Naturwissenschaft, Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte

The Ise monogatari

Wolfgang Klose

The Ise monogatari was finished at the beginning of the 10th century. It remained the only eminent Japanese work with prose and lyrical parts (called uta monogatari, prose with poems). It is a collection of 125 episodes from the life of the poet Ariwara no Narihira (825-880). He was one of the six most famous poets of the 9th century (rokkasen) . In the 11th century he belonged to the san-jû-roku-kasen, the 36 most famous poets who lived before the 11th century .

Each episode contains poems (waka with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables), accompanied by a normally short explanatory prose text. Many poems are by or attributed to Ariwara no Narihira him-self. His name is never explicitly mentioned in the Ise monogatari. Instead, each episode starts with the words mukashi otoko (‘Once there was a man’ or ‘A man of old’), thought to be an epithet for the name itself. Similarly, many locations, dates and characters of act-ing persons remain uncertain. Thus, interpretation has got much room.

A standard version was handed down from the Kamakura-period (1192-1236) to our times. The poet Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) then had prepared a new edition compris-ing 125 episodes with 209 poems. Comparison to earlier versions allows interesting insights into the development of the tradition for the Ise monogatari.

For the name Ise we do not dispose of a convincing explanation. It is quoted already under its name in chapter seventeen of the famous 11th century novel Genji monogatari by Mu-rasaki Shikibu as ‘old literature’. I prefer the explanation Karl Florenz and W. G. Aston have given in the beginning of the 19th century. Florenz wrote : „The title should be read as a metaphor. The people of Ise where known as boasting, similar to Cretan people for the Greek. An old saying in Japan was: Isobito wa higagoto shiheri (a man from Ise told a lie), and later Ise ya Hiûga no monogatari (tales from Ise and Hiûga), what equally refers to untrue stories.“ And Aston remarked: „A free rendering of Ise monogatari would be ‘Tales for the Marines’ - a title under which we should not expect to find a very conscientious adherence to actual fact.“

Owing to its popularity, the Ise monogatari was frequently copied. Illustrations where added. It was issue of many commentaries. Six Nô-games, written in the Kamakura-period after single episodes are still keeping the memory on stage. Artists contributed their inter-pretations in paintings, calligraphy, lacquer, textiles, metal-work. The World-Wide-Web produces more than 250 hits, even allowing to download all poems in modern Japanese. Scholars are sure, that there exists no other literary work in Japan, that has proved as fruit-ful for the imagination of Japanese artists as the Ise monogatari.

The ‘Tales of Ise’ (Ise monogatari) became the first illustrated secular printed book 1608 in Japan. The country profited from the newly established Pax Tokugawa, the arts flourished, calligraphy and painting reached a culmination. The Ise monogatari was printed in a private enterprise in Saga near Kyôtô under the supervision of Honami Kôetsu, a very famous artist of his time. The books, known as Saga-bon, became prototypes for form, lay-out, and illustrations. Especially, the woodcuts of the Ise monogatari had a strong influence on the color-prints (ukiyô-e) of the 18th and 19th centuries .

In contrast, the western world took no notice of the Ise monogatari for a long time. The first translation of the complete work was into Russian in 1923 . Since 1957 we have a scholarly English version in the thesis-work of Frits Vos in Leiden (Netherlands) , a poetical translation came by Helen Craig MacCollough . His historical and literary comments are very useful. In German language the Ise monogatari is available only since 1981, when Siegfried Schaarschmidt published his truly poetical but nevertheless precise translation .


According to tradition, the episodes of the Ise monogatari report about the life of Ariwara no Narihira (825-880). Narihira was the fifth son of the imperial prince Ahô (son of Heizei Tennô and princess Ito, a daughter of Kammu Tennô). He was a younger step-brother of Ariwara no Yukihira, imperial counselor and also a poet. 826 his father fell in disgrace und was put back into a lower nobility rank. At this occasion the family got the name Ariwara. Narihira was occupied in lower court positions and was promoted to a higher one only shortly before his death, when he became the director of the Imperial Secret Archives. He is characterized in the Sandai jitsuroku (Authentic Report from the Im-perial Court) with the following words: "Pretty of face and figure, negligent, reckless, inattentive, no complete schooling, gifted poet for Japanese poetry." His beauty remained proverbial until our present times. A beautiful man is called a Narihira.

The Ise monogatari was a fashionable reading for woman of the higher classes and was fixed part of a brides trousseau. In the west the work was dubbed as notorious erotic. As a matter of fact, many episodes deal with lovers and their sentiments. However, it is also true, that one finds many general human feelings far from the sexual world.

The hero experiences a series of adventures, pleasant as unpleasant ones. He is not afraid of breaking social rules. After some time, he leaves the capital city together with some friends to look for better places. The journey takes them far into the eastern provinces. Although he enjoys new adventures, nostalgia brings him back to Kyôtô. Here he enjoys much leisure, since his office is not very demanding. He meets ladies and gentlemen and experiences all kinds of relations.

A diplomatic mission allows him to meet far from Kyôtô a Shintô-priestess. The two develop a liaison full of passion, certainly an outstanding adventure, breaking all taboos. With the years he gains more and more insight into human behavior. He accompanies a friend, who is exiled and has to live in the mountains. A moving episode tells from the farewell from his dying mother. He now enjoys nature and acknowledges its transitory features. As an example take the last episode (# 125): „Once a man was taken ill. Sensing the approach of death, he recited“:

This road,
I have long been told,
Man travels in the end -
Yet I had not thought to go
Yesterday or today.

The Ise monogatari in public memory

Since in the 1000 years after it was written the Ise monogatari remained a central piece of literary education in Japan, many additional memory has been attached to it (we mentioned already the many works by famous artists). Without some knowledge of this vast field a westerner will have difficulties in fully appreciating the poetry. Japanese might face simi-lar problems in understanding e.g. the Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs), a Middle High German epic poem written about 1200. They could scarcely match our obvious knowledge about all secondary information accumulated over the times. Even those of us, who never read the Nibelungenlied themselves, know about Siegfried and his treasure, Hagen or Kriemhild.

Also some modern Japanese have difficulties to understand their own ancient literary works. Since Japanese schools have drastically changed the contents of education after the 2nd World War in order to spare enough time for teaching modern things, many classical items have since been forgotten. There is, however, one exception. Even today most Japanese know about a famous collection of traditional poems, having been compiled in the year 1235 from the works of 100 poets from the 7th to the 11th centuries. This collection is called Hyaykunin isshû (one poem from 100 poets each). It still is a widespread tradition in Japan, to play on the New Years Eve in the families a card game with these poems, and the games are published in ever new editions. Each poem is distributed on two cards which have to be put together.

The Hyaykunin isshû collection contains two poems from the Ise monogatari. One is by Ariwara (# 106):

Unheard of Even in the age Of the mighty gods
This deep crimson splashes Dyed in Tatsuta’s waters.

This poem remembers autumn colors. Japanese people ever used to travel far to enjoy special places with famous autumn colors. The Tatsuta-river, between Nara and Kyôtô, is such a place.

Measured from the number of artistic interpretations or commentaries, the most successful and most famous episode of the Ise monogatari is the 9th one. It tells about the group of young cavaliers on their journey through the Eastern Provinces arriving at a swamp. A small river splits such, that eight footbridges are necessary to pass on. In the swamp many purple irises (Kakitsubata; Iris laevigata) are flowering. Here the young men are overwhelmed from homesickness. Many artists represent in theirs works eight zigzagging bridges (yatsuhashi) in the middle of flowering irises on paintings, folding screens, prints, lacquerware, ceramic work, or sword fittings. Some landscape gardens in Japan offer facsimiles of this setting, the most famous one is located in Okayama. This episode as well as others are base of several Nô-plays, what we will discuss later.Also episode 23 has inspired many artists for representations of early friends and trustful women.

There are many more popular quotations, among them the forceful breaking of the social system by lovers (# 6), secret paths of the first love (symbolized by ivy plants and maple trees in #9), unfaithfulness (symbolized by a cuckoo #43), futile endeavors (symbolized by writing numbers on the surface of flowing waters # 50).

Japanese people will find additional pleasure in reading the Ise monogatari through the many historical places mentioned. Landscapes, rivers, provinces are background for the adventures of Narihira, which may or may not longer have their old names. The more fa-mous among them also appear in other pieces of literature since 1100 years. Reading the Ise monogatari evokes a lot of associations. Let us mention the volcano Asama in the province of Shinano (# 8), which was still active around 1000), the Musashi prefecture (# 13), famous for the production of stirrups, symbols for having attached one’s heart to someone, Nagaoka near Kyôtô, temporary capital of Japan before the court went on to Kyôtô (# 58), and the Shintô-sanctuary of Usa in Kyûshû (# 60).

Nô-plays and the Ise monogatari

The tradition of the Nô-plays is said to originate in early Shintô-rituals celebrated long before the advent of the Chinese culture in Japan. Nô thus is one of the oldest, active forms of theater in the world. Nowadays around 250 plays are regularly given (out of a total of about 2000). Most of them stem from the Muromachi-period (1336-1568). Shôgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) had installed this type of theater at his court and had nominated Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) and his father Kanami Kichosugo (1333-1384) as directors. Kanami created the Kanze-style (school) of Nô-plays. Zeami published many theoretical papers from which we can understand the deep roots of Nô in the Zen-Buddhism.

Six Nô-plays are based on motifs from the Ise monogatari. From this only Oshio is not available in a western language . When these Nô-plays were written, the Ise monogatari was already 500 years old. By them we can look with ‘Kamakura-eyes’ into the Ise monogatari, having thus an authentic picture of the then flourishing thoughts. As Karen Brazell remarks , Nô-texts contain the most intensive references to other literary works compared to all other Japanese literature. The Ise monogatari plays have an extreme role in this respect. They mirror and quote different interpretations and traditions, problems of understanding of the work, religious content, and multiple ways of understanding. The thorough analysis of Karen Brazell and her coworkers convey many of these details and make understandable, why certain parts are still popular.

As early as in the 11th century it was reported by Minamoto Tsunenobu (1016-1097), that Narihira was considered as a personification of the horse-headed Kannon (Batô Kannon; Hayagrîva), who traveled in all 4 celestial directions and vanquished all enemies. Further-more Narihira was also thought to be an incarnation of the ‘Boddhisatva of Song and Dance’. We meet here with a mixture of Shintô and Buddhist elements, typical for the Japanese thinking. It is an old tradition, that important personalities were thought to be kami (‘celestial beings’). The connection with a benevolent Boddhisvatva strengthens this idea. Music and dance represent the beautiful sides of life, the joy of life. Thus it is easy to understand, that Narihira is thought to be a high level representative for positive felings. Further, as to my knowledge, he is the only Boddhisvatva having left writ-ten texts, available for everybody.

A final word to the popularity of the kakitsubata-episode. The 8 bridges, leading over the march-land, may remind Buddhists to the ‘Noble Eightfold Way’ (yatsuseidô), properly guiding men to salvation from their desires.

The Nô-play Kakitsubata (ascribed to Zeami) acts on a bright sunny day at the eight bridges in Mikawa. In the first act a monk arrives and is told by a young village girl about the details of the story in episode # 9 of the Ise monogatari. Narihira’s purple irises create a connection to Narihira himself, their color is a symbol for Amida’s paradise, what he opens for his followers, standing on a purple cloud. In the second act the girl reveals her genuine identity: she is the soul of the Kakitsubata. Finally she disappears in Amida’s paradise leaving us to realize, that even souls of flowers, trees or grasses may become Buddhas.

In the first act of Unrin’in (written in Zeamis time) a traveller, who has since childhood frequently read the Ise monogatari, arrives at the temple of Unrin. He is following a dream, which has shown him Narihira and empress Nijô under the blossoms in this tem-ple. In his dream he also saw a secret, which he did not understand. This secret is lifted in the second act by the spirit of Narihira. It is Narihiras deep love with Nijô (episodes 6, 12, 65, 123 and 9). In the Kyôgen, going with that Nô-play, different interpretations by differ-ent literati are discussed on the stage.

Sumidagawa (written by Jûrô Motomasa (-1432), son of Zeami) directly quotes the final poem from the 9th episode. Originally, it reflects the feelings of the young men when crossing the river Sumida on their way back home. In the Nô-play a mother looking for her kidnapped son crosses the Sumida-river. The poem perfectly also reflects her feelings full of sorrow:

If you are what your name implies, Let me ask you, Capital-bird,
Does all go well With my beloved?

(Capital bird is an oyster-catcher ( Haematopus ostrealegus), in Japanese ‘Miyakodori’ (Miyako bird). Miyako usually was the name for the capital Kyôtô .)

Izutsu (written by Zeami) deals with the lines of the first poem of episode 23, which - very unusual in Japanese poetry - offer melody and rhythm: „Tsutsu izutsu izutsu no...“ (speak ‘ss’ for ‘z’. Tsutsu as well as izutsu mean the curb of a well.) In the first act a traveling monk reaches the Ariwara-temple and meets a local women, who cares for the memory of Narihira. She talks upon the unbreakable love of Narihira’s legal wife. In the second act she reveals, that she is in fact the spirit of Narihira’s wife and that she is still loving him as much as to the time, when they as children were playing at the well curb.

Oshio, so named after the Oshio-mountain, where the Ôhara-Kami was venerated, is based on episode 76:

On this auspicious day The divinity of Mount Oshio at Ôhara
Will surely remember What happened long ago In the age of the Gods.

Ukon reflects episode 99. Ukon is the name of a division of the Imperial Inner Palace Guard. Each year, in the beginning of the 5th month, an archery-contest on horseback took place near the present shrine. At one of these maneuvers Narihira once spotted a lady in-side a passing carriage. The poems of episode 99 tell us, how he tries to contact her.

Modern literature to be consulted


Aston, W. G.: Japanese Literature. Reprint by Charles E. Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont & Tôkyô 1972, p. 81


Brazell, Karen, Editor: Twelve Plays of the Noh and Kyôgen. Series East Asia Program, Cornell University Ithaca N.Y.,1988 (With Unrin’in and Kakitsubata)


Florenz, Karl: Geschichte der japanischen Literatur, Leipzig 1909. Unveränderter Nachdruck Stuttgart 1969. Seite 166


Ise Monogatari. Machine-readable version: University of Virginia Electronic Text Center, based on a Takeda-bon manuscript. Publicly-accessible: 1997 Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/japanese


Kokinshû. A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern. Translated and annotated by Laurel Rasplica Rodd with Mary Catherine Henkenius. Princeton University Oress 1984. Paper-pack 1996 (Boston)


Konrad, Nikolai Josifowitsch: First complete translation into Russian 1923. (New edition Moskau 1979


McCullough, Helen Craig, Tales of Ise. Stanford University Press, Stanford 1968


Pfizmaier, August: Sitzungsberichte der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, Wien 1876. First translation of 77 of the 125 episodes in German. Contains also the Romaji-writings.


Rumpf, Fritz: Das Ise monogatari von 1608 und sein Einfluß auf die Buchillustration des XVII. Jahrhunderts in Japan. Berlin 1931


Schaarschmidt, Siegfried: Das Ise monogatari. Kavaliersgeschichten aus dem alten Japan. Insel-Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1981


Vos, Frits: A Study of the Ise-Monogatari, the text according to the Den-Teika-Hippon and an annotated translation. Mouton & Co 1957. s’Gravenhage, 2 Vols

















Pictures of a set of game cards

Since the first print of the Ise monogatari 1608 there was never a printed book edition which had more or other illustrations than the first 49 woodcuts. We present here a deck of cards made around 1815, in which each poem is individually illustrated. The game was played as a kind of lotto. One had to find two cards each bearing one poem of the Ise monogatari. The respective first (‘upper’) card bears the first three lines with 5-7-5 sylla-bles as well as the picture. The second (‘lower’) card carries the rest of the poem (7-7 syl-lables). The difficulty for the players is, that the texts on the ‘lower’ cards are not necessar-ily written in correct order, but freely scattered around.

The game-card pictures are painted in the style of the Kanô-school. This school was preserving the Hikime-Kagihana-style of the ancient Yamato-e-school, where eyes and the mouth are simple bars, noses simple hooks and the profiles of faces were like a careless line. The genre-pictures are fresh and reflect typical Japanese settings.

The style of the calligraphy is called Jimyôin-style. It had been traditionally used at the imperial court since the 13th century, preserving the Heian-period writing . Younger Japanese today have considerable difficulties to read this calligraphy and to understand all of the Kanji used.

The game cards of our deck are all hand made. The pictures and the calligraphy are brush-painted on delicate silk. The back-sides of the cards are pure silver-leafs, traditionally produced in Kyôtô or Kanazawa. The size of the cards is 55x79 mm. They are stored as staples in four brocade-covered boxes, housed in a black lacquer box inscribed with golden script: Ise monogatari / Go Shika-garuta (poem cards). The cards are manufactured with high artistic skill. Like Kyôtô-paper the silk is plated with gold.

There are two separate silver-leafs bearing the names of the writer and the painter. Ichijô Tatayoshi, Kwampaku and Nijô Harutaka .

Ichijô Tadayoshi, born 1773, became Saidaijin (1. Minister) on April 2 ,1814 and Kampaku (Grand Vizier) on the September 19,1814. He died in his 64th year of life the June 3,1837. Nijô Haru-taka, died October 6,1826, was made Sadaijin on April 20, 1796. Both names are supplemented by the syllable kô behind their first names (a honoring suffix) and the word shinpitsu , normally indicating the emperor’s own handwriting . One does not know of other writings of both of them. Analyzing their official titles one may date the game around 1815. A small paper with the sign of the year of the rat may hint to 1816. Since the Imperial Palace in Kyôtô had been completely destroyed by fire in the 1790s it may well be, that this game had been made as a substitute for lost past-time items for the Court Ladies.

The following four episodes should give some feeling for the nature of the text. The English translation is adopted from Helen McCullough’s book (Stanford 1968).

Episode 9.1

Since none of the party knew the way, they blundered ahead as best they could, until in time they arrived at a place called Yatsuhashi in Mikawa Province. (It was a spot where the waters of a river branched into eight channels, each with a bridge, and thus it had come to be called Yatsuhashi-"Eight Bridges.") Dismounting to sit under a tree near this marshy area, they ate a meal of parched rice. Someone glanced at the clumps of irises that were blooming luxuriantly in the swamp. "Compose a poem on the subject, A Travelers Sentiments, beginning each line with a syllable from the word iris [kakitsubata]," he said. The man recited,

I have a beloved wife,
Familiar as the skirt
Of a well-worn robe,
And so this distant journeying
Fills my heart with grief.

They all wept onto their dried rice until it swelled with the moisture. 
(Picture 9.1)

Episode 14.3

Presently the man sent word that he was returning to the capital. His poem:

If the Pine of Aneha at Kurihara
Were but a person
Long awaited,
I would say, "Come with me as a souvenir
To the capital."

The girl was overjoyed. "He must be in love with me," she said.
(Picture 14.3)

Episode 35

Once a man sent this poem to a lady from whom he had involuntarily become estranged:

Our lives are intertwined
Like the ends of a string of gems
Fashioned in a loose braid-
Though the knot be dissolved,
lt will surely be tied again.

(Picture 35)

Episode 68

Once a man made a trip to the province of Izumi. As he traveled along the Beach of Sumiyoshi at Sumiyoshi Village in Sumiyoshi District, he dismounted again and again to sit quietly and enjoy the glorious view. "Let us compose poems using the phrase the Beach of Sumiyoshi," someone proposed. The man recited,

In autumn the wild geese cry
And chrysanthemums are in flower,
Yet how pleasant to dwell
By the sea in spring
On the Beach of Sumiyoshi.

(Picture 68)