Heian Poetic Diaries – Part 1 Tosa Diary

Ki no Tsurayuki, author of  the Tosa Diary and editor of the Kokinshu
Ki no Tsurayuki, author of the Tosa Diary and editor of the Kokinshu

The first poetic diary in Japanese literature is Tosa Diary by Ki no Tsurayuki in 935. Prose in the form of diaries (nikki) or tales (monogatari) include waka poetry (now known as tanka) in the form of 31 sounds (onji). This new tradition of combining prose with waka, was the forerunner of all Japanese poetic diaries. The Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel written by Murasaki Shikibu, was influenced by this poetic tradition.

Tsurayuki (b. 872) collected the poetry for the Kokinshu, an imperial collection, and wrote its preface not in Chinese, which was the language for scholars, but in Japanese. His preface is one of the most famous literary criticisms of Japanese poetry. His first words are: “Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart and burgeons into many different kinds of words.” He continues in this refrain, “Poetry moves without effort heaven and earth, stirs the invisible gods and demons to piety, makes sweet the ties between men and women, and brings comfort to the fierce heart of the warrior.” (Donald Keene, Seeds of the Heart, 1993)

In Tosa Diary, Tsurayuki creates his account of an unknown mother’s return journey to the capital after the death of her daughter. Why would he choose to write in the voice of a woman? Gustav Heldt points out in Writing Like a Man: Poetic Literary, Textual Property, and Gender in the Tosa Diary that “literacy in the Heian court was primarily determined by social background rather than gender” and “far from being an extravagant fictional masking of the author’s identity, the choice of a female diarist to record events in Tsurayuki’s life would have been an utterly conventional means for writing.” Heldt explains what is unconventional about the Tosa Diary is that Tsuruyuki is actually the author since it was common for court poets or attendants to write the diaries for an emperor or empress and these would become property of the household, not the author. Heldt concludes, “The historical setting in which the Tosa Diary was written was one in which members of the newly ascendant Fujiwara household engaged in the practice of keeping diaries in order to assert their privileged place at court.” (Journal of Asian Studies, 2005).

Scholar J. Thomas Rimer writes about the genre of literary diaries in A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature: “Mixing prose and poetry, fact and fiction, memory and desire, they resemble no Western form, yet they are eminently approachable to modern readers since their raison d’etre is to reveal the subterranean flow of the author’s feelings.”

Japanese literature expert and translator, Earl Miner explains in Japanese Poetic Diaries that “Basho wrote of the continuing tradition from Tsurayuki to his own time, a tradition he designated as ‘diaries of the road’ (michi no nikki).” Tosa Diary is a daily diary and a travel diary of a trip from Tosa on the way to the capital of Heian-Kyo (present day Kyoto). The passengers experience delays because of a storm, and write waka to fill the time. The following are two waka/tanka which show the grief of the mother’s loss of her daughter:

I kept forgetting
that the child was dead, and asking
as if she were alive,
“What can that girl be up to?”
I have fallen into a greater grief

(trans. by Earl Miner)

If only I could have seen her
for as long as the
pine’s thousand years
and not known the sorrow
of that distant parting

(trans. by Gustav Heldt)


to be continued in Heian Poetic Diaries, Part 2

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