INK DARK MOON
ONO NO KOMACHI............. 1
IZUMI SHIKIBU.............. 47
On Japanese Poetry and
the Process of Translation.. 161
Notes to the Poems.......... 175
About the Translators
The two poets whose work is collected in The Ink Dark Moon are
central figures in the only Golden Age in literary history in which
women writers were the predominant geniuses: Japan’s Heian era,
which lasted from 794 to 1185. Ono no Komachi (834?—?) served at the
imperial court in the capital city of Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto)
during the first half century of its existence; her poetry, deeply
subjective, passionate, and complex, helped to usher in a poetic age of
personal expressiveness, technical excellence, and philosophical and
emotional depth. Izumi Shikibu (974?—1034?) wrote during the time of
the court culture’s greatest flowering; a woman committed to a life of
both religious consciousness and erotic intensity, Shikibu explored her
experience in language that is precise in observation, intimate, lyrical,
and deeply moving. These two women, the first a pivotal figure who
became legendary in Japanese literary history, the second Japan’s
major woman poet, illuminated certain areas of human experience with
a beauty, truthfulness, and compression unsurpassed in the literature
of any other age. As do the words of Sappho, Catullus, and Dickinson,
in whose company they belong, their brief poems serve as small but
utterly clear windows into those concerns of heart and mind that
persist unchanged from culture to culture and from millennium to
The aristocratic culture of the Heian court proved to be a uniquely
auspicious environment for women writers for several reasons, but the
foremost is the central role of the arts in the conduct of daily life. Aside
from the unalterable circumstance of inherited family rank, successful
display of aesthetic sensibility was the primary means of establishing
personal distinction among members of the court, both male and
female. The skills, subtle judgment, and taste demonstrated in the
mixing of incense, the layering of patterned silk kimonos, musical
performance, painting, dance, and above all the writing and recitation
of poetry, figured greatly both in one’s appeal as a prospective romantic
partner and in one’s prospects for official advancement. No significant
experience was considered complete without its accompanying poem,
and conversely, the desire to give an experience formal expression in
poetry was itself the mark of the presence of deep emotion for an
Male writers, however, composed a great part of their work in
Chinese; adopted in the fourth or fifth century as Japan’s first written
language, Chinese served as the official form of communication in
government and scholarly discourse in much the way that Latin
functioned in European courts and centers of learning in the Middle
Ages. Women, who were not usually educated in the use of Chinese,
were only given the means for creating a written literature near the end
of the eighth century, when a new system was devised for using Chinese
characters phonetically to transcribe spoken Japanese. Concentrating
their efforts on the vernacular, and free from male writers’ need to
satisfy the requirements of foreign poetic structures and sensibilities,
women could devote themselves to developing their literary
potential to the highest degree in the poems, diaries, and “tales” in which
they recorded both the public and the most private and deeply felt aspects of
A few themes dominate the poetry of the Heian period (and that of
later periods as well); each of them is touched on in the opening
sentences of the most famous critical statement of Japanese literature,
Ki no Tsurayuki’s preface to the Kokinshu (ca. 905), the first of a series
of imperial anthologies in which the best works in Japanese of poets
“ancient and modern” were collected:
The poetry of Japan has its seeds in the human heart and mind and
grows into the myriad leaves of words. Because people experience
many different phenomena in this world, they express that which
they think and feel in their hearts in terms of all that they see and
hear. A nightingale singing among the blossoms, the voice of a
pond-dwelling frog—listening to these, what living being would not
respond with his own poem? It is poetry which effortlessly moves
the heavens and the earth, awakens the world of invisible spirits to
deep feeling, softens the relationship between men and women, and
consoles the hearts of fierce warriors.
Here named as poetry’s proper concerns are human emotion in
general; thoughts raised by observing the sights and sounds of the
natural world; religion; the taming of wildness of spirit; and, central to
much of the work in this collection, the relations between men and
women. Poetry is described as the natural upwelling of language in an
awakened and interested heart—an irresistible and effortless answering
within the individual to the continual calling of the Other, whether
natural, supernatural, or human—and as possessing a virtually magical
power to change and ameliorate the external order of life. What is
extraordinary about the place of poetry in Heian Japan is that this
conception of its fundamental importance was not confined to a select
few known as “writers” but shared by all members of the court society,
for whom every personal or ceremonial experience, whether public or
private, called for not only the composing of a verse but also the
recollection of earlier poems which might add their resonance to the
moment. The first opening of the spring blossoms, the death of a child,
a glimpse of the moon, an official ritual, even the return of a forgotten
fan—none was complete without an accompanying poem. And, for the
purpose of “softening the relations between men and women,” poetry
One thousand years ago Heian-kyo was more populous than any
European city, one of very few centers of high civilization anywhere in
the world. Male members of the aristocracy vied for political favor and
positions of power; daughters of aristocratic families were sent at about
age fourteen to serve aS companions to members of the imperial
household. Because it was solely by a daughter’s marriage that a
family’s status might be permanently advanced, the women serving in
the imperial retinue were highly cultured and carefully educated, and
they were considered aesthetic equals by the men. Once ensconced in
their separate living quarters, the women had a few official duties, but
for the most part they were left to their own devices. They read and
exchanged copies of anthologies, prepared themselves with the help of
their maids for the excitement of outings, played musical instruments
or wrote for their
own and each other’s entertainment, and generally
kept one another and the empress they served amused. But the greatest
part of their attention, it seems, was devoted to affairs of the heart: love
affairs were an accepted part of courtship for unmarried women, and
polygamy was the usual arrangement for men. Thus, erotic love and its
consequences were perennial conversational and literary topics.
For a high-ranking member of the Heian court, relations with the
opposite sex presented a larger range of possible outcomes and a
greater flexibility than in most cultures. Although a primary marriage
at an early age was often arranged by the family, a man could take as
many secondary wives or official mistresses as he wished, and as many
secret lovers as would accommodate him. A man might install a
number of secondary wives in his home—most Heian dwellings
contained several wings or compounds—or he could have several wives
living in different locations. An unmarried woman might also have
multiple lovers, if perhaps with greater discretion; a wife, by contrast,
was confined to a single husband and was expected to remain faithful
after marriage, although, as can be seen in the life of Izumi Shikibu,
this was not always the case. Despite this mild double standard, Heian
women were accorded a great deal of independence in romantic
matters: able to own property and receive income in her own name, a
woman could refuse a suitor’s advances, or, should a marriage or her
position as an official “second wife” no longer suit her, end a
relationship entirely through divorce or by moving away. Furthermore,
since nearly all encounters between members of the opposite sexes took
place within a convention of secrecy, the opinions of family or friends
about one’s choices in the realm of eros might be avoided for quite a
The first intimation of a new romance for a woman of
the court was the arrival at her door of a messenger bearing
A five-line poem in an unfamiliar hand. If the woman found
the poem sufficiently intriguing, the paper it was written
on suitable for its contents and mood, and the calligraphy
acceptably graceful, her encouraging reply—itself in the
form of a poem—would set in motion a clandestine, late-
night visit from her suitor. The first night together was,
according to established etiquette, sleepless; lovemaking and
talk were expected to continue without pause until the man,
protesting the night’s brevity, departed in the first light of
The predawn. Even then he was not free to turn his thoughts
to the day’s official duties: a morning-after poem had to be
written and sent off by means of an ever-present messenger
page, who would return with the woman’s reply. Only after
this exchange had been completed could the night’s success
be fully judged by whether the poems were equally ardent
and accomplished, referring in image and nuance to the
themes of the night just passed. Subsequent visits were
made on the same clandestine basis and under the same
circumstances, until the relationship was either made official
by a private ceremony of marriage or ended.
Once she had given her heart, a woman was left to
await her lover’s letters and appearances at her door at night-
fall. Should he fail to arrive, there might be many expla-
nations—the darkness of the night, inclement weather,
inauspicious omens preventing travel, or other interests.
Many sleepless nights were spent in hope and speculation,
and, as evidenced by the poems in this book, in poetic
activity. Throughout the course of a relationship, the ex-
change of poems served to reassure, remind, rekindle or
cool interest, and, in general, to keep the other person aware
of a lover’s state of mind. At the same time, poetry was a
means of expressing solely for oneself the uncertainties,
hopes, and doubts which inevitably accompanied such a
system of courtship, as well as a way of exploring other
With so many striving to bring art to everyday
communication, the few who truly excelled acquired ex-
traordinary prestige and charisma. Ono no Komachi, in
particular, became the subject of legend almost from the
time of her death. Little is known about her life, and the
stories about her freely commingle historic fact and sup-
positions drawn from the poems. Historians believe Ko-
machi to have been the daughter of the lord of Dewa and
to have served the court in the middle of the ninth century;
she probably had at least one child, as a poem in a later
imperial anthology is attributed to “Komachi’s grandchild.”
Legends, folktales, and songs add that Komachi was not
only the outstanding woman poet of her time but also the
most beautiful and desirable of women. (In the culture of
the Heian court, the ability to write poems of great beauty
would in itself have been a major cause for being thought
both personally attractive and desirable.) Also according to
legend, the renowned poet ended her life in anonymity,
isolation, and poverty, an ancient, half-mad hag living out-
side the city walls, though still writing poetry and possessing
a deep understanding of Buddhist teachings.
One version of Komachi’s final years appears in Komachi
at Sekidera, thought to be the greatest No play, which was
written 500 years after her death. In the play a Buddhist
priest takes his young poetry students into the countryside
to visit a hundred-year-old woman who is believed to know
the secrets of the art of poetry. During their conversation
the crone in her straw hut casually reveals that she herself
is the great Komachi; the visitors are appropriately amazed.
Near the end of the play, because it is the night of Tanabata,
The festival celebrating both love and poetry, one of the
pupils performs a ritual dance. When the child is finished,
the onlookers are amazed and moved for a second time as
the aged Komachi, her memories overpowering her sense
of shame and decorum, painfully rises to her feet and takes
her turn to dance. Two other No dramas show Komachi
seeking salvation through Buddhism in her old age, hoping
to atone for her cruelty to a lover in her youth. Whatever
the facts of Komachi’s life, we know that shortly after her
death she was named by Ki no Tsurayuki, in his preface to
the Kokinshu, one of the “Six Poetic Geniuses” included
therein—the only woman so honored. Only a hundred or
so of her poems survive, less than a tenth of what remains
of Shikibu’s work.
A good deal more has been recorded about the
life of Izumi Shikibu, who came to the Heian court at the
height of its greatness to serve a former empress. Born
around 974, she too was the daughter of a lord. Despite her
marriage to a provincial official (the lord of Izumi Province,
from whom she takes her name) and the birth of a daughter,
Shikibu began a passionate liaison with the empress’s step-
son; the resulting scandal left her divorced and disowned
by her family. Three years later, a year after her first lover
had died, his brother, Prince Atsumichi, sent Shikibu an
exploratory gift of orange blossoms, and thus commenced
a new affair. In her famous Diary, a mixture of poetry and
prose, Shikibu recounts the beginning of their love, through
the time when Atsumichi persuaded her to move into his
compound despite the unusually vigorous protestations and
eventual departure of his primary wife. Five years later
Atsumichi’s death in an epidemic ended the central rela-
tionship of Shikibu’s life.
Shikibu’s behavior when—after a period of mourning
in which she wrote over 240 poems to her departed lover—
she returned to service in court, can be surmised from the
following incident: Shikibu’s sponsor and protector at court
was Fujiwara no Michinaga, father of the empress she now
served and the most powerful man in Japan. Lord Michi-
naga, seeing Shikibu’s fan in the hands of one of her many
lovers, took it and wrote on it the words “Fan of a Floating
Woman.” When Shikibu heard of this, despite her depend-
ence on this ruthless and unpredictable destroyer of careers,
she swiftly sent him a poem:
Some cross the Pass of Love,
Unless you are the watchman there
it is not your right
to cast blame.
Izumi Shikibu and her fellow court attendants at the turn
of the last millennium must surely have been the most il-
lustrious company of women writers ever to share a set of
roofs. Also serving Empress Akiko was Murasaki Shikibu
(Shikibu is a title, not a surname), who kept court society
eagerly awaiting each successive chapter of The Tale of Genji,
earliest of the world’s great novels. Meanwhile, in a rival
empress’s household, the famous Sei Shonagon, in her Pil-
low Book, recorded with a brilliant and unsentimental eye
the doings of the court women and their lovers. The work
of many other accomplished women of this court society
has come down to us as well, including poems by Izumi
Shikibu’s daughter, Naishi.
When she was thirty-six Shikibu married for the second
time and accompanied her new husband to his post in the
provinces. She never returned to court life and is thought
to have died at the age of sixty. Her reputation as a poet
grew steadily after her death, and Shikibu is now recognized
as the outstanding woman poet of Japanese literature.
Both Shikibu and Komachi were not only deeply
passionate but also intensely religious; an inquiry into the
deeper questions of life runs through the core of each wom-
an’s work, We know that Izumi Shikibu departed the hot-
house atmosphere of the court from time to time to stay in
one of the small Buddhist mountain monasteries where
guests might live among the monks for limited periods of
contemplation and retreat; at one point she seriously con-
sidered becoming a nun. Similarly, Komachi’s poems reflect
a deeply Buddhist view of existence as ceaseless change and
return again and again to the question of what in our ex-
perience can be called “real.” One of the deep pleasures in
reading their poetry is discovering the way that, for these
women, the metaphysics of religious teaching and the tu-
multituous course of the heart in love confirm a single truth,
the impermanence of being. The endeavor to come to some
acceptance and understanding of this unavoidable transience
profoundly illuminates their work.
Komachi and Shikibu stand out as two of the greatest
poets in an age of greatness not simply because they achieved
technical virtuosity in their chosen form, the thirty-one-
syllable tanka verse, but because they used that form as a
medium of reflection and introspection. Each confronted
her experience with a directness and honesty unusual in any
age. The result is that a thousand years later we can read
poems that remain absolutely accurate and moving descrip-
tions of our most common and central experiences: love and
loss, their reflection in the loveliness and evanescence of the
natural world, and the effort to understand better the nature
of being. We turn to these poems not to discover the past
but to experience the present more deeply. In this way they
Satisfy the test of all literature, for it is our own lives we illuminated in them.
ONO NO KOMACHI
Did he appear
because I fell asleep
thinking of him?
If only I'd known I was dreaming,
I'd never have wakened.
When my desire
grows too fierce
I wear my bed clothes
dark as the night’s rough husk.
My longing for you ——
too strong to keep within bounds.
At least no one can blame me
when I go to you at night
along the road of dreams.
No way to see him
on this moonless night ——
I lie awake longing, burning,
breasts racing fire,
heart in flames.
After a lover visited in secrecy
I know it must be this way
in the waking world,
but how cruel ——
even in my dreams
we hide from others’ eyes.
Though I go to him constantly
on the paths of dream,
never resting my feet,
in the real world
it doesn’t equal a single glance.
with the sound
of a calling deer,
and I hear
my own one-sided love.
If this were a dream
I would surely
see you again ——
why must waking love
be left incomplete?
The cicadas sing
in the twilight
of my mountain village ——
tonight, no one
will visit save the wind.
A diver does not abandon
a seaweed-filled bay. . . .
Will you then turn away
from this floating, sea-foam body
that waits for your gathering hands?
I cannot keep myself
For the handsome moon.
Is this love reality
or a dream?
I cannot know,
when both reality and dreams
exist without truly existing.
pine trees are always green ——
do they recognize autumn
in the sound of the blowing wind?
Although there is
not one moment
still, how strange
this autumn twilight is.
This entangling wind
is just like
last autumn’s gusts.
Only the dew of tears
on my sleeve is new.
Sent anonymously to a man who had passed in front of
the screens of my room
Should the world of love
end in darkness,
without our glimpsing
where the moon’s light fills the sky?
The autumn night
is long only in name ——
We've done no more
than gaze at each other
and it’s already dawn.
even my morning glories
not wanting to show
their sleep-mussed hair.
on the road to Iwanoue
is a cold place to sleep . . .
would you please lend me your robes?
The Monk's reply:
Those who have given up the world
wear only a single layer
of moss-rough cloth,
yet not to offer it would be heartless.
Let us sleep together, then.
I thought to pick
the flower of forgetting
but I found it
already growing in his heart
Sent to a man who seemed to have changed his mind
Since my heart placed me
on board your drifting ship,
not one day has passed
that I haven't been drenched
in cold waves.
The seaweed gatherer's weary feet
keep coming back to my shore.
Doesn't he know
there's no harvest for him
in this uncaring bay?
Like a ripple
that chases the slightest caress
of the breeze ——
is that how you want me
to follow you?
yet has no fruit
is the white wave of the reef
the sea god's head.
I thought those white clouds
were gathered around
some distant peak,
they have risen betrween us.
to think I will end
a pale green mist
drifting the far fields.
Silent as spring rain
on a marsh,
fall to my sleeves
unheard by him
Those gifts you left
have become my enemies:
there might have been
a moment's forgetting.
Since this body
by the one who promised to come,
my only thought is wondering
whether it even exist.
It seems a time has come
when you've become like those horses
wild with spring
who long for distant gields
where the light mists rise.
As pitiful as a diver
far out in Suma Bay
who has lost an oar from her boat,
with no one to turn to.
Seeing the moonlight
through these trees,
my heart fills to the brim
O Spider Lily
that grows on the mountain
is there someone you also
promised to meet this autumn?
Sent in a letter attached to a rice stalk with an empty seed husk
How sad that I hope
to see you even now,
after my life has emptied itself
like this stalk of grain
into the autumn wind
To a man who seems to have forgotten
Truly now I've grown old
in the winter rains.
Even your words of love
Yes, a mountain village
can be lonely . . .
yet living here is easier
than dwelling amid
the worries of the world.
If, in an autumn field,
a hundred flowers
can untie their streamers,
may I not also openly frolic,
as fearless of blame?
The pine tree by the rock
must have its memories too:
after a thousand yers,
see how its brnches
lean towards the ground.
The hunting lanterns
on Mount Ogura have gone,
the deer are calling for their mates. . . .
How easily I might sleep,
if only I didn't share their fears.
When Funya no Yasubide was appointed governor of Mikawa, he wrote asking if I would like to come visit his district. I replied:
grown fragile, floating,
a reed cut from its roots . . .
If a stream would ask me
to follow, I'd go, I think.
the long rains falling on this world
my yeart, too, fades
with the unseen color
of the spring flowers.
it changes color
in this world,
of the human heart.
In this world
the living grow fewer,
the dead increase ——
how much longer must I
carry this body of grief?
This abandoned house
in the mountain village ——
how manyh nights
has the autumn moon spent here?
my black hair tangled,
I long for the one
who touched it first.
Why haven't I
thought of it before?
is the keepsake you left.
In this world
love has no color ——
yet how deeply
is stained by yours.
Wakened by the scent
of flowering plum. . . .
of the spring night
fills me with longing.
No different, really ——
a summer moth's
and this body,
transformed by love.
A man came secretly and left in heavy rain. In the poem he sent the next morning, he mentioned having gotten wet. I replied:
Love-soaked, rain-soaked ——
if people ask
what will you say?
To a man who said we should meet, even if it were only for a single time
Even if I now saw you
I would long for you
Sent wheb returning a purple robe that a certain persons had left behind
People will guess
that we slept
beneath the folds
of this purple-root rubbed cloth.
In October, a man come and then left
leaving my house,
he cuts through
the embroidered fabric
of the fall leaves!
I break off
a spray of rock azalea
to hold: in its flowers
I can see again
the red-dyed robes my husband wore.
this year's cherry blossoms bloom,
I'll see them
with the plum's scent
filling my heart.
could pierce me
like this spring storm
a man forgets
and no longer comes;
I depend on his promises.
The fleeting world
of white dew,
fox fires, dreams ——
all last long,
compared with love.
Returning home near dawn after a night away
I used to say,
but now I know
this dawn-rising men do
is merely tiresome!
A man used to come during the summer, but stopped
You no longer
come to visit me
in your splendid summer clothes ——
how transparently thin
your heart is as well!
A monk came to visit and left his fan; I returned it to him with this poem:
you may have briefly forgotten
but everyone must know
how it came to be dropped!
I lover wrote to ask if he had left his obi behind. When I found it, I noticed a rip. After repairing it, I returned it with this poem.
A torn sash
can be mended.
But what if you and I
are as pulled apart
as this belt?
To someone who came from the countryside in autumn
Though we knew each other
still, with this autumn wind's sound,
I find myself waiting for you.
A pond hides herself uselessly
deep in the marsh: the horses foraging
for new growth in spring
pull the reeds
until not a single root is left.
Seeing someone holding my fan, the courtier Michinaga asked whose it was; when he heard it was mine, he took it and wrote on it the words "Fan of a Floating Woman." My response:
Some cross the Pass of Love,
Unless you are the watchman there
it is not your right
to cast blame.
A lover accused me of unfaithfulness. At the time I said nothing, but the next morning I sent this poem
The reason I cried?
That my tears
might become a stream
in which to rinse
this muddied name.
Written for a current wife to send to an angry ex-wife, attached to a bamboo shoot
hasn't changed at all ——
Is there even one night
he sleeps at home? No.
If only his horse
had been tamed
by my hand ——
I'd have taught it
not to follow anyone else!
To a man who wrote requesting an answer
I think I will not go out again
on your drifting boat
in any direction
without ever setting a course.