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How to Create a Legend? An Analysis of Constructed Representations of Ono no Komachi in Japanese Medieval Literature

How to Create a Legend? An Analysis of Constructed Representations of Ono no Komachi in Japanese Medieval Literature

By Karolina Broma-Smenda

The IAFOR Journal of Literature and Librarianship, Vol.3:1 (2014)

Ono no Komachi - Painting by Kikuchi Yosai (1781–1878)

Abstract: Although the historical figure known to us as Ono no Komachi (ca. 825–ca. 900) is considered to have been a famous and talented female court poet of the Heian Period in Japan, not much is known about her actual life. As a literary figure, however, her fame extended way beyond her own lifetime. Over the centuries she has continued to be an object of legendarization processes. Many literary works pictured her not only as a beautiful and skilled poet but also as femme fatale, courtesan, or Buddhist devotee. However, I believe that whom we currently call “Ono no Komachi” should be considered a literary construct significant for Japanese literature rather than a historical figure.

This paper analyzes representations of Ono no Komachi in Japanese medieval literature (nō drama plays, and otogizōshi secular tales), since I believe that the process of “creating” such legends has its origin in the specificity of the Japanese medieval period (12–16th centuries). Thus, the aim of this paper is to address the questions as to why this female poet was subject to legendarization processes and how various stages of those processes are responsible for the popularization of Ono no Komachi’s historical image.

The historical figure known to us as Ono no Komachi (ca. 825–ca. 900) was a court poet of the Heian period (8–12th centuries), who is frequently defined as a great example of female excellence in the area of poetry. Even today she remains one of the most legendary figures of classical Japanese literature and is pictured in many literary works. Her real name remains unknown: “Komachi” is a nickname—a court name (nyōbō na). Ono no Komachi seems to have been a historically insignificant woman, because there is not the briefest mention of her in any of the historical records of her time. Possibly, young Ono no Komachi was sent to the capital Heian Kyō (present-day Kyoto), where she served at Emperor Ninmyō’s court. There she was recognized to be a talented poet, and was renowned for her unusual beauty. Indeed, her poetic talent is one of the features attributed to the historical Ono no Komachi that appears credible. She is one of the rokkasen—the six best waka poets of the early Heian period, who were defined as such by Ki no Tsurayuki (ca. 872–945) in the Japanese preface (kanajo) to the first Japanese imperial poetic anthology, the Kokin wakashū. There are currently about 100 poems attributed to Ono no Komachi, but it is believed that she specialized in love poetry expressing a variety of human emotions. Unsurprisingly, her poetry is often interpreted as deeply subjective, passionate and complex. Her love poetry may have contributed to the flowering of legends and tales presenting her as an amorous woman.

Click here to read this article from the IAFOR Journal of Literature and Librarianship

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