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Reviewed by:
  • Preachers, Poets, Women, and the Way: Izumi Shikibu and the Buddhist Literature of Medieval Japan
  • Margaret H. Childs
Preachers, Poets, Women, and the Way: Izumi Shikibu and the Buddhist Literature of Medieval Japan. By R. Keller Kimbrough. University of Michigan, Center for Japanese Studies, 2008. 274 pages. Hardcover $75.00; softcover $29.00.

In Preachers, Poets, Women, and the Way R. Keller Kimbrough explores how and why Izumi Shikibu became so prevalent a character in stories used by Buddhist fundraisers and proselytizers, the influence of these Buddhist tales on her appearance in later, secular tales (otogizōshi), and the role of gender in the writing and telling of tales about her. He argues that, paradoxically, the reputations of Izumi Shikibu and other Heian women writers were enhanced by these stories, despite the misogyny implicit in them. This is an ambitious project, but Kimbrough has tackled it with meticulous scholarship, impressive insight, and balanced judgment. His focus is literary [End Page 381] history, but there is a sprinkling of literary analysis as well. The six translations (four tales and two excerpts), though placed at the end, should be read first, because most of them are so fully reviewed in the text that they become redundant, a sad fate for what are in fact lively stories.

In chapter 1, "Setsuwa Sources and the Origins of an Affair," Kimbrough traces the literary evidence of an alleged affair between Izumi Shikibu and the priest Dōmyō, beginning with their juxtaposition in a list of poets found in a verse in Ryōjin hishō, a late twelfth-century compilation of contemporary popular song. He reports that Dōmyō's skill in Lotus Sutra recitation and Izumi Shikibu's use of a phrase from that sutra in her most famous poem, as well as their respective ties to Tennōji, are thought to have been the starting point for stories that link them romantically.

The second chapter, "Mice in the Koto: the Otogizōshi Kotohara," examines the implications of a fifteenth-century tale comprising two anecdotes about Izumi Shikibu and Dōmyō and focusing on the supernatural powers of poetry and sutra recitation. In the process, Kimbrough points out continuities between yūjo (medieval female entertainers who practiced both prostitution and storytelling) and Heian women poets. He speculates that the latter came to be seen as courtesans because "their names and poetry were used in preaching and storytelling by and/or to yūjo" (p. 64).

Next, Kimbrough takes up the otogizōshi Izumi Shikibu, wherein Dōmyō turns out to be the son Izumi Shikibu abandoned as an infant and her discovery of that inadvertent incestuous relationship impels her to take up a life of Buddhist practice. Kimbrough analyzes this tale in depth, comparing it to other accounts of incest in Japanese literature and also noting its "strong female orientation"—in that it tells of a woman's religious awakening from her point of view (p. 94)—and proposing that the tale grew out of the medieval proselytizing milieu rather than from the Heian literary tradition.

In chapter 4, "Tendai Tales: Sangoku denki and the Lotus Sutra Commentaries," Kimbrough examines a tale in which Izumi Shikibu seeks religious instruction from a priest, Shōkū Shōnin, who uses misogynist Buddhist teachings to mask his own fear of women. Upon reading a poem left behind by Izumi Shikibu in which she alludes to the Lotus Sutra with the phrase "from darkness into a path of darkness," the priest relents; welcomes Izumi Shikibu and her female companions into his presence; and offers them a copy of the Lotus Sutra, explaining that it represents a way for even women to attain buddhahood. Kimbrough discusses additional Tendai school commentaries that include the same poem, showing that it was mentioned frequently in the genre; such references apparently helped to preserve Izumi Shikibu's reputation as a great poet as well as served as a means for Tendai priests to enliven their difficult explanations of Tendai theology.

Kimbrough devotes chapter 5, "Pure Land Proselytizing Traditions of Seiganji Temple," to reviewing histories of Seiganji that employ the same motif of Izumi Shikibu's quest for religious instruction from Shōk...


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