Queen Kishi (徽子女王)

Queen Kishi (also known as Yoshiko) was a poet and member of the Imperial Family who lived in the middle of the Heian period, from 929 to 985. She was a descendant of Emperor Daigo. She was the firstborn daughter of Shigeaki Shikibu-kyonomiya, the Imperial Prince; her mother was FUJIWARA no Hiroko (also known as Kanshi), second daughter of FUJIWARA no Tadahira. She served as one of the Sainomiya (Imperial Princesses at Ise Shrine) for the court of Emperor Suzaku, and afterwards was a lady-in-waiting for Emperor Murakami. Consequently, she is also known as Lady Sainomiya, and as the Lady of Shokoden Palace. She is counted as one of the 36 Immortal Poets as well as one of the 36 Lady Immortal Poets.

Brief Personal History

In 936, the current high priestess of Ise Shrine, Imperial Princess Saishi (daughter of Emperor Daigo), suddenly died, prompting Kishi to be chosen as the next high priestess of Ise, at the age of eight. In 938, at the age of ten, she went down to Ise. When the time came for the hakken no gi (the pre-departure ceremony), Emperor Suzaku was still working to avoid a taboo, so his maternal grandfather, the Regent Tadahira, performed his duties for him, and for the pilgrimage to Ise, the Choho-soshi (Imperial envoy who was responsible for seeing each high priestess safely arrive at Ise) for Kishi's journey was her uncle, the Chunagon (vice-councilor of state) FUJIWARA no Morosuke, who traveled on the pilgrimage with her. In 945, at the age of seventeen, she resigned from her post because of her mother's death, and returned to the capital.

In 948, at the age of twenty, she entered the Court at the request of her uncle Emperor Murakami, and received her official appointment as Court Lady in 949. Because she was assigned as lady-in-waiting to the Shokaden Palace and because her father Imperial Prince Shigeaki's Court title was Lord Shikibukyo, she was called Lady Shokaden and Lady Shikibukyo, but her most widely known popular name was the Lady of Ise due to her earlier role as high priestess of Ise. She had two children, a daughter called Imperial Princess Kishi (the fourth imperial daughter of Emperor Murakami, who lived from 949 to 986) and one son (who died young)).

She lived in the inner palace surrounded by many beautiful and talented women including Empress FUJIWARA no Anshi and Senyoden no Nyogo FUJIWARA no Hoshi (or Yoshiko), yet Queen Kishi's exceptional talents in waka poetry and in playing the koto, which she had inherited from her father, were especially famous, and she was known as an expert at the kokin (a musical instrument, like the koto). She also wrote a large number of excellent waka as songs for the koto, and section 171 of the "Okagami" tells an anecdote about the Emperor and Queen Kishi playing the koto together; the "Yakakutei kinsho" reports that priestesses of Ise and court ladies valued playing the koto so highly that they reserved their right hands only for that, and used their left hands only in daily life. Moreover, having come into full bloom during a generation that was exceptionally elegant and refined, she organized several cultured activities, including the Poetry Contest of Queen Kishi, High Priestess of Ise and Court Lady held in 956 and the Senzai (gardening) contest of Queen Kishi, High Priestess of Ise and Court Lady in 959.

In 967, Emperor Murakami passed away, and thereafter she lived together with her only daughter, Imperial Princess Kishi, in a palace outside the Imperial enclosure. In 975, at 27 years old, Imperial Princess Kishi was the imperial princess chosen to serve as high priestess of Ise for Emperor Enyu, so the following year in 976, Queen Kishi traveled with her daughter for the ceremonial first entry of the new high priestess; it was in the winter of that same year that Queen Kishi composed her famous Shofu nyu yakin (Into the Night of Koto Music Comes the Wind of the Pines) poem, during the poetry contest held at the temporary shrine of Ise. And then, in 977, Queen Kishi shook off Emperor Enyu's attempts to thwart her and processed down to Ise together with her daughter; this was completely without precedent, and as such left everyone shocked.
(It is thought this historical episode later served as the inspiration for the scene in the "Tale of Genji" where Lady Rokujo accompanies her daughter Empress Akikonomu to Ise.)

In 984, Emperor Enyu abdicated the throne, which prompted Imperial Princess Kishi to resign her position as high priestess of Ise. The following year mother and daughter returned to the capital together, but Queen Kishi seems already to have been suffering from an illness at this point, and she died one year later. At the time of her death, at age 57, she had reached the Jushiinojo (Junior Fourth Rank, Upper Grade).

Queen Kishi, known by her popular name Saigu nyogo (the High Priestess and Court Lady), became empress starting after Imperial Princess Asahara, Empress to Emperor Heizei, and was part of the first mother-daughter, two-generation monopoly of the position of high priestess at Ise since Imperial Princess Sakahito and her daughter Imperial Princess Asahara. But the inner palace in those days was filled with consorts from the family of regents and advisors (a different branch of the Fujiwara clan), and Empress Anshi first among them; although she was the one of the highest birth among all these women, Queen Kishi gradually lost her influential supporters, and was not blessed with brothers or imperial princes (i.e., sons) on whom she could rely. It is not clear whether it was the deaths of her maternal grandfather Tadahira and her father Shigeaki in particular, or her own illness, or because of her unique position as a former high priestess of Ise, but whatever the cause, it appears she had a tendency to shut herself up in rural seclusion and hardly ever made her way to Court. And later, her father's widow FUJIWARA no Nariko (the younger sister of Empress Anshi) was summoned to court by Emperor Murakami may have contributed to Kishi's unease at the inner palace.

On the other hand, the "Eiga monogatari" (A Tale of Flowering Fortunes) records Emperor Murakami as yearning for Kishi, 'a person of such nobility, such refinement,' and frequently sending for her. In reality, among the poems romantically exchanged between the Emperor and his ladies that are recorded in "Emperor Murakami's Imperial Poetry Anthology" and other collections, the poems sent to and by Queen Kishi, especially the courting poems before she entered the court, stand out from the rest, and are quite numerous. Considering the level of harmony shown in these exchanges, it is easy to surmise that the affection Emperor Murakami felt towards Queen Kishi was anything but slight.

After Emperor Murakami's death several celebrated poets, including MINAMOTO no Shitago, ONAKATOMI no Yoshinobu, and TAIRA no Kanemori, frequently came to visit Queen Kishi and her daughter Imperial Princess Kishi at their home, where they organized poetry contests and other activities; she gathered together a popular and elegant literary salon, taking over leadership of the poetry circles of Emperor Murakami's court. Moreover, Queen Kishi was close and affectionate with many ladies, including Imperial Princess Ippon-nomiya Shishi and Imperial Princess Daisai-in Senshi (both daughters of Emperor Murakami and Empress Anshi) as well as FUJIWARA no Koshi, Empress to Emperor Enyu, and occasionally exchanged quite delicate letters with them even after traveling together with her daughter Imperial Princess Kishi to Ise.

Most of Queen Kishi's extant poems are known today because they were included in her (posthumous) personal waka anthology, the "Saigu nyogoshu," and in her graceful, elegant melodies, called Ito ate ni namamekashu (Very Noble and Bewitching), one can catch glimpses of the true refinement of Queen Kishi's character. Many of her poems were included in the imperial waka anthologies, notably the first appearance of the "Shui wakashu" (Collection of Poetic Gleanings), making her stand out both in quality and quantity from the crowd of poets even of successive generations, and is one of the pair of matchless jewels, Saio kajin (poet-priestesses), along with Imperial Princess Sai-in Shishi, who came after her.

Some of her best representative poems

The sound of the koto seems to seems to mingle with the wind through the pines on the ridge; which does the melody come from, I wonder?
Having turned my back on the world and even climbed over Mt. Suzuka, I expect it shall be as it was once long ago.

The portrait of Saigu nyogo (Queen Kishi) as part of the series of portraits of Immortal Poets

One of only five women counted among the 36 Immortal Poets, and moreover the only member of the Imperial family so selected, Queen Kishi's portrait occupies a prominent place even among portraits of the subsequent Immortal Poets. Among the various styles of portrait composition known, it was most common to show people of noble birth seated on tatami mats with dyed rims, their figures hidden behind beautiful screens. And in Satake's famous volume, the handscroll showing the portraits of the 36 Immortal Poets, which is the oldest surviving work depicting them, among the vast majority of the figures shown seated in sokutai (ceremonial court robes) and sumptuous twelve-layered kimonos, one, Queen Kishi, is shown in a more relaxed posture, in uchiki-sugata (informal dress), modestly hiding her face from view; she is painted beautifully, with vivid colors, and her appearance reflects a truly regal quality, secluded there deep in her inner rooms. And indeed, in 1919 when the Satake volume was cut up into its individual portraits and sold, the price for the portrait of Queen Kishi surpassed that for all the other Immortal Poets, even ONO no Komachi.