Ono no Komachi: A Waka Poet Renowned for Her Beauty

There is beauty in almost everything. Most people find beauty in forms of nature, people, and art. There are different kinds of art, one of them being poems. Poems are basically various words fit together to describe a certain item, scenery, or feeling. In Japan, poems have developed through the years. Among the type of poems known in Japan was waka. Waka poetry was especially well-known during the Heian period. One of the most famous waka poets of all time was Ono no Komachi.

Biography of Ono no Komachi

Utagawa Toyokuni II [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Born in the year 825, Ono no Komachi was a waka poet in Japan. She was a member of the Rokkasen, a group of the six best waka poets during the early Heian era. Although she was well-known for her poems, Ono no Komachi was also famous for her beauty. Her beauty was so well-regarded that her name actually became a synonym for feminine beauty in Japan to this day. Not discounting her skills in poetry, Ono no Komachi was also a member of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals.

Despite her fame, there is actually little known about the life of Ono no Komachi for certain. The only details about her life that historians are sure of are the names of her lovers composed of both men and women. Ono no Komachi exchanged poems with the people she had romantic affairs with. Fortunately, these poems were preserved in the Kokin Wakashu. Most historians estimate her birth somewhere between the year 820 and the year 830. Moreover, she was most active in her career during the middle of the 9th century.

Historians have conducted extensive research to find out details about Ono no Komachi’s place of birth, family, and other details to no avail. All results that they have found were not conclusive. However, Japanese scholar Arai Hakuseki, who studied history around the Edo period, theorized that Komachi referred to more than one woman. Furthermore, his hypothesis was that the legends that surround the being of Ono no Komachi actually referred to different people.

This theory was developed after some time. It stated that instead of one, there were four people referred to as Komachi. Further conjectures included Komachi being a lady of the bedchamber, more commonly known back in the day as koi in Japanese. She provided service for Emperor Ninmyo. However, upon his demise in the year 850, Komachi began to establish numerous relationships with other people.

Though there are no details about her birth and family that are for certain, it is generally accepted that she was born in Dewa, which is now known as Akita Prefecture. Specifically, she was born in the city of Yuzawa around 834 AD. Her father was known as Yoshisada, who most people presumed was the lord of Dewa during Ono no Komachi’s time. Komachi was eventually sent to Heian-kyo, which is now known as Kyoto in Japan.

She was estimated to be about the age of 12 or 13 when she started to serve in the Imperial court. While it was not verified, there was a rumor that circulated that Ono no Komachi had an older sister. This older sister also went to Kyoto to serve in the Imperial Court. However, she did not become as famous as her little sister Ono no Komachi.

The period where Ono no Komachi lived her life was the Heian period. During this time, the Imperial Court was mainly focused on aesthetics. The two most significant factors that helped shape the status of a person in the Imperial Court were miyabi, which stands for refinement or elegance, and mono no aware, which stands for sensitivity. Miyabi means not having any things considered absurd or vulgar while mono no aware means being able to be moved by nature.

As a result, for a person to be recognized as beautiful or attractive during the Heian era, they must be elegant, refined, and sensitive. These factors can be properly expressed through poetry. This is because the main form of communication of the people at court was poetry. Men and women at the Imperial Court wrote poems to one another regardless of gender.

Because Ono no Komachi had all the desired qualities to become considered as beautiful during this era, it was not a surprise that she shone in the Imperial Court. She had several skills in the form of koto, singing, calligraphy, and dancing. However, Ono no Komachi was most famous for her poetry. Most of the poems composed by Ono no Komachi revolved around love. The poems that she composed for her several lovers served as documents to know when she was actually in court.

Out of all the relationships that she had established throughout her lifetime, probably her most famous one was with Fukakusa no Shosho. Her poems written for Shosho were said to be full of longing and heartache. Readers of these poems could feel the words pulsate through every page. Her waka style was quite fitting at this time.

Legends Surrounding the Fate of Ono no Komachi

By English: Kanō Tan’yū日本語: 狩野探幽 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With such fame that Komachi had during her lifetime, it comes as no surprise that there are also legends surrounding this beauty. Because her life was considered mysterious by a lot of people, many theories and stories have been hypothesized as to what happened to Ono no Komachi. These legends came about as early as the 11th century. Later on, these legends were used and capitalized by writers of Noh plays.

Because most of the poems written by Ono no Komachi were about love, naturally, the stories that surround her were about Komachi being in love. Among the legends about Komachi was her being a lover of Ariwara no Narihira. Narihira was the contemporary poet of Komachi and was also a designated member of the Rokkasen. This theory was based on the placement of one of the poems of Komachi next to one composed by Narihira. This may have been accidental, but the legend played out anyway.

Another legend that surrounds the life of Ono no Komachi was her cruelty to her lovers. Being championed as one of the most beautiful women during her time, Komachi obviously had numerous men and women pining for her. A high-ranking courtier known as Fukakusa no Shosho was supposedly madly in love with Ono no Komachi.

As if challenging Shosho, Komachi made a promise. If Shosho came to visit Komachi for a hundred night consecutively, then she would accept Shosho as her lover. Staying relentless, Shosho made it a point to visit Komachi every night no matter what the weather was. Sadly, Shosho met his demise and passed away on the 99th night.

A famous legend about Komachi says that when Komachi finally became old and ill, people no longer wanted her. As with old age, Komachi’s beauty faded through time. She became wrinkly and ugly. Eventually, she was forced out of the court and made to wander the streets in old, dirty clothes. She became a mockery, as punishment for her cruelty back when she was still young and beautiful.

There were so many legends that surround the life of Ono no Komachi that a categorization system was made for her legends. This system was provided by Masako Nakano. Basically, the system is composed of five groups. These groups are “bijin-setsuwa” or “tales of beauty,” “kōshoku-setsuwa” or “tales of sensuality,” “kyōman-setsuwa” or “tales of haughtiness,” “kajin/katoku-setsuwa” or “tales of poetry or poetic virtue,” and “reiraku/suirō-setsuwa” or “tales of downfall or bemoaning old age.”

Poems and Quotes by Ono no Komachi

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=635305

Most of the extant poems composed by Ono no Komachi are melancholic. The earliest poems found to be composed by Komachi dates back to the year 833 until the year 857. Poetic exchanges have also been found between Komachi and other contemporaries. These contemporaries include Fun’ya no Yasuhide, Archbishop Henjo, and Oshikochi no Mitsune.

Based on the poems written by Komachi, it can be said that she had a passionate nature. Many consider Komachi as one of the earliest, as well as the best, examples of a female poet who was passionate in the Japanese canon. She was so great that she was able to outshine her contemporary Ise.

Furthermore, Komachi was also to create a tradition that was continued by two people. These two were Izumi Shikibu in the later parts of the old age and Yosano Akiko in the modern age. Komachi was also known to have superior skills in using kakekotoba of her time.

Aside from topics of love, her waka also revolved around anxiety and solitude. All of her poems can be found printed in the Kokin Wakushi or Kokinshu. One of her poems can be found in the Hyakunin Isshu. This one poem was actually the only one composed by Komachi that was not classified as either “love” or “miscellaneous” poems.

The poem that was included in Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, as compiled by Fujiwara no Teika, was called Poem No. 9. The poem goes, “Hana no iro wa; utsurinikeri na; itazura ni; wa ga mi yo ni furu; nagame seshi ma ni.” This translates to, “A life in vain; My looks, talents faded; like these cherry blossoms; paling in the endless rains; that I gaze out upon, alone.” Aside from the Hyakunin Isshu, this specific poem can also be found in the Kokinshu as Poem No. 133 in the book dedicated to spring poetry.

Ono no Komachi’s Legacy

By Ishikawa Toyomasa [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Komachi had been featured in literature during the later period. Her character can be found in five Noh plays. These plays were Sotoba Komachi, Ōmu Komachi, Kayoi Komachi, Sekidera Komachi, and Sōshi Arai Komachi. These plays revolved around the life of Ono no Komachi and highlighted her skills in waka poetry as well as her numerous love affairs. The plays also showed Komachi’s indulgence in romantic liaisons.

The plays did not just depict the great life of Ono no Komachi but also showed her downfall. They portrayed Komachi having lost her beauty as well as being left behind by her previous lovers. They also depicted Komachi as an old woman in ragged clothes wandering alone with regrets about how she lived her life. Nonetheless, Ono no Komachi was still appreciated by people who admire her skills in poetry.

Among the five Noh plays, Sotoba Komachi was selected by Mishima Yukio to rework and adapt to the modern theatre. This new version was published in January of the year 1952. Upon its publishment, it was performed just a month after. The basic plot of the play was still the same as the old version. However, performances were made to look like the action was happening in a public park. An English version of this was published by Donald Keene in the year 1967.

A one-act story revolving around Komachi as a poet was also included in the play entitled Three Poets by playwright Romulus Linney. Furthermore, the name of the Akita Shinkansen was also based on Komachi. In addition, even a type of rice was named after Komachi known as Akita Komachi.

It was said that Komachi had these qualities that made her beautiful and attractive: pale white skin, a pair of straight eyebrows, a small nose, a round face, a pair of double eyelids, and a small mouth with full lips. Apparently, almost everyone pined for her and her beauty. What truly set her apart from the rest was her passion and skills in waka poetry.

As a famous legend in Japan, it comes as no surprise that Ono no Komachi actually has her own festival. This festival is known as the Komachi Festival. Held every 2nd Sunday of the month of June every year, Komachi Festival is celebrated in the district of Ono in Yuzawa City, which was Ono no Komachi’s hometown.

Among the programs executed during this festival is the involvement of seven girls who are selected to participate in the event. These girls are to wear traditional clothing during the festival. They are tasked to dedicate seven poems that were composed by Ono no Komachi at a shrine that also bears the name of Komachi, known as Komachi-do.