Astray and Izumi Shikibu: In The Attempt


Izumi Shikibu(978?-?) is one of the greatest woman poet in Japanese history. She was the contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu, who is best known for her 54-chapter epic novel, the Tale of Genji. Her waka is characterized by overwhelming sentimental tone in view of the time she lived. She went through a lot of relationship issues, like those described in fairy tales or films, such as romance crossing over differences of social rank and subsequent scandal, and another with her ex’s brother and sudden painful losses of loved ones. But whether having knowledge of her background or not, we all find her songs and herself endearing through her works.

She is well-known for her sequence of affairs at the court. She got married at the age around 18 or 19 to Tachibana no Michisada, who soon became governor of Izumi. While in her marriage, she was in love with Emperor’s son, Prince Tametaka, who died young in the middle of their relationship. After her divorce, she was then courted by Tametaka’s brother, Prince Atsumichi, who also died a few years later. The first ten months of this affair are described in her semi-autobiography, a composite of prose and poetry, Diary of Izumi Shikibu. After having started serving at the court, she married to Fujiwara no Yasumasa, an acclaimed governor, who was about 20 years older than her. It is at this point that she wrote the following waka with the prefatory note saying, “When my lover started getting distant, detached and coming over less often, I visited Kibune and saw fireflies flitting here and there over the creek.”


mono omoheba sawano hotarumo wagamiyori akugare ni keru tamatozo miru

O Fireflies flashing over the stream
I thought of you as my soul straying out of my body
While heartbroken, lost in thoughts


And this is something more than a lovesick song. The first question to be discussed is “soul leaving your body”. It was believed that the soul is capsulated in the body but it flushes out of the body at times of deep and pensive thought. That is called “Akugaru (leaving and yearning)”. How can these stray souls make out the right path then? She had the answer in another waka.


kuraki yori kuraki michini irinubeki harukani terase yamanohano tsuki

We are to walk in darkness
Towards the realm of craving and cluelessness
O the moon peeking over the hills in the distance
Let your heavenly light shine before us

煩悩の暗い道から また暗い道へと入って行ってしまうのだろう
山の端で光る月よ この道を照らしてください

It is believed that she composed this waka in her early 20’s. It sounds like she was anticipating suffering in her later life, where her soul burned with the pain of unassuaged longing. The moonlight symbolizes the Buddhism truth that reorients people from spiritual defilement towards liberation. Those she loved were gone in the middle of romantic relationships. All her longing was on hold and adrift in darkness just as fireflies flitting about. She knew that she had to do something to get back on the right track; but, as the same time, she knew that there was nothing to be done about it. All she had to was look upon the moon and make a prayer.


Another point to be made here is about her second husband, Yasumasa. Some critics argue that Izumi Shikibu didn’t have a happy marriage with him. She composed the song of fireflies when he didn’t frequent her place. Let’s think about their state of love in his shoes. He knew that she was madly in love with brothers of noble family consecutively, which was a huge scandal at the court, and he also sensed that her love and longing were still directed towards those two old lovers, not him. He was great at business, but deep down he would probably feel confused, try to distance himself, pull back. So he was seemingly less interested in their own relationship. This obviously makes for a good amount of angst on both parties. Probably both needed to deal with their own feelings in a way the other just don’t understand. This sounds a universal relationship issue, but that state of uncertainty and hesitancy is the very arena where people care about each other and try to step into vulnerability and possibility beyond.


What makes her poems so attractive is that her life can be seen as a composite of sense and sensitivity, faith and fear, bravery and fragility. Stepping forward while knowing you never get back on the right track, awkwardly reaching out a hand to grab hold of truth, shuttling between two different attitudes towards life, consuming time caring about someone. All that we do in longing, caring are in the attempt.



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