HEIAN POETIC DIARIES, PART 2 The Golden Age of Women Poets

by Kano Takanobu
by Kano Takanobu

In 1920, the well-known imagist poet Amy Lowell was greatly influenced by Japanese poetry, and wrote in an introduction for Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan: “These diaries show us a world extraordinarily like our own, if very unlike in more than one important particular. The noblemen and women were poets and writers of genius, and their taste as a whole has never been surpassed by any people at any time, but their scientific knowledge was elementary in the extreme.”

Lowell especially noted the prominence of women writers during the turn of the 11th century when the Chinese called Japan the ‘Queen Country’ because of the “ascendancy which women enjoyed.” She pointed out that “it is an extraordinary and important fact that much of the best literature of Japan has been written by women.”

The Emperor had two wives. Each had separate courts in the capital. Sei Shonagon, the waka poet and essayist of the eloquent and influential Pillow Book, was lady-in-waiting of the first Empress. The second Empress chose three ladies-in-waiting who were poetic diarists, including Murasaki Shikibu (b. 978), Izumi Shikibu (b. 974), and Fujiwara Takasue’s daughter (b. 1009). Lady Murasaki wrote the incomparable psychological novel, Tale of Genji as well as The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu, which reveals insight on her life while she was writing her novel. Izumi became a lady-in-waiting after she wrote the sensual Diary of Izumi Shikibu about her major lovers and their deaths. Lady Izumi’s love poetry is compared with the great waka poet Ono no Komachi (b. 834). Murasaki and Izumi were not related, instead Shikibu was the court title of their fathers. The third lady-in-waiting was Fujiwara Takasue’s daughter, also known as Lady Sarashina. She spent a short time at the second Empress’s court, but withdrew to read and write at home. She was the niece of the author of The Gossamer Years (Kagero Nikki).

The following are three of the poets’ most famous waka included in the valuable collection of Hyakunin Isshu: One Hundred Poets.

after my passing
into the other world
for a memory to cherish,
I wish to see you
once more

Izumi Shikiku

we met again by chance
but before I could tell
if it was really you
the midnight moon vanished
into the clouds

Murasaki Shikibu

while it is yet dark,
your crowing like a rooster
may deceive some folks,
but not Meeting Hills gate guards
who still will bar your passage

Sei Shonagon

translations by Emiko Miyashita and Michael Dylan Welch

Since the voice
of the flute sounded just like
the autumn wind,
why then did the reed leaf
not rustle in response?

Lady Sarashina (Sonja Arntzen trans,)

Poetic diaries continued to be written in the medieval, early modern, and modern periods of Japanese Literature with a combination of prose and tanka, but neither the quality not quantity of these have surpassed the diaries of Heian Period. It is strange and ironic that as influential and ground-breaking as the poetic diaries (or essays) of these women are, we do not know their full names. Each will always be associated with her father’s title or as the daughter, mother or aunt of someone else; yet in over one thousand years, their endeavors have not been forgotten.


Arntzen Sonja (trans), “Sarashina DIary,” Haruo Shirane ed., Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteeth Century, New York:Henry Holt and Company, 1993.

Heldt, Gustav. “Tosa Diary,” Haruo Shirane ed., Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002

_____________. “Writing Like a Man: Poetic Literacy, Textual Property, and Gender in the Tosa DIary,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Anne Arbor, 2005, Vol. 64, Issue 1.

Lowell, Amy. Introduction to Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, Annie Sheply Omori and Kochi Doi (trans.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920.

Minor, Earl and Robert H. Brower (trans.) Japanese Poetic Diaries. Berkley:University of California Press, 1969.

Rimer, Thomas J. A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1999.

Sterba, Carmen. “Historically Speaking: Heian Poetic Diaries,” Ribbons. Point Roberts, WA: Tanka Society of America, 2008, Vol. 4:4.

Takaoka Kazuya, Takahashi Mutsuo, Ito Yukikazu ed., and Emiko Miyashita and Michael Dylan Welch (trans)
Hyakunin Isshu 100 Poets: Passions of the Imperial Court. Tokyo: Pie Books, 2008.

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