Yosano Akiko 1878-1942
(Born Otori Akiko) Japanese poet, essayist, autobiographer, and novelist.
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 Hiroshi, a writer and editor whom she married later that year, shortly after the publication of Tangled Hair. Hiroshi was a central figure in the Japanese Romantic movement and founder of the Shinshi Sha, ("New Poetry Society") which published the "new poetry" journal Myöjö. After Myöjö ceased publication in 1908, Akiko wrote prolifically 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 Shundeishiu 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," ("Brother, 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 childbirth, 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."