Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dark Wings of Night: Four Tanka by Setsuko Horiai, Takuboku's Wife

Historically speaking, the name of Takuboku Ishikawa's wife, Setsuko Horiai (1886-1913), is  scarcely mentioned in tanka literature, except in cases of  outlining the main events in  his life, such as “1900 …Fell in love with Setsuko Horiai who was a student at Morioka Girls’ Middle School” and “1905 … Got married to Setsuko Horiai,”  and of  discussing “his egoism, which is largely about how he mistreated his wife and parents and how they had to sacrifice themselves due to his selfishness” (Raddekera, p. 185). To the best of my knowledge, Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda’s “Introduction” to Romaji Diary and Sad Toys is the first scholarly document in English to introduce readers to Setsuko Horiai as an inspired poet: “… The relationship between Takuboku and his wife, Setsuko, provides another of those strands of complexity in the poet’s life. They became acquainted when he was in middle school in Morioka, and at nineteen they had married. The new bride regularly attended the tanka meetings held at their home, and she even wrote some poems in the Myojo style of the day:” (p. 27)

Awake at dawn
After a night of sleep
On the grass in my beautiful robe --
The cricket's chirp
And my lover in dreams

This sunflower,
Flower of gold,
Suddenly in full bloom,
By my songs of flame!

This evening
of pale light
When the cricket sings:
Autumn has come,
Embracing these breasts.

This me, a black lily,
A cursed flower
That bloom in the shade
Of old mountains,
My hair long in summer

All these four tank powerfully express insuppressible love and female sexuality through such sensually evocative imagery, such as “On the grass in my beautiful robe,” “song of flames,”  “Embracing these breasts,” and “My hair long in summer.” And I particularly like the last two tanka:  L5 in the third one, “Embracing these breasts,” effectively shifts the theme, imagery, and tone of its preceding lines, reminding me of the following tanka by Akiko Yosano (1878-1942)

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

Pressing my breasts
I softly kick aside
the Curtain of mystery
How deep the crimson
of the flower here

The defiant fourth tanka, especially L5,  could be read as a poetic response to the thematic concern explored in Akiko Yosano’s poem below: 

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

According to Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase, “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 the poetic persona in these tanka is revolutionary: she is sensual, assertive, and defiant, thinking and acting like the ones portrayed in Akiko's groundbreaking collection of tanka, Midaregami (“Tangled Hair”).

Note: The Myojo (“The Morning Star”) style was a new style of writing tanka that was promoted by Tekkan Yosano (1873-1935), Akiko's husband and Editor of Myojo. Tired of  “lifeless, uninspiring poetry that expressed trite emotions in stereotyped diction” (Ueda, p. x), Tekkan tried to inject new life into this centuries-old genre, waka, by writing what he called jiga no shi or  “poetry of the self,” (ibid., p. xv), and claimed that:  “My poetry, varied as it is in style, has neither a teacher it follows nor a model it imitates. My poem is my poem.” (Ibid., pp. xv-xvi)


Takuboku Ishikawa, Romaji Diary and Sad Toys translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1985

Hélène Bowen Raddekera, “Takuboku's ‘poetic diary’ and Barthes's anti-autobiography: (postmodernist?) fragmented selves in fragments of a life,” Japanese Studies, 19:2, 1999, pp. 183-199.
Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase, "Awakening Female Sexuality in Yosano Akiko's Midaregami (Tangled Hair)," Simplay Haiku, 3:3, Autumn 2005.

Makoto Ueda, ed., Modern Japanese Tanka, Columbia university Press, 1996.


  1. Excerpted from Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase's Awakening Female Sexuality in Yosano Akiko's Midaregami (Tangled Hair):

    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 ....

    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.


    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.

  2. Mr. Liu,

    is The Myojo (“The Morning Star”) style defined by Tekkan's bringing forth of the 'jiga no shi' style? A better way to put that: Is the definition of the Myojo style, the poetry of the self/Jiga no shi?