Collected Tanka 

by Miyuki AOYAMA & Leza LOWITZ




a prize-winning tanka poet is also the flag bearer of feminism

  by Hatsue Kawamura

 Ms Akitsu Ei, born in Japan in 1950, has challenged the unequal status of women. Before her, women were mostly satisfied with looking after their families, and thus wrote tanka about their husbands and children. AKITSU rejects such a traditional way of women's life and emphasizes equality between man and woman. She wants women to have an independent and dignified life like that of the famous ancient poet Princess Nukada (ca. 659 - 72) who wrote an ode to autumn in which she says: 

" However, when I see
the leaves upon the autumn hills
my eager hands
tremble with their load
of crimson leaves"

          Akitsu Ei has an even more sensual approach to herself and to nature as in her tanka: 

Like Princess Nukada         
I walk 
to a lily magnolia,
my fringe swaying
in the wind.

Kicking wind
woman goes,
her skirts flare out, Isn't there a woman
who's respected and honored?

She thinks that women should not be a sex slave of a husband and that husband and wife should to live on equal terms.   She admits her own sexuality while at the same time demanding changes of the relationships.

Oh, your eyes and  your penis
grow senile!
 I wish they would become mine immediately now.

Man and woman  living together,  pathetic -
like we've been swallowed up
by a gourd.

I read
 I want to live,
always with the spirit of a prostitute,"
It must be her feelings,
but I wonder if it is good.

 Many of her tanka are out-spoken against the tabooed morality.

 # 97  
Man and wife should live together
and should make love."
I wonder which fool made this a rule?

She ironically criticized the modern matrimonial system, which brings such inequality to women. She is the first to write tanka by using colloquial terms for sexual words which have been thought, until now, to be unsuitable to this form of poetry. By excluding emotional and poetical beauty from her tanka, she demands that we think about the questions; what is a woman? what is a human being? what is tanka?

Miyuki Aoyama and Leza Lowitz have made a collection  representative of tanka from Akitsu Ei's four books to translate into English.

I pray that English speaking people read her tanka and think about the problems she presents as well as her novel approach to the ancient form of tanka.


Akitsu Ei is one of Japan's leading tanka poets. Born in Fukuoka in 1950, she studied psychology at Kyushu University and began writing tanka in 1974. She published her first book, To Lily Magnolia, in 1980. It received the Modern Tanka Poets Meeting Award. In 1984, she published Opium in Heaven, which won the Modern Tanka Poet's Society Award. She has been particularly interested in the place of women in Japanese society and has worked at the forefront of the movement since 1984,  organizing symposiums, lectures and readings.
Her third book of tanka, Faint White Light, came out in 1987. Two years later,  The Collected Tanka of Akitsu Ei was published. Her book of critical essays,  Ishta's Apple, was published in 1993. And another book of tanka, Cosmic Dance, came out in 1995.  Her most recent book is a collection of critical essays, A Study of Orikuchi Nobuo's Essays on Women's Tanka, 2001.



Miyuki Aoyama is a poet and literary critic. She teaches American literature at Seitoku University in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo. She is co-editor of the popular anthologies of contemporary Japanese women's poetry: A Long Rainy Season, which won the Benjamin Franklin Award for Editorial Excellence,  and Other Side River (Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, CA 1994/1995). She is author of a book of poetry, West Wind (Shichosha, Tokyo 1998), and has just finished writing a book-length essay on Native American literature.  She is currently writing another poetry book. She lives in the Japanese countryside  with her family.



Leza Lowitz was born in San Francisco in 1962. A poet and fiction writer, she has published two books of poems, Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By (Stone Bridge Press, 2000) which received the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Best Book of Poetry 2001, and Old Ways To Fold New Paper (Wandering Mind Books, 1997). Her fiction has appeared in The Broken Bridge: Expatriate Writing from Literary Japan (Stone Bridge
Press), and An Inn Near Kyoto (New Rivers Press), Prairie Schooner, and many others, and is forthcoming in the anthology Expat (Beacon Press, 2002) and The Louisiana Review (2002).
Lowitz lived in Japan from 1989-1994, where she taught writing and
American Literature at Tokyo University, and was a freelance writer for the "Japan Times" and many others. She was also a columnist on contemporary Japanese art for "Art in America" and the "Asahi Evening News" and her essays on expatriate life were regularly broadcast on NHK Public Radio's "Japan Diary." Lowitz edited and co-translated the popular anthologies of contemporary Japanese women's poetry, A Long Rainy Season (with Miyuki Aoyama and Akemi Tomioka) and
Other Side River (Stone Bridge Press, 1994/5) with Aoyama.  She was
co-translator of the award-winning art history volume Japan: Spirit and
Form (Charles E. Tuttle, 1994) and author of a travel book, Beautiful
Japan (Charles E. Tuttle, 1997).  She reviews books regularly for the
Japan Times. Recently, she has covered Japanese literature for the San
Francisco Chronicle,  and done interviews for The Bloomsbury Review, The Pacific Sun and Poetry Flash.

 For the past decade, Lowitz has been Corresponding Editor to Japan for Manoa (University of Hawaii's literary magazine), for whom she writes regular reviews. She has guest- edited two special features on Japanese literature for Manoa, most recently "Silence to Light: Japan and the Shadows of War" (Summer 2001). She and her husband Shogo Oketani are currently translating the poetry of influential Japanese modernist postwar poet/critic Ayukawa Nobuo, who was the translator of TS Eliot
and William Burroughs.
Her honors include the Copperfield's Fiction Award (2001), the Money for Women/Barbara  Deming Memorial Award in Fiction (2000), the Japanophile Fiction Award (1999), the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award (1990), and the Tokyo Journal Fiction Translation Award (1995) and others. She has received a translation fellowship from the NEA (1997), a California Arts Council grant in Poetry (1996-7), an Independent Scholar Fellowship from
the NEH (1995), and two Pushcart Prize nominations in Poetry, 2001. She has a B.A. in English from U.C. Berkeley and an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, where she taught creative writing before moving to Tokyo.
Her books are available at



from To Lily Magnolia, 1979



I came across the time

when the persimmon trees

sprouted buds -

green leaves seem

impure in the spring.




A butterfly,

rising gloomily -

swallowed up

into a pale

mandarin orange flower.




Like Princess Nukada*

I walk

to a lily magnolia,

my fringe swaying

in the wind.


*An ancient Japanese Court Poet




Kicking wind

a woman goes,

skirts flaring out.

Isn't there a woman

who's respected and honored?





an old person

smelling of urine,

I crouched under

the cherry blossoms.




Ah! Ah!

The fighting dogs

covered in blood

stop fighting

at man's command.




Woman -

sleeping languidly

on the train -

the tip of her nose





Embracing each other

like trees,

our bodies

couldn't have become transparent

on their own.




I hear:

"If there's an inferno,

make your way to its depths."

A cockscomb flower

on the water.




Awakening from a dream

of eating fried eggs

with my father

my mother,





With eyes

like insects:

a girl

with windblown hair

on a sand hill.




The sekihan*

my mother cooked

when I

left home

saddens me.



* Rice boiled with red beans cooked on  happy occasions.




Long-horned beetle

motionless on the tendrils

of a morning glory,

ants going down

its back.




Beside the eye's

outer edge

full of unshed tears,

a sake bottle

stands pale blue.




Red peppers

begin to flutter

just as I hear

my father's

piercing call.




On the spur of the moment

I thought of

fish without eyelids

at the bottom

of the sea.




To me,

betraying her -

the skin of the persimmons

my mother sent,

still green.




Taking out

my very own mother's


licking it

with such a gentle tongue.




When I arrived in a sweat,

was it a parrot

or something like a devil

who let out

a tinny-voiced laugh?




Squatting in a toilet,

chilled at daybreak,

a spring skylark,

soars up,






I smashed up the place

where I could live

pleasantly enough





Though looking at breasts

in a pin-up calendar,

I grasped

a handful of darkness

and stood up.




The glass door shakes

in a gust of wind.

I wonder if my old mother,

tied up in old age, sickness and death,

will come in.




"Father and mother

should not offer us

spiritual enlightenment."

As things go,

the flowerless fruit is green.




Poison put

on his path -

the poor thing -

a mouse cranes his neck

to eat it.



Making a smile

I come closer

to hold

the neighborhood infant

in my arms.




"Arthur Rimbaud

and aesthetics

stabbed each other."

So wrote

Hideo Kobayashi.




Though she's no younger than I,

a woman laughs

fresh and youthful,

her cheeks

puffing out.




English teacher

at a juku*

for schoolchildren -

the least painful

vocation for me.


*a cram school




Labor unions,

Socialism -

after all

they're trivial

unless you're a man.




Looking down at the body:

It opens its mouth


four or five

front teeth shining.




Dreaming of making love

to an image

of the Buddha,

what was that he saw

beside me?




Imaging some kind of

bean-jam bun,

I try to soothe

my violent hunger

at noon.





I almost understand

how the matter

will be settled -


two dry towels.




I must be hurting

other people's feelings -

having the disposition

to express my intentions





"We live in a world

where our efforts are

continually being rewarded,"

a junior high school girl

said innocently.




Because she lacked an uterus

a woman had to pay,

I heard.

That's how

the world is!




Being a juku tutor,

I thought

of myself

as a prostitute





Oh, your eyes and

your penis

grow senile!

I wish they would become mine

immediately now.




I smell this armpit of mine.

Hard to get rid of -

the habit I have

of being too serious.




Because of never stopping,

a grunting white pig.

Because of a hot summer day,

my anger

never stops.




Just me, myself and I...

being nobody -

the shrill cry of the cicada

soaking through me

this afternoon.




My body, carrying

the load of

this rambling

dreaming brain:

it gets down the stairs.




In light

in early autumn

the body of a baby monkey

doesn't even emit

a bad smell.




I won't suffer



on a lit street

to lead my life.




I shall keep on living

even eating

my father's ribs!

Blades of the iris

thriving, green.




Just like George Sand -

Holding a radish

in my arms,

I came out of a store

feeling nice and cool.




Is that

a Western madman?

White heron drifting

in the withering reeds

of winter.





in a birdcage


totally still

on a frosty morning.



Go to Part II of Collected Tanka of AKITSU EI


  Translation Copyright by Miyuki AOYAMA & Leza LOWITZ 2002.
Online Book Version  Copyright AHA Books 2002.

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