Izumi Shikibu Essay - Critical Essays

Shikibu, Izumi


Izumi Shikibu c. 974-c. 1034

Japanese poet and diarist.

Considered one of the greatest Japanese Court poets and the greatest female Japanese poet, Izumi is the author of the Izumi Shikibu nikki [The Diary of Izumi Shikibu] (1008?), a somewhat fictionalized account of an intensely passionate love affair with Prince Atsumichi. It is one of the principal court diaries of the Heian period (794-1186) in Japanese literature. Writing during the middle of this period—which has been termed the golden age of Court poetry, a time of leisure for many of those holding positions in the Court—Izumi and other poets took advantage of their opportunity and surroundings by cultivating and refining their craft to an extent previously unrealized. Throughout the Diary Izumi effortlessly shifts points of view, demonstrating both an original technique and thorough command of her art. Izumi composed more than 1500 poems, generally in the tanka form; consisting of 31 syllables arranged in five lines these often erotic writings concerning her many lovers brought her both praise and scandal. Since her lovers included two imperial princes, Izumi was the source of much Court gossip, but few challenged her ability as a poet.

Biographical Information

Uncontested facts concerning Izumi's life are scarce. Much of what is presumed about her comes from the Diary, which clearly contains some elements of fiction. Scholars generally accept that Izumi was born around 974, a time in which Japanese women poets were revered. The daughter of Oe no Masamune, a mid-level Court official and the Lord of Echizen, Izumi (who as a girl was perhaps called Omotomaro by her family) was raised in the Court of the Grand Empress Dowager Masako. Izumi was married in 995 to Tachibana no Michisada, who was Lord of Izumi, the source for her name; Shikibu is a title referring to her Court position. Together they had a child, Koshikibu, who was later to become a famous poet herself. Izumi separated from her husband, who died not long after, and became the lover of Prince Tametaka. Tametaka died not long after, in 1002. His death at age twenty-six resulted in Court gossip because it was believed that he fell victim to an epidemic, having become weakened by frequent night-time sexual visits to Izumi. In 1003 Izumi became the lover of Tametaka's half-brother, Prince Atsumichi. It is the affair with Atsumichi that serves as the basis for Izumi's Diary. Although their love affair was at first kept secret, eventually Atsumichi prevailed upon Izumi to move into his palace as one of his ladies. Outraged that Atsumichi lavished attention upon Izumi, the Princess deserted her husband by withdrawing for a long trip and scandal continued until Izumi left the palace in 1004. When Atsumichi died in 1007, Izumi mourned her loss of him in the composition of over one hundred poems. Izumi was later (possibly in 1009) called to Kioto to serve Empress Akiko as lady-in-waiting. In her court served another celebrated poet, Murasaki Shikibu, and the relationship between the two writers was at times strained. Izumi married a second time, to Fujiwara Yasumasa, Lord of Tango. Legend has it that Izumi spent her final years in a Buddhist temple.

Major Works

When Izumi was quite young the imperial anthology Shuishu included one of her poems in its selections. The next edition of the anthology, the Goshuishu, included sixty-seven of her compositions. The Diary of Izumi Shikibu is a romance consisting of 47 pages in the original edition, averaging about three poems per page, intermixed with prose. The work, which deftly interweaves the two forms, was "written with extreme delicacy of treatment," with "evanescent, half-expressed sentences," as translator Annie Shepley Omori has described it. In trying to capture this quality, Omori and other translators have rendered Izumi's poetry in third-person form. The Diary is not a diary in the sense commonly taken today; Janet A. Walker has explained that the term diary "did not necessarily indicate that it was a record of events set down on particular days by a single individual, but rather that it was arranged in a pattern which followed the flow of seasons and the yearly social events at the court." As Edwin A. Cranston has described it, the Diary contains "simultaneous or almost simultaneous scenes in different places, imagined conversations, and descriptions of the thoughts and feelings of different people." The Diary charts the ebb and flow of the Prince's desire for Izumi and her alternating shyness and boldness concerning their affair. Many unions or near-unions of the lovers are described, as are many periods of waiting; throughout there is an emphasis on the seasons and their relation to the moods of the lovers. Various collections of Izumi's other poems have been made; the most important of these is entitled the Izumi Shikibu kashu (date of compilation unknown). Many versions of it exist, as is the case with the Diary, and these editions, spanning hundreds of years, exhibit a wide range in the number of poems included. Izumi also wrote extraordinarily acclaimed religious poetry and was believed by many contemporaries to be searching for a transcendent truth.

Critical Reception

Izumi's talent was recognized in her lifetime but her reputation continued to grow after her death, and now she is considered one of the greatest poets of the golden age of female Court poets. Scholar Amy Lowell has stated that in Japan, Izumi's poems "are considered never to have been excelled in freshness and freedom of expression." Cranston has quoted an appraisal of her work found in a modern Japanese biographical dictionary: "Her poems are passionate and free, exploding with brilliance; the wealth of her imagination is like heavenly chargers coursing the void; and her freedom of expression is rare. She must be accounted the first poetess of our land." An area of some dispute in Izumi studies is the generally-criticized happy ending of the Diary. That the ending is written entirely in prose is radically different than what precedes it is not contested; the disagreement concerns Izumi's intent in rendering the ending in a different style. The question of authorship of the Diary has also been a recurring one. Earl Miner has explained that before 1233, there was no ascription of authorship. In 1233 Fujiwara Teika credited the Diary to Izumi. There the matter rested for seven hundred years until a hypothesis gained attention that a later writer had composed the work and had created a fictional diarist. Gradually over the following decades this notion fell out of favor and scholars now generally accept that Izumi was indeed the author of the Diary, although they disagree on the extent of its fictionalization. Miner has mentioned two main arguments against Izumi as author: that there is no clear mention of the Diary until the twelfth century and none of its poemsare found in an imperial collection in Izumi's time. Many critics find the question of authorship irrelevant, commenting that, whether Izumi wrote the Diary or someone else did, the work is incontrovertibly brilliant.

Principal Works

Izumi Shikibu kashu (poetry) date unknown

Izumi Shikibu nikki (poetry and prose) 1008?

Principal English Translations

The Izumi Shikibu Diary: A Romance of the Heian Court [translated by Edwin A. Cranston] 1969

Japanese Poetic Diaries [translated by Earl Miner) 1969

The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono No Komachi & Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan [translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani] 1986


Amy Lowell (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: An introduction to Court Ladies of Old Japan, translated by Annie Shipley Omori and Kochi Doi, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920, pp. xi-xxxiii.

[In the following essay, Lowell provides historical perspective for the study of court ladies' diaries and briefly compares Izumi Shikibu's diary, Murasaki Shikibu's diary, and the Sarashina Diary.]

The Japanese have a convenient method of calling their historical periods by the names of the places which were the seats of government while they lasted. The first of these epochs of real importance is the Nara Period, which began A.D. 710 and endured until 794; all before that may be classed as archaic. Previous to the Nara...

(The entire section is 5974 words.)

Edwin A. Cranston (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Izumi Shikibu Diary: A Romance of the Heian Court, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969, pp. 3-125.

[In the following excerpt, Cranston offers background on early Japanese court literature (including the different varieties of nikki and their position relative to other genres of literature), and discusses the work of Izumi in the context of her predecessors and her peers.]

… Description

The Izumi Shikibu nikki110 is a work in one kan purporting to describe the beginning of Izumi's relationship with Prince Atsumichi. It is fairly short, occupying forty-six...

(The entire section is 30204 words.)

Earl Miner (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: An introduction to Japanese Poetic Diaries, University of California Press, 1969, pp. 1-56.

[In the following excerpt, Miner discusses some theories of authorship of The Diary of Izumi Shikibu, its characterizations, shifting narrative point of view, and unsatisfying ending.]

… In 1003 Izumi Shikibu entered into an affair with a prince of the blood, Atsumichi. As the journey had been the subject of the earlier diary, the love affair is that of the later. Instead of a representative tragedy of maternal love, we have a depiction of the psychology and romance of courtly love. So much is clear at once, but for many other features of The Diary of Izumi...

(The entire section is 3563 words.)

Edwin A. Cranston (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Izumi Shikibu," Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. XXV, No. 1-2, 1970, pp. 3-125.

[In the following excerpt, Cranston examines many of Izumi's poems, discussing her techniques, choice of themes, and imagery.]

The Heian poetess Izumi Shikibu has left a collection of over 1500 tanka and a reputation for genius, passion, and piety. She is also the heroine of what appears to be a fictionalized memoir, the Izumi Shikibu nikki, as well as of several legends, noh plays, otogizoshi, and temple histories. She lived in an age of memorable women, and her name is commonly mentioned in the same breath with those of her famous contemporaries Sei...

(The entire section is 3187 words.)

Janet A. Walker (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Poetic Ideal and Fictional Reality in the Izumi Shikibu nikki," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, 1977, pp. 135-82.

[In the following excerpt, Walker analyzes the structure of the Izumi Shikibu Diary, emphasizing its two competing modes of presentationidealism and realism.]

The Izuin Shikibu nikki (Izumi Shikibu Diary, 1008?), one of the masterpieces of Heian prose literature, is a fictional narrative or fictionalized memoir which depicts a love affair between the famous Heian poetess Izumi Shikibu and a certain Prince Atsumichi. In its close observation of the fluctuations of the individual will of the characters, the...

(The entire section is 14625 words.)

Janet A. Walker (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Izumi Shikibu nikki as a work of Courtly Literature," The Literary Review, Vol. 23, No. 4, 1980, pp. 463-80.

[In the following essay, Walker provides an overview of the Izumi Shikibu nikki and discusses its emphasis on illicit love.]

The culture of tenth- and eleventh-century Japan, the apogee of the Heian period (795-1185), was in every respect a culture of the court.1 It was also an urban culture which saw itself as superior in every way to the rural rice culture that made its existence possible. As in the medieval West, courtlyculture in Japan was the property of a few individuals of noble origin—in Japan, not much more than...

(The entire section is 5256 words.)

Hiroko Odagiri (essay date 1987-88)

SOURCE: "Symbolic Imagery in the Poetry of Izumi Shikibu: Parallels with French Symbolism," Tamkang Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 1,2,3,4, Autumn 1987-Summer 1988, pp. 217-26.

[In the following essay, Odagiri examines Izumi's use of symbolic images in her poetry and finds certain parallels with that of Charles Baudelaire.]

The lyrical poet Yosano Akiko (1878-1942), who is one of the representative Tanka poets in modern Japan, in her critical work "Akiko's Koten Kanshô" ("Akiko's View of Classics"), comments on the symbolic character of the Japanese court poetry1 (waka). She explains that symbolism is a technique in which one word has a central meaning and...

(The entire section is 3191 words.)

Further Reading

Miner, Earl. "Major Poets from 784 to 1100." In his An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry, pp. 79-100. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1968.

Briefly examines a few of Izumi's poems and credits her with demonstrating a self-aware passion in her commitment to art.

(The entire section is 41 words.)