Ariwara no Narihira

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In this Japanese name, the family name is Ariwara.
Ariwara no Narihira
Sanjūrokkasen-gaku - 7 - Kanō Tan’yū - Ariwara no Narihira Asomi.jpg
Ariwara no Narihira by Kanō Tan'yū, 1648.
Native name 在原業平
Born 825
Died May 28, 880(880-05-28)
Language Early Middle Japanese
Ethnicity Japanese
Period early Heian
Genre waka
Subject nature, romantic love
Spouse unknown
Partner several
Children Ariwara no Muneyana, Ariwara no Shigeharu, others (at least one daughter)
Relatives Emperor Heizei (paternal grandfather), Fujii no Fujiko (葛井藤子?, paternal grandmother), Emperor Kanmu (maternal grandfather), Fujiwara no Minamiko (藤原南子?, maternal grandmother), Prince Abo (father), Princess Ito (mother), Ariwara no Yukihira (half-brother), Ōe no Otondo (half-brother), Ōe no Chisato (nephew), Ariwara no Motokata (grandson)

Ariwara no Narihira (在原業平?, also known as Zai Go-Chūjō, Zai Go, Zai Chūjō or Mukashi-Otoko; 825—880) was a Japanese courtier and waka poet of the early Heian period.

He was included in both the Six Poetic Geniuses and the Thirty-Six Poetic Geniuses, and one of his poems was included in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu.

He exerted a profound influence on later Japanese culture; his many renowned love affairs inspired the Ise Monogatari, and he has ever since been a model of the handsome, amorous nobleman.


Birth and ancestry[edit]

Narihira was born in 825.[1][2][3][4][5][6]

He was a grandson of two emperors: Emperor Heizei through his father, Prince Abo,[1][2][3][4][5][7][8] and Emperor Kanmu through his mother, Princess Ito.[2][3][4][5] He was the fifth child of Prince Abo,[4][5][6] but was supposedly the only child of Princess Ito, who lived in the former capital at Nagaoka.[2] Some of his poems were written about his mother.[2]

In 826, he and his brothers Yukihira, Nakahira and Morihira were made commoners and given the surname Ariwara.[2][4][5] The scholar Ōe no Otondo was also a brother of Narihira's.[2]

Political career[edit]

The reputed site of Narihira's residence, near Karasuma Oike Station

Narihira was of high birth and served at court, but is mainly remembered for his poetry.[1]

In 841 he was appointed Lieutenant of the Right Division of Inner Palace Guards, before being promoted to Lieutenant of the Left Division of Inner Palace Guards and then Keeper of Imperial Archives.[2] In 849, he held the Junior Fifth Rank, Lower Grade.[2]

He later rose to the positions of Provisional Assistant Master of the Left Military Guard, Assistant Chamberlain, Provisional Minor Captain of the Left Division of Inner Palace Guards, Captain of the Right Division of the Bureau of Horses, Provisional Middle Captain of the Right Division of Inner Palace Guards, Provisional Governor of Sagami, reaching the Junior Fourth Rank, Upper Grade.[2] By the end of his life he rose to become Chamberlain, and Provisional Governor of Mino.[2]

Literary historian and critic Donald Keene observed in his description of Narihira as the hero of the Tales of Ise:

Narihira combined all the qualities most admired in a Heian courtier: he was of high birth (a grandon of the Emperor Heizei), extremely handsome, a gifted poet, and an all-conquering lover. He was probably also an expert horseman, adept in arms, and a competent official. These aspects of his life are not emphasized in Tales of Ise, but they distinguish Narihira from other heroes of Heian literature, including Genji.[9]

Romantic affairs[edit]

Narihira was known as a great lover; a third of his poems included in the Kokinshū describe his various romantic affairs, and after his death national history Sandai Jitsuroku (compiled 901) said of him: "Narihira was elegant and of handsome appearance, but he was unrestrained in his self-indulgence."[10]

It has been speculated, based in part on their being considered the most beautiful man and woman of their age, that Narihira and Ono no Komachi may have been lovers, but there is little evidence for this one way or the other (see below).[11]

The Tales of Ise portrays him as falling in love with Fujiwara no Takaiko, a consort of Emperor Seiwa, and it is hinted that this was one of the reasons for his leaving the capital and travelling east.[2][12] It has been speculated that this romantic affair with the consort of the emperor was the reason why the Sandai Jitsuroku describes his rank as going down from Junior Fifth Rank, Lower Grade to Senior Sixth Rank, Upper Grade, before again rising to Junior Fifth Rank, Upper Grade the following year.[2] However, it as also been speculated that this may be an error in the Sandai Jitsuroku as a result of binding changing the order of events.[2] Furthermore, Fujiwara no Takaiko reputedly had an affair with the monk Zen'yū (善祐?), which may have formed the core of the (otherwise entirely fictional) legend that she also had an affair with Narihira.[2] Whether the affair was historical or not, the Reizei family's commentary on the Tales of Ise speculates that Emperor Yōzei was a product of this union, and not the previous emperor.[13]

One of Narihira's most famous affairs — the one that gave the Tales of Ise its name — was with Yasuko, high priestess of the Ise Grand Shrine (斎宮恬子 Saigū Yasuko?).[citation needed] The Tales of Ise describes the protagonist, presumed to be Narihira, visiting Ise on a hunt, and sleeping with the priestess.[2] However, a passage in the Kokinshū describes the meeting ambiguously, in a manner that implies Narihira did not sleep with the priestess herself but rather another woman in her service.[2] The twelfth-century work Gōshidai (江次第?) and the thirteenth-century work Kojidan claim that the product of this union was Takashina no Moronao (高階師尚?), who was later adopted by Takashina no Shigenori (高階茂範?).[2]

Journey to the east[edit]

The Kokinshū, Tales of Ise and Tales of Yamato all describe him as leaving the capital to travel east, travelling along the Tōkaidō and crossing the Sumida River, composing poems at famous places (see utamakura) along the way.[2] Tales of Ise implies this journey was the result of the scandalous affair between Narihira and Fujiwara no Takaiko.[2][12][12] There are doubts as to whether this journey actually took place, however, from the point of view both that the number of surviving poems is quite small for having made such a trip and composing poems along the way, and in terms of the historical likelihood that a courtier could have gone wandering to the other end of the country with one or two friends keeping him company.[2]


According to the Sandai Jitsuroku, he died on the 28th day of the fifth month of 880.[1][2][3][4][5][6]

Poem 861 in the Kokinshū, Narihira's last, expresses his shock and regret that his death should come so soon:[14]

Japanese text[15] Romanized Japanese[14] English translation[14]
tsui ni yuku
michi to wa kanete
kinō kyō to wa
omouwazarishi wo
Long ago I heard
That this is the road we must all
Travel in the end,
But I never thought it might
Be yesterday or today.

Burial site[edit]

The Mount Yoshida grave site
The Jūrin-ji grave site

The location of Narihira's grave is uncertain.

In the Middle Ages he was taken to be a deity (kami) or even an avatar of the buddha Dainichi, and so it is possible that some of the Narihira "graves" are in fact sacred sites consecrated to him rather than places where he was actually believed to have been buried.[16] Kansai University professor and scholar of the Tales of Ise Tokurō Yamamoto (山本登朗 Yamamoto Tokurō?) has speculated that the small stone grove on Mount Yoshida in eastern Kyoto known as "Narihira's grave" (業平塚 Narihira-zuka?) may be such a site.[16] He further speculated that the reason this particular site became associated with Narihira was because the grave-site of Emperor Yōzei, in the Middle Ages widely believed to have secretly been fathered by Narihira, was locate close by.[17]

Another site that has been proposed is Jūrin-ji (十輪寺?) in western Kyoto, which is also known as "Narihira Temple" (なりひら寺 Narihira-dera?).[citation needed]


Among his children were the waka poets Muneyana (在原棟梁?) and Shigeharu (在原滋春?), and at least one daughter.[2][4] Through Muneyama, he was also the grandfather of the poet Ariwara no Motokata.[18] One of his granddaughters, whose name is not known, was married to Fujiwara no Kunitsune and engaged in a clandestine affair with Taira no Sadafun.[19]


He is also known by the nicknames Zai Go-Chūjō (在五中将?),[4][5][6][7] Zai Go (在五?)[2] and Zai Chūjō (在中将?).[4][7] Zai is the Sino-Japanese reading of the first character of his surname Ariwara, and Go, meaning "five" refers to him and his four brothers Yukihira, Nakahira, Morihira, and Ōe no Otondo.[2] Chūjō ("Middle Captain") is a reference to the post he held near the end of his life, Provisional Middle Captain of the Right Division of Inner Palace Guards.[citation needed]

After the recurring use of the phrase in the Tales of Ise, he is also known as Mukashi-Otoko (昔男?).[20]


Thirty poems attributed to him were included in the Kokinshū, and many more in later anthologies, but the attributions are dubious.[2]

Ariwara no Narihira, from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu.

Of the eleven poems attributed to him by the Gosenshū, several were by different authors (two were actually by Fujiwara no Nakahira and one by Ōshikōchi no Mitsune, for example).[2] The Shin Kokinshū and later court anthologies attribute more poems to Narihira, but many of these were likely misunderstood to have been written by him because of their appearance in the Tales of Ise.[2][21] Some of these were probably composed after Narihira's death.[21] Combined, poems attributed to Narihira in court anthologies number eighty-seven in total.[3][4]

He was one of the Six Poetic Geniuses, poets mentioned in Ki no Tsurayuki's kana preface to the Kokinshū as important poets of an earlier age.[1][2][3][4][5][6] He was also included in Fujiwara no Kintō's later Thirty-Six Poetic Geniuses.[2][3][4][5][6]

The following poem by him was included as No. 17 in Fujiwara no Teika's Ogura Hyakunin Isshu:

Japanese text[7] Romanized Japanese[22] English translation[23]
kami-yo mo kikazu
kara-kurenai ni
mizu kuguru to wa
Even the almighty
gods of old
never knew
such beauty:
on the river Tatsuta
in atumn sunlight
a brocade—
reds flowing above
blue water below.

He left a private collection, the Narihira-shū (業平集?),[5] which was included in the Sanjūrokunin-shū (三十六人集?).[4] However, this was likely compiled by a later editor, after the compilation of the Gosenshū in the middle of the tenth century.[2]

Characteristic style[edit]

Although at least some of the poems attributed to him in imperial anthologies are dubious, there is a large enough body of his work contained in the relatively reliable Kokinshū for scholars to discuss Narihira's poetic style.[21] Narihira made use of engo (related words) and kakekotoba (pivot words).[24]

The following poem, number 618 in the Kokinshū, is cited by Keene as an example of Narihira's use of engo related to water:

Japanese text[25] Romanized Japanese[26] English translation[26]
tsurezure no
nagame ni masaru
sode nomi nurete
au yoshi mo nashi
Lost in idle brooding.
That swells with the long rains
A river of tears
That soaks only my sleeves:
There is no way to meet you.

The "water" engo are asami (shallows of a river), hizurame (may be soaked), namidagawa (a river of tears) and nagaru (to drift).[26]

Narihira's poems were exceptionally ambiguous by Kokinshū standards, and so were treated by the anthology's compilers to relatively long headnotes.[2][27] He was the only poet in the collection to receive this treatment.[27] An example of Narihira's characteristic ambiguity cited by Keene is Kokinshū No. 747:

Japanese text[28] Romanized Japanese[29] English translation[29]
tsuki ya aranu
haru ya mukashi no
haru naranu
wa ga mi hitotsu
moto no mi ni shite
Is that not the moon?
And is the spring not the spring
Of a year ago?
This body of mine alone
Remains as it was before.

This poem, Narihira's most famous, has been subjected to several conflicting interpretations by scholars in recent centuries.[29] The Edo period kokugaku scholar Motoori Norinaga interpreted the first part of it as a pair of rhetorical questions, marked by the particle ya.[29] He explained away the logical inconsistency with the latter part of the poem that his reading introduced, by reading in an "implied" conclusion that though the poet remains the same as before, everything somehow feels different.[29] The late-Edo period waka poet Kagawa Kageki (香川景樹?, 1768–1843) took a different view, interpreting the ya as exclamatory: the moon and spring are not those of before, and only the poet himself remains unchanged.[29]

A similar problem of interpretation has also plagued Narihira's last poem (quoted above). The fourth line, kinō kyō to wa, is most normally read as "(I never thought) that it might be yesterday or today", but has been occasionally interpreted by scholars to mean "until yesterday I never thought it might be today"; others take it as simply meaning "right about now".[30] But the emotion behind the poem is nonetheless clear: Narihira, who died in his fifties, always knew he must die someday, but is nonetheless shocked that his time has come so soon.[31]


Tsurayuki's preface to the Kokinshū described Narihira's poems as containing "too much feeling and insufficient words. They are like faded flowers whose color has been lost but which retain a lingering fragrance".[note 1][21]

Keene pointed out that this criticism likely reflected a change in literary tastes in the decades between Narihira's compositions and Tsurayuki's criticisms.[21] His history of Japanese literature, Seeds in the Heart concluded its discussion of Narihira with the following: ḕ

Narihira was not a profound poet. His surviving poems are mainly occasional, and even when the expression suggests deeply felt emotion, its worldly manner keeps his poetry from attaining the grandeur of the best Man'yōshū poems in the same vein. He is nevertheless of historical importance as one who maintained the traditions of the waka during the long night of the dominance of poetry in Chinese.[31]

Poet and translator Peter McMillan says the large number of his poems included in the Kokinshū and later court anthologies is an indicator of the high regard in which his poetry was held.[3]

Connection to the Tales of Ise[edit]

The Tales of Ise is a collection of narrative episodes, centered around Narihira, and presenting poems he had composed, along with narratives explaining what had inspired the poems.[33]

Narihira was once widely considered the author of the work, but scholars have come to reject this attribution.[3] Keene speculates that it is at least possible that Narihira originally composed the work from his and others' poems as a kind of inventive autobiography, and some later author came across his manuscript after his death and expanded on it.[33] The protagonist of the work was likely modelled on him.[3][4][5][6][7] The work itself was likely put together in something resembling its present form by the middle of tenth century, and took several decades starting with Narihira's death.[34]

Three stages have been identified in the composition of the work.[35] The first of these stages would have been based primarily on poems actually composed by Narihira, although the background details provided were not necessarily historical.[35] The second saw poems added to the first layer that were not necessarily by Narihira, and had a higher proportion of fiction to fact.[35] The third and final stage saw some later author adding the use of Narihira's name, and treating him as a legendary figure of the past.[35]

The late-eleventh century[36] work known as The Tale of Sagoromo refers to Ise by the variant name Zaigo Chūjō no Nikki &emdash; "Narihira's diary".[37]

Relationship with Ono no Komachi[edit]

It has been speculated for centuries that Narihira and his contemporary Ono no Komachi may have been lovers.[38] 20th-century scholars such as Makane Sekitani (関谷真可禰 Sekitani Makane?) have held up this theory, but it can be traced back at least as far as the 14th-century historian Kitabatake Chikafusa.[38]

Ariwara no Narihira looking for the ghost of Ono no Komachi, in an 1891 print by Yoshitoshi.

Chikafusa was likely using Kamakura period Kokinshū commentaries like the extant Bishamondō-bon Kokinshū-chū (毘沙門堂本古今集注?), which speculates that one of Komachi's poems was left for Narihira after a tryst.[38] The Bishamondō-bon Kokinshū-chū was in turn likely working from a then-common belief that the Tales of Ise, a work of fiction, was a genuine historical work detailing the actual events in Narihira's life (see above).[39] Kamakura period commentaries on the Tales of Ise therefore tried to insert the names of real women where the original text simply said "a woman", and thus inserted Ono no Komachi into several passages of the text.[40]

The literary scholar Yōichi Katagiri, on analysis of the surviving evidence (or, rather, lack thereof), concluded that, while it is possible that Narihira and Ono no Komachi knew each other and were lovers, there was no usable evidence to say conclusively either way.[41]

Influence on later Japanese culture[edit]

ēIn later centuries he has been considered the epitome of the amorous bel homme,[4][6][21] and his famed romantic escapades gave rise to many later legends.[5] He and his contemporary Ono no Komachi were considered the archetypes of the beautiful man and woman, respectively, of the Heian court, and appear in this capacity in many later literary works, particularly works of the Noh theatre.[21]

It is believed he was one of the men who inspired Murasaki Shikibu when she created Hikaru Genji, the hero of the Genji Monogatari.[12] Though not directly stated in the text, the Tales of Ise was interpreted by later commentators as implying that Narihira's illicit union with the empress Fujiwara no Takaiko made him the true father of Emperor Yōzei; whether Murasaki interpreted the work this way is uncertain, but the Tale of Genji describes a very similar incident in which the protagonist, a former imperial prince made a commoner, has an affair with an empress and sires a son who ultimately becomes emperor as his true parentage is kept secret.[17]

Along with his contemporary Ono no Komachi and the hero of The Tale of Genji, he figured prominently in Edo period ukiyo-e prints and was alluded to in the ukiyo-zōshi of Ihara Saikaku.[12][42]

The sixteenth century warrior Ōtomo Yoshiaki used Narihira and the courtly world of the Tales of Ise as an ironic reference in a poem he composed on the severed head of his defeated enemy Tachibana Nagatoshi, the lord of Tachibana Castle in Chikuzen Province.[43]

Japanese text[citation needed] Romanized Japanese[44] English translation[44]
Tachibana wa
mukashi otoko to
uikaburi suru
kokochi koso sure
Tachibana has
Now been transformed into
A man of long ago.
He must feel as if he had
First put on an adult's hat.

Narihira in setsuwa literature[edit]

Narihira was a recurring figure in later tale (setsuwa) literature,[citation needed] such as in tales 35 and 36 of Book 24 of the Konjaku Monogatarishū.[45]



  1. ^ その心あまりて、ことばたらず。しぼめる花の色なくて、にほひ残れるごとし (sono kokoro amarite, kotoba tarazu. Shibomeru hana no iro nakute, nioi nokoreru gotoshi).[32]


  1. ^ a b c d e Keene 1999 : 224.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af Nihon Koten Bungaku Daijiten article "Ariwara no Narihira" (pp. 99–100, author: Teisuke Fukui).
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j McMillan 2010 : 135 (note 17).
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Britannica Kokusai Dai-Hyakkajiten article "Ariwara no Narihira". Britannica.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l MyPaedia article "Ariwara no Narihira". Hitachi.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Daijisen entry "Ariwara no Narihira". Shogakukan.
  7. ^ a b c d e Suzuki et al. 2009 : 28.
  8. ^ The Daijisen entry "Ariwara no Narihira" names Prince Abo as his father, and its entry on the latter ("Abo-shinnō") names Emperor Heizei as his father.
  9. ^ Keene 1999 : 453.
  10. ^ Keene 1999 : 225, citing (240, note 27) Mezaki 1970 : 24.
  11. ^ Katagiri 2015 : 8–13.
  12. ^ a b c d e Nishizawa Masashi column "Ariwara no Narihira: Ōchō no Playboy" in Nishizawa 2002 : 60.
  13. ^ Yamamoto 2003, p. 29–30.
  14. ^ a b c Keene 1999 : 232–233.
  15. ^ Katagiri 2009 : 341.
  16. ^ a b Yamamoto 2003, p. 29.
  17. ^ a b Yamamoto 2003, p. 30.
  18. ^ Nihon Koten Bungaku Daijiten article "Ariwara no Motokata" (p. 100, author: Teisuke Fukui).
  19. ^ Keene 1999 : 280–281.
  20. ^ Daijisen entry "Mukashi-Otoko". Shogakukan.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Keene 1999 : 225.
  22. ^ McMillan 2010 : 158.
  23. ^ McMillan 2010 : 19.
  24. ^ Keene 1999 : 229.
  25. ^ Katagiri 2009 : 254.
  26. ^ a b c Keene 1999 : 230.
  27. ^ a b Keene 1999 : 226, citing (240, note 31) Okumura 1975 : 23.
  28. ^ Katagiri 2009 : 299.
  29. ^ a b c d e f Keene 1999 : 226.
  30. ^ Keene 1999 : 233, citing (242, note 61) Mezaki 1970 : 152.
  31. ^ a b Keene 1999 : 233
  32. ^ Katagiri 2009 : 28.
  33. ^ a b Keene 1999 : 452.
  34. ^ Keene 1999 : 453, citing (472, note 57) Fukui p. 115 in Katagiri et al. 1972. See also McCullough 1968 : 187-93 for a discussion in English of the different texts of the work.
  35. ^ a b c d Keene 1999 : 472, note 57, citing Katagiri 1975 : 15-23.
  36. ^ Keene 1999 : 518-519.
  37. ^ Keene 1999 : 545, note 25.
  38. ^ a b c Katagiri 2015 : 9.
  39. ^ Katagiri 2015 : 10.
  40. ^ Katagiri 2015 : 10-11.
  41. ^ Katagiri 2015 : 13.
  42. ^ Shirane 2008 : 88.
  43. ^ Keene 1999 : 1132–1133.
  44. ^ a b Keene 1999 : 1133.
  45. ^ Mabuchi et al. 2001 : 605.


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