Heian Poetess Breaks into Pop Culture

Once in a while on Facebook some headlines or links pop-up that catch my eye. I was happy to see this one the other day from a website called Tofugu:


Usually Japanese blogs/websites are really pop culture focused or are about all the weird things in Japan. I was pleasantly surprised to see this one about the classical poetess Ono no Komachi 小野小町. I’m currently teaching an introductory Japanese literature class, so anything that I can show my students that makes classical Japanese poets/poetry “cool” is fine with me!

I have to admit, before moving to Akita I really did not know too much about the Heian era poetess Ono no Komachi. While living in Hokkaidō, my co-worker Iba-sensei gave me a book to borrow, a new translation of the Ogura hyakunin isshu by Peter McMilan. Ono no Komachi is one of the 100 poets who appear in that poetry anthology, so I was familiar with her because of that book (which I really enjoyed reading and strongly recommend to all readers–fans of J-lit or not!)

In Akita City, Ono no Komachi’s image is everywhere and her name is used to advertise and market just about everything. I’ll have to start posting pictures of all the places that I see her image/name being used. It would be an exhausting effort, but I’d like to show just how ridiculous this Ono no Komachi branding has become.

I have not been in Japan long, but I suspect that the Ono no Komachi branding in Akita started because of the isson ippin 一村一品 movement of the 80’s. Back in the 80’s local campaigns meant to revitalize small town economies started popping up all over Japan. Isson ippin means “one village, one product.” The purpose is to take a product and market the hell out of it in an attempt to get people to buy it, and blow some life into the economy. This movement is not limited to solitary products, but also includes towns building and marketing the hell out of places like museums or aquariums, and slapping images of famous personalities all over the place.


Akita (like almost everywhere else in Japan) is “known” for its “delicious” rice, which has been come to be known as… <drum roll>…”Komachi rice.”

10 kgs of Akita Komachi rice, featuring the name of Ono no Komachi, and the image with which she is closely associated with these days, a bijin 美人 (“beautiful woman”).


What is “Komachi rice”? Is it a whole different genetic strand of japonica rice (one of the two most widely harvested rices in Asia)? Regardless, here, with the rice, is one example of the one village, one product movement. Rice is rice–who cares?! But when you tag “Akita Komachi” to the front of it, you’ve got an Akita brand. People buy this rice as souvenirs to take back to Tokyo or wherever, restaurants advertise that they use it in their food, and I imagine that it is exclusively sold in Akita or by specialty shops in other cities that sell only Akita goods, which I sometimes see.

The kicker is that it is unknown where Ono no Komachi is from, she may not even be from Akita. She may just as well be from northern Yamagata, or Fukushima, or Tokyo. Even the dates of her birth and death are unknown. What has happened though is that Akita has appropriated her image and myth and has claimed ownership of it.

However regardless of where she is from, she is an important figure in Heian literature, Japanese women’s literature, and Tohoku regional literature.

Enjoy the Tofugu article!


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