when and where to see fall foliage (Japanese version only):

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Japanese women writers from a thousand years ago

Utakai Hajime (歌会始, Imperial New Year's Poetry Reading) was held at the hall named Matsu-no-Ma(松の間) of the Imperial Palace on January 16. The reading of traditional tanka poetry is convened by the Emperor.  This year's theme was "ritsu(立)" and next year's theme is "sei(静)". "立" literally means "stand", but this character is used in various idioms. This ceremony includes only chants of traditional tanka poems.

Tanka (literally, short poems) is a type of waka poetry, and has a five-line poem with the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure. Choka (literally, long poems) generally consist of more than 10 to more than 20 lines with alternatively five and seven syllables and a couplet of seven syllables at the end. As choka (literally, long poems) became less popular, waka came to refer to tanka.

In connection with this ceremony, I am going to introduce several waka poems of Japanese women writers from a thousand years ago.  In the Heian period(794 to 1185), many women were active as writers although they were not professional writers.

Izumi Shikibu's poem included in Ogura Hyakunin-isshu

あらざらむ この世の外の 思ひ出に
今ひとたびの 逢ふこともがな
A-ra-za-ra-n Ko-no-yo-no-ho-ka-no
I-ma-hi-to-ta-bi-no A-u-ko-to-mo-ga-na

"I am going to die soon. As a memory to take to the afterlife, I am eager to meet you again."

Izumi Shikibu(和泉式部, c.976- ?) was one of Murasaki Shikibu's colleagues. She was well known as an excellent poet, and Murasaki Shikibu appreciated her talent in the Diary of Murasaki Shikibu. However, Izumi Shikibu had many love affairs. Murasaki condemned her as an immoral woman in it.

Koshikibu no Naishi(小式部内侍, 999-1025) was Izumi Shikibu's daughter.

She also served to Empress Shoshi as a lady-in-waiting and was known as a woman with many love affairs like her mother. She died in childbirth in her 20s.

Koshikibu no Naishi's poem included in Ogura Hyakunin-isshu

大江山 いく野の道の遠ければ
まだふみもみず 天の橋立
O-o-e-ya-ma I-ku-no-no-mi-chi-no To-o-ke-re-ba
Ma-da-fu-mi-mo-mi-zu A-ma-no-ha-shi-da-te

"One must cross over Mount Oe and pass through Ikuno before reaching Tango.It's a long way, so I haven't been to Amanohashidate yet. (I haven't received a letter from my mother.)"

Rumor had Izumi Shikibu ghostwrote for her daughter. A nobleman told her mockingly, "Did you send a messenger to Tango to ask your mother to ghostwrite a poem?" Izumi Shikibu was in Tango area. She replied to him with an excellent poem. Amanohashidate(天橋立) has long been known as one of famous viewing spots in Tango(current an area in Kyoto).

Akazome Emon's poem included in Ogura Hyakunin-isshu

やすらはで 寝なましものを 小夜更けて
かたぶくまでの 月を見しかな
Ya-su-ra-wa-de Ne-na-ma-shi-mo-no-wo
Ka-ta-bu-ku-ma-de-no Tsu-ki-wo-mi-shi-ka-na

"If I had known you wouldn't come, I would have gone to sleep immediately. The night fell and I saw the moon setting in the west (while waiting for you.) "

Akazome Emon(赤染衛門, c.956–1041) was also one of Murasaki Shikibu's colleagues. Murasaki shows her veneration for Akazome Emon in her diary. Akazome Emon was happily married and also had interactions with Sei Shonagon.

Eiga monogatari (栄花物語, A Tale of Flowering Fortunes) describes the lives of Fujiwara no Michinaga and his family. It is believed to have been written by a number of authors. Akazome Emon is thought to have written the first thirty volumes. This tale was written entirely in kana(Japanese syllabary characters). It was a history tale by women and for women.

Ise no Taifu's poem included in Ogura Hyakunin-isshu

いにしへの 奈良の都の 八重桜
けふ九重に にほひぬるかな
i-ni-shi-e-no na-ra-no-mi-ya-ko-no ya-e-za-ku-ra
kyo-u-ko-ko-no-e-ni ni-o-i-nu-ru-ka-na

"Double-flowered cherry blossoms from ancient capital Nara look beautiful in full bloom at the imperial court today."

Double-flowered cherry blossoms from Nara were presented to the Emperor. Although Ise no Taifu(伊勢大輔, c.989-c.1060) was a newcomer, she was chosen to receive the blossoms. Her predecessor was Murasaki Shikibu. She made up this poem on the spot by order of Michinaga.

Udaisho Michitsuna no haha's poem included in Ogura Hyakunin-isshu

なげきつつ ひとりぬる夜の 明くる間は
いかに久しき ものとかは知る
Na-ge-ki-tsu-tsu  Hi-to-ri-nu-ru-yo-no
I-ka-ni-hi-sa-shi-ki  Mo-no-to-ka-wa-shi-ru

"I spend lonely nights alone crying over you. How could you know how long the nights are?"

Michitsuna no haha /Udaisho Michitsuna no haha(右大将道綱母, c.935-995) was one of Fujiwara no Kaneie's eight wives and was Fujiwara no Michitsuna's mother. She is said to have been wondrous beautiful. She is famous as the author of the Gossamer Years(蜻蛉日記,Kagero Nikki). It is considered a forerunner of the women's diary genre, and greatly influenced the Tale of Genji.

Kaneie approached her enthusiastically, but he got tired of her soon. Her husband had his official wife and many mistresses. The form of marriage in those days involved commuting relationships.
She composed this poem shortly after she gave birth to Michitsuna around 20 years of age, in 955. She was furious when she found out he had taken another mistress. One day, He visited her for the first time in quite a while. He asked her to open the gate, but she didn't open it. He felt offended and went home.she sent him this poem with a withered chrysanthemum flower.

She was a jealous and temperamental woman. She resented her husband, was jealous of his official wife and loved her only child. She was far below Kaneie socially, so her son's promotion was delayed. Kaneie's official wife gave birth to powerful brothers, Fujiwara no Michitaka and Michinaga.

In her mid-thirties, 970, she secluded herself at Ishiyama-dera Temple in the 7th month after she had a falling out with Kaneie . He visited the temple in the 8th month and they got back together. The following year, she secluded herself at a mountain temple to enter a nunnery, but he got her back. She got over her husband, and came to expect from her son.

The following year, she adopted a girl between Kaneie and another woman. She moved outside the city and lost access to him. Her diary ended at around the age of 40. She died 20 years later, in 995.

In fact, she and Kaneie spent New Year's Day together every year until around 970. When she secluded herself at Ishiyama-dera, he joked to amuse her. Her sister laughed hugely, but she stopped herself from laughing. She was good at sewing. He sent her rolls of cloth before major events, and made her make formal costumes.

He was a member of the Fujiwara family with power, and took over a leadership position. Nevertheless, her diary were widely read among nobles.

Sugawara no Takasue no musume (菅原孝標女, 1008-c.1059) was Michitsuna no haha's niece, but Takasue no musume was born after Michitsuna no haha died.  She is known for her travel diary, the Sarashina nikki(更科日記).

We learn about classical Chinese and Japanese literature in high school. This diary appeared in my school text book. For high school students, this diary might be more suitable than other ones. I thought it was a tedious story in high school. I was only interested in erupting Mount Fuji in the diary. Now I feel close to her unspectacular life.

She grew up at her father's post, in Kazusa(current central Chiba Prefecture).  At the age of 13, his father finished out his term and she went to Kyoto in the company of him. She lost a sibling, got hooked on the Tale of Genji and other stories, served as a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court, got married at around the age of 33, gave birth to three children, sought solace in religion, and lost her husband at the age of 51. Her diary ended at the age of 52.

Ki no Tsurayuki (紀 貫之, ?-945) was a famous male poet. He wrote the Tosa Diary in kana characters pretending to be a woman.  It's a story of travel from Tosa(current Kochi Prefecture) to Kyoto. It had great influence on the development of women's literature.


  1. Hello Ichinen, thank you for this very interesting post.
    Greetings, Ilona

    1. Thanks for reading this post despite unfamiliar Japanese names and poems.
      In waka poems, one word often has more than one meaning and more than one word related to one meaning are often used to heighten effect. Ancient poems are confusing not only for non-Japanese, but also for modern Japanese.