Remembering the forgotten woman of Japanese modernism


Chika Sagawa is an anomaly in the history of Japanese poetry. Born in Hokkaido as Aiko Kawasaki in 1911, she became one of Japan’s first modernist poets, refusing to use the traditional poetic forms of tanka and haiku. The nation was changing in the early 20th century — Westernizing, nationalizing, militarizing — and she built new poetic forms to express this shifting landscape. The world she created was one where horses go mad and women turn blue; where “the sky has countless scars” and “eyes are covered by clouds.”

Sagawa also translated European writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Her voice is truly modern: one that defies conventional categories. But it’s also a voice that went silent before its time — she died from stomach cancer in Tokyo as a 24-year-old in 1936. Her poetry was quietly forgotten as her champions, such as novelist and translator Sei Ito, passed away.

“She’s the least well-known Japanese modernist poet,” says Sawako Nakayasu, who translated the 2015 compendium “The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa,” which won the 2016 PEN Translation Award and the prestigious 2016 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize. Read more