Review Short: Poems of Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata & Takako Arai

By | 22 September 2016

Poems of Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata & Takako Arai
Translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles
Vagabond Press, 2016

In the winter of Pokémon Go, I read quite a few new books of poetry. The collection Poems of Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata & Takako Arai was the most cogent. These three Japanese poets are taboo-breaking women who write without reservation about ‘female experience’ in the political context of contemporary transnational capitalism.

There was a long tradition of separating literature from politics in Japan which fostered rarefied or, what translator Jeffrey Angles, in his invaluable introduction calls ‘staid, polished and artsy’ language. Eschewing tradition, Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata and Takako Arai take a contemporary approach via dialectical sensitivity to the way poetry might sound and rhythmic direct speech. Sometimes this technique produces incantatory repetition, especially in Hiromi Itō’s shamanist poems.

Hiromi often addresses once-sensitive subjects like female eros, post-partum depression, sexual desire and inequity. Her poems are confronting. There’s a room of deformed and diseased body parts preserved in bottles in her poem from 1991, ‘Father’s Uterus, or the Map’ –

The men pointed to testicles with elephantiasis
Those are my father's bones and spinal column
Those are my father's joints
Those are us, the children our father gave birth to
The men pointed to foetuses with hydrocephalus
And that is you
The men pointed to a breast with cancer
And that is my father's uterus
The men pointed to a uterus that had grown teeth

Hiromi Itō moved to California in the early1990s and now lives in both Encinitas, near San Diego, and Kumamoto, on the Southern Japanese island of Kyūshū. Some of her poems, like ‘Mother Dies’ examine expatriate identity, the future of children born to Japanese expats and the sense of not belonging in either country –

I had thought my own existence was certain
But now I understand
Things are indeterminate, colors and shapes
Things are indeterminate, even sounds
Is it an /I/ or an /r/?
It all makes sense now
It is not just a problem with me but with all Nikkeijin1

In ‘Yakisoba’ Hiromi recounts a confusing exchange in a supermarket with an old expatriate Japanese woman who shouts and yells out to promote the yakisoba (fried noodles) she is selling. The poem ends –

Here is a woman
Who comes back alive, who comes back dead
Who connects with the next woman
With tens and hundreds and thousands of women
With generations, dozens of generations down the line

Toshiko Hirata, together with Hiromi Itō, Matsui Keiko, outsider poet Shiraishi Kazuko, and others, is well known in Japan as a major figure in what was called the ‘women’s poetry boom’ of the 1980s. (Though, apparently, Hiromi Itō was not too impressed by the ‘boom’).

Toshiko Hirata uses irony and repetition to make poems that are deeply sceptical of relationships, of the strictures of society, of the normative family, and of poetry itself. Many of her poems are quietly and darkly sardonic.

In a recently published collection, The Freedom of the Joke, Toshiko considered small objects like staples in intimate contrast with the immense force of the disastrous earthquakes, tsunami and aftershocks of 2011 –

Some of the documents that came today
Were fastened with beautiful staples
The color of dayflowers
For me who had known nothing but gray staples
Their color was fresh and new

(‘Beautiful Staples’)

Just two weeks after the disasters Toshiko published ‘Do Not Tremble’ in the daily newspaper Yomiuri Shinbum (The Japan Times) . It was a poetic plea to the earth to stop shaking so that everyone could return to their ordinary lives –

It is March, it is spring
It should be a gentle season of vernal sleep
When one sleeps so deeply there is no dawn
But spring this year
Shakes us to keep us
From falling asleep

Earth, it is enough
For you to simply
Keep spinning happily
Leave the trembling 
To windblown flowers and
Laundry hanging in the year
You should simply spin

Eleven years younger than Hiromi and Toshiko, Takako Arai (born in 1966) is the daughter of a manager of a now-obsolete small traditional silk weaving factory in Central Japan. In early work Arai wrote about women textile workers. She moved to Tokyo for her education and lives there still.

Like Toshiko, Takako responds poetically to the ongoing consequences of the nuclear crisis. Her experimental and socially critical poetry uses repetition, direct speech, fragmentation and combined imagery. Her ironies are complicated. For instance, she uses euphemistic phrases like ‘womanly shadow’ for women’s genitals. (Jeffrey Angles’s extensive notes on the poems are essential to grasping the levels in all three poets work.)

Takako’s connection with the now redundant craft-textile industry remains a topic. In ‘Colored Glass’ a factory occupies a young woman’s body when she swallows a silkworm –

I swallowed it!
The eternal silkworm
On its mission forever
Crawling through the labyrinth of my bowels
The bitter worm squashed in my teeth

        There is a factory floating like an isle inside
        Its head turns round and round

Recently, a friend of mine visiting Sydney from Adelaide, where there is no Uniqlo (yet), made a shopping excursion to the Japanese global clothing shop. I had just read Takako Arai’s poem railing against corporatisation and this particular company’s threat to individuality. (I am wearing a Uniqlo blouse as I write this review – and I am repentant). Uniqlo’s recent expansions are seen, by capitalists, as bringing economic hope to Japanese business in the aftermath of the 2011 disasters. Not so for Takako Arai –

I'm sick of it
all this Goth clothing, all this Uniqlo-ing
     Isn't that all you'd ever let us wear?
     Wasn't that our national uniform?
     Before the quake
     The tsunami of the recession
     All we ever worried about?

The reactor building about to fly off (buttobō)
Embankments (teibō), conspiracies (inbō), ministerial offices 
        Puts on their Uniqlo
     To bulwark
The tsunami


As well as introducing new poems, this collection gathers work from various periods of publication by these dynamic women poets. It offers further complexity, exuberance, depth, variousness and challenge than I have canvassed in this brief review but my aim has been to give due attention to this startling and straightforward contemporary Japanese poetry.

  1. Japanese descendants
  2. Tokyo Electric Power Company (responsible for decommissioning Fukushima nuclear power station.
  3. The title of Takako Arai’s poem ‘Galapagos’ is a metaphor in Japan for ‘island mentality’ syndrome (referring to the isolated fauna and flora of the Galapagos Islands).
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