Other Side River
-Book Review

Contemporary Japanese Women Poets, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, California 1994 & 1995.

OTHER SIDE RIVER: FREE VERSE:Contemporary Japanese Women's Poetry, Volume 2, edited/
translated by Leza Lowitz and Miyuki Aoyama (The Rock Spring Collection of Japanese Literature)
The work of 36 modern Japanese women poets, writing in an "imported" Western verse form
and astonishing us with their diverse viewpoints, rhythms, themes, and insights. 256 pp, 5.5 x 7.25",
paper, ISBN 1-880656-16-7, $14.00

A LONG RAINY SEASON: HAIKU AND TANKA:Contemporary Japanese Women's Poetry, Volume 1,
edited/translated by Leza Lowitz, Miyuki Aoyama, Akemi Tomioka illustrated by Robert Kushner
(The Rock Spring Collection of Japanese Literature) The first collection of contemporary Japanese
women's verse in English translation. Fifteen poets write on love, motherhood, daughterhood,
politics, bodyparts, nature, corruption. "Shows how passion, ideas, and the broad range of human
experience can be held in brief poems of large reach reach--a great gift for us all."
--Jane Hirshfield

200 pp, 5.5 x 7.25", paper, ISBN 1-880656-15-9, $12.00

2 1 July 1995

Dear Graham,

Here is the review of A long rainy season and Other side river. I realize it's a bit long but I'm reviewing both volumes, and you may have extra space because of the summer lull. Other side river just came out and since we didn't review vol. 1 when it first appeared, a double review seems appropriate now. All the other English-language papers reviewed it when it first appeared and the anthology has won a number of prizes in the States. It's a first and the most important collection of Japanese poetry published in recent memory (women= trendy). If you have any questions or want changes, please contact me. Ifm working at home until Aug. 15 --31, when I'll be in the U.S.


Joe LaPenta


A Long Rainy Season: Haiku & Tanka:

Contemporary Japanese Women's Poetry, Volume 1 (1994)

Other Side River:

Contemporary Japanese Women's Poetry, Volume 2 (1995) 

Haiku and tanka have long been the most popular poetic forms in Japan, where works by

thousands of amateurs and professionals appear regularly in hundreds of books and 

magazines. For readers with an image of these forms as precious or sentimental, the 

following tanka by Motoko Michiura, well known for poems drawn from her experiences

as a student activist at Waseda University in the 1960s and 1970s, should be instructive:

Dead of night

returning home exhausted

from the interrogation--

my period begins to flow

like rage.


This is one of many arresting examples from A long rainy season: haiku & tanka: Contemporary Japanese Womenfs Poetry, Volume 1, an epoch-making anthology that is bound to alter preconceptions about contemporary Japanese poetry and about Japanese women as well.

Those familiar with the literary history of Japan will already know that Japanese women, unlike their counterparts in the West, have always enjoyed reputations as major writers and innovators. They contributed substantially to the Manyoshu and other classic collections of verse. Works such as Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book and Lady Murasaki's eleventh-century masterpiece, The Tale of Genji, regarded as the first great novel in world literature, have had a decisive impact on the development of Japan's literary and aesthetic traditions.

Yet this past prominence has tended to mask the serious decline in the social status of women during the intervening centuries. By the time of Japan's modernization during the Meiji era (1868-1912), women's status as 'good wives and wise mothers' was official government policy, and the burgeoning feminist movement of the 1920s and '30s was actively repressed by the militarists who came to power at the time.

While there were always courageous exceptions, a rebirth of women's literature had to wait until the post-war period, particularly the '60s and '70s. A long rainy season, the first of two volumes devoted to translations of contemporary Japanese women's poetry, is a long-overdue sampling of haiku and tanka from 15 poets all born in this century. Editor Leza Lowitz provides an informative introduction, historical overview and capsule biographies of the poets for this volume and its companion, Other side river. The range of imagery and sensibility found in these poems is startling. Conventional subjects such as the seasons, loneliness and transience are treated in fresh ways, as in this tanka by Machi Tawara:


Fireworks, fireworks

watching them together--

one sees only the flash

the other,

the darkness.


Some are reminiscent of the poems of unrequited love by Heian era poets like Princess Shikishi. Meiko Matsudaira writes:

Passion unspoken


growing into a black pearl


in my body.


Others, like the following tanka by Yuko Kawano, are strongly sensual:

You, approaching me

with the smell

of freshly cut grass--

my nipples turn hard.


There are frankly erotic, eccentrically humorous and even radically political poems replete with sharply focused observations in language that ranges from the subtly elegant to the bluntest imaginable.

Other Side River, the second volume, has just been released and includes the work of 36 poets, all of whom write in free verse. The rich variety of styles will be familiar to readers of modern English poetry, a major influence on poets writing free verse in Japanese. In addition to generous selections from such famous poets as Kazuko Shiraishi, there are works by Chuwol Chong, a second-generation Japanese resident of Korean nationality, and poems by other members of minority groups. There are also examples by ex-patriots like Fumiko Tachibana, who writes in English. Fortunately this volume includes a few poems in their original Japanese script, but this practice should have been followed throughout. Editor-translator Lowitz admits that some contemporary Japanese poets just cannot be translated successfully into English. That is an understatement. Poetry, unlike prose, cannot be translated at all. Even when the English versions are as fine as they are in this anthology, they remain distant echoes.

Radical and even shocking as many of these poems are, in one sense they offer proof of the "traditional' role Japanese women writers have played. Just as the Heian court ladies created a literature of great vitality by writing in the colloquial language while most of their menfolk were stuck endlessly imitating ancient Chinese models, contemporary Japanese women poets, with the keen political and social awareness of outsiders in Japanfs male-dominated society, have managed to breathe new life into conventional poetic forms and use modern forms in unexpected ways.

appeared in the Mainichi Daily News in 1995,
re-appeared in this page with Joseph LaPenta's permission "5/22/99 6:42 PM"

to the continent and back
by Fumiko Tachibana
Cover by Joseph Lapenta

originally published and circulated by
Tokyo English Literature Society
as a special issue of PRINTED MATTER

Fumiko's own favorite poems
Alice in Nara
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