Dissertation Part 5: Shifting Contexts, Shifting Boundaries


(It goes without saying that this work is my own. It is copyrighted both to myself and to SOAS University; any personal use of this material must be authorised by myself first. Thanks.)


Shifting Contexts, Shifting Boundaries

Ise Monogatari

The Ise monogatari (Tales of Ise), written between ca. 850 – 1011 and by many hands, demonstrates how mid-Heian authors treated kegai spaces in accordance with the politically tumultuous 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. A “poetics of exile”1 was appearing in contemporary works which removed fictional characters from the capital, and allowed authors to critique their social order from afar.2 In contrast to Heian poetry then, it develops into a counter-ideological text, and we can see this development through its treatment of the periphery.

The tale is a semi-fictive biographic of the early-Heian poet Narihira no Ariwara (825-880), and loosely unites poems (uta) through a basic narrative (monogatari) of episodes (dan). The composition of the text divides into three periods: the first third of episodes is thought to pre-date the Kokinwakashu (905), and contains poems which are (foremost accurately) attributed to Narihira.3 The middle section is an expansion of the tale, dating around another imperial poetry anthology the Gosenwakashu (Later Collection of Poetry, 956). The final instalment, in which Narihira is explicitly named the tale’s hero for the first time4 is a rewrite of the first, and by featuring poems which pre- and post-date Narihira by decades its authors make little effort towards historical accuracy. I argue that ‘truth’ was not a primary concern for the Ise authors who intended to create a counter-ideological text in response to unwelcome political changes at court.

Following the Kusuko Disturbance in 810 in which Narihira’s grandfather Emperor Heizei (r. 806 – 809) attempted a political coup against his brother Saga (r. 809 – 823), the courtier Fujiwara Fuyutsugu of the Northern Fujiwara family was made Imperial Regent by Saga for his support. The Northern Fujiwara thereafter proceeded to gain control over the imperial line through marriage and by demoting / exiling their rivals from the capital, including Heizei’s family line and the equally threatening Ki and Minamoto clans. Descendants of these families were left to establish literary careers at court, and poetry was becoming a means of expressing political dissatisfaction rather than state harmony.5 Michele Marra attributes the Ise’s authorship to generations of such disillusioned imperials, who constructed an aesthetics of miyabi – courtly elegance – as a counter-ideology to Fujiwara control.6

Michinoku’s inclusion in Ise complements this theory. In a ‘poetics of exile’ trope, Narihira is sent to Azuma. Reminiscent of our shirakawa no seki poets, he becomes nostalgic for home, as unfamiliar geomantic features remind him of familiar ones back in the capital: Mount Fuji brings to mind the deer at Kaguyayama shrine in Heian-kyo through its “fawn-dappled flecks of white” (kanoko madara).7 Such comparisons show Narihira transporting his aristocratic cultural heritage into an uncultured space, making Azuma a stage for exile which does not express Narihira’s physical distance from the capital so much as his cultural proximity to it. The azuma-kudari (Journey to the East) frames kegai landscapes within a kinai rhetoric to elevate the hero as truly aristocratic.

By episode 14 he has reached Michinoku. A Michinoku woman, thinking Narihira very fine indeed (“medurakaniya”),8 composes a poem in which she refers to herself as a silkworm (kuhako).9 Modelled on Man’yoshu imagery, the kuhako motif is dismissed by Narhira who calls it inelegant (“hinabi”).10 By leaving her in the middle of the night, Narihira also ignores the courtly decorum of staying with a lover until dawn. This slight – as well as his jibe at her ‘not being human enough’ to take back to the capital (“hito naraba” – ‘if you were a person)11 – eludes her, and she composes another disastrous waka. Although Narihira has encountered rustic ascetics and pushy provincial governor parents in Azuma, this is the only time he meets someone so uncultured, and whom he treats so inelegantly. If Ise is the counter-ideological text Marra prescribes, and represents ‘true’ imperial nobles as inherently miyabi, then this episode surely works against Narihira’s integrity; if not, then we must assume that to behave in such an un-courtly manner in Michinoku does not count as un-courtly, aptly expressing the province’s inferiority.

Our second Michinoku female in episode 15 causes the Ise authors, translated by Royall Tyler, to ask “what could he [Narihira] possibly have gained from looking into a heart as mean and crabbed (ebisu kokoro) as that?”12 Although Tyler rightly points out that the literal translation of ebisu signifies ‘prawn’13 (and thus “crabbed”), we have already seen the term adopted by state histories in a manner less forgiving: he might more accurately have written ‘the heart of a northern foreigner’. The poem itself contains no derogatory terminology:

shinobu yama Ah, Mount Shinobu,
shinobite kayofu
I would gladly find a way
michi mogana
in secret to frequent her,
hito no kokoro no
that I might further explore
oku mo mirubeku
the recesses of her heart.14

The poet opts for “hito no kokoro” (that person’s heart / sensibility). This could be attention to proper waka aesthetics which would disallow ‘ebisu’, but I think it is more probable that for this poem, the location of Shinobuyama is insignificant to the poem’s meaning. ‘Shinobu’ is a homonym: as a noun, it translates to ‘fern’ (); a verb (忍ぶ) means ‘to conceal / to endure’, and another (偲ぶ) ‘to be nostalgic for’. As a proper noun, Shinobu is a town near Fukushima City. Not only is this utamakura’s wordplay potential rich, but a famous shinobu poem was already in circulation during Narihira’s lifetime. Minamoto no Toru (822 – 890), a contemporary of Narihira who was also an imperial prince-turned-commoner under the Northern Fujiwara, composed this waka referenced to in the opening dan:

Michinoku no like Michinoku
shinobu michizuri cloth, printed with tangled ferns,
dare yue ni my mind is disordered
midare somenishi because of you,
ware naranaku ni but my love is not.15


The place-name here is significant more for its familiar wordplay and allusive potential than its geographic location, and therefore doesn’t hold much significance to our investigation.

Already an existing signifier for otherness to the readership, ‘Michinoku’ becomes in early Ise an extended utamakura which, through a poetics of exile, displaces ‘true’ nobility from the centre to the provinces; and could even imply through inelegant Michinoku women that the Northern Fujiwara were imposters in court who attempt but fail to re-enact Narihira’s miyabi. All the while, these episodes reveal that aristocratic attitudes towards Michinoku have little changed since Yamato and Nara times.

The latter third of Ise, written centuries later, features Michinoku in a far more favourable light. Our other exile Minamoto no Toru is once again featured in the narrative with Michinoku. He hosts a poetry party in his garden which is constructed on the appearance of a scenic bay in Miyagi, Shiogama. The late Ise authors accompany this story with a poem which romanticizes Shiogama’s beauty:

Michinoku wa In Michinoku
izuku wa aredo
Anywhere is where to be,
shiogama no
but Shiogama
ura kogu fune no
Where the boats row on the bay
tsunade kanashi mo
Enchants with its lines of ropemen.16

Toru’s implantation of a kegai landscape in the capital reverses Narihira’s earlier nostalgic mourning in Azuma: the periphery has been brought into the centre space rather than the other way around. The later Ise authors add to this revearsal of ideological boundaries: Episode 115 reverses the narrative of episode 14, in which a Michinoku woman referred to as onna (woman) is bearable enough for Narihira to live with (“otoko onna sumikeri”),17 and when he leaves she composes an incredibly skilful verse:

woki no wite sharper than the pain
mi wo yaku yori mo
of live coals laid on the skin
kanashiki ha
miyakoshimabe no
burns by Miyako-shima
wakare narikeri
this parting into my heart.18

Phonetically, “woki no wite” insinuates the semantic clause “to put [on] coals”; “mi wo yaku” tells us that it is herself (mi mo) being burned (yaku); “Miyako-shima” literally translates to ‘Capital Island(s)’, whose namesake is where Narihira is headed. The poem’s quality is proved by its having been attributed to Ono no Komachi, one of the most celebrated female poets of the Heian period. The comparison to episode 14‘s disastrous waka is evident.

So why the ideological shift? Just as much anti-Fujiwara sentiment was felt in the 11th century as in the 9th19 (in dan 101, wisteria (fujiwara) flowers “cover now more than before”),20 but perceptions of the north-east were changing. In 995, a courtier on the wrong side of the fearsome Northern Fujiwara regent Michinaga is exiled by Emperor Ichijo (r. 986 – 1011) to Michinoku. Fujiwara Sanekata, admired by Sei Shonagon as “famous for his poetic skill”,21 is ‘demoted’ to Middle Captain (chujo) of Mutsu Province. Ichijo consoles Sanekata by telling him to “go off, and have a look for yourself at all those utamakura”.22 Through his comment we see the extent to which the court now considered Michinoku part of the realm. Exile as state punishment had long been practised in Japan, and in 724 Emperor Shomu announced that destinations for exile would depend on the severity of the crime. Various locations were defined as near, medium, or distant from the capital as measure:

Near Exile: Echizen, Aki
Medium Exile: Suo, Iyo
Distant Exile: Izu, Awa, Hitachi, Sado, Oki, Tosa23

Thus in the Nara period, the ‘distant’ northern destinations only stretched to Sado and Hitachi, but by Sanekata’s demotion two centuries later, Michinoku is included.24 For a nobleman of Sanekata’s standing to be sent to Mutsu would not only have been insulting, but dangerous. By the 10th century, the northern frontier had reached the Kitakami Basin and Koromo River in present-day Iwate.25 It would not be until 1095 when another Fujiwara family would establish the first permanent ‘Japanese’ city in Michinoku: nicknamed the ‘Mirror of Kyoto’ as a ‘reflection’ of the centre,26 Hiraizumi in the Kitakami Basin was finally proof of northern pacification – or, as we shall explore later, accepted emishi autonomy.27 A century before this, Sanekata was thus entering an unresolved conflict: Mihcinoku was ‘taken’, but not pacified. Beyond the abstract spatial constructs of imperial proximity and Heian socio-political hierarchy, it was Sanekata’s physical presence in the north which determined the outcome of his real, not political, life: he died in Natori in 998. The literary representation of Narihira’s exile in comparison with Sanekata’s real fate could not be more different. Having “roamed all the way to … Michinoku”,28 Narihira follows the Kokinshu’s cyclical notions of travel by returning to Heian-kyo,29 whilst Sanekata cannot. In reality, Michinoku is not a point of comparison for the capital, but its own geographical place. The political contexts both at court and in kegai lands during Ise‘s long authorship evidently effected their textual treatment of Michinoku; but as the differences between Narihira and Sanekata’s experiences of Michinoku demonstrate, even by the 11th century when Ise was completed, Michinoku had maintained its symbolic signification as ‘the other’, unrelated to its geo-realities.

Saigyo Monogatari

Not so, by the end of the Heian period. Saigyo monogatari’s hero, a recluse Buddhist poet-monk travelling through Natori in the late 12th century, came across Sanekata’s grave. Arriving in winter, and seeing the poet’s resting place covered with dead pampas grasses and snow, Saigyo Hoshi composes this poem:

kuchi mo senu One part of him
sono na bakari o
escaped decay – his name,
still around here like
kareno no susuki
this field’s withered grass:
katami mi zo miru
my view of the relic he left.30

In this verse, Saigyo omits and contradicts Natorigawa’s usual utamakura associations of ‘losing a name’ by claiming that Sanekata’s is the “one part” of him which remains. This places Sanekata himself as the poem’s topic rather than the expected place, and demonstrates Saigyo’s preference for historical concreteness over the reliance and reuse of old ideas – a theme which carries throughout his life as well as his verse. Like Ise, Saigyo monogatari was compiled by unknown authors31 who semi-fictively portray the hero’s life through the poem-tale genre. It is a multi-authored expression of political dissatisfaction that utilizes the readership’s expectations of Michinoku in order to thwart them. Reciting a real Saigyo’s real visits to Michinoku, undertaken in his thirties and later in his sixties, the narrative is relatively reliable: Saigyo was the first noble in Japanese history who his contemporaries knew for sure had journeyed to Michinoku voluntarily (unlike both Narihira and his Noin, Saigyo’s influential predecessor, who had allegedly suntanned in his back garden instead of passing Shirakawa Barrier).32 His many journeys were inspired by his distrust for the contradictions he saw in the social institutions around him. A poem composed on his quitting the military service of Emperor Sutoku (1119-1164) and taking the tonsure at the age of twenty-three reflects his disdain for a model of rulership which put power in the hands of retired emperors rather than the child emperors they placed upon the throne (insei):

Written when I was petitioning the insei Emperor Toba to grant me his permission to leave secular life:
oshimu tote
so loath to lose
oshimarenubeki what maybe should be loathed:
kono yo kawa one’s place in the world;
mi o sutete koso we maybe rescue best the self
mi o mo tasukeme by simply throwing it away.33

Upon finding the same preoccupations with rivalry for power at his Buddhist temple, however, he soon left there too:

sutetaredo to think you’ve thrown
kakurete sumanu
the world away and then
hito ni nareba
still live unhidden is
nao yo ni aru ni
to be like any other worldling
niaru narikeri
still dwelling in the world of men.34

As a great-grandson of a northern elite provincial warrior35 and a Buddhist monk distrustful of institutional integrity, Saigyo wrote of Michinoku in a manner which shows a refreshing change to earlier Heian centre/periphery ideologies. His Michinoku poems are recorded in his Sankawakashu (Poems from a Mountain Home) as well as in this tale, and show Saigyo reworking the centre’s associations with the region through an application of Buddhist aesthetics and realistic depiction:

After passing the Barrier of Shirakawa he came to a place called Shinobu, and thinking of Priest Noin’s journey:

After starting from the capital
until I crossed
Osaka Hill
oft did I think
when should I pass
the Shirakawa Barrier.36

utamakura in this verse omit Saigyo’s actual location (Shinobu) whilst including an utamakura disassociated with Michinoku (‘Osaka Hill’ – a homonym with ‘Meeting Hill’). Coupling the capital with Shirakawa Barrier demonstrates Saigyo’s literary knowledge, but he denies the usual Shinobu associations (tangled hearts, Michinoku cloth used by Narihira and Toru) by instead relying on utamakura to narrate his subjective experience of the landscape: his imaginary ‘meeting’ with Noin who, Saigyo believed, had undertaken the same journey. Through selecting these utamakura, Saigyo connects his waka to the trodden earth of the Michinoku landscape rather than to its name.

Passing into Hiraizumi, Saigyo stands at the Koromo River bank which had for centuries been the frontier of Ainu and emishi resistance to central colonisation:

The writer arrived at Hiraizumi on october 12. it was a snow-stormy day. He stood on the banks of the Koromo, and saw the residence of the Fujiwaras with admiration. Feeling cold at the frozen water’s edge:

Freezing is the day.
I see the hall where lived the Fujiwaras
from the banks of the Koromo,
and am moved with admiration.”37

Koromogawa was not an established utamakura; Saigyo’s admiration of the place relates to its historical rather than allusive context. Three families had established Hiraizumi: the Abe, Kiyowara and Northern Fujiwara. They were all descendants of fushu (‘surrendered barbarians’) who, no longer ‘enemies’ to the state, had developed almost full autonomous rule over the Kitakami Basin since the decline of a central presence in the north.38 Archaeological evidence of singular religious practices taking place in Hiraizumi, and of frequent trade with Ainu communities in Ezo (Hokkaido) and the Sakhalin Islands, demonstrates their cultural autonomy.39 Nevertheless, Hiraizumi influenced the centre: after its erection, terms began to appear in late Heian and early medieval literature which distinguished between the different ethnic groups in Michinoku for the first time. Whilst “ebisu” continued to signify the genetically ‘Yayoi Japanese’ who practised a northern culture, “ezo” came to signify the ‘Ainu Japanese’.40 Not only does Saigyo admire descendants of the characters who were represented so negatively in the early Ise, but contemporary authors in the capital were no longer identifying those descendants in direct opposition to the state.

The authors of Saigyo Monogatari follow suit. They include the following poem in the Michinoku section of their tale:

Though not as in the capital, here too people seemed to be vying with one another in bustling about with year-end preparations. Moved, he wrote:

yamagatsu no As marker for their boundary
kataoka kakete
on the long slope
shimuru no no
the poor mountain folk
sakai ni tateru
have planted
tama no oyanagi
the jewels of these willows.41

Yama-gatsu translates to ‘mountain’ – ‘lowly’ / ‘few’, and Saigyo’s pairing of these ‘lowly’ people with willow-tree ‘jewels’ (tama) suggests they have obtained a richness not through possessions but through nature. Through this Buddhist aesthetic which defies material attachment, Saigyo’s representation of common folk contrasts greatly with Ise’s ‘ebisu kokoro’. The Saigyo authors comply by admitting to sharing a culture with yamagatsu whilst inferring no inferiority for their differences in style. The poem and narration allow a peripheral space to represent a new kind of harmony suited to new times, much in the same way that early Heian authors signified their notions of harmony in the capital. Saigyo’s actual presence in Michinoku, however – his recalling literary associations within a landscape but choosing not to read the landscape through them – distinguishes Saigyo’s journey to the east from that of Ise’s Narihira.

So what changed the classical notions of harmony, miyabi and the capital into a preference for solitude, detachment and the periphery? Through Sanekata’s exile and Toru’s garden we have observed that the centre was increasingly associating Michinoku with the state in reality rather than in poetry; Hiraizumi was altering how the centre interpreted the periphery; the return of state subjects to the region was once more being realized by Saigyo‘s presence, as he united the landscape with its poetic associations after decades of imperial absence: the notions of centre which had so defined pre-modern Japanese concepts of state identity were coming undone, and by the time Saigyo monogatari was published in the Kamakura Period, they had been completely overhauled. The Genpei Wars of 1186 – 1189 had destroyed Heian-kyo. A provincial clan, the Taira, had taken control of the imperial line decades before, but were usurped by another, the Minamoto from the east. Japan’s first civil war in over four-hundred years was followed by famine, plague and pestilence, and contradicted any possible notion of centre-centred harmony. Minamoto Yoritomo, heralding himself the shogun (governing warlord) of Japan and usurper of the empirical line, moved the capital city to eastern Kamakura in old Azuma territory; Buddhist monks called it the start of the end of Buddha’s salvation (mappo), and composed numerous advisory parables for enlightened living; the political rhetoric of poetry was now obsolete, and early Kamakura poets still in Heian-kyo turned to a new, grounded aesthetics to express their disillusionment with old Heian ideals. Meanwhile, Saigyo became an example for monks and poets alike: the waka anthology Shinkokinwakashu (New Collection of Poems, Ancient and Modern, 1206) includes ninety-six of his waka, and Buddhist works like Kamo-no-Chomei’s Hojoki (The Ten Foot Square Hut, early 13th century) not only endorse his reclusive lifestyle, but critique the same aristocracy which he abandoned decades before. Saigyo died just two years before Yoritomo removed his government to the east, symbolising the end of an age which the monk appeared to have seen coming. The end of the Heian period had resulted in a remapped country and displaced centre, a new ruling class and the abandonment of an ideology which had, in a sense, predicted all along that danger would come to the centre from the “harmful” east. There was no longer a centre, and thus, no longer anything for Michinoku to symbolically oppose. Saigyo’s authors were a world away from Ise’s: Japan was being rewritten.


1Jonathan Stockdale, 2015. Imagining Exile in Heian Japan: Banishment in Law, Literature and Cult. USA: University of Hawai’i Press, p. 44

2Stockdale, Exile, p. 42

3Jamie L. Newhard, 2013. Knowing the Amorous Man: A History of Scholarship on Tales of Ise. USA: Harvard University, p. 20

4Michele Marra, 1991. The Aesthetics of Discontent. USA: University of Hawaii Press, p. 37

5Heldt, Harmony, p. 29

6Marra, Discontent, p. 40

7Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler, 2010. The Ise Stories: Ise Monogatari. USA: Hawai’i Press, p. 35

8Tyler, Ise, p. 7

9Tyler, Ise, p. 46

10Tyler, Ise, p. 49

11Shizuki Tomotaro (ed.), 1952. Ise Monogatari: Tempuku-bon. Japan: Koten Bunko No. 64, p. 14

12Tyler, Ise, p. 49

13Tyler, Ise, p. 49

14Tyler, Ise, p. 49

15 Kenneth Rexroth, 1964. One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. USA: New Directions, p. 80

16Edward A. Cranston, 2006. A Waka Anthology: Grasses of remembrance, Volume II. Stanford University Press: California, p. 10

17Shizuki, Ise Monogatari, p. 101

18Tyler, Ise, p.233

19Marra, Discontent, p. 49

20Tyler, Ise, p. 212

21McKinney, Pillow Book, p. 90

22Kamens, Utamakura, p. 29

23Stockdale, Exile, p. 91

24G. Cameron Hurst, 2007. ‘Kugyo and Zuryo: Center and Periphery in the Era of Fujiwara no Michinaga.’ In Heian Japan, Centers and Peripheries, ed. Mikael Adolphson, Edward Kamens and Stacie Matumoto. USA: University of Hawai’i Press, p. 93

25Helen Craig McCoullough,1964. ‘A Tale of Mutstu.’ In Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 25, pp. 179-211

26Mark J. Hudson, 1999. ‘Ainu Ethnogenisis and the Northern Fujiwara’ in Arctic Anthropology 26 (1 /2), p. 77

27Hudson, ‘Ainu’, p. 77

28Tyler, Ise, p. 234

29Tyler, Ise, p. 234

30William LaFleur, 2003. Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyo. USA: Wisdom Publications, p. 24

31 Laura W. Allen, 1995. ‘Images of the Poet Saigyo as Recluse.’ In Journal of Japanese Studies, 21 (1): 65 – 102

32 Kamens, Utamakura, p. 152

33 LaFleur, Nightfall, p. 12

34LaFleur, Nightfall, p. 18

35Friday, Claws, p. 168

36 Honda, The Sankashu,, p. 203

37 Honda, The Sankashu, p. 204

38 McCoullough, Mutsu, p. 182

39 Hudson, Ethnogenisis, p. 72

40Hudson, ‘Ainu’, p. 79

41 Meredith McKinney (trans.), 1998. The Tale of Saigyo (Saigyo Monogatari). USA: University of Michigan, p. 61


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