Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6

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FEATURE: Patricia Fister, "Tagami Kikusha: Bohemian Nun, Haikai Poet, and Poet-Painter"

I was introduced to the Japanese poetess Tagami Kikusha (1753-1826) on my first visit to the Ôbaku Zen temple Manpukuji in Uji, south of Kyoto city, where a memorial stone engraved with the haiku below stands. When Kikusha visited Manpukuji more than two hundred years ago, the “exotic” Chinese atmosphere of the temple made her feel as though she was in China. As she departed through the main gate, struck by the contrast between the temple complex and the surrounding Japanese countryside, she composed the following poem.

Sanmon o Leaving the temple's gate,
dereba Nihon zo I found Japan, indeed—
chatsumi-uta The song of the tea leaf pickers.1

At that time I had never heard of Kikusha, whose pen name literally means “Chrysanthemum Hut.” Years later, when I was organizing an exhibition of women artists of Japan2, I began to investigate her life and art more fully.

There have been several books published about Kikusha and her poetry3, as well as museum exhibitions of Kikusha’s work in Japan. Interest in Kikusha has been centered largely in her home province of Yamaguchi, where she is regarded as a celebrity. Oka Masako, the eleventh generation poet in Kikusha’s lineage, who was the force behind the major retrospective exhibition of Kikusha’s work held at the Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum in 2003, also spearheaded the reprinting of Kikusha’s most famous travel record/poem collection—Taorigiku (Handpicked Chrysanthemums). Oka is the head of a “fan club” devoted to Kikusha, which organizes events such as trips to places Kikusha visited and composed poems about on her travels. On a visit to Yamaguchi last year to see the exhibition and participate in a forum, I was delighted also to find haiku competitions honoring Kikusha, as well as Kikusha sake and sweets.

As a result of the plethora of recent activities and publications, Kikusha’s fame is steadily spreading. She has yet to receive the attention in the West of her predecessor Chiyo, but Kikusha was such an extraordinary individual as well as a prolific poet and painter, I predict that she will become the subject of someone’s Ph.D. dissertation before long.

I will begin by giving a brief account of Kikusha’s life and then introduce some of her poem-paintings. Since my training is as an art historian, I will refrain from attempting to analyze her poetry. Very few haikai by Kikusha have been translated into English; for a discussion of her poetry, I recommend the essay on Kikusha and Chiyo written by Fumiko Yamamoto for the exhibition catalogue Japanese Women Artists, 1600-1900 (Spencer Museum of Art, 1988).

Born in Chôfu in Nagato (present-day Yamaguchi prefecture), Kikusha began to seriously devote herself to poetry after her husband’s early death (Kikusha was twenty-four). Since the couple was childless, Kikusha adopted a son to take over the household and returned to her parent’s home. She chose to pursue an independent life rather than to remarry, and at the age of twenty-nine (1781) Kikusha started on what became a lifelong series of journeys throughout Japan.

At the onset of her first journey, Kikusha took the tonsure at the Shin sect Buddhist temple Seikôji in Hagi. Her status as a nun gave her the freedom to travel and to immerse herself in artistic activities. This path was taken by numerous women in traditional Japan who became renowned for their poetry. It was often, but not always, prompted by the death of a spouse, child, or parents. There were two kinds of Buddhist nuns: those who entered a temple to practice and those who did not. Kikusha is representative of the latter type; she has been compared to Matsuo Bashô (1644-94), who adopted the guise of a mendicant priest and took to the road in his later life. In addition to having curiosity about the world and a desire to explore it, for both Kikusha and Bashô, travel was a kind of spiritual quest—an opportunity for self discovery and to further their respective arts.

Since one of the main purposes of her journey was to study haikai, Kikusha traveled to Mino (present-day Gifu prefecture) to meet the haikai master Chôbo-en Sankyô (1726-92), and she became his pupil. With a letter of introduction from him, she set off again alone, stopping to visit acquaintances in Echizen and Fukui prefectures. Along the way she visited the hometown of the poetess Chiyo (1703-75) in Kaga (present-day Ishikawa prefecture). Kikusha met Chiyo’s adopted son and stayed overnight. This occasion of “communing” with her predecessor Chiyo could be viewed as an expression of Kikusha’s feminine consciousness. Kikusha continued on her way, following the course Bashô had taken on his “journey to the north” (Oku no hosomichi), which took her to Niigata, Yamagata, and Miyagi prefectures. Kikusha eventually made her way to Edo, and stayed there for two years. She then headed home via the Tôkaidô road, and was reunited with her parents in 1784. This first journey lasted nearly four years.

Like Bashô, once bitten by the “travel bug,” Kikusha found it hard to stay in one place. In 1786 she set off on a trip through Kyushu, and in 1790, Kikusha traveled to Kyoto and Yoshino in order to participate in ceremonies honoring the hundredth year anniversary of Bashô’s death. In 1793 (age forty-one) she went again to Edo, where, after being presented with a Chinese zither (shichigenkin), she began her study of this instrument. The following year Kikusha continued her lessons in music with a courtier in Kyoto. She later did a self-portrait showing herself seated in front of her zither [Click to see the self-portrait].

Kikusha became more and more interested in learning about Chinese culture and composing Chinese poetry (Jp. kanshi) from her forties. At age forty-four (1796) she went again to Kyushu, and in Nagasaki befriended Confucian scholars and poets who shared her interests in Chinese poetry, painting, and music. From this point on, Kikusha’s travel diaries regularly include kanshi.

Kikusha’s energy seems to have been inexhaustible, for until her death she continued to travel, meet and cultivate relationships with other poets, and devoted herself to refining her arts. Kikusha habitually kept travel diaries, recording the places she visited, the names of people she met, her poems and verses by others. The best known of these travel records is Taorigiku (1813) mentioned above.

In addition to composing poetry, Kikusha often recorded her visual impressions in simple poem-paintings. She painted a vast array of subjects, including landscapes, flowers and plants, figures, animals, Buddhist subjects, and auspicious themes such as the goddess of fortune, Otafuku.

[Click to see Chrysanthemums] [Daruma] [Mt.Fuji] [Puppy]

The diversity in Kikusha’s poetry and painting reflects her wide range of interests. She clearly liked changes of scenery, spending half of her life on the road. Nowhere is this diversity more apparent than in her album of poems and pictures commemorating her visits to the fifty-three stations of the Tôkaidô [Click to see Shimada] [Click to see Fukuroi]. The diversity of subject matter in her paintings parallels the diversity in Kikusha’s poetry. I would like to emphasize that she was not purely a painter, but rather a poet-painter. I know of no paintings by her that are not accompanied by poems.

While she purportedly studied painting with Watarai Bunryusai, I believe that Kikusha was primarily self-taught, learning from the paintings and woodblock prints she saw on her travels. For example, when she re-visited the Ôbaku Zen temple Manpukuji in 1815, during an annual airing of treasures, Kikusha was able to see many old paintings. She noted in her travel account that the Ôbaku priest Jisen did a modelbook for her at her request. So there is evidence that she periodically sought instruction from painter acquaintances.

However, Kikusha did not attempt to study any of the more formal, detailed styles of painting that were popular at the time, and was content with creating abbreviated sketchlike works, characterized by a casual spontaneity. Her calligraphy has a similarly untutored, bold, carefree quality. While she reportedly studied calligraphy with a man named Goshô in Yamagata, her propensity for roving prevented her from studying with any one master in depth. Rather than trying to refine her skills through the formal study of painting and calligraphy, she directed her creative energy primarily into composing haikai and kanshi.

Kikusha’s poem paintings, sometimes termed haiga, are typical of the amateur painting practiced by Edo period haikai poets. The diffusion of Chinese literati ideals resulting from the Tokugawa government’s propagation of Neo-Confucianism led many scholars and poets to take up the brush, and painting came to be viewed along with poetry and calligraphy as one of the accomplishments of cultivated individuals. As a result, amateur painting came to be practiced by a broad segment of Japanese society during the Edo period.

Works by amateur artists were intended primarily for poetry-loving friends and acquaintances, who were not overly concerned with matters of formal composition and brush techniques. Since Kikusha’s fame was primarily as a poet, people probably did not seek out paintings per se, but rather her poem-paintings. The addition of Kikusha’s simplified designs added charm and interest, and made for more enjoyable objects to display in the tokonoma alcove.

There are several extant letters by Kikusha written to the priest of the temple Senjûji in her hometown, mentioning paintings she was sending in response to requests. It appears as though the priest acted as a kind of intermediary, fielding requests for her work, and upon receiving works from Kikusha, handling the financial transactions. Occasionally prices are mentioned. There are also other documents written by Kikusha in which she lists the types of works she will create upon request.

Kikusha’s painting style defies classification; it stands out from the work of contemporary haikai poets because many of her poem-paintings have a strong Chinese flavor. However, in comparison with Japanese literati painting or bunjinga, Kikusha’s brushwork is more abstract. Her independent style falls somewhere between haiga and bunjinga. Prominent among her works are the “four gentlemen” subjects favored by literati, especially bamboo, chrysanthemum, and orchid. Her dual interests in haikai and kanshi led her to blend Chinese and Japanese traditions in poem-paintings. For example the bamboo illustrated here [Click to see Bamboo] is rendered in the Chinese style, but instead of adding a Chinese poem, which would be the norm in bunjinga, she has added a haiku. On other occasions Kikusha added Chinese poems to more typically Japanese haiga-style paintings; it was not uncommon for her to append both kanshi and haikai.

In sum, Kikusha’s love of life, boundless energy, and adventurous spirit gave birth to a myriad poems and images. Her desire to capture the world around her on paper seems to have been insatiable, and from these “traces of the brush” emerges the figure of a strong-willed woman whose intense devotion to the arts led her to defy the conventional lifestyle expected of women in her day.

Footnotes and Image Credits:

1. Translation by Fumiko Yamamoto. (return to text)

2. Japanese Women Artists 1600-1900, Spencer Museum of Art, 1988. Among them are: Nakagawa Shinshô, Tagami Kikusha (2003); Ueno Sachiko, Tagami Kikusha zenshû (2000); Hôjo Shûichi, Hyôden: Tagami Kikusha (1992); Uemura Seigo, Onna haijin Kikusha (1962); Yamanaka Rokuhiko, Chiyo-jo to Kikusha-ni (1952); Kawada Jun, Kikusha haiku zenshû (1937); and Honjô Kumajirô, Ichijian Kikusha-ni ikô (1925). (return to text)

3. Oka Masako, ed., Unyû no ama: Tagami Kikusha (2003, catalogue of exhibition held at the Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum); Hôhoku-chô Museum of History and Folklore, Kikusha no genten: Kikusha no kyôdo to sono sakuhin (2003); Shimonoseki City Chôfu Museum, Tagami Kikusha: Kinsei joryû bunjin no sekai (1999); Shimonoseki City Chôfu Museum, Tagami Kikusha (1995). (return to text)

The illustrations included in this article were all scanned from the exhibition catalogue Unyû no ama: Tagami Kikusha, with permission from the editor. Readers interested in obtaining copies of the all-color, lavishly illustrated catalogue may send a request to the following address:

Book Export II Dept.
Japan Publications Trading Co., Ltd.
1-2-1 Sarugaku-cho
Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 101-0064
Tel. 81-3-3292-3753
Fax. 81-3-3292-0410

Patricia Fister is currently an Associate Professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. She was born in Ohio and attended universities there before going on to pursue graduate studies in Asian art history at the University of Kansas, where she received her M.A. and Ph.D.  

Before taking up permanent residence in Japan, Patricia held positions as curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art (1983-84) and the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas (1984-1991), where she was involved in organizing many exhibitions of Japanese art. She has also taught courses in Japanese art at the University of Kansas and the Stanford Japan Center in Kyoto.

Her special area of expertise is painting of the Edo period (1600-1868), and for the past twenty years she has focused her research primarily on Japanese women artists. Having become more interested in Buddhism through her Zen practice in Kyoto, she is presently engaged in a study of the art created by Buddhist nuns, especially those associated with imperial convents in Kyoto and Nara. She is a Research Associate of the Institute of Medieval Japanese Studies at Columbia University, which is spearheading a project to survey the collections of Japanese imperial convents.

Her publications include Art by Buddhist Nuns: Treasures from the Imperial Convents of Japan, Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies, Columbia University, New York, 2003; Kinsei no josei gakatachi: Bijutsu to jendâ (Japanese Women Artists of the Kinsei Era), Shibunkaku Shuppan, 1994; Japanese Women Artists, 1600-1900, Spencer Museum of Art / Harper & Row, 1988; and numerous articles, the latest of which are: "From Sacred Leaves to Sacred Images: The Buddhist Nun Gen'yô's Practice of Making and Distributing Miniature Kannons." In Figures and Places of the Sacred, International Symposium No.18, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, 2003; "The Legacy of Yosa Buson: Exploring the Impact of His Painting Tradition in Ômi, Owari, and Osaka." In An Enduring Vision: 17th to 20th Century Japanese Painting from the Gitter-Yelen Collection, New Orleans Museum of Art, 2002; and "Creating Devotional Art with Body Fragments: The Buddhist Nun Bunchi and Her Father, Emperor Gomizuno-o," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 27:3/4, 2000.