The Diary of Lady Murasaki
The Diary of Lady Murasaki (紫式部日記 Murasaki Shikibu Nikki) records the daily life of the Heian era lady-in-waiting and writer, Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji. Most likely written between 1008 and 1010, the largest portion of the diary consists of descriptive passages of the birth of Empress Shōshi's (Akiko) children. Shorter vignettes chronicle the author's life at the Imperial court, interactions between imperial ladies-in-waiting and with court writers such as Izumi Shikibu, Akazome Emon and Sei Shōnagon. The work was written in kana, then a newly developed writing system that brought vernacular Japanese from a spoken language to a written language. Unlike western diaries or journals of more recent centuries, Heian diaries do not follow a strictly chronological order, instead emphasizing important events while leaving out more mundane events entirely. The work consists of short vignettes, poetry in the form of waka, and, unusual for the period, a section is written in an epistolary fashion in the form of a long letter.
Murasaki's diary was written as the Heian period peaked culturally in the late 10th to early 11th centuries. The development in the 9th century of kana, a Japanese writing script and syllabary, opened the way for writing in the vernacular. At first kana was used for writing court poetry, waka, but by the 10th century works of prose became more common. Chinese continued as the language of government, but women who were uneducated in Chinese were encouraged to read and write in Japanese. They began to take advantage of the new script, as literary forms such as monogatari and diaries (nikki) became more popular, and imperial ladies-in-waiting began to write diaries. As a result, written Japanese was in many respects developed by women who used the language as a form of self-expression and, according to Japanese literature scholar Richard Bowring, it was women who undertook the process of building "a flexible written style out of a language that has only previously existed in a spoken form", although he mentions that the diaries of the period were unsuccessful in fully making the transition from a spoken to a written form of the language.
Murasaki's diary covers a discrete period, most likely from 1008 and 1010. Only short and fragmentary pieces have survived, and it remains vital to the understanding of the author insofar as otherwise so little is known about her. Most of her biographical facts are derived from the diary (Murasaki Shikibu nikki) and her c. 1014 short poetry collection, the Murasaki Shikibu shū (or Poetic Memoirs).
Born into a minor branch of the Fujiwara clan, her father, a scholar of Chinese literature, educated her and her brother in classical Chinese. From about 998 to 1001 she was married to Fujiwara no Nobonori—who died of an outbreak of plague 1001—during which time she bore a daughter. A few years later, probably in 1006, at the request of Fujiwara no Michinaga, she entered imperial service to his daughter Empress Shōshi. Her given name is unknown; as was customary for women of the period, who were identified by their rank or that of a husband or another close male relative, she is known as Shikibu for her father's rank at the Ministry of Ceremonials (Shikibu-shō) and her court nickname Murasaki, from a character in her romantic monagatari Tale of the Genji. The diary was probably written after she entered imperial service.
The extant diary consists of three parts: a long section describing the events surrounding the birth of Shōshi's eldest son; a second portion written in an epistolary format about the attributes and characters of imperial ladies-in-waiting; and a compilation of court anecdotes. In the diary Murasaki describes court life from her point-of-view with emphasis on the birth of Shōshi's son Emperor Go-Ichijō, an event of enormous importance to Michinaga. Nine years after becoming concubine and then Empress to Emperor Ichijō, Shōshi bore an heir who became emperor, thus bringing immense power to Michinaga. The diary opens with descriptions of lengthy preparations for the birth, including readings of sutras and other Buddhist rituals. Murasaki's own self-reflections and the chronologically detailed descriptions of events surrounding the birth are often presented as vignettes.
She describes court life in detail with an emphasis on women's fashions such as the kimonos and multi-layered court clothing. The combinations of colors in a woman's clothing required attention and were important because they marked stylistic aesthetics. Murasaki also describes the weather and the changing of season as well as the less pleasant aspects of court life, such as drunken nobles who often seduced the ladies-in-waiting. The diary includes anecdotes about drunken revelries and courtly scandals concerning women who, because of behavior or age, were made to leave court, as well as her own concerns about aging and her overwhelming loneliness. Murasaki suggests that the court women with whom she lived were weak-willed, uneducated, and inexperienced with men.
Going beyond writing descriptions of court events, Murasaki adds a sense of self to the diary entries. She writes about emotions and feelings: her sense of helplessness at court; her feelings of inadequacy regarding her low rank compared to higher-ranked courtiers and relatives in the Fujiwara clan; and her feelings of loss and loneliness since her husband's death. She adds a few autobiographical details about her life before entering service, such as this anecdote about learning Chinese as a child: "When my brother Nobunori ... was a boy my father was very anxious to make a good Chinese scholar of him, and often came himself to hear Nobunori read his lessons. On these occasions I was always present, and so quick was I at picking up the language that I was soon able to prompt my brother whenever he got stuck. At this my father used to sigh and say to me: 'If only you were a boy how proud and happy I should be.'"
Michinaga and Empress Shōshi
Keene believes Heian court life, as presented in Murasaki's diary, is the antithesis of court life she imagined in her romantic novel, The Tale of Genji, and that her hero the "shining prince" Genji sharply contrasts to Michinaga's crassness. Arguably the most powerful man at the imperial court and certainly the most powerful male figure in Shōshi's court, Murasaki describes situations in which he embarrasses his wife Rinshi and daughter by his drunken behavior. Moreover, he may have embarrassed his wife through his flagrant flirtations with Murasaki, although other scholars dispute this point.
The half of the diary devoted to the birth of Shōshi's son was most likely written as tribute to Michinaga, but Murasaki shows him as over-bearing, particularly in the sections where he takes charge during the birth of his grandson, Prince Atsuhira. Because of the taboo against childbirth in the Imperial palace, the child was born at the Tsuchimikado mansion where Michinaga assumes the dominant role, despite the presence of the Emperor himself (the child's father) and the attending priests. After the child's birth Michinaga visited the infant twice daily, whereas the Emperor appears to have been allowed only a single very short imperial visit, described meticulously in the diary. Murasaki chronicled Michinaga's ceremonial visit to his daughter and grandson 16 days after the birth, at a lavish ceremony, describing in detail the ladies-in-waiting attire in passages such as this: "Saemon no Naishi .... was wearing a plain yellow-green jacket, a train shaded darker at the hem, and a sash and waistbands with raised embroidery in orange and white checked silk".
Shōshi, a serious and studious young woman who expected decorum from her ladies-in-waiting—often difficult at a fractious court—decided to learn to read Chinese and had Murasaki teach her. The request was unconventional because Chinese was considered the "male language", the language of government and religion, while Japanese kana was reserved for women. Nevertheless, Shōshi wished to read the then popular ballads of 9th-century Chinese poet Bai Juyi. The Chinese lessons were conducted in secret with Murasaki explaining: "Since the summer before last, very secretly, in odd moments when there happened to be no one about, I have been reading with Her Majesty the two books of "Songs." There has of course been no question of formal lessons; Her Majesty has merely picked up a little here and there, as she felt inclined. All the same, I have thought it best to say nothing about the matter to anybody".
Murasaki wrote of the other ladies-in-waiting at court, most notably Sei Shōnagon, (author of The Pillow Book), in service to Shōshi's rival and co-empress, Empress Teishi (Sadako). The two empresses competed for educated women their respective courts and built a rivalry among the women writers. The two women might not have met because Shōnagon probably left court after Empress Teishi's death in 1006, five years before Murasaki's arrival, yet Murasaki is disparaging of her:
Sei Shōnagon's most marked characteristic is her extraordinary self-satisfaction. But examine the pretentious compositions in Chinese script which she scatters so liberally over the Court, and you will find them to be .... blunders. Her chief pleasure consists in shocking people .... She was once a person of great taste and refinement; but now she can no longer restrain herself from indulging, even under the most inappropriate circumstances....
Murasaki was critical of the other two women writers at Shōshi's court: the poet Izumi Shikibu and Akazome Emon who authored a monogatari. Murasaki says of Shikibu's writing and poetry: "Izumi Shikibu is an amusing letter-writer; but there is something not very satisfactory about her. She has a gift for dashing off informal compositions in a careless running-hand; but in poetry she needs either an interesting subject or some classic model to imitate. Indeed it does not seem to me that in herself she is really a poet at all".
Murasaki appears to have been unhappy and lonely at court, complaining about the courtiers and princes who were frequently drunk and behaved badly. In one incident court poet Fujiwara no Kintō joined a group of women at a banquet and asked whether Murasaki was in attendance—alluding to the character in The Tale of Genji; Murasaki quickly told him that none of the novel's characters lived at court, which she considered tawdry and unpleasant unlike the court she created in her novel. That night she left the dinner, writing, "Counsellor Takai ... started pulling at Lady Hyōbu's robes and singing dreadful songs, but His Excellency said nothing. I realized that it was bound to be a terribly drunken affair this evening, so ... Lady Saishō and I decided to retire." According to Japanese scholar Donald Keene, male courtiers at the Imperial court were "drunken men who make obscene jokes and paw at women".
Although the women lived in semi-seclusion in curtained areas or screened spaces, the men intruded on the women's privacy. Murasaki describes Michinaga entering her space early one morning: "I can see the garden from my room", she writes. "The air is misty; the dew is still on the leaves. The Lord Prime Minister is walking there .... He peeps in over my screen! His noble appearance embarrasses us and I am ashamed of my morning (not yet painted and powdered face)." Privacy was nonexistent. The Imperial palace burned down in 1005 and most of Murasaki's tenure at court was spent at one or another of Michinaga's mansions, either the Biwa mansion in the Fujiwara quarter of Kyoto, the Tsuchimikado mansion, or Ichijo's mansion which was close to the palace grounds. Ladies-in-waiting slept on thin mats rolled out on bare wood floors; interior spaces had few boundaries with a room often created by curtaining off a space. The dwellings were raised off the ground and opened to the gardens with little privacy as described by Bowring: "A man standing outside in the garden looking in .... and his eyes would have been roughly level with the skirts of the woman inside."
In the winters the houses were cold and drafty with few braziers, requiring multiple-layered clothing for warmth, the combinations of which became of almost ritual fascination to the women. Court attire for Heian era court women consisted of six or seven garments, with some garments layered as many as five or six times such as the lined silk robes, uchigi, which involved matching or combining colors of the linings and the garment itself to create a distinctive impression. In one passage about a ceremony for the infant, Murasaki writes about two women whose color combinations were lacking and of the significance of making a mistake at courtly functions: "That day all the women had done their utmost to dress well, but .... two of them showed a want of taste when it came to the color combinations at their sleeves ... [in] full view of the courtiers and senior nobles."
Murasaki became withdrawn and lonely, and was perhaps considered stupid, shy or both. She writes of herself: "Do they really look on me as such a dull thing, I wonder? But I am what I am .... [Shōshi] too has often remarked that she thought I was not the kind of person with whom one could ever relax .... I am perversely stand-offish; if only I can avoid putting off those for whom I have genuine respect." The benefit of being withdrawn seems to have been that she had time to write while living in a crowded court.
The diary and Genji
Murasaki's The Tale of Genji is not given much attention in her diary. She writes that the Emperor had it read to him, that the colored papers and calligraphers were being selected for the transcribing it, and that Michinaga sneaked into her room and took a manuscript from her. Parallels exist between the later chapters of Genji and the diary. A scene mentioned in the diary, that of the splendid imperial procession of Ichijo's visit to Michinaga's mansion in 1008, according to Genji scholar Haruo Shirane, "corresponds almost image for image" to an imperial procession in "Chapter 33 (Wisteria Leaves)" of The Tale of Genji. Shirane believes that enough similarities exist between the two works to suggest that they may have been written at the same time.
Style and genre
The genre of diary writing popular at the time, Nikki Bungaku, is more of an autobiographical memoir than a diary in the modern sense, according to Japanese scholar Helen McCullough. The format was a genre that typically included poetry in the form of waka, was meant to convey information to the readers, such as Murasaki's descriptions of court ceremonies. The author of a Heian-era nikki selected what to include, expand, or exclude. Time was treated in a similar manner; a nikki might present long entries for a single event while other events were omitted. The nikki was considered a form of literature, often not written by the subject, almost always written in third-person, and sometimes included elements of fiction or history. The diary is a repository of knowledge regarding the Heian Imperial court which is considered highly important in Japanese literature, although it may not have survived in a complete state.
Few if any dates are included in the work, and little is written about Murasaki's working habits, causing Donald Keene to say about the diary that it is not a "writer's notebook". The diary is important because in it Murasaki recounts events from her point-of-view with her self-reflections, bringing to the events a human aspect lacking in official accounts of the period written by historians,. Keene thinks the diary reflects the author as a woman with great perception and self-awareness, yet also greatly withdrawn with few friends. She is unflinching in her criticism of the other ladies-in-waiting, seeing through the superficial facades to their inner core, a quality he believes is beneficial for a novelist, but perhaps not helpful in a closed society such as the one she inhabited.
The diary shows three distinct styles, reviewed by Bowring with reference to previous scholarship. The first is a chronicles of events, which would normally have been written in Chinese during this period. The second is a self-reflective analysis, which he believes is the best example of self-analytic reflection from the period and her mastery of this type of style, still rare in Japanese, is evidence of her adding to the development of written Japanese by overcoming the limits of an inflexible language and writing system. The third is the epistolary style, a newly developed trend, which he considers the weakest portion of the work because she seemed to have been unable to break free of the rhythms of spoken language. He explains that a spoken language maintains a specific rhythm that relies on the presence of another person. Spoken language can be ungrammatical, relies on "eye contact, shared experiences and particular relationships [to] provide a background which allows speech to be at times fragmentary and even allusive". On the other hand written language must assume an absence of audience and compensate for "the gap between the producer and receiver of the message".
In the 13th century a handscroll of the diary was produced, The Murasaki Shikibu Nikki Emaki. The scroll, meant to be read from left to right, consists of calligraphy illustrated with paintings. Writing in "The House-bound Heart", Japanese scholar Penelope Mason explains that in an emakimono or emaki a narrative reaches its full potential through the combination of the writer's and the painter's art. About 20 percent of the scroll has survived; based on the existing fragments, the images would have closely followed the text of the diary.
The illustrations in the emaki follow the late-Heian and early Kamakura period convention of Hikime kagibana (line-eye and hook-nose) in which individual facial expressions are omitted. Also typical of the period is the style of fukimuki yatai (blown off roof) depictions of interiors which seem to be visualized from above looking downward into a space. According to Mason, the interior scenes of human figures are juxtaposed against empty exterior gardens; the characters are "house-bound".
In the diary Murasaki wrote of human emotions such as love, hate, and loneliness, feelings which make the illustrations powerful, explains Mason, who considers the Murasaki Shikibu Nikki emaki to be the "finest extant examples of prose-poetry narrative illustrations from the period". The illustration in which two young courtiers try to open the lattice blinds to enter the women's quarters is particularly poignant because Murasaki can be seen holding the lattice shut against their advances. In the distance, to the right of the scroll, is a lovely garden, from which she is separated by the architecture and the men.
The scroll was discovered in 1920 in a five segment piece, by Morikawa Kanichirō (森川勘一郎). The Gotoh Museum holds segments one, two and four; the Tokyo National Museum holds the third segment; the fifth remains in a private collection. The portion of the emakimono held at the Gotoh museum have been designated as National Treasures of Japan.
In 1920, Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi published Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan; this book combined a translation of Murasaki's diary with that of Izumi Shikibu (The Izumi Shikibu nikki) and of the Sarashina nikki. Their translation had an introduction by Amy Lowell. A more recent English translation was published by Richard Bowring in 1982.
- Henshall (1999), 24–25
- Bowring (2005), xviii
- Shirane (2008b), 2, 113–114
- Mason (2004), 109
- Shirane (1987), 215
- Tyler, Royall. "Murasaki Shikibu: Brief Life of a Legendary Novelist: c. 973 – c. 1014". (May, 2002) Harvard Magazine. Retrieved August 21, 2011
- Shirane (2008b), 293
- Keene (1999), 40–41
- Bowring (2005), xv
- Bowring (2005), xl - xli
- "Detached segment of The Diary of Lady Murasaki, emaki". Emuseum.jp
- Bowring (2005), xxviii
- Keene (1999), 44
- Ury (2003), 175–188
- Mason (1980), 30
- Waley, vii
- Keene (1999), 42–44
- Bowring (2005), xxiv-xxv
- qtd in Mulhern (1991), 86
- Waley (1960), ix-x
- Waley (1960), xiii
- Mulhern (1994), 156
- Waley (1960), xii
- qtd in Keene (1999), 45
- Keene (1999), 44–45
- Bowring (2005), xxvii
- Shikibu, 127
- Bowring (2005), xxv-xxvii
- Lady Murasaki, 65
- Keene (1999), 46
- qtd. in Keene (1999), 46
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- Shirane (1987), 221
- Shirane (1987), 36
- Waka is always 31 syllables with a measures of 5/7 or 7/5 syllables. In the diary, Murasaki used the so-called short form consisting of a measure of 5/7/5/7/7 syllables. See Bowring, xix
- McCullough (1990), 15–16
- Keene (1999), 41–42
- Keene (1999), 45
- Bowring (2005), xviii - xix
- Mason (1980), 24
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- Mason (1980), 29
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