Hiromi Ito burst onto the Japanese literary scene in the 1980s with her unabashedly frank considerations of what it is to be female, poetically excavating our bodies, our sexuality and our role as mothers.
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Her colloquial, spoken-text narratives — in direct contrast to polished, traditional Japanese forms like tanka or haiku — have garnered both praise and criticism. Yet for Ito, words spill out, sacred and unstoppable, like a force of nature; nothing has slowed down her varied flow of work over the past four decades.
Although frequently described as a feminist poet, Ito refuses to be typecast, and in addition to poetry, she has published numerous essay collections and several works of prose, translated into modern Japanese a wide range of works from Buddhist texts to Ichiyo Higuchi’s “Nigorie” and Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” and pens an ongoing advice column for the Tokyo Shimbun. Along the way, she has collected several major literary prizes.
Although her work unquestionably explores feminist issues, Ito’s diverse influences range from immigrants and otherness to shamanistic traditions across cultures (her maternal grandmother was a Japanese shaman who claimed to speak with the dead).
“In the 1980s, Ito was a pioneer writing about the female body, thus anticipating and helping to create the wave of feminist literary criticism and scholars,” says her longtime translator Jeffrey Angles. “In the 1990s, she went to the U.S. and began writing about cultural displacement and migration, thus anticipating and helping to contribute to the rising field of postcolonial studies and migration studies. She has been obsessed with plants in recent years, thus helping create a turn in Japan toward ecocriticism.”
Ito’s work tends to provoke strong passions in critics and fans alike, making her a defining force in Japan’s literary world. Although only a fraction of her work is available in English, her prolific output ensures there is still enough to appreciate her genius. Angles, an award-winning poet himself, has published two full-length works: Ito’s acclaimed collection of poetry, 2009’s “Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Ito,” and her poetic novel “Wild Grass on the Riverbank.”
“Killing Kanoko” is one of Ito’s most famous poems, an unflinching look at postpartum depression that is defiantly autobiographical: Kanoko is Ito’s oldest child. By contrast, 2015’s “Wild Grass on the Riverbank” is a layered, evocative exploration of displaced lives, told from the eldest daughter’s point of view and brimming with earthy, metaphorical resonance as a strong-willed, single mother relocates her three children repeatedly as she treads a path between America and Japan.
Two other anthologies in English include Ito’s work, Angles’ “Poems of Hiromi Ito, Toshiko Hirata & Takako Arai,” and last year’s “Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan,” an Australian anthology featuring a variety of Japanese female poets. A recent short story of Ito’s was also published in Tokyo’s English literary magazine, Monkey Business, Volume 7, released in February.
Whether Ito’s strong voice overwhelms or inspires, there is no denying her power. Any student of Japanese literature must experience her bold, groundbreaking, unrelenting genius.
This is the third installment of the series “Works by Japanese Women,” which explores notable female writers of Japan. Read more at www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/books.