Suma-ku in Kobe

One meisho or famous location that is often referenced in Japanese literature and arts are the bay of Suma. Though described in the Kokinshū as being in the, province of Tsu, (1) Suma is known in the present day as being within Kobe in Kansai Prefecture. Contrary to its current status as a popular summer destination, the literary depictions of Suma evoke, “autumnal loneliness and melancholy” with imagery such as, “salt fires, fishermen, smoke trailing in the sky” (2). Amongst seafaring peoples, saltmaking ama particularly embody Suma’s melancholic aura, as their sleeves “wet with brine,” (3) convey tears, while the rising saltfire proclaims, “her unhappy love to all.” (4) For this reason, many examples of poetry use female ama to indicate romantic yearning (5), making their presence in Suma thematically relevant.

Suma makes a noteworthy appearance in Tale of Genji, as its somber atmosphere is reflected in the subplot of Genji’s exile. During this portion of the book, Genji’s thoughts, “dwell endlessly on those he has left behind in the capital,” (6) and he expresses his longing in a letter to one of his lovers, conflating the motifs of a passionate fire and tearful brine:

“How long, languishing here at Suma on the shore, must I dream and mourn while the briny drops rain down on the seafolk’s fuel of care” (7)

Yearning enters in the consecutive Akashi chapter, in which Genji falls in love with Lady Akashi, who he is also forced to leave temporarily, causing her great anxiety in the Miotsukushi chapter. (8) As many characters display anguish from longing and separation, Suma’s environment, alongside Genji’s exile, “signifies the urban versus the rural.” (9) The maritime motifs of Suma illustrate a distance between the coastal world and that of the capital, both physically in terms of its natural topography, and culturally in terms of the livelihoods of its inhabitants. This, in turn, creates a sense of longing common in other examples of travel literature, which is compounded by the seasonal association of Suma with autumn.

In Zeami’s Noh play, Matsukaze, Yukihira is a male courtier exiled to Suma who enters a romance with two ama or seafolk (10). Thematically, this is similar to the Tale of Genji, but also relies on similar literary tropes in illustrating the climate of Suma. The play opens during an autumn afternoon, (11) with a wandering priest who after praying for the souls of two ama, takes shelter in a salt house or shioya (12). The motifs in this introduction set the tone for the rest of the play, which focuses on the story of these two sisters, who lament the departure and eventual death of Yukihira, their former lover. Though this Noh play was inspired by Tale of Genji in certain ways, the Suma”arc of the Tale of Genji is actually based on Yukihira’s historical exile (13). The account of Yukihira’s exile is itself mentioned in the Kokinshū, where he sends the following poem while in exile:

“Should one perchance ask after me, say that, on Suma shore, salt, sea-tangle drops are falling as I grieve.” (14)

This is one of the first (if not the first) instance in which the themes of yearning and separation are expressed in the likeness of seawater to tears.

There are numerous references to Suma in waka poetry, Noh theatre, and travel literature, which like the examples above, allude to other major works in Japanese literature. For example, Yasuhara Teishitsu composed this poem in reference Yukihira’s story during his mid-autumn stay at Suma:

“From under the shade of the Pine trees / I gaze at the beautiful moon of the fifteenth, / remembering the story of Middle Councillor Yukihira.” (15)

The fifteenth night of the eighth month is associated with the story of Yukihira’s exile, and coincidentally, is referenced in Tale of Genji in the Suma chapter (16). In this sense, the associations with Suma throughout literature and arts create a wide web of references not only to the location but to other works, characteristic of utamakura.



(1) Tyler, The No Play Matsukaze as a Transformation of Genji Monogatari, 380

(2) Sugimoto, “Western” Lyricism and the Uses of Theory in Premodern Japanese Literature, 48

(3) Tyler, The No Play Matsukaze as a Transformation of Genji Monogatari, 394

(4) Ibid., 394

(5) Ibid., 395

(6) Ibid., 380

(7) Tyler, Tale of Genji, 242

(8) Ibid., 290

(9) Sugimoto, “Western” Lyricism and the Uses of Theory in Premodern Japanese Literature, 395

(10) Tyler, The No Play Matsukaze as a Transformation of Genji Monogatari, 379

(11) Ibid., 379

(12) Ibid., 379

(13) Ibid., 380

(14) Ibid., 380

(15) Plutschow, Japanese Travel Diaries of the Middle Ages, 86

(16) Tyler, The No Play Matsukaze as a Transformation of Genji Monogatari, 377


Works Cited

Bundy, Roselee. “Santai Waka: Six Poems in Three Modes Part 2”. Monumenta Nipponica 49.3 (1994): 261–286.

Plutschow, Herbert Eugen. “Japanese Travel Diaries of the Middle Ages”. Oriens Extremus 29.1/2 (1982): 1–136.

Rei, Kubukihara, and Edith Sarra. “Various Aspects of Diary and Travel Literature”. Review of Japanese Culture and Society 19 (2007): 30–56.

Sugimoto, Michael. “”western” Lyricism and the Uses of Theory in Premodern Japanese Literature”. Comparative Literature Studies 39.4 (2002): 386–408.

Tyler, Royall. Tale of Genji. Vol. 1. New York: Viking, 2001.

Tyler, Royall. “The No Play Matsukaze as a Transformation of Genji Monogatari”. Journal of Japanese Studies 20.2 (1994): 377–422


Contributor: Conor McCann
(Edited by Elle Marsh)