Sunday, 1 December 2019

Akiko Yosano - Japanese author, poet, feminist, pacifist, and social reformer

Akiko Yosano (1878 - 1942) was the penname of Japanese author, poet, feminist, pacifist, and social reformer. Her real name was Yosano Shiyo and she is one of the most famous, and most controversial, post-classical female poets in Japan.

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 her first book of poems Tangled Hair which contained 400 poems.

Tangled Hair caused a sensation among her contemporaries for its freshness of theme and style, and its direct expressions of passion in an uninhibited, sensual language and was mostly denounced by literary critics. Despite this critical reaction, it was widely read and became a beacon for freethinkers of her time. Her first book brought a passionate individualism to traditional Tanka poetry, unlike any other work of the late Meiji period.

Traditional Japanese values expect women to be gentle and modest and the role of a Japanese woman was focused on procreation and raising children. Tangled Hair created a new revolutionary image of womanhood, as lively, free, sexual and assertive and a door was opened for Japanese women to imagine new representations of sexuality and the female body.

Her work was immense, she wrote more than 17,000 Tanka and published 75 books, including translations of classical literature. She also had 13 children, 11 of whom survived into adulthood.

An early feminist and outspoken critic of nationalism and government policy, Akiko was also an educational reformer and established the Bunka Gakuin, a women’s trade school, in 1921.

Akiko died of a stroke in 1942 at the age of 63. After the end of the Pacific War her works were largely forgotten by critics and the general public but in recent years, her romantic, sensual style has come back into popularity and she has an ever-increasing following.

Three Tanka poems by Yosano Akiko

Her hair at twenty
Flowing long and black
Through the teeth of her comb
Oh beautiful spring
Extravagant spring!

Translated by Roger Pulvers

My black hair
My thick thick black hair
My wild hair
Its thousand strands my heart
Dishevelled, torn apart.

Translated by  Roger Pulvers

My shiny black hair
fallen into disarray,
a thousand tangles
like a thousand tangled thoughts
about my love for you.

Translated by Sam Hamill & Keiko Matsui Gibson

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