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.


Pacific Northwest American Poet Carmen Sterba, who has lived 32 years in Japan, shares her haiku, tanka, sijo, photograpy and articles along with woodblock prints.

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