Yosano Akiko 1878–1942
Japanese poet, novelist, autobiographer, and essayist.
One of the most prominent figures in modern Japanese literature, Akiko is best remembered for her innovative and controversial use of the tanka verse form. Her poetry openly expresses personal experience, especially romantic love, in language that was perceived as highly emotional and sexually explicit to readers in early twentieth-century Japan. Her most successful collection of poems, Midaregami (Tangled Hair), while attacked by some critics at the time for its expression of sensual passion and its "unladylike" language, was widely praised for introducing new subjects and innovative diction into the tanka form, and is today considered a seminal work in the development of Japanese poetry.
Akiko was born in Sakai, a town south of Osaka, to a highly respected merchant family. While her education was typical of that offered Japanese girls at the time, focusing on home economics, she demonstrated an avid interest in literature, which she pursued after her formal schooling ended when she was sixteen years old. As a young woman, Akiko attended meetings of the literary societies in Sakai. Her first published works were traditional poems that imitated classic Japanese literature. The growing influence in Japan of European Romanticism led to the development of "new poetry" which condoned the expression of personal feelings and expanded the vocabulary of poetic diction. It was in this literary milieu that Akiko wrote the passionate poetry for which she became best known. In 1901 Akiko moved to Tokyo to be with Yosano Tekkhan, a writer and editor whom she married later that year, shortly after the publication of Tangled Hair. Tekkhan was a central figure in the Japanese Romantic movement and founder of the Shinshi Sha, ("New Poetry Society") which published the "new poetry" journal Myōjō. After Myōjō ceased publication in 1908, Akiko wrote prolificacy to help support her family, producing volumes of poetry and fiction, and essays on political and social topics including women's rights and education. Akiko died in 1942.
Akiko is best remembered for her poetry written in the traditional Japanese verse form of tanka, which is a five-line poem comprised of thirty-one syllables. Akiko personalized her tanka, which traditionally relied on formalized themes and language, with autobiographical subject matter and unconventional diction. Her first and most popular collection of poetry, Tangled Hair celebrated
sensual love and included imagery and language that, at the time, was considered erotically explicit. Her later collections, such as Shundeish (Spring Thaw) and Hi no Tori (Firebird), although not as popular as Tangled Hair, are considered by some critics to be technically superior. While Akiko wrote most of her poems in the tanka verse form, she also composed shintaishi ("modern style poems") which were generally longer than forms such as haiku and tanka, and were not restricted by a tradition of formalized themes and poetic structure. Her best known shintaishi is "Kimi Shinitamo Koto Nakare," ("Beloved, Do Not Die"), a forty-line poem that Akiko wrote for her brother, in which she implores him not to give his life for the sake of heroism in the Russo-Japanese War. This poem was controversial for placing personal feelings before patriotic duty. Later in her career Akiko was highly regarded as an essayist, writing on a wide range of topics such as education, politics, society, current events, and personal experiences. In writing essays about her childbirth experience, Akiko addressed a topic previously considered unfit for public discussion. Some of her most notable essays are those that address women's roles in early twentieth-century Japanese society.
Much of the critical assessment of Akiko's writing focuses on Tangled Hair, which is considered a central work in Japanese Romanticism. Generally praised for its passionate subject matter and emotive language, this collection is also credited with the revitalization of the tanka verse form. Some critics suggest that Tangled Hair and subsequent collections are overly sentimental and that Akiko's complex poetic structures and personal subjects resulted in unnecessary obscurity. Several recent critics argue that Akiko's later works better exemplify her talent as a writer. Phyllis Hyland Larson has asserted that, while the majority of Akiko's poetry, essays, and fiction written after Tangled Hair, have been neglected by both critics and audiences, "they show a much richer, more complicated writer than the Midaregami poems suggest." Donald Keene concluded, "though her later poetry was technically and artistically superior, flaming youth rather than ripeness of age was what the public asked of Akiko, and they found it in Tangled Hair."
Midaregami [Tangled Hair] 1901
Hi no tori 1919
The Poetry of Y osano Akiko 1957
Teihon Yosano Akiko zenshū 1980
Yosano Akiko kashū 1986
Other Major Works
Fukaku (novel) 1908
Akarumi e (novel) 1913
Parii yori (essays) 1914
Watakushi no oitachi (autobiography) 1915
(The entire section is 52 words.)
SOURCE: "Yosano Akiko," in Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, Stanford University Press, 1983, pp. 53–94.
[A Japanese-born critic and translator, Ueda is the author of several volumes of criticism on Japanese literature. In the following excerpt, Ueda discusses Akiko's concept of poetry and her use of the tanka verse form.]
At no time during her long literary career did Yosano Akiko seek to reform poetry, as did Shiki and several other contemporary poets. "Unlike those gentlemen," she once explained, "I have never entertained a self-flattering, immodest ambition like starting a poetic reform." Nevertheless, she became one of the most influential...
(The entire section is 7528 words.)
SOURCE: "Yosano Akiko: The Early Years," in Japan Quarterly, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, January-March, 1990, pp. 37–54.
[In the following excerpt, Beichman evaluates Akiko's early work and explores her development as a poet.]
Yosano Akiko is one of the many poets that most Japanese know and very few non-Japanese do. One reason is probably the difficulty of recreating the music of poetry in a foreign language, especially the music of the 31-syllable traditional tanka, Akiko's preferred form. Another more important one is Akiko's uncertain position in the canon of modern Japanese literature, which has kept her work from being treated with the seriousness it deserves....
(The entire section is 7469 words.)
SOURCE: "Yosano Akiko and the Re-Creation of the Female Self: An Autogynography," in Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, Vol. 25, No. 1, April, 1991, pp. 11–26.
[In the following essay, Larson discusses Akiko's conception of women's role in society.]
Yosano Akiko was not one to accept passively the limited life script to which many women of her time acquiesced: birth, childhood, marriage, motherhood, and death. Neither was she one to attribute her own significance in the world to the status of the men in her life—her father Sôshichi, a prominent merchant in Sakai, near Osaka, and her husband, Yosano Tekkan, the famous editor of the magazine...
(The entire section is 5669 words.)
SOURCE: "Yosano Akiko on War: To Give One's Life or Not—A Question of Which War," in Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, Vol. 25, No. 1, April, 1991, pp. 45–74.
[In the following essay Rabson compares Akiko's "Brother, Do Not Give Your Life" to her later poems and essays on war in order to reevalute her reputation as an antiwar poet.]
No Japanese poem denouncing war has gained wider renown or been subjected to more varied uses and explications than "Brother, Do Not Give Your Life" ("Kimi shinitamô koto nakare"). Yosano Akiko first published this 40-line shintaishi in the September, 1904 issue of Myôjô magazine, after having sent it...
(The entire section is 8673 words.)
SOURCE: "Passion and Patience: Aspects of Feminine Poetic Heritage in Yosano Akiko's Midaregarni and Tawara Machi's Sarada Kinenbi," in Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, Vol. 25, No. 2, November, 1991, pp. 177–94.
[In the following excerpt, Strong examines Akiko 's poetry as it relates to traditional women's poetry in Japan.]
In reading commentaries on Japanese poetry, especially poetry in the traditional thirty-one syllable tanka form, I have always been struck by the use of the term joryû kajin (woman poet, or poet in the women's tradition). The commentators, for the most part male, appear to use the term as a simple signal...
(The entire section is 3512 words.)