Tag Archives: Heian Period

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

Tanka Diary of a Thirteen-year-old Girl in Heian Japan

Reflected Moon on Paddy Fields at Sarashina, woodblock by Ando Hiroshige
Reflected Moon on Paddy Fields at Sarashina, woodblock by Ando Hiroshige

A geeky teenage girl, true to her nature, grows into poet and the author of a classic diary, which is still popular in Japan, 1,000 years later.

One thousand years ago an ultimate bookworm had a dream. The girl’s desire was to obtain all the volumes of the famous Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji. Today, she might be considered goth or a geek. Her aunt was the author of The Kagero Diary (or The Gossamer Years) and delighted her niece by giving her a complete set of The Tale of Genji. In those days, books were carefully copied by hand and passed around by chapters, as most early books were, so it was very special to receive a complete one. Sarashina (b 1008) became the poetic diarist of The Sarashina Diary.

Murasaki Shikibu and Izumi Shikibu

Two of the best-known luminaries of the golden age of Heian Japanese female poets and authors were Murasaki Shikibu and Izumi Shikibu, who were not related but rivals (Shikibu is the court title of their fathers). They were ladies-in-waiting at the imperial court in Heian-Kyo (Kyoto) and severed Empress Akiko. Murasaki wrote The Tale of Genji, the first novel in the world; it is as relevant to Japanese culture as Shakespeare’s plays are to Western culture. Izumi was an exceptional tanka poet who wrote The Diary of Izumi Shikibu. Both authors interspersed their writing with original poetry known as waka. Their main topics were descriptions of lives full of intrigue, ambitious men, lovers and castaway wives.

Poetry was an essential way to communicate with aristocratic families between friends, lovers, and relatives. Instead of a letter, they sent poems. Sarashina wrote the following poetry called waka (song) that appears in Haruo Shirane’s Traditional Japanese Literature. Professor Shirane teaches in the East Asian Languages and Cultures of Columbia University. Sonja Arntzen translated each 31-syllable waka (now called tanka) below. Arntzen is professor emerita of literature at Toronto University  and the University of Alberta.

Is it that you think
I am one no longer living
in this world of ours?
Sadly I cry and cry,
yet do indeed live on

A Diary from Girlhood to Middle Age

The author wrote The Sarashina Diary when she was middle-aged, yet this autobiographical diary begins in the voice of a thirteen-year-old and flows with young-hearted awe and enthusiasm towards what she loved: her father, her books and the outdoors. Her writing reveals how she tried to follow her parents’ desire to be useful at the court of Empress Akiko, yet when she gave up the court position, she was true to her nature as a shy girl who was content with books and daydreams. Finally, her parents let her stay home and did not pressure her to marry early. Later, when Sarashina marries at age 31, she seems to have become content as a wife and mother. As her diary progresses, the author’s voice changes to that of a middle-aged woman, tinged with the melancholy of a widow, who soon has to cope with an empty nest. Even though she feels abandoned, the poet persists in her writing and goes on pilgrimages to temples on a quest to find eternal life.

Even to a heart
clouded by tears that fall
with no respite,
the light pouring from the moon
can appear so radiant

Women of the Imperial Court Excel in Poetry and Poetic Diaries

The years 950 to 1050 were known as a “Golden Age” for Japanese women poets as well as for the history of Japanese Literature as a whole.  Scholar Earl Miner asked, “Is there a parallel period in any other literature, not only of the preeminence of women but the contribution of women to what is deemed classic in the nation’s heritage? Some understanding of the efflorescence of female genius can be found in beliefs that the author of The Sarashina Diary is typical, as [noble] women were the most avid readers at that time, and the court of Empress Akiko supported and cultivated writers.”

At a time in Japan when male authors wrote in Chinese ideograms (kanji), female authors wrote entirely in the native Japanese script, kana. Chinese ideograms for the Japanese language, include thousands of characters that require years of memorization. However, kana (hiragana and katakana) represent the phonetic syllables of the Japanese language. Because of the relative simplicity of kana and the popularity of the more psychological writing style of women, their writing became more widely read than men’s during the Heian period.

The Uniqueness of a Thirteen-year Old Girl

Women’s poetic diaries held such esteem that one of the top male poets, Ki no Tsurayuki (b 872), wrote The Tosa Diary in the voice of a woman writing in hiragana. The Sarashina Diary is the most autobiographical of the Heian poetical diaries as it includes the long expanse of the author’s life. Shirane states, “The travel account was first written in the viewpoint of a thirteen-year-old girl, and was unique [for that time].” He continues, “It also addresses difficult issues in a complex manner” such as fiction and reality, the capital vs. country life, and darkness and lightness.

The real name of the author and poet is unknown; instead, the Sarashina is the place where her family once lived. Her father was Sugawara no Takasue, so she was also called “Takasue’s daughter.” In any event, this author’s fame and those of her more famous literary colleagues, Murasaki Shikibu and Izumi Shikibu, has lasted for 1,000 years.


Miner, Earl. An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.

Shirane, Haruo. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, New York: Columbia University, 2007.