Category Archives: Japanese Biography

Historical Kamakura Women – Part One

Hase Temple
Hase Temple in the Hase District of Kamakura

Even as a child, Horiuchi Adachi was athletic and drawn to archery and kendo. Her personality was strong-willed, compassionate and curious. In other words, she was a change maker and an independent tomboy.

Horiuchi also liked poetry, and her heroine was diarist and poet Nun Abutsu and her hero was Shogun Sanetomo, a tanka poet. Her academic Aunt Zeni was instrumental in her education because she was well-known for her calligraphy, poetry, and studies. In fact, a famous book by recluse Chomei’s The Ten Foot Square Hut (Hojoki) mentioned Zeni’s organization skills; thus, she was known for her ideas to make something out of next to nothing and her many guests who would come to seek her advice.

On New Year’s Day, Horiuchi’s family sat around the large low table at their home in Hase district of Kamakura to drink a toast. After the meal, while the adults were playing the card game, 100 poets. Her aunt, Zeni, won and blushed when everyone cheered for her. Next, her brothers and her cousin Tokimune ran outdoors to play shuttlecock. A servant tied back her long kimono sleeves so that she could play with all her strength and she beat her cousin twice.

winter crispness

red camellia blossoms

slip on the ground

Horiuchi was eight now, and she knew that she would eventually wed her cousin, Tokimune Hojo. He was like another brother to her, but since she heard of the plans, she felt a bit shy towards him for the first time. He was quiet, bookish and honest. These were things she liked about him better than her brothers who were always fighting. They would replay the battle between the Heike and Taira the outcome of which resulted in the establishment of Kamakura as the seat of the military government of Minamoto no Yoritomo who became the first shogun in 1185. Horiuchi was proud of her family, the Adachi clan. Tokimune was related to Yoritomo’s wife, Masako Hojo, and  was bound to be a regent some day.

Horiuchi was glad she lived in Kamakura where everyone knew her family, and she could play outside with her friends and brothers every day. Zeni read to her about the court women in Kyoto long ago, who wrote poetry and wore seven layers of kimono. She was glad she was born in the military capital of Kamakura and not in the imperial capital of Kyoto. Such a life seemed utterly restraining to her. She was thankful for
the life she had even though her aunt was overbearing at times.

The family went to the Tsuruga Hachiman Shrine to pay respects to the gods for the New Year and pray for a good year. Horiuchi came home with charms for good luck.  She watched the beautiful shrine maidens wrap the family’s charms.

Everywhere, families were out visiting relatives and visiting shrines and temples. They got home before dinner to eat the special New Year’s delicacies like carp; dried fish inserted wrapped in seaweed; and sweet chestnut sauce. Before bed, the children did their first calligraphy of the year, and the adults critiqued their efforts. Zeni said to Horiuchi that her calligraphy was bold for a girl her age, but she needed to work harder on her technique.

As she went to sleep, she could hear the adults talking about politics. Early the next morning, she awoke to shouts from her brothers. It had snowed during the night. What a happy day watching the snow cover the town. She wanted to hike in the nearby hills to see the view of Kamakura and the ocean from high up, but the adults decided that there could be too much wind that day and the trails would be slippery.

Horiuchi thought she would be happy when she was older and was allowed to go anywhere she decided. What a luxury that would be! Tokimune and Horiuchi were married when he was nine, and she was eight in 1261, and then they moved to Tokimune’s residence. Seven years later in 1268, they settled into a real marriage and Tokimune became the 8th Hojo Regent of the Kamakura Era of Japan.

dreams of the hills . . .

female relatives spy

on the regent’s wife

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

The Voice and Realism of Higuchi Ichiyo

Author Higuchi Ichiyo was chosen for the Japanese bill of 5,000 yen
Author Higuchi Ichiyo was chosen for the Japanese bill of 5,000 yen

Higuchi Ichiyo is a prominent author and poet who struggled with dire poverty and championed the poor. Over one-hundred years later, in 2004, she was chosen to grace the Japanese 5000 yen ($50) banknote. It was the third time a women had been chosen. The other banknotes were the Empress Jingu (1881) and classic novelist Murasaki Shikibu (2000). Higuchi wrote about poverty-stricken men and women during the modernization of Tokyo at the end of the 1800s. One of her most famous novellas focuses on children who lived in the slums next to the “Pleasure Quarters” of Yoshiwara.

In The Modern Murasaki, author Rebecca Copeland relates, “Ichiyo’s struggle to become a professional writer was not just a woman’s struggle in a male-centered literary society . . . it was more complex: she wanted to write because she knew her writing skills were much more sophisticated than those of her peers, whether male or female.”

From Middle Class to Poverty

Higuchi had been educated at the Haginoya Poetry Conservatory in Tokyo; thus, she possessed a good background in the classics such as Genji Monogatari (The Tales of Genji), and wrote tanka. Her family was from the samurai class that was swiftly becoming impoverished, for their stipends had been cut off. When her father died, she felt responsible to support her mother and sister, but few jobs were open to women and their funds soon disappeared. Furthermore, they left their middle class suburb for a poor area where she set up a store. When her former classmate, Miyake Kaho began to publish articles in literary magazines, Higuchi followed suit.

Influence of Saikaku’s Earthy Style

“Besides her private struggles, Ichiyo’s prose diaries with tanka show her search for a new literary language that would do justice to everyday life in a Tokyo deeply involved in rapid Westernization and modernization,” according to Copeland. Though the literary community had embraced Western realism in novels, poetry and art, Higuchi did not read the newly translated Western literature, but continued to read Japanese literature in Tokyo’s Ueno Library where she discovered author Saikaku for the first time.

The Writer’s Epiphany

Even though Saikaku’s characters were one-dimensional and his language and themes were often vulgar, she was inspired by his colloquial language, wit and verve, resulting in a kind of epiphany. She became able to appreciate the essence of what had made the Heian women poets great. it was not their style, but their “passion, frankness and honesty.” Higuchi found a way to reform her literary language into an earthy style and was liberated from imitating classical women’s styles.

Authorial Voice for Marginal People

Higuchi is often introduced as the “Modern Murasaki” or “female Saikaku. Timothy Van Compornole has an apt description of Higuchi, “This frail, diminutive writer, who outwardly appeared dauntingly proper and conservative, whose demeanor suggested both wounded pride and a certain stodginess, and who was so soft-spoken before strangers as to be nearly inaudible, found a harder, more critical personal in her fiction, and used it to represent and give voice to marginal figures who might otherwise be socially invisible.” In spite of her poverty, she had the talent and independence to rise above her circumstances.

One of Higuchi’s most famous novellas, Takekurabe is an unrequited love story of children in the sordid outskirts of Yoshiwara (where she lived). The title, Takekurabe, has been translated both as Comparing Heights, Growing Up or Child’s Play. Movies continue to be made of this complex story with undertones from the classics. Midori, Nobu and Chokichi are the main characters:

Kaburaki Kiyokata's Painting at the National Museum of Art, Kyoto
Kaburaki Kiyokata’s Painting at the National Museum of Art, Kyoto

Beautiful Midori is smart, innocent, but apprehensive about the future because her sister is already a courtesan in Yoshiwara; whereas Nobu is sensitive and introverted, the son of Buddhist priest; and tough Chokichi, who likes to bully Nobu, is the fire chief’s son.

Higuchi’s prose diaries added with tanka brought back the days of the popular poetic diaries for Japanese women since their heydays in the early 10th and 11th centuries since this kind of literature dwindled during the middle ages and returned in the modern era of Meiji. Parts of her diaries, and complete novellas can be found in the Shade of Spring Leaves by Robert Lyons Danly. Unfortunately, she died of tuberculosis at 24 years of age.


Copeland, Rebecca L. & Melek Ortabasi. The Modern Murasaki: Writings by Women of Meiji Japan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Danly, Robert Lyons. In the Shade of Spring Leaves: The Life and Writings of Higuchi Ichiyo, A Woman of Letters in Meiji Japan, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1981.

Van Compernolle, Timothy J. The Uses of Memory: The Critique of Modernity in the Fiction of Higuchi Ichiyo, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asian Center Press, 2006.

Tanka Diary of a Thirteen-year-old Girl in Heian Japan

Reflected Moon on Paddy Fields at Sarashina, woodblock by Ando Hiroshige
Reflected Moon on Paddy Fields at Sarashina, woodblock by Ando Hiroshige

A geeky teenage girl, true to her nature, grows into poet and the author of a classic diary, which is still popular in Japan, 1,000 years later.

One thousand years ago an ultimate bookworm had a dream. The girl’s desire was to obtain all the volumes of the famous Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji. Today, she might be considered goth or a geek. Her aunt was the author of The Kagero Diary (or The Gossamer Years) and delighted her niece by giving her a complete set of The Tale of Genji. In those days, books were carefully copied by hand and passed around by chapters, as most early books were, so it was very special to receive a complete one. Sarashina (b 1008) became the poetic diarist of The Sarashina Diary.

Murasaki Shikibu and Izumi Shikibu

Two of the best-known luminaries of the golden age of Heian Japanese female poets and authors were Murasaki Shikibu and Izumi Shikibu, who were not related but rivals (Shikibu is the court title of their fathers). They were ladies-in-waiting at the imperial court in Heian-Kyo (Kyoto) and severed Empress Akiko. Murasaki wrote The Tale of Genji, the first novel in the world; it is as relevant to Japanese culture as Shakespeare’s plays are to Western culture. Izumi was an exceptional tanka poet who wrote The Diary of Izumi Shikibu. Both authors interspersed their writing with original poetry known as waka. Their main topics were descriptions of lives full of intrigue, ambitious men, lovers and castaway wives.

Poetry was an essential way to communicate with aristocratic families between friends, lovers, and relatives. Instead of a letter, they sent poems. Sarashina wrote the following poetry called waka (song) that appears in Haruo Shirane’s Traditional Japanese Literature. Professor Shirane teaches in the East Asian Languages and Cultures of Columbia University. Sonja Arntzen translated each 31-syllable waka (now called tanka) below. Arntzen is professor emerita of literature at Toronto University  and the University of Alberta.

Is it that you think
I am one no longer living
in this world of ours?
Sadly I cry and cry,
yet do indeed live on

A Diary from Girlhood to Middle Age

The author wrote The Sarashina Diary when she was middle-aged, yet this autobiographical diary begins in the voice of a thirteen-year-old and flows with young-hearted awe and enthusiasm towards what she loved: her father, her books and the outdoors. Her writing reveals how she tried to follow her parents’ desire to be useful at the court of Empress Akiko, yet when she gave up the court position, she was true to her nature as a shy girl who was content with books and daydreams. Finally, her parents let her stay home and did not pressure her to marry early. Later, when Sarashina marries at age 31, she seems to have become content as a wife and mother. As her diary progresses, the author’s voice changes to that of a middle-aged woman, tinged with the melancholy of a widow, who soon has to cope with an empty nest. Even though she feels abandoned, the poet persists in her writing and goes on pilgrimages to temples on a quest to find eternal life.

Even to a heart
clouded by tears that fall
with no respite,
the light pouring from the moon
can appear so radiant

Women of the Imperial Court Excel in Poetry and Poetic Diaries

The years 950 to 1050 were known as a “Golden Age” for Japanese women poets as well as for the history of Japanese Literature as a whole.  Scholar Earl Miner asked, “Is there a parallel period in any other literature, not only of the preeminence of women but the contribution of women to what is deemed classic in the nation’s heritage? Some understanding of the efflorescence of female genius can be found in beliefs that the author of The Sarashina Diary is typical, as [noble] women were the most avid readers at that time, and the court of Empress Akiko supported and cultivated writers.”

At a time in Japan when male authors wrote in Chinese ideograms (kanji), female authors wrote entirely in the native Japanese script, kana. Chinese ideograms for the Japanese language, include thousands of characters that require years of memorization. However, kana (hiragana and katakana) represent the phonetic syllables of the Japanese language. Because of the relative simplicity of kana and the popularity of the more psychological writing style of women, their writing became more widely read than men’s during the Heian period.

The Uniqueness of a Thirteen-year Old Girl

Women’s poetic diaries held such esteem that one of the top male poets, Ki no Tsurayuki (b 872), wrote The Tosa Diary in the voice of a woman writing in hiragana. The Sarashina Diary is the most autobiographical of the Heian poetical diaries as it includes the long expanse of the author’s life. Shirane states, “The travel account was first written in the viewpoint of a thirteen-year-old girl, and was unique [for that time].” He continues, “It also addresses difficult issues in a complex manner” such as fiction and reality, the capital vs. country life, and darkness and lightness.

The real name of the author and poet is unknown; instead, the Sarashina is the place where her family once lived. Her father was Sugawara no Takasue, so she was also called “Takasue’s daughter.” In any event, this author’s fame and those of her more famous literary colleagues, Murasaki Shikibu and Izumi Shikibu, has lasted for 1,000 years.


Miner, Earl. An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.

Shirane, Haruo. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, New York: Columbia University, 2007.