Life on Hold and Princess Shikishi: In The Attempt


Take the initiative, make a difference and move your life forward. These seem to be a golden rule of our time. We are forced to stick to it. We are actually able to live it out. Motivational songs and books abound. However, there are and were some people who are not allowed to make choices on their own life. Let’s look at a waka by a woman who wasn’t allowed to, or decided not to, step forward while struggling to keep her voice unheard.

日に千たび 心は谷に投げ果てて 有にもあらず 過る我が身は
hini chitabi kokorowa tanini nagehatete arunimoarazu suguru wagamiwa

Thousands of times a day
Throwing myself into the abyss of despair
Letting my life rot away
My whole existence is forever on hold


Princess Shikishi (1151?-1201) was born into the imperial family. Her father was Emperor Goshirakawa, who was a great historic figure at the time of the two clans of the Minamoto and Taira clashing and gaining more political power over the aristocratic central government. Imagining life at imperial court may involve daydream of outrageously lavish housing, food and clothing. But her life was different. For as men who were not in line to the Imperial Throne were enforced to become priests, so there were unmarried women who were chosen to serve the shrine.

Grief permeates her poems. How despairing it is to go by a strict set of rules imposed on every aspect of life, be enforced to stay unmarried and shelve life opportunities, and be left with no alternative but to forsake the world and let her life rot away. It is believed that she had a persistent longing for Fujiwara no Teika, who edited “The Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets” and Honen, who created Jodo Buddhist sect and taught people the importance of faith in Amida Buddha over ascetic practices. But her love was unfulfilled and had nowhere to turn.


The main purpose of this series is to illustrate the significance and value of whatever “in the attempt”. The interest centers mainly on being unable to achieve or choosing not to achieve. We are still inspired by a composite of a state of helplessness, what is believed to be worthless, whatever beyond the bliss of attainment and accomplishment and an irrestible longing for worldly fruits of living. Despite our frantic worship of taking the initiative and speaking up, the fact that a voice is unheard doesn’t mean that the voice doesn’t exist in this world. Her words that she wrung out and put into poems seem to prove this point.