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Modern Age Japanese Women Poets: Yosano Akiko, Hayashi Fumiko, Kiyoko Nagase, Chika Sagawa
by Patricia Callan


dmiral Mathew Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay in 1853, armed with a letter from President Fillmore and accompanied by four ships. Giving notice to the Emperor and the Tokugawa Shogunate that he would return, Perry expected Japan to open its doors to the Western nations. Return he did, with six ships and one hundred mounted cannons. The Shogunate government capitulated and things began to change during the Meiji Restoration of 1868, a direct result of Commodore Perry's forced opening. One change was a decree by Emperor Meiji that women could wear western clothing publicly (complete with bustle) but at home, traditional dress. The roles of motherhood, of course, were to be maintained. This miniscule reversal now seems tokenism.

The influence of Shinto on feminism was significant at one time. In Shintoism, women were believed to have power as mikos, shaman-like beings with divine abilities. This was a different premise than that of neo-Confucianism, the philosophy espoused by the Togukawa shogunate from 1603-1867. That belief system was based on a specific social order, harmony being maintained by a relationship between a superior and a subordinate; the subordinate was to be obedient and mindful of the status differences. Loyalty to the emperor and extreme xenophobia was also a principle. Some of the earlier positive influences of Shintoism were weakened under the Samurai; still, women were becoming more independent.

As early as the 8th century, literate women wrote poetry in the popular, vernacular style while men wrote in the classical [forbidden?] manner. Yet, in the seventeenth century, women were to live by the samurai rules "The Three Obediences": when she is young she obeys her father, when she is married she obeys her husband, when she is widowed she obeys her son. Additionally, in the era, a depiction of woman as insane is exemplified in The Laughing Demoness, the woodcut by Hokusai which is hideous and terrifying. The Noh mask that insLentoed the picture represents women so crazed by negativity, they turn into demons.

By the end of the Meiji Restoration, more schools were established and girls' education encouraged, but after five years, female enrollment was a mere 23%. Further, women had no power, were cheated on by their husbands and had no recourse; neither could they vote. While women were allowed to choose husbands, they were subjugated to their wills.

In the early 1940's, high fertility was considered a woman's duty to the emLentoe—a chilling concept of loyalty, considering militaristic Japan's colonial asLentoations. Not until the civil code of 1948, brokered by the postwar II occupation officials, were women granted legal rights: the right to divorce and maintain custody of children (Jo and Yoon). Vestiges of these archaic traditions were to influence the feminist poetic rebellion, even as some women writers practiced the antiquated ways, oblivious to the irony of their lives.

Yosano Akiko

Akiko was born in 1878 to a prosperous confectioner's family, the Shiyos, in Sakai, a suburb of Osaka. (Akiko's real name was Yosano Shiyo.) Her father, extremely disappointed that she was a daughter, banished her to an aunt's home where she remained until a son was born and she was allowed to return. Some sources state that she ran the family store when she was 11, the one family member with the most talent for business organization.)

Despite cultural restraints, as a youngster she was able to explore her great-grandfather's library. He was a learned man, noted for his understanding of Chinese literature and for his accomplished haiku. Once she returned to the family, her father noticed Yosano's intelligence and encouraged her studies, sending her to an all-girls high school. At some point after graduation, she studied the classic Japanese texts: the Man'yōshū, the first imperial poetry anthology, Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book and Genji. Her independent studies are demonstrable examples of a fierce intelligence. At the age of nineteen, she published her first tanka and was to eventually write a staggering number of them of them: fifty thousand (Hamill and Gibson).

The tanka is considered to be the grandfather of the haiku; it is a syllabic form of five lines: 5/7/5/7/7. Like much of the old Japanese poetry, the content of a tanka may appear vague with interpretation left to the reader as in Akiko's below:

yamaderra no
Hitoe no skura
Chiru ni nite
Sabishi yo-ake no
Hoshi kiyuru sora

Over the old honeymoon cottage
At the mountain temple
The wild cherry blossoms are falling.
Here, in the desolate, false dawn,
The stars go out in heaven.

(Yamaderra no refers to the frail shelter in which ancient Japanese culminated marriage.) (Rexroth 15)

This poem may be a comment on marriage, a yearning for the old ways, or perhaps loneliness.

In 1900 a tanka poet, Tekkan Hiroshi, leader of a new romantic movement, came across Akiko's work and began teaching her poetry in a Tokyo workshop — at times bringing Yosano to the group. For seven years she would help edit their journal Myojo. Akiko and Tekkan met an admirer, Yawakama Tomiko, and both fell deeply in love with her, a tragic menage à trois household until a few years later, when Tomiko died of tuberculosis.

As Akiko's poetic star rose, Tekkan's mediocre work was in decline. From time to time, members of both their families had to help them financially. Quickly Akiko became the provider of their income, even earning enough to send Tekkan to Paris in 1911.Yosano herself could only stay for a few months in 1912 due to a lack of funds. In the slang of 2015, we would call Tekkan a "user."

Her Poetry

Yosano Akiko's first book, published in 1901, Midaregami (Tangled Hair) shocked traditional Japanese society for its daring voice of a sexual woman; not surprisingly, Mideragami was embraced by the younger generation even though Takagama Chokyu, a critic, accused her of "licentious sentiments" (Sato 264).

Kuro kami no
Chi suji no kami no
Katsu omoimidare
Black hair
tangled in a thousand strands
tangled my hair and
tangled my tangled memories
of our long nights of lovemaking
(KR 7)

While Akiko was already controversial due to the frank sexuality of Midaregami, it was her poem in anticipation of her brother's death: "May it Not Come to Pass That You Die," that raised the ire of thousands:

may it not come to pass that you die
His Majesty the Emperor would not
Himself go out to fight, would He,
to make each shed the other's blood,
to order you to die in a beastly way,
To tell you that a man's honor is to die,
His Majesty's heart being deep,
How would he think of all this?
(Sato 268-269)

She was questioning the Emperor's complete authority over hapless soldiers who would be killed for the country and His honor. The scholar Omachi Kiegetsu called her "…a criminal who ought to be subjected to national punishment." [One speculates what the punishment might be: ostracism, books banned and burned, imprisonment, torture, execution?] (Qtd in Sato 267).

Yosano Akiko was an advocate for women's education, social causes and also involved in many literary projects. As if this would not be enough for anyone, she also had eleven children, six sons and five daughters. Somehow this brilliant woman even found time to translate The Tale of the Genji into modern Japanese, not only once but twice, after the first papers had been destroyed in the fires of the 1923 Kanto earthquake in Tokyo (Rowley).

Kenneth Rexroth called Yosano Akiko "…one of the great women poets of all time…comparable to Christina Rossetti, Gaspara Stampa, Louise Labé and Li Ching Chao" (Rexroth 110).

Hayashi Fumiko

Nagase Kiyoko

Chika Sagawa


Yosano Akiko, Hayashi Fumiko, Kiyoko Nagase and Chika Sagawa are women who rebelled politically and poetically; and, in the cases of Akiko and Fumiko, departed from the sexual conventions of their cultures with their personal decisions. Deprivation is a condition all these women shared: the losses of educational opportunity, recognition, financial stability, health and in one case, shelter. Only Akiko had access to limited education via her grandfather's library.

From an early age Akiko, Fumiko, Nagase and Sagawa realized that the muses of poetry called their names. Certainly knowledgeable about traditional tanka and shi forms, they departed from the traditional bird-flower-water genres and had the effrontery to write new, democratic forms that challenged old expectations for "lady poets." It can be said that, in some cases, the husbands and lovers of these women hid under their figurative kimonos. Nothing in these women's lives was easy. Support for their art from the families was difficult, even met with outright resistance. They persevered, willing to accept (with the exception of Fumiko) the cultural norms in order to keep writing.

Fumiko, the wanderer, wrote:

"Upon my return to Japan, my thoughts centered on wanting to write some wonderful poetry …While I was in Europe, I felt surprised at the beauty of the Japanese language, like a prospector who had struck gold." (Fessler 86)

Japan "struck gold" with these women's contributions to the culture, but their influence on other poets and poetry is wide-ranging. Now that modern translations are available, we all share in their insLentoation and riches.

Contributed by Patricia Callan

Works Cited

"Edith Sitwell.". Poetryfoundation.org. Web.

Espaillat, Rhina P. "Massachusetts Poetry Festival Workshop" Suffolk University Boston, June 13, 2015

Fumiko, Hayashi. I saw a Pale Horse and Selected poems from Diary of a Vagabond: translated by Janice Brown, Cornell University, East Asia Studies, Translation Copyright, 1951

---Floating Clouds: translated by Lane Dunlop, Columbia University Press New York, 2006, originally published in Japan as Ukigom, by Rokko Shuppan

Hamill, Sam, and Keiko Matsui Gibson. River of Stars: Selected Poems of Yosano Akiko. Shambala , Boston & London. 1996

"Hayashi Fumiko." Encyclopedia Britannica. Web.

Jo, Angie and Andrew Yoon. "Japanese Women of the Meiji Era" Web.

Lento, Takako. Poetry as Love: a reading of Kiyoko Nagase. Poetry International Rotterdam.

Maugeri, Carolina. "Poems by Sagawa Chika, Translated by Sawako Nakayasu." Gutcult Review, Winter 2005. Web.

Pulvers, Roger. "Hayashi Fumiko: haunted to the grave by her wartime 'flute and drums'." The Japan Times, June 24, 2012.

Rexroth, Kenneth: One Hundred More Poems From the Japanese. New Directions Books, New York. 1976.

Sagawa, Chika. Collected Works: translated by Sawaka Nayasu, Canarium Books, Ann Arbor, 2015 (to come after Pulvers, Roger)

Reese, Lyn. "Gender Difference in History, Women in China and Japan." Womeninworldhistory.com. Web.

Rowley, Gaye. "Yosana Akiko and the Tale of Genji." Web.

Sato, Hiroaki. Japanese Women Poets. An East Gate Book, Armonk, New York, London, England, 2008.

Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project thanks Poetry International Rotterdam for their gracious permission to quote from "Poetry as Love, a reading of Kiyoko Nagase by Takako Lento

Yosano Akiko
Years: 1878-1942
Birthplace: Japan
Language(s): Japanese
Entry By: Patricia Callan
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