Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

June 15, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 19 (Lady Ise)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 19

mijikaki ashi no
fushi no ma mo
awade kono yo o
sugushiteyo to ya


Are you telling me
to go through this life
without meeting even as brief
as the space between joints
on the reeds at Naniwa Inlet?

Lady Ise (875-938)

[Sumiyoshi Shrine, Osaka (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

The hopeless situation of the poetess who can not meet her lover even for the briefest time.

The first three lines in Japanese (which have ended up at the end of the poem in my translation) are an introduction (jokotoba). "Naniwa" is the traditional name for the Osaka area; "-gata" (like in Niigata) is an inlet in which the beach is revealed at low tide. "Ashi" (or yoshi) is the common reed (Phragmites australis); it often figures in Japanese classical poetry for its slimness or beauty when seen reflected in water, and the reeds in the inlets of Naniwa Bay were especially favored among poets. Reed also has very short segments between its nodes, and that idea is used here to suggest the briefest of moments. "Yo" is "this life," but also the word for a segment of a reed, and therefore a case of word association (engo) with ashi and fushi.

[Heron and Reed, by Suzuki Harunobu (Photo Wikipedia)]

This poem was written by Lady Ise (also called "Ise no miyasudokoro," c. 875 - c. 938), who was born as the daughter of Fujiwara no Tsugukage. In the Heian-period aristocratic ladies did not use their personal name (we don't even know the real name of Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the Genji), but were known under nicknames often based on the position of a male family member. In this case, Ise's father had been provincial governor of Ise (Ise no kami), and that determined her name.

Lady Ise was a court lady (like Murasaki Shikibu), and also a poet famous for her passionate love poems. Her collected poems are set up in a novelistic way, and show us her love affairs with the brothers Fujiwara no Nakahira and Tokihira, and after that Emperor Uda, with whom she had a son. Lady Ise is one of the Thirty-Six Poetic Immortals and has 22 poems in the Kokinshu alone; in total, 170 poems have been ascribed to her.

[Lady Ise, Satakebon Sanjurokkasen (Photo Wikipedia)]

In the Ise-shu, her collected poetry, the present poem is given under the heading "Around autumn, when he had spoken cruelly," leading us to guess that the "he" must be an unfeeling lover. In the Kokinshu it is placed in the group of poems on "forbidden love," (i.e. love for a married person or someone of a very different rank), making it - as Mostow says - into "a private complaint about being unable to reveal one's love." 

[Kokinshu 1049]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -