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Ono no Komachi, the Heroine of Sotoba Komachi
in Modern English Translations by Michael R. Burch

Ono no Komachi wrote tanka (also known as waka), the most traditional form of Japanese lyric poetry. She is best known today for her pensive, melancholic and erotic poems ...

If fields of autumn flowers
can shed their blossoms, shameless,
why can’t I also frolic here —
as fearless, wild and blameless?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Komachi is an excellent representative of the Classical, or Heian, period (circa 794-1185 AD) of Japanese literature and one of the best-known poets of the Kokinshu (circa 905), the first in a series of anthologies of Japanese poetry compiled by imperial order. She is also one of the Rokkasen — the six best waka poets of the early Heian period, during which poetry was considered the highest art. In other words, like Sappho to the ancient Greeks, Komachi was considered to be one of the very best poets of her era. Or we might compare her to Madonna and Beyonce in ours. But Komachi's poems of unrequited love, and of neglect by her lovers, so remind me of Sappho ...

I had thought to pluck
the flower of forgetfulness
only to find it
already blossoming in his heart.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Renowned for her unusual beauty, Komachi has become a synonym for feminine beauty in Japan. She is also included among the thirty-six Poetry Immortals. It is believed that she was born sometime between 820-830 and that she wrote most of her poems around the middle of the ninth century. Ono no Komachi is also the heroine of Sotoba Komachi, a modern Noh play by Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). Mishima's play is based on an ancient work by Kan'ami Kiyotsugu (1333-1384). There is more information about Sotoba Komachi at the bottom of this page. The play is about an aging Komachi who, according to legend, lost her mind and her desire to live along with her fabled beauty. And that loss of desire does seem to be confirmed by her poems ...

So cruelly severed,
a root-cut reed ...
if the river offered,
why not be freed?
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XVIII:938), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Alas, the beauty of the flowers came to naught
while I watched the rain, lost in melancholy thought ...
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sad,
the end that awaits me —
to think that before autumn yields
I'll be a pale mist
shrouding these rice fields.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

"The passionate accents of the waka of Komachi and Narihira would never be surpassed, and the poetry as a whole is of such charm as to make the appearance of the Kokinshū seem less a brilliant dawn after a dark night than the culmination of a steady enhancement of the expressive powers of the most typical Japanese poetic art."—Donald Keene, translator, critic and literary historian

Some of the poems below have been attributed to Ono no Komachi but may have been composed by poets of later periods who were influenced by her style and themes. Where possible, I have provided a reference and the original text. Some poems have multiple translations with slightly different interpretations.

Note to archivists, anthologists, editors and scholars: The versions of my translations on this page are the most current, definitive ones. Translations of mine found elsewhere may be older versions, or pirated and botched.—MRB

For explanations of how he translates and why he calls his results "loose translations" and "interpretations" please click here: Michael R. Burch Translation Methods and Credits to Other Translators

Dreams

As I slept in isolation
my desired beloved appeared to me;
therefore, dreams have become my reality
and consolation.
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XII:553), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

utatane ni
koFisiki Fito wo
mitesi yori
yume teFu mono Fa
tanomisometeki
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XII:553)

Did you appear
only because I was lost in love-thoughts
when I nodded off, day-dreaming of you?
(If I had known that you couldn't possibly be true
I'd have never awakened!)
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XII:552), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I nodded off thinking about you
only to have your appear in my dreams.
Had I known that I slept,
I'd have never awakened!
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XII:552), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

omoFitutu
nureba ya Fito no
mieturan
yume to siriseba
samezaramasi wo
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XII:552)

Though I visit you
continually in my dreams,
the sum of all such ethereal trysts
is still less than one actual, solid glimpse.
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIII:658), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

yumedi ni Fa
asi mo yasumezu
kayoFedomo
ututu ni Fitome
misi goto Fa arazu
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIII:658)

I pursue you ceaselessly in my dreams ...
yet we've never met; we're not even acquainted!
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I think of you ceaselessly, with love ...
and so ... come to me tonight,
for in the flight of dreams,
no one can disapprove! 
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIII:657), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

kagiri naki
omoFi no mama ni
yoru mo komu
yumedi wo saFe ni
Fito Fa togamezi
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIII:657)

Ancient Feminism

Submit to you —
is that what you advise?
The way ripples do
whenever ill winds arise?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

If fields of autumn flowers
can shed their blossoms, shameless,
why can’t I also frolic here —
as fearless, wild and blameless?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Fatal reality!
You must do as you must, I suppose.
But even protected in dreams from prying eyes,
to watch you still pains me so!
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIII:656), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

ututu ni Fa
sa mo koso arame
yume ni saFe
Fitome wo moru to
miru ga wabisisa
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIII:656)

In eye-opening daylight
much stands revealed,
but when I see myself
reflected in hostile eyes
even dreams become nightmares.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Aging, Death and Loss

Watching wan moonlight
illuminate tree limbs,
my heart also brims,
overflowing with autumn.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sad,
the end that awaits me —
to think that before autumn yields
I'll be a pale mist
shrouding these rice fields.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

That which men call "love" —
is it not merely the chain
preventing our escape
from this world of pain?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

In this dismal world 
the living decrease
as the dead increase ... 
Oh, how much longer
must I bear this body of grief?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Fishermen

Since there’s obviously nothing to catch
in this barren bay,
how can he fail to understand —
this fisherman who persists in coming and going
until he collapses in the sand?
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIII:623), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

miru me naki
wa ga mi wo ura to
siraneba ya
karenade ama no
asi tayuku kuru
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIII:623)

What do I know of villages
where fisherfolk dwell?
Why do you keep demanding
that I show you the seashore,
lead you to some pearly shell?
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIV:727), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

ama no sumu
sato no sirube ni
aranaku ni
uramimu to nomi
Fito no iFuramu
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIV:727)

Wilted Flowers, Rain and Tears

Alas, the beauty of the flowers came to naught
while I watched the rain, lost in melancholy thought ...
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Once-colorful flowers faded,
while in my drab cell
life’s impulse also abated
as the long rains fell.
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XII:113), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This flower's color
has drained away,
while in idle thoughts
my life drained away
as the long rains fell.
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XII:113), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Fana no iro Fa
uturi ni keri na
itadura ni
waga mi yo ni Furu
nagame sesi ma ni
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XII:113)

Two things wilt without warning,
bleeding away their colors:
a flower and a man's heart.
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XV:797), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

iro miete
ururoFu mono Fa
yo no naka no
Fito no kokoro no
Fana ni zo arikeru
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XV:797)

I had thought to pluck
the flower of forgetfulness
only to find it
already blossoming in his heart.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

"It's over!"
Your words drizzle like dismal rains,
bringing tears,
as I wilt with my years.
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XV:782), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

ima Fa tote
wa ga mi sigure ni
Furinureba
koto no Fa saFe ni
uturoFinikeri
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XV:782)

Now bitterly I watch
fierce autumn's winds
battering the rice stalks,
suspecting I'll never again
find anything to harvest.
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XV:822), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

aki kaze ni
aFu tanomi koso
kanasikere
wa ga mi munasiku
narinu to omoFeba
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XV:822)

So lately severed,
a root-cut reed,
if the river offered,
why not be freed?
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XVIII:938), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This aimlessly floating body?
This reed severed from its roots?
If the river offered me freedom
I think I'd follow ...
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XVIII:938), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Wretched water-weed that I am,
severed from all roots:
if rapids enticed me,
why not welcome their lethal shoots?
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XVIII:938), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

wabinureba
mi wo ukikusa no
ne wo taete
sasoFu midu araba
inamu to zo omoFu
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XVIII:938)

How brilliantly
tears rain upon my sleeve
in bright gemlets,
for my despair cannot be withstood,
like a surging flood!
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XII:557), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

oroka naru
namida zo sode ni
tama Fa nasu
ware Fa sekiaFezu
tagituse nareba
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XII:557)

Night Sweats and Desire

This moonless night,
with no way to meet him,
I grow restless with longing:
my breast’s an inferno,
my heart chars within me.
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIX:1030), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I would meet him tonight
but the moon shows no path;
my desire for him,
smoldering in my breast,
burns my heart to ash!
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIX:1030), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

On nights such as these
when no moon lights your way to me,
I lie awake, my passion blazing,
my breast an inferno wildly raging,
while my heart chars within me.
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIX:1030), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Fito ni aFamu
tuki no naki ni Fa
omoFiokite
mune Fasiribi ni
kokoroyake wori
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XIX:1030)

Overwhelmed by desire
in the lily-seed darkness,
tonight I'll turn my robe inside-out
before donning it.
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XII:554), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

ito semete
koFisiki toki Fa
mubatama no
yoru no koromo wo
kaFesite zo kiru
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XII:554)

Sleepless with loneliness,
I find myself longing for the handsome moon.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Love and Loneliness

Love is man's most unbreakable bond.
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XVIII:939), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

aFare teFu
koto koso utate
yo no naka wo
omoFiFanarenu
Fodasinarikere
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XVIII:939)

Fiery coals burning my body
hurt me far less than the sorrow of parting.
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XX:1104), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

oki no wite
mi wo yaku yori mo
kanasiki Fa
miyakosimabe no
wakare narikeri
—Ono no Komachi (KKS XX:1104)

Am I to spend the night alone
atop this summit,
cold and lost?
Won't you at least lend me
your robes of moss?
—Ono no Komachi (GSS XVII:1195), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

iFa no uFe
tabine wo sureba
ito samusi
koke no koromo wo
ware ni kasanan
—Ono no Komachi (GSS XVII:1195)

This abandoned
mountain village house —
how many nights
has autumn sheltered there?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This vain life!
My looks and talents faded
like these cherry blossoms downthrown
by endless dismal rains
that I now survey, alone.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Miscellanea

Watching the long, dismal rains
inundating the earth,
my heart too is washed out, bleeds off
with the colors of the late spring flowers.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Like flowers wilted by drenching rains,
my beauty has faded in the onslaught of my forlorn years.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Autumn nights are "long"
only in verse and song:
for we had just begun
to gaze into each other’s eyes
when dawn immolated the skies!
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Since my body
was neglected by the one
who had promised faithfully to come,
I now lie here questioning its existence.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Yielding to a love
that recognizes no boundaries,
I will approach him by night—
for the world cannot despise
a wandering dreamer.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Now that I approach
life’s inevitable winter
your ardor has faded
like blossoms wilted
by late autumn rains.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Submit to you —
is that what you’re saying?
The way ripples do
whenever hot air is splaying?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch



Sotoba Komachi (卒塔婆小町) is a modern Noh play by Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). Mishima's play is based on an ancient work by Kan'ami Kiyotsugu (1333-1384). The kanji 卒塔婆 means "stupa" (the dome of a shrine) while the kanji 小町 means "belle" or "beautiful woman." So the title may be interpreted as something like "Beauty's Shrine" or "Shrine to Beauty." Kan'ami was the first playwright to incorporate the Kusemai song and dance style and Dengaku dances into plays. He founded a sarugaku theater group in the Kansai region of Honshu; the troupe later moved to Yamato and formed the Yuzaki theater company, which would become the school of Noh theater.

Excerpts from SOTOBA KOMACHI
by KWANAMI
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Priest of the Koyasan:

We who have built our homes on shallow slopes
now seek solitude in the heart's deep recesses.

Second Priest:

This single thought possessed me:
How I might bring a single seed to flower,
the wisdom of Buddha, the locus of our salvation,
until in despair I donned this dark cassock.

Ono no Komachi:

Lately so severed,
like a root-cut reed,
if the river offered,
why not be freed?

I would gladly go,
but here no wave stirs ...
I was once full of pride
now fled with the years,

gone with dark tresses
and with lustrous locks;
I was lithe as a willow
in my springtime frocks;

I once sang like a nightingale
sipping dew;
I was wild as the rose
when the skies shone blue ...
in those days before fall
when the long shadows grew.

But now I’ve grown loathsome
even to whores;
even urchins abhor me;
men treat me with scorn ...

Now I am nothing
but a poor, withered bough,
and yet there are wildflowers
in my heart, even now.

Only my body lingers, for my heart left this world long ago!

Priests (together):

O, piteous, piteous!
Is this the once-fabled flower-bright Komachi,
Komachi the Beautiful,
whose dark brows bridged eyes like young moons;
her face whitest alabaster forever;
whose many damask robes filled cedar-scented closets?



The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Tegner's Drapa
Whoso List to Hunt
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Meleager
Sappho
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch

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