Circle within Walls: A Comparative Study on Poets of Leprosariums

Author: Robert Ono
Published: November 30, 2017

Citation: Ono, R. (2017). Circle within Walls: A Comparative Study on Poets of Leprosariums. IAFOR Journal of Literature & Librarianship, 6(4).


Many forms of literature are nurtured in circles or salon-like environments, where participants with mutual interests serve alternately as creators, readers, and critics. This was especially true with waka, a poetic form with 31 syllables, during the Heian period, which had an immense impact on the formation of Japanese literature. Since the modernization of Japan, mainstream writers have formed a much more large-scale and sophisticated literary establishment called the bundan. However, it must not be overlooked that many writers were active outside such mainstream currents. Literary circles within leprosariums, to which this paper pays special attention, are a good example. A dozen or so leprosariums were home to tens of thousands of patients who were forced to leave their families. In such facilities many sought refuge in literature; they expressed themselves freely through tanka, the modern version of waka, in intramural magazines, and strived to enrich the culture of their very own “leprosy literature.” Using magazines such as Kikuchino, Kaede, and Aisei as primary sources, this paper clarifies that many patients were eager to express their identities through depicting their illness, but were at the same time mindful not to go against authority, since the magazines were scrutinized by staff members of the leprosariums. It must also be noted that for some patients who were seriously committed to literature, the fixed verses of tanka were considered insufficient as a means to express one’s true self, compared to more highly regarded forms such as the novel.


Chōmei, leprosy literature, tanka, literary circle, Hansen’s disease, leprosarium