Yosano Akiko Akiko, Yosano - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Midaregami [Tangled Hair] (poetry) 1901

Sadgi (poetry) 1904

Koigoromo (poetry) 1905

Fukaku (unfinished novel) 1908

Shundeishu (poetry) 1911

Akarumi e (novel) 1913

Parii yori (essays) 1914

Watakushi no oitachi (autobiography) 1915

Zakki-cho (essays) 1915

Akiko kawa (criticism) 1919

Hi no tori (poetry) 1919

Yushosha to nare (essays) 1934

Hakuoshzu (poetry) 1942

The Poetry of Yosano Akiko (poetry) 1957

Teihon Yosano Akiko zenshu (poetry) 1980

Yosano Akiko kasha (poetry) 1986

Makoto Ueda (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 tanka poets in modern Japan, with a reputation that matched Shiki's. She attained her fame and leadership almost solely by virtue of the poems she wrote. When her first book of tanka, Tangled Hai, was published in 1901, it shook the contemporary poetic scene because of its bold affirmation of sensual passion. Despite some older critics' detractions, it proved to have an irresistible appeal for the younger generation. As time gradually eroded the remnants of feudalism in Japanese society, Akiko's tanka and free verse came to seem prophetic of a bright new era soon to come, and before long she was a "queen" reigning over a countless number of young poets. Spurred on by their expectations, she continued to write innovative verse. In all, she produced 23 volumes of tanka and one volume of shi, and both in quality and in quantity her poetry represents one of the highest literary achievements of her generation.

As a poet, Akiko was far more interested in self-expression than in "sketches from nature." She prized human passions and wanted to express them freely, unrestricted by the decorum of contemporary society. The dominant theme of her poetry was romantic love, among the strongest of emotions. Unlike Shiki's oeuvre, which includes few love poems, her books of poetry are filled with pieces expressing her feelings toward her beloved. Her celebrated love affair with Yosano Hiroshi (1873-1935), initially her tanka teacher and later her husband, supplied her with a rich source of inspiration for verse writing early in her career. After she married him, her struggles as a housewife and mother (she raised eleven children) stimulated, rather than stifled, her creative urge. They also led her to write a considerable number of essays calling for the improvement of women's status in society; some of her arguments anticipated the women's rights movements of the 1970's. Her social criticism, contained in both poetry and prose, was consistently humanistic. Whereas Shiki worried about the future of Japan as a modern state and tacitly supported her imperialistic policies, Akiko, seldom blinded by the fervent patriotism of her fellow countrymen, was far more concerned with the individual man and his welfare. One who reads the collected works of both Shiki and Akiko is astonished to discover how modern the latter was in her thought and sensibility, even though in age the two poets were only eleven years apart. Japanese poetry made a significant leap forward with the work of this remarkable poetess.

Akiko published many essays on the art of poetry, mainly with the aim of giving guidance to young women who wanted to write tanka. Her two principal works in this area are How to Compose Tanks and its sequel, Talks on Tanks. In the former, under the heading "There Is No Such Thing as Shasei or Description of Nature in Tanka," she set forth her idea of the relationship between poetry and external reality:

Some poets seem to think there is a specific type of tanka to be categorized under "shasei" or "description of nature" as distinct from "expression of feelings." I do not agree. In my opinion, all tanka are lyrics expressing feelings. Some may refer to fruits or flowers or may sing of mountains or forests, but that does not necessarily make them sketches of natural objects or landscapes. Like love poems, they too express the poet's jikkan ["actual feelings"]. Jikkan are made to emerge by various stimuli, such as an event in life or the sight of natural objects or a landscape, yet in all cases they form the core of the subject matter to be treated in the poem. Hence every tanka ends up becoming a lyric.

To Shiki's selective realism, which advocated discovering one's true feelings through dispassionate observation of one's surroundings (the cycle from copying nature objectively through copying humanity objectively), Akiko opposed a stimulus-response theory of poetry. For her, the poem is the record of an emotional response—an acting out of individual impulses. As such, its course is powered by the inner drive of feeling and governed by the unique nature of each person's emotional life; its imagery need not directly reflect the exact scene or situation that serves as its immediate occasion. Thus Akiko's theory moves away from naturalistic depiction toward fantasy and vision, and away from concern with the objective stimulus that provokes creative endeavor to an emphasis on the outpouring of personal feeling, whether or not aroused by an external event.

Such an expressive theory of poetry was not new; it had been shared, with various modifications, by famous tanka poets from ancient times. Akiko reasserted it because she felt many contemporary tanka poets had swerved from that tradition. But she did not stop there: she went on to apply the same expressive view to all other verse forms, including haiku. Unlike tanka poets, writers of haiku had tended to sublimate emotions instead of expressing them outright.… In sharp contrast, Akiko took a firm stand against shasei, even in haiku. "Needless to say," she wrote, "haiku is a form of poetry. All poetry is emotional expression: its aim does not lie in narration, discussion, reportage, or communication … All poems express poetic feelings and should therefore be termed lyrics." She was, of course, aware of the distinction between tanka and haiku in terms of expressive capacity. In order to make that distinction, she classified lyrics into two general categories, "active" and "passive." In her view, tanka are "active lyrics," which emerge when the poet vents emotion too powerful to contain. Many haiku, on the other hand, are "passive lyrics," which articulate the poet's response to the sight of a man, an animal, the moon, or a plant. In Akiko's opinion, some contemporary critics wrongly substituted the word "objective" for "passive" in this context, thereby misleading amateur poets into thinking that a haiku should objectively sketch something that lay outside of the poet. "The term 'shasei' has been used among haiku poets for many years," she continued. "But they are totally mistaken." This was a bold statement for Akiko, who was never known as a haiku poet, and it indicates how firmly she believed in the importance of emotional expression in all poetry.

As three of her aphorisms indicate, Akiko's expressive theory included all the arts:

Art lies deep in the painter's soul. It does not lie in the subject to be painted.

The artist does not live in nature. Rather, nature lives in the artist.

A work of art is an image of the self. It needs: first, the self; second, the self; third, the self;… absolutely, the self.

On another occasion her comment was more explanatory. "I do not like to see such terms as 'shasei' or 'description of nature' used in art," she wrote. "These words mislead the reader into thinking that the artist is subordinate to the subject matter. The artist is the principal in all cases. A work of art emerges only when the feelings in the artist's heart, stimulated by things in nature, focus in an image." Her vehement insistence is directed against a prevailing condemnation of individualism, and reflects her awareness of a strong trend toward realism in contemporary literature, a movement advocated by Shiki and his followers in traditional forms of verse.

Akiko's adamant opposition to shasei seems to have been connected with her desire to reach for a truth that lay beyond fact. She distinguished between the truth of art and that of science, identifying the latter as factual truth lying in external reality, the former as subjective truth hidden in the individual human heart. To her way of thinking, a poem that sketches nature merely copies fact, not truth. For example, she criticized these two tanka for being mere snapshots, reproductions of ordinary scenes as anyone could have perceived them:

After rainfall
sparkling rays of sunlight
creep down along the trees,
brightening a small garden
where sweet oleanders bloom.

Dusk has begun
to settle on the highway
buried in snow.
The sunlight, gone from some hills,
still lingers on others.

Akiko charged that these poems were boring because they differ in no way from unpolished prose passages recording scenes of nature. Their authors did not seem to understand the distinction between inner and outer truth. Like them, too many contemporary Japanese, she thought, took a wrong attitude when they read a poem or looked at a painting, even though they readily corrected that attitude when they went to see a nō or a kabuki play.

Thus the core of Akiko's poetic was jikkan, the feelings that a poet actually experiences at a given moment. As we have seen, she used the term to define the relationship between a tanka poet and external reality; it appears again and again in her discussions of poetry. The very first heading in How to Compose Tanka reads "It Is Jikkan That Becomes Tanka," and the book opens with the declaration, "My tanka are, almost exclusively, expressions of my jikkan." Talks on Tanks recapitulates the idea, asserting that her effort to articulate jikkan had remained unchanged from her younger days. Indeed, these two books on the art of composition can be read as explanations of what jikkan are and how they can be expressed in poetry. Akiko's third book of poetic criticism, Lectures on Three Hundred Tanks, does the same, using as specific examples 00 tanka of her own. "I took up my pen," she said in the preface, "mainly because I wanted to tell the reader what kind of jikkan it was that gave birth to each poem."

The word "jikkan" is written with two characters, one meaning "actual" and the other meaning "feeling(s)." In Akiko's view, poetry articulates not just feelings but actual feelings. She pointed out that the antonym of jikkan is kyogi, "falsehood." "By the word 'kyogi,'" she said, "I mean deliberately fabricating feelings that one does not actually possess." She felt that too many poets of her time fabricated poems because they wished to follow the example of famous masters or to join in fashionable literary movements. She repeatedly warned that jikkan exclude "arty" emotions already celebrated by many poets in the past; they are fresh feelings discovered by individuals for themselves. "The material for poetry," she said, "is feelings that have newness in them, feelings that have been discovered by each poet on a specific occasion."

From the denotation of "jikkan" Akiko excluded another type of feelings: ordinary, everyday ones. "What I mean by jikkan," she explained, "are a special type of excited feelings that belong to the realm of poetic emotion. These must enable the poet to transcend common sense, to experience an entirely new joy, sorrow, or other emotion, and to feel the soul stirred with extraordinary excitement." In her view, therefore, jikkan are more elevated, more intense, more excited feelings than those people routinely experience in their everyday lives. Ordinary feelings can be expressed in conversation, in letters, and in other forms of prose, but jikkan cannot be voiced in prose because they are too intense.

To show the kind of poem that embodied ordinary feelings rather than jikkan, Akiko once cited two tanka from the works of Kagawa Kageki (1768-1843), one of the most respected tanka poets of the nineteenth century:

There have been days
when warblers failed to come
and sing in our garden,
yet no day has passed
when I did not hear their song.

It snows, darkening
the vast expanse of sky …
the mountains,
so much closer to the sky,
are first to whiten.

It is ironic that Kageki's poems are singled out for this dubious honor, because in his day he was known as an advocate of poetry that expressed truthful feelings. Indeed, these two tanka do vent the poet's feelings: the first sings of his joy at being in the country and hearing warblers every day; the second, of his wonderment at the workings of nature, which metamorphose earth and sky. But, to Akiko's taste, these emotions are insufficiently individualized to make good poetry. Since they are little different from what anyone would feel out in the countryside on a balmy day in spring or a snowy day in winter, Akiko considered them "commonplace feelings," unworthy of a poet's attention. She said she was tempted to ask Kageki why he had uttered such useless words. "Perhaps," she complained, "this poet thought that any commonplace emotion could be made into a tanka if he could verbalize it in the 5-7-5-7-7 pattern."

Akiko offered plenty of examples of what a poem of jikkan is like. In How to Compose Tanka, for instance, is a section entitled "Jikkan as It Is Manifest in My Tanka," in which she quoted 50 of her own poems. The first was:

On spring's white fabric
spread between heaven and earth
there falls, like gold dust,
the sound of young maidens
hitting a shuttlecock.

Akiko explained, "Here is the jikkan I had while listening to the sound of battledore and shuttlecock being played by young girls one day in the New Year's season. Because it was the New Year, I had the illusion that the universe was a pure, white silk fabric, and when I heard young girls happily playing the seasonal game I felt as though the sound of the shuttlecock were falling like gold dust on the fabric. It sounded pure, graceful, and beautiful."

Another tanka Akiko quoted as embodying jikkan is about her happy married life:

In a tower
beautifully painted in gold
I have been asleep
for a whole decade,
this woman of dreams.

Akiko commented, "I am a person peacefully asleep in a tower of beautiful gold, transcending for years the world's good and evil. This is another poem of fantasy, not of fact. But the fantasy accurately represents the mental state I am in when I let myself indulge in the ecstasy of love. It is the jikkan I have as I live a life of love."

The third example is a free-verse poem entitled "One Day":

In the sunlight of a day in March,
the wisteria's purple creeping into my study,
the white of Hikaru's face,
the red of Nanase's sash,
the amber of a tablecloth,
all are full of life and warmth …
Only a branch of higan cherry in a vase
and myself are pale and cold.
Like a still life I live, because
you have been gone for so long.

[In a footnote Ueda explains: "Hikaru and Nanase are the names of Akiko's children. A higan cherry (Prunus miquieliana, or equinoctial cherry) blooms around the time of the vernal equinox."]

Akiko had a lengthy comment on this poem, beginning with the explanation "I jotted down this poem out of my jikkan one day when my husband was traveling in Europe." She continued to say that her jikkan spontaneously flowed out in words at the time, and all she did was put it down in the order it came out. She never changed the wording later, fearing that her attempt to polish might impair the freshness of the jikkan.

These three examples from Akiko's own poetry reveal in specific terms what she meant by jikkan. The emotions appear ordinary if they are described using abstract terms such as "love," "loneliness," or "appreciation of beauty." But they have been individualized; none merely embodies a universal pattern of feeling. Not all people who are in love feel that they are sleeping in a tower beautifully painted in gold; no one else has felt that spring is a huge piece of white silk fabric extending into an infinite distance, and that a shuttlecock sounds like tiny particles of gold falling onto that fabric. It is not merely that similes and metaphors are individualized. Because jikkan are individualized feelings, they automatically take on individualized forms; feeling and expression are one.

In Akiko's view, then, a poet must be a strong individual, who will not fall into stereotyped thoughts or feelings; a poet who lacks a strongly personal sensibility has less capacity for jikkan. Indeed, Akiko asserted that only those who recognize the importance of individuality can succeed in grasping the ultimate truth for which every poet must strive. She wrote:

In actual human life each individual forms a new class all his or her own, like a new plant that has emerged through mutation. Among individuals there are a great many differences, since all lead their lives with different aims and in different styles. The human psyche differs from one person to another, just as fingerprints do. Different persons use the same word "love," but each person's love differs in density, intensity, and color, far more so than plumes of wisteria differ in length. That is the "truth" in human life.

Akiko here seems to imply that this subjective "truth" lies in a direct experience of individual being, unmediated by...

(The entire section is 7534 words.)

Steve Rabson (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 Die" to her later poems and essays on war in order to reevaluate her reputation as an antiwar poet.]

(The entire section is 9096 words.)

Sarah M. Strong (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Passion and Patience: Aspects of Feminine Poetic Heritage in Yosano Akiko's Midaregami 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 joryu 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 of...

(The entire section is 3553 words.)

Laurel Rasplica Rodd (essay 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Yosano Akiko and the TaishōDebate over the 'New Woman,'" In Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945, edited by Gail Lee Bernstein, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 175-98.

[In the following excerpt, Rodd studies Akiko's life and writings as they relate to the controversy in early twentieth-century Japan over women's place in society.]

In November 1911, a production of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, starring the beautiful young actress Matsui Sumako (1886-1919) and directed by Shimamura Hogetsu 1871-1918), opened in Tokyo. Although it was only a university production, the strong performance by Matsui and the explosive message of the play generated...

(The entire section is 6869 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Beichman, Janine. "Yosano Akiko: The Early Years." Japan Quarterly XXXVII, No. 1 (January-March 1990): 37-54.

Reevaluates Akiko's early work and explores her development as a poet.

__. "Akiko Goes to Paris: The European Poems." Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 25, No. I (April 991): 123-45.

Translation of a selection of poems inspired by Akiko's travels in Europe. Beichman briefly examines how Akiko's poetry relates to the essays she wrote during the same period.

Cranston, Edwin A. "Young Akiko: The Literary Debut of Yosano Akiko (1878-1942)." Literature: East and West 18,...

(The entire section is 435 words.)