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Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3

Female Waka Poets: Love poetry in the Kokinshû
By S. Yumiko Hulvey
University of Florida


Women played a significant role in creating song and poetry long before oral compositions were recorded in the writing system imported from China. The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, 712) and the Nihon shoki (also Nihongi, Chronicles of Japan, 720), known as the kiki from the final Chinese characters of the titles, serve as repositories of the earliest compositions preserved in writing. The Man’yôshû (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, 759), the earliest extant compilation of Japanese verse, recorded a variety of poetic types including longer forms such as the bussokusekika (Buddha’s footprint poems), sedôka (repeating-head poems), and chôka (long poems), that were subsequently abandoned in favor of short 31-syllable poems (tanka) that became synonymous with waka (Japanese poetry). However, the cultural prestige of imported Chinese poetics replaced native verse as the preferred form of expression in the early Heian period, causing waka to recede from a public to a private mode of expression.

Waka survived during the dark ages of native verse in the private mode of love poetry while Chinese poetry (kanshi) received patronage from the royal court.

Because people nowadays value outward show and turn their minds toward frivolity, poems are mere empty verses and trivial words. The art of composition has become the province of the amorous, as unnoticed by others as a log buried in the earth; no longer can it be put forward in public as freely as the miscanthus flaunts it tassels.1

Waka began its rise to prominence in the early tenth century with the royal command to compile the first waka anthology, Kokin Wakashû (Collection of Early and Modern Japanese Poetry, ca. 905). In the kana preface of the Kokinshû, the chief compiler Ki no Tsurayuki set the standard of excellence upheld for centuries through twenty subsequent anthologies.2 Tsurayuki’s opening paragraph of the kana preface to the Kokinshû defined poetics for countless generations.

Japanese poetry has the human heart as seed and myriads of words as leaves. It comes into being when men use the seen and the heard to give voice to feelings aroused by the innumerable events in their lives. The song of the warbler among the blossoms, the voice of the frog dwelling in the water—these teach us that every living creature sings. It is song that moves heaven and earth without effort, stirs emotions in the invisible spirits and gods, brings harmony to the relations between men and women, and calms the hearts of fierce warriors.3

Balancing concerns for the dictates of the heart (kokoro) and the mind (kotoba or word), poetry in the Kokinshû employed a variety of rhetorical devices, themes, and imagery associated with the seasons that were to become the norm for conventional poetry. Rhetorical devices included courtly wit, elegant confusion (mitate), pillow words (makura kotoba), preface (jo), double entendre or puns (kakekotoba), word association (engo), poem pillows (uta makura), among others, helped to expand the limitations of brevity inherent in a 31-syllable poem. Themes that apply especially to compositions by women were also delineated in the poems selected for inclusion, such as the lonely lady (inspired originally by Chinese poetry), dreams, gossip and rumor, aging, and so on. Imagery with seasonal associations and the development of a love affair also became more fixed during the compilation of the Kokinshû though it took several compilations of royal anthologies to refine the result of association and progression to perfection.

Among the Six Poetic Geniuses described in the Kokinshû preface was a female poet, Ono no Komachi, about whom Tsurayuki offers the following critique: “Ono no Komachi belongs to the same line as Sotoorihime of old. Her poetry is moving and lacking in strength. It reminds us of a beautiful woman suffering from an illness. Its weakness is probably due to her sex.”4 Despite Tsurayuki’s criticism, he included eighteen compositions by Komachi in the first royal anthology. The only other female poet with a significant number of compositions in the collection is Ise with twenty-two; all other women have only one or two compositions each. However, there were a fair number of compositions by female poets, even though they are listed only as “Anonymous,” that figure greatly in love poetry. In this paper, I will discuss the poetry written by women, such as Ono no Komachi and Ise, in addition to anonymous poems most likely composed by women. Because love poems require men, I will also include a few compositions by them to provide a complete picture of the courtship ritual.

Approximately fifty percent of the compositions in the Kokinshû belong to the category of Love. Divided into twenty books, with two addenda for “deleted” and “variant text” poems appended at the end, the total number of poems in the Kokinshû equals 1140. The following list details the numbers and category of each book:

Book 1 Spring 1 Book 11 Love 1
Book 2 Spring 2 Book 12 Love 2
Book 3 Summer Book 13 Love 3
Book 4 Autumn 1 Book 14 Love 4
Book 5 Autumn 2 Book 15 Love 5
Book 6 Winter Book 16 Laments
Book 7 Felicitations Book 17 Miscellaneous 1
Book 8 Parting Book 18 Miscellaneous 2
Book 9 Travel Book 19 Miscellaneous Forms
Book 10 Names of Things Book 20 Folk Music Office Songs

Love poetry (Books 11-15) is easily discernible as the most important topic in the first royal anthology, arranged by the principles of association and progression described by Brower and Miner in Japanese Court Poetry (1961). Books 11-15, Love 1-5 are arranged according to the progression of a love affair that consequently correspond to imagery associated with a particular season. The first stage of love was usually associated with Spring (Book 11, Love 1 and Book 12, Love 2), the second stage (or the culmination stage) with Summer (Book 13, Love 3), and the third or final stage of love with Autumn (Book 14, Love 4 and Book 15, Love 5). Winter is not linked to the topic of love in this collection. The correlation between love and the seasons are generally applicable, but there are exceptions to the rule in each book and category when trying to assign a definite seasonal correlation to a particular stage of a love affair. On the whole, the compilers worked assiduously to correlate the various stages of love to seasonal imagery. Not all books in the Kokinshû have a dominant season that can be ascribed to it, but some books achieve a higher rate of success than others.5

Associations between love and spring and autumn are standard in the waka tradition. The relationship between the early stages of love and spring are comprehensible since spring is the season for regeneration or new beginnings. Similarly, the last phase of a love affair corresponds to autumn, the season of melancholy with the onset of winter and decay in nature. Poets assume the stance of “elegant confusion” at the sight of plum blossoms scattering in early spring, making them question whether the fluttering white objects are snowflakes or plum blossoms. The border between late winter and early spring is blurred, because plum blossoms bloom early enough for an occasional late snow to create situations of “elegant confusion.” The scent of plum blossoms on sleeves makes a lover recall a long lost love. As time progresses, concern about cherry blossoms being scattered by the wind or rain creep into conventional poetry, employing the image of scattering blossoms to allude to the affections of a lover having gone astray. On the other hand, connections between the final stages of love and autumn have a clear linguistic source. For instance, the word aki can mean both “autumn” and “to tire” or “to be satiated,” a perfect opportunity to employ puns in a short poetic form to allude to the end of a love affair. Some poems on the topic of love that are found in the Seasonal Books could easily have been placed in the one of the books of Love or vice versa, so there is an overlap with poetry that contain both love and seasonal topics and imagery. If we are to examine female waka poets in the five books of Love in the Kokinshû, first I would like to provide the cultural context of aristocratic customs and practices related to the composition of love poetry, colored by seasonal associations and other related themes.

Cultural Context

Poetry performed a vital function in Heian society (794-1185) for waka was the language of love. Ritual courtship began and ended with the exchange of waka: the male lover ardently pursues the woman with passionate verse, while the woman coyly deflects his advances with a clever display of wit. Although the compilers of the Kokinshû chose to arrange the following poems in sequential order, the poets did not actually write these particular examples to each other. Ariwara no Narihira, one of the five male Poetic Geniuses described by Tsurayuki in the kana preface, was equally famous for being a passionate poet and lover, the male counterpart of Komachi. Therefore Narihira and Komachi’s love poetry, ardent desire expressed by the man, countered by a clever rebuff by the woman, are perfect examples to illustrate the type of compositions that might have been exchanged during courtship.

Love (3) KKS 622. Narihira no Ason [Topic unknown]
  aki no no ni My sleeves are wetter
  sasa wakeshi asa no that night when we failed to meet
  sode yori mo than when of a moon
  awade koshi yo zo I have parted bamboo grass
  hijimasarikeru traversing autumnal fields.
Love (3) KKS 623. Ono no Komachi [Topic unknown]
  mirume naki There is no seaweed
  wa ga mi o ura to to be gathered in this bay.
  shiraneba ya Does he not know it—
  karenade ama no the fisher who comes and comes
  ashi tayuku kuru until his legs grow weary?6

Komachi’s clever use of double entendre (mirume can mean both “no seaweed” and “you cannot see me”) and associated words (engo) about the sea (ura, bay; ama, fisher; mirume, seaweed) is her forte, enabling her to expand the level of meaning beyond the limitations of a 31-syllable poem. An examination of the role waka played in Heian society will also allow us to explore Tsurayuki’s claim that poetry “brings harmony to the relations between men and women.” However, some contextualization about Japanese culture at that time will be required to appreciate the poetry composed in the past.

Certain aspects of pre-modern society are surprisingly different from those commonly held about Japanese culture of more recent times. First, during the Heian and Kamakura (1185-1333) eras, marriages were polygynous, civil, and uxorilocal.7 By polygynous, I mean men of the aristocracy were allowed to have more than one wife while women were expected to remain loyal to one husband. Marriages between aristocrats were endogamous, political alliances between already closely related members of the family. It was not uncommon for aunts to marry nephews, uncles to marry nieces, first cousins to marry each other, etc. Case histories indicate that as long as siblings with the same mother did not marry, even half-siblings of different mothers could be considered potential mates, though certainly they would not be the romantic alliances one reads about in fictional works from that time.

The marriage ceremony itself is worthy of interest. Most marriages were arranged and culminated in civil marriage ceremonies where grooms visited brides for three consecutive nights in her boudoir with the consent and knowledge of maternal relatives. Custom dictated that grooms arrive under the cover of night and leave before the break of day. Grooms were expected to send “morning-after” poems expressing dismay at parting and eagerness to return the following evening. If things proceeded smoothly, on the third night together the bride’s family prepared rice cakes to be eaten at the nuptial bed, indicating that a civil marriage had been consummated. If things did not work out well for the intended couple, the man and woman parted without further meetings and were free to form alliances with others.

Brides continued to live with her parents with grooms visiting her home. In uxorilocal marriages, brides were supported by parental backing and did not have to suffer the fate of brides of more recent times when virilocal marriage systems forced them to live as outsiders within the husband’s family. Children were raised in maternal households and when couples were old enough to fend for themselves, sometimes parents left houses to the couple and moved with still unwed daughters and sons to other households. Marriages of couples who lived independent of maternal relatives would then be considered neolocal, with the bride and groom living together as a new family unit with children of their own. Because marriages were political, brides and grooms were little more than children when they first married. As they matured and bore children of their own, parents bequeathed the house to them and went to raise younger children in other uxorilocal residences until all their children were married.

Women had more rights during the Heian and Kamakura periods than during the Edo or Tokugawa period (1600-1867) when marriages became entirely virilocal. In uxorilocal marriages, it was hard to detect when marriages ended in divorce since couples rarely lived together. Divorce occurred when husbands stopped visiting their wives. Women raised their children within their homes and continued to do so even after divorce. Although we do not know the names of most women of pre-modern Japan, we know that they inherited property. Because of polygyny, fathers bequeathed their property to daughters so that even if husbands left their wives, women retained homes in which to raise and nurture children. Although the rights of women during Heian and Kamakura periods were better than during later medieval and Edo eras, if inheritance claims to women were ever challenged, male members of the family had to intercede in order for women’s rights to be protected. Women faced other limitations in Heian and Kamakura society.

Except for women at the highest levels of the aristocracy such as consorts to sovereigns, royal princesses, dowager mothers, and the like, women in the lower to middle levels of aristocratic society were known only by pseudonyms based on their relationship to male members of their family, the positions the men held in the court bureaucracy, or the posts women may themselves held at court or literary salons of the Fujiwara regents. Female authors of Heian and Kamakura tales (monogatari) and poetic memoirs (nikki) such as Fujiwara Michitsuna’s mother (Kagerô nikki: Kagerô Diary), Murasaki Shikibu (Genji monogatari: The Tale of Genji and Murasaki Shikibu nikki: Poetic Memoirs of Murasaki Shikibu), Sei Shônagon (Makura no sôshi: The Pillow Book), Izumi Shikibu (Izumi Shikibu nikki: Poetic Memoirs of Izumi Shikibu), Akazome Emon (Eiga monogatari: The Tale of Flowering Fortunes), Sugawara Takasue’s daughter (Sarashina nikki: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams), Fujiwara Akitsune’s daughter (Sanuki no Suke nikki: The Emperor Horikawa Diary), Go Fukakusa’in Nijô [Nijô of Retired Sovereign Go-Fukakusa] (Towazugatari: The Confessions of Lady Nijô), Fujiwara Nobuzane’s daughter (Ben no Naishi nikki: the Poetic Memoirs of Ben no Naishi), Fujiwara Nagatsune’s daughter (Nakatsukasa no Naishi nikki: the Poetic Memoirs of Nakatsukasa no Naishi), Abutsu ni [The Nun Abutsu] (Izayoi nikki, the Journal of the Sixteenth-Night Moon) and Hino Meishi [the only one whose rank was high enough to be referred to by her family name and Sino-Japanese reading of her given name] (Takemuki ga ki: Memoirs of Takemuki), and others, are known by a variety of forms of address: mothers, daughters, or nicknames derived from their father or brother’s office of employment at court. Some of the female writers best known by their nicknames derived them from a post they held at court (in a salon of a female consort to the sovereign). Thus the author of The Tale of Genji’s nickname involves the following elements: “Murasaki” (purple or lavender) gleaned from the color of the flower of the family name Fujiwara (wisteria field), the northern branch of which married into the royal family and exercised control over occupants of the throne by virtue of being father-in-laws and “Shikibu” refers to a post (in the Ceremony Ministry) held by her brother at court. Most women were simply referred to as mothers or daughters since genealogical tables in classical Japan include only the character for “woman,” without including historical names by which women were called during their lifetime. Women’s names were not the only things left concealed.

Also hidden from the gaze of men and the general public were the women themselves. If we were to peep inside the confines of her residence, we would see that women of classical Japan resembled Nô masks: her hair was parted down the middle and her hair was probably longer than her height (although she may have been little more than four feet high). Her face was powdered white; her lips were painted red with rouge; her teeth were blackened (ohaguro); and her eyebrows were plucked entirely out and replaced by charcoal ovals placed an inch or two above the original eyebrows, producing faces that looked like Nô masks of young women. With sight prohibited, women had to resort to subtle oblique ways to impart their taste, breeding, intelligence, education, and so on, since men and women could not see each other during courtship. Faith had to be placed on senses other than those available through face-to-face interactions. Women seated behind curtains could intimate their taste by letting the color combinations of their sleeves peek out from beneath curtains so men could admire their skill in blending shades of color for their costume. Or visually unavailable women could call upon the olfactory senses to indicate skill and taste by wearing robes scented by incense. Women of the upper classes blended incense themselves and scented robes by burning incense in close quarters to impart fragrance to color-coordinated robes. Recipes for incense were prized possessions, passed on from generation to generation as a secret tradition. Robes scented by incense made from secret recipes imparted prestige as the possessor of a rare fragrance. Women during the Heian period were prohibited from wearing more than twelve layers of silk robes, since the weight of the robes rendered women almost immobile. This immobility accounts for descriptions of aristocratic women “crawling” short distances rather than walking upright that required more energy than could be mustered under the weight of multiple layers of silk clothing.8

Women who possessed ability in other desired accomplishments were often considered suitable for employment in court service. Skill in playing musical instruments, such as the biwa (lute), wagon (6-stringed Japanese zither), kin (7-stringed Chinese zither), and koto (13-stringed zither), were deemed appropriate for women, but playing the flute was the reserve of men. Other skills, such as the art of sewing, were considered advantageous since multiple-layered robes were required for court service. Dyeing cloth was also another desired attribute for it provided a visual clue of taste in a sight-prohibited culture. However, some domestic duties, such as preparing and cooking food, are never mentioned in extant literature from that time. Perhaps its absence speaks louder than words, for currently in Japan, food culture has almost reached the level of worship. Washing clothes is never mentioned either, making me think that incense burned into robes may have been their process for “dry-cleaning.”

Aristocratic culture also valued a good hand since sutra copying depended on correct and elegant clear copies of sutras to be dedicated to Buddhist temples. A good hand also transferred well to the art of drawing and painting for the line between amateurs and professionals at that time was indeed thin, if not invisible. Mobility-challenged aristocratic women were fond of employing surrogates (usually women inferior in rank to them but still members of the aristocratic class) to respond verbally to suitors so that men did not hear their voices.9 Surrogates were also used to write letters and poems since calligraphy was thought to reveal a person’s character and breeding. Aristocratic women might also employ surrogate poets to respond to poems sent by suitors, if they were not skillful poets themselves.10 Once courtship had progressed further, a woman might deign to allow a man to hear her voice or to see her own handwriting. In the more frequent case of arranged marriages and even in the rare case of romantic marriages, courtship began and ended with the exchange of poetry.

The sedentary lifestyles of aristocratic women rendered poetic correspondence of extreme importance as one of the only forms of communication with the world, both inside and outside the household. Shindenzukuri (literally, sleeping-hall) architectural-style residential complexes consisted of south-facing rectangular halls connected by covered corridors that occupied vast acres of land, complete with a lake for boating and fishing at the southern end of the estate. Because polygamy was the norm among the Heian aristocracy, several women might be housed within the same complex without necessarily being in competition as wives. For example, a daughter and mother might occupy separate wings in the complex, while a wife occupied another part of the residence. Rarely did women visit another wing of the residence, requiring communication to take the form of letters and poetry. So pervasive was the tone of ritual courtship that even everyday correspondence with members of the same sex exchanges mimicked this form.11 For instance, when a woman occupying one wing of a residential complex wrote to another when sending a tastefully arranged seasonal gift, a poem neatly folded and tied to the arrangement would contain sentiments reminiscent of the kind of banter commonly found between a man and woman engaged in conventional poetic exchanges during courtship. For example, even in same sex exchanges, one party might proclaim that she was the more ardent of the two in their friendship, while another might mention being jealous that another woman received gifts or missives more often than she, adopting the role of the spurned or neglected lover. This was by no means uncommon since the diction and poetics of love poetry dominated other types of poetry such as seasonal compositions, eulogies, laments, parting, travel, and the like. The same sort of correspondence also occurred outside the home, requiring messengers both to deliver and receive replies to be conveyed back.

While reading accounts written by aristocratic women in the Heian and Kamakura periods (1185-1333), a great deal of sympathy goes out to messengers dashing through the streets of Kyoto, come rain or shine, day or night. In the case of The Kagerô Diary, there is a particularly poignant series of scenes that depicts Fujiwara Michitsuna, the son of Fujiwara Kaneie and the author of the diary known as Michitsuna’s mother, as a young boy being used as a messenger during a marital battle. Michitsuna’s mother was in a temple located far outside Kyoto, so the poor child had to dash back and forth delivering poems until he was almost on the point of tears from exhaustion and frustration over his parents’ quarrel.12 Sometimes messengers had to wait until the recipients composed and then made fair copies of poems delivered as replies to the original sender. So dependent on messengers were aristocratic women, that one wonders that romance could have occurred at all under such circumstances.

Uoxorilocal residential practices protected women better than at other times in Japanese history even though there were psychological and physical limitations placed on them from the polygynous marriage system and the custom of sight prohibition. Thus the prevalence of the poetic motif of the lonely lady waiting for her lover to visit, a reliance on dreams rather than reality for the fulfillment of desire, and the worry about gossip and censure by society were some of the most popular topics found in love poetry.

Themes and Images

The topic of comparing dreams to reality is a prevalent theme in Heian poetry written by women, indicating that disappointments in reality often led to a reliance on dreams as a venue for the fulfillment of desire. I will examine the topic of dreams in love poetry in the Kokinshû to ascertain the veracity of Tsurayuki’s claim that poetry “brings harmony to the relations between men and women” before turning to other themes prevalent in compositions by female poets. In the examples below, dreams as the path toward the fulfillment of unrequited love contributed significantly to Komachi’s reputation as a passionate female poet.

Love (2) KKS 552. Ono no Komachi [Topic unknown]
  omoitsutsu Did you come to me
  nureba ya hito no because I dropped off to sleep
  mietsuramu tormented by love?
  yume to shireba If I had known I dreamed,
  samezaramashi o I would not have awakened.
Love (2) KKS 553. Ono no Komachi [Topic unknown]
  utatane ni Since encountering
  koishiki hito o my beloved as I dozed,
  miteshi yori I have come to feel
  yume chô mono wa that it is dreams, not real life,
  tanomisometeki on which I can pin my hopes.13

In the two poems above, Tsurayuki’s claim of harmony between men and women in the sentiments expressed by Komachi does not seem to be substantiated. The poetic stance suggests that she has been long neglected by her lover to the point that the only chance of seeing him is in the realm of dreams. Even her dream (yume) is interrupted because she is too tormented (omoitsutsu) to continue the state of sleep necessary to sustain the dream encounter. In the following poem, she is only able to nap (utatane), not able to reach a restorative state of sleep necessary to sustain a dream that is fulfilling. Dissatisfaction looms large on the horizon when she must rely on dreams rather than reality to actually meet her lover. Perhaps further examination of a few more Kokinshû love poems with the topic of dreams will allow us to assess relationships between the sexes.

Most examples of Kokinshû poems that include the dream motif are labeled “Anonymous” followed by “Topic unknown.” However, let us follow the “path of dreams” (yume no kayoiji, yumeji) to see if in reality (utsutsu) harmony is possible. The five books on the topic of Love in the Kokinshû, are consciously arranged by the compilers in the order that reflects the stages of a relationship from the beginning to the end. Let us read a few more compositions by Komachi with the topic of dreams.14

Love (3) KKS 656. Komachi. [Topic unknown]
  utsutsu ni wa In the waking world
  sa mo koso arame you must, I suppose, take care,
  yume ni sae but how it pains me
  hitome o moru to that you should keep out of sight
  miru ga wabishisa even in the realm of dreams.

Constantly on guard to avoid becoming the target of rumor, women concealed liaisons from the eyes of aristocratic society to the best of their ability. Cruel irony indeed, laments Komachi, he does not visit her in the world of dreams where society’s censure does not apply. This suggests that the border between reality (utsutsu) and dreams (yume) is fluid and psychologically porous. Along the same lines, Komachi considers bending the rules of society, propelled by the force of love. Only on a dream path (yumeji) would women dare to tread.

Love (3) KKS 657. Komachi. [Topic unknown]
  kagiri naki Yielding to a love
  omoi no mama ni that recognizes no bounds,
  yoru mo komu I will go by night—
  yumeji o sae ni for the world will not censure
  hito wa togameji one who treads the path of dreams.

Komachi envisions doing the impossible for housebound female aristocrats in Heian society by venturing forth on the path of dreams to visit her lover at night since the dream world does not operate under the same rules as the real world. Another example provides further evidence that the path of dreams was open to both sexes. Again the dream path (yumeji) is employed, combined this time with a word suggesting habitual use of the path, kayou (to commute), contrasted again with reality (utsutsu) rendered as the waking world here and above:

Love (3) KKS 658. Komachi. [Topic unknown]
  yumeji ni wa Though I go to you
  ashi mo yasumeru ceaselessly along dream paths,
  kayoedomo the sum of those trysts
  utsutsu ni hitome is less than a single glimpse
  mishi goto wa arazu granted in the waking world.

Even though meeting in dreams is better than nothing, the fleeting quality of dreams renders assignations there no more than a moment in reality. Though she walks constantly along the path of dreams, satisfaction, let alone, harmony between the sexes, remains elusive in the world of reality.

Two anonymous love poems seek to locate the source of neglect in reality and in the realm of dreams. Although anonymous, the theme of the lonely lady is easily detected:

Love (5) KKS 766. Anonymous [Topic unknown]
  kouredomo That despite my love
  au yo no naki wa I fail to meet you by night—
  wasuregusa might it be because
  yumeji ni sae ya forgetting-plants grow rampant
  oishigeruramu even on the path of dreams?
Love (5) KKS 767. Anonymous [Topic unknown]
  yume ni dani That it grows harder
  au koto kataku even to meet you in dreams—
  nariyuku wa might it be because
  ware ya i o nene I cannot sleep, or because
  hito ya wasururu you have put me from your mind?

The first poem turns on the clever conceit of a forgetting-plant (wasuregusa) obscuring or covering the path of dreams (yumeji) so that it prevents the lovers from meeting at night. The tone of accusation is inherent in the name of the plant growing rampantly on the path of dreams since plants flourish when they are not trampled underfoot. Frustration levels run high since even the path of dreams does not lead the woman to the desired rendezvous. The lonely lady theme continues in the second poem to the point that sleep is no longer possible due to prolonged exposure to neglect. First, the woman accuses herself for not being able to sleep and hence to dream, yet later, she blames the man for not thinking of her. She vacillates back and forth, unable to sleep or act decisively. The ability to fulfill desire is thwarted even in the realm of dreams in these examples.

Sustaining the theme of the lonely lady Komachi’s use of autumn imagery provides clues that the relationship is nearing its end, the woman waiting in vain for a visit from her lover. Perhaps the woman has even been abandoned, making her vigil for his visit even more poignant. Using seasonal metaphors for autumn linked to the theme of “love forsaken” is a common device found in waka composition, but it is handled expertly in the following poem:

Love (5) KKS 822. Komachi [Topic unknown]
  akikaze ni Because I trusted
  au tanomi koso someone who grew tired of me,
  kanashikere my life, alas, must be
  wa ga mi munashiku as empty as a rice ear
  narinu to omoeba blasted by harsh autumn winds.15

Autumn signifies the cooling of a relationship that mirrors climatic conditions, or suggests a decline in physical health in categories outside love, once again following seasonal associations of decline before the onset of winter. Here the image of emptiness (munashiku) relates not only to the ear of rice, but also to the hollow feeling within the person who has been cast aside by her lover. Autumn is homophonous with aki (satiated or grow tired), creating a verbal link with the theme of abandonment and the season of decline. Although the double entendre is conventional, placed in the hands of a gifted poet, it can be effective.

Autumn imagery can also be employed to suggest something more consonant with successful courtship as in the following example when passions still ran high:

Love (3) KKS 635. Komachi [Topic unknown]
  aki no yo no mo Autumn nights, it seems,
  na nomi narikeri are long by repute alone:
  au to ieba scarcely had we met
  koto zo to mo naku when morning’s first light appeared,
  akenuru mono o leaving everything unsaid.16

This poem is perhaps the best example expressing harmony between the sexes since neither the man nor the woman has tired of the other, and the desired meeting does take place, inadequate though it may have been. There is no one who can express regret at parting more poignantly than Komachi, using clever turns of phrase to imply ironically that autumn nights (aki no yo no mo) are long only in name (na nomi narikeri) to emphasize the truth in the statement that time flies when you are in good company.

Ise, a near contemporary of Ono no Komachi, is another female poet Tsurayuki must have admired for he included twenty-two compositions by her in the Kokinshû. Her poetic style utilizes much of the same rhetorical devices found in those by Komachi, as in the example below:

Love (4) KKS 741. Ise [Topic unknown]
  furusato ni Since your heart is not
  aranu mono kara an abandoned capital
  wa ga tame ni sinking in ruin,
  hito no kokoro no why should your feeling for me
  arete miyuramu seem to wither away?17

Turning on a play between “withered feelings” (arete) and “not a ruined old capital” (furusato ni aranu), forlorn images produce complimentary psychological feelings of abandonment. Though perhaps not as passionate as poems by Komachi, Ise reaches the same conclusion about relations between men and women, that harmony is an elusive state of being.

The next composition by Ise features the image of the moon, linked to the theme of the lonely lady from Chinese poetry and, in the case of Heian Japan, the woman who waits for a man to visit. Moon imagery often figures in love poetry as in the poem below.

Love (5) KKS 756. Ise [Topic unknown]
  ai ni aite How fitting it seems
  mono omou koro no that tears should dampen the face
  wa ga sode ni even of the moon,
  yadoru tsuki sae whose image visits my sleeve
  nururu kao naru as I sit lost in sad thought.18

The moon (tsuki), both the source of water and yin, is charged with wetting the woman’s sleeves, another conventional image that frequently appears in both prose and poetry to suggest sadness. The charm of this composition is that instead of the woman crying, it is the orb itself that cries and wets the sleeves of the woman when it visits.

An anonymous composition with the lonely lady topic and related image of the moon and autumn presents an interesting view of similarities between seasonal and love poems. The moon has long been associated with autumn from ages back. The harvest moon, the length of the autumn night mentioned earlier in KKS 635 by Komachi, and the impending decay of plant life, all suggest a season of melancholy and gloom.

Autumn (1) KKS 184. Anonymous [Topic unknown]
  ko no ma yori To see moonlight fall
  morikuru tsuki no filtering though the branches
  kage mireba is to awaken
  kokorozukushi no to the coming of autumn,
  aki wa kinkeri the saddest season of all.

The celestial orb provides cold lighting for long autumn night, a harbinger of the hardest season of winter. In classical Japanese literature, the moon is also thought to be the source of water, so let us trace the imagery of water in the next poem.

Following a trail of tears, we find another related poem by Komachi that displays not only double entendre (kakekotoba), but also associated words (engo) centering on water.

Love (5) KKS 782. Ono no Komachi [Topic unknown]
  ima wa tote Even your pledges,
  wa ga mi shigure ni leaves of words, have lost their green
  furinureba now that falling tears
  koto no ha sae ni dim my youth as drizzling rains
  utsuroinikeri transform autumnal foliage.19

Word play abounds: the physical body (wa ga mi) is situated in juxtaposition with natural images that suggest aging (utsuroinikeri), rendered here as “dim my youth.” Further “leaves of words” (koto no ha) are changing from green to autumn colors, signifying the end of the season and echoing the end of the relationship with the departure of the woman’s youth, all stimulated by water-related terms, “fall” (furinureba) and “drizzling rains” (shigure). The superior quality of Komachi’s compositions lies in her ability to include numerous images that titillate the mind yet still retain the capacity to move us.

Changing colors in the natural world often is linked to the fading of human affection in love poetry. The following example by Komachi employs the image of flowers, equated both with youth and beauty, as a metaphor for love lost.

Love (5) Komachi. [Topic unknown]
  iro miede So much I have learned
  utsurou mono wa the blossom that fades away,
  yo no naka no its color unseen,
  hito no kokoro no is the flower in the heart
  hana ni zo arikeru of one who lives in this world.20

Although flowers are usually linked to the season of spring and the beginning of a love affair, Komachi very cleverly turns the association on its head to imply that the imperceptible change in the color of the flower (or the man’s affections). In the hands of an adept poet, images can be molded to the requirements of a particular use. Komachi continues to employ the image of the changing color of a flower to suggest poignancy at the loss of youth and beauty, a deadly combination for women.

Not all poetic exchanges focused on courtship. Although Ono no Komachi is known as a passionate poet, the composition below rings true for all women who rail against the savage effects of time:

Spring (1) KKS 113. Ono no Komachi [Topic unknown]
  hana no iro wa Alas! The beauty
  utsurinikeri na of the flowers has faded
  itazura ni and come to nothing,
  wa ga mi yo ni furu while I have watched the rain
  nagame seshi ma ni lost in melancholy thought.21

The mere fact that Komachi was worried about the loss of physical beauty points to an underlying concern about the failure to attract the opposite sex, bringing us back to the topic of love. Aging is a painful process for all human beings, but its effect on women is decidedly more devastating than on men who become more distinguished with age while women just get old.

As we proceed toward the end of our examination of love poetry, I would like to present the concluding series of poems, KKS 823-828, from the final book of Love (Book 15, Love 5) to illustrate relationships gone sour. KKS 822 by Komachi cited above (on page 10) is an example from this category as well, providing a concrete example of the compiler’s intention to arrange compositions by poets, both anonymous and named, by association and progression to achieve a “narrative” that describes love from the beginning stages to the end.

Love (5) KKS 823. Taira Sadafun [Topic unknown]
  akikaze no Having resented,
  fukiuragaesu I merely resent anew
  kuzu no ha no that as autumn winds
  uramite mo nao turn back a kudzu vine’s leaves,
  urameshiki ka na so you turn back from your vows.
Love (5) KKS 824. Anonymous [Topic unknown]
  aki to ieba I thought of aki
  yoso ni zo kikishi as autumn, no kin to me,
  adabito no but now I hear it
  ware o furuseru as satiety, naming
  na ni koso arikere the flirt who cast me aside.
Love (5) KKS 825. Anonymous [Topic unknown]
  wasuraruru While I lamented
  mi o ujibashi no that you should forget, our ties
  naka taete broke like Uji Bridge,
  hito mo kayowanu and now long years have gone by
  toshi zo henikeru with none crossing between us.

Another version:

  konata kanaka ni and not even a messenger
  hito mo kayowazu goes from one to another.
Love (5) KKS 826. Sakanoue Korenori [Topic unknown]
  au koto o Never seeing you,
  nagara no hashi no I live on like the ancient
  nagaraete bridge of Nagara,
  koiwataru ma ni and now long years have gone by,
  toshi zo henikeru all spent in ceaseless yearning.
Love (5) KKS 827. Tomonori [Topic unknown]
  ukinagara Consumed by misery,
  kenuru awa to mo I long to vanish as swiftly
  narinanamu as a floating bubble.
  nagarete to dani Were the bubble to flow on,
  tanomarenu mi wa what might its future become?
Love (5) KKS 828. Anonymous [Topic unknown]
  nagarete wa Let us accept it.
  imose no yama no Love’s course can but remind us
  naka ni otsuru of the Yoshino,
  yoshino no kawa no the river falling between
  yoshi ya yo no naka Husband Mountain and Wife Hill.22

KKS 822 by Komachi (on page 10) is linked to KKS 823 by the image of the autumn wind (akikaze, also satiated, tire). Repetition of uramu (to resent, uramite and urameshiki) in KKS 823 reinforces the bitter aftermath at the end of a failed relationship and resentment gains strength by being blown back (fukiuragesu) twice by the autumn wind (akikaze). KKS 823 and KKS 824 are connected by the continued use of autumn (aki), with the latter placing more emphasis on the meaning, “satiated or tire,” over that of the season. Although adabito rendered as “flirt” in English indicates a woman, the word in Japanese has no gender connotations, so it could easily refer to a playboy, rake, or gallant. Personas adopted by the poets of these poems share expressions of abandonment and resentment regardless the actual gender of the author.

Other than a thematic connection, there is a sharp break between KKS 824 and KKS 825 in both imagery and diction. KKS 825 establishes completely new images of rivers and bridges that are sustained to the end. This break is also a clear example of the experimental nature of the application of the rules of association and progression; in later anthologies, transitions are smoother like those found in renga (linked verse). The line, “broke like Uji Bridge” (mi o ujibashi no naka taete), provides a visual simile of the relationship. Next, KKS 825 and KKS 826 are linked by use of the identical phrase, “and now long years have gone by” (hito zo henikeru), suggesting the estrangement of former partners. In addition, there are further connections between the two in sustaining the image of the bridge and shared thematic concerns on the absence of meetings. KKS 826 to KKS 827 diverts attention from the bridge to the associated image of the flowing river and the theme of evanescence suggested by bubbles that disappear as quickly as life itself. And finally, the link between KKS 827 and KKS is the river whose course is likened to love that has terminated. The final composition ends finally with acceptance that the relationship is over—that the husband and wife are irretrievably separated by irreconcilable differences—by the river than runs through it. By including this final series, I hoped to provide a succinct idea of the association and progression that the compilers of the Kokinshû used to organize the books of love poetry and the rest of the categories.


Although Ki no Tsurayaki stated in the preface that poetry “brings harmony to the relations between men and women,” there has been ample proof that troubled relationships “stirs emotions” more passionately than those that are not. Love poetry occupied pride of place in the first royal anthology perhaps because waka survived the dark ages in the private poetic exchanges of courtship before it made its return to the public arena. The tone of love poetry was so pervasive that even social correspondence between members of the same gender was colored by the tone of courtship. Women may have led restricted lives in the Heian and Kamakura periods, yet despite the psychological disadvantages imposed on them by polygynous marriage practices among the aristocracy, society provided some protection by allowing women to inherit property and to raise children in uxorilocal residences after divorce. Perhaps this accounts for the flowering of female authors during the Heian and Kamakura periods, the likes of which have not been equaled since. Women not only had rooms of their own, they had homes of their own in pre-modern Japan. Female poets made significant contribution to the waka tradition in the compositions selected for inclusion in the Kokinshû, even though the number of poems by women did not exceed compositions by male poets. Since love poetry received pride of place in the first royal anthology, with seasonal books sometimes containing hints of love topics, the Kokinshû became the model for conventional poetry for later generations to emulate.

We have traced themes that appear frequently in love poetry including the topic of dreams as a venue toward the fulfillment of desire denied women in reality. The dichotomy between dreams and reality was found frequently in poetry by women, mixed with a concern for rumor and gossip about affairs of the heart. This led to the use of the topic of the lonely lady, sometime in combination with the topic of dreams, when lovers do not visit either in reality or dreams, and other times linked to seasonal images of autumn to elicit the proper emotional response of melancholy. There are notable similarities between love poetry and seasonal poems that constitute the largest percentage of composition in the royal anthology. This allowed the compilers of the anthology to create “narratives” using a series of poems to describe either the development or end of a love affair. The organizing principles of association and progression that the compilers used was an innovative idea that was first attempted in the early tenth century, and compilers of subsequent anthologies worked to perfect the application of these principles.

Tsurayuki’s preface statement might not have been accurate, since most love poetry expressed frustration rather than harmony, longing rather than satisfaction. Heian aristocratic society severely curbed the mobility of women and exposed women to idle gossip should they too freely express themselves, but the poetry and literary texts that flowed from the brushes of its inhabitants are incredibly rich, providing a lifetime of work for scholars interested in mining the riches of classical Japanese literature.



1 Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 5.

2 There were two prefaces to the Kokinshû: a kana preface written by Ki no Tsurayuki in vernacular Japanese and a mana preface written in Chinese by Ki no Yoshimochi, a testament to the lingering influence of Chinese poetics in the early tenth century.

3 Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 3.

4 Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 7.

5 For a detailed argumentation on the rule of correlation between natural phenomena and human affairs in the various books of the Kokinshû, see Rein Raud, The Role of Poetry in Classical Japanese Literature: A Code and Discursivity Analysis, Tallinn, Estonia: Eesti Humanitaarinstituut, 1994, 44-55.

6 Translations of KKS 622-623 are from Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 140. The same poetic exchange is also recorded in Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari), translated by Helen Craig McCullough, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.

7 I follow William H. McCullough’s use of terminology of uxorilocal, virilocal, neolocal, and duolocal residences describing Heian-period marital practices in "Japanese Marriage Institutions in the Heian Period," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 27 (1967): 103-167.

8 During the Kamakura period when female courtiers were prohibited from wearing more than five robes simultaneously, an interesting change took place in aristocratic society. In The Poetic Memoirs of Ben no Naishi (Ben no Naishi Nikki, ca. 1250), it was considered amusing when a woman "crawled" to avoid being seen from behind a series of low curtains that shielded women from the eyes of men. This led me to conclude that sometime during the transition from the heyday of the Fujiwara regency of the 11th century to the mid-13th century during which Ben no Naishi served at the royal court, female courtiers began to walk upright. Perhaps the prohibition against wearing an excessive number of robes freed female courtiers of the Kamakura period from the weight of clothing that had restricted mobility in the Heian period. This was just one of many cultural changes that occurred during the transition from the Heian to the Kamakura period. The prohibition against excessive layers of clothing might also have been linked to restrictions in the royal coffers after the Jôkyû Rebellion of 1221, led by the monarch, Go-Toba. Many royal estates were seized by the military government headquartered in Kamakura (hence the name of the time period) and Go-Toba spent the rest of his life in exile on the island of Sado revising and refining the eighth royal anthology, Shinkokin Wakashû (New Collection of Early and Modern Japanese Poetry, ca. 1206, with various revisions thereafter).

9 Uta monogatari (poem tales) such as Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari) trans. by Helen Craig McCullough, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968, Tales of Yamato (Yamato monogatari, trans. by Mildred Tahara, Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1980), Tales of Heichû (Heichû monogatari), trans. by Susan Downing Videen, Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University Press, 1989, among others, provide numerous examples of poetic exchanges placed into narratives by prose head notes that describe the situation during which the poems were composed. Love poetry dominates these collections since famous male gallants, such as Ariwara no Narihira, were usually the protagonists of poem tales.

10 The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari, ca. 1000) is one of many Heian-period texts in which this practice is recorded. The Poetic Memoirs of Ben no Naishi (Ben no Naishi Nikki ca. 1250) from the Kamakura period testifies to the continuation of the practice of using surrogates into the mid-13th century. See S. Yumiko Hulvey, trans. Sacred Rites in Moonlight: Ben no Naishi Nikki, Ithaca, NY: Cornell East Asia Series, 2005, 134.

11 The Kagerô Diary (Kagerô nikki, ca. 950), trans. by Sonja Artnzen, Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1997, 147-153, written by Fujiwara Michitsuna’s mother, preserves examples of exchanges of poetry between women that adopt courtship-like banter. A series of courtship exchanges between Fujiwara Kane’ie and Michitsuna’s mother is recorded between pages 57-65. The poetry exchange after the third night signifies the conclusion of the civil marriage ceremony, glossed over in the narrative.

12 See The Kagerô Diary, 233-259.

13 Translations of KKS 552 and KKS 553 are from Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 126.

14 Translations of KKS 656-658 are from Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 146. There are only two four-poem sequences with the topic of dreams in Love (1) KKS 524-527 and Love (3) KKS 644-647; a three-poem sequence is found in Love (5) KKS 766-768.

15 Translation of KKS 822 is from Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 179.

16 Translation of KKS 635 is from Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Stanford, CA: Stanford University P ress, 1985, 142.

17 Translation of KKS 741 is from Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 163.

18 Translation of KKS 756 is from Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 167.

19 Translation of KKS 782 is from Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 171.

20 Translation of KKS 797 is from Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 174.

21 The translation of KKS 113 is from Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 35. Male poets, such as Ki no Tomonori, expressed grief at his advancing age in KKS 57, but the passage of time leans more heavily upon women than men, then as now.

22 Translations of KKS 823-828 are from Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashû: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, 179-180.


Yumiko Hulvey Yumiko Hulvey is Associate Professor of Japanese Literature and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida. She has published articles on female writers of both classical and modern Japanese literature in journals such as Monumenta Nipponica, Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing, and Japan Studies Review. She has also published book chapters in Japanese Women Writers: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook, Japan in Traditional and Post Modern Perspectives, Dictionary of Literary Biography: Medieval Japanese Writers, and Body Politics and the Fictional Double. Her book, Sacred Rites in Moonlight: Ben no Naishi Nikki, is forthcoming from Cornell East Asia Series Press.