To Translate the Shaking: Contemporary Japanese Women's Poetry (and Coaxing It into English)

Article excerpt

The word I see most often in connection with contemporary Japanese women's poetry is yureteiru, shaking. The poetry is not unstable and certainly not indifferent, just shaking--in flux and reaching for a landing point, however impermanent. This shaking is thrown into relief by the assumed stability of society as a whole. The Japanese economy is coming apart at the seams, but most people rarely speak of it. A startling common concept is isshin-denshin, essentially meaning "mind reading"--the ability of one Japanese person to see into another's heart without an exchange of words. Also, I have had a highly educated older gentleman tell me calmly that no foreigners live in Japan, when he knew very well that I'd been living there for two years. There is a myth of homogeneity and definability. Social roles and perceptions are changing, but slowly. Even in the early 1990s, "understanding personal responsibility" and "self-reliance" ranked highest on a list of desirable qualities to develop in young boys, while the same qualities ranked low for girls. High-ranking female attributes were "sensitivity to other people's needs" and "gentleness." Just ten years ago, only 34 percent of Japanese people polled said that girls and boys should be raised the same, compared to 62 percent of Americans polled, 67 percent of Philippinos/Philippinas, and 92 percent of Swedish people.

Overall, it would be ridiculous to promote the stereotype that Japanese women have no rights or that they believe themselves inferior to men. On the contrary, women have been making slow but steady steps toward social equality. The newest advertisement for the country's main economics newspaper shows a young, good-looking man reading the newspaper while an equally attractive young woman in a suit stands in the background, arms crossed. The text translates as, "Women have changed. Now how about the men?" Still the world of literary publishing, while recognizing women's contributions, still struggles with gender divisions. For example, the "Poemu Parouru" (Poem Parole) bookstore nestles in a fifth-floor corner of one of the immense department stores that dominate Tokyo's major train stations. This store is unique, in that it offers only poetry and poetry criticism. A heavy wooden bookshelf of prize-winning poetry from several countries rests to the left of the door. To the right is a long shelf of back issues of Gendaishi Techou, the most-established poetry journal in the nation. Smaller literary magazines are neatly arrayed on white spinning racks near the register. Across the main wall, of course, march row after row of mostly hard-bound books of poetry and criticism, neatly divided, with the male writers on the left and the female writers in a smaller section on the right.

You read that correctly. Japanese literature is divided starkly by gender, and women's poetry hangs in an odd balance, simultaneously needing to be engaged as a body of work, while women critics openly recognize that the phrase "women's poetry," by definition, separates the work from the rest of the field. Last year, Gendaishi Techou published an issue called "Thirty-four Women Poets," but the previous issue contained only six women out of thirty-three poets. Both of this year's winners of the magazine's top prize, though, were women. This is an ambiguous time for women's art but an exciting one. As society slowly brings a greater sense of equality into focus, the genre of women's poetry finds itself in a sea of shifting tendencies, many of which revolve around how to respond to questions of subjectivity--the speaking "I" or lack thereof--and gender.

It's impossible to discuss Japanese women's poetry without referencing the work of Ito Hiromi, who now lives in California. (Note that names of writers appear in Japanese order, with family names first, followed by the given name.) Although Ito writes mostly fiction at the moment, her innovative, improvisational work is still breaking taboos. …