essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
THE TOSA DIARY was written in 935 by a famous Japanese scholar, poet and government administrator named Ki no Tsurayuki who lived in the reign of the Emperor Sujaku. Tsurayuki had served a term as Governor of Tosa on the island of Shikoku and while returning to the capital Kyoto he kept a diary to mark the journey. It is the earliest surviving work of Japanese prose.
Other diaries of this period exist. The great novelist known as Murasaki Shikibu (the first name is a nickname taken from her book Genji Monogatori, the second is an honorary term her father was entitled to) kept a diary over the years 1008 – 1010. Sei Shonagon (again the names are ceremonial ones not personal) was a court attendant during the same period and kept a diary known as the Pillow Book. Although full of personal observations and details of court procedures unknown from any other sources, these diaries were widely circulated to show the refinement and culture of their writers.
The Tosa Diary is written in a style of sophisticated simplicity. Tsurayuki writes as a woman would, without using Chinese characters, in hiragana, and his language is thus simple, everyday style, not literary. His book is a short one, 60 pages in my edition. The journey took less than two months to cover the 200 miles distance, rowing most of the way and stopping frequently for hospitality and shelter from bad weather. To while away the time the passengers composed tankas, as they would have done at home or at court.
There are almost 60 tankas in the Tosa Diary, forming about half of its content and making the diary more like a poetry collection than we would expect. The tanka was a verse form of 5 lines and 31 syllables in the rhythm 5-7-5-7-7, and composing these extempore was a polite accomplishment of the culture (like doing YouTube videos today). There were many poor examples, which were mercilessly mocked and satirised. Good ones were very highly admired.
Among these tankas in the Diary there are a number which express personal emotions, perhaps the reason why the diary was written in hiragana. Tsurayuki was accompanied on his journey by his wife and small daughter. On one occasion he is delighted and proud when the child recites quite an accomplished tanka. But he and his wife are in mourning for another daughter, who died in Tosa at the age of nine. The grief he expresses seems very real.
These versions, made (with apologies) by the translator of my edition William Porter, give some idea of sense if not of poetry:
Though I now return
To my home the Capital
Sad it is to think
One for whom I mourn in vain
Never will return again
Could I e’er forget
What is past I still should grieve
If she were not here
Seeking for her I should say
‘Where’s my little girl today?’
And once more:
In the midst of life
Cares in plenty though there be
Yet the little child
Whom I loved beyond compare
Was by far my greatest care
There are many other examples, along with poems which express delight at the seasons and the blossoms and make comments on places passed during the journey. In the same way the prose portions of the Diary sometimes give amusing details of people afflicted with seasickness or make tart comments on the behaviour of the steersman, but also tell how Tsurayuki tries to cheer up his grieving wife. The diary ends with the comment (Tsurayuki writes of himself in the third person) “His sorrows, which he can never forget, are more than he can ever express”. Then the final words: “Well – this must be torn up at once”.
We must be thankful it wasn’t, and that this glimpse of an intelligent and sensitive man from a distant era can still make sense in our own.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.