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Understanding Japanese Poet Yosano Akiko

Nancy Hamilton (second from right) pictured with the descendants of the railway official in whose memoir Akiko's letters were discovered.  Also pictured is the museum's Akiko expert Akiho Morishita (fifth from left), and Professor Janine Beichman of Tsukuba University (second from left).

Photo courtesy of Nancy Hamilton

April 24, 2019 | Nancy Jordan Hamilton (East Asian Studies)

In 1928, the celebrated Japanese poet and literary figure Yosano Akiko traveled in Manchuria and composed a travelogue comprising both a prose narrative account and a poetry collection. My research centers on the poetry, which has often been ignored in the scholarship, and how the poetry adds to our understanding of Akiko's experience in Manchuria and, in particular, her positionality with respect to Japanese imperialism.

During my trip, I went to three locations in Japan, including:

  1. Sakai City, where I attended a museum exhibit and a lecture centered specifically on Akiko's travelogue. At the museum, I was able to spend time with the curator of the exhibit, the professor who gave the lecture, and the family who donated the letters upon which the exhibit was based.
  2. Tokyo, where I conducted research at the National Diet Library. Here, I was able to find one of the first publications of Akiko's poems from her travels in a 1928 women's magazine.
  3. Yokohama, where, at the Yokohama Central Library and the Kanagawa Prefectural Library, I was able to view the 1928 newspaper in which Akiko's travelogue was serialized over a six-month period.

During my trip, I gained many valuable insights. In Sakai, I was able to view first-hand never-before-revealed letters written by Akiko as part of her correspondence with the official who invited her to Manchuria. These letters shed light on the circumstances surrounding the impetus for the visit, which had been murky up to this point. The fortuitous meeting with the curator and the family that donated the letters added invaluably to my understanding of the historical and personal context of that moment.

Sakai Risho no Mori Museum (or Sakai Plaza of Rikyu and Akiko) in Sakai City, Japan.

In Tokyo, while researching the appearance of Akiko's poetry in the women's magazine, Fujin no Tomo,I also ran across an interview with Akiko in which she elaborates on her experiences in Manchuria. This serendipitous discovery sheds light on Akiko's thoughts directly after returning to Japan.

In Yokohama, I was able to see first-hand Akiko's travel account as it was serialized in over 25 entries in the Yokohama Trade Newspaper from June to December of 1928. I was able to view the entries in their print context, gleaning valuable insights regarding how the entries were viewed by readers at the time. For example, I learned that the entries always appeared as the top feature on page one of the Sunday paper, in the place where an editorial would have normally appeared on other days. News context and advertisements also provide valuable context that describes the nature of Akiko's readers in terms of their news diet and consumer opportunities.

I could never had imagined how beneficial this trip would be for my project. My impetus for the visit was to view the newspaper in Yokohama which, in and of itself, was truly exciting. However, the trip turned out to be full of additional serendipitous events that were of tremendous value to my research.

Cherry Blossoms in Japan

The museum exhibit in Sakai, which revealed the discovery of the letters, happened to be taking place during the same time as my visit, and I was able to adjust my flight  to view this exhibit right before it closed. The fortuitous meeting with the professor, the curator, and donor's family introduced me to three lovely  and deeply knowledgeable individuals who so generously shared their insights with me. The interview in the women's magazine that I found in Tokyo was also an unexpected discovery. The time I spent poring over the newspaper entries in Yokohama also yielded additional unexpected discoveries including an editorial published by Akiko herself in the weeks after her serialization ended. An additional serendipitous development was the fortuitous meeting with a scholar whose work I have been avidly following. We met coincidentally at the museum exhibit in Sakai and were able to spend valuable time in conversation. 

And finally, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom just as I was about to depart from Japan. I could not have imagined a better research experience for me in what is sure to become my most memorable trip to Japan.