Sekidera Komachi

Keene translation: Brazell, Karen

About the electronic version
Sekidera Komachi
Keene translation: Brazell, Karen
Creation of machine-readable version: Charlotte Robertson and Winnie Chan
Creation of digital images:
Conversion to TEI.2-conformant markup: University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center.
University of Virginia Library.
Charlottesville, Va.


   Japanese Text Initiative

Note: (ETC) The text has been given an id of KeeSeki because this edition is commonly referred to as the Keene translation.
About the print version
Sekidera Komachi
Twenty Plays of the No Theatre
Karen Brazell Editor Donald Keene

   1st Edition

Columbia University Press
New York

   Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies, number LXXXV

   Prepared for the University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center.

Published: 1970

Revisions to the electronic version
September 1997 corrector Catherine Tousignant, Electronic Text Center
  • Added milestones to correspond with TylSeki.

  • February 1997 corrector Winnie Chan
  • Added TEI header and tags.

  • Commercial use prohibited; all usage governed by our Conditions of Use:

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        Komachi at Sekidera belongs to the third category. It was probably written by Zeami, though some authorities hesitate to make the attribution. The play is considered to be the loftiest and most difficult of the entire No repertory. In the past century only a few great actors at the close of their careers have ventured to perform it. It enjoys its high reputation because it celebrates, with the most exquisite simplicity, the bittersweet delight of being alive. Childhood, maturity, extreme old age, the pleasure and pain of life, are immediately communicated. The play conveys a timeless moment in the brief interval between birth and death. Its subject is poetry. Much of the great poetry in No lies somewhat outside the main Japanese poetic traditions, but Komachi at Sekidera is at once a superb No play and a splendid expression of the sources of Japanese poetry. The shite role is considered so difficult because there is little an actor can add to the text unless he is supremely gifted. During the first hour of the performance Komachi hardly stirs.

        The setting is wonderfully appropriate. The time is the festival of Tanabata, the seventh night of the seventh month: the one night of the year when the Cowherd star can cross the River of Heaven to join the Weaver-girl star. On earth all are celebrating

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    the lovers' brief reunion. Even at Sekidera, a place of quiet renunciation, the priests and child acolytes are about to observe the festival. But while talking about poetry with the aged woman who lives in a hut nearby, the abbot of the temple discovers she is none other than Ono no Komachi.

        Komachi, a woman of great beauty and literary gifts, lived at the Heian court during the ninth century. She became a legend in later times, with many apocryphal stories surrounding the few known biographical facts. Five No plays about Komachi are in the present repertory; Komachi and the Hundred Nights presents another aspect of the Komachi legend, and Sotoba Komachi (translated in Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature) ranks nearly on a level with Komachi at Sekidera.

        The structure of the play is classic, and remarkable for its economy and simplicity. Nothing jars, nothing is wasted. The moment when Komachi admits her identity to the Abbot is particularly touching because so unaffected.

        Sekidera ("The Barrier Temple") still exists at Otsu, a city east of Kyoto; its modern name is Choanji.

        Komachi at Sekidera is in the repertory of all schools of No.

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    The Abbot of Sekidera (waki):
    Two Priests (wakizure):
    A Child (kokata):
    Ono No Komachi (shite):



    Sekidera in Omi province



    The beginning of autumn: the seventh day of the seventh month

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    [ The stage assistants bring forward a simple construction representing a hut with a thatched roof. It is covered with a cloth. The Old Woman is inside.
    As the music begins the Child, the Abbot, and two Priests enter and face each other onstage. The Abbot and the Priests carry rosaries.

    Three Priests

    So long awaited, autumn has come at last,
    So long awaited, the lovers' autumn meeting!
    Now let us begin the Festival of Stars.

    [ The Abbot faces front. ]


        I am the chief priest of Sekidera in Omi. Today, the seventh day of the Seventh month, we come to celebrate the Festival of Stars here in the temple garden. People say that the old woman who has built her hut at the foot of the mountain knows all the secrets of the art of poetry. So, on this festive day dedicated to poetry, I am going to take the young people to hear her stories.

    [ He turns to the Child. ]

    Three Priests

    Early autumn comes and brings a touch of chill.
    We feel it in the wind and in our thinning locks.
    Soon, soon the Seventh Night will be on us.

    [ The Abbot faces front. ]


    We bring offerings for the festival today,
    The music of flutes and strings,

    Two Priests

    And many poems


    Composed in our native tongue.

    [ He turns to the Child. ]

    Three Priests

    Our prayers for skill at poetry are decked
    With brightly colored streamers:
    Fluttering ribbons, each a token of prayer,
    Like silk threads woven into rich brocades
    On looms of autumn flowers
    And pampas grass pearly with dew.

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    The winds in the pines

    [ The Abbot faces front, takes a few steps, then returns to his former position, indicating he has made a journey. ]

    Blend with the strings of the koto
    To make music for the offerings tonight,
    Our offerings for this festive night.

    [ The Abbot and his companions are now at their destination. ]


        Here is the hut now. Let us call on the old woman.

    [ To the Child. ]

        But first, please sit down.

    [ All kneel. A stage assistant removes the cloth around the hut, revealing the Old Woman seated inside. Paper strips inscribed with poems hang from the crossbars of the hut frame. The Old Woman wears the uba mask. ]

    Old Woman

    Days go by without a single bowl of food;
    Whom can I ask for one?
    At night my tattered rags fail to cover me,
    But there is no way to patch the rents.
    Each passing rain
    Ages the crimson of the flowers;
    The willows are tricked by the wind,
    And their green gradually droops.
    Man has no second chance at youth;
    He grows old. The aged song thrush
    Warbles again when spring has come,
    But time does not revert to the past.
    Oh, how I yearn for the days that are gone!
    What would I do to recapture the past!

    [ She weeps. The Abbot and the Child rise, and go to kneel before her. ]


        Old woman, we have come to speak with you.

    Old Woman

        Who are you?


        I am a priest from Sekidera. These young people are students of poetry. They have heard of your talent, and I have brought them here to question you about poetry and to learn something of your life.

    Old Woman

        This is an unexpected visit! The log buried in the earth has been so long forgotten you must not expect it will put forth new sprouts. 6 Just remember this: If you will make

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    your heart the seed and your words the blossoms, 7 if you will steep yourself in the fragrance of the art, you will not fail to accomplish true poetry. But how praiseworthy that mere boys should cherish a love of poetry!


        May I ask you about a poem everyone knows, "The Harbor of Naniwa?" 8 Do you agree that it should be used as a first guide?

    Old Woman

        Indeed I do. Poetry goes back to the Age of the Gods, but the meters were then irregular and the meanings difficult to understand. "The Harbor of Naniwa," however, belongs to the Age of Man. It was composed for the joyous occasion of an emperor's enthronement, and has long been beloved for that reason. 9


        The poem about Mount Asaka, which once soothed the heart of a prince, is also beautifully written. 10

    Old Woman

    Truly, you understand the art,
    For those two poems are the parents of all poetry.


    They serve as models for beginners.

    Old Woman

    Noblemen and peasantry alike,


    City dwellers and country folk,

    Old Woman

    Even commoners like ourselves


    Take pleasure in composing poetry

    Old Woman

    Following the promptings of our hearts.


    Though the sands lapped by the waves
    Of the lake in Omi should run out,
    Though the sands of the shore should melt away,

    [ The Abbot and the Child return to kneel with the Priests. ]

    The words of poetry will never fail.
    They are enduring as evergreen boughs of pine,
    Continuous as trailing branches of willow;
    For poetry, whose source and seed is found
    In the human heart, is everlasting.
    Though ages pass and all things vanish,
    As long as words of poetry remain,
    Poems will leave their marks behind,
    And the traces of poetry will never disappear.


        Thank you for your words of explanation. It is true that countless poems survive from the past, but they are rarely by

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    women. Few women know as much as you about poetry. Tell me -- the poem

    "I know my lover
    Is coming tonight --
    See how the spider
    Spins her web:
    That is a sure sign!"

       Was that not by a woman?

    Old Woman

        Yes, that poem was written long ago by Princess Sotori, the consort of Emperor Ingyo. I tried, if only in form. to master her style.


        Ah! You have studied the style of Princess Sotori? I have heard that Ono no Komachi, who's so much talked of these days, wrote in that style. 13

    "Wretched that I am --
    A floating water weed,
    Broken from its roots --
    If a stream should beckon,
    I would follow it, I think."

       That poem is by Komachi.

    Old Woman

        Yes, once my husband, Oe no Koreaki, took up with another woman, and I grieved at the fickleness of the world. Then, Funya no Yasuhide 14 invited me to accompany him to Mikawa, where he was to be the governor. I wrote that poem in response to his urging and to his promises that life in the country would bring solace.

    Alas, memories of the past!
    So long forgotten, they rise up again
    Before me as I talk to you.
    Tears well up from my suffering heart.

    [ She weeps. ]


        Strange! This old woman says she wrote the poem "Wretched that I am." And she says she wrote in the Sotori style, just as Komachi did. She must be nearly a hundred years old, and if Komachi were still alive today. . . . And is there any reason why she couldn't be? It must be so! [ to the Old Woman. ]
    You are what is left of Ono no Komachi. Do not deny it.

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    Old Woman

        Ah, I burn with shame to be called Komachi, I who wrote

    "With no outward sign


    It withers --
    The flower in the human heart."

       How ashamed I am to be seen!

    "Wretched that I am --
    A floating water weed,
    Broken from its roots --
    If a stream should beckon,
    I would follow it, I think."

       How ashamed I am!

    [ She weeps. ]

    "Hide them though I may,
    The tears keep flowing,
    Too many for my sleeves to hold --
    A rain of tears dissolving
    Everything except the past."

       Now that my life has reached its end,
    Like a withered flower,
    Why should there still be tears?

    Old Woman

    "Longing for him,
    I fell asleep,
    Then he appeared before me . . ."


    The joy I felt when I composed those lines
    Is gone forever, but still my life goes on,
    Attending the months and years as they come and go.
    The dews of spring depart, and autumn frosts appear,
    The leaves and grasses turn, and insect voices fade.

    Old Woman

    My life is over, and now I see


    It was like a rose of Sharon that knows
    Only a single day of glory.
    "The living go on dying,
    The dead increase in number;
    Left in this world, ah --
    How long must I go on
    Lamenting for the dead?"
    And how long must I, who wrote that poem,
    Live on, like flowers fallen, like leaves scattered,

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    With nothing left but life -- dewlike, they always said.
    Oh, how I long for the past!
    My middle years were spent in yearning
    For the distant glory of my youth.
    Now even those days of wistful recollection
    Have become such ancient history
    I find myself wishing, if not for youth,
    At least for middle age.
    Long ago, wherever I spent a single night
    My room would be bright with tortoise shell,
    Golden flowers hung from the walls,
    And in the door were strings of crystal beads. 20
    Brilliant as the Emperor's chair in grand procession
    The jewellike gowns I wore, a hundred colors.
    I lay on bright brocaded quilts
    Within a pillowed bridal chamber.
    Look at it now, my mud-daubed hut!
    Can this be my resplendent room?

    Old Woman

    The temple bell of Sekidera


    Tolls the vanity of all creation --
    To ancient ears a needless lesson.
    A mountain wind blows down Osaka's slope
    To moan the certainty of death;
    Its message still eludes me.
    Yet, when blossoms scatter and leaves fall,
    Still in this hut I find my pleasure:
    Grinding ink, I dip my brush and write.
    My words are all dry, like seaweed on the shore.
    Touching, they once said, but lacking strength 21 --
    My poems lacked strength because they were a woman's.
    Now when I have grown decrepit
    My poems are weaker still. Their life is spent.
    How wretched it is to be old!

    [ She weeps. The Child turns to the Abbot. ]


        I'm afraid we'll be late for the Festival of Stars. Let's ask the old lady to come with us.

    [ The Abbot kneels before the Old Woman. ]


        Please join us on this Seventh Night, the Festival of Stars.

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    Old Woman

        Alas! An old woman should not intrude on such an occasion. I cannot go.

    [ She takes down the paper poem cards. ]


        What harm could come of it? Please come with us.

    [ He goes to the hut and helps the Old Woman to stand. ]


    The Seventh Night --
    How many years since first I offered the gods
    Bamboo tied with colored streamers?
    How long has shriveled old Komachi lived?

    [ Assisted by the Abbot and leaning on a staff, the Old Woman leaves the hut. ]

    Has Ono no Komachi reached a hundred years?
    Or even more?
    I who used to watch the Festival of Stars,
    Familiar of the noblest lords and ladies,

    [ She kneels beside the shite-pillar. The Abbot goes back beside the others. ]

    Now stand in shameful hempen rags!
    A sight too painful for eyes to bear!

    [ The Abbot weeps. ]

    Still, tonight we hold the Festival of Stars,

    [ The Child stands and mimes serving wine to the Old Woman. ]

    Tonight we celebrate the Seventh Night
    With multitudes of offerings for the stars.
    Prayer streamers hang from bamboo,

    [ While the following lines are being sung the Child goes to the gazing-pillar, moves clockwise around the stage, then stands at the center preparatory to beginning his dance. ]

    Music plays and cups of wine go round.
    The young dancer-look how gracefully
    He twirls his sleeves, like snow
    Swirling in the moonlight.

    [ The Old Woman, still seated, watches the Child dance. ]

    We celebrate the Festival of Stars,
    Streamers flutter from the bamboos . . .

    Old Woman

    May it be celebrated through ages as many
    As the joints of the bamboo!

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    [ The Old Woman, hardly aware of what she does, taps the rhythm with her fan. ]


    We pray for eternal prosperity;
    We dance the "Ten Thousand Years."

    [ The Child completes his dance, then sits as before. ]

    Old Woman

        How gracefully that boy has danced! I remember how, long ago in the Palace, the Gosechi dancing girls swirled their sleeves five times at the Harvest Festival. They say that if a madman runs, even the sane will run after him. But tonight the proverb is reversed! Enticed by the boy's floating sleeves, see how a madwoman prances!

    [ She stands with the aid of her staff and begins her dance. ]

    One hundred years --
    The dance of the butterfly
    Who dreamt he had spent
    A hundred years enfolded
    Within a flower petal.


    How sad it isl It breaks my heart
    A flowering branch on a withered tree!

    Old Woman

    I have forgotten how to move my hands.


    Unsteady feet, uncertain wave of sleeves,

    Old Woman

    Billow after billow, floating wave on wave.


    My dancing sleeves rise up,
    But sleeves cannot wave back the past.

    [ She goes before the hut. ]

    Old Woman

    I miss those vanished days!

    [ She kneels and weeps. ]


    But as I dance the early autumn night,
    The short night, gives way to dawn.
    The temple bell of Sekidera tolls.

    Old Woman

    A chorus of morning birdsong heralds


    The coming dawn, the day's approaching light,
    The dawn's fresh light that reveals my shame!
    Where is the forest of Hazukashi?

    [ She stands, propping herself on her staff. ]


    Where is the forest of Hazukashi?

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    There is no forest here to hide my shame.
    Farewell, I take my leave.
    Now, leaning heavily on her stick,
    She slowly returns to her straw hut.

    [ She enters the hut, sits and weeps. ]

    The hundred-year-old woman you have spoken to
    Is all that remains of famed Komachi,
    Is all that is left of Ono no Komachi.

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    1. The Tanabata Festival, of Chinese origin, is still celebrated in Japan on the seventh day of the seventh month. Bamboo branches are decorated with five-colored streamers and with slips on which poems have been written commemorating the lovers' meeting of the two stars.

    2. From some lines by PoChu-i included in the Wakan Roei Shu, no. 204: "Who could have arranged things so well? The sighing cool wind and my thinning locks at once announce autumn is here." A parallel is drawn between the coming of autumn in the world and the coming of autumn to the person, evidenced by the thinning locks.

    3. Many poets wrote in Chinese, especially on formal occasions, but the Japanese preferred their own language for their intimate feelings.

    4. The above three lines are based on a poem by the Consort Itsukinomiya in the Shuishu, no. 451.

    5. Derived from an anonymous poem in Chinese found in a commentary to the historical work Hyakurensho.

    6. Quoted, with slight modifications, from the preface to the Kokinshu.

    7. Also from the preface to the Kokinshu.

    8. This is the "Naniwazu" poem: "In Naniwa Harbor/ The flowers have come to the trees;/ They slept through the winter,/ But now it is the spring -- / See how the blossoms have opened!" The preface to the Kokinshu characterizes this poem and the one on Asakayama, Mount Asaka, as the "father and mother of poetry." Both poems are given considerable attention in The Reed Cutter.

    9. The poem was traditionally supposed to have been composed to encourage the future Emperor Nintoku, who reigned in the fourth century A.D., to accept the throne.

    10. The poem runs, literally: "Mount Asaka -- / Its reflection appears In the mountain spring/ That is not shallow, and of you/ My thoughts are not shallow either." The Prince of Kazuraki was sent to the distant province of Mutsu where he was badly received by the governor. He was so angry that he refused to eat, but the governor's daughter cheered him by offering saké and reciting this poem.

    11. Based on lines from the Kokinshu preface: "Though you count up my love you could never come to the end, not even if you could count every grain of sand on the shore of the wild sea."

    12. An anonymous poem, no. 1110 in the Kokinshu.
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    13. So stated in the preface to the Kokinshu.

    14. An early Heian poet, one of the "Six Immortals of Poetry," The explanation of the "Wretched that I am" poem was traditional.

    15. From poem no. 757 in the Kokinshu, by Komachi.

    16. A poem by Abe no Kiyoyuki, no. 556 in the Kokinshu.

    17. The first part of a poem by Komachi, no. 552 in the Kokinshu. The last two lines run: "If I had known it was a dream/ I should never have wakened."

    18. These lines are based on verses by Po Chü-i, no. 291 in the Wakan Roei Shu.

    19. A poem by Komachi, no. 850 in the Shinkokinshu.

    20. This description is based on a passage in the Tamatsukuri Komachi Sosuisho, a work in Chinese, apparently by a Buddhist priest of the Heian period, describing Komachi's decline and her eventual salvation.

    21. The appraisal of Komachi's poetry given in the preface to the Kokinshu.

    22. The name of a gagaku dance, Manzairaku.

    23. A reference to a poem by Oe no Masafusa in the collection Horikawa-in Ontoki Hyakushu Waka: "This world where I have dwelt a hundred years lodged in a flower is the dream of a butterfly." The poem in turn refers to a famous passage in Chuang Tzu. See The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (New York, 1968), translated by Burton Watson, p. 49.

    24. Hazukashi, the name of a wood near Kyoto, also has the meaning "ashamed."