as the blinds go up
my eyes search
for your quietude of presence
you alone glance back
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
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.
when i feel alone
there’s fuzz in my brain
but when it dissipates
your face appears
i lift my head
© Carmen Sterba
the heart of the bride
when all is done
her groom’s face
comes to mind
© Carmen Sterba
in my mother’s eyes
in this mirror
when I feel hurt
© Carmen Sterba
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