Tag Archives: Poetic Diaries

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.

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.