A look at Lady Murasaki’s Diary, part 1: introduction

A while back, on a trip to London, I stopped at the Japan Centre and picked up some good books, including a copy of Lady Murasaki’s Diary. Lady Murasaki Shikibu is the famous author of the classic Tale of Genji novel,1 and lived during the height of the Heian Period in Japan.

The Heian Period is very much seen as the golden era in Japanese culture for its refinement and court aristocracy. In some ways, I feel the aristocratic life in Japan at the time vaguely resembles the French aristocracy centuries later, with its love of art and culture, the social rankings, and romantic intrigues. Most Westerners are more intrigued by the later samurai period, but the Heian Period remains more of a mystery despite its lasting influence on Japanese society.

At this time, around the year 1000, the northern branch of the Fujiwara clan, the Hokke (北家),2 has risen in power to its height, as political marriages with the Imperial family give it tremendous influence. Fujiwara no Michinaga, the head of the clan, is related to almost every empress and emperor in some way or another. Taira no Kiyomori would repeat the stunt centuries later before the Genpei War where the famous Tales of the Heike orginates.

Murasaki herself is from another, lesser branch of the clan, but her writing skills caught the attention of Fujiwara no Michinaga, and she becomes a lady-in-waiting and tutor for Michinaga’s daughter, the Empress Shōshi. The Diary covers a brief period in her life, when the Empress is about to give birth to the next Emperor, and everyone is sequestered at the Fujiwara palace because the Emperor’s palace had burned down earlier in the year (fires were a frequent problem at the time due to an all wood design).

The Diary is quite short, just 60 pages on the copy I have, but it’s pretty interesting too. Lady Murasaki has a lot of interesting insights (some covered in later posts..hence the “part 1″) about life in the Court and her contemporaries as well. One gets the impression that for all the beautiful, sophisiticated material culture, everyone was lonely and miserable. In a crowded room, each one felt alone. She frequently writes about her sense of loneliness and melancholy, and corresponds with other ladies of the Court who share the same feeling.

She writes in one incident about a ceremony where the young ladies of certain nobles are presented to the public, kind of like a debutante ceremony among high-society today:

…with all those young nobles around and the girls not allowed so much as a fan to hide behind in broad daylight, I felt somehow concerned for them, convinced that, although they may have been able to deal with the situation both in terms of rank and intelligence, they must surely have found the pressure of constant rivalry daunting; silly of me, perhaps.
(trans. Richard Bowring)

Rivarly is nothing new to Lady Murasaki, who writes about some of the mean tricks the women play on each other. In one story, some women decide to insult Lady Sakyō by sending her a pretend gift from a suitor with a fan that had a picture of the mythical Mount Hōrai on it, a Chinese symbol of longevity. The women wanted to imply that Lady Sakyō was getting old, in other words. Amazing how this kind of cattiness still goes on 1000 years later. :-/

This extends later in the diary, when she evaluates her contemporaries on appearance, all very beautiful, but then adds:

So much for their looks; but their characteristics – that is a much more difficult matter. We all have our quirks and no one is ever all bad. Then again, it is not possible for everyone to be all things all of the time: attractive, intelligent, tasteful and trustworthy.

She does reserve some more harsh words though for her well-known rival, Sei Shōnagon, author of the Pillow Book:

Sei Shōnagon, for instance, was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters [usually reserved for men only]; but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so previous that they go out of their way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial. How can the future turn out well for them?

This has been a brief overview of the times and life of Lady Murasaki. In part 2, I hope to explore the religious side of Heian-era Japan through her writings. For part 3, I haven’t yet decided what to talk about, though probably a little more about Heian-court life, fashion and poetry. :)

1 I read excerpts of it once in college, but it’s been so long I can only remember it as a “chick novel”, with all its romance and drama, but no cool sword-fights. Yes, my memory sucks and I was only 19 at the time. :-p If I read it now, I probably would enjoy it more.

2 Since its roots in the 7th century, the Fujiwara clan grew to such an immense size, there were multiple branches competing with each other for power.

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About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
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