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TANKA TAKE HOME – 24th May 2023. 20th Century Japanese Tanka Poets: Nakajo Fumiko

Updated: May 25

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.

Nakajo Fumiko

Nakajo Fumiko was born Noe Fumiko on Nov 25, 1922 in Obihiro, Hokkaido. Since she belonged to an affluent family she was sent to Tokyo for higher education. She wrote tanka during those school years, but did not pursue it further at that point in time. She married Nakajo Hiroshi in 1942 and had 6 children with him. However, her marriage was unhappy because of her husband's drinking and drug problems, as well as rumors of an extramarital affair. She sought refuge in writing tanka as her relationship deteriorated. She joined a local group of tanka poets and started getting her works published in magazines. Fumiko finally left her husband in 1950, taking two of the children with her and settled back at her parents' home. She sought to fill the emotional emptiness after her divorce by getting involved romantically with several young men. One of them, who she fell in love with, died of tuberculosis, leaving her heartbroken.

Unfortunately, and most tragically Fumiko was diagnosed with breast cancer. This was a terrible blow, following the hardships that she had already dealt with. She underwent mastectomies in 1952 and 1953. In Ueda's translation, she said "When I was confronted with the terror of the incurable disease I was for the first time convinced of my doom, and that conviction enabled my hands to reach life at the deepest level'. She felt that the tanka form with its syllabic constraints echoed her confined life in a cancer ward. She used the tanka as a weapon against her terror of cancer and death. In1954 a collection of 50 poems written by her won the first prize in a nationwide tanka competition that had been organized by a popular magazine. Two months later, another journal published 51 of her tanka. Her first book of tanka titled "Chibusa soshitsu (A Breast Lost) was published in July 1954. The title was an analogy to Rakuen soshitsu or Paradise Lost. A prepublication copy is all she saw,as she lay dying. She did not live to see her second book published, Hana no genkei or The Prototype of Flowers.

In 1955, Nikkatsu studios produced the film The Eternal Breasts (also known as Forever a Woman), based on Nakajō's life. It was directed by Kinuyo Tanaka and starred Yumeji Tsukioka, Ryoji Hayama and Yōko Sugi.

I have selected 3 of her tanka that depict aspects of her life. They have been translated by Makoto Ueda.


the yellow bus

bound for a suburb

where my husband lives

this morning carries

a gift of hatred from me

This tanka is clear in the emotions it wishes to convey. I find a contrast in the ordinariness of the yellow bus and her strong hatred towards her husband. Perhaps this was a bus they would take together when things were better- I do not know. To think of hatred as a passenger is unsettling- look next to you at the empty seat next time you're on a bus...:)


sharing the gentleness

two unrelated beings feel

toward each other

a grazing cow and I

in the setting sun

I hope Fumiko found moments of peace during her tortured life. Perhaps this was one of them, a feeling of serenity and oneness with the universe.


that hill

shaped like the breast

I have lost

will be adorned with

dead flowers in winter

Breasts...that body part that has had so much written about it, that has the power to drive men and women mad! Lust, romance, motherhood, old age, all embodied in them. What it must mean to lose one, or both at a time when a woman is in the prime of her life... And that too, to a disease that was going to kill her anyway. Perhaps she envied the earth, that had a breast-shaped hill. The dead flowers in winter, a metaphor for her own death that she knew was imminent. I find this tanka unbearably sad.


1. Modern Japanese Tanka edited and translated by Makoto Ueda



This week's challenge: Write a tanka depicting a strong emotion.

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. We are not looking at SEQUENCES NOW, of any length.

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

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

7. 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.

This post concludes this month's spotlight on some of Japan, and tanka's greatest poets. I do hope you have enjoyed them as much as I have during my readings :).


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