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  • X-Rated and Excessively Long:Ji-Amari in Hayashi Amari's Tanka
  • Jon Holt (bio)

As a fixed 31-syllable form of short poetry, Japan's tanka is one of the world's oldest forms of still-practiced poetry, with examples perhaps dating back to the fifth century. In the modern periods of Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishō (1912-1926), poets radically reformed the genre, expanding diction beyond millennium-old classical limits, thereby allowing poets to write not only about cherry blossoms and tragic love but also about things like steam trains and baseball games; although today many tanka poets in practicing circles still employ classical Japanese, many modern masters innovated the genre by skillfully blending in colloquial language. Like their modern forebears, poets in the contemporary period (1945-present) continue to experiment with the metrical and time limits of this short form.

Hayashi Amari (b. 1963) is one poet who frequently and consistently violated the thirty-one-syllable count when she wrote her unabashedly frank poems about female sexuality in MARS*ANGEL (Maasu-enjeru, 1986), Scent of Nanako (Nanako no nioi, 1988), and X-Rated Couple (Futari etchi, 1999). Viewed early on as a rebel who wrote [End Page 72] "light-verse" (raito vaasu) (Hara 1990, 97), she made an impact on the world of tanka for her rule-breaking tanka, her songwriting for contemporary ballads, and her experiments with hybrid collections of tanka and illustrations, including manga. These "collaborative" works include famed manga artists and illustrators Hayashi Sei'ichi (no relation), Tōno Kazumi, and Katsu Aki. In some instances, her savvy publishers have helped market Hayashi Amari's poems to larger audiences with deluxe pictorial editions; in other cases, the artists provide images to accompany Hayashi's works; in others, as in her adaptation of Katsu Aki's manga, Hayashi fashions new poems based on Katsu's scenes and characters. "The character wrote the poems for me," she remembers (Hayashi 1998, 227). Her variegated publishing output alone demands further examination, but first and foremost one must consider how Hayashi's skill and unusual style as a poet established her as a prominent voice in tanka in the 1980s and 1990s.

Although her place in the world of tanka may have been eclipsed by the rise of Tawara Machi (b. 1962), whose Salad Anniversary (Sarada kinenbi, 1987) created a larger boom of interest in the genre, Hayashi's work—although now overlooked—still serves as a compelling reminder that the conservative world of tanka was changing in other dramatic ways before the end of the millennium. Scholars and critics (Lovitz et al. 1994; Okai et al. 1998; Okai and Michiura 1999; Homura 2015) have often commented on the content of her highly sexualized and feminist poetry, but one of Hayashi's achievements was to gain admittance to the tanka world, even though she frequently breaks the 31-syllable count that has defined the medium for over a thousand years.

In this article, I examine how Hayashi's poetic art, far from being defective, capitalizes on hypermetric verses, or ji-amari, both in order to explore female sexuality and to challenge conservative poetic norms. Her excessively long verses bring into focus what kind of freedoms women in particular began to enjoy in the tanka world of the late 1980s and 1990s. Hayashi's case indicates the limits of such agency, as she was challenged by fellow poets, critics, and the general public. Ultimately, her ji-amari-laden tanka reveal the potential for personal expression—both in terms of content and form—that a female tanka poet could expect as her star rose in the 1990s.

"Fake and Artificial": Resisting Traditional Tanka Rhythm

Writing in 1998, a decade after her debut, Hayashi describes her entry into the world of tanka as highly unlikely given that, as a high school student, she was no fan of tanka, haiku, or free verse (shi):

Poetry was something that I associated with rhythm, and rhythm could never make me feel it was something other than fake (uso-kusai) and artificial (kazarimono)…. The [End Page 73] only thing I trusted were words… and free verse seemed heretical although it consisted of words. Particularly, tanka and...