Japan’s Literary Treasures

“None That I Do Not Love”: Higuchi Ichiyō As a Poet and Thinker

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Best known for her fiction, the modern writer Higuchi Ichiyō was also a prodigious poet. Translated selections from her private notebooks reveal an artistic outlook based on love for all.

Poetic Experiments

Higuchi Ichiyō (1872–1896), one of the literary giants of Meiji Japan, is celebrated for her fiction. Many of those reading this will know her iconic short story “Takekurabe,” or “Growing Up,” first translated over 50 years ago by Edward Seidensticker in Donald Keene’s anthology Modern Japanese Literature. The fact that Ichiyō was first and foremost a poet is often forgotten, though—probably because shortly after her death great changes in Japanese poetry occurred that she had no part in.

Writing fiction, which Ichiyō embarked on in her late teens as a way to make a living, was extremely difficult and stressful for her (her diaries make this clear), but poetry, especially the 31-syllable waka (what we now call the tanka), was Ichiyō’s first love, and it came naturally. In all, she wrote 4,000-odd waka, the first while still in elementary school and the last shortly before she died at the young age of 24. Many were in the style of traditional court poetry, enchained by the use of prescribed topics (dai) and an archaic diction dating from the tenth century. Ichiyō was able to create many beautiful poems even under such constraints, but in the last few years of her life, she began to stew over the fussy conventionalized tropes and chafe at the restrictions.

This led her to various experiments, all consigned to her private notebooks and, so far as is known, shared with no one. It was only after her death that they first became public. Here I introduce the experimental form she worked with most, which she called “poem with prologue,” or kotobagaki no uta. Two examples (probably written in 1894 or 1895) are followed by the aborted introduction to a planned but never realized collection of work in this form (probably written in 1895 or 1896).

As its name suggests, the “poem with prologue” form consists of a prose passage followed by a waka. Such combinations of prose and poetry are found in many classical poetry collections, but the prose portion was usually minimal in length, restricted to listing when and where and on what occasion the poem was composed, and phrased in the same linguistic style as the poem it prefaced.

Ichiyō’s prologues tended to be longer and more elaborate than most of the classical ones. There were even a few which were served up not in the same style of fluid Japanese as the waka but in a strongly Sino-Japanese kanbun-inflected style. This made for a vivid and suggestive contrast between the prose and the poetry. An entire story or conception developed in the strong, conventionally “masculine” accents of Sino-Japanese was juxtaposed with the softer, conventionally “feminine” tones of the waka. Intellectual ideas and lyric emotion reflected back and forth, creating a kind of echo chamber, with a spotlight playing over the intense emotion at the root of the intellectual preface.

Notebook Selections

The first of the three selections that follow is about the place of the human world in the universe, and the second is about human society and the relations people should have to each other. The third is the unfinished introduction to a never-completed manuscript entitled Kotobagaki no uta, making it clear that Ichiyō dreamed of putting together an entire volume of poems with prologues. Taken together, the worldview that they express is dark, even tragic, but it is redeemed by the all-embracing love she felt for this world.

At Midnight

The words “hero” and “great man” suggest that there are certain human beings who are extraordinary by nature. But in fact, everyone is potentially a hero and capable of great feats. Given the right circumstances, anyone of us can accomplish great things and be heroic. Besides, it is not worldly fame that is important but a person’s inward nature. The real heroes are the ones that history forgets, those many quiet and thoughtful individuals who spend their lives selflessly pondering human life and our existence on this earth.

And what is human existence? A frail thing. For heaven and earth may be, as they say, forever, but who has ever heard of someone who left this world and came back again? And how many had their lives truncated before they could even begin to fulfill their hopes, desires, and dreams?

Our life here on earth is short and there is nothing after it or beyond it. Constructing images of the next world, as religion often does, is a futile exercise. There is no point in delving deep into abstract ideas of good and evil or trying to interpret holy parables. Focus on our life here on earth and try to live as best you can.

We live within nature, and we cannot control it. True, we may become bird or beast after we die, but then again, we may not. Someone who can live with that uncertainty can live a proper life.

The important thing is this: have you lived so that you can say you have no shame in your heart? If you have, then you can be sure that all the gods of various stripes will come from the other world and be your friend.


Fukuru yo no / neya no tomoshibi / kage kieba / yami naru mono o / aware yo no naka

At midnight
after the glow of the bedroom lamp
is quenched
darkness will come down
and yet
this poor old world
keeps bustling on

The Pond Knows Many Moons

Imagine a person, one of those who sweeps down the boulevard in a sumptuous horse and carriage. And here we have another, one of those who stands outside at evening and invites passersby in, a vendor of love. Why do we value the one and heap contempt on the other? I cannot fathom the reason, for one is human, and so is the other.

All things in heaven and earth are equal and part of a whole. They grow and unfold without distinction according to their natures, and yet we humans make meaningless class divisions between high and low. A prostitute can be a sincere and honest person. Is it not a sin for a young man of high birth to trick her? Many wives of good family deceive their husbands and this is excused as “the way of the world” while the prostitute is condemned. How wrong this is! Oh, what hypocrisy to tolerate the wayward spouse and condemn those on society’s lower rungs!


Ikemizu ni / yona yona tsuki mo / yadori keri / kawaru makura yo / nani ka tsumi naru

The pond knows
many moons,
a different one each night
Where is the sin
in changing
pillow partners
from night to night?

A World of Pathos

The first prologue centers on the idea that outside of our world, there is nothing but the unknown. It is a forceful statement of agnosticism. The mood is vigorous, the tone unforgiving: Stop fooling yourselves, people! The poem speaks of the same thing, but slantwise and with tender emotion: When the light of human consciousness is snuffed out, there is only darkness, and yet, ignoring what is to come, we pitiful human beings go blithely rushing about on our daily affairs as though life was forever.

The second prologue points to the hypocrisy of criticizing the prostitute but pardoning the men who buy her or glossing over the deceit of adulterous wives just because they come from good families. The poem may seem to be a vindication of prostitution when read alone, but when read in the context of the prologue, it is a condemnation of society’s hypocrisy and would not be surprising coming from the mouth of an anarchist revolutionary. No wonder Ichiyō kept this in a private notebook. At the same time, she did find a possible channel for these feelings in works like “Growing Up,” which is about the childhood of a young girl destined to become a prostitute.

The two prologues taken together express the ideas that the human world is one of pathos, its uncertainty surrounded by darkness, and that, when looked on within that tragic frame, there is no room for superficial distinctions of class: all of us are of equal worth. Once this worldview is accepted, you can choose either despair or love. That is, you can turn inward on the self, lead a hermit’s life, wait for death. Or you can turn outward, identify with all that lives, feeling a bond with all creation. This last was the way that Ichiyō took. In that aborted introduction to the collection of prologue poems that never saw the light of day, she described the emotion that would underly the poems she planned to write in a way that resembles a poetic manifesto and a philosophy of life:

If people see these poems, what will they think? . . . It is almost certain that they will be criticized as unseemly. But why should I let fear of such reactions keep me from expressing my own thoughts? I am not denying that I am in love. In heaven and earth, among mountains and rivers, grass and trees, insects and fish, one and all, all and one, there is none that I do not love, none that is not the object of my longing and my desire. I grow tearful without any cause, I find myself smiling for no reason, and at times I gaze vacantly at the sky above, lost in thought. Is this not love? That is how it is for me and so when I love I do not discriminate between people and things, I make no distinction between the animate and the inanimate.”

Had Ichiyō lived even a decade longer, it is likely that she would have found a way to bring all her poems with prologues together, and that her role in the modernization of the tanka would have been as seminal as that of Yosano Tekkan, Yosano Akiko, and Masaoka Shiki. But at the very least we can still read with pleasure those few poems with prologue in which Higuchi Ichiyō revealed herself as both thinker and poet and created a form that melded philosophy and poetry.

(Originally written in English. All translations © Janine Beichman; source texts from Shioda Ryōhei, Wada Yoshie, Higuchi Etsu, eds., Higuchi Ichiyō zenshū [Complete Works of Higuchi Ichiyō], vol. 3b [Chikuma Shobō, 1978]. Banner image © Pixta.)

literature poetry Higuchi Ichiyō