Embracing the Firebird

Embracing the Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry

Copyright Date: 2002
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    Embracing the Firebird
    Book Description:

    How did a girl from the provinces, meant to do nothing more than run the family store, become a bold and daring poet whose life and work helped change the idea of love in modern Japan? Embracing the Firebird is the first book-length study in English of the early life and work of Yosano Akiko (1879-1942), the most famous post-classical woman poet of Japan. It follows Akiko, who was born into a merchant family in the port city of Sakai near Osaka, from earliest childhood to her twenties, charting the slow process of development before the seemingly sudden metamorphosis. Akiko's later poetry has now begun to win long-overdue recognition, but in terms of literary history the impact of Midaregami (Tangled Hair, 1901), her first book, still overshadows everything else she wrote, for it brought individualism to traditional tanka poetry with a tempestuous force and passion found in no other work of the period. Embracing the Firebird traces Akiko's emotional and artistic development up to the publication of this seminal work, which became a classic of modern Japanese poetry and marked the starting point of Akiko's forty-year-long career as a writer. It then examines Tangled Hair itself, the characteristics that make it a unified work of art, and its originality. The study throughout includes Janine Beichman's elegant translations of poems by Yosano Akiko (both those included in Tangled Hair and those not), as well as poems by contemporaries such as Yosano Tekkan, Yamakawa Tomiko, and others.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6234-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    In the steamy Tokyo August of 1901, Yosano Akiko (1878–1942) published her first book,Midaregami(Tangled hair), a volume of poetry slim enough to rest lightly on the palm of one’s hand. The daughter of a confectionery shop owner in western Japan, Akiko had lived a seemingly sheltered life until a few months before, when she ran away to Tokyo to live with Yosano Tekkan (1873–1935), founder of the Shinshisha (New Poetry Society) and editor of its magazine Myōjō (Venus).¹ Two months afterTangled Hairwas published, they married.²

    Romanticism was in its heyday in Japan at the turn...

    • ONE Birth, Exile, Return
      (pp. 17-27)

      Her earliest memories were bitter and sad. In the memoir “Osanaki Hi” (Childhood days, 1909), she wrote:

      When I stood before the mirror in my older brother’s outgrown red flannel shirt, fumbling with a collar button that I could not fasten no matter how hard I tried, or when I lit a lamp by myself to fetch hot water from the kitchen, then went to bed, alone in the dark, I used to wonder if the couple I called my parents were my real mother and father. My father had been terribly disappointed when I was born, because I was...

    • TWO Growing Up in Sakai
      (pp. 28-42)

      Some of the coldness Akiko remembered must have spilled over from the frigid relations between her parents, for they were an ill-matched couple: one an intellectual, artistic, Osaka urbanite; the other a practical, frugal, stubbornly provincial daughter of Sakai. Sōshichi the Second was, in Sato’s characteristically understated phrase, a “taciturn”¹ man (Akiko wrote that she was lucky if he spoke three words to her in a month),² but he took his “social obligations” seriously, was respected as “a man of character” by his fellow merchants, and served on the Sakai City Council. He was also, she explained, “rather unusual for...

  6. ADOLESCENCE: 1889–1900
    • THREE Saying No to Reality
      (pp. 45-64)

      In 1888, Akiko completed her fourth year of elementary school, where she had been a good though not outstanding student—eighty-second in her class of two hundred and fifty-eight. Then, after a brief period in the upper division, she transferred to the newly established and supposedly more rigorous Sakai Girls’ School, which had two tracks, academic and sewing. Choosing the former, where the subjects were ethics, Japanese, and sewing, she found sewing her favorite subject, a preference that was probably due as much to her natural aptitude as to her sense that the school had little to offer her intellectually....

    • FOUR The Poet Begins
      (pp. 65-80)

      Akiko’s writing grew out of her reading, but in a strange way. What inspired her was not the poetry she liked but the poetry she did not. As she said in “My First Poems”:

      My first attempt at writing was when [at eleven or twelve] I was shocked at the clumsiness of the women’s tanka in theGosenshūorShūishū,at how bad the tanka of a noblewoman called Shinchūnagon were. I realized that if women didn’t really exert themselves they would never be able to mix with men on an equal footing, so I decided to test my own...

  7. LOVE AND POETRY: 1900–1901
    • FIVE Tekkan Enters
      (pp. 83-107)

      With this poem, Yosano Tekkan, editor of the new magazineMyōjō, whose first issue had appeared shortly before in April 1900, entreated Akiko, who by then was well-known in Kansai poetry circles, to become a contributor. Tekkan did not know Akiko himself, so he asked his old friend Kōno Tetsunan to convey the message.¹

      Akiko felt humble before the invitation (“I’m too embarrassed to send any poems to Myōjō so my older brother, let me hide under your wing,” she wrote to Tetsunan),² but nevertheless responded with seven poems, six of which Tekken accepted for the May issue ofMyōjō....

    • SIX The Uses of Poetry
      (pp. 108-127)

      Tekkan took the last train back to Tokyo on August 19, 1900, ten days later than planned. He was seen off from Umeda Station in Osaka by Yamakawa Tomiko and Kobayashi Tenmin (1877–1956), the editor ofKansai Bungaku.¹ Akiko had met Tekkan five times; Tomiko, because she saw him off, six.

      The trip to the west had been a success, and on the way home, forKansai Bungaku’s September issue, Tekkan wrote poems to five of those who had helped make it so, including Kyōan, Tomiko, and Akiko. The one for Akiko

      (Ōtori joshi ni yosu,“Dedicated to Miss...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. 128-136)
    • SEVEN Autumn in the West
      (pp. 137-150)

      On October 27, Kyōan received a sudden telegram from Tekkan announcing his arrival in Kobe. He rushed over from Osaka just as he was, with no time to prepare for a proper reception. Tekkan looked “somehow thinner” than he had two months before, and Kyōan, wondering if “the autumn wind had stirred some deep emotion,” felt “tremendous pity.”¹ The hyperbolic response suggests that Kyōan knew things he thought best omitted from his account of Tekkan’s ten-day trip, which appeared in the December 1900 issue ofKansai Bungakuin the form of an open letter to Kawai Suimei.

      Tekkan was indeed...

    • EIGHT The Warm Snows of Miyako
      (pp. 151-169)

      Akiko saw in the twentieth century in Sakai, celebrating the New Year of 1901 at Hamadera on January 3 along with Kawai Suimei, Taku Gangetsu, and Kōno Tetsunan.¹ Tekkan spent that day at Kamakura, with members of the New Poetry Society; soon after he set off for the west. On the sixth, he was the central speaker at an all-day workshop and meeting sponsored jointly by the New Poetry Society’s Kobe branch and the Kansai Literary Society. Speaking in front of a capacity audience of over sixty people, far more than expected,² he announced: “We stand at an extreme position:...

    • NINE Tokyo and Tangled Hair
      (pp. 170-187)

      Akiko’s answer to Tekkan’s letter of May 3 is not extant, but her letter of May 29 is probably a reply to one setting a specific date for her to come to Tokyo, for she described herself as “very happy.” Happy she undoubtedly was, but her happiness those days was never far from tears. The letter described her behavior the night before. Propped up on her elbows on top of the bedclothes while gazing at the lamp, she had fallen into her usual reverie. At first she thought of one of Tekkan’s tanka in the May issue ofMyōjō: “A...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. 188-196)
    • TEN The Variety of Tangled Hair
      (pp. 199-226)

      The world ofTangled Hair—its settings, characters, and voices—is the subject of this chapter. In addition to settings both imaginary and realistic, there are a multitude of voices and characters, so many that a single chapter cannot encompass them all.

      Many of the poems ofTangled Hairare set in an imaginary world whose implicit setting is the “land of spring.” Akiko’s earliest use of the expression was in:

      Drops from

      the young one’s hair

      piled up in the grass

      then were born as a butterfly

      This is the land of spring

      Wakaki ko ga / kami no...

    • ELEVEN The Shape of Tangled Hair
      (pp. 227-249)

      Today,Tangled Hair’s sensuality and beauty still have the power to delight, but after a century dominated by the ideas on sexuality of Akiko’s contemporaries Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and Havelock Ellis (1859–1939), even Akiko’s boldest love poems cannot shock us as they did those first readers. There is another way in which our reading differs from theirs, too: we do it with the benefit of scholarly commentary.

      Early readers ofTangled Hairhad only their own instincts and a few reviews and commentaries as guides, and even those dealt with only a fraction of the poems, omitting...

    • TWELVE The Originality of Tangled Hair
      (pp. 250-259)

      The two pervasive themes ofTangled Hairare love and poetry, but these are expressed by a variety of speakers and settings, so that the overall impression the collection makes, once understood, is polyphonic. There is another way in whichTangled Hairis diverse as well, and that is in the number of poets whose presence one feels in it. This is not solely a question of influence in the usual sense of an immature poet borrowing from or imitating an older one. There is a more intimate, almost physical connection between the authorial voice and the poets Akiko invokes,...

    (pp. 260-266)

    From 1900 to 1908, when the New Poetry Society andMyōjōwere in their heyday, Yosano Tekkan, the man at their center, nourished many of the most talented poets of the time. The literary careers of Ishikawa Takuboku, Kitahara Hakushū (1885–1942), and Yoshii Isamu (1886–1960) all took off under his wing. And so, of course, did Akiko’s. How much did she owe him? Her earliest literary activities, as narrated in previous chapters, show that she had come pretty far before she met Tekkan, and no one has seriously suggested that her later poetry was ever imitative of his;...

    (pp. 267-282)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 283-312)
    (pp. 313-324)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 325-338)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 339-342)