The Tragedy of Lady Izumi

1765 painting by Komatsuken, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The twilight years of the Heian Period of Japan (8th century to late 12th century) mark the high-point of the refined Imperial Court, its aristocracy and their literary culture. Poetry at this time, epitomized by the Hyakunin Isshu, was a popular past-time and frequent means of corresponding between men and women (often on the sly). A person’s career or reputation could be made or broken by a skillful, or clumsy, poem. Many of the ladies-in-waiting serving the court aristocracy would go on to become famous writers in Japanese literature beyond their skills as poets:

  • Lady Murasaki (Japanese: murasaki-shikibu 紫式部) – who wrote the first Japanese novel, the Tales of Genji, and her own diary is a fascinating read. She is part of the social circle around Empress Shōshi. She is also known for poem 57 in the Hyakunin Isshu anthology.
  • Sei Shonagon – who wrote the Pillow Book, a free-form thought about the minutia of Heian Period society. Sei Shonagon was part of a rival social circle centered around Empress Teishi. She is known for poem 62 in the Hyakunin Isshu.
  • Akazome Emon – another accomplished poet in the same social circle as Lady Murasaki. She composed poem 59 of the Hyakunin Isshu among her many other accomplishments.

And finally we come to perhaps the most the most controversial and one of the most brilliant ladies among this generation of ladies-in-waiting turned writers: Lady Izumi.

Like all women at the time, her real name is not known, and instead she is named after her husband’s region of administration (Izumi province) and her father’s role in the Imperial court as master of ceremonies (shikibu 式部). Lady Izumi was born into the elite aristocracy in Heian society of the time, but she distinguished herself both with her particular skill in poetry and with her tendency to get involved in scandalous relationships.

While unhappily married to her husband, Tachibana no Michisada, she had an affair with Prince Tametaka, the third son of Emperor Reizei, which caused her to be divorced and shunned by her family. The prince also took custody of their only child, a daughter named Koshikibu no Naishi (poem 60 in the Hyakunin Isshu). However, before long Prince Tametaka died due to illness.

Later, Prince Tametaka’s brother Prince Atsumichi approached Lady Izumi and a romantic relationship began. Lady Izumi’s “Diary of Lady Izumi” (izumi shikibu nikki 和泉式部日記) covers this period of time, and their correspondences to one another. For example, she composed the following as a reply to Prince Atsumichi:

薫る香にKaoru ka niRather than recall
よそふるよりはyoso uru yori wain these [tachibana] flowers
ほととぎすhototogisuthe fragrance of the past,
聞かばや同じkikaba ya onajiI would like to hear this nightingale’s voice,
声やしたるとkoe yashitaru toto know if his song is as sweet.
Translation by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani in The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan

Since she was divorced anyway, her relationship with Prince Atsumichi was an open scandal for the Court as she moved in with the Prince, and would be seen riding his carriage. Prince Atsumichi’s wife was furious about the affair, and returned to her family, while public criticism of the couple became increasingly harsh and unavoidable.

In the end, Prince Atsumichi, like his brother, died from illness at the age of 27. Lazy Izumi was once again heartbroken.

By this point, Lady Izumi had few options, and no support from her family, so she was taken in as a lady in waiting for Empress Shoshi,1 where she served alongside another notable ladies Akazome Emon and Lady Murasaki. Empress Shoshi’s father, the ambitious Fujiwara no Michinaga, wanted to gather as much talent under his household as he could. However, Lady Murasaki didn’t think too highly of her:

Izumi Shikibu is an amusing letter-writer; but there is something not very satisfactory about her. She has a gift for dashing off informal compositions in a careless running-hand; but in poetry she needs either an interesting subject or some classic model to imitate. Indeed it does not seem to me that in herself she is really a poet at all.

— trans. Waley, “Diary of Lady Murasaki”

Later, Lady Izumi married Fujiwara no Yasumasa and moved to the provinces. She was reunited with her beloved daughter by this point, but sadly, her daughter died soon after, in her 20’s and leaving behind two children of her own. Lady Izumi was devastated by this loss, but thinking of her grandchildren, she wrote:

留め置きてtodome okiteLeft behind [grandmother and grandchildren]
誰をあはれとtare wo aware towhose loss do you
思ひけんomoi kenthink is more pitiful?
子はまさるらんko wa masaruranThe children’s loss is worse
子はまさりけりko wa masarikeriIndeed, the children’s loss is worse.
Rough translation by me, please take it with a grain of salt

By this point, she devoted herself to the Buddhist path as a lay nun named Seishin Insei Hōni (誠心院専意法尼). One of her last poems she composed, poem 56 in the Hyakunin Isshu, is:

あらざらむArazaranAmong my memories
この世の外のKono yo no hoka noof this world, from whence
思ひ出にOmoide niI will soon be gone,
今ひとたびのIma hitotabi nooh, how I wish there was
逢ふこともがなAu koto mo ganaone more meeting, now, with you!
Translation by Joshua Mostow

Lady Izumi is a fascinating figure to me. She was obviously quite attractive as multiple men of very high rank risked considerable scandal in the narrow, closed society of the time just to be with her. Thus, she is the subject of many romantic manga (Japanese comics) for young women in Japan:

The comic 恋ひうた (koi uta, “Love song”) by Ebira Hiromi (江平洋巳)
The Diary of Lady Izumi (izumi shikibu nikki 和泉式部日記) by Igarashi Yumiko
A Chinese-language edition of “Love Song” by Ebira Hiromi

Or even stories about her life:

But Lady Izumi was also more than a femme fatale, she had many poetic talents, plus she was a loving mother (and grandmother) and a devout Buddhist who suffered many losses in her life. She epitomized the bittersweet life of being a woman in Heian Period aristocratic society.

1 As Empress Shoshi was the second wife of Emperor Ichijō and a pawn in the power-struggles between two rival branches of the Fujiwara clan (the other faction tied to Emperor Ichijo’s first wife Empress Teishi), this was not a great position to be in, at least until Empress Shoshi successfully gave birth to a son.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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