- Tangled Kami: Yosano Akiko’s Supernatural Symbolism
Yosano Akiko (born Hō Shō, 1878–1942) became a literary sensation in 1901 when she defied conventions of poetic style and morals to glorify a young woman’s passionate love in the 399 tanka of Midaregami (Tangled hair). Her transformation into a goddess of poetry—and the key to understanding so many of her perplexing poems—was incubated by her rivalry with the poet Yamakawa Tomiko (1879–1909) for the love of Yosano Tekkan (1873–1935), founder of the Tokyo Shinshisha (New Poetry Society).1 Akiko married Tekkan shortly after Midaregami was published, and she soon outshone her husband as a poet. In her distinguished and productive career, she also made major contributions as a feminist social critic and as a scholar of classical literature—all while raising eleven children.
Those are the familiar contours of a story that is repeated in many biographical studies, annotated anthologies of poetry, and histories of modern Japanese literature. Yet Midaregami, arguably the single most celebrated poetry collection since the Meiji Restoration (1868), is still undervalued and misunderstood.2 Critics characteristically extol the putative immediacy and unrestrained passion of Akiko’s poems. But it is not their passion alone that causes the spark to ignite in the reception of these poems, although they are certainly more explicit and suggestive than their precursors: it is their particular investment of supernatural, religious, and moral meanings in matters of passion. Akiko expands the scope of what her tanka can do by creating friction between her religious metaphors and her sensuous descriptions. The poems stand both sexual and religious mores on their heads. Carnal desire is more than just physical; it is spiritual, and it is augmented by the multiple, tangled metaphysical associations to which the individual tanka of Midaregami commit to different degrees. [End Page 28]
Scholars have mostly passed over Midaregami’s supernatural references, apparently because Akiko herself was not religious, so that biographical explanations would not be able to account for them.3 Shame, remorse, and uncertainty may not fit our picture of Akiko the prodigious literary talent and towering political figure (or Akiko the sheltered bookworm, for that matter), but they do figure prominently in Midaregami, lending many of the tanka a fraught ambivalence and ambiguity. In short, biographical criticism does a disservice to Akiko’s genius and influence by trying to untangle what should remain tangled.
My goal in this study, then, is to contribute to our understanding of how the poetry collection stimulated and confused readers, by focusing on one of the most significant, and largely overlooked, patterns in Midaregami: the presence of supernatural figures, symbols, and concepts. Approximately one-fourth of the 399 tanka contain references to divinities, sin, shrines, priests, or religious texts. Those references may be Buddhist, Shinto, or Christian; it is not always clear which. At the same time, the religion remains abstract: sutras stand for traditional values and wisdom, but nothing more specific; sensuality is sporadically sinful, but the reasons for this are unexpressed. The poetic speakers of these poems are sometimes devout, sometimes defiant, and often ambivalent in the face of religious standards. While many of the references might be dismissed simply as metaphors for the divinity of love or lust, particularly as they do not reflect any devout beliefs of the poet herself, such a dismissal overlooks the rhetorical suppleness that these inventions impart to the brief tanka. Akiko mixes supernatural symbolism with traditional tanka diction and allusions, and the resulting layers of meaning are all the more outrageous for this combination. They not only appeal to—and sometimes upend—religious ideals, but also invoke ideals of nature as normative with or against such religious ideals. In this light, even the moments of realistic description are fraught with moral significance. Akiko thus constructs a poetic cosmos always teeming with intermingled deities and humans, both exalted and both coarsened by passion. The prominent but contestable status of the supernatural in the poems both extends beyond the natural and undermines the reliability of the natural.
By far the most common of the many supernatural signs is kami (deity or spirit), which appears in 47 tanka. This is...