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The Tanka and Life of Fumiko Nakajo
Jane Reichhold

Many students of the Japanese poetry form tanka, have heard of or read translations of the poetry of the two most famous females in the last century, but most have not yet gotten acquainted with the third member on the list of Japan's top tanka poets. While it is easy to find books of translations of Akiko Yosano (Janine Beichman's Embracing the Firebird is a good start, for not only the story of her writing Tangled Hair, but a study of her poetry) or the several translations of Machi Tawara's ten million copy best-seller, Salad Anniversary.

Yosano opened the twentieth century with Midaregami (Tangled Hair; Sanford Goldstein has a translation of 165 of the 399 tanka) and Machi Tawara, in 1987, closed the century with her astounding successes (she went on to write several other books of tanka and had a TV show), but another woman was placed exactly in the middle between these two flashes of genius.

I would like to introduce you to Fumiko Nakajo. Fumiko was born on Nov. 25th, 1922, to Hosaku Noe and Kikue Noe. Her parents lived in Obihiro, on the island of Hokkaido, the northern-most of Japan's larger islands, where they worked in the grocery store of the grandparents. Fumiko was the first child and grandchild and only seven years later were two sisters and a brother added to the family. Thus, she grew up greatly cherished with a strong sense of her own worth, which was to sustain her throughout the many trials of her life.

Her parents picked a husband for her, but she rejected him of her own will. At the age of 20 she decided to marry Hiroshi Nakajo, who had just graduated from an engineering school, and was thought to have a fine future before him. His father worked for the National Railway in the Sapporo station and thus, the new couple married there in 1942 when Hiroshi got his first job. A year later a son was born and two years later another son. This boy contracted an illness and died at the age of three months. In 1946, after the war was over, a girl was born to the couple and about this time Fumiko was working hard enough on her tanka writing to join a local tanka group.

In 1948, another son was born. At this time, Japan was struggling to overcome the poverty brought on by the war. Hiroshi, probably under pressure to support his growing family, did some illegal work on his railroad job, was reprimanded and transferred to the far south to the island of Shikoku. This meant Fumiko and the three children had to move in with her parents. During this separation both Fumiko and Hiroshi began to have affairs with other persons, but still they had hopes of reuniting. For this reason Fumiko took the children and traveled to Shikoku. After only a few months together the couple had to return to Obihiro after Hiroshi lost his engineering job due to drinking. There they lived again with Fumiko's parents and Hiroshi tried being a high school teacher. The next year he lost that job and became a common laborer as his alcoholism worsened.

a distant grass fire
burning in the evening
intimate
like a special stranger
I think of my husband

In October, 1951, the couple decided to divorce. Due to Japanese custom, it was decided that Hiroshi's family should have one of the children, and so the youngest boy was given to his father and step-wife who lived in Sapporo on the opposite side of the island.

ripening
like fruits of sorrow
the heaviness
when holding a child
is boundless

Thus, not only did Fumiko lose her mate, she had to give up her youngest son. All of this would have been hard enough to bear, except she was the daughter of a small town where people, like in the world over, loved to gossip. Everyone knew her family, the merchants in town, the promise her marriage had held, and the depths of her present situation. For the sensitive and somewhat shy Fumiko, this was very difficult and she seemed to have no inner defenses to protect herself.

fresh leaves
of a large elm tree
crumpled by wind
I am detested because
I wish to live passionately

Fumiko decided to leave her two remaining children in her mother's care and seek a job in Tokyo, but after one very unsuccessful month, her mother came to Tokyo and brought her back to Obihiro. This adventure only made more gossip. She was now a single-mom working and living with her parents. Many of her tanka were about this struggle of having to spend her days behind the counter in the grocery store, still keeping the house clean and trying to give her two remaining children the love they needed and demanded.

far in the sky
is there happiness?
what is it like?
even an ad balloon
pulls on a rope

Still being an attractive and young woman, Fumiko longed for a relationship and continued to have several love affairs. One was with the leader of the local tanka group, a young man with tuberculosis. After falling deeply in love with him and visiting him often in the hospital where he was in the final stages of the disease (and his wife was a nurse), did she find out that he had several other women as infatuated with him as she was. His death was a blow to her, but even more deeply she felt the loss of being someone's wife.

She began an affair with a much younger, and very handsome man who taught dancing at a local social hall, which brought her even more gossip.

spring snow
falling at the crossroads
the young man
at our parting
stammers something

Just after he proposed to her, and finally got his father's agreement for them to marry, cancer was discovered in Fumiko's left breast. In April, 1952, she immediately had the breast removed in the Obihiro hospital and continued with her plans to marry Einosuke Kinomura.

overhead a sound
fireworks in the night sky
shoot up and open
everywhere I
can be taken

Before they were able to hold the ceremony, more cancer was discovered in her right breast. The couple separated and she lost her remaining breast.

Faced with radiation treatments which could only be given in Sapporo, Fumiko left her children and moved in with her sister Michiko, in Oyaru, a town on the northern coast just west of Sapporo. This was an extremely lonely time for Fumiko and some of her most poignant tanka were written on her train trips to and from the hospital.

a fin comes up
uneasy with pain
in front of me
the sea becomes
a gray water tank

In April, she submitted a 50 tanka sequence to the magazine Tanka Kenkyu and won first prize, but her physical condition continued to worsen and she was admitted to the hospital in Sapporo.

as long as they burned
what I have given to men
are my breasts
I do not know when they
began to have a cancer

This was a farther separation from her family so that she felt very alone facing death. The wife of her father-in-law, however, often brought Fumiko's youngest son to visit with her, but these visits were extremely painful for both parent and child. The situation contributed to many excellent tanka.

helplessly
a voice calling, "Mother!"
arrives
by long-distance telephone
in the wind at night

Throughout her hospitalization, Fumiko continued to submit her tanka to various magazines, which were now eagerly accepted because of her having won the prestigious magazine prize.

cherry tree leaves
are fondly remembered
lying on my stomach
my back is still
flawless with no scars

Until this time she had not had a book of her tanka published, but the magazine editor, eager to capitalize on her sudden fame, asked her to compile a collection titled Chibusa Soshitsu (The Loss of Breasts). Just a few days before her death, he traveled from Tokyo to Hokkaido and laid the freshly printed book in her hands.

"live
as long as you can"
he hands me
the thick leaves of a linden tree
and goes away

On August 3, 1954, when Fumiko died, her last words to her mother were, "I don't want to die."

And she didn't. The astounding popularity of The Loss of Breasts moved the editor to compile another book of her tanka titled Hana no Genkei (Prototype of Flowers). This book sold so well and Fumiko's story became so well-known that a book, Chibusa Yo Eien Nare (Let Breasts be Eternal) was written of her life by Akira Wakatsuki and was then made into a movie with the same name. Her popularity remained so high that a second book of her life was written in 1974, by the well-known author Jun-ichi Watanabe, titled Fuyu No Hanabi (Fireworks in Winter). Nakajo's first book, The Loss of Breasts, has accrued even more fame because she had asked Yasunari Kawabata for the introduction and he later won a Nobel prize.

Until now, the only translations of the Nakajo poems were the twenty translated by Makoto Ueda in his book Modern Japanese Tanka. The first book to bring not only the story of her life, but also translations of 150 of her tanka is Breasts of Snow, which Hatsue Kawamura and I have written and translated.

For Simply Haiku readers I would like to share some personal thoughts of the background to this book and thereby give a feeling for Fumiko and her tanka.

When Hatsue, the editor of The Tanka Journal in Tokyo, first asked me to help her translate Nakajo's tanka, I had never heard of Fumiko, but trusted completely Hatsue's understanding that English-language readers needed to be exposed to her work. As we began the translations, we saw how connected her tanka were to her life. Since our work in A String of Flowers, Untied Love Poems from The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, where we had experimented with following the ancient tanka practice of adding "headers" to the poems which explained the situation in which the poem was written, we decided to follow this method to tell Fumiko's story along with her poetry.

Very quickly I got caught up the portrayal of her compelling life. I am sure that if I had not been working with the facts of her life as we translated the poems, we never could have captured the fervor, the depth, and the gentle humor of her tanka as we did. Fumiko had been trained in tanka at the Tokyo Kasei Gakuin College (a Christian "finishing school" where well-to-do girls were sent to make them cultured wives and mothers). Her natural talent for writing was so strong that, even in her early poems she showed promise, and such an individual voice, that her use of tanka techniques basically stayed the same while her subject matter and intensity increased.

For many years, the male leaders of the Japanese tanka scene attributed her popularity only to the pathos of her illness and early death, but as the years have passed her tanka have remained contemporary. Thus, they are accessible to us in these times, and this proves, I think, to the universality and genius of her work.
Some people may find the "story" of Nakajo's life sad because she dies so early from cancer, but I find inspiration in her spirit and will to do what brought her pleasure, writing tanka, throughout her process of dying (which we are all in whether we acknowledge it or not); and in the end, her words live beyond her breath.


Born in Lima, Ohio, in 1937, Jane Reichhold studied Art and Journalism at Bluffton College and Ohio University in Ohio; and Fresno State and San Francisco State Universities in California.

The mother of three children, Reichhold has taught art classes for children, owned a pottery workshop studio, and has been writing free-lance magazine articles and poetry since 1963, which have been published worldwide.

In 1971, she moved to Hamburg, West Germany to make sculpture from ropes, which won acclaim and were exhibited throughout Europe. Reichhold became the first American woman artist accepted into Deutsche Kunstlerbund [German Artists' Organization].

She began publishing haiku books in 1979. Her publications, awards, affiliations, and honors are too numerous to include here, but an internet search for "Reichhold, biography" will provide the reader with that information.


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