Like those of Beau Brummel or Casanova, the life of Ariwara no Narihira (ahr-ee-wah-rah noh nah-ree-hee-rah) has been so romanticized that it is difficult to sift fact from fiction. In addition, although he has traditionally been accepted as the author of the classical Japanese work Tales of Ise, his authorship is not known for certain. His mother was the daughter of Emperor Kammu (781-806), and the official government chronicle of his time describes Narihira: “Graceful of body, beautiful of face, he did as he pleased, and although not greatly endowed with talent or learning, he composed poetry well.”
Narihira was a loyal friend of Imperial Prince Koretaka, eldest son of Emperor Montoku, who (because his mother was not a member of the then-rising Fujiwara clan) was not made heir to the throne. In 872, when the disappointed Koretaka took religious orders, Narihira visited his friend in his self-imposed exile. Narihira’s wife was the niece of Koretaka’s mother.
Thirty poems by Narihira (in the thirty-one syllable form known as waka) were included in the first imperial poetry anthology, the Kokinsh of 907. Many other poems were later attributed to Narihira because they appeared in Tales of Ise, a collection of stories centered on the exchange of waka poems by an unnamed courtier, assumed by later readers to be Narihira, and his various loves. Anecdotes about Narihira and prefaces to his poems in the imperial anthologies suggest that he had illicit relations with at least one imperial consort, and perhaps for this reason he traveled to eastern Japan. He also made a trip to Ise, where at Japan’s holiest of holy places, the Grand Shrine of Ise, he apparently had relations with the imperial princess who served there as head priestess. She was Koretaka’s sister. Another amorous relationship occurred with his sister-in-law.
Narihira’s reputation for amorous adventures led to the legend that he was the model Murasaki used in her Tale of Genji. Another great poet, Ki no Tsurayuki, described Narihira’s melancholy, ambiguous poetry as “having so much heart that he lacked the words to express himself fully, like a withered blossom, its color spent, but still with a lingering fragrance.” Narihira has traditionally been counted as one of six great poets of ninth century Japan. He died in 880 at the age of fifty-five.