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  • Heisei Murasaki:What Women Poets Have Found during Japan's Lost Decades
  • Jordan A. Y. Smith (bio)

Amidst the revolutionary modernization of Meiji-era Japan, author Shimizu Shikin (1869–1933) raised the provocative question of the "modern Murasaki"—asking where the equivalent of literary giant Murasaki Shikibu (author of The Tale of Genji) was to be found during Shikin's own time. This question was a dual move, both reminding readers of the strong presence of women writers in Japan's classical literary world and suggesting their equally vital role in forming literary discourse as a social force in Japan's modernizing world, despite women writers' critical lack of recognition by the male-dominated literary establishment.1 This question later became the impetus for Rebecca Copeland and Melek Ortobasi's 2006 anthology, The Modern Murasaki: Writing by Women of Meiji Japan.

The present selection of translated poetry by Misumi Mizuki, Fuzuki Yumi, Nagae Yūki, Saihate Tahi, and Ishiwata Kimi extends the question into the current era through two further queries. First, where is the modern Murasaki in contemporary Japan? And second, what does the history of women's poetry from Meiji Japan (1868–1912) through the Heisei era (1989–present) reveal about not only gender-aware but gender-transcendent traditions within Japanese culture? By focusing on the youngest generations of contemporary women poets, I aim both to showcase a selection of those on the cutting [End Page 102] edge—one continually reshaped by more established poets, such as Itō Hiromi, Arai Takako, and Hirata Toshiko, as well as those introduced here—and also to examine the poets who came to adulthood in the Heisei era of Japan's post-bubble economic stagnation. Their works demonstrate that this era almost mirrors Meiji in its sustained questioning of the self amidst unprecedented economic and social transformations.

Rebecca Copeland's (2000, ix) assertion of Meiji women writers as "vital components in a newly emerging national literary canon" has remained accurate through the course of modern literature in Japan, where women's definitive contributions have nonetheless had to fight for inclusion in male-dominated literary history and critical discourse. Copeland and Ortabasi (2006, ix) show how Shikin and her colleagues benefitted from Murasaki and her contemporary Sei Shōnagon as the "earliest examples of a refined and elegant Japanese literary language," whereas Sawako Nakayasu's introduction to her 2015 translation of the collected poems of Sagawa Chika (1911–36), Japan's first female modernist poet, traces a divergence from the modern Murasaki model after the Meiji era. Associating Yosano Akiko (1878–1942) with the Murasakiesque traditions of writing in Japanese forms connected with a past that had come to be seen as solidly canonical, Nakayasu characterizes Akiko as writing poetry as a "direct expression of femininity" situated within the matrix of the current historical moment. She contrasts this with Chika's work, which she sees as revolutionary in its transcendence of a gendered division between (female) traditional writing and (male) "intellectual explorations of the avant garde" (Sagawa 2015, xiv).

This twin trajectory was continued and complicated in the decades following the end the Pacific War in 1945. As Mizuta Noriko (2012, 37) has argued in her landmark study on Japanese women's poetry after World War II, this period saw writers such as Osaki Midori (1896–1971), Ishigaki Rin (1920–2004), and Ibaragi Noriko (1926–2006) addressing such gender-bound issues as childbirth and maternity while "overcoming a mode of literary production defined by a consciously feminine perspective." The poets included here exhibit a high degree of transcendence of gender limitations, yet many of them continue the tradition of contemplating what might be called corporeal femininity—sexuality, reproductivity, and maternity being most prominent—from diverse perspectives. And although their approach may be phrased in terms of "transcendence," some of the poems are so distant from specifically gendered themes that it is important to remember that this survey of women poets does not imply affinities among them at the level of topic, theme, style, or authorial experience. Indeed, their inhabitation of embodied identity is often written with the assumption of a diverse readership in mind, and the poems engage in universal humanism (or its...


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