Shoen Uemura’s “Composition of a Poem” (1942)

Chiyo-ni, one of Japan’s most remarkable female poets, grew up in a village at the foot of one of the country’s three holy mountains. The fertile agricultural area had four distinct seasons and in spring the winter snowpack overflowed the rivers and streams with crystalline water. Guided by the image of the translucent water and the chime of the local Buddhist temple bell, Chiyo-ni pursued the way of haiku―merging the mundane moment with the eternal.

Takahashi Hiroaki’s “Snow on Ayase River,” woodcut print (1915)

but for their voices
the herons would disappear―
the morning’s snow

Chiyo-ni was born in 1703, into a family of scroll makers. A road leading to the capital city of Kyoto passed in front of her family’s home and provided a regular flow of poets and artists stopping by to have their work mounted. Within this visionary landscape, she began to compose verse. Her father recognized his daughter’s promise and at age 12, sent her to work as a servant in the home of a haiku master―a common practice among the merchant class. In doing so he advantaged her with an education and the opportunity to refine her poetry.

Japan was in the middle of a renaissance, referred to as the Edo period (1603-1867) with arts and entertainment flourishing. Kabuki theater featured themes of resistance, helping to promote a loosening of hierarchical groupings and a rising prominence of the working and merchant classes. Within this milieu a male haiku poet, Basho (1644-1694), rose to great renown. At his school he taught that students must follow the ‘Way of Haiku’ and impart both change and permanence in their poems. Born nine years after Basho’s death, Chiyo-ni apprenticed with two of his disciples, which advanced an early recognition of her haiku at age 19.

In her twenties she made the arduous trek over mountainous terrain to Kyoto, to participate in the cultural renaissance. There she befriended many artists and attended haiku meetings―sometimes being the only woman in a room full of samurai, merchants, Buddhists, and farmers. Although there were at least 300 women poets writing during her time and although class strictures had loosened some, women’s conduct remained narrowly defined and most females had to enter the art world through husbands or brothers. Chiyo-ni somehow side-stepped these obstacles and one of her earliest haiku (written at the prompt of a Zen master) received widespread acknowledgment.

a hundred gourds
from the heart
of one vine

Returning home in her thirties, her own heart wrestled with life’s impermanence upon the deaths of both her parents, her brother, and his wife. Even in her sorrow, the circumstances demanded she take on the family business. For the next 15 to 20 years, she undertook the work of scroll-making and put her poetry to the side. Finally her niece and her niece’s husband took over the enterprise, relieving Chiyo-ni of the obligation.

the passing year―
irritating things
are only water

Details of Chiyo-ni’s personal life during these years remain scant. She never married but some letters and haiku reveal her beauty as a woman and the deep affinity she held for several devoted companions. One was Taisui, a male haiku poet, 19 years her senior and of the samurai class. She lived and apprenticed with him as an adolescent and they continued to exchange haiku throughout their lives. Another poet, Ki-in, with whom she had shared tutoring from a Basho disciple, demonstrated his love for her with sensual haiku. Her close female friend and poet, Suejo, she met as a young girl working for Suejo’s family. The two remained steadfast thereafter―meeting daily to create verse and later becoming nuns.

woman’s desire
deeply rooted―
the wild violets

At age 52 with both her youth and the scroll-making business behind her, Chiyo-ni took the vows of a Jodo-Shinshu Buddhist nun. This sect opened its pursuit to lay people who could, or would, not enter into the demands of Zen monasticism. Chiyo-ni said she became a nun not to renounce the world but, “to teach her heart to be like the clear water that flows night and day.”

clear water:
no front
no back

And perhaps like other artistic women, and even former prostitutes (to whom little moral stigma attached), Chiyo-ni chose the life of a nun for the relative autonomy it afforded. In any event, she now unabashedly pursued her art―writing haiku with prostitutes, practicing with poets of both sexes, enjoying collaborative projects with samurai, and writing verse on the road.

Haiku can be written anywhere―spontaneously capturing an instant in 17 syllables arranged in three lines [see bibliography note below]. The poem represents a moment of diamond consciousness or heightened awareness that contains reference to a season and/or an element of nature. The Japanese attached certain emotions to seasonal words and compiled whole books listing them, one to which Chiyo-ni contributed. For example, pairing adjectives with the moon expressed more than 40 moods―hazy moon, spring moon, emerging moon, hesitant moon, and many more.


the fishing line―
the summer moon

To heighten the seasonal element Chiyo-ni and other haiku artists would often add a painting on the same page with the poem. Another form of Japanese verse was renku, where two or more poets linked their lyrics together. Chiyo-ni wrote renku with a sister nun, which they dedicated to a women’s temple for the safe delivery of babies. Some of Chiyo-ni’s more delicate haiku further expressed her awareness of women’s experiences and set her apart from many of her male counterparts.


Sakai Hoitsu (1761–1828).White Plum Blossoms and Nightingale

plum flower scent―
where has the snow woman’s
ghost blown to?





Reflections on women’s cares:

airing out kimonos
as well as her heart
is never enough


again the women
come to the fields
with unkempt hair

Ogata Korin (1658-1716) Flowershow terrifying


how terrifying
her rouged fingers
against the white chrysanthemum

These “women’s haiku” often fueled male criticism. One eminent poet, directing his criticism at Chiyo-ni said, “there are famous women haiku poets, but their haiku is weak and emotional because it is women’s haiku.” Male masters taught that haiku had to be objective―a quality many men considered unattainable by women.

Like the clear waters she embodied, Chiyo-ni swirled past the criticism, politics, and gender prejudice to acquit herself in an extraordinarily successful way. She published two collections of haiku, one at age 62 and one at age 69―an awesome achievement for a woman of her day. Her poems were included in 100 anthologies while she was alive and an additional 20 after her death. Based on her renown she was asked to write forewords to six poetry collections. At age 61, Lord Maeda of the Kaga providence commissioned her to inscribe 21 of her poems in calligraphy on scrolls and fans, which the government gifted to Korean envoys.

In the last five years of her life, her health began to wane. As her condition worsened she spent more and more time in bed, although she continued to write.

Uemura Shoen’s “Young Lady by a Round Window” (circa 1943)

my energy
can only defeat a butterfly
this spring morning

Her beloved confidant, Suejo, remained devoted, caring for her until the end.

When Chiyo-ni died in 1775 at age 72, news of her death spread quickly and hundreds of inspired poets wrote lines attesting to her artistry. She left behind an extraordinary 1,700 extant poems in various places―notebooks, calligraphy on screens and fans, letters, travel diaries, and haiku paintings. Numerous sites at temples sprang up to honor and memorialize her. She had remarkably achieved the prominence of a true haiku mistress.

This was her last:

Kobayashi Kiyochika (1881)

I also saw the moon
and so I say goodbye
to this world





Primary Source:
Donegan, Patricia and Ishibashi, Yoshie, Chiyo-ni Woman Haiku Master, Tuttle Publishing (1998). (This is currently the only English language biography of Chiyo-ni.)

Note: All haiku used in this post was translated by P. Donegan and Y. Ishibashi. As a point of clarification these translators/authors noted in their preface the following: “We agree with Makoto Ueda about the format of a haiku in translation, using the style of three lines with neither a capital at the beginning nor a period at the end, with as little punctuation as possible. For haiku is not a sentence, but rather a fleeting yet eternal moment captured in only a few words. In addition, we have not kept to seventeen syllables because English is a stressed language, unlike Japanese, which is syllablic; therefore haiku which use English syllabic counts often sound contrived. Nor have we used any artificial rhyme or metrical beat―we have merely tried to render the haiku into everyday―speech rhythms, and let the English rhythm parallel the Japanese sound if possible.”

Secondary Sources:
Hirshfield, Jane, Women in Praise of the Sacred, 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), HarperCollins Publishers (1994).

Matsunosuke, Nishiyama, Edo Culture, Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600- 1868, University of Hawai’i Press (1997).

Tsunoda, Ryusaku, etal., Ed., de Bary, Wm. Theodore, Sources of Japanese Tradition, Columbia University Press (1958).

2 thoughts on “CHIYO-NI – CLEAR WATER HAIKU (1703-1775)”

  1. sadie says:

    ironically, I wrote haiku yesterday after photographing an egret setting down. I read this eagerly. nice flow. Beautiful. the ending leaves a tear in my eye. Thank you

  2. Maureen says:

    Chiyo-ni’s story was a delight to read. With the contemporary times it was nice to see she was encouraged to pursue her writing. Japan was a mystery to the outside world during that era.
    Beyond the Jesuits, few westerners were welcomed in Japan. This story gives a glimpse into what was essentially a hidden society and their culture.
    It seems Chiyo-in’s writings were quite influential. To be commission by a feudal lord to inscribe her poems on gifts for diplomacy/business relationship that was groundbreaking.
    In Japan, Zen Buddhists include as part of their meditation practices reading and writing haiku poetry. They believe it enhances the skill of mindfulness and attentive listening. I can image Chiyo-ni’s poetry is read as part of this custom. It’s inspiring to know her work is now getting exposure in the West. Thanks for sharing this lovely tale. As always well written and inspiring.

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