The Colorful Life of Izumi Shikibu

The world was a little more than a thousand years younger when it was an interesting time in Japanese history. It was a year that the nation began to get on its own two feet, slowly establishing its own culture apart from the Chinese, which had influenced it for many years prior. During this period, political dynasties were prevalent, and the aristocratic class ruled a creative and blooming society, producing many documented writers, poets, politicians, and more – one of which, was Izumi Shikibu.

An Introduction to the Heian Period

The Japanese Heian period running from 794 to 1185 was a period when the capital city of Heian-Kyo (meaning tranquility and peace capital) was established by Emperor Kanmu.  It is now the modern city of Kyoto. It was in this period when the influence of the Chinese was at its height. Heian-Kyo itself was modeled after the Chinese Tang Dynasty. 

Art, entertainment, and literature, especially poetry, flourished. Buddhism and Taoism were practiced everywhere. Most of the court ladies were educated and became authors or remarkable books and poems.

Heian-Kyo remained the seat of the Imperial Court and capital of Japan for thousands of years until it was moved to Tokyo in 1868. 

It was during this time when there were many cultural changes and achievements. One of these was the creation of a Japanese writing called Kana which used Chinese characters phonetically.

More About Poetry During the Heian Period

The Heian period saw a lot of development when it came to culture in the linguistic sense.  Systems were created for writing, one of which was “Kanbun”, where the Japanese used patterns taken from Classical Chinese to annotate work. 

Most of the poetry during the Heian period were written in Kana (it was then a newly developed form of a writing system for vernacular Japanese) as opposed to the Nara period’s Manyogana, which produced a new style of exclusively Japanese poetry called “Waka”, as opposed to the more popular and traditional style of “Kanshi”, which is a way for the Japanese to write poetry, albeit using the Chinese language.

By Komatsuken [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Izumi Shikibu; A Definition of One of Japan’s Important Female Poets

Izumi Shikibu was a great Japanese poet in the mid-Heian Period. She was a writer and a lady-in-waiting at the court of Fujiwara no Akiko (Shoshi). She is now honored to have been the greatest woman poet of the Heian period. She was made a member of the Thirty-Six Medieval Poetry Immortals (Chuko Sanjurokkasen) selected by Fujiwara no Norikane (1107-1165) The members of this group are considered exemplars of Japanese poetic ability.  Her contemporaries were also the famous poets Murasaki Shikibu, Akazome Emon and Ise no Tayu.

Izumi Shikibu: Biography, Facts, and Info

Izumi Shikibu was born in 976 AD to Oe no Masamune, her father, and her mother, the daughter of Taira no Yasuhira, governor of Ecchu. “Izumi”, not her real name, was derived from the place of Izumi where her first husband (Tachibana no Michisada) was governor. In her younger years, before her marriage to Tachibana no Michisada, she is believed to have been the companion or wife of a man named Omotomaru. 

She was in her twenties when she married Tachibana no Michisada, who was seventeen years her senior. She went to live with him in the province where her husband was posted as governor. In 997, Izumi had a daughter, Koshikibu no Naishi, who grew up to be an accomplished poet also. 

Love Affairs and Longing

Life in the province was not agreeing with Izumi’s rebellious nature, and eventually, Izumi left her husband and returned to the imperial court in Heian-Kyo. In 1001, while still officially being married to her husband, she had a love affair with Prince Tametaka. This caused a scandal and caused her to be disowned by her family, and be divorced by her husband. 

Izumi Shikibu was deeply religious (she once contemplated becoming a nun) and yet she was also equally passionate about her loves. Her poems sometimes reflect her Buddhist sensibility. 

A year after Prince Tametaka died, she had a passionate love affair with the prince’s half-brother, Atsumichi. This too caused another scandal in the imperial court. The prince’s wife left him and went home to be with her relatives. Izumi Shikibu lived with the prince for five years until his death from a contagious disease. Shikibu went into deep mourning for her love and it was at this time that she wrote over 240 poems dedicated to her departed lover.

Fujiwara no Yasumasa, born in the year 958, and died in 1036, married Izumi Shikibu in the year 1009. He was a brave military commander under Michinaga.  Izumi left the court and accompanied him to Tango Province. 

Izumi Shikibu’s Last Years

Little is known about the year of her death, but she did outlive her daughter, Koshikibu no Naishi. The last recorded imperial correspondence from her was a poem written in 1027 which got included in the Eiga Monogatari which is an epic relating the events in the life of Fujiwara no Michinaga. This epic was a compilation of many authors from 1028 – 1107.

Public Domain,

The Diary of Izumi Shikibu

Izumi Shikibu’s diary brims with poetry and her close observation of the people around her. Her delicately written work depicts an extraordinary glimpse of the imperial court life in medieval Japan. Scholars say that her poetic thoughts and descriptions were written as a form of therapy for her and the emotions she was experiencing, relaying what was going on during the day, and what went on in her mind.

Izumi Shikibu Nikki was written during her relationship with Prince Atsumichi which lasted for about nine months (1003-1004) Her poems and correspondence combine erotic and romantic longing with Buddhist contemplation.  You can also find waka poetry in this diary, including over one hundred poems, featuring “renga.”

Their affair lasted longer than her diary, as Izumi would end up staying with the prince until his death, at 27 years old. They lived together in his residence and were open about their scandalous affair until she was widowed.

The Izumi Shikibu Collection (Izumi Shikibu-shu) and the imperial anthologies are her most important work. Her colorful life of passionate love earned her the nickname “The Floating Lady”.

Examples of What Was Written in “Nikki”, the Diary of Izumi Shikibu

The entries of Izumi’s diary range from the year 1002 to 1003 AD only. A translation of her diary is available online.

It is in this diary that she talks about her flirtatious exchanges with a prince, who is supposedly Prince Atsumichi, sending her letter after letter. She would write down the poems she would send him, and the poems he would send back. Examples that the prince would send her would go like;

“To you, it may be a commonplace to speak of love, / But my feeling this morning– / To nothing can it be compared!” 

A portion of her answer to which was,

“Whether commonplace or not– / Thoughts do not dwell upon it"

It seems that Izumi wasn’t sure if she wanted to engage in this affair with him, as the prince would be cheating on his wife. See, there are many emotions that flow through Izumi Shikibu, as depicted in her diary, as it was not all flirtation. A consistent theme throughout her diary was also her fighting rumors being spread about her, and how she really wanted to get away from it all by living a religious life. 

By Hannah (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The prince heard rumors that Izumi had been having an affair with someone else. Rumors were grandiose and untrue, yet the prince believed them all. This would sadden Izumi, and in turn, make it difficult to have the will to write back to him, which made the prince believe even more so that she was seeing someone else.

An example of the disappointment that the prince would experience after hearing these rumors could be seen in what the prince would write her;

“You are faithless, yet I will not complain. / As the silent sea / Deep is the hate in my heart.”

More events would continue to be narrated in her diary, but it ends on a sour note; diary ends with entries of the princess hearing about rumors that her husband was cheating on her. As she saw the princess emotionally disturbed, this also pained Izumi but did not think it was in her place to say anything. The princess ended up leaving Prince Atsumichi and went to stay with her older sister. 

Other Poems and Quotes by Izumi Shikibu

The book “The Ink Dark Moon” is a book composed of love poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu.  Both were women from the Ancient Court of Japan. Other than that, she had written many poems in her works and diaries that had been turned into quotes. Here are a few of them:

“Out of the dark / into a dark path / I now must enter: / shine (on me) from afar / Moon of the mountain fringe.” This is a poem that she wrote while she was near-death. 

A direct quote that she has written in the collection of Goshui Wakashu, in Japanese “後拾遺和歌集” (known in English as Later Collection of Gleanings of Japanese Poems), she laments at night about her daughter who had just passed away as she received her imperial robes with her daughter’s name (Koshikibu no Naishi) on it. “They say the dead return tonight, but you are not here. Is my dwelling truly a house without spirit?”

Together, the Grand Theater of Geneva and The National Opera of Paris produced in 2008 an opera based on Izumi Shikibu’s poems. The opera is titled “Da Gelo a Gelo” by Salvatore Sciarrino. It is sung in Italian and performed with the Chamber Orchestra of Geneva.  It applies 65 poems from Izumi Shikibu Nikki that features her dramatic love and passion for Prince Atsumichi.

By Yanajin33 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Izumi Shikibu is currently memorialized at Seishin-in Temple in central Kyoto. Though her poetry was written a thousand years ago, it still relates to the modern reader, some of them being contemporary enough to be featured in a modern book or magazine, and read by the entire world.