Iwasa Miyoko 岩佐美代子 (1926–2020)

Christina Laffin's picture

It is with sadness that I report the death of Iwasa Miyoko 岩佐美代子, a scholar of Heian and Kamakura literature whose foundational research on medieval poetry, interpretations of court women’s diaries, and annotations of poetry collections drew from a vast depth of poetic knowledge and set the bar for careful study. Professor Iwasa was known for bringing scholarly attention to the study of Kyōgoku-ha poets, and her annotations and research on the poetry of Eifukumon-in (1271–1342) and the literary circle of Retired Emperor Fushimi. Her ability to get to the heart of poetry and its interpretation made her a formidable presence at scholarly gatherings. A graduate of Joshi Gakushūin Kōtōka, she taught at Komazawa University and Tsurumi University and received her PhD from Rikkyō University.


Iwasa was born in Tokyo in 1926. Her mother, Kodama Naka 児玉ナカ, was the granddaughter of Kodama Gentarō 児玉源太郎 (1852–1906), who served as a general during the Russo-Japanese War and later became a politician. Her father, Hozumi Shigetō 穂積重遠 (1883–1951) was a legal scholar and grandson of the government official and Meiji-era entrepreneur and industrialist Shibusawa Eiichi 渋沢栄一 (1840–1931). Through her father’s work with the imperial family in postwar Japan, Iwasa became a friend and study mate of Princess Teru (Higashikuni Shigeko 東久邇成子, 1925–1961), the eldest daughter of Emperor Shōwa. This inside-view into imperial life in modern Japan and her in-depth approach to reading premodern literary sources gave her a unique commentarial perspective. Lynne Miyake has written about this aspect of Iwasa’s scholarship in “Through the Eyes of a Twentieth-Century Court Lady: Gender, Class, and the Challenge to the Field of Classical Japanese Literature” (US-Japan Women’s Journal, English Supplement 18 (2000), which draws from Iwasa’s Nyōbō no me 女房の眼 (Kasama shoin, 1988). Her life and writing was later chronicled by Iwata Nanatsu in Iwasa Miyoko no me: koten wa konnani omoshiroi 岩佐美代子の眼―古典はこんなにおもしろい (Kasama shoin, 2010).


Professor Iwasa’s editing and annotating of Eifukumon-in’s poetry along with the monograph Kyōgoku kajin no kenkyū 京極派歌人の研究 (Kasama shoin, 1974) opened up new areas of research to a generation of scholars. In addition to essay collections on the court writing and the pleasures of reading premodern Japanese literature, Professor Iwasa brought scholarly attention and practical approaches to women’s court literature through numerous articles and chapters on works ranging from Makura no sōshi and Izumi Shikibu nikki to Towazugatari and Takemukigaki. A series of her essays on women’s court writing were published in two volumes by Kasama shoin in 1999 as Kyūtei joryū bungaku dokkai kō: sōron (chūko hen; chūsei hen) 宮廷女流文学読解考―総論 中古編、中世編.


Highly prolific, she provided greater access to many literary works through the publication of new editions, annotations, and reproductions, including:

Fūga wakashū 風雅和歌集 (co-edited with Kasumi Tsugita from Miyai shoten, 1974 and Kasama shoin shoin, 2002–2004)

Bunkidan 文机談 (Kasama shoin, 1989 and 2007)

Izayoi nikki 十六夜日記 (SNKBT, Iwanami shoten, 1994)

Gyokuyō wakashū 玉葉和歌集(Kasama shoin, 1996)

Eifukumon-in hyakuban jika awase 永福門院百番自歌合 (Kasama shoin, 2003)

Nakatsukasa no Naishi nikki 中務侍日記 (reproduction from Izumi shoin, 1982 and annotation from Kasama shoin, 2006)

Fujiwara no Tameie’s Shūshika 秋思歌 and his daughter GoSaga-in no Dainagon no Tenji’s Shūmushū 秋夢集 (Seikansha, 2008)

Fujiwara no Tameie’s imperial anthology poems and Eiga ittai 詠歌一躰 (Seikansha, 2010) Takemukigaki 竹むきが記 (Kasama shoin, 2011).

Sanuki no Suke nikki 讃岐典侍日記 (Kasama shoin, 2012)

Izumi Shikibu nikki 和泉式部日記 (Kasama shoin, 2013) 

Early Kyōgoku-ha poetry 京極派揺籃期和歌新注 (Seikansha, 2015)


Her annotation of the poetry of Retired Emperor Kōgon (Kōgon-in gyoshū zen’yaku 光厳院御集全釈, Kasama shoin, 2000) won the Yomiuri Literary Prize in 2001. At the age of ninety, she completed an annotation of one thousand poems by Fujiwara no Tameie: Tameie senshu 為家千首 (Kasama shoin, 2016).


Many of us had the pleasure of witnessing Professor Iwasa’s erudition and humour at conferences and benkyōkai where she would often swiftly overturn accepted readings while revealing an approach deeply immersed in Heian and medieval writings. Outside her scholarly writings, she was an avid reader of detective fiction and a crafter of colourful temari and origami hina ningyō, many of which made their way into the hands of the scholars she guided. Professor Iwasa passed on January 17 at the age of 93 (https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/culture/20200117-OYT1T50210/). Her engaging wit, pithy reevaluations of literary works, youthful energy, and generosity in sharing her knowledge will be missed.


Christina Laffin


Dr. Christina Laffin

Associate Professor, Canada Research Chair in Premodern Japanese Literature and Culture

Department of Asian Studies

The University of British Columbia | Vancouver Campus | Musqueam Traditional Territory

607-1871 West Mall | Vancouver BC | V6T1Z2 Canada

Phone 604 822 4990

christina.laffin@ubc.ca | @ChristinaLaffin