Ono no Komachi (c. 830–?)

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Ono no Komachi (c. 830–?)

Japanese poet, one of her nation's most celebrated, who wrote passionately about the sorrows associated with love. Pronunciation: Owe-noh noh Koe-machee. Born probably between 830 and 835; location not known.

In ancient Japan, where poetry was esteemed, Ono no Komachi was thought to be its most accomplished practitioner. Virtually nothing, however, is known of her life. Some of her poems indicate that she was a lady-in-waiting in the imperial capital between 850 and 859. During this time, she and the most outstanding literary lights in Japan exchanged poems they had written.

Ono no Komachi wrote love poems, more than 100 of which were preserved in imperial anthologies. She expressed the sentiment, common in her aristocratic circles, that men were unfaithful and romantic love brought unhappiness. It was said that the poet, who often wrote about unrequited love, was in love with an emperor.

In the Japanese popular imagination, Ono no Komachi is a romantic figure around whom legends have grown, and the greatest of the nation's dramatists have written about her. In their plays, Ono no Komachi is known for her beauty, wit, and elegance, and has many lovers. (To this day, a Japanese beauty is dubbed a "Komachi.") While in her poems men were the source of unhappiness, in these tragedies written by men Ono no Komachi is a hard-hearted woman and ultimately the cause of her own suffering. In the most famous of these dramas, one of her many suitors, a Captain Fukakusa, travels a great distance to court her. Komachi advises him that she will not meet with him until he has proven his faithfulness by making the long journey from his house to hers for 100 nights. He complies with her wishes for 99 nights, traveling through rain, hail, and snow; but on the last night, he is caught in a snowstorm and perishes. In her dotage, so the drama goes, Komachi is possessed by the vengeful spirit of Fukakusa and driven to madness. Alone, destitute, she wanders in search of salvation by the grace of Buddha. The woman presented in the drama, however, has little in common with the woman presented in Komachi's poems.


Weber-Schafer, Peter. Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan. Itasaka Gen, ed. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1983.

suggested reading:

Hirshfield, Jane, with Mariko Aratani, trans. The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi andIzumi Shikibu . NY: Scribner, 1988.

Linda L. L. , Professor of History, Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota

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