Yosano Akiko — a great of modern Japanese poetry

While Yosano Akiko’s life was full of contradictions, the quality and passion of her poetry remained a constant throughout.
Yosano Akiko (1878-1942). Credit: National Diet Library via picryl.
Yosano Akiko (1878-1942). Credit: National Diet Library via picryl.
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Yosano Akiko was born in December 1878, into a merchant family in the city of Sakai, near Osaka. Her childhood was a lonely one, tinged with fear of a cold, at times neurotic mother. She found comfort in the company of other women, encountering the Heian-era court lady and writer Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973 – c.1014) through her great novel The Tale of Genji. ‘Murasaki has been my teacher’, Akiko would later recall, ‘since I was nine or ten . . . I felt as though I heard this great female writer tell me The Tale of Genji with her own lips.’ 

Perhaps Akiko sensed in Murasaki a kindred spirit. Though she attained a high position at the Heian court (in modern-day Kyoto), Murasaki was self-educated. The closest she came to formal tuition was eavesdropping on the studies of her brother, who was destined for government office. Surprisingly little had changed nine hundred years later. Once her school days were over, Akiko was left at home while her two brothers went off to university, women in this era being neither expected nor usually permitted to take on prominent public or professional roles.

The Japan in which Akiko grew up was shaped by the decision, in the mid-nineteenth century, to open the country’s doors to diplomatic contact and trade with the West. The result in 1868, just ten years before Akiko’s birth, was the overthrow of the old regime – a dynasty of shoguns – and the seizing of power by low-ranking samurai intent on rapid modernisation. Taking the Emperor as their figurehead, and adapting Western models in everything from governance and the law to technology and industry, they launched Japan on one of modern history’s most remarkable national overhauls. 

It was not all plain sailing. There was great uncertainty and debate over just what kind of country Japan ought to become. Noting serious disparities between Western versus Japanese economic and scientific development, some in Japan concluded that elements of Japanese religion, art and literature had helped to hold the country back. A violent reckoning with Buddhism ensued in the early 1870s, during which temples were attacked and monks and nuns forced into secular life. Western artistic styles and techniques were, for a time, preferred over older Japanese ones. And a number of critics began to argue that traditional Japanese poetry was too whimsical and effeminate to support the country in an era of great global danger and competition. 

It was against this backdrop of fierce cultural controversy that Yosano Akiko wrote her first poems at the age of just sixteen. One of her motivations was said to be concern that the poetry produced by other women at the time was so bad that it risked setting back the cause of raising women’s status in Japan. 

Some of Akiko’s early pieces brought her to the attention of a prominent poet by the name of Yosano Tekkan, who in 1901 left his wife to marry Akiko. Based in what was then the village of Shibuya – soon to be swallowed up into a rapidly-expanding Tokyo – Tekkan and Akiko began their rise to the status of celebrity couple, the latter publishing her first poetry collection that same year. Midaregami (Tangled Hair) was a compilation of 399 poems, composed in a five-line poetical form known as waka (often referred to as ‘tanka’ in Akiko’s day) that by this point was more than a thousand years old. Akiko’s poetry was anything but traditional, however. Her contribution to the cultural debates of her day was to use an old genre to speak to a new age, offering a window into the lives of young women who were otherwise largely invisible in Japanese society:

In my bath –
Submerged like some graceful lily 
At the bottom of a spring,
How beautiful
This body of twenty summers.
To punish
Men for their endless sins, God gave me
This fair skin,
This long black hair. 

Dismissed by one reviewer as the ‘precocious prattle of a young girl’, Midaregami nevertheless found a ready readership amongst the young of the new Japan. Over the next few years, Akiko became one of a small but influential group of women writers whose poetry, prose and journalism offered critiques of the limited lives – professional and personal – to which Japanese law and custom confined them. 

Japan’s leaders were hardly outliers, at this time, in regarding the home as women’s natural sphere. And yet to an extent that was rare in the West outside of wartime, this domestic role was considered a matter of national security. From the mid-nineteenth century all the way to the Second World War, there was a sense – albeit subject to ebb and flow – of national crisis. Japan remained a relatively weak country, economically and militarily, struggling to survive in a world dominated by colonial powers. Every resource, including every human resource, had to be committed to the task of survival. This meant that the home was, as one government minister put it, ‘a public place’: what went on there – children’s upbringings and education, their diet, even the topics and tenor of discussion round the dining table – was deeply connected with the nation’s prospects.   

Yosano Akiko challenged all this via her poetry, her reflections on current affairs and also her pacifism. One of the defining moments in modern Japan’s rise to power in Asia was its war with Russia in 1904-5. Pitched to the general public – as Japan’s modern wars always were – as a matter of national survival, it received such powerful popular support that to ask questions in public about its necessity was to invite outrage and disgust. And yet this is exactly what Akiko did. In the pages of a magazine run by the New Poetry Society – with which she and her husband were deeply connected – Akiko published the poem ‘Thou Shalt Not Die’. It was composed as a letter to her younger brother Chusaburo, who was fighting in the war:

Brother, do not give your life.
His Majesty the Emperor
Goes not himself into the battle.
Could he, with such deeply noble heart, 
Think it an honour for men 
To spill one another’s blood 
And die like beasts? 

Akiko risked upsetting a wide range of people here, by combining pacifism with comments on the monarchy that could be read as implying cowardice. She even ended up on the wrong side of anti-war socialists, who regarded as unforgivably bourgeois the poem’s narrow focus on Akiko’s own family. And yet as with Midaregami, so now with ‘Thou Shalt Not Die’– which ended up set to music and sung as a protest song – criticism seems to have done little to shake Akiko’s convictions or to harm her reputation. Her fame grew, starting to eclipse that of her husband, as she worked with other feminists in seeking for Japan a social overhaul that would match the political and industrial one in which it was enjoying so much success.

Akiko became interested, too, in what young Japanese were learning at school. Concerned that the state-run system was capable of little but the churning out of loyal imperial subjects, ready for the world of work but with stunted imaginations, she co-founded a new school. The Bunkagakuin opened in Tokyo, in 1921. The arts were given great prominence in the curriculum, and Akiko created a literature textbook whose aim was to inspire a love of poetry and prose rather than to use these forms as a means of inculcating what she regarded as the rather narrow and distinctly utilitarian values of the day. She herself served as one of the teachers, introducing a new generation to The Tale of Genji

If the story of Akiko’s life ended on this note, she would be remarkable enough. The hoped-for improvements in women’s place in society had to wait, in the end, until after the Second World War, when the electoral franchise was widened and the law made more equal in areas such as divorce. Nevertheless, Akiko was part of a pre-war movement that succeeded in raising and maintaining a public awareness that women were capable of much more than the roles assigned to them by law and custom. Some Japanese feminists in her era, inspired by their Swedish counterpart Ellen Key, emphasised motherhood as central to a woman’s life. They sought social recognition and state support for mothers. Akiko – who gave birth to no fewer than thirteen children – claimed that this would only create a ‘dependence mentality’, counselling women instead to avoid marriage and childbirth until they had enough money of their own to support themselves. Akiko stands, too, as one of Japan’s great modern poets. 

And yet there is more: a last, late twist that puzzled and perturbed many of her admirers yet which reveals to us – at many decades’ distance – something of the depths of uncertainty, political and cultural, with which people of Akiko’s era lived. Where once Akiko had been a vivid and powerful champion of liberal values and a hopeful, even idealistic internationalism, from the late 1920s onwards she seems to have developed a distinctly ‘Japan-first’ political outlook.

In 1928, Akiko and her husband made a forty-day tour of Japanese-controlled railway corridors in Manchuria, a region to the north-west of the Korean peninsula which at this time was under the rule of the Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin. The trip seems to have set Akiko thinking about Japan’s past and future. Marvelling at the natural beauty around her as she travelled, and struck by the ‘utter solemnity’ of Buddhist worship amidst incense, candles and gongs, she began to develop a keen sense that rapid modernisation had forced Japan to sacrifice something of its soul. Buddhism, for example, had survived the threats against its existence in the early 1870s. But for Akiko some of its rituals now felt perfunctory, no longer carrying the weight and power of those she encountered on her travels. 

She discovered these unsettling changes in microcosm in the Japanese-controlled city of Liaoyang. There she found elms, willows and the famous White Pagoda loomed over by new Japanese and Western buildings. The heavy presence of Japanese troops in the city, as relations with China worsened, compounded her unease. Akiko began to fear not just for her own country – where the growing power of militarists led her to wonder whether Japan might soon face international isolation – but for the people of China, too. She sympathised with the aspirations for freedom that she found amongst young Chinese, yet she worried that their hopes were being manipulated by China’s Nationalist leaders; turned into hostility towards what ought to be their brothers and sisters in Japan. 

All this came through in Akiko’s poetry, which retained its sense of sadness at the loss of life in war but carried a new edge. Reflecting on fighting between Japanese and Chinese forces in Shanghai, in 1932, she imagined discovering ‘enemy corpses, lying one upon another’:

The saddest among them 
Are the 200 student soldiers. 

Youthful at 17 or 18,
None have faces over 20. 

[…]

Who is it that deceives them, 
With their youthful naive hearts, 
Teaching them to hate
Their good neighbour, Japan? 

This swerve into politics, midway through the poem – entitled ‘Rosy-Cheeked Death’ – became increasingly characteristic of Akiko’s work across the years that followed, as she joined a great many of her countrymen and countrywomen in responding to Japan’s precarious international position by allowing themselves to be drawn into a patriotic communitarianism. ‘Japan in danger’ was the message, and for all that the country’s own leaders were contributing to making this into a reality, it became increasingly inescapable as a theme in public life. 

Akiko herself lived to see the outbreak of war with the United States and Great Britain. She was, by this point, gravely unwell after suffering a brain haemorrhage and died of a stroke in 1942 aged 63. But even while fatally ill, she understood well enough the implications for her troubled nation of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Recovering something of her earlier lyricism, she wrote:

It is a time for falling tears
As we enter the bitter cold 
Of the twelfth lunar month

Christopher Harding

Christopher Harding is a cultural historian specialising in modern India and Japan. He is a senior lecturer in Asian history at the University of Edinburgh.

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