Category Archives: Diary

Medieval Poetic Diaries: Nun Abutsu and Lady Nijo


Article by Carmen Sterba. Painting of Japan’s Immortal Poets Part II: The Great Female  Poets

Medieval Poetic Diarists Nun Abutsu and Lady Nijo

The Japanese Medieval period was launched when the Japanese warrior class gained hegemony over the nobility and Minamoto Yoritomo established the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333). Changes occurred not only in the government, economics, and religion but also in literature. As travel greatly increased between Kyoto (the imperial capital) and Kamakura (the military capital), imperial court diaries and tales (which included five-line poetry called waka or tanka) decreased while travel diaries, religious essays, and military tales proliferated.

The major works of this period were An Account of My Hut (Hojoki) by Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216), Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa) by Yoshida Kenko (1283-1350?) and The Tales of the Heike (Heike Monogatari) written in the 14th century. Poetic Diaries declined in quality and quantity compared to those of the Heian Period. Nevertheless, two of the best-known poets were Buddhist nun Abutsu (1222-1283) and Lady Nijo (1258-1306). Abutsu wrote the poetic diary, The Waning Moon (Izayoi Nikki) and the lady-in-waiting at the imperial court, Nijo, wrote Confessions of Lady Nijo (Towasugatari).

Nun Abutsu was married to a fellow poet, Fujiwara Tamie. His father and grandfather were the distinguished poets, Fujiwara Teika and Fujiwara Shunzei. The family’s poetry was so exceptionally important that she wanted to protect it as a legacy. She also taught the art of tanka to her three sons. After her husband died in 1275, she became a nun. Her other goal was to grant her husband’s wishes to make her first-born son the legal heir of both the Fujiwara land and poetic dynasty. The biggest obstacle for Abutsu was her husband’s eldest son born to another wife. In order to make an official claim for her oldest son, she had to travel on the Tokaido road from Kyoto to Kamakura.

Scholar and Ambassador Edwin Reischauer concludes that The Waning Moon was “The best-known poetic travel journal in Japanese written between the 12th to 16th century.” However, he also laments, “It is imitative in concept and formalized in expressions.” On the brighter side, Matsuo Basho was influenced by Abutsu and chose to use the newer genre of haiku rather than tanka to include his poetic travel-journals known as haibun.

Abutsu’s diary includes 88 of her tanka. “Let me ask” shows her nostalgia for Kyoto on her way to the more provincial Kamakura. The translator is Christina Laffin:

Let me ask

if the red-beaked

red-footed bird bears

the name of the capital

which I left behind

The second diary of note is by Lady Nijo. There is a similarity of theme between hers and the most famous diary of Izumi Shikibu in the Heian era. Neither lady was afraid to write about their affairs at court in Kyoto. There is a parallel between Lady Nijo’s relationship with the ex-emperor Gofukukasa and the main characters in the world famous Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari).

In her latter years, she was able to accomplish to walk in the legendary samurai-poet-priest Saigyo’s footsteps by visiting many temples, shrines, and scenic spots. William Deal, a scholar of the medieval era, explains in this way, “Becoming a nun was one method by which women could take control of their lives in a society that gave them few lifestyle choices.”

Abutsu and Nijo both traveled from Kyoto to Kamakura in the 1280s. Abutsu died there waiting for the results of her claim for her eldest son. Twenty years, later this son finally became the legal heir. In Nijo’s case, she returned to Kyoto after traveling, and was able to unite with the ex-emperor before he died, and then continue her travels. The following tanka, translated by Karen W. Brazell, was written for one of Nijo’s lovers, a priest and half-brother of the ex-emperor. She refers to the “dawn moon” to allude to this lover who she had nicknamed Dawn Moon:

On my sleeves

reflected in tears,

the dawn moon,

if only it would remain here

after daybreak

Lady Nijo’s diary is known to have influenced only one pre-modern book, The Clear Mirror, because her manuscript was hidden until it was discovered in 1940. On the other hand, Matsuo Basho, the best-known Japanese poet in the world, acknowledged that Nun Abutsu’s work had been an inspiration for his famous travel journal, haibun, A Journey to the Far North. Basho stated, “As for travel diaries, ever since Tsurayuki, Chomei and Nun Abutsu, all have been imitation.”

It would take six centuries after the Kamakura period until two more women tanka poets to be acknowledged in Japanese literature: the first modern woman novelist and poetic diarist, Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-96) and the celebrated tanka poet and translator of a new version of The Tale of Genji, Yoshino Akiko (1878-1942).

Originally written by Carmen Sterba as Historically Speaking: Medieval Poetry Diaries in Ribbons, the journal of The Tanka Society of America, Vol 5:2 2009.


Deal, William K. Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Reischauer, Edwin, and Joseph K. Yamagiwa ed. Translations from Early Japanese Literature, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Shirane, Haruo ed. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Whitehouse, Wilfrid and Eizo Yanagisawa eds. Lady Nijo’s Own Story.

Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, Inc, 1974.

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