Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology

Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology

Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology

Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology


Throughout history, Japanese women have excelled in poetry - from the folk songs of the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) compiled in 712 and the court poetry of the 9th to the 14th centuries, on through the age of haikai and kanshi to the 19th century, into the contemporary period when books of women's poems have created a sensation.This anthology presents examples of the work of more than 100 Japanese women poets, arranged chronologically, and of all the major verse forms: choka, tanka, haikai (haiku), kanshi (verse written in Chinese), and free verse. The poems describe not just seasonal changes and the vagaries of love - which form the thematic core of traditional Japanese poetry - but also the devastations of war, childbirth, conflicts between child-rearing and work, experiences as refugees, experiences as non-Japanese residents in Japan, and more.Sections of poetry open with headnotes, and the editor has provided explanations of terms and references for those unfamiliar with the Japanese language. Other useful tools include a glossary of poetic terms, a chronology, and a bibliography that points the reader toward other works by and about these poets. There is no comparable collection available in English.Students and anyone who appreciates poetry and Japanese culture will treasure this magnificent anthology. Editor and translator Hiroaki Sato is a past winner of the PEN America translator prize and the Japan-United States Friendship Commission's 1999 literary translation award.


Something held women back when it came to the writing of poetry, and since
whatever it was that held them back failed to hold women back from writing
novels, we must suppose that the inhibition had something, at least, to do with
the antiquity and prestige of the art

—James Fenton

Japanese poetry, which dates from the seventh century or earlier, has two distinct features: the sizable presence of women poets from the outset and a verse structure based on simple syllabic patterns.

Japan’s oldest extant book, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), compiled in 712, and the more elaborate retelling of the same mythological and semimythological imperial lineage, the Nihon Shoki (History of Japan), compiled in 720, together contain a total of 190 distinct songs, and 58 of them, or 30 percent, are attributed to women. The figure falls to 12 percent for the Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the great anthology of about 4,550 poems that took shape in the late eighth century. In “the twenty-one imperial anthologies,” compiled from the early tenth century to 1439, the number of women included sometimes becomes very small, but they are always present. In the case of the fourth imperial anthology, the Go-Shūishū (Collection of Later Gleanings), compiled in 1087, 104 of the total of 329 poets are women, as are the three best represented: Izumi Shikibu (born late 970s), Sagami (991?–1061?), and Akazome Emon (957?–1041?). This came about, explained the poet and ethnological student of Japanese literature Orikuchi Shinobu (Shaku Chōkū; 1887–1953),

1. James Fenton, The Strength of Poetry: Oxford Lectures (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 103.

2. The idea of compiling verse anthologies by the order of the emperor apparently came from China, but China never pursued the matter in earnest. Japan, in any case, is almost certainly the only country in the world that produced so many anthologies at the behest of the head of state. See Maruya Saiichi’s short history of Japanese literature, Nihon Bungaku Hayawakari (Kōdansha, 1984), 7–8.

3. The “real” names of women poets in early periods are often unknown. The names we know are usually “court (nick)names,” and the naming can be capricious. Izumi Shikibu was so called because her husband, Tachibana no Michisada, once served as governor of Izumi Province, and her father, Ōe no Masamune, was an officer in the Shikibu-shō, Ministry of Ceremonial. Sagami, who had nothing that might correspond to the second part of a “full name,” was so called because her husband, Ōe no Kimiyori, once served as governor of Sagami Province. Akazome Emon was so called because her father, Akazome Tokimochi, was an emon, a palace guard. She was also called Masahira Emon because her husband was Ōe no Masahira.

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