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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 4 - Medieval Narrative  


Medieval Vernacular Literature in Japan

The Heian period of Japanese history, from the ninth to the thirteenth century, was an aristocratic age during which women were influential members of the royal court. In this respect the era bears some similarity to the twelfth century in Western Europe, when worship of the Virgin Mary and the ideals of courtly love glorified women--at least according to the norms approved by the dominant male patriarchal culture of the time.

During this epoch in Japan, the language of politics--the language of men--was Chinese; and the rise of the Japanese vernacular during the Heian period parallels the development of Italian, French, and English vernacular literature during the same time period in the west. However, the great transformation occurring in medieval Japan when the familiar tongue becomes the language of literature was largely the work of a group of women writers whose impact on their culture remained unparalleled in the West until women began to write novels in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Ladies-in-waiting in the courts and high-born women in the provinces spent their days writing poetry and keeping diaries. As the following excerpt makes clear, their nights were dedicated to other pursuits, which were difficult for them to discuss out loud. Thus the poems and the diaries became crucial vehicles for self-expression; indeed, the earliest diaries simply introduced poems of one's own composition, sent to friends as delicate records of the emotions that fueled these women's lives.

The greatest work of Japanese fiction, The Tale of Genji, was written by Lady Murasaki in the eleventh century. A complex novel of court romance and intrigue, the book was itself heir to a tradition of women's diaries and its subsequent popularity influenced many more women, like Lady Nijo, to record their secret thoughts in this form. The Confessions of Lady Nijo opens with the following account of her sexual initiation at the age of fourteen. Despite the shame she recreates here, she grew to love the Emperor GoFukakusa and might have married him. Her father died, however, leaving her without powerful protection, and so she lived as a courtesan for many years until she renounced the world to become a Buddhist nun.

Excerpt from The Confession Of Lady Nijo, Book 1 (1271)

...My father smiled at me: "His Majesty has announced that he will come here this evening because of a directional taboo, and since it's the first of the year, we'd like everything to be exactly right. I summoned you expressly to serve him."

"But it's not the eve of a seasonal change. What directional taboo brings him out here?"

"What a naive child you are," he replied amid the general laughter. How was I to understand?

They were setting up folding screens and small portable curtains in my bedroom. "Such preparations! Is my room going to be used, too?" But my questions were met with smiles instead of answers. No one would tell me a thing.

That evening a three-layered white gown and deep maroon pleated trousers were laid out for me to wear, and elaborate care was taken in scenting the house and placing the incense burners where they would be unnoticed. After the lamps had been lit, my stepmother brought me a gay small-sleeved gown and told me to put it on. Later my father came in, hung several gowns about the room for their decorative effect, and said to me, "Don't fall asleep before His Majesty arrives. Serve him well. A lady-in-waiting should never be stubborn, but should do exactly as she's told." Without the least idea what these instructions were all about and feeling bewildered by all the commotion, I leaned against the brazier and fell asleep.

What happened after that I am not sure. His Majesty GoFukakusa arrived without my knowing it, and there must have been great excitement when my father welcomed him and refreshments were served, but I was innocently sleeping. When GoFukakusa overheard the flustered cries of "Wake her up!" he said, "It's all right, let her sleep," so no one disturbed me.

I don't know how long I had slept leaning against the brazier just inside the sliding door, my outer gown thrown up over my head, but I suddenly awakened to find the lights dim, the curtains lowered, and inside the sliding door, right beside me, a man who had made himself comfortable and fallen fast asleep.

"What is this?" I cried. No sooner did I get up to leave, than His Majesty wakened. Without rising he began to tell me how he had loved me ever since I was a child, how he had been waiting until now when I was fourteen, and so many other things that I have not words enough to record them all. But I was not listening; I could only weep until even his sleeves were dampened with my tears as he tried to comfort me. He did not attempt to force me, but he said, "You have been indifferent to me for so long that I thought on this occasion perhaps.... How can you continue to be so cold, especially now that everyone knows about this?"

So that's how it was. This was not even a secret dream, everyone knew about it, and no doubt as soon as I woke my troubles would begin. My worries were sad proof that I had not completely lost my senses at least, but I was wretched. If this was what was in store for me, why hadn't I been told beforehand? Why didn't he give me a chance to discuss it with my father? How could I face anyone now? I moaned and wept so much that he must have thought me very childish, but I could not help myself, for his very presence caused me pain.

The night passed without my offering him even a single word of response. When at dawn we heard someone say, "His Majesty will be returning today, won't he?" GoFukakusa muttered, "Now to go back pretending something happened!" and prepared to leave. "Your unexpected coldness has made me feel that the pledge I made long ago--when you still wore your hair parted in the middle--was all in vain. You might at least behave in a way that other people won't find too strange. What will people think if you seclude yourself?" He tried both scolding and comforting me, but I refused to answer. "Oh, what's the use!" he said at last; then he got up, put on his robe, and ordered his carriage. When I heard father inquiring about His Majesty's breakfast, I felt as though I could never face him again. I thought longingly of yesterday.

After GoFukakusa had gone, I lay utterly still with my outer gown pulled up over my head, pretending to sleep, until the arrival of a letter from him threw me into even greater misery. To add to my wretchedness my stepmother and grandmother came in full of questions. "What's the matter?" they asked. "Why don't you get up?"

"I don't feel well after last night," I blurted out, only to realize with dismay that they thought it was because I had shared my pillow with a man for the first time.

In great excitement someone entered with the letter I had no intention of reading. The royal messenger was waiting uneasily for a reply, and my attendants were wringing their hands not knowing what to do, until finally someone suggested, "Go tell her father." This, I knew, would be the most unbearable ordeal of all.

"Aren't you feeling well?" Father asked when he arrived. When they brought up the matter of the letter he said, "What childishness is this? Surely you intend to answer it?" I heard him opening the letter. It was a poem written on thin purple paper:

Friends for many years,
Yet now your perfume haunts
My last night's sleeves
That never lay on yours.

When my attendants read this they gossiped among themselves about how different I was from most young people these days. Still tense and uneasy I refused to get up. After much fretting they agreed that it would not be appropriate to have someone else reply for me, whereupon they gave the messenger a gift and entrusted him with this message: "She's such a child that she's still in bed and hasn't even looked at His Majesty's letter yet."

Around noon a letter came from an unexpected source. I read these lines:

I might well die of grief
If now the smoke trails off
Entirely in that direction. (1)

To this the writer added, "Thus far I have survived this meaningless life, but now what is there?" This was written on thin, light blue paper, which had as a background design the old poem:

If I could cease to be
No longer would these clouds
Cling to the secret mountains
Of my heart. (2)

I tore off a piece of the paper where the word "secret mountains" appeared, and wrote:

Can you not understand?
My thoughts scattered and confused
My heart has not gone drifting off
A wisp of evening smoke.

After I sent this I began to wonder what I had done.

My refusal that day to take any kind of medicine gave rise to idle gossip about my "strange illness." Shortly after dusk fell, I was informed that His Majesty had arrived. Before I had time to wonder what might happen at this meeting, he pushed open the door and entered my room with an air of intimacy. "I understand you're ill. What's the trouble?" he inquired. Feeling not the least inclination to reply, I lay motionless where I was. He lay down beside me and began to talk of what was uppermost in his heart, but I was so dazed that I could only worry about what would happen next. I was tempted to acquiesce quoting the line, "If this were a world without lies," (3) except for my fear that the person who had claimed he might die of grief would consider my behavior vulgar when he learned that the evening smoke had so quickly traded off in a certain direction. Tonight, when GoFukakusa could not elicit a single word of reply from me, he treated me so mercilessly that my thin gowns were badly ripped. By the time that I had nothing more to lose, I despised my own existence. I faced the dawn with dread.

Ties of my undergowns undone,
The man uncared for
Gossip soon will spread.

What surprised me, as I continued to brood, was that I still had wits enough to think of my reputation.

GoFukakusa was expressing his fidelity with numerous vows. "Though from life to life our shapes will change," he said, "there will be no change in the bond between us; though the nights we meet might be far apart, our hearts will never acknowledge separation." As I listened, the short night, barely affording time to dream, gave way to dawn and the tolling of bells. It was past daybreak. "It will be embarrassing if I stay," GoFukakusa said, getting up to leave. "Even if you are not sorry we must part, at least see me off:"

Unable to refuse his insistent urgings, I slipped a thin, unlined gown over the clothes I had on, which were damp from a night of weeping, and stepped outside. The moon of the seventeenth night was sinking in the west, and a narrow bank of clouds stretched along the eastern horizon. GoFukakusa wore a green robe, scarlet-lined, over a pale gown. He had on heavily figured trousers. I felt more attracted to him than I ever had before, and I wondered uneasily where these new feelings had come from.

The imperial carriage was ordered by Lord Takaaki, a major counselor, who was dressed in a light blue robe. The only courtier in attendance was Lord Tamekata, an assistant chief investigator. While several guards and servants were bringing the carriage up, some birds sang out noisily as though to warn me of the new day, and the tolling bell of Kannon Temple seemed meant for me alone. Touched by two kinds of sadness, I remembered the line, "Tears wet my sleeves both left and right." (4)

GoFukakusa still did not leave. "It will be lonely," he said. "See me home." Knowing who he was, I could hardly claim to be "unaware of the shape of the mountain peak," (5) so I stood there in confusion as the brightening dawn spread through the sky. "Why do you look so pained?" he asked as he helped me into his carriage and ordered it driven away. Leaving this way, without a word to anybody, seemed like an episode from an old tale. What was to become of me?

Dawn's bell did not awaken me
For I never went to sleep
Yet the painful dream I had
Streaks the morning sky with grief.

I suppose our ride might be considered amusing, for all the way to the palace GoFukakusa pledged his affection to me as if he were a storied lover making off with his mistress, but for me the road we traveled seemed so dreary I could do nothing but weep.

After the carriage had been drawn through the middle gate to the Corner Mansion, (6) GoFukakusa alighted and turned to Takaaki: "I brought her along because she was too unreasonable and childish to leave behind. I think it would be better if no one learned of this for a while." Then, leaving orders that I was to be taken care of, he retired to his living quarters.

It hardly seemed the same palace where I had lived for so many years as a child. Frightened and ill at ease now, I regretted having come and wondered blankly what I might expect. I was sobbing when I heard the comforting sound of my father's voice expressing concern over me. When Takaaki explained GoFukakusa's instructions, Father replied, "This kind of special treatment won't do. Things should go on as usual. To be secretive now will only lead to trouble when word gets out." Then I heard him leave. After his visit I brooded uneasily about the future. GoFukakusa interrupted my painful musings and poured out so many words of affection that I was gradually comforted. The thought that my fate was inescapable began to resign me to it.

I remained at the palace for about ten days, during which time His Majesty never failed to visit me at night; yet I was still foolish enough to think about the author of that poem, which had questioned the direction the smoke was taking. My father, meanwhile, kept insisting on the impropriety of my situation, and finally had me return home. I could not bear to see anyone, so I pretended to be ill and kept to my own quarters.

GoFukakusa wrote an affectionate letter saying, "I have grown so accustomed to you that I'm depressed now you are gone. Come back immediately."

I doubt you yearn for me this much.
If only I could show you
The many teardrops on my sleeves.

Although I usually thought his letters disagreeable, I found myself eagerly reading this one. My answer was perhaps too artificial:

Perhaps they were not for me,
Those drops upon your sleeves,
Yet word of them makes my tears flow.

Several days later I returned to the palace--this time openly, in the usual fashion--yet I grew uncomfortable when people immediately began to talk. "The major counselor certainly treasures her," they would say. "He's sent her with all the ceremony due an official consort."

The gossip spread, and before long Empress Higashi-Nijo began to be unpleasant. As the days dragged by I became wretched. I cannot claim that His Majesty really neglected me, but I was depressed when days passed between his visits, and although I didn't feel I could complain--as his other ladies did--about who kept him company at night, every time it fell to my lot to conduct another woman to him I understood anew the painful ways of this world. Yet I was haunted by a line of poetry that kept coming to mind: "Will I live to cherish memories of these days?" (7) The days passed, each dawn turned to dusk, and autumn arrived.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How clearly are events described in this passage? How might one account for the narrative method adopted here?
  2. Which details does Lady Nijo particularly stress? Do you think she reflects a feminine sensibility in her emphases?
  3. Why do people keep diaries?


1. This poem is from Akebono. It alludes to Section 112 of Tales of Ise: "After many earnest declarations of devotion to a certain man, a lady fell in love with someone else. The first man composed this poem: Captured by the gale, the smoke from the salt-fires of the fisherfolk at Suma has drifted off in an unforeseen direction." Translated by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1968), p. 144.

2. By Fujiwara Masatsune. Poem 1094 in the Shinkokinshu, an imperial anthology completed in 1206.

3. An allusion to Poem 712 in the Kokinshu, the first imperial anthology, compiled around 905: "If this were a world without lies, how happy your words would make me."

4. An allusion to The Tale of Genji. This line is from the poem Prince Genji composed in exile at Suma when he shed tears of bitterness and affection as he thought about the emperor who had banished him.

5. Another allusion to The Tale of Genji.

6. This was one of the buildings on the grounds of GoFukakusa's Tomi Street Palace.

7. Shinkokinshu poem 1843 by Fujiwara Kiyosuke.