All posts by SterbaPoet

Carmen Sterba is a poet and an Asian culture enthusiast who grew up in the Pacific Northwest area of South Puget Sound surrounded by lakes and Douglas Firs. She studied and taught in Japan for 32 years, where she graduated with a B.A. in Far East Asian Studies from Sophia University in Tokyo and finished an M. A. in Humanities with a focus on Literature at California State University in 1995. As an award-winning haiku poet, she has been both secretary and first vice-president of the Haiku Society of America and an editor for the online haiku journal haijinx. With Lidia Rozmus, she edited The Moss at Tokeiji: "A Sanctuary in Kamakura that Changed Women's Lives 1285-1902." She prepared two chapbooks: sunlit jar and An Amazement of Deer. The sunlit jar was published by Wim Lofvers in the Netherlands and An Amazement of Deer was published by Cascade Deer Press in University Place, WA. Carmen Sterba is the photographer and main haiku poet and Dianne Garcia is the editor. Thanks to the 20 selected haiku poets.

Historically Speaking: The Hermit Poet Known by Emperors and Shoguns

A Kabuki Play's Rendition of Poet Saigyo leaving Kyoto
A Kabuki Play’s Rendition of Poet Saigyo leaving Kyoto

Saigyo (1118-1190) achieved a complex combination of ideals by being both a hermit monk and one of the most prominent tanka poets of his day. He lived during the immensely violent end of the classical Heian Era and the beginning of the medieval Kamakura Era. In addition, Saigyo continues to be one of the most beloved poets in Japanese Literature as a prime inspiration for those who want to live a life of solitude in nature. He was the herald for many who came after him, including Basho.

Saigyo’s birth name was Sato Norikiyo and he was a samurai in the Sato branch of the illustrious Fujiwara family. He began writing tanka at an early age. At 23, when he was an elite guard of retired emperors in Kyoto, he decided to give up a promising career, to become a monk. In Seeds in the Heart, Donald Keene wrote that:

It is likely that the life of a hermit, secluded from the world in a lonely hut, attracted the young Saigyo more than any religious teaching, and induced him to “leave the world.” From this time on, the writings of recluses (inja) form an important genre . . .”

The reason for Saigyo’s decision to become a monk is unclear though various scholars suggest that it was because of his dislike of the corrupt lifestyle of the Imperial Court, his distaste for civil war, and/or a disappointment in love. As a monk, his choice was to live alone and as unattached to temple life as was possible. He lived on more than one mountain near Kyoto and later lived for 7 years near the main shrine in Ise, which is the center for Japan’s indigenous religion of Shinto. In Awesome Night: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyo, William La Fleur explains what this syncretism between Buddhism and Shinto meant: “the official [Buddhist] doctrine of the day insisted upon a fundamental unity on the deepest level between beings revered in the temples and the kami [gods] worshiped in the shrines.”

Since he was not officiating in a temple, he was responsible for raising money for temples and that took him on many solitary travels. His willingness to combine Buddhism with Shintoism is not unusual in Japan even in modern times. It is common for Japanese to interchangeably visit both temples and shrines and have both Buddhist altars and Shinto altars in the same house.

Interestingly, Saigyo’s life as a hermit monk and a tanka poet was not as acceptable as what one might think. He struggled with the fact that as a hermit he did not give up poetry and was criticized for doing so, yet he felt strongly that writing poetry was integral to who he was. Thus, as Saigyo sought progress in his spiritual journey, he also found greater depths in his poetics. He regarded poetry similar to a Buddhist mantra or prayer. This unity of religious practice and poetry aided his personal journey. This can be seen in his tanka.

La Fleur states that Saigyo was “moved to write about paradoxes, about gaps between reality and appearance, and about attitudes and actions that ordinary society cannot comprehend because of its own attachment to illusions.”

Saigyo’s poetry is as fresh as if it had been written yesterday. And even in these two selections, which are interspersed with deep philosophical musings, lightness prevails (all the tanka are translations by Burton Watson from Poems of a Mountain Home):

If I no longer think
of reality
as reality,
what reason would I have
to think of dreams as dreams?

In this mountain village
where I’ve given up all hope
of visitors,
how drab life would be
without my loneliness

Saigyo’s continued to be attached to certain people, such the Emperor he had formerly served. “The waves” was written while he took a trip to Matsuyama where Emperor Sutoku, came to a tragic end. “We saw you off” is one of his poems written in memory his friend, Lady-in-Waiting, Fujiwara Asako:

The waves
of Matsuyama—
their aspect unchanged,
but of you, my lord,
no trace remains

We saw you off,
and returning through the fields
I thought the morning dew
had wet my sleeve

Even a person free of passion
would be moved
to sadness
autumn evening
in a marsh where snipes fly up

My mind I send
with the moon
that goes beyond the mountain,
but what of this body
left behind in darkness

“Even a person free of passion” is the most popular tanka of Saigyo’s. It dispels the image of a monk who has lost all interest in this world and shows his keen sensitivity to the movements in nature. “My mind I send” may be one of the tanka that Saigyo wrote after meditating on the moon. LaFleur states that this kind of meditation “is referred to as gachirinkan and prized by the Shingon school, the mind/heart (kokoro) of the practitioner was visualized as progressively filling with light.” (Awesome Night)

Saigyo was so famous that in 1186, when he traveled to Kamakura, which had become the military capitol of Japan after the Minamoto overcame the Fujiwara clan, he was immediately recognized at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine and given an audience with the future Shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199). Saigyo was asked to give an impromptu lecture on tanka, the arts of archery and military horsemanship for the Yoritomo. There is a legend, that when Saigyo received a gift from Yoritomo, he immediately gave it to the first child he saw as he left to continue his travels. Not so many years later, Yoritomo’s son, Minamoto Sanetomo (1192-1219) became a well-known tanka poet and the third Shogun. At the age of 27, Sanetomo was assassinated at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura.

It was the memory of Saigyo in the 12th century, that inspired Basho, in the 17th century, to take a trip up North to visit places where Saigyo stopped on his travels to compose tanka. Basho was certainly inspired by Saigyo’s themes and sensitivity towards nature. Basho chose to link his reputation as a poet to Saigyo even though he was not a hermit monk. Haruo Shirane writes the following in Traces of Dreams:

The Narrow Road to the Interior, which traces Basho’s journey of 1689, can be interpreted as an offering or tribute to the spirit of Saigyo (1118-90) on the five-hundredth anniversary of his death. As the ultimate host of Basho’s journey, Saigyo becomes the object of various poems of gratitude, tribute, or remembrance, particularly at the utamakura, the poetic places in which the poet’s spirit resides.

Saigyo was born into the court life of Kyoto and he was already an accomplished tanka poet when he decided to withdraw from life. This cultivated poet-monk, who was welcomed by Emperors and Shoguns, continues to be one of the most revered and inspirational of all poets in Japanese Literature.


Keene, Donald. Seeds of the Heart: To the Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, N.Y.: Henry Holt and Company Inc., 1993.

LaFleur, William. Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyo, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003.

Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Watson, Burton. Poems of a Mountain Home, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Carmen Sterba lived in Japan for 31 years. Her first degree is in Far East Asian Studies and her second is in literature. She is an award-winning English-language haiku poet and a former officer of the Haiku Society of America. This article was first published in The Tanka Society of America Journal, Ribbons, Vol. 4 No. 1, in 2008, and also published on The Samurai Archives History Page, which can be retrieved at

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.

Heian Poetic Diaries – Part 1 Tosa Diary

Ki no Tsurayuki, author of  the Tosa Diary and editor of the Kokinshu
Ki no Tsurayuki, author of the Tosa Diary and editor of the Kokinshu

The first poetic diary in Japanese literature is Tosa Diary by Ki no Tsurayuki in 935. Prose in the form of diaries (nikki) or tales (monogatari) include waka poetry (now known as tanka) in the form of 31 sounds (onji). This new tradition of combining prose with waka, was the forerunner of all Japanese poetic diaries. The Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel written by Murasaki Shikibu, was influenced by this poetic tradition.

Tsurayuki (b. 872) collected the poetry for the Kokinshu, an imperial collection, and wrote its preface not in Chinese, which was the language for scholars, but in Japanese. His preface is one of the most famous literary criticisms of Japanese poetry. His first words are: “Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart and burgeons into many different kinds of words.” He continues in this refrain, “Poetry moves without effort heaven and earth, stirs the invisible gods and demons to piety, makes sweet the ties between men and women, and brings comfort to the fierce heart of the warrior.” (Donald Keene, Seeds of the Heart, 1993)

In Tosa Diary, Tsurayuki creates his account of an unknown mother’s return journey to the capital after the death of her daughter. Why would he choose to write in the voice of a woman? Gustav Heldt points out in Writing Like a Man: Poetic Literary, Textual Property, and Gender in the Tosa Diary that “literacy in the Heian court was primarily determined by social background rather than gender” and “far from being an extravagant fictional masking of the author’s identity, the choice of a female diarist to record events in Tsurayuki’s life would have been an utterly conventional means for writing.” Heldt explains what is unconventional about the Tosa Diary is that Tsuruyuki is actually the author since it was common for court poets or attendants to write the diaries for an emperor or empress and these would become property of the household, not the author. Heldt concludes, “The historical setting in which the Tosa Diary was written was one in which members of the newly ascendant Fujiwara household engaged in the practice of keeping diaries in order to assert their privileged place at court.” (Journal of Asian Studies, 2005).

Scholar J. Thomas Rimer writes about the genre of literary diaries in A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature: “Mixing prose and poetry, fact and fiction, memory and desire, they resemble no Western form, yet they are eminently approachable to modern readers since their raison d’etre is to reveal the subterranean flow of the author’s feelings.”

Japanese literature expert and translator, Earl Miner explains in Japanese Poetic Diaries that “Basho wrote of the continuing tradition from Tsurayuki to his own time, a tradition he designated as ‘diaries of the road’ (michi no nikki).” Tosa Diary is a daily diary and a travel diary of a trip from Tosa on the way to the capital of Heian-Kyo (present day Kyoto). The passengers experience delays because of a storm, and write waka to fill the time. The following are two waka/tanka which show the grief of the mother’s loss of her daughter:

I kept forgetting
that the child was dead, and asking
as if she were alive,
“What can that girl be up to?”
I have fallen into a greater grief

(trans. by Earl Miner)

If only I could have seen her
for as long as the
pine’s thousand years
and not known the sorrow
of that distant parting

(trans. by Gustav Heldt)


to be continued in Heian Poetic Diaries, Part 2

A Safe Place to Run to

Photo and Haibun by Carmen Sterba
Photo and Haibun by Carmen Sterba

Intro: Kamakura is one of the jewels of Japan, surrounded by mountains and the sea. In a northern pine grove, a temple still stands that was founded by Kakusan Shido as a sanctuary for women in 1285. “A Safe Place to Run to” is haibun: a prose poem with haiku. It was published in a collection of haibun by Japanese and American women poets in The Moss at Tokeiji.

A Safe Place to Run to

sounds of sweeping–
sunbeams appear
between the pines

After walking for two days and a night, a young woman inquires at the 
entrance. A purple clad nun listens, then urges her to come in, “You’re 
safe at last.”

A small group of women come forward. “Welcome! exclaims the one with 
the biggest smile, “What a beauty!”

Before nightfall, everyone eats a simple meal of rice and vegetable gruel. 
Hot barley tea is plentiful.

Tired from walking, the new arrival is lulled to sleep by the hush of the
surrounding forest. 

murmurs of roommates–
clatter of clogs on the way
to morning prayers

After breakfast, the head nun retells the history of the convent. She 
concludes by saying, “The calm that prevails in this pine grove mixes 
with women’s voices as well as songs of birds, even insects. For 600 
years, we have provided shelter for women who suffer from heartbreak 
or violence. It continues to be our hope that those who come here can 
grow stronger and more humble at the same time.”

warbler’s refrain—
a shift from sorrow
into hope

Rozmus, Lidia and Sterba, Carmen (editors)The Moss at Tokeiji: A Sanctuary in Kamakura that Changed Women’s Lives 1285-1902. Santa Fe: Deep North Press, 2010.

Hosokawa Fujitaka (Yusai) and the Armistice to Save Poetry

Hosokawa Family Crest

Daimyo Hosokawa Fujitaka was the only samurai who asked for an armistice in the middle of battle to save an irreplaceable commentary and his poetry collection. It contained twenty-one hand-written imperial anthologies and an exceptionally rare copy of The Tale of Genji. Hosokawa heard of his daughter-in-law Hosokawa Gracia’s tragic death after Ishida Mitsunari took her as his hostage. Immediately, Hosokawa called his retainers to prepare to attack Ishida’s forces. At Tanabe Castle, he had 500 men and Ishida arrived with 1,500. The following is an account by Historian A. L. Sadler in The Maker of Modern Japan: The Life of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu: “Several of the enemy generals had been Fujitaka’s students, and their attacks were very half-hearted. They omitted to put their projectiles into their guns before firing because they were more in sympathy with Hosokawa than Ishida.”

Fujitaka, who was a respected poet with the pen name Yusai was the only living person at that time who was in possession of the hand-written poetry commentary and concordance to decipher the 600 year-old Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern (Kokinshu). The possibility of Yusai’s death caused unprecedented concern about the secret teachings of the commentary for the first imperial anthology of waka poetry. Even the emperor heard about the predicament at Tanabe Castle.

According to Museum Director Takeuchi Jun’ichi in the Lords of the Samurai: The Legacy of a Daimyo Family, “In the midst of defending the castle, Yusai negotiated to have a portion of the commentary sent with his poetry collection to a prince by a specially dispatched ‘armistice envoy.’” Soon after the prince handed the commentary to the emperor. It was most likely that these valuable possessions were transported in a wagon of oxen for the trip from the castle to the emperor in Kyoto with a bodyguard of samurai accompanying them. Next, the emperor asked Yusai to surrender his castle, but he refused. At the end of this incident, the emperor issued an edict for peace and the battle at Tanabe Castle ended.

The Hosokawa Family Legacy and the Eisei-Bunko Museum

As daimyo, Hosokawa Yusai and his son Tadaoki served under all three military leaders who unified Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Yusai was both the most respected waka (now called tanka) poet and linked verse renga poet of his day among the military elite. In addition, he was a connoisseur of Noh Theater and the Tea Ceremony. His son, Tadaoki, Gracia’s husband, became one of the leading Tea Ceremony masters to study under the renowned Sen no Rikyu. According to Deborah Clearwaters, in Lords of the Samurai, “With the gradual cessation of warfare beginning in the early 1600s, the primary responsibilities of the samurai became less military and more administrative; as a result, more time could be devoted to educational and artistic pursuits for pure pleasure.”

Tadaoki and Gracia’s son Tadatoshi followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father and became proficient in the Tea Ceremony and performed in Noh Theater. He was also a connoisseur of paintings and invited the legendary swordsman and painter Miyamoto Musushi to retire at his home. All in all, the Hosokawa family has existed for 700 years. The 18th head of the family is former Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro, who is now a renowned as a ceramics specialist. The Hosokawa Family Collection at the Eisei-Bunko Museum in Tokyo, includes armor, swords, paintings, calligraphy, tea utensils, Noh robes and other art objects, but not the famed commentary that Yusai protected and bequeathed to a prince.


Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. “Foreword: Warriors and the Literary Arts,” Lords of the Samurai: The Legacy of a Daimyo Family, San Francisco: Asian Art Museum – Chong-Moon Lee Center for Art and Culture, 2009.

Sadler, A. L. The Maker of Modern Japan: The Life of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1937, 1986.