The Heartbreaking Life and Poetry of Fumiko Nakajo

Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold
Breasts of Snow - Fumiko Nakajo: Her tanka and her life (The Japan Times)

It is amazing to me that I did not come across the work of Fumiko Nakajo until this year. No poems in Kenneth Rexroth’s three main Japanese translations (One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese, not even Women Poets of Japan), or in The Poetry of Postwar Japan (ed. Kijima Hajime), or in Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson’s From the Country of Eight Islands. Unrepresented in any of the more general poetry compilations in my collection.

Finally, combing Wikipedia while researching an article about what an amazing literary year 1922 was, I clicked on her name (she was born in 1922) because I was also on the lookout for more Japanese female poets to include in one of my musical projects. When I read the brief Wikipedia article on her, I quickly became eager to know more after learning that she was a tanka poet and that she had died at age 31 from breast cancer (I have friends who battle that cruel affliction). Noting that there was a book – this book – cited in her Wikipedia bio, I bought the only reasonably priced copy available on Amazon.

Published in 2004, Breasts of Snow - Fumiko Nakajo: Her tanka and her life is 152 pages, mixing biography and a selection of her tanka presented in kanji, transliteration, and English. Her poetry career, if we ignore her poetic efforts in her school years and instead date it from 1947, when she joined the Niihari Tanka Group, lasted a mere seven years. The only shorter poetry career of significance that I can think of off the top of my head is that of Arthur Rimbaud, whose career lasted five or six years, after which he abandoned it in favor of adventuring in colonial countries. Nakajo’s, by contrast, was cut short involuntarily, mere months after she had achieved her first fame.

Her life story would be heartbreaking even without her early death. Born on the remote island of Hokkaido to parents who owned a grocery store, Fumiko Noe went to college in Tokyo and began writing poetry there, influenced by the woman considered the greatest tanka poet of the 20th century, Akiko Yosano. She graduated two years later and returned home, where she married Hoshiro Nakajo, an engineer. With three children to support in the postwar economy, he took on some illegal work, was caught, and apparently in punishment was transferred to a less desirable area and job, living away from his wife and children. (After this point in her life, Kawamura and Reichhold begin mixing biography and poems, which works well in giving the poems context.)

Hiroshi began drinking heavily, and he and Fumiko both handled their separation by taking lovers. He managed to get a teaching job on Hokkaido and reunited with his family, but soon lost that job and had to take whatever work he could get, his station in the world and his income both dropping precipitously. The couple separated in 1950 and divorced in 1951, which made Fumiko’s station drop as well in a time when divorce in Japan was uncommon. Her youngest son was then raised by her ex-husband’s family.

Fumiko became involved with a more famous tanka poet, Taku Omori, but he was married. After two years, he died of tuberculosis. Fumiko moved to Tokyo to try to get work, but failed and had to return to Hokkaido after a month and ended up working at her parents’ store. She began dating a younger man, Einosuke Kinomura. Then her cancer was discovered. One breast was removed in 1952, the other in 1953, at which point Einosuke broke off their engagement.

She had been writing about all of these developments in her poems. In April 1954, she won a major poetry contest sponsored by the magazine Tanka Kenkyu, which makes her famous. The magazine’s editor quickly publishes a book of her poems, Chibusa Soshitsu (The Loss of Breasts) in July. She was presented with a copy while on her deathbed, and died on August 3. Another compilation was published the following year, as well as a biography by Akira Wakatsuki, Chibusa Yo Eien Nare (Let Breasts Be Eternal), which was made into a movie.

Of course, an engrossing life does not guarantee engrossing poetry even when the poetry draws from that life, but Fumiko Nakajo was an imaginative and innovative poet whose work is full of striking imagery. And in the world of Japanese poetry, where artistically speaking the old ways were often considered practically sacrosanct -- the tanka form is over a thousand years old -- innovation (whether in style, form, or content, in all of which Nakajo pushed forward) was hardly to be taken for granted.

Tanka is such a concentrated form, and Japanese poetry so often oblique, that the context provided around most of these poems greatly aids our appreciation, especially when reading in translation about a culture outside of ours in both space and time. Of course, a translation of a poem is not automatically poetic; that these poems’ English versions are so compelling is a tribute to the authors’ skills in both translation and biography, as well as their adept interweaving of the two.

Some poems are easy to relate to:

every year
something dies and yet
is always new
flowers are an example
of what exists in me

Even so, knowing when and in what situation it was written deepens its resonance.

The earlier poems don’t always pack quite such an emotional wallop, but are notable for discussing things new to tanka:

lingering daylight
becomes bluish
on glass trash
let me hear someone’s
words of brutality

There is also, in a few poems, a relatively open discussion of sexuality, which was far from the norm in Japan at that time; this could come from her modernity, from the influence of Akiko Yosano, or from both.

By the time we reach the end of Fumiko’s illness, the heart-wrenching power of the poems is almost too much to bear:

lost under the cover
of the night wind
my throat
is grabbed by a hand
and I know whose it is

This book is not easy to find at a reasonable cost (the one copy for sale on Amazon is $350) without knowing that one can purchase it directly from Ms. Reichhold. She can be contacted via email: jane(at)ahapoetry(dot)com.

It turns out that my ignorance of Fumiko Nakajo’s poetry is partly from not having acquired the right collection: Makoto Ueda’s 1996 anthology Modern Japanese Tanka (Columbia University Press) included twenty of her poems in English translations. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that in the U.S. she and her work are barely known. Wider dissemination of Breasts of Snow could greatly help in righting that situation and establishing a world-wide reputation for her. - Steve Holtje


For a few more translations taken from this book, and the musical use to which I have put them, please go to my blog MusicMusicMusic.