Ema Saikō, poet, painter, and renouncer of feminine ideals

Ema Saikō was a celebrated Japanese woman poet, calligrapher, and painter. Situated in Ōgaki and supported in her endeavours by scholar father Ema Ransai, she was one of the few female artists of the time to be housed in her own studio, committed to her work to the extent she rejected the Edo feminine ideals of marriage and child-rearing. By her own admission, “there is no need to mourn not having children as her paintings will be her legacy.”[1] Perhaps this is indicative of her renouncement of gendered norms, however her predicament also signals her as a woman born into a family of means, and therefore not reliant on a husband. As Nagase notes, “Indeed, Saikō’s poems seem to allow us an authentic glimpse into her psyche as well as the cultural and social circumstances affecting her life;”[2] Saikō’s poems are useful as a vehicle into an Edo women’s thoughts and emotions, however it is important to remember her position as a high status woman. Her experiences, although relatable in many aspects, are not always applicable to the general demographic of women in this era. Furthermore, Saikō openly rejected what she referred to as the “three obediences,”[3] in other words, submission to father, husband, and son. In her poem titled Occasional, Saikō notes, “in a previous life I must have been a nun,”[4] perhaps a reference to her voluntary solitude. This nature of rebellion, combined with her own personal confession of prioritizing academia and the arts over her physical appearance, places Saikō in a position of power through the expression of her unconventional femininity. Saikō’s autonomy as a woman and a poet is revolutionary; it seems that Saikō was generally well regarded by her contemporaries. However, her mentor Rai San’yō, although mostly captivated by Saikō’s talent, seemed at times ambivalent to her chosen themes, and occasionally discouraged by Saikō’s use of the popularised masculine writing style of this time. When reviewing one of her pieces he noted: “this is wonderfully dynamic, but it does not employ feminine language. If it had been written by a man it would be truly a masterpiece.”[5] Nevertheless, Saikō’s art remains inherently female due to her reflection and expression of the world through a female gaze; work from women is feminine in nature, no matter the style of language used. As expressed by Fister, “Saikō’s ‘femininity’ was clearly at odd with Rai San’yō’s image of feminine poetic style, but since her poems express her feelings as a woman, they should be considered ‘feminine’ regardless of the language.”[6] Furthermore, Saikō’s creation of a scroll collaborating the work of twenty-two female artists indicates her stance as an inclusive artist; this piece was a celebration of feminine artistry, as well as symbolising her mindfulness of her position as a female in a male-dominated sphere. As we can see in Bamboo and Chrysanthemum (1832), Saikō followed Edo convention by combining poetry with the theme of nature. Saikō was one of the many women artists of the Edo period to combine this kanshi with ink painting, specifically imagery of wildlife.

 

Ema Saikō, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum, 1832 [ink], Tokyo National Museum. Please click here to view.  

 

[1] Cited by Fister 1997, p. 5.

[2] Nagase 2014, p. 279.

[3] Fister 1997, p. 4.

[4] Ema 1997, p. 318.

[5] Cited by Fister 1997, p. 5.

[6] Fister 1997, p. 5.