‘The Minister of the Right praised the six-stringed koto. He became too merry, and made a great mistake, which sent a chill even to the onlookers.’ These are almost the final words of one of the oldest diaries in the world, and, astonishingly, were written almost exactly 1,000 years ago. Much of the diary written by Murasaki Shikibu’s, a lady-in-waiting in the Japanese court, is taken up with the birth of a prince, but there is plenty of gossiping, caustic at times, about such timeless subjects as fashion and manners.
Few details of Shikibu’s life are known, even her birth and death dates are uncertain, though are given as circa 973 and circa 1020. Shikibu’s father was the governor of a province and a well known scholar. He let his daughter learn Chinese classics, although girls were not usually allowed this privilege at the time. She married and had a daughter, and around 1006, some years after her husband had died, she entered the court of Emperor Ichijô as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi.
For two years, while at court, she wrote a diary - one of the historically oldest we know about today (see The Diary Junction for others). She is better remembered, however, for her novel, The Tale of Genji, which is considered one of the first ever written (and longest at 630,000 words). Some argue that Shikibu is the world’s first modern novelist. For a little more information on Shikibu (there isn’t much) see The Women in World History website, The Samurai Archives, Götterdämmerung.com, or Wikipedia.
A first translation of Shikibu’s diary appeared in Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, translated by Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi, and published by Houghton Mifflin in New York (1920) and Constable in London (1921). Penguin published The Diary of Lady Murasaki in 1996, and reissued it in 2005 (a few pages are viewable on Amazon). Branislav L Slantchev, a professor at the University of California in San Diego, has a review of Shikibu’s diary on the Götterdämmerung.com website. He says the first part of the diary - which covers the birth of a prince - is ‘rather dull, concerning itself with visual depiction of room interiors, rituals, and positioning of the various (multitude) participants and observers’; but the second part is ‘engaging’ for it has ‘astute, and quite caustic, remarks about the Empress, her immediate circle . . , and courtiers in general’.
The full text of Shikibu’s diary, as it appeared in Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, is available online thanks to Mary Mark Ockerbloom’s website, A Celebration of Women Writers. Here are the very last pages of the diary, dated 1010 - one whole millennium ago - in which Shikibu is much concerned about the fashion sense and manners of those around her.
‘Third day of first month
The August Princes have presented themselves before the King for three days to receive gifts of mochi [rice cake]. Ladies of high rank accompanied them. Saémon-no-Kami held the Prince, and the mochi was brought to His Majesty by the Lord Prime Minister. The King, facing towards the east door, gave it to the August Princes. It was a beautiful sight to see the young Princes coming and returning through the corridor. The Queen Dowager did not present herself. On the first day Lady Saisho served at table; her colour combination was cunningly executed. Ladies Takumi and Hyogo officiated as the Queen’s secretaries. The ladies who tied their hair were particularly attractive. The lady who was entrusted with the preparation of toso [New Year drink of spiced saké] was very vain of her skill and behaved as if she were a doctor of medicine. Ointment was distributed as usual.
The Prime Minister took the younger Prince in his arms and the King embraced him lovingly, saying, ‘Long life and health’ as usual. The Lord Prime Minister replied, ‘I will uphold the younger Prince in my arms’; but at that His Augustness the Crown Prince became jealous and begged [to be taken up too], saying, ‘Ah! Ah!’ The Prime Minister was much pleased, and the General of the Right Bodyguard and others were amused by it.
The Lord Prime Minister had an audience with the King and they came out together to find amusement. The Minister was much intoxicated. ‘Troublesome!’ I thought, and hid myself away, but I was found. ‘You are summoned by the father of the Queen, yet you retire so early! Suspicious person!’ said he. ‘Now, instead of the Queen’s father it is you who must compose a poem! It is quite an ordinary occasion, so don’t hesitate!’ He urged, but it seemed to me very awkward to make one only to have it laughed at. As he was very much in liquor, his face was flushed and flamed out in the torchlight. He said, ‘The Queen had lived for years alone and solitary. I had seen it with anxiety. It is cheering to behold troublesome children on either side of her.’ And he went to look at the Princes, who had been put to bed, taking off the bedclothes. He was singing:
‘If there be no little pines in the field
How shall I find the symbol of 1,000 ages?’
People thought it more suitable that he should sing this old song than make a new one. The next evening the sky was hazy; as the different parts of the palace are built compactly in close rows I could only catch a slight glimpse of it from the veranda. I admired his recitation of last evening with the nurse Madam Nakadaka. This lady is of deep thought and learning.
I went home for a while. For the fifty days’ ceremony of the second Prince, which was the fifteenth day of the Sociable Month, I returned in the early morning to the palace. Lady Koshosho returned in embarrassing broad daylight. We two live together; our rooms adjoin and we throw them together, each occupying the whole when the other is absent. When we are there together we put kicho [thin curtains of opaque silk] between them. The Lord Prime Minister says we must be gossiping about other people. Some may be uneasy to hear that, but as there are no unfriendly strangers here we are not anxious about it.
I went to the Queen’s audience. My friend wore brocaded uchigi [a kind of robe] of old rose and white, a red karaginu and figured train. My dress was of red and purple and light green. My karaginu [a kind of jacket] was green and white. The rubbed design on the train was in the very latest fashion, and it would perhaps have been better if a younger lady had worn it. There were seventeen ladies of His Majesty the King’s court who presented themselves before the Queen. Lady Tachibana of the third rank served the royal table. Ladies Kodayu and Shikibu on the balcony. The serving of the young August Prince’s dinner was entrusted to Lady Koshosho. Their Majesties sat within the dais. The morning sun shone in and I felt too much brilliancy in their presence. The King wore a robe with narrow sleeves. The Queen was dressed in red as usual. Her inner kimonos were purple and red with pale and dark green and two shades of yellow. His Majesty’s outer dress was grape-coloured brocade, and his inner garment white and green - all rare and modern both in design and colour.
It seemed to be too dazzling in their presence, so I softly slid away into an inner room. The nurse, Madam Nakadaka, holding the young Prince in her arms, came out towards the south between the canopied King and Queen. She is short in stature, but of dignified demeanour. She was perfectly tranquil and grave and a good example for the young Prince. She wore grape-coloured uchigi and patternless karaginu of white and old rose. That day all did their utmost to adorn themselves. One had a little fault in the colour combination at the wrist opening. When she went before the Royal presence to fetch something, the nobles and high officials noticed it. Afterwards, Lady Saisho regretted it deeply. It was not so bad; only one colour was a little too pale. Lady Kotaiyu wore a crimson unlined dress and over it an uchigi of deep and pale plum colour bordered with folds. Her karaginu was white and old rose. Lady Gen Shikibu appears to have been wearing a red and purple figured silk. Some said it was unsuitable because it was not brocade. That judgment is too conventional. There may be criticism where want of taste is too apparent, but it were better to criticise manners. Dress is rather unimportant in comparison.
The ceremony of giving mochi to the Prince is ended and the table is taken away. The misu of the anteroom was rolled up, and we saw ladies sitting crowded at the west side of the dais. There were Lady Tachibana of the third rank, and Naishi Nosuké, the younger attendant of the August Princes sitting in the doorway. In the east anteroom near the shioji [paper doors] there were ladies of high rank. I went to seek Lady Dainagon and Lady Koshosho, who were sitting east of the dais. His August Majesty sat on the dais with his dining-table before him. The ornaments of it were exquisitely beautiful. On the south balcony there sat the Minister of the Right and Left and the Chamberlain, the first officials of the Crown Prince and of the Queen and the Great Adviser Shijo, facing towards the North, the West being the more honourable seat. There were no officials of low rank. Afterwards they begun to amuse themselves. Courtiers sat on the southeast corridor of the side building. The four lower officials took their usual places to perform some music. They were Kagemasa, Korekazé, Yukiyoshi, Tonomasa. Prom the upper seat the Great Adviser Shijo conducted the music. To no Ben played the lute, Tsunetaka played the harp. The Lieutenant-General of the Left Bodyguard and State Councillor played the flute. Some outsiders joined in the music. One made a mistake in the notes and was hissed. The Minister of the Right praised the six-stringed koto. He became too merry, and made a great mistake, which sent a chill even to the onlookers.
The Prime Minister’s gift was flutes put into two boxes.’