Japanese Anti-War Poet

Born in 1878 , the daughter of a wealthy merchant who owned a sweets shop in Sakai near Osaka,  Akiko Yosano loved to read more than to mind the shop. When her younger brother invited her to attend a meeting of young writers, she was at first appalled. In those days, woman did not join a meeting of all men.

Akiko Yosano, poet

But at least one person she met there encouraged her to send in some of her poems to their magazine. The editor of Myojo, Yosano Tekkan visited Osaka to lecture and he encouraged her to send in her poems. She sent in seven and six of them were published. She later became a regular contributor to this independent “zine” . Tekkan and Akiko fell in love and, even though he had a common law wife. He divorced his wife and began a new life with Akiko .

Cover of Myojo literary magazine

At first, he gave her advice and edited her poetry, but she came to surpass him in fame, publishing many poems and books. While giving birth to twelve children, she supported the family with her prolific writing. She is known for her tanka poems (shorter than haiku, they contain a sequence of syllables in lines  of  5-7-5-7-7).

Akiko chose themes that were bold and daring for the period : oppression of the poor, or sexual feelings of women. The works of Tekkan and Akiko initiated a new romantic poetry that expressed a wide range of human feelings.

They were influenced by Western art, music and poetry that had begun to appear in Japan. She read the poems of Walt Whitman and was certainly influenced by his work.

Akiko and Tekkan Yosano

Her most famous poem is written as if to her younger brother who was drafted to fight in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). She never intended it to be anti-war but only urged her brother not to die on the battlefield.It is called  君死にたもうこと勿れ (O My Brother, You Must Not Die).

O My Brother, You Must Not Die

O my young brother, I cry for you
Don’t you understand you must not die!
You who were born the last of all
Command a special store of parents’ love
Would parents place a blade in children’s hands
Teaching them to murder other men
Teaching them to kill and then to die?
Have you so learned and grown to twenty-four?

O my brother, you must not die!
Could it be the Emperor His Grace
Exposeth not to jeopardy of war
But urgeth men to spilling human blood
And dying in the way of wild beasts,
Calling such death the path to glory?
If His Grace possesseth noble heart
What must be the thoughts that linger there?

Akiko Yosano
At the time this poem was not censored but in the militaristic 1930s, it was banned. She was expressing her love and concern for her brother and never spoke out against war during this part of her career.
Akiko went on to found a school of higher education for girls and to translate classical works such as Shinyaku Genji Monogatari and Man’yoshu.
Akiko Yosano died suddenly of a heart attack in 1942. Once out of print, her poems were rediscovered and read widely in the 1950s and even today.