Explores how preacher-entertainers in late-Heian and medieval Japan used apocryphal tales of women in competitive, sectarian, passionate rhetorical performances


According to a sixteenth-century Japanese commentary on the Lotus Sutra, the venerable Chinsō Kashō was once preaching on the “ten wickednesses of women” when an angry old nun stepped out from the audience and shouted, “It’s not just women who are so evil—you’ve got plenty of wickedness in you, too!” Women were reviled in much of the popular Buddhist rhetoric of medieval Japan, castigated for their “filthy femininity,” but their low spiritual status was in fact frequently contested. This dispute over the place of women in Buddhism was often played out in the realm of medieval preachers’ and storytellers’ apocryphal tales of the lives, deaths, and inevitable religious awakenings of prominent female literary figures of an earlier age. Inspired by the folklorist Yanagita Kunio’s groundbreaking work of the early 1930s, Preachers, Poets, Women, and the Way explores the ways in which such fictional and usually scandalous stories of the Heian women authors Izumi Shikibu, Ono no Komachi, Murasaki Shikibu, and Sei Shōnagon were employed in the competitive preaching and fund-raising of late-Heian and medieval Japan.The book draws upon a broad range of medieval textual and pictorial sources to describe the diverse and heretofore little-studied roles of itinerant and temple-based preacher-entertainers in the formation and dissemination of medieval literary culture. By plumbing the medieval roots of Heian women poets’ contemporary fame, Preachers, Poets, Women, and the Way illuminates a forgotten world of doctrinal and institutional rivalry, sectarian struggle, and passionately articulated belief, revealing the processes by which Izumi Shikibu and her peers came to be celebrated as the national cultural icons that they are today.

R. Keller Kimbrough is Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He completed his PhD at Yale University and has held teaching positions at the University of Michigan, the Unive

“In Preachers, Poets, Women, and the Way, Keller Kimbrough has produced a masterwork of research and dedication. Examining a variety of stories from Japan’s medieval period about famous Heian-period women poets—especially Izumi Shikibu—he considers who told these takes, in what contexts, for what audiences, and to what purpose. Kimbrough reveals a complex web of preachers, prostitutes, and temple fundraisers who recited the poetry and embellished accounts of the lives of aristocratic Heian women in order to justify their own convictions about morality, sexuality, and the place of women in Buddhist soteriology. One will never regard the enduring fame of such classical authors as Murasaki Shikibu, Izumi Shikibu, or Sei Shonagon in quite the same light again.”
—Joshua S. Mostow, University of British Columbia

"Expansive in scope, this panoramic investigation covers works from the Heian era into the late medieval and early modern periods ... and adds significantly to the study not only of how Izumi Shikibu's specific figure was shaped according to various religious agendas, but of medieval literature more generally.... [This book] represents an important contribution to the field of premodern Japanese literature. It sheds light on numerous works that have received less attention than they deserve, and encourages us to think thoroughly about the genealogy of figures whose fame and supposed life stories we tend to take for granted.—Terry Kawashima, The International Journal of Asian Studies