Up Close – A Tapestry of Poetess’s: A Princess of Poetry

Three poems of Nukada in their original version, in Japanese

Our poetic journey takes us today to the 7th century Japan, when the history of poetry was enriched with the life and creations of the one considered to be the Mother of Japanese literature, Nukada-no-Ookimi.

Permanently alive in the hearts of the people belonging to the Nippon nation, Nukada is believed to have been as beautiful as she was intelligent, but unfortunately no image of hers was preserved in time.

As a proof of the high admiration her creations instilled in people, stands the fact that no other woman ever included in the famous Man’yōshū* had risen such interest. Authors have spoken about her in various texts, painters have attempted to imagine her figure, and she remained the same important poetic personality nowadays as she was over a thousand years ago.

According to Setsuko Ichikawa, English teacher for forty years at the Tokyo Jogakkan Daigaku (College), Nukada’s lifeline was a very interesting one, with a beautiful ascension, serving Empress Kogyoku (later known as Saimei), who thoroughly enjoyed her compassion and wit and kept her close to the throne.

It is during this time that Nukada writes one of the most daring poems, which, in some people’s opinion, is a splendid metaphor for her own rising power at the royal court:

While at Nigitazu we await the moon

To put our ships to sea,

With the moon the tide has risen;

Now let us embark!

(Translation by Nihon Gakujyutsu Shinkoukai = the Japanese Classics Translation Committee)

Later we find Nukada as favorite wife to Emperor Temmu, mother of his daughter, Princess Tōchi, who would later became Emperor Kōbun’s consort. It is also assumed, because of various reasons but especially because certain hints included in her poetic creations, that Nukada was involved in a sentimental relationship with Emperor Tenji, a great patron of the arts, who, on the other side, encouraged Nukada’s poetic activity.

Her favorite form or poetry was the tanka, her creations in this field being well-known for their graceful symmetry and forceful rhythms. Often her poems, even when referring to her own private experiences, have a politic underlayer, because living at the court would have made it impossible for her life to not be related to politics. However, her skills in evoking metaphors of nature in order to portray a state of mind are highly treasured, like in the following example.

It is said that one day the Emperor Tenji commanded Prime Minister Fujiwara-Kamatari to choose between the hills in spring and autumn. Apparently Nukada composed the long poem below in just one moment, perceiving Kamatari’s hesitation. Ichikawa states that “here, Nukada shows her pride in her wit and sensitivity, by her quickness and by using the word “Wa-re” (I, me) for the first time. She is no more the shadow of the Empress, but the poet Princess Nukada.”:

When, loosened from the winter’s bonds,

The spring appears,

The birds that were silent

Come and sing,

The flowers that were prisoned

Come out and bloom;

But the hills are so rank with trees

We cannot seek the flowers,

And the flowers are so tangled with weeds

We cannot take them in our hands,

But when on the autumn hill-side

We see the foliage.

We prize the yellow leaves,

Taking them in our hands,

We sigh over the green ones,

Leaving them on the branches;

And that is my only regret-

For me, the autumn hills!

(Translation by Nihon Gakujyutsu Shinkoukai = the Japanese Classics Translation Committee)

One thing that represents Nukada’s hallmark and stands out from the Japanese traditional poetry is her fearlessness in making use openly of her own feelings and missing moods. According to Ishikawa, “referring to a remembrance of lost happiness in public, was and is a prohibition in Japan” – prohibition that Nukada so gracefully ignored in her poems, forging one poetic jewel after another and leaving us with a splendid string of artistic pearls mirroring her life. “It is apparent from her poems that she chose the best words, the best sounds, and the best styles to express how she cherished each moment, and that she had the fullness of heart to convey her feelings.  Her fullness encourages the readers/listeners to share joy, sorrow, exultation, or coquetry with this honest lady; rather than with many other female poets who composed almost nothing, but love poems toward their husbands and lovers.”


* Man’yōshū (万葉集 man’yōshū?, “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) is the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled some time after 759 AD during the Nara period. The anthology is one of the most revered of Japan’s poetic compilations. The compiler, or the last in a series of compilers, is believed to be Ōtomo no Yakamochi. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man%27y%C5%8Dsh%C5%AB)


One thought on “Up Close – A Tapestry of Poetess’s: A Princess of Poetry

  1. What a wonderful tribute to a national treasure who is, in the main, unknown outside her own homeland! I wonder where I could acquire a complete body of her work. 🙂

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