03 A Love Affair in Five Acts

[First published 13 Feb 2009]

I was going to devote this week’s column to the topic of the Japanese language – and why it I, or isn’t, a difficult language to learn, but on noticing that the annual chocolate fest that is Valentine’s Day in Japan  was nearly upon us, I decided that instead this week I’d devote to some thoughts about the Japanese idea of love, although as Lewis (1996: 270) says ‘Valentine’s Day in Japan, for example, has a multiplicity of meanings that connect very strongly to issues of gender and power in that country, and that have little to do with the holiday as it is understood in America,’ or any other English-speaking country, for that matter, and has very little to do with love at all. That, however, is a matter for another time.

How you express love for another person differs according to age, sex and, of course, cultural background, and what may be perfectly acceptable and normal behaviour in one cultural context can be beyond the pale in another. It’s also true that customs change over time: I well remember an anecdote told me by one of the Japanese members of staff at SOAS, in London, while I was doing my doctorate, about her grandmother’s wedding night. It seems that upon being escorted into the marital bedroom for the first time, she found her new husband, with whom she had barely exchanged two or three words before – this being a traditional arranged wedding (miai 見合い) – kneeling seiza 正座 beside the futon with a piece of paper, a brush and an ink-stone before him. He pushed these towards her with a brusque, ‘Koi no uta o yondekure’ 恋の歌を詠んでくれ (‘Compose me a love poem!’), and so her first act in married life was to wrack her brains for memories of the classical love poems she had learnt at school, and cobble something appropriate together out of the pieces.

I have no idea how many new Japanese husbands still ask their wives to do this – almost none, I suspect – but the exchange of poems between lovers has an extremely long history in Japan, and Love is by far the most important topic in traditional waka 和歌 poetry, matched only by the combined four seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. You might wonder why this should be the case – well, the origins lie in the way relations were conducted between noble men and women in Japan’s classical, aristocratic age – the Heian 平安 Period between the ninth and twelfth centuries.

At that time, the only men a noblewoman was likely to meet face-to-face were her father, brothers and husband, unless she was fortunate enough to get a position at court. Any other men would be met through blinds and curtains, and if she was relatively senior, would only be communicated with through intermediaries – if a man called, the lady would speak to one of her serving women, who would approach the curtains dividing the room and speak to the man on the lady’s behalf. The lady herself might not even hear his voice as he spoke to her servant, and he might not even hear hers, as the servant passed on his words.

How, then, was a man to impress a lady enough that she might admit him into her bedchamber? And how was a lady to know what a man was like? On what basis could they form a judgement, when neither knew what the other looked like, sounded like, or were like? Well, the answer is that there was one means of communication open to them – writing, and more specifically, love poetry. A man would write a poem to a lady, and if she liked the sentiments of the poem, the look of his handwriting, his choice of paper, and the dress of the servant who delivered it, she might write back.

A traditional Japanese love letter, with accompanying flowers

On receiving her reply, the man would assess it in the same way, and decide whether he wanted to continue pursuing her. (If the lady was unwilling, but her serving women deemed the man a good one, they might write back on her behalf, and more than one Heian lady was surprised to find herself suddenly in the company of a man, who had been admitted by one of her servants.)

This vital role that poetry played in relations between the sexes accounts for its importance as a topic for poetic composition. Poetically, a relationship was expected to go through five distinct stages: anticipation, consummation, satiation, desperation, and separation. So, you get poems yearning for a lover who doesn’t even know you exist, poems of joy after a relationship has been consummated, poems of affection between lovers who are close to each other, poems of grief when a lover has turned cold and either refuses another meeting, if a lady, or fails to come visiting, if a man. Finally, there are poems railing against a lover who has moved on, when the relationship is over and done.

A tryst was expected to be carried out according to detail rules of etiquette: the man had to arrive after dark, but he should not keep the lady waiting too long. After admittance to her house, he might play music – usually a flute (fue 笛) – while the lady accompanied him on the koto 琴. Next, he might be permitted to approach close to her curtains, while she approached from the other side, and they would converse directly. It was then understood that he would thrust the curtains aside, and the two would become lovers. This might be the first time the pair had ever seen each other, and thus in classical texts miru 見る ‘see’ almost always means ‘sleep with’ when referring to a man ‘seeing’ a woman. After spending the night together, buried under their kimono 着物 (other kinds of bed covering didn’t start being used until much later), the man had to be up and depart at dawn, before the rest of the household was officially awake. His first task, on returning to his own residence was to write a ‘morning-after’ poem, usually about how his sleeves had got soaked with dew, that is, tears, on his way home. This was an anxious period for the lady, for until his poem arrived, she didn’t know how serious the man was, and if it came tardily, or not at all…well, that would be dreadful. Once the man’s poem came, she would reply, usually along the lines of how she grieved at how brief their time together had been, and would seek to dream of his face while they were apart. Of course, if she didn’t think much of him, she would reply late, or not at all.

All this would usually be taking place in her parents’ house, and frequently with their connivance, if they approved of the man. If they did not, then they might post guards, or take other steps to keep him out – there are any number of sorrowful poems by men whose access to their lovers has been severed by disapproving parents. Once a man had spent three consecutive nights with a lady, and both parties agreed, the pair would be considered ‘married’ (there was no religious ceremony equivalent to a wedding – the Shintō ceremony used today was invented in the early twentieth century for the wedding of the Taishō Emperor), and he might be allowed to stay on past dawn, if he was lucky.

It seems a strange way to carry on relationships, but it lasted for several hundred years, and though there was much grief and jealousy – unavoidable when the system expects that one man will have a number of ‘wives’ in different locations and visit them – there was also much joy and passion, and through reading the poems these people have left behind you can form a connection with them as human beings, despite their living a thousand years ago in a society which is alien to us in almost every respect.

If you’d like to read more classical love poetry, check out my translations on my website (there’s over 3000 translated poems there, covering the entire range of poetic topics – you can even subscribe to my mailing list to get a weekly dose of poetry). I’ll leave the final word to Izumi Shikibu 和泉式部 (?976-?), perhaps Japan’s greatest ever poetess, and a beautiful poem which I love for its simple description of a single tender moment between two lovers:

Topic unknown.


kuro kami no
midarete sirazu
madu kakiyarisi
Fito zo koFisiki
My black hair’s
In disarray-uncaring
He lay down, and
First, gently smoothed it:
My darling love.



Lewis, George H. (1996), “The Somersaults of Monkeys: Diffusion of Culture and Meaning across the Pacific Rim” Journal of Popular Culture 30 (1), 263-276.

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