Although the married name of Yosano Akiko (yoh-sah-noh ah-kee-koh) was Yosano (placed before her personal name, in the normal Japanese order), she is commonly called Akiko, which is her “elegant name.” Among her many translations and modernizations, the most enduringly popular is her modern Japanese version of the greatest Japanese novel, Genji monogatari (early eleventh century; The Tale of Genji, 1881), written by Murasaki Shikibu. Akiko’s version was published in 1912 and 1939. This monumental work revived general interest in Murasaki and other classical authors; it is included with Akiko’s autobiography, novels, fairy tales, children’s stories, essays, and original and translated poetry in the standard Japanese edition of her works, Yosano Akiko zensh (1972).
Yosano Akiko is generally admired as the greatest female poet and tanka poet of modern Japan, as an influential critic and educator, and as the grand embodiment of Romanticism, feminism, pacifism, and social reform in the first three decades of the twentieth century. She has been called a princess, queen, and goddess of poetry. In fact, Japanese Romanticism in the early twentieth century has been called the age of Akiko. She also influenced feminist writers internationally. She infused erotic and imaginative passion into the traditional tanka form (a poem of five lines containing five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables respectively) at a time when it had grown lifelessly conventional, having lost the personal vitality of ancient times; in the same way, she revived certain classical qualities of the Manysh (mid-eighth century; The Collections of Ten Thousand Leaves; also as The Ten Thousand Leaves, 1981, and as The Manyoshu, 1940) and other ancient collections, while introducing stunning innovations of style. Projecting her own life and spirit into the form, she insisted that every word be charged with emotion. Such intensity is rarely transmitted through English translations, but Kenneth Rexroth’s translations are fine poems in their own right as well as the most expressive renditions of Akiko’s strong but subtle art.
Akiko’s first book, Tangled Hair, was an immediate success and remains her most popular collection. It contains 399 tanka about her tempestuous love for the man who became her husband, Yosano Hiroshi (known as Tekkan). Her sequence of poems dramatically reveals the agonizing...
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Beichman, Janine. Embracing the Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002. This book-length biography of Akiko looks at her life, from birth to death, and analyzes her poetry at length, especially Tangled Hair. Contains an appendix with the poems in the original Japanese.
Morton, Leith. The Alien Within: Representations of the Exotic in Twentieth-Century Japanese Literature. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009. Contains two chapters on Akiko: One argues that Akiko adapted ideas drawn from translations of Western poetry in revitalizing the tanka form, the other discusses Akiko’s descriptions of childbirth in her poems, a subject not previously used in poetry.
_______. “The Birth of the Modern: Yosano Akiko and Tekkan’s Verse Revolution.” In Modernism in Practice: An Introduction to Postwar Japanese Poetry. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004. Describes how Akiko and Tekkan helped modernize Japanese poetry.
Okada, Sumie. “The Visit by Hiroshi (1873-1935) and Akiko Yosano (1878-1942) to France and England in 1912.” In Japanese Writers and the West. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Discusses Akiko’s impressions of French women and her resulting belief that Japanese women could have a more independent existence.
Rowley, Gillian Gaye. Yosano Akiko and “The Tale of Genji.” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. A critical analysis of Akiko’s modern Japanese version of The Tale of Genji. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Takeda, Noriko. “The Japanese Reformation of Poetic Language: Yosano Akiko’s Tangled Hair as Avant-Garde Centrality.” In A Flowering Word: The Modernist Expression in Stéphane Mallarmé, T. S. Eliot, and Yosano Akiko. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. This comparative study of modernism examines Akiko’s most famous work for its poetic language.