Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lady Nijo’s confessions

‘I have continued to note down all these trifling details of my life, even though I cannot aspire to having left posterity anything worth reading.’ This might have been written by any one of a million bloggers in today’s world. In fact, it’s a translation of a diary or memoir written by Lady Nijo, a Japanese courtesan, born in 1258, exactly 750 years ago.

Nijo came from a well-connected family, but as a young girl was fostered by the Prime Minister and Lady Kitayama (who was to be a mother and grandmother to emperors). While still a teenager she was given to the emperor Gofukakusa to be his courtesan. She also took other lovers. By the age of 25 she had had four children, only one of which was fathered by Gofukakusa. Eventually, she left, or was expelled from, the palace and became a wandering Buddhist nun. (See The Diary Junction for more, or Bookrags which has an excellent biography of Nijo or Nij.)

Sometime after 1307, Nijo completed writing five books, collectively called Towazugatari (literally, ‘an unsolicited tale’). They were not rediscovered until the 1940s, by a scholar named Yamagishi Tohukei. Karen Brazell’s translation was published in English in the 1970s as The Confessions of Lady Nijo. According to Branislav L. Slantchev, on his Gotterdammerung website, the book covers about thirty years, from 1271 to 1306, and presents ‘an intimate portrait of a very human emperor, a court obsessed with nostalgia for the glorious Heian past, and the often turbulent life of a beautiful woman’.

Although not strictly a diary in the modern sense of the word, as in being written day-by-day or week-by-week, diary bibliographies often consider Nijo’s writing as one of the very earliest examples of the diary form, and academics do sometimes quote ‘Nijo’s diary’ (for example, in The Aesthetics of Discontent: Politics and Reclusion in Medieval Japanese Literature.

Other Women’s Voices has a good set of extracts from Brazell’s translation. I’ve used the last of these extracts at the head of this post, partly because it could have been written today. Here is another, longer extract, from much earlier in Nijo’s life, which does not seem so modern. Having born a son to Gofukakusa, she gave birth to a second child, by one of her lovers, and this birth had to be kept secret.

‘[Akebono] lit a lamp to look at the child, and I got a glimpse of fine black hair and eyes already opened. It was my own child, and naturally enough I thought it was adorable. As I looked on, [he] took the white gown beside me and wrapped the baby in it, cut the umbilical cord with a short sword that lay by my pillow, and taking the baby, left without a word to anyone. I did not even get a second glimpse of the child's face.

I wanted to cry out and ask why, if the baby must be taken away, I could not at least look at it again; but that would have been rash, and so I remained quiet, letting the tears on my sleeves express my feelings.

‘It will be all right. You have nothing to worry about. If it lives you'll be able to see it,’ Akebono said on his return, attempting to console me. Yet I could not forget the face I had glimpsed but once. Though it was only a girl, I was grieved to think that I did not even know where she had been taken. I also knew it would have been impossible to keep her even if I had so desired. There was nothing for me to do but wrap my sleeves around myself and sob inwardly.’

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