have yet to touch
This soft flesh,
This throbbing blood --
Are you not lonely,
Expounder of the Way?
no atsuki chishio ni furemomide
sabishikarazuya michiwo toku kimi)
is a poem written in 1901 by a twenty-two year old emerging poet of
Yosano Akiko (1878-1942). Akiko, in
this Tanka poem, (31 syllables, arranged 5-7-5-7-7), compactly expressed
her insuppressible love, sexuality and the liveliness of youth by using
such imagery as "soft flesh" and "throbbing blood." Although
Meji Japan was modernizing and starting to accept Western culture, the
majority of women still lived in the old way; they were confined by
the conventions of the old feudal system. Women normally accepted arranged
marriage, and after marriage, they were expected to play a wifely role:
as the saying "Onna sankai ni ie nashi" (there is
no home for women in the past, present nor future) teaches, women were
to submit to fathers, husbands and sons, and were always the possessions
of others. Women's domestic and social roles were to produce children,
particularly boys who would inherit the family name and also support
the strong nation. Women were imprisoned by the idea of womanhood as
defined by society.
image of women that Yosano Akiko illustrated in her poems was revolutionary;
it was far from the conventional picture of
The women Akiko depicted were
lively, free, sexual and assertive. They do not passively wait for men to find
them. They are the agents of their love – they find love and pursue it.
Akiko's seductive and sexual poems were sensational at the time, for they challenged
patriarchal society and literary and cultural conventions. Akiko's works received
severe criticism, yet also provided great inspiration to women of the time.
Yosano Akiko (Hou Shiyou) was born in Sakai, Osaka, the daughter
of the owner of the famous confectionary shop Surugaya. Her father was a
who loved art and literature. Akiko's mother was his second wife, and
Akiko had two older step sisters. Akiko had an elder brother, but he
he was young. When his son died, Akiko's father was very disappointed
and upset. For Japanese families, sons, who inherit the name of ie (family),
were very important, particularly for a family like that of Akiko’s
father, which ran a business. Angry and devastated, the father even left
home for a while. Akiko stayed at her aunt's home for three years. Akiko
felt that she was not loved by her parents and had a lonely childhood.
She grew up to become a quiet but rebellious girl.
went to Sakai Girl's high school and graduated in 1892. After that, she
her family business for a while. However,
got extremely bored
of working and was frustrated by her intellectually non-stimulating life.
She writes in her essay: "I grew up wrapping yokan in bamboo
bark. I grew up waiting for every evening to end so I could steal the
thirty minutes or
hour of lamplight and, unknown to my parents, read until midnight. . . .
My parents wanted to bring me up as 'an ordinary woman'" (Beichman
57). Finding books in her father's library, she read many books from
Japanese classics to Western
literature. Akiko particularly enjoyed reading The Tale of Genji, The
Pillow Book, and Utsuho Monogatari, indulging herself in the romantic world of love
(Later, Akiko translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese).
When Akiko was sixteen, she read Manyoshu, a collection of
ancient Japanese poetry from the 8th century. It had a great impact on her
and she started
to write Tanka
poetry. She joined a poetry circle, Sakai shikishima kai, in Osaka, and published
her works in Yoshiashigusa, a poetry journal. She gradually began to gain a
good reputation. Through her literary activities, Akiko became acquainted
poets as Yamakawa Tomiko and Yosano Tekkan. Akiko admired Tekkan and respected
him as her mentor. Tekkan was the editor of a newly created magazine, Myojo,
and Akiko started to contribute to it. Her respect for Tekkan started to change
into love. Tekkan had a common law wife and a child at that time, but Akiko
did not hesitate to show her love. Recollecting her passionate feelings
she later writes in her "My Conception of Chastity": "By an
unexpected chance, I came to know a certain man and my sexual feelings underwent
change to a strange degree. For the first time I experienced the emotion of
a real love that burned my body" (Beichman 108). Akiko left home to be
with Tekkan and married him in 1902. Midaregami (Tangled Hair) is her first
of Tanka. It contains 399 poems, among which 385 are love poems expressing
her feelings toward Tekkan. Midaregami summarizes Akiko's passion toward love
poetry during her young days.
Poems from Midaregami
Pressing my breasts
I softly kick aside
the Curtain of mystery
How deep the crimson
of the flower here
[trans. Janine Beichman]
(chibusa osae shinpi no tobari sotokerinu
kokonaru hana no benizo koki)
Throughout Midaregami, such imagery as breasts, lips, skin,
shoulders, and hair are emphasized, symbolizing femininity and women's
This femininity, however, is different from that of old times. It is
completely new, recreated by Akiko for the women of a new age. The
woman in the poem
touches her breasts, opening the door to a sensuous world. The woman
is probably a young maiden like Akiko who is excited about her first
of love. Women, particularly unmarried women, at that time, were taught
to be modest and passive about sex, and were supposed to hide their sexual
desires. The woman (Akiko), however, does not hesitate to reveal her
curiosity for the world of Eros and dares to break the taboos in poetic
of a maiden touching her own breasts in a shy manner recalls the Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." The
body of a woman is glorified, mythologized and treated as if it is that
Meiji era, feminine beauty and sexuality were considered to be the province
of courtesans. In portraits, these beautiful women were always decorated
with gorgeous kimono and beautiful hair styles: feminine beauty was sophisticated,
yet artificial. After the Meiji era, however, Western art was introduced
and nudity became an obsession among Japanese artists. The cover pictures
of Myojo magazine employed the Art Nouveau style, and their
bold and sensuous depiction of female bodies shocked the Japanese, even
called "ratai ronso" (debate about nudity). It is
obvious that Yosano Akiko was influenced by modern art. In fact, the
of Midaregami is strongly reminiscent of a painting by Alphonse Mucha
of a woman with a long hair framed in a heart which is struck by an arrow).
The idea of nudity changed Japanese people's views toward
eroticism and female sexuality. Until that time, breasts in art and literature
been considered to be symbols of child feeding and motherhood, but
to mean something apart from reproduction: they began to represent the
natural beauty of a young woman. The door Akiko opens lead Japanese women
to new representations of sexuality and the female body.
Here is another poem which treats breasts as a symbol of
new feminine beauty:
Spring is short
what is there that has eternal life
I said and
made his hands seek out
my powerful breasts
[trans. Janine Beichman]
(haru mijikashi nanini fumetsu no inochi zoto
chikaraaru chichi o teni sagurasenu)
the starting season of new lives, is a symbol of youth, the period of
adolescence. "Spring is short”;
the main speaker, a virgin girl, appreciates and enjoys the remaining
days of her
period. The girl lets her lover touch her firm and young breasts, sharing
her passion and youth with him. It is noteworthy that the girl's breasts
and body are presented as her own. They are not possessed by anybody.
The girl's spiritual strength, confidence in herself and the appreciation
her own growing body are witnessed here.
The following poem also extols the beauty of young maidenhood:
That girl at twenty-
her black hair ripples
through the comb
in the pride of spring --
(sono ko hatachi kushini nagaruru kurokami no
ogori no haru no utsukushiki kana)
The glorification of maiden selfhood and the body is stressed
in the following poem, too.
I also had an hour when I,
After a hot bath, dressed aright
with a smile playing in my eye
did stand before a mirror bright
[trans. Honda Heihachiro]
(Yuagari ni mijimai narite sugatami ni
emishi kinou no naki ni shimoaruzu)
body is reflected in a mirror: she is looking at herself and singing about
Self image had never been the central
of poems by women, but Akiko broke a poetic convention, releasing women
limits of self expression. Women had been exposed under the gaze
however, Akiko's poems construct the narcissistic world of a girl,
teaching their female audience that it is all right to appreciate and
in their own beauty. Thus, women’s new expressions of body
and sexuality are based on their own subjectivity and control.
Hair is another important symbol of femininity. Long and black
hair has been admired and depicted in works of art for centuries. For
instance, in The Tale
of Genji, almost every episode contains a depiction of women’s
beautiful hair, as if it is part of women’s identity. Long black
hair symbolizes the nobility, gracefulness and sexuality of aristocrat
women. The image of hair
is a significant motif in the depiction of romantic situations in Japanese
literature. Yosano Akiko, who grew up reading classic literature, had
a romantic attachment
to the traditional image of hair and a longing for the passionate and
romantic love which is associated with beautiful long hair.
Measures my hair a full five feet
And washed and combed so soft and fair
As is my heart virginal and sweet
I cherish with a tender care
[trans. Honda Heihachiro]
(Kami goshaku tokinaba mizu ni yawarakaki
Onnna gokorowa himete hanataji)
The girl's soft, black and tender hair is cherished by the
girl herself. Just like her cleanly washed hair, she is pure and innocent.
girl is content
with her own body and enjoys this period of her life. While carefully
soft and full hair, she narcissistically appreciates her feminine
and young selfhood.
In ancient court poetry, hair was often used to express the
inner feelings of women. The movement of hair was used as a perfect means
as anger, frustration, confusion, and jealousy which were caused
by romantic relationships with men. Izumi Shikibu, a female poet
presents a wonderfully emotional hair image:
My black hair tangled
As my own tangled thoughts,
I lie here alone,
Dreaming of one who has gone,
Who stroked my hair till it shone.
(Kurokami no midaremo shirazu
uchifuseba mazukakiyarishi hitozo koishiki)
Black tangled hair implies the confusion and uneasy feeling
caused by love relationships. Tangled hair also suggests erotic beauty
intimacy of men and
women in bed. Yosano Akiko also expresses women's emotion using
A thousand lines
Of black black hair
All tangles, tangles --
And tangles too
My thoughts of love!
(Kurokami no sensuji no kamino midaregami
katsuomoi midare omoi midaruru)
The flood of emotion and overwhelming feelings of love are
expressed through hair. While using a traditional poetic
image of hair,
Akiko exposes the
vivid emotion of realistic woman. Her poetic creativity
is revolutionary; Akiko
instills female selfhood in the framework of traditional
Yosano Akiko's works combine the physical beauty of Western
painting and the erotic beauty of traditional Japan.
While she breaks
she maintains the values of the traditional poetic world.
The mixture of Western and Eastern images makes her poetry
Yosano Akiko in her Midaregami expressed the sexuality of
women's bodies without hesitation. Women's bodies had been considered reproductive
by families and husbands. Akiko tried to gain control of her own body. The
ideas of womanhood and femininity had been defined by society, but
them and expressed them in the world of Tanka poetry. Akiko is one of the
first female literary figures who was not afraid to break conventions
and to live
truthfully to her own passion for love and literature.
Japanese feminist group, "Seito," was
formed in 1911; amazingly it was ten years after the publication of Midaregami.
Yosano Akiko got involved
in Seito later and debated such topics as the equality of women in marriage,
the issue of women and labor and the nature of women’s maternal role,
contributing to the formation of early Japanese feminism. Midaregami is
a celebratory work
which signals the awakening of Japanese women. Akiko’s challenging
spirit has been handed down to women of later generations, still providing
Beichman, Janine. Embracing The Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of
Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.
Egusa Mitsuko. “Yosano
Akiko, Midaregami: Gender to shintai no gensetsu.” Gender
no Nihon kindai bungaku. Tokyo: Kanrin shobo, 1998. 39-45.
Hirako Kyoko. Yosano Akiko. Tokyo: Kawade shobo, 1995.
Larson, Phyllis Hyland. “Yosano
Akiko and the Re-Creation of the Female Self: An
Autogynography.” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of
Ohara Eriko. Kurokami no bunkashi. Tokyo: Tsukiji shokan, 2000.
Rodd, Laurel Rasplica. “Yosano Akiko and the Taisho Debate over
Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945. Gail Lee Bernstein, ed. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1991. 175-198.
Ueda Hiroshi and Tomimura Shunzo, eds. Yosano Akiko o manabu hito
Tokyo: Sekai shiso sha, 1995.
Yosano Akiko. Tangled Hair: Selected Tanka from Midaregami. Trans.
Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda.
_____. Midaregami: The Poetry of Yosano Akiko. Trans. Honda Heihachiro.
Tokyo: Hokuseido shoten, 1952.
Tsuchiya Dollase is assistant professor of Japanese at Vassar College.
She teaches Japanese literature, offering courses such as “Japanese
Gothic Literature” and “Japanese Popular Culture and Literature.” Her
research interest is early twentieth century girls’ magazine culture.
Her publications include “Early Twentieth Century Japanese Girls’ Magazine
Stories: Examining Shojo Voice in Hanamonogatari (Flower Tales)” (Journal
of Popular Culture 36.4 : 724-55) and “Shojo and Yamanba:
Mori Mari’s Literature” (PAJLS 5 : 109-23).