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TANKA TAKE HOME – 10th May 2023. 20th Century Japanese Tanka Poets: Yosano Akiko

Updated: May 16

hosts: Firdaus Parvez, Kala Ramesh, Priti Aisola & Suraja Menon Roychowdhury

Introducing a new perspective to our Wednesday Feature!

This month we will discuss some of the prominent Japanese poets of the 20th century who were influential in the evolution of tanka as we know it today. Much of the material presented is taken from the book Modern Japanese Tanka edited and translated by Makoto Ueda, as well as other sources on the internet.

Yosano Akiko:

Akiko (maiden name Ho Sho) was born on Dec 7, 1878 to a merchant's family in a small town near Osaka. Although she was educated only until middle school, she read widely thanks to her love for literature, while tending the family cake shop. She began writing tanka around the age of 16. A couple of years later she joined a group of local poets and very soon had tanka published in Myojo, the magazine founded by Yosano Tekkan. She met Tekkan a few months later and the couple immediately fell deeply in love, despite the fact that Tekkan was already married and had a child. Facing her parents' and society's disapproval, she moved in with him, and married him after he obtained a divorce from his first wife. Her first book on poetry Midaregami (Tangled Hair) described the extent of her passion in detail, including several sensual poems, thus bringing the focus of tanka even more on the individual and personal experience. She came to be known as the foremost writer of love poetry and her success led to the success of Myojo (1). Throughout her career she was outspoken about several issues, including female sexuality, the role of women not just as wives and mothers; politics, womens' rights etc (2).

The sheer volume of work that Akiko produced is staggering. A highly prolific, versatile and talented poet, Akiko wrote over 40,000 tanka. In addition she published one novel, four volumes of stories for children, some 700 poems in free verse, and eighteen collections of essays on poetry, literature, and contemporary social issues. She also translated a number of Japanese classics into modern Japanese, including the massive Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji). Her passion for promoting liberal education led her to found Bunka Gakuin, a combination private girls' school and educational college. She did all that while raising eleven children.

Akiko travelled widely to give lectures as well as write poetry. She was widowed in 1935, but supported by a loving family of children and grandchildren. She died on May 29, 1942.

This tanka and the accompanying commentary is taken from the article in Simply Haiku titled Awakening Female Sexuality in Yosano Akiko's Midaregami (Tangled Hair)

by Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase (3):


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)

Spring, 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 short adolescent 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 of her own growing body are witnessed here."


but for women

writhing like vengeful demons

screaming like wild boars

no child of man

would ever be born

This tanka, translated by Makoto Ueda, was written after Akiko gave birth for the fourth time to twins, one of whom was stillborn. It appears to rail against the view of women purely as mothers, and paints the agony of childbirth. It also seems to rail against the patriarchy- 'no child of man would ever be born'. Why is the child known as being the father's when it is the mother who suffers...


1. Modern Japanese Tanka edited and translated by Makoto Ueda


3. Awakening Female Sexuality in Yosano Akiko's Midaregami (Tangled Hair) by Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase

I would encourage all readers here to read the Wikipedia article on Yosano Akiko to get a grasp of the vastness of her work and influence. Simply incredible!

This Week's Challenge: Write about a social evil. Use elegant but powerful language. I have no more to say- because I am off reading more of her work :)

An essay on how to write tanka:


1. Post only one poem at a time, only one per day.

2. Only 2 tanka and two tanka-prose per poet per prompt. Tanka art, too.

3. Share your best-polished pieces.

4. Please do not post something in a hurry or something you have just written. Let it simmer for a while.

5. Post your final edited version on top of your original verse.

6. Don't forget to give feedback on others' poems.

We are delighted to open the comment thread for you to share your unpublished tanka and tanka-prose (within 250 words) to be considered for inclusion in the haikuKATHA monthly magazine.

We are saddened to share the news that tanka pioneer (poet and translator) Sanford Goldstein has passed away at the age of 97. In 2015, the Tanka Society of America named its annual contest after Sanford. You can read more about Sanford Goldstein at


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