Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview
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IZUMI SHIKIBU
(ca. 966/979-1030?)

Japan
Waka Poet and Heian Diarist

Izumi Shikibu, along with Ono no Komachi, has received praise for being one of Japan's two most gifted female poets. When Ono no Komachi (ca. 830/835-899) began writing her poems, the unique cultural advances associated with the court at Heiankyō, during what is known as the Heian period ( 794-1192), had started to flourish, having been initially stimulated by two continental cultures: China and Korea.

Heian literature reached an unusually high level of achievement during the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. Izumi Shikibu, along with Sei Shōnagon (fl. late tenth century) and Murasaki Shikibu (fl. early eleventh century), produced works of exceptional quality, in poetry and in prose. The literary output of this extraordinary trio of women constitutes an almost unparalleled contribution to the history of Japanese literature.

The proliferation of literary, masterpieces created at the turn of the century (ca. 1000) can partially be attributed to the existence of the phonetic writing system known as kana, which provided women with a means of composing poems (waka) and diaries (nikki).

The dominant poetic form in the Japanese language from approximately the ninth century on was the waka, or "Japanese poem." Waka contained thirty-one syllables, presented in five lines, which consisted of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables, respectively. Waka collections, or shū, begin with the Kokin[waka]shū (Collection of Old and New Japanese Poetry, ca. 905-920), a royally commissioned imperial anthology that brought together the best works of Japanese poets.

Izumi Shikibu's poems represent some of the best waka poetry to have been written in the years following the Kokinshū's publication. Throughout the Heian period, men created the majority of works with significant literary status. The work of Izumi Shikibu, the ex

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