And what an interesting life, too – 13 children! That’s hard for me to imagine…

  2. This was wonderful! You’ve accumulated such a lot of knowledge around the literature of Japan. I’m not a translator, so can’t answer your question other than to admit I liked the third version of the text best.

    1. It’s the prettiest, but not all that close to the original, so I’m in two minds about it. And thank you for your kind words. Four years of studying Japanese language and literature have only paid off in the sense of a lifelong interest in Japanese culture.

  3. Thank you for this – another fascinating Japanese woman author. As for those translations – well, wow! They’re so different and the effect and meaning seems to me to vary quite dramatically. I certainly agree that the last one seems to have little relation to the other two which do indicate a similar meaning. Gosh!

  4. Poetry is not something I usually read, so it was an especially interesting post of yours. And, I even know less of manga (although I’ve enjoyed a few volumes I’ve read), so thanks for that helpful hint, too.

  5. Of course, I know her primarily for her Genji, but I had heard she was a poet. Mind you, after my experiences with ‘Salad Days’, I’m a little reluctant to dive into tanka again!

    1. Oh, we all fell under the spell of Salad Days at the time, but then we were in our late teens and wrote poetry ourselves at the time (often haiku and tanka, because we were studying Japanese)

  6. What a fascinating life! I really enjoyed the quotes you shared, what a shame she’s not more widely translated. In answer to your question – I far prefer a puzzle! I enjoy ambiguity in writing, those spaces for interpretation.

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