Japanese author, poet, feminist and social reformer, Yosano Akiko (Japanese naming conventions put the surname first) gave birth to thirteen children and published more than 20 collections of poetry and many volumes of social criticism. Denounced by critics of her time, freethinkers sought her books and poetry. It was a time of massive Japanese cultural and societal changes. Akiko had the courage to speak raw truths that threatened to break the Japanese woman free of restrictive traditions. She was one of the country’s most famous and most controversial poets.
The shogunate rule ended in Japan in 1869. Emperor Mutsuhito (the Meiji Period, 1868-1912) led a time of rapid expansion and modernization of the country while also upholding “traditional” family institutions.
Born on December 7, 1878, to wealthy merchant’s family, the Hō Shō, in the port city of Sakai, Japan, who named her Yosano Shiro. Her parents had expected a son.
Her mother was cold and neurotic. Her father was distant. But Akiko’s early interest in literature warmed his attitude toward her.
Akiko had two brothers went to university. But Akiko’s education was over. Japanese society at the time believed a woman’s role was as mother and wife. Girls and women rarely attended higher education. The belief was they didn’t need that education since prominent public or professional roles frowned upon by custom and prevented by some laws.
From age 11, she took care of her younger sister and had the most responsibility in the family for running the family business, producing and selling yokan (bean candy).
When she could, Akiko eavesdropped on her brother’s lessons.
As a young woman, she could not interact with the opposite sex. Nor could she leave home unaccompanied. Her parents even locked her in her bedroom every night to protect her.
Akiko wrote her first poem in 1894 at age sixteen. Five years later, joined the Kansai Seinen Bungakukai (the young literary world).
She subscribed to the poetry magazine Myōjō (Bright Star) and became one of its most important contributors.
Akiko met Myōjō’s editor, Yosano Tekkan, on his visits to Osaka and Sakai, where he delivered lectures and workshops. Tekkan taught her tanka poetry.
In 1900, she took part in Tokyo Shin Shisha (New Poetry Society.) Established by Tekkan in 1899, Shin Shisha was the parent organization that published Myōjō.
Love & Marriage
Tekkan had a common law wife when they met. They fell in love. A year after they met, Tekkan left his wife. In 1901, Akiko and Tekkan got married and moved to a suburb in Tokyo.
She gave birth to thirteen children, eleven of whom survived to adulthood.
Midaregami (Tangled Hair), was a compilation of 399 tanka (short poems). Known as waka poems today, they are poems based on a thirty-one syllable, five-line poetical form created by the Japanese poet, Ki no Tsurayuki, a thousand years ago.
Akiko’s poetry followed the traditional form, but her subjects broke from tradition. Her poems offered a look into the invisible lives of young Japanese women. She wrote about the limits Japanese laws and customs put on women professionally and personally. Her frank discussion of a woman’s breasts and sexuality set her up for harsh criticism.
One reviewer dismissed her work as “the precious prattle of a young girl.” The poet, Sasaki Nobutsuna, said she was “corrupting public morals” and “mouthing obscenities fit for a whore.” Though the critics disliked her poetry, she quickly found an audience in the Japanese literary elite.
While Akiko’s interest in and writing about Japanese women never faded, she also expressed her views about her country’s current affairs. In September 1904, she learned Japanese soldiers were being strapped with explosives and sent to blast holes through Russian barbed wire entanglements during the Russo-Japanese war.
She composed a poem addressed 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….“Kimi Shinitamou koto nakare (You Shall Not Die)” by Yosano Akiko
The government attempted to ban her poem. It was so unpopular that, when she engaged in a rancorous debate with journalist Ōmachi Keigetsu over whether poets had a duty to support the war, people stoned her house.
Akiko became more and more successful, but Tekkan’s longer career as a poet did not change. He did not like being overshadowed by his wife. He had many extramarital affairs that caused Akiko great pain. Though she would have preferred their relationship to be monogamous, she did not express any ill-will toward her husband’s lovers. In fact, she became friends with some of them.
When his journal, Myōjō, folded, Akiko’s writing became the family’s primary source of income.
Supporting the Arts
Besides her interest in politics, Akiko cared deeply about education. She advocated for women’s education, translated Japanese classics into modern Japanese, and helped aspiring writers.
In 1921, she co-founded a coeducational school, the Bunker Gauin (Institute of Culture). She became its first dean and chief lecturer. The arts were a large part of the curriculum. Akiko even created a textbook to inspire a love of poetry and prose.
A Change of Attitude
In 1928, Akiko and her husband took a forty-day ride tour of the Japanese-controlled railway corridors through Manchuria, a region ruled by the Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin. She developed a keen awareness that the rapid modernization of Japan had forced the country to sacrifice its soul.
“War fever” gripped Japan when the Kwangtung Army seized Manchuria in 1931. Akiko supported her country against China. Her 1932 poem “Rosy-Cheeked Death” portrayed the Chinese soldiers killed in battle as victims but declared the Chinese “foolish” to resist Japan.
In 1941, she supported the war against the United States and the United Kingdom even though she understood what the war meant to Japan.
It is a time for falling tears
As we enter the bitter cold
Of the twelfth lunar month…Yosano Akiko
Gravely ill in 1942, Akiko’s last poems praised her son, who served in the Imperial Navy.
In 1942, Akiko suffered a brain hemorrhage and died. She was 63. Her death in the middle of the Pacific war went unnoticed.
Her grave is at the Tama Reien on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Akiko was an extremely prolific poet. She could produce as many as 50 poems in one sitting. Experts estimate she wrote between 20,000 and 50,000 poems.
She published more than twenty tanka anthologies, including Koigoromo (Robe of Love) and Maihime (Dancer). She also wrote eleven books of prose, mostly neglected by both literary critics and audiences.
After the war, critics and the public forgot her works. In the 1950s, Japanese high schools made Kimi mandatory reading. It became an anthem of sorts to university students protesting against the government of Kishi Nobusuke .
Her poetry has come back into popularity in recent years. She has an ever-increasing following.
Today, there are many monuments that honor Akiko. You will find them in Tokyo, Sakai, Hakodate, and other locations.
Her legacy includes the fact that the late Japanese politician Yosano Kaoru was one of her grandsons.
Finally, she used her poetry and writing to challenge traditions that made Japanese women invisible, apparently without fear of the consequences. How strong of a woman Akiko must have been!
Read a selection of Akiko’s poems at Poem Hunter
First Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Middle Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons