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Nagase Kiyoko: Pioneering Japanese Feminist and Poet

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One afternoon in the late 1990s an earnest young woman met me at Okayama Station. She was a news anchor at the local TV station, an outlet of one of Japan’s major broadcasting networks. Having learned through a mutual friend that I was translating Nagase Kiyoko’s poetry, she had volunteered to guide me around the village where Nagase had lived. She was preparing to create a TV documentary on Nagase Kiyoko, who was a local hero, nationally celebrated poet, and activist in women’s rights and the peace movement.

Feminist from the Start

Nagase Kiyoko was born in 1906 into a society where women were expected to be subservient to men from birth to death. Their primary role was to serve the needs of their family. Young Kiyoko’s parents expected the same of her. Since she was their only surviving child, they chose a husband for her whom they would adopt to continue the family name.

Before she accepted the arrangement, she made a radical demand: her future spouse had to promise that she could continue the career in poetry that she had pursued since she was seventeen. Remarkably, he agreed, and kept his word all his life. For her part she managed to be a wife, mother of four, and poet of national renown.

Woman Power and Liberation

The title poem of Nagase’s first book, Grendel’s Mother (1930), was an ode to the power and resilience of motherhood embodied in the monster. Twenty years later, in “You in the Shade of a Tree” from On Flames (1950), the woman speaker says: “I stand tall on my ground…as a self-reliant person.”

By that time, in post-WWII democratic Japan, she had found herself truly liberated. She became active in women’s movements, peace movements, social movements, and local and regional women’s organizations. She founded a coterie magazine for women poets with six other women in 1952 and remained active until her death. As chair of a local women’s association, she represented Japan at the 1955 Conference of Asian Countries in India. She was also a mediator in the Okayama Family Court. In 1963, she took the first job of her life, at the World Federation secretariat of Okayama’s Prefectural Office. Nagase truly thrived in the new free democratic environment, remaining a prolific poet with a growing reputation.

Local Hero, Feminist Role Model

In 1945 Nagase Kiyoko had moved to Kumayama in Okayama Prefecture, a quiet farming village and Nagase’s ancestral land, to take refuge from the air raids over Tokyo. When the war ended, she decided to stay there with their children, though her husband’s job required him to live in Tokyo. She took up farming for the first time in her life, doing all the work herself. Her husband joined her on the farm when he retired.

Eventually the neighbors came to rely on her moxibustion treatments for ailments, and on her coaching in haiku and tanka. Meanwhile she chaired the women’s club. Her neighbors’ fond memories of her are collected in Poet Nagase Kiyoko’s Writings, published by Village of Kumayama in 1997.

Inspiration for Today’s Women

The young news anchor drove me through vistas of a remote farming village surrounded by distant mountain ridges. She told me how much she admired and respected Nagase Kiyoko, not only as a nationally recognized writer and pioneer of modern Japanese poetry but as a role model for women. We visited the Kumayama Community Center, in which a modest exhibit enshrined Nagase’s image, writings, and mementos. The Center has been holding an annual memorial tribute to Nagase since 1997, two years after her death. The 23rd memorial event was held in February 2020.

Nagase Kiyoko with two of her children.

Takako Lento is an award-winning translator of modern Japanese poetry. Her books include The Art of Being Alone, Tanikawa Shuntaro Poems 1952-2009 and Pioneers of Modern Japanese Poetry, both published by CEAS, an imprint of Cornell University Press. She also co-translated Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson with W.S. Merwin.

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