Akiko Yosano’s Tale of Genji

Redefining Intimacy Through the “Translational Gap”

by Margaux Emmanuel

Cover art by Leah Collins

Content warning: Mentions of sexual violence.


When love presses me,

Relentless in the glistening night, 

I take off my robe,

Then lie down to sleep again,

Wearing it inside out. (Rowley 11)

In Akiko Yosano’s (与謝野 晶子) tanka in Midaregami (みだれ髪, “tangled hair”), the image of the robe being worn “inside out” (“衣お返してぞ”)  configures a “radical departure from tradition” (Rowley 11): the action of “taking off  [one’s] robe” is an invitation to a dimension of empowered sensuality that is couched as antithetical to the previously established tradition of Japanese waka writing (waka, 和歌, “Japanese poem”).1 As Harriette Grissom writes, Yosano, a 20th century writer associated with early Japanese feminist movements, “transform[s] Japan’s traditional … waka poem from a sterile exercise in formulaic sentimentality to a bold, resilient medium equal to the complexity of the modern condition” (Grissom 23). This analysis also proves germane when considering Yosano’s modernized translation of Heian period (794-1185 AD) noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu’s (紫 式部) The Tale of Genji (源氏物語). This narrative focuses on the aristocratic and courtly conventions of the Heian era, centered around the eponymous Hikaru Genji, the “shining Genji”, son of the fictitious Japanese emperor Kiritsubo. However, the women of The Tale of Genji, such as Aoi no Ue, Genji’s first wife, are also central figures in the tale. Yosano re-wrote this tale as the Shin’yaku Genji monogatari (新訳物語) in 1912, the modernization made explicit through title itself, a “new translation” (“新訳”) to spoken language. In this way, Yosano explores the duality of the concept of intimacy through the act of translation, turning this text “inside out”. On the one hand, this “intimacy” denotes “proceeding from, concerning, or affecting one’s inmost self; closely personal” (OED) but also signifies a “closeness of observation, knowledge” (OED). Yosano utilizes both of these conceptions of “intimacy” in her translation, disclosing feeling through a “spoken language”, but also widening the semiotic scope of the tale by tending towards a universal ground of experience and knowledge, transcending mere autobiographical parallelism. 

José L. Ramos configures the translator as both “encoder” and “decoder” (Ramos 377). Translating entails using a language encoded in a sign-system that belongs to another, as much as it also concretizes (through writing) the translator’s position as an interpreting reader. This creates a precarious balance of power when considering the agency of the translator as caught between these two “encoder” and “decoder” positions, especially when considering gender dynamics. This is of particular importance when positioning Yosano as the first modern female Japanese poetic voice. Yosano confers a sensuality to The Tale, appropriating Shikibu’s original discourse and using it as the vector of a highly female experience. Czech linguist Mukarovsky postulated that “the artistic work is a system of signs which [is] creatively interpreted by the receiver” (Ramos 377), whereas Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak postulated the translation as a “surrender” (Spivak 179) to the original text; the question of agency is problematic when regarding the act of translation as subordination. Yosano, through the colloquialization2 of language, creates a gap in terms of shift in sign-systems. The semiotic discrepancy between Shikubu’s Early Middle Japanese and formal language, thematically mirrored by a narrative anchored in a courtly setting, and Yosano’s modern take on the tale with Genbun itchi (see footnote 2), allows the latter to use this as a vector of intimacy and sensuality. This paper will seek to address how Yosano’s oeuvre demonstrates how intimacy can be articulated in the re-appropriated, dislocated discourse of translation. In this essay, I will examine this “translational gap” as it interacts with “intimacy” in its polysemy – “intimacy” can be understood as the translator’s decoder-encoder status as a close and intimate negotiation with another sign-system, but also in terms of the regained agency of feminine sensuality in language. 

The semiotics of translation is not a simple overlap of distinct sign-systems, which would be configured as a transactional relationship between semes and syntax, but engenders overlapping and transfiguration, operating on two different levels. The translation, of course, necessitates a binding element in the language itself in order to be designated a “translation” of  The Tale of Genji. However, the translator is reader as well as writer, and strives to recreate the position of creator. In this reconfiguration of the translator’s relationship to the text, the translator intimately operates with the text, a closeness that alienates them; the hermeneutic process of translation dislocates them from their position as “reader”, as well as allowing them, through this act of “ventriloquy”, to employ another sign-system for their own expression. This “semiotic gap” creates a locus of discursive appropriation which Yosano can manipulate as she wishes. A way in which this could be schematically portrayed is through this, the gap is illustrated in the “grey zone”: 

This grey zone both belongs to two distinct sign-systems as much as it operates independently from the two of them. Yosano utilizes the “grey zone” engendered by the “translational gap” by strategically omitting certain passages, re-centering the narrative in the way she wishes; Akiko Yosano becomes creator. Rowley underlines the paradox of Yosano “protect[ing] Genji” (Rowley 116) in this way: she doesn’t condemn the male selfishness that is commonly attributed to Hikaru Genji, but instead intentionally omits the passages that might tarnish the perfection of Genji. This can be seen in the passage “Hahakigi”, where for instance Genji, when visiting his wife Aoi, breaks into Kii no Kami’s father’s wife’s apartment in order to see her: “His sharpened senses made him aware that the room next but one to his own was occupied, which led him to imagine that the lady of whom he had been speaking might be there”(Shikibu, Murasaki, Suematsu, Kencho 59). These passages have been omitted in Yosano’s translation. In a way, this may seem as contradictory to the image of  Akiko Yosano as a feminist figure, but scholars have speculated that this “protection” of this fictional character might stem from an autobiographical element : “she sometimes turns the tables and refashions Murasaki Shikibu’s text—and even Murasaki’s life—to conform with events in her own life” (Shikibu, Murasaki, Suematsu, Kencho 113). This relationship between personal experience and narrative is emphasized by the poem that introduces the Shin’yaku monogatari

源氏をば 一人となりて 後に書く 紫女年若く 


Writing Genji alone, left behind

Murasaki was young; I am not. (Shikibu, Murasaki, Suematsu, Kencho 113)

Both Akiko Yosano and Murasaki Shikibu were widowed when they undertook “writing Genji.” This preliminary poem describes the context, perceived by Akiko Yosano, that explains the textual differences between the Shin’yaku monogatari and the Genji monogatari. By underlining this age difference, Yosano suggests that the principal difference between the Shin’yaku monogatari and the original Monogatari is not the colloquialization of language, as in the passage from classical Heian period language to Genbun itchi, but the author herself, and the way her womanhood has been altered by her age. Both women are characterized in these lines by their common loneliness (“一人となりて”) as widowed women, but then Yosano underlines what she considers the reason for these textual differences : age, as we can tell with the adverb “年若く”. Yosano utilizes her closeness to the text not to manipulate the narrative into a feminist tale, but instead to negotiate with the text and to mould it according to her own experience. In a sense, simplifying Genji as a character elevates him to the level of a paragon, contributing to the myth-like plasticity of this tale; the very existence of “Genji shortcuts” (Shikibu, Murasaki, Suematsu, Kencho 26), textual simplifications of The Tale, show how Akiko Yosano’s discursive appropriation is also related to the canonization of Shikibu’s original text, as they demonstrate the adaptability of the text. This has prompted scholars, such as Brian Philips with “The Tale of Genji As a Modern Novel,” to speak of this book as “…surg[ing] with life. Genji abounds in the texture and detail of lived reality rather than the mere brocade of ritual” (Phillips 373), a textual “liveliness” that is also of interest when regarding the gendering of the tale’s semiotics.

The previously contemplated “grey zone” must also be interpreted as a sense of agency conveyed by this “translational gap”. We must examine the text as its own semiotic entity, close to what Umberto Eco designates as the text’s own “intentio operis” (Eco). However, if it is this semiotic entity status that allows Yosano to redefine the terms of Shikibu’s narrative, the intentionality, “intentio auctoris” of the author, is also a necessary component of the act of translation. This “intentio operis” constitutes the terms that frame the discursive appropriation of translation. D. J. Enright writes “Heian Japan was ‘a man’s world’…and it was left to the women to write about it” (Enright 166), making apparent the gender dynamics of not only Shikibu’s original Heian era narrative, but the way in which Yosano’s “intentionality” also redefines these dynamics. Spivak writes that “the task of the feminist translator is to consider language as a clue to the workings of gendered agency” (Spivak 179). When reviewing the semiotic process of translation, the question of “agency” as well as gender in relation to this agency complicates with Spivak’s study of translation as a  “surrender” to the original text. Language may help reconfigure this “gendered agency” as a “clue”, but there will still be a subordination to the original intention of the author. Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji is centered around a male figure – however, scholars such as Komashaku Kimi, founder of the Women’s School in Osaka, have postulated that “the tale is not about Genji but about the women who surround him” (Kimi, Yoda 28). This gender dynamic of The Tale of Genji is mirrored in its status between a men’s classic a “koten”(古典) and a “women’s romance”. The Tale was considered a narrative for women, and yet was also read by men: “Monogatari seem always to have been regarded as reading for women that was dangerous for women” (Rowley 18). The unclear intentions of the original work also contribute to the creation of the “grey zone”, recreating this liminality that will allow Yosano to assert her own discourse. Yosano was known as a “poetess of passion” (“情熱の女流歌人”), a “new woman”(“新しい女”), or even a suffragette” (Rowley 114). We cannot ignore the potential feminist implications of her work when reading this translation. In this light, we can recognize that she uses the “translational gap”as a locus for “gendered agency” as Spivak writes, a space of expression for a highly female and sensual experience, which was considered typical of Yosano’s works. Yosano often utilizes Shikibu’s narrative as a malleable myth that can align itself not only with her own experience, but with a more universal female condition. This is especially noticeable in the “Aoi” section of Tbe Tale (Aoi being Genji’s first wife); the universality of her writing can be seen, for instance, in the following passage that describes the loss of virginity and rape of Aoi by Genji: 


Not even dreaming that he had such a thing in mind, she was appalled that she had trusted so completely one with such base intentions. (Rowley 114)

There is a palpable repression of emotion here, as we can recognize by the use of terms such as “appalled”(“あさましう思さる”), “she had trusted”: Aoi is almost blamed and held accountable for Genji’s actions. In relation to the reaction of being “appalled” is the phrase “うらなく頼もしきものに思ひきこえけむ”. The formulation of this phrase is centered around a transgression in trust (“頼もしきもの” can be translated and understood as ‘thing’ that is reliable or trustworthy), but there is no mention of any bodily reaction or transgression. When compared to the Shin’yaku, we can see how Yosano alters the text to render more apparent the emotional, but also physical implications of this transgression:


Not even dreaming that he had this in mind, when she remembered how she had trusted him hot tears coursed down her cheeks. (Rowley 115)

This liminal space between the “dream”, the “mind” and the reality of this transgression are kept in Yosano’s interpretation of the text, but it is still in play with an unabashed emotion. This can be seen with the mention of the “hot tears coursing down her cheeks” (“暑い涙がはらはらと頬お伝うのであった”), the specific use of the onomatopoeic adverb “はらはら” conveying an activeness to these tears. There is an emotional transparency and candor in Yosano’s translation. She also emphasizes a certain directness, “などてか”, an archaic form for specifically the term “why” is replaced by the determiner “こんな”, “this,” almost accusational in its tone. These details show how Shin’yaku Monogatari navigates intimacy, using the process of colloqualization to emphasize this transgression. Following Rowley’s analysis of the “Aoi” passage, the story of Aoi’s loss of virginity has been linked by scholarship to Yosano’s own experience: 


Hotter still than those of homesickness

the tears I shed that first day. (Rowley 114)

Hayashi Sadako (林 貞子) writes that this line is part of a song Yosano wrote about her hometown (“ふるさと”), Sakai, after leaving for Tokyo (“晶子がふるさと堺をうたった歌は、あわただしの上京の旅から数年を経て” (林)). The “tears [she] shed” can be directly linked to the bodily and emotional reaction she attributes to Aoi, in spite of the euphemistic retention of  “that first day” (“その初めての日”). This consideration of the translation of the Monogatari as autobiographical is reductive as it configures the Shin’yaku as the product of causality; paradoxically, this analysis would create a binary between experience and tale. 

To conclude, Yosano’s Shin’yaku Monogatari demonstrates how intimacy is at the heart of considering the linguistic “translational gap” : Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji translated becomes a malleable, mythic, and thus open to universal experience. The semiotic shift of translation necessitates a close operation with an original sign-system, not only from Heian period Japanese to Genbun itchi, but from one distinct experience to another. This allows Yosano to portray through the sensuality of her language not only her own female experience, but to also develop the conception of translation as as semiotically isolating as it is semiotically “opening”. The act of translation restructures the hermeneutic process, blurring the lines between interpreter (reader), and creator (author), letting Yosano put forward her own idiosyncratic style, rooted in a context of early Japanese feminist movements, with its cocomitant sexual and sensual themes. The semiotic “grey zone” becomes an essential notion in translation, the act of translation no longer an isolated phenomenon but a universal, complex process. This zone between interpretation and recentered intentionality is relevant when analyzing race and translation. Still, this consideration is made difficult by the decoding and re-encoding process of the “grey zone”, a question that remains to be further elucidated by future scholarship. 

Margaux Emmanuel is a first-year English student at the University of Cambridge (Pembroke College).


  1. The term “waka” itself both refers to a specific Japanese poetic style following a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure, as well denoting “Japanese poetry” more generally.
  2. “Genbun itchi”(言文一致), literally meaning “unification of the spoken word and language”, refers to the Meiji Era linguistic switch from “kanbun”(漢文, chinese writing)  a “national language”(国語).

Works Cited

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Enright, D. J.  Signs and Wonders.  Great Britain: Carcanet Press Limited, 2001. 

Grissom, H. D. (n.d.). The Tanka Poetry of Yosano Akiko: Transformation of Tradition Through the Female Voice.

Kimi, Komashaku, and Tomiko Yoda. “A Feminist Reinterpretation of “The Tale of Genji’: Genji and Murasaki.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal. English Supplement, no. 5, 1993, pp. 28–51. 

Larson, Phyllis Hyland. “Yosano Akiko and the Re-Creation of the Female Self: An Autogynography.” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, vol. 25, no. 1, 1991, pp. 11–26. 

Murasaki, Suematsu, Kencho. The Tale of Genji by Shikibu, (Tuttle Publishing, 2006)

Phillips, Brian. “The Tale of Genji As a Modern Novel.” The Hudson Review, vol. 63, no. 3, 2010, pp. 373–390. 

Ramos, José L. “Translation as a Semiotic Process.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 1980, pp. 376–390. 

Reich, Pauline C., and Atsuko Fukuda. “Japan’s Literary Feminists: The “Seito”Group.” Signs, vol. 2, no. 1, 1976, pp. 280–291. 

Rowley, G. G., and University of Michigan. Center for Japanese Studies. Yosano Akiko and The Tale of Genji. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Japanese Studies, U of Michigan, 2000. Print. Michigan Monograph Ser. in Japanese Studies; No. 28.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993

View of Conspicuous ABSENCE: ‘national language’ in Japanese History Textbooks: Inter Faculty. (n.d.), from https://journal.hass.tsukuba.ac.jp/interfaculty/article/view/28/38

林貞子. “譎カ蟄舌→縲後.” 保存板 晶子と「ふるさと堺」の歌http://www.for-you.co.jp/tour_sakai/akiko/arekore/furusato.htm.