The birth of Japanese poetry rose in the time of matriarchy. Like other civilizations under matriarchy, the women were either the goddesses or legendary half-goddesses. Thus they were the preeminent authorities, the heads of clans and the pattern for government. In these positions, the women empresses were also the religious leaders being shamans and keepers of the temples.
The concept that poetry evolved out of those early chants and prayers is a fairly well accepted theory at this time. The fact that the change from matriarchy to patriarchy occurred here later than in, for example, the Mediterranean area, plus a special inborn characteristic of the people who populated the islands which became Japan influenced the retention of the connection between women in authority and women as poets. These people, though quick to adopt or adapt a new idea, retained a very strong common social memory.
This factor was partly responsible for the wide acceptance and veneration for women as poets even when the men had taken over the government and religious positions. Thus when the first collection of Japanese poetry the Man-yoshu (Collection of 10,000 Leaves) was compiled, at the middle of the 8th Century, over one-third of the poets were women. Part of this is due to the fact that the first collection assembled many of the very oldest works which until then had been passed down orally. These older works and the section of poems from the more remote areas in the eastern part of the country, where patriarchy was less advanced, represented more works of women.
One of the surprising aspects, to scholars at least, of the Man-yoshu is its remarkable democracy. Whereas in later anthologies the works are of court persons and poets (mostly men), in the Man-yoshu are poems from empresses and prostitutes, generals and common foot soldiers, beggars and monks, wives and lovers. Thus the poetry reflects not only the varied interests and ways of perceiving life, but also revealed different poetic visions and techniques of writing poetry.
Because the Man-yoshu was the first of a long line of such anthologies, it is the one to which reformers return periodically in order to refresh poetical styles. In this way, the men have, over the intervening twelve centuries, continually sipped again at the springs discovered and described by women. While patriarchy was solidifying into a mold of repression in almost every other aspect of a woman's life, there has remained in literature a small gap through which men have to some degree continued to give credit and even praise to the abilities of women writers.
However, in reading the biographies of these women one is given very little insight into the woman except to designated as wife of so-and-so or mother-of-another. One must go to the poetry to find the heart of the woman. The biographers have often reduced her to a reproductive cog.
Empress Iwa no Hime (? - 347) was the empress consort of Emperor Nitoku and in 314 was proclaimed empress. Little more is know of Princess Oku (661 - 701) other than she was the daughter of Emperor Temmu and she served as a vestal at the Ise Shrine. Many of the women in the Man-yoshu are listed simply as anonymous. It is interesting that when a poet is listed as such, it is assumed "anonymous" was a woman.
Empress Jitoh (645 - 702) was the wife of Emperor Temmu. Upon his death in 686 she ascended the throne and ruled for ten years. Coming from the Yamoto people, who probably at this time still had a matriarchy, Empress Jitoh embodied many of the characteristic of thinking and feeling which were shared by other cultures before matriarchy was overthrown.
Princess Nukada is considered to be the greatest of the women poets of Ohmi period, covered in the first section of the Man-yoshu.
The woman considered the great poets of all in the Man-yoshu is remembered as Yosami, Wife of Hitomaro who lived around 700 A.D. She was a village girl who became one of his three wives. At this time the women were on a much more equal footing with men in that they joined them in many pastimes which we might think as being the property of men such as hunting and even border skirmishes.
Because the country first was ruled by strong empresses who even conquered other lands, the place for poetry resided in the courts in the women's hands and hearts. Even later, when men became the rulers, this factor remained, as it does to the present day at the beginning of each new year with the formal tanka contest in which the winning poems are chanted before the Imperial Family.
It has been the Emperors who have commissioned the anthologies of Japanese poetry and they were always compiled by men. Yet, the women's writing was not only accepted and preserved, scholars who have studied the ancient texts have given highest praise to their works.
By the 8th Century there were already families of poets with the Otomo clan being the largest, producing the almost as many poets as did the later Fujiwara family. Lady Ohtomo no Sakanoe no Iratsume was writing at the time this clan was at its height of power. She is considered to be the leading poet of the early Nara period. In addition, she was mother to a poet daughter (unnamed) who was married to the great poet Ohtomo no Yakamochi who had considerable influence during the time the Man-yoshu was being compiled.
Two women whose works are included in the Man-yoshu were lovers of Ohtomo no Yakamochi: Lady Kii, who was also a consort of Prince Aki and Kasa no Iratsume whose work greatly influenced the later female poets who brought Japanese literature -- to the pinnacle of world literature.
But before this developed there remained a huge block between women and writing. The script used at that time was called Manyohgana which was based on Chinese characters some of which stood for certain things and others which were Japanese pronunciations for the Chinese ideograms. By the time of the compiling of poetic anthologies, patriarchy was advanced to the point where women were rarely educated in Chinese, and thus, they were unable to write or compile writings.
However, near the end of the 8th Century, two new methods of writing were invented. One, called hiragana was also called onna-de or women's writing because it was based, not on a Chinese system of character writing but on a set of fifty symbols representing sound-syllables of the spoken language. Suddenly, women could capture in writing the sounds they were speaking and hearing. While the men, were still imitating Chinese poetry with Chinese character writing (kanji), the women, in their ignorance of this writing form, wrote of what they were experiencing based their daily lives. Thus, the greatest age of women writers in any history of literature occurred, due in large to the development of hiragana.
Giving women the right to write was welcomed as it added a new facet to the "creep courtship" which was the then current mode of love and insemination. Women, especially those at court or in higher positions, were not allowed to be seen by men. Elaborate costumes, draperies and screens confined them to semi-darkness in almost inaccessible reaches of buildings. Surrounding this was a retinue of women servants and or companions.
For a man to "get acquainted" (many couples did not enjoy the leisure of this so rape was often the pair's introduction to each other) was to write notes passed between them through the hands of their closest servants. For a woman to attain her position at court, she was trained in writing poetry, most often in the form of waka (now called tanka). Thus, these notes were usually exchanges of poetry. By judging (or guessing) what one or the other had written, by casting a judicious eye on the quality of the ink and paper, deciphering the characteristics behind the handwriting, one would form about as accurate picture of the beloved as was allowed.
In this way, the men had a vested interest in permitting women to write in hiragana and learned the same system in order to respond with their own poems of love.
In China, where women also developed a women's written language, there was not this element of it being used for courtship between men and women. Thus, the Chinese woman's language remained almost a secret one, and guarded as such for purely women-talk such as mother to daughter instruction and, naturally, as a way for a woman to put into words things she was feeling which was not allowed to be admitted due to social confines of a male-dominated society.
Reading through the all-too brief biographies of the women of Japanese literature, one is continually confronted with the importance that romance played in a poet's life; not only how she responded to other men, but the position of the male with whom she had an affair. It also helped to be gorgeous.
Ono no Komachi was not only one of the immortal poetess of Japan, she was a legendary beauty. So great was her renown that three of the most profoundly moving Noh plays have Ono no Komachi as the central figure. In one, she is portrayed as having lived out the end of her glorious life as an ugly beggar woman, a concept-myth which greatly appealed to male writers. What was not myth is her position as the greatest erotic poet in any language.
Some women, like the Gossamer Lady, known at the time as one of "Japan's three beauties" was later designated only the name of her one book, The Gossamer Journal. Her brother, Nagatoh was a known poet so it can be assumed she received some education along those lines. When she was eighteen or nineteen the twenty-five year old Fujiwara no Kaneie took her as his second wife. This spectacular match (by the end of her factual journal her husband Kaneie was a Major Counselor) was hampered by her own feelings of inferiority, her husband's romantic adventures and her own inability to bear the number of sons his other wives and mistresses produced. The Gossamer Journal clearly states in the beginning that the book is not a romance, but something new -- an unvarnished account of what happens when a girl without powerful family backing embarks on a marriage with a man who can divorce her simply ceasing to visit or communicate with her.
Her memoir is divided into three parts covering the years 954 - 68, 969 - 71, and 972 - 74. Her first book is studded with poems written between her husband, some of his wives, her friends and herself. This book presents her anxiety, jealousy, resentment and self-pity for the way she is treated. The three years of the middle book show her in the painful process of reconciliation to his increasing neglect. Finally, in her thirties, she is able to view Kaneie objectively and her old anger misery are gone as she views him as someone who is no longer significant to her.
Lady Ise (875? - 939?) served as a Lady-in-waiting for Emperor Uda's consort Onshi. After the death of the Prince, Lady Ise became the concubine of the Emperor Uda and for him she bore Prince Uiki-Akari. Later she was the lover of Emperor Uda's fourth son, Prince Atsuyoshi, by whom she bore a daughter -- the poet Nakastukasa. One hundred seventy-three of her tanka are preserved in the imperial anthologies and one collection was devoted to her work. Lady Ise was further distinguished by being invited to participate in the Teiji-in poetry match sponsored by Emperor Uda in 913. She is listed as one of the Thirty-Six Poetic Geniuses of Japan. Her lifetime and thus her work, directly proceeded the period dominated by a group of Japanese women writers unequaled in any other culture.
Murasaki Shikibu is the author of Genji Monogatari, (The Tale of Genji), one of Japan's most exalted books. Long hailed as the greatest novel ever written and even more admirable when one thinks it was written eight hundred years before the development of the novel in English. The long story of a fictitious prince, Genji, and his many loves and finally his passing which leaves the scene for his children to play out his life is masterfully written. The handling and execution of such an involved plot often overshadows the quality of the over 800 waka/tanka which are mounted in it like jewels. Some have felt the story was simply a setting for the waka, but reading the work, even in translation, one feels both aspects combine to make this work of art outstanding.
The Lady Shikibu, (Chief Maid of Honor for Sohshi, chief consort of the Emperor Ichijoh) was a great-granddaughter of the poet Fujiwara no Kanesuke and daughter of the Lord of Echigo. Thus highly placed, well-educated (she left a book of her poems written in Chinese; a rarity), she had insight and writing genius that has not been equaled.
Sei Shohnagon held the position mirroring that of Lady Shikibu. Shohnagon was Lady of Honor to Teishi, the other consort of the Emperor Ichijoh. Being a rival to someone with the talents of Lady Shikibu certainly played a part in the standards of quality in her own work Makura no Sohshi,( Pillow Book), which is a seemingly random collection of notes, observations of court life, her own romances and the poems generated by her life. Her long lists of things she likes or finds distasteful are quick insights to a highly regimented life where refinement of taste was cultivated to a degree that truly astounds.
The Pillow Book becomes now, even more interesting to study as we live through the breaking down of the novel. That she could be working on a prime example of the anti-novel while her competitor was developing the first one, only increases one's admiration for both women.
In spite of Sei Shohnagon's high position, her fame and connections, very little is known of her life, not even her personal name. Educated by her father, Motosuke, one of the compilers of the Gosenshuh (Later Collection) -- tanka poems compiled by the Emperor's decree, gave her not only an excellent background but helped to open her way into the court. After the death of the Empress Teishi (c. 1000) Sei Shohnagon finished her book and is reported to have remarried. If so, her husband preceded her in death. Legend holds that she died a poverty-stricken nun. That sentence, in other biographies on Sei Shohnagon, continues to add that "this sad fact was karmic retribution for her waspish attitude or sharp tongue."
Lady Izumi (born c. 976) was a Lady-in-waiting at the same court with Lady Murasaki Shikibu and Lady Shohnagon. As mistress of Prince Tametaka and also of his brother Prince Atsumichi Lady Izumi gathered the material for her masterpiece, Izumi Shikibu nikki, Lady Izumi's Diary, of prose in a diary form of her correspondence with her lovers. Her passion, self awareness and intensity have made the work a pinnacle of the genre. Her great variety of themes -- humor, defiance, authority -- in her poems. Lady Izumi was noted for her clarity, conciseness as well as the erotic and philosophical reflections.
These three women dominated the scene then and are still discussed together for the unusual degree their work attained.
Certainly influenced by the popularity of the above mentioned books which were based on the lives of the royal families, Akazome Emon, listed as a minor poet, wrote the earliest Japanese vernacular history, Eiga monogatari (A Tale of Flowering Fortunes) between 1030 and 1045. Later an anonymous ten-chapter continuation was added about 1100. The story centers around the Fujiwara Clan continuing the stories of real-life persons introduced in Tale of Genji, Pillow Book and The Gossamer Journal.
Akazome Emon was the step-daughter of an obscure officer in the Gate Guards. She married the scholar Ohno Masahira in the 970s and became a lady-in-waiting to Rinshi, the principle consort of Michinaga. After her husband died she left Rinshi's service and was reported to have become a nun. Still some of her involvement with court life remained as she was listed as a participant in the 1041 poetry contest. At this time she was in her eighties.
Akazome Emon and her husband had two children, a son who became a scholar and a daughter who was a poet and lady-in-waiting to Renshi's daughter, Kenshi.
There is generous praise for the tanka of Princess Shikishi (died 1201), whose father, Emperor Goshirakawa compiled the Ryohjin hishoh, a collection of songs. Her many tanka are considered the most beautiful in the imperial anthology of Shinkokinshuh which was compiled by Fujiwara no Teika. Later in life she became a nun. A Noh play was written of her life and titled, Teika, which suggests a connection between her and Fujiwara no Teika, but sources deny rumors of a romance or liaison between the two.
Somehow the silence surrounding the names of women writers becomes understandable at this point. It is hard not to draw conclusions and make acid comments on the ways these women became writers, what they accepted in order to write, what they did, and the paths their lives followed due to the social conditions. Yet, one can read words that bring again to life scenes they saw and held on to.
After the 1100s the literary arts of Japan went into a decline, so they say. Perhaps they were only less supported and reported. Or the women's books got "lost" like The Confessions of Lady Nijoh (Towazugatari) which was only discovered in 1940 by a scholar sifting though the holding of the Imperial Household Library in Tokyo. This autobiographical narrative was written in 1307 to tell of the life she had as result of becoming a concubine of a retired emperor in Kyoto at the age of fourteen and ending, several love affairs later, with an account of her new life as a wandering Buddhist nun. For all her story tells us about her, her name eludes us. Lady Nijoh (Lady Second Avenue) was her court name. Due to the early death of her mother (when she was four) and her father's death when she was fifteen, Lady Nijoh was unable, as many thought possible, to become a empress. Her many regrets surrounding these events color her thinking and actions which seem to compound her adventures -- and regrets.
Lady Nijoh's work follows the format of the earlier memoirs mixing narrative with the tanka which had become less an art form and more the social oil for all occasion Hallmark cards.
Thus, people did go on reading, writing and loving poetry. And changes came about. Most of the action, now was in the hands of men as they were the ones who were the scholars, the compilers, the rule-giver for renga. It was the merchant class (here men were exalted) that clamored to learn to write renga. Here was a way to make a living with poetry so the action drifted in this direction.
Bare as the knowledge is, here are some cameos of women haiku writers of past centuries:
Kaga-no Chiyo was born in Matsuto, where she began composing haikai when she was fifteen. Probably because she was female, she never studied with a master and remained self-taught. Later in her life she did visit some famous poets, but her reputation was already established. She was also a painter. At the end of her life she took holy orders, becoming a nun.
Chigetsu-ni (1632-1708) wrote stanzas linked with her son, Otokuni, who was one of Basho's students. Thus, through her son and daughter-in-law, Chigetsu was able to meet Basho in 1689 and saw him often during the next couple of years. When he left for Tokyo in 1691, he gave he a copy of The Record of the Unreal Hermitage as a momento. After his death, Chigetsu performed memorial services for Basho. It is said that when she was young she served at court; after her husband, a freight agent, died she had became a nun and wrote under the name of Otsu.
Chine was the sister of Kyoai, one of Basho's closest disciples, which accounts for her being included in the collections (of which Kyoai was the compiler). She died when only 25. Basho, upon hearing the news (he was on his journey chronicled in The Traveler's Book Satchel sent a message to Kyoai with the stanza:
She who is no more
must have left fine clothes that now
need summer airing
Uko (died between 1716-35), with the lay name Tome. Born in Kyoto, but lived in Osaka, she married Boncho, a doctor, who was also one of Basho's closest friends and student as she also became. It is known that she cared for Basho while he stayed at Kyorai's hermitage through a comment written by Basho in Saga Nikki. Equated by some to be not the writer her husband was, she is nonetheless, one of the finest poets in The Monkey's Straw Raincoat and rightfully appears in the Ume Wakana as well as in the hokku parts
Tagami no Ama (1644-1719) was, like Kyorai, born in Nagasaki. She was the wife of Kume Toshinobu, and like others, at his death became a nun. Even so, she managed the Chitosetei, an inn in Nagasaki which became popular with various haikai poets. Kyorai published an account of his visit there. Ushichi was her nephew and Bonen, as well as other relatives, were haikai poets.
Shiba Sonome was a disciple of Basho's whom he admired. After the death of her husband, she earned her living as an eye doctor and as a judge of haikai. It should be noted that it is due to Basho and his ability to work with women that the amount of woman's haikai writings have been preserved which we have. One sees that most of these women gained access to the inner circle around Basho by being related either by marriage or blood to one of his disciples. It is possible that Shiba Sonome was one of the few to be accepted as a poet on her own.
Page Copyright © Jane Reichhold 1986.
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