Ariwara no Narihira to the Imperial Princess

Ariwara no Narihira
was the fifth son of Prince Aho and a grandson of the emporer Heijo. He and his brothers, on their father’s advice, renounced their royal rank and became noblemen, Narihira owned estates near the former capital of Nara and held a succession of government offices. The year before he died, he was lieutenant general of the Left Divison of the Imperial Guard. He is best known for his poetry, a major contribution to the culture of the Heian period (794-1185). His most famous work is the Ise monogatari, or Tales of Ise. A collection of his verse appeared in the Kokin wakashu (Anthology of Poems Old and New) complied in 905 by the poet Ki no Tsurayuki. In the late 18th century–the Edo period–the Wakashu poets won renewed popularity as part of a Japanese revivalist movement.

The Imperial Princess
(name and dates unknown)
was an important guardian of the Great Shrine of Ise in southern Honshu. It was there that she had her brief affair with Ariwara no Narihira. The inner shrine of the Ise complex was dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Gooddess from whom–according to Shinto mythology–the emperors of Japan were descended.


c. mid-ninth century

I know not whether
Is was I who journeyed there
Or you who came to me:
Was it dream or reality?
Was I sleeping or awake?

Last night I too
Wandered lost in the darkness
Of a disturbed heart
Whether dream or reality
Tonight let us decide!

Shallow the inlet
If the traveler wading it
Is not even wetted

I shall cross again to you
Over Meeting Barrier.


Love letters have never been more important to the development of relationships between the sexes than they were in the courtly society of medieval Japan. The exchange printed here is is taken from the ninth-century (Heian period) Tales of Ise, a largely autobiographical account of the love life of the imperial court poet and nobleman Ariwara no Nairhira. Narihira’s relationship with the imperial princess, a vestal virgin of the Great Shinto Shrine of Ise, was casual and of a sort quite common among members of the aristocracy. But such a relationship was treated with a delicacy alien to Western tradition, as Narihira’s story illustrates.
According to the Tales of Ise, the emperor sent Narihira as his envoy to the Ise Shrine; this was the holiest of Japan’s sacred shrines, dedicated to the Sun Goddess, from whom the imperial family claimed descent. On his first night there the imperial princess gave him rooms in her own wing of the palace and attended to all his needs. No description of her has survived, but she probably followed the medieval Japanese ideas of beauty: a face of chalky powdered pallor; plucked and painted eyebrows; teeth that were blackened. She almost certainly had long, glossy black hair, which was thought particularly beautiful if it reached the ground. On the second night the princess, at Narihira’s suggestion, came to him in the middle of the night and stayed with him until the third hour of the morning, when she was obliged to return to her own rooms. This was an acceptable practice because the Sinto religion laid down no moral code; its central theme was the joyful acceptance of the natural world and gratitude for its beauty.
The next day, as was customary, Narihira waited anxiously for her to send a verse letter by messenger. When it finally arrived, Narihira wept. In the culture of the time this was not a sign of weakness but of extreme sensibility to the beauty and pathos of life, and it was expected of the ideal Heian gentlemen. Narihira wrote a verse in reply in which like the princess’s verse, dream and reality became as one.
On the third night, unexpectedly, circumstances kep the lovers apart, and the following morning Narihira had to leave. As dawn broke, a messenger arrived from the princess bearing a cup of parting. Inside it was written the princess’s next verse:

“Shallow the inlet
If the traveler wading it
Is not even wetted.”

Narihira drank the wine from the cup and using charcoal from a pinewood torch, added the last verse; he promised he would come back to her across the mountains, which were appropriately named Meeting Barrier. The exchange encapsulates all the elements of the aristocratic Japanese approach to love: power, refined expression, charm, adn at the center a sense of sorrow at the heart of things.
Narihira and the princess lived in a highly ritualized society, in which the exchange of verses formed a central part of courtship. Every detail relating to the letter–the paper, the handwriting, and even the messenger–carried special significance and revealed the sensibility of the lovers. The paper had to be of the right thickness, color, and size to suit the emotional mood of the message. It had to be folded in the correct way and attached to a sprig of blossom, which would then be delivered by a handsome messenger. A “morning after” letter such as Narihira’s poem was traditionally attached to a sprig from a pine tree, indicating to the lady that the sender’s love–like the pine–would never wither. Narihira used pinewood charcoal instead of a sprig to write his reply inside the princess’s wine cup.
Calligraphy was also important. An affair could fonder if the man was disappointed by the woman’s handwriting. And it was generally expected in courtly circles that anyone could produce, at a moment’s notice, a poem to fit any occasion, especially an occasion of love.
Every aspect of a lover’s behavior was ritualized. While it was quite acceptable for a Japanese aristocrat to have a “one-night stand”, the way that the man left his lover’s bedroom the following morning could make or break him. In the late 10th century, Sei Shonagon–a maid of honor to the emperor’s daughter–recorded in her Pillow Book (the best surviving record of daily life in the capital):

“Indeed a woman’s attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking. When he jumps out of bed, scurries about the room, lightly fastens his trouser-sash, rolls up the sleeves of his Court cloak, hunting costume or what-not, stuffs his belongings into the breast of his robe and then briskly secures the outer sash–she really begins to hate him.”

But however well lovers folowed the prescriptions of the polygamous world of Japanese arisocracy, such conduct carried with it unavoidable problems. Men were expected to keep second wives and have casual liaisons–if they did not, they were considered less impressive as husbands. Yet natural feelings of jealousy still existed. The love poem of Narihira nd the imperial princess shows the refining touch given to a potentially problematic practice. They performed the ritual etiquette of love to perfection, and their exchange of verses gave a sense of permanence to what was in reality a chance and transient affair.

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