Irises are now out of season, but. . .

(The irises at Heian Shrine a few years ago.)

My undergraduate advisor Tom Rohlich was so nice in pointing out that Ogata Korin’s Irises were inspired by a poem by Ariwara no Narihira, which appears in the Tales of Ise, that I simply had to post it.


Karakoromo kitsutsu narenishi tsuma shi areba harubaru kinuru tabi wo shi zo omou

Having come so far on this trip, I yearn for my wife, who is as familiar and intimate to me as my worn clothing.

Despite the melancholy atmosphere of the poem, something that is untranslatable about it is that it puns on the Japanese word for irises, kakitsubata.  Like the anagrammatic poems I remember writing in elementary school, in which each line began with the next letter of a word, Ariwara no Narihira’s poem begins each line with a syllable of kakitsubata (the fourth syllable of kakitsubata, “ba,” becomes the unvoiced variant of the same phonetic character, “ha,” in the poem).

In this way, he also refers to the location he has traveled to, Yatsuhashi, now in Aichi Prefecture near Nagoya, an area famous for its irises.  Therefore, although the poem doesn’t mention irises directly per se, the irises embody Ariwara no Narihira’s desire to see his wife.

As this poem inspired Ogata Korin’s iris screens, the irises, which take up the whole screen, may be said to be more than a representation of the natural world.  Rather, it embodies or represents human emotions.

However, it must also be pointed out that the seemingly chaste English word “wife” does not do justice to Ariwara no Narihira.  The Tales of Ise famously describe his many love affairs.  The word “wife” in an age when male nobles had many “wives,” with whom they maintained various levels of formality and devotion, can therefore conceivably mean a lover.  Although the poet expresses his desire to see his wife, he seems to have had another lover in Yatsuhashi.

Throughout Japanese history, Ariwara no Nahira’s poem influenced much more cultural production, including a noh play by Komparu Zenchiku entitled “Kakitsubata,” which amplifies the sexual tensions understated in the poem and seemingly absent in Korin’s irises. To place this play historically, it fits between the creation of the Tales of Ise and Korin’s irises.

(The Tales of Ise are from the beginning of the Heian period, 794 – 1185;  the noh play was first performed in 1464, in the Muromachi period;  and Ogata Korin’s screens were made in the 18th century, the Edo period.)

In the play “Kakitsubata,” a woman appears to a traveling monk and recites Ariwara no Narihira’s poem.  After admiring the poetry and the beautiful irises with the monk, she offers her simple home to the monk as accommodations, an invitation full of sexual suggestion, which the monk happily accepts.

The woman then appears in a splendid robe and says it is the very robe Ariwara no Narihira mentions in the poem.  When the monk asks who she is, she says she is the spirit of the irises and Ariwara no Narihira was the embodiment of a bodhisattva of poetry and dance. The spirit of the irises dances and, at the end of the play, as at dawn the pale purple light in the western clouds echo the color of the iris, she is enlightened and fades from sight.

My current advisor, Matsuoka Shinpei, maintains that, as a bodhisattva, Ariwara no Narihira’s relationships with women gave them enlightenment.  I do not like the image of a man bestowing enlightenment on the women he sleeps with, since it rationalizes and heightens his sexual power over the women, but this connection between sexuality and enlightenment is a recurring theme in noh, and it is not always the man who is the source of enlightenment. . . .  This, however, is probably the beginning of a different post.

* Coincidentally, Prof. Rohlich’s profile on the Smith College Department of East Asian Language and Literature site shows him in front of some beautiful irises at Heian Shrine.

**  Also coincidentally, today is Prof. Rohlich’s birthday.  Happy Birthday!

***  Not quite so coincidentally, the noh “Kakitsubata” will be performed a number of times this month.

First, next week, Wednesday, June 9 at 4:00 pm by Okada Koichi will perform the lead at the Kanze Noh Theater in Tokyo.  For more information, see the Kanze website or call 03-3450-3372 (Okada Koichi).

“Kakitsubata” will also be performed on Sunday, June 13 at 1:00 pm by Endo Kazuhisa, also of the Kanze school, at the Yarai Noh Theater at Kagurazaka.  For more information, call the theater at 03-3268-7311.

On Sunday, June 20, it will be performed by Oka Hisahiro at the Kanze Noh Theater.  For more information, call the Kanze Noh Theater at 03-3469-5241 or order tickets on-line at the Kanze website (Japanese only).

5 thoughts on “Irises are now out of season, but. . .

  1. Interesting that Narihira is considered a bodhisattva. I hadn’t heard that before. I certainly can’t argue with your reasoning as to your distaste for this rationalization and enhancement, to paraphrase your post, of his sexual power over the women. Not to mention the implication that these women are incapable of achieving enlightenment except by receiving guidance from a man, especially through sex.

    What do you think, though, then, of female figures as bodhisattvas, granting enlightenment (or enlightened guidance or wisdom) upon men, e.g. in Eguchi?

    Thanks for pointing out these Noh performances. I was considering going to the takigi Noh at Heian Jingu a few nights ago, as I’ve never seen takigi Noh, but that was only my first night in Kyoto, and I’m glad I instead slept and started getting over jet lag, etc etc.

    Are you going to be around for any of these performances? I’m planning on going to the event on the 12th; don’t know if I’d be seeing you there. But, in any case, at one time or another, it’d be great to see you this summer.

  2. Dear Diego,

    I’m sorry. You may have to wait a little longer than the next post. I think I need to set the stage a little for “Eguchi.”

    Dear Travis,

    Considering noh was coming of age in a time when New Buddhist Movements were all about adopting Japanese gods as bodhisattva to promote their religion, why not adopt a poetic god? Haha!

    Don’t forget Eguchi no Kimi and Saigyo’s poetic exchange! It puts a very different spin on their relationship from that described between Ariwara no Narihira and the Iris Spirit in “Kakitsubata.”

    I hope I get to see you both while you’re here!

    Thank you for your comments!


  3. 初めてコメントを残します。(日本語で失礼します)



    1. コメントありがとうございます!



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