Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3


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


You have yet to touch
This soft flesh,
This throbbing blood --
Are you not lonely,
Expounder of the Way?

(yawahada no atsuki chishio ni furemomide
sabishikarazuya michiwo toku kim

This is a poem written in 1901 by a twenty-two year old emerging poet of that time, Yosano Akiko (1878-1942). Akiko, in this Tanka poem, (31 syllables, arranged 5-7-5-7-7), compactly expressed her insuppressible love, sexuality and the liveliness of youth by using such imagery as "soft flesh" and "throbbing blood." Although Meji Japan was modernizing and starting to accept Western culture, the majority of women still lived in the old way; they were confined by the conventions of the old feudal system. Women normally accepted arranged marriage, and after marriage, they were expected to play a wifely role: as the saying "Onna sankai ni ie nashi" (there is no home for women in the past, present nor future) teaches, women were supposed to submit to fathers, husbands and sons, and were always the possessions of others. Women's domestic and social roles were to produce children, particularly boys who would inherit the family name and also support the strong nation. Women were imprisoned by the idea of womanhood as defined by society.

The image of women that Yosano Akiko illustrated in her poems was revolutionary; it was far from the conventional picture of women. The women Akiko depicted were lively, free, sexual and assertive. They do not passively wait for men to find them. They are the agents of their love – they find love and pursue it. Akiko's seductive and sexual poems were sensational at the time, for they challenged patriarchal society and literary and cultural conventions. Akiko's works received severe criticism, yet also provided great inspiration to women of the time.


Yosano Akiko

Yosano Akiko (Hou Shiyou) was born in Sakai, Osaka, the daughter of the owner of the famous confectionary shop Surugaya. Her father was a bourgeois merchant who loved art and literature. Akiko's mother was his second wife, and Akiko had two older step sisters. Akiko had an elder brother, but he died when he was young. When his son died, Akiko's father was very disappointed and upset. For Japanese families, sons, who inherit the name of ie (family), were very important, particularly for a family like that of Akiko’s father, which ran a business. Angry and devastated, the father even left home for a while. Akiko stayed at her aunt's home for three years. Akiko felt that she was not loved by her parents and had a lonely childhood. She grew up to become a quiet but rebellious girl.

Yosano Akiko went to Sakai Girl's high school and graduated in 1892. After that, she helped her family business for a while. However, she got extremely bored of working and was frustrated by her intellectually non-stimulating life. She writes in her essay: "I grew up wrapping yokan in bamboo bark. I grew up waiting for every evening to end so I could steal the last thirty minutes or hour of lamplight and, unknown to my parents, read until midnight. . . . My parents wanted to bring me up as 'an ordinary woman'" (Beichman 57). Finding books in her father's library, she read many books from Japanese classics to Western literature. Akiko particularly enjoyed reading The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book, and Utsuho Monogatari, indulging herself in the romantic world of love (Later, Akiko translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese).

When Akiko was sixteen, she read Manyoshu, a collection of ancient Japanese poetry from the 8th century. It had a great impact on her and she started to write Tanka poetry. She joined a poetry circle, Sakai shikishima kai, in Osaka, and published her works in Yoshiashigusa, a poetry journal. She gradually began to gain a good reputation. Through her literary activities, Akiko became acquainted with such poets as Yamakawa Tomiko and Yosano Tekkan. Akiko admired Tekkan and respected him as her mentor. Tekkan was the editor of a newly created magazine, Myojo, and Akiko started to contribute to it. Her respect for Tekkan started to change into love. Tekkan had a common law wife and a child at that time, but Akiko did not hesitate to show her love. Recollecting her passionate feelings for him, she later writes in her "My Conception of Chastity": "By an unexpected chance, I came to know a certain man and my sexual feelings underwent a violent change to a strange degree. For the first time I experienced the emotion of a real love that burned my body" (Beichman 108). Akiko left home to be with Tekkan and married him in 1902. Midaregami (Tangled Hair) is her first collection of Tanka. It contains 399 poems, among which 385 are love poems expressing her feelings toward Tekkan. Midaregami summarizes Akiko's passion toward love and poetry during her young days.

Poems from Midaregami

Pressing my breasts
I softly kick aside
the Curtain of mystery
How deep the crimson
of the flower here
[trans. Janine Beichman]

(chibusa osae shinpi no tobari sotokerinu
kokonaru hana no benizo koki

Throughout Midaregami, such imagery as breasts, lips, skin, shoulders, and hair are emphasized, symbolizing femininity and women's sexuality. This femininity, however, is different from that of old times. It is completely new, recreated by Akiko for the women of a new age. The woman in the poem touches her breasts, opening the door to a sensuous world. The woman is probably a young maiden like Akiko who is excited about her first experience of love. Women, particularly unmarried women, at that time, were taught to be modest and passive about sex, and were supposed to hide their sexual desires. The woman (Akiko), however, does not hesitate to reveal her curiosity for the world of Eros and dares to break the taboos in poetic expressions.

The image of a maiden touching her own breasts in a shy manner recalls the Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." The body of a woman is glorified, mythologized and treated as if it is that of Venus. Before the Meiji era, feminine beauty and sexuality were considered to be the province of courtesans. In portraits, these beautiful women were always decorated with gorgeous kimono and beautiful hair styles: feminine beauty was sophisticated, yet artificial. After the Meiji era, however, Western art was introduced and nudity became an obsession among Japanese artists. The cover pictures of Myojo magazine employed the Art Nouveau style, and their bold and sensuous depiction of female bodies shocked the Japanese, even creating a debate called "ratai ronso" (debate about nudity). It is obvious that Yosano Akiko was influenced by modern art. In fact, the cover picture of Midaregami is strongly reminiscent of a painting by Alphonse Mucha (a picture of a woman with a long hair framed in a heart which is struck by an arrow).

The idea of nudity changed Japanese people's views toward eroticism and female sexuality. Until that time, breasts in art and literature had been considered to be symbols of child feeding and motherhood, but they came to mean something apart from reproduction: they began to represent the natural beauty of a young woman. The door Akiko opens lead Japanese women to new representations of sexuality and the female body.

Here is another poem which treats breasts as a symbol of new feminine beauty:

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.

The following poem also extols the beauty of young maidenhood:

That girl at twenty-
her black hair ripples
through the comb
in the pride of spring --
such beauty!

(sono ko hatachi kushini nagaruru kurokami no
ogori no haru no utsukushiki kana

The glorification of maiden selfhood and the body is stressed in the following poem, too.

I also had an hour when I,
After a hot bath, dressed aright
with a smile playing in my eye
did stand before a mirror bright
[trans. Honda Heihachiro]

(Yuagari ni mijimai narite sugatami ni
emishi kinou no naki ni shimoaruzu)

The girl's body is reflected in a mirror: she is looking at herself and singing about herself. Self image had never been the central focus of poems by women, but Akiko broke a poetic convention, releasing women from the limits of self expression. Women had been exposed under the gaze of men, however, Akiko's poems construct the narcissistic world of a girl, teaching their female audience that it is all right to appreciate and indulge in their own beauty. Thus, women’s new expressions of body and sexuality are based on their own subjectivity and control.

Hair is another important symbol of femininity. Long and black hair has been admired and depicted in works of art for centuries. For instance, in The Tale of Genji, almost every episode contains a depiction of women’s beautiful hair, as if it is part of women’s identity. Long black hair symbolizes the nobility, gracefulness and sexuality of aristocrat women. The image of hair is a significant motif in the depiction of romantic situations in Japanese literature. Yosano Akiko, who grew up reading classic literature, had a romantic attachment to the traditional image of hair and a longing for the passionate and romantic love which is associated with beautiful long hair.

Measures my hair a full five feet
And washed and combed so soft and fair
As is my heart virginal and sweet
I cherish with a tender care
[trans. Honda Heihachiro]

(Kami goshaku tokinaba mizu ni yawarakaki
Onnna gokorowa himete hanataji

The girl's soft, black and tender hair is cherished by the girl herself. Just like her cleanly washed hair, she is pure and innocent. The girl is content with her own body and enjoys this period of her life. While carefully combing her soft and full hair, she narcissistically appreciates her feminine and young selfhood.

In ancient court poetry, hair was often used to express the inner feelings of women. The movement of hair was used as a perfect means of expressing such feelings as anger, frustration, confusion, and jealousy which were caused by romantic relationships with men. Izumi Shikibu, a female poet from 11th century, presents a wonderfully emotional hair image:

My black hair tangled
As my own tangled thoughts,
I lie here alone,
Dreaming of one who has gone,
Who stroked my hair till it shone.

(Kurokami no midaremo shirazu
uchifuseba mazukakiyarishi hitozo koishiki

Black tangled hair implies the confusion and uneasy feeling caused by love relationships. Tangled hair also suggests erotic beauty and implies the intimacy of men and women in bed. Yosano Akiko also expresses women's emotion using hair imagery:

A thousand lines
Of black black hair
All tangles, tangles --
And tangles too
My thoughts of love!

(Kurokami no sensuji no kamino midaregami
katsuomoi midare omoi midaruru

The flood of emotion and overwhelming feelings of love are expressed through hair. While using a traditional poetic image of hair, Akiko exposes the vivid emotion of realistic woman. Her poetic creativity is revolutionary; Akiko instills female selfhood in the framework of traditional poetry.
Yosano Akiko's works combine the physical beauty of Western painting and the erotic beauty of traditional Japan. While she breaks conventional poetic taboos, she maintains the values of the traditional poetic world. The mixture of Western and Eastern images makes her poetry novel and uniquely romantic.


Yosano Akiko in her Midaregami expressed the sexuality of women's bodies without hesitation. Women's bodies had been considered reproductive machinery, possessed by families and husbands. Akiko tried to gain control of her own body. The ideas of womanhood and femininity had been defined by society, but Akiko recreated them and expressed them in the world of Tanka poetry. Akiko is one of the first female literary figures who was not afraid to break conventions and to live truthfully to her own passion for love and literature.

The first Japanese feminist group, "Seito," was formed in 1911; amazingly it was ten years after the publication of Midaregami. Yosano Akiko got involved in Seito later and debated such topics as the equality of women in marriage, the issue of women and labor and the nature of women’s maternal role, contributing to the formation of early Japanese feminism. Midaregami is a celebratory work which signals the awakening of Japanese women. Akiko’s challenging spirit has been handed down to women of later generations, still providing creativity and inspiration.

Works Cited:

Beichman, Janine. Embracing The Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female
Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry
. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Egusa Mitsuko. “Yosano Akiko, Midaregami: Gender to shintai no gensetsu.” Gender
no Nihon kindai bungaku
. Tokyo: Kanrin shobo, 1998. 39-45.

Hirako Kyoko. Yosano Akiko. Tokyo: Kawade shobo, 1995.

Larson, Phyllis Hyland. “Yosano Akiko and the Re-Creation of the Female Self: An
Autogynography.” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 25.1
(1991): 10-26.

Ohara Eriko. Kurokami no bunkashi. Tokyo: Tsukiji shokan, 2000.

Rodd, Laurel Rasplica. “Yosano Akiko and the Taisho Debate over the ‘New Woman.”
Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945. Gail Lee Bernstein, ed. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1991. 175-198.

Ueda Hiroshi and Tomimura Shunzo, eds. Yosano Akiko o manabu hito no tameni.
Tokyo: Sekai shiso sha, 1995.

Yosano Akiko. Tangled Hair: Selected Tanka from Midaregami. Trans. Sanford
Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda.

_____. Midaregami: The Poetry of Yosano Akiko. Trans. Honda Heihachiro. Tokyo: Hokuseido shoten, 1952.

Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase is assistant professor of Japanese at Vassar College. She teaches Japanese literature, offering courses such as “Japanese Gothic Literature” and “Japanese Popular Culture and Literature.” Her research interest is early twentieth century girls’ magazine culture.

Her publications include “Early Twentieth Century Japanese Girls’ Magazine Stories: Examining Shojo Voice in Hanamonogatari (Flower Tales)” (Journal of Popular Culture 36.4 [2003]: 724-55) and “Shojo and Yamanba: Mori Mari’s Literature” (PAJLS 5 [2004]: 109-23).

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku