The Tales of Ise

The Tales of Ise (伊勢物語 Ise monogatari) is a collection of Japanese waka (a type of poetry in classical Japanese literature), poems, and narratives dating back to the Heian period (794–1185). The latest version includes 125 sections of a combination of poems and prose, a total of 209 poems in a lot of the versions. It was initially written sometime in 980 as Ise monogatari. It was one of the poem tales (uta monogatari) that became a popular literary genre in the late 10th century and the literary diary form that preceded it.

The true identity of the nameless central character is still unclear, though many believe him to be Ariwara no Narihira (825–880), a Japanese courtier and waka poet who is considered to be one of Japan’s poetic geniuses. He is included in the list of the Six Poetic Geniuses or “six poetry immortals”, (Rokkasen), six Japanese poets of the mid-ninth century who were named in the Kokin Wakashū (905–914), “Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times”, and were considered to be notable poets of the generation.

Ariwara no Narihira

Ariwara no Narihira is also among the Thirty-Six Poetic Geniuses, “Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry” (Sanjūrokkasen), a group of Japanese poets of the Asuka, Nara, and Heian periods.

The Kokin Wakashū included similar headnotes that were all attributed to Ariwara no Narihira. The similarity of events in Narihira’s life and combination of the poems in the tales ultimately led to the suggestion that he composed the Tales of Ise, though some material and events that date after 880 suggest otherwise.

Episode 9 of the Tales of Ise: journeying to the East, the hero gives a poem to a hermit on mount Utsu; corresponding calligraphy by a courtier.

The Tales of Ise is also believed to have been the earliest-known adaptation made for children, created in 1766. The book was discovered accidentally by a Cambridge university lecturer, Laura Moretti, at the British Library while on a research trip with her students. She came across an unusual volume of familiar stories titled, The Fashionable Ise: The Origins of Utagaruta. The picture book contained adaptations of the Tales of Ise which shows the main character as a young boy, for young readers to identify with the character. Simpler phonetic characters were also used in the book to make it easier for children with at least two years of schooling to read.