Waka, Women, and Poetry: The Life and Works of Akazome Emon

What is Waka Poetry?

There are different forms of classical Japanese poetry which are either written, sung, chanted, or spoken. It is always a fascination to learn about classical Japanese poetry and how these have influenced the society and culture of the Japanese people.

During the earlier Japanese times, the Japanese vernacular was not a popular language used by intelligent and influential individuals. At the time, the influence of the Chinese culture was very evident in the society to the point that many historical records, literature, and more were written in Chinese rather than in Japanese. There was a time in their history that poetry in Japan was written completely in the Chinese language, these were known as Kanshi poetry. Or, Chinese poetry which was written by Japanese poets.

Later on, as the culture and society of Japan progressed, a new form of poetry was developed to contrast the Kanshi and this is known as waka. Waka literally translates to ‘poetry written in the Japanese language by Japanese poets’. Today, the waka poetry is generally known as classical Japanese poetry and there are many different kinds.

It is actually believed that the classical, Heian-period Waka was the origin of some modern and popular poetry of today like Tanka, Choka, and even the Bussokusekika. It is also believed that the globally popular form of Japanese poetry known as the Haiku was influenced heavily by the waka.

Early Life and Family of Akazome Emon

This woman is popularly known as one of the influential court ladies of the Fujiwara period, she was a popular poet and historian from the early Heian period. Akazome Emon was the daughter of Akazome Tokimochi. However, there are controversies that point to the idea that she is actually the biological daughter of another famous poet Taira no Kanemori.

This man, Taira no Kanemori, was a member of the Taira clan and is one of the most distinguished poets of his time. Some of his works have been included in famous anthologies like Hyakunin Isshu and Kanemorishu. He was a scholar, a wealthy nobleman, and a member of the Thirty Six Poetry Immortals. There is no wonder regarding the origin of her talents and abilities.

It is believed that Akazome Emon was conceived by her mother while she was still married to Taira. Little did they know that her mother and Taira divorced during the early stages of pregnancy. After their divorce had been legalized and recognized less than a year later, her mother was married to Akazome Tokimichi. This meant that Akazome Emon was born after Akazome Tokimochi and her mother was married.

What is interesting about this is that this was a controversy and was only widely known after the discovery of an anecdote indicating that Taira no Kanemori had demanded courts for parental authority over his daughter. However, there was evidence that the case was dismissed and Akazome Emon was legally adopted by her mother’s new husband.

Akazome Emon is married to Oe no Masahira who is globally popular as a literary scholar. They had two children named Oe no Takachika and Gojiju. Unfortunately, her husband died a tragic death from drowning. From this time on, Emon had lost her desires and interests in many things which included raising her children. After her years serving the women of the Fujiwara clan, he stayed in her father’s mountain villa (somewhere in Ise) and lived out her days. She may not have continued writing, but she kept in touch with friends and family.

By Komatsuken. (Museum of Fine Arts Boston) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Akazome as a Court Lady

Emon served as a lady-in-waiting to the wife and daughter of Fujiwara no Michinaga, who was Minamoto no Rinshi and Fujiwara no Shoshi respectively. Later on, Fujiwara, no Shoshi will become empress of Japan. This has catapulted her to a position of influence but she has used it to write her works.

Ideally, the concept of being a court lady or a lady-in-waiting is to be a personal assistant or attendant to (usually) feudal or royal women. Oftentimes, these ladies-in-waiting are also members of the nobility but have much lower rank than the women they serve. On top of that, many women use this as a status symbol because ladies-in-waiting usually become personal confidantes or friends making them very influential in many matters.

Akazome Emon as a Poet

Compared to other women poets of her time like Izumi Shikibu and Murasaki Shikibu, Akazome Emon had less number of works. It is said that this is due to the fact that her genre is much less demanding and she did not prefer writing so much about everything she sees or does. Also, her work focused mainly on exchanges between men and women, compared to the work of Izumi Shikibu which focused on love.

Many historians also claimed that since Akazome did not curb to the usual ‘Female Heian Voice’ which focused on non-political, non-trivial matters, Akazome faced much more neglect and less popularity. Regardless, she is considered as one of the pioneers of her time and is praised for her impressive thoughts and talent.

This woman is considered as one of the Thirty Six Elder Poetic Sages and the Thirty Six Female Poetic Sages. This may be considered as a prestige since there are thousands of popular poets and writers that captivated the hearts and minds of listeners and readers throughout the history of Japan.

Popular Akazome Emon Poems

Among her, most popular works include poems about parting especially those she wrote about her husband going away and eventually dying. Her poems are applauded for her captivating words about people who have no hopes of ever returning and unsaid goodbyes. These poems are known collectively as wakare no uta.

Katsushika Hokusai [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Some of her works also have seasonal references and this is one of the classic trademarks of her work. She usually expresses her sadness and loneliness in relation to nature and the seasons. Collectively her works on seasons are known as Kokin Wakashu.

An example of this would be a poem she wrote about the anniversary of her husband’s death. She had exclaimed that the coming of spring (months of April, May, and June) are sad for her because this was the time of her husband’s death. She also contrasts the beauty of spring with the sadness of death and parting.

Her other seasonal works focus mostly on emotions that could be felt in relation to seasons. For instance, she writes about the loneliness and coldness of winter (December, January, February, March). She also writes about the pain of change in relation to fall (October, November). But she also has works regarding hope, beginnings, and even the freshness of life in relation to spring and summer (June, July, August, September). 

Many of her poems have been illustrated by the popular Katsushika Hokusai who was the illustrator of ‘The Great Wave’. Although this Edo period illustrator lived centuries later than Akazome Emon, it would seem that he had a deep understanding of her thoughts and work. Also, even though Tokyo was not as popular during her time, Hokusai was able to successfully create a literary and artistic bridge between the two centuries.

Akazome Emon as an Early Historian

Being the lady-in-waiting to Fujiwara no Shoshi, the Empress of Japan from circa 1000 to circa 1011, Akazome had full access to the daily lives of the royals. This woman became the second empress of Emperor Ichijo as Shoshi had lived in his harems as young as the age of twelve. Not only was Akazome the lady-in-waiting to the Empress she was also a servant to the Empress’ mother, who had enough of her influence and power being the mistress of the Fujiwara clan.

Inoue Yasuji [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This role gave her the opportunity to look into the lives of the royals and record their history. It is believed that she was the author of an epic known as the ‘Tale of Flowering Fortunes’ which chronicled the lives and works of the Fujiwara clan. Although there is no evidence to completely prove that she is the author, it is well-known that the Empress surrounds herself with talented ladies-in-waiting. Who is to say that Akazome Emon did not author the epic when one of her contemporaries were Murasaki Shikibu who is the author of the book entitled The Tale of Genji?

The Tale of Flowering Fortunes

Also known as the Eiga Monogatari, this particular work is one of the most famous attributions to Akazome Emon throughout her career. This is a Monogatari, or an epic, which creates a fantasized story based on the life and works of Fujiwara no Michinaga. The biggest problem regarding this work, however, is that it is difficult to prove that it was written by Akazome Emon as there are hundreds of more candidates. Considering her closeness to the Fujiwara clan and being a writer in her own right, many historians believe that the epic was actually written by Akazome Emon.

The epic focuses primarily on the splendor of the mighty Fujiwara no Michinaga, the father of Empress Shosha. This particular work gave high credit to the powerful clan and praised their family for their greatness. There are forty scrolls that detail the life of Michinaga until his death, the reign of both Emperors Uda and Horikawa, and event the leadership and governance of Michinaga. Some of these scrolls also focus on not only his life but the lives of his children and other relatives.

One of the indicative factors that indicated Emon as the author of the work is the fact that the scrolls are filled with anecdotes and excerpts from notes and diaries of her contemporary court ladies. This is a coincidence that many people still contest up to this day.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Thirty-Six Elder Poetic Sages

Akazome was not made in just one night, she had learned to put her words into rhythms only after studying and learning about her father’s original works and poetry. What is interesting is that both she and her father are members of this immortal group of poets. These individuals have taken the poetic world by storm and their works have stayed relevant through the times. For instance, Akazome’s work was still relatable even during 1900s Edo period even if her works were written centuries earlier. On top of that, these classical writers remain relatable and relevant because their topics and concepts are timeless. These immortal poets are known to be among the most globally popular Japanese poets of all time.

The Thirty-Six Female Poetic Sages

Other than the fact that she is one of the Thirty Six Immortals of Poetry, she is also short-listed as one of the Thirty Six Female Immortals of Poetry. This list includes 36 female poets through Japan’s literary history that have wowed historians and artists through time. These ‘immortals’ are still continuously studied in hopes that there will be new information, new poems, or new works that have never been discovered before.

The Cultural Relevance of Akazome Emon

At the time, the role of women in society was restricted and limited. It is widely known that their involvement with knowledge, learning, and literacy was frowned upon during the early times. The presence of women authors like Akazome and Shikibu prove that great works cannot be judged merely by the gender of its writers.

Interestingly, during the Heian period, it was acceptable for female poets to focus on topics such as nature, love, and family. But Akazome was one of the firsts that related to deeper feelings like pain, sadness, loneliness, and longing. She was also one of the firsts that introduced modernization to classical poetry like waka, introducing newer and more worldly concepts and ideologies.

Akazome Emon, although partly neglected by historians and literary analysts, have contributed greatly to the writing of Japan’s history even by merely chronicling the life of a powerful Fujiwara clan leader. Also, even though her works are a few (not hundreds like her contemporaries) her ideas were not common and she had inked her thoughts about topics many women will not even dare tackle.