An old and deeply flattering fox

I’ve been reading recently about Imperial Princess Senshi (Nobuko) (964-1035), who was the tenth daughter of Emperor Murakami (926-967; r. 946-967), and his empress Fujiwara no Anshi (Yasuko) (927-964).

Senshi had a tragic start in life in that her mother died giving birth to her, with Eiga monogatari mentioning that as a result ‘the Emperor wept aloud with a frightening lack of restraint, and the Crown Prince grieved in a manner so pathetic that all who saw him were moved to tears’ (McCullough and McCullough, 1980, 86). The death of her father a few years later placed the young princess in a precarious position, too – lacking strong backing from anyone, it was not entirely clear what was supposed to become of her, and so perhaps she may have felt a sense of relief when in 975 the omens indicated that she should be appointed Kamo Virgin, and serve as the emperor’s intermediary at the Kamo Shrine complex in the north of the capital.

The position was a good one for an extraneous imperial princess, as it kept her out of consideration for marriage to a prince or emperor, and there was thus no danger that she might produce a son to challenge the grip on the throne by the offspring of Fujiwara daughters. Senshi seems to have also found it to her liking – so much so that she remained as Kamo Virgin for an unprecedented fifty-seven years, throughout the reigns of five consecutive emperors.

As she grew older, she also developed a reputation for personal sensitivity and cultivation of the literary arts: Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon, the two great chroniclers of life at court in the period, both speak of her respectfully, with Murasaki saying Senshi’s court was ‘a place famous for beautiful moonlit nights, marvellous dawn skies, cherries, and the song of the wood thrush, the High Priestess has always seem most sensitive’, although she describes one of Senshi’s ladies, Chūjō, as ‘odious’ and asks why ‘is it they produce so few poems of any merit?’ (Bowring, 1982, 123). Senshi seems to have taken pains to remain on good terms with members of the leading Fujiwara family, and they, in turn, seem to have warmed to her. Sei Shōnagon describes how she even went so far as to wake her empress, Teishi, up early in the morning so she could have a gift from Senshi as soon as possible, and that when replying, ‘in all her letters and replies to the High Priestess, you could see just how much trouble she took from the number of problems she had with her writing’ (Sei Shōnagon, 2006, 81). Similarly, Ōkagami recounts an occasion when, because Senshi had neglected to bring a gift for a particular young noble, she ‘summoned him before her and having made him stand face to face in front of her, granted him the very overgarment with short sleeves that she was wearing’, something which made Fujiwara no Michinaga remark ‘How very elegant and thoughtful!…Anyone lacking in a sense of elegance would not have been able to think of such a thing!’ (Yamagiwa, 1967, 101). Other nobles, however, were somewhat more cynical, with Fujiwara no Taka’ie saying she was ‘an old and deeply flattering fox! Oh, what cunning!’ (Yamagiwa, 1967, 102). On the other hand, given her potentially precarious social position, perhaps there was nothing wrong with a solitary princess flattering the powerful…


Bowring, Richard (1982), Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McCullough, William H. and McCullough, Helen Craig (1980), A Tale of Flowering Fortunes, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sei Shōnagon (2006), The Pillow Book, London: Penguin Books.

Yamagiwa, Joseph K. (ed.) (1967), The Ōkagami: A Japanese Historical Tale, London: George, Allen and Unwin.

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