2300-2200 BCE800-9001000-11001100-12001200-13001300-14001500-16001600-17001700-18001800-19001900-2000Mezzo Cammin
Hayashi Fumiko
by Patricia Callan

he city of Shimonoseki, a peninsula at the very south western tip of the island of Honshu which lies on the channel that divides Japan and South Korea, is where Fumiko was born to a family of peddlers in 1903. (Her original name was Miyata Fumika.) Her life as a child was absolutely miserable. Even families in the depths of poverty, it seems, were not exempt from Japan's class consciousness. Hayashi was shiseiji (bastard) since her parents never married. Coupled with the fact that her father, Miyata Sotoro, was not a local boy, these nonconformities drove the family out of town. When Hayashi's father later moved a geisha into the household, Hayashi and her mother left. The peripatetic life continued; the hardships seem to be the subject of one brief poem:

Hana no inochi wa mijikakute
Nigashiki koto nomi ookariki
only bitter things are many
the life of a flower is short
(Dunlop xiii)

Although not at all reflective of her poetic output, this is engraved on a tablet outside an inn where Hayashi's mother worked. Fumiko entered elementary school in Nagasaki, the first of her several grade schools. Left alone while her parents (her mother had married a man twenty years younger) were out selling their wares, Hayashi borrowed books from the library and devoured them. When circumstances became dire, Hayashi, at age 10, was sent to live with her grandmother where she was bullied by her older sister and made to do the cooking.

Many facts of Hayashi Fumiko's life are unknowable due to her frequent moves, although it doesn't seem to have affected appreciation for her work. Since her prose and poetry is autobiographical, (Diary of a Vagabond and I saw a Pale Horse), they have had the effect of truth for readers and researchers. (In the late 19th Century the autobiographical novel was popular in Japan.) When Hayashi entered high school in the town of Onomichi, the school records pick up the family once again. As Fumiko wrote, "Travel was my home."

At fourteen she began her studies at an upper girls' school where, in order to earn the tuition, she worked nights in a twine factory and during vacations as a maid. These were the first of her many jobs: nurse trainee, a trading company employee, salesgirl, factory worker and waitress. Her poem "Quiet Heart" speaks of the deprivation:

Tired, I counted with my fingers:
I haven't eaten rice for two days,
I am very cold
and, listen, my stomach is clanging
like a bell.
(Sato 304)

In 1922 she departed Onomichi, arriving in Tokyo with her fiancé, Okano Gun'ichi. During their time together she worked as a minder of footwear at a bath-house. After a year, breaking his promise of marriage to her, Okano left. Heart-broken, she began a series of relationships, patterned after the earlier behavior of her mother, perhaps for comfort and survival. All the while, however, she was publishing poems and children's stories, somehow managing to send money to her mother from her meager earnings. Inside this determined young woman was a hard-as-diamonds core. No matter how difficult the conditions, despite the lack of close friends, she continued to read constantly and widely.

After the loss of Okano, she was able to meet other writers who were in the forefront of the literary movements of the day. These associations were often acquired through an actor, Takabe Watao. Although their association was brief, it served a purpose. Among the poets whom she met during that time were Dadaists and anarchist revolutionaries who were not so much interested in political theory as in revolutionary language. Fumiko was to develop a revolutionary persona in her poetry, a flesh and blood woman exposing her life.

In 1930 she used her experiences as a wanderer to write the novel Diary of a Vagabond (Hōrōki) which became extremely popular and propelled her to fame. In 1951 her novel Floating Clouds (Ukigumo) was published posthumously.

Her success as a novelist and journalist overshadowed her poetry for many years, but there are other possibilities that may account for her poetic work being overlooked. There was an assumption in some circles that poetry writing was simply a stage in the development of a "real" writer. In Japan, well into the forties, there was still the stigma of shiseiji. There may also have been envy among her fellow poets after the highly acclaimed Diary of a Vagabond. Hayashi never belonged to any poetic shūdan (group) and when her anarchist colleagues arrived at her door after the publication of Diary of a Vagabond, she dismissed them. We can only surmise her reasons to refuse them: envy, her independence, the anarchists' bias toward women in the movement or possibly, disapproval of her confidence in her accomplishments. Her poetic prose in this quote from Diary of a Vagabond makes one realize the poet knew homelessness firsthand:

Somewhere someone was singing like rain falling in the street. Heavy rain. Disgusting rain. Anxious rain. Shapeless rain. Fanciful rain. Poor rain. Rain when no night stalls are set up. Rain in which one feels like hanging oneself. Rain in which one wants to drink sake because one is a woman. Rain in which one becomes excited. Rain in which one wants to make love. Rain like my mother. Rain like an illegitimate child. In the rain I simply walk aimlessly.

Yes, envy of her contemporaries is a definite possibility why her poems were "overlooked."

In reading her poems one admires their bravery and beauty. I Saw a Pale Horse (Aoi Uma o mita), published in 1929, contains among other poems, what she called "poetic tales." Like Yosano Akiko, she did not deny her sexuality and her sometimes frank need of a lover:

…the twenty-five year old woman
truly does not need a man
a sadly difficult toy

Then, again she's not so sure:
…in her heart the twenty-five year old woman
wants to throw everything away and run off
close one eye
open one eye
ah, there's no way
she wants a man and she longs to travel
(Pale Horse 33-34)

Any account of her life must consider her role as an apologist for the Japanese government as an imbedded journalist with the Tokyo Shimbun. The Australian writer and translator Roger Pulvers theorizes that her background—her father's failure to own his paternity—fueled her feminism. [I would add that her hand-to-mouth, unstable existence made it easy to support Japan's rigid military culture.] Pulvers asks, "Why were the Japanese less vindictive about their literary [and poetic] figures…who supported the invasion of mainland Asia…?" French novelist Robert Brouillard, editor of Je Suis Partout, a paper that supported fascist causes, was executed by a firing squad and in Norway, a Nobel Prize winner, Knut Hamson, endured a torturous trial at the age of 90 for collaborating with the Nazis." Why not Hayashi Fumiko?

In 1940 Fumiko reported from Manchuria and Korea, and later in 1942 and '43 from Vietnam, (then French Indo-China) Java and Singapore—all under Japanese control. Her experiences there provided material for her semi-autobiographical last novel, Ukigumo (Floating Clouds.) So why didn't she suffer punishment? Maybe because her reporting, with its personalized writing, documented the daily lives of the ordinary soldier and not bloody victories, according to Pulvers. What also saved her, he says, was her advocacy for women and children who suffered during war. In 1944 she wrote, "I now see writing about reality today…in this miserable country's existence…and at wits' end, my only salvation is to write children's stories." This contrition may be why the Japanese people forgave her, although not the only reason. Floating Clouds has many examples of her understanding of the sufferings of Japanese citizens during wartime.

In the opening chapter, the protagonist, Koda Yukiko, observes people on the train:

These were certainly the faces of defeat, Yukiko thought… every face was drained of sLentoit, every face was pale and drawn. Faces that seemed to have no resistance left were crammed up against one another in the narrow car. It was almost like a slave transport. (Floating Clouds 5)

Similarly, the poem "Lament" reveals her deep awareness of class structure, and how it affected her education, showing both her empathy for the sufferings of the people of Japan and her defiance:

I try to raise both arms high
but will they betray such a pretty woman?
I cannot always hug dolls and keep silent….

Although I spit blood and die in agony
the earth certainly won't stop in its tracks
they are preparing healthy bullets one after another
In the show window
there is freshly baked bread
ah, how lightly beautiful like the sound of a piano
is the world I've never known.

Then, all at once
I feel like crying out: goddammit! (Pale Horse, 43)

It shouldn't be surprising that in 1949-1950, Hayashi never completely recovered from a bout with pneumonia. Her death in 1951 from a heart attack was hastened by a lifelong inadequate diet and constant hard work. This woman, who once went door-to-door peddling her poems and who said, "Travel was my home," would be pleased about the current interest in her poetry.

Back to Modern Japanese Poets

Hayashi Fumiko
Years: 1903-1951
Birthplace: Japan
Language(s): Japanese
Entry By: Patricia Callan
32 Poems
The Academy of American Poets
The Atlantic
The Christian Science Monitor
The Cortland Review
Favorite Poem Project
The Frost Place
The Iowa Review
Light Quarterly
Modern American Poetry
The Poem Tree
Poetry Daily
Poetry Society of America
Poets House
Raintown Review
String Poet
Valparaiso Poetry Review
Verse Daily
Women's Poetry Listserv
The Yale Review

Bread Loaf
Poetry by the Sea


Barefoot Muse Press
David Robert Books
David R. Godine Press
Graywolf Press
Headmistress Press
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Louisiana State University Press
Northwestern Univ Press
Ohio Univ Press
Persea Books
Red Hen Press
Texas Tech Univ Press
Tupelo Press
Univ of Akron Press
Univ of Arkansas Press
Univ of Illinois Press
Univ of Iowa Press
Waywiser Press
White Violet Press

City Lights
Grolier Poetry Bookshop
Joseph Fox Bookshop
Prairie Lights
Tattered Cover Bookstore

92nd Street Y
Literary Mothers
Poets & Writers