Ono no Komachi (小野 小町, c. 825 – c. 900) was a famous Japanese waka poet. She was known as one of the six most prominent waka poets of her time, during the early Heian period. According to legend she was extraordinary beautiful and due to her astonishing beauty, the term Komachi is now used in Japan to describe women of similar endowment. She also accounts as one of the Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry (三十六歌仙 – Sanjūrokkasen), who are a group of prestigious Japanese poets from the Asuka, Nara, and Heian periods.
Waka (和歌) is a form of classic Japanese poetry and literature. Waka is written distinctly in Japanese and was written in similar style to Chinese poetry of the time. Other notable Waka poets included Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, Yamabe no Akahito, and Otomo no Yakamochi. The term Waka used originally written as 倭歌 or 大和歌 but the spelling changed to 和歌 in recent times.
Nearly all of Ono no Komachi’s poems are considered to be melancholic in nature.
Modern poets Kenneth Roxroth and Ikuko Atsumi had this to say about her poetry:
Her beauty may be legendary but her rank as one of the greatest erotic poets in any language is not. Her poems begin the extreme verbal complexity which distinguishes the poetry of the Kokinshū Anthology from the presentational immediacy of the Man’yōshū. ~ Kenneth Rexroth & Ikuko Atsumi
Historian Donald Keene, author of ‘Seeds in the Heart‘ had similar verbiage in regards to her poetry:
The passionate accents of the waka of Komachi and Narihira would never be surpassed, and the poetry as a whole is of such charm as to make the appearance of the Kokinshū seem less a brilliant dawn after a dark night than the culmination of a steady enhancement of the expressive powers of the most typical Japanese poetic art. ~ Donald Keene
Legends about Ono no Komachi began to develop around the eleventh century.
These stories were later used as the basis for several plays written about her life.
Most typical were stories about her love-life.
- The vision of one legend depicted her as a lover of Ariwara no Narihira, another member of thee Rokkasen. It has been speculated that this story may have originated from a simple placement of her poetry next to his on display.
- A second legend portrays her as a cruel lover, who enjoyed taunting her prospects, such as Fukakusa no Shōshō. The story goes that Komachi promised him that if he visited her everyday for a hundred nights, she would become his, however, he died on the ninety-ninth night and never got to lay with the woman he loved.
- A third legend portrays Komachi as an old beggar dressed in ragged clothes. After her beauty waned, so did the her appeal of those around her, although occasionally young men would come to her to hear her sentimental poetry.
- A fourth legend depicts her death, which results in her skull lying barren in a field. The story states that as the wind blew through the skull’s eye socket, the sound itself evoked Komachi’s anguish.
Life after Death
Komachi’s status as one of the most alluring Japanese poets of her time is well cemented in modern culture.
Often depicted are stories about her quaint love affairs and emotional tendencies.
Noh players written about Komachi:
- Sotoba Komachi
- Sekidera Komachi
- Komachi uta Arasoi
- Komachi Sōshi
- Kayo Komachi
It has became common in recent times for Komachi to be portrayed as a beautiful woman who has turned old and lost her beauty and prestige. Abandoned by her lovers and full of regret, she wound up walking around her final years as an old, frail, and lonely beggar. However, she was adored by young locals for her romantic poetical notations. It is important to note though although this is a commonly told story, it is widely considered to be a fictional account of her life.
A variety of rice, known as Akita Komachi, is named after the Japanese poet.
Additionally, a recent play was written about her, known as Call me Komachi. A modern reproduction of traditional heritage, the play was produced by Lemon Tart Productions and written by Christie Nieman. Call me Komachi was intended to portray the parallels between traditional Geisha life and a form of paid dating in Japan known as enjo kōsai. Although the play was not a wild success, it did enjoy several successful seasons in popular Australian venues in the years of 2003 through 2006.
Poetry by Ono no Komachi
Upon The Path Of Dreams
Upon the path of dreams
My feet don’t rest,
Constantly trailing to you, yet
In reality, a single glimpse:
Not even that have I had of you.
In This World
In this world
the living grow fewer,
the dead increase
how much longer
must I carry this body of grief?
In My Desolation
In my desolation
I am as duckweed:
Cut my roots and
Take me away-would the water do it,
I should go, I think.
Are tears upon a sleeve
For mine cannot be dammed
As a surging flood!