Friday, August 22, 2008

A lady of old Japan

‘I was brought up in a distant province which lies farther than the farthest end of the Eastern Road. I am ashamed to think that inhabitants of the Royal City will think me an uncultured girl.’ So begins what is called The Sarashina Diary and which is considered one of the very earliest and most beautiful of travel diaries. The author, whose real name is not known, was a Japanese lady-in-waiting born 1,000 years ago.

It is not clear how the famous diary, and its author, came to get their name, but it probably arose because the geographical district, Sarashina, is alluded to in one of the book’s poems. However, it is known that Lady Sarashina was related to another (and slightly earlier) famous diarist, also without an exact name, but who’s referred to as the mother of Michitsuna. Lady Sarashina was probably born in 1008, in other words one thousand years ago (at a time when Ethelred the Unready was still trying to protect England from Danish invaders, and nearly a century before the first university would be founded in the western world, at Bologna).

What we know today about Lady Sarashina comes mostly from the diary, and Wikipedia has a good summary. In her childhood, she traveled to the provinces with her father, an assistant governor, and back to the capital some years later. She married late, in her 30s, and became a lady-in-waiting. Apparently, though, she was indifferent to her husband and children, and too shy and old for a successful career in court.

The diary was translated in the early part of the 19th century by Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi and published along with others in Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan. The full text of the diary, as translated for that book and now out of copyright, is available online thanks to The Celebration of Women Writers website. Many pages and some illustrations from the book can also be viewed at Googlebooks

Here is another extract from The Sarashina Diary.

‘Mount Fuji is in this Province. In the Province where I was brought up I saw that mountain far towards the West. It towers up painted with deep blue, and covered with eternal snow. It seems that it wears a dress of deep violet and a white veil over its shoulders. From the little level place of the top smoke was going up. In the evening we even saw burning fires there. The Fuji River comes tumbling down from that mountain. A man of the Province came up to us and told us a story.

‘Once I went on an errand. It was a very hot day, and I was resting on the bank of the stream when I saw something yellow come floating down. It came to the bank of the river and stuck there. I picked it up and found it to be a scrap of yellow paper with words elegantly written on it in cinnabar. Wondering much I read it. On the paper was a prophecy of the Governors to be appointed next year. As to this Province there were written the names of two Governors. I wondered more and more, and drying the paper, kept it. When the day of the announcement came, this paper held no mistake, and the man who became the Governor of this Province died after three months, and the other succeeded him.’

There are such things. I think that the gods assemble there on that mountain to settle the affairs of each new year.’

No comments: