Records of a floating life

If you looked back (given a sufficient amount of time) at your life, what details would you choose to record? Just the essentials? As the great T’ang poet Li Po says, …the floating life is but a dream: how much longer can we enjoy our happiness? Or indeed, endure our sorrow?

1 Sarashina reflected moon on paddy fieldsAs I crossed a bridge of dreams

I have a fascination for diaries written long ago and far away, by people of whom nothing is known but what they reveal of themselves in their books. I’m talking about the diaries of early Japan, many of which are regarded as among the greatest productions of Japanese literature.

The Japanese word is ‘nikki’ (日記文学). At such a remove of time and place it is not surprising that the books I’ve been reading are very different to what we would expect as ‘diaries’, so much so that the similarities: the intimacy, the poignancy, the sensitivity, are a bit of a shock.

It seems to me the best way to look at nikki is from the perspective of something with which we are more familiar, the sonnet form of poetry, which we learnt about (or didn’t) at school. Sonnets are poems set to a strict rhyming scheme, end rhymes of a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g in iambic pentameter, and in which the poet talks of a problem, then gives it’s solution. The sonnet was influenced in subject matter by the classical pastoral of Theokritos and Vergil, in which a shepherd mourned the neglect of his lover. Shakespeare, the greatest master of the sonnet in English, took this to extremes, with an account of a dark lady and a false friend. These events are actually part of the conventions of the form, as much so as the rhyme scheme. While the searchers after confessions from Shakespeare’s lips (or Francis Bacon’s) look for autobiographical references in the sonnets written by Shakespeare, it is more likely the poet wanted us to admire his dexterity, and the sensitivity of his feelings. Sonnets were circulated among friends privately, not published, and their reading, as well as their writing, was a courtly accomplishment.

So too nikki proceed with a set of conventions we don’t associate with diaries. The subject matter is the emotion experienced by the writer on certain occasions, rather than the chronology of more mundane events we are used to in diaries, or blogs. They are full of poems, some a collection of poems with a brief connecting prose passage for each one. The verse forms are, in the earliest works, the tanka, in the later, the haiku. Tanka are short poems with five ‘ideas’, characters or syllables, in the scheme 5-7-5-7-7-7. Haiku have a seasonal reference, and the scheme 5-7-5. Quotation from earlier poems are frequent, often very allusive ones now easy to miss. Dreams are important, messages from the Buddhist and Shinto gods. The two books I read recently were both written by women, and in each the author formally leaves the world of court politics and intrigue in the end and joins a Buddhist monastery, first expressing their piety by going on one or more pilgrimages. Nikki were anonymous, and circulated among the writer’s circle to show courtly accomplishments.

2 Murasaki Shikibu.

Most early nikki are productions of courtiers, and many surviving works come from the period 794-1185 AD, known as ‘Heian’ from a word for the capital city later known as Kyoto. This was a period before the civil wars that produced the masterless samurai, the ronin, or knights-errant well known from popular books and films. But it was a world which emphasised the ritual, empty formalism and political ineffectiveness that produced first the rise of the usurping Fujiwara clan then the rivalry with their opponents. In the Heian court the exchange of poems and the exhibition of sensitivity and heightened emotion, as well as the exquisite taste in dress, was more important than any mere policy or program of government.


The first such work I came across is much later than the Heian period, but probably the most famous. Called the Narrow Road (Oku no Hosomichi), it was written by Matsuo Bashō in 1694 AD. Bashō is Japan’s master of haiku. Many know his poem of discovering a frog:

Listen! A frog

Jumping into the stillness

Of an ancient pond!

(Dorothy Britton tr)

Which I like to condense to: stillness – pond – frog – splash. You can just see his eye moving to take it in. An instant captured sublimely.

Bashō was pretty much a hermit, an unsettled man who led a life of constant travel, searching for he knew not what, but slowly refining the way he responded so that his vision became sharp and sublime. His books of journeys are more about his insights than about the places he visited, a union of description and poetry that takes his readers with him still, 300 years later. The edition I have is called A Haiku Journey, translations by Dorothy Britton and photographs by Dennis Stock. Published by Kodansha in 1974. It is not a nikki but has some of their characteristics, an emotive union of poetry and prose that is powerfully evocative.

3 The narrow roadThe narrow road

The earliest of surviving Japanese prose works is the Tosa Nikki of Ki no Tsurayuki, a famous politician and administrator who wrote about 935 AD (and in this work, anonymously). It tells the story of his journey back to the capital after serving a term of office in a distant province, accompanied by his wife and daughter. Another daughter had died while he was in office in what he thought of as a desolation away from the centre of things at the royal court. Hs book mentions his grief and has several poems that bring his emotions vividly to life. I’ve written about Tosa Nikki before, so will just refer to that essay here.

Another work, more a miscellany or notebook than a nikki, is the Pillow Book (Makura no soshi ) by Sei Shōnagon, written about 1002 AD. Like most women writers, we don’t know the author’s name. For reasons of discretion, or embarrassment, women concealed their name, and were known by a male relative’s name, so-and-so’s niece; a courtly rank; or by a place name such as Sarashina. Translators say that identifying anyone at all in these books is difficult, as person or number need not be indicated in Japanese grammar, and pseudonyms and indirect references abound. The works were not published, and those that have survived were unearthed in archives by scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries. Almost all are characterised by exquisitely beautiful prose. In the case of ‘Sei Shonagon’ what is also revealed is a pert, critical and biased personality of strong likes and dislikes. Her book is a mine of information on current etiquette, dress fashion, reports of scandals and examples of witty repartee. And of poetry. Exchange of poems was a social norm of the times. Although many are mediocre, it is remarkable how accomplished the poems of most nikki writers are. ’Sei Shonagon’ is said to have retired to a Buddhist monastery shortly after finishing her Pillow Book. The Pillow Book has been translated by Ivan Morris (Penguin 1970).

4 sei shonagonSei Shonagon

Most Heian writers mention the Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatori) written by Murasaki Shikibu about 1008 AD but parts circulating in court circles long before this. ‘Murasaki Shikibu’ is as usual anonymous, but her book deservedly popular, still today one of the greatest novels ever written. Fragments of a nikki by ‘Murasaki’ survive from the years 1008-1010 AD, giving biographical information, remarks on events at court, and showing a strong sense of discomfort with court attendance.


As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams is the title given to his translation of Sarashina Nikki by Ivan Morris (Penguin 1983), an anonymous (and untitled) nikki written about 1060 AD. Dreams figure prominently in the nikki. It is an extremely beautiful account of the author’s state of mind, thoughts, travels and beliefs. ‘Lady Sarashina’ describes herself as a shy, withdrawn person, and I imagine a slightly built, mousey girl responsible for a lot of awkward silences in conversations. She had no success with men, and might not have been a terribly attractive woman. But in her writing she is. She regrets her addiction to monogatori, tales, including the Tale of Genji. She was very fond of her father (her mother had left when she was young) and married late. But her husband died early, and she was left to the conventional end in such a case, retirement to a Buddhist monastery. Before she left the world she wrote down her story, and readers have been grateful to her ever since.

Morris, like other translators, apologies for his version of the poems. ‘Sarashina’ is conventional in her poetic sensibility, yet she is far more, and deserves to be known as a poet:

Late one night towards the end of the Eighth Month I gazed at the wonderful dawn moon illuminating the dark clusters of trees and the mountainside, and I listened to the beautiful sound of the waterfall…

If only I could share this moon

With one whose feelings are like mine –

The moon that lights the mountain village in the Autumn dawn!  (8, 83)

Her gentle, sensitive nature is evoked on every page. These little snapshots of a life end when ‘Sarashina’ is in her fifties. Her husband’s death had devastated her, somewhat unexpectedly one gathers. Her children had started to grow up and pursue a career.

Many years have passed, but whenever I think about that sad, dreamlike time my heart is thrown into turmoil and my eyes darken, so that even now I cannot clearly remember all that happened. My family went to live elsewhere, and I stayed forlornly by myself in the old house…” One more poem, and a hint that ‘Sarashina’ may have found solace in a Buddhist monastery, and she fades from view, a voice from a thousand years ago saying, that in all that time, you and I are still so alike.

5 murasaki


In 1308 AD  a ‘Lady Nijo’ (or Go-Fukakusain, after her liaison with an Emperor) wrote her nikki, Towazugatari (an unasked for tale) brilliantly translated as The Confessions of Lady Nijo by Karen Brazell (Hamlyn 1983). The manuscript was only discovered in 1950. In its blend of story and autobiography it is the most vivid and readable of the nikki in my view, hard not to be impressed, hard to put down. ‘Nijo’ of course is a court title; it means second avenue, very high status.

The Fujiwara and Minamoto clans ruled Japan, and kept the court busy by fomenting competition between members of the royal house. There were two ‘retired’ Emperors, as well as a Crown Prince. Go-Fukakusa was one of these retired Emperors, and had a liaison with the mother of ‘Nijo’. When the mother died the Emperor took care of her child, and when she was 14, made her one of his concubines. ‘Nijo’ told many stories of Go-Fukakusa, very indiscreet of her, for he was Emperor, and as such, also god.

In 1272 AD ‘Nijo’ lost her father: “He awoke with a start, raised his head, and looked directly into my eyes. ‘I wonder what will happen’, he started to say, but he died before he could finish the sentence…When I was two years old I lost my mother, but at that time I was too young to realise what had happened. However, my father and I had spent 15 years together…the debt I owed him for my life and my position was greater than the towering peak of Mount Sumeru, and the gratitude I felt towards him for taking my mother’s place in raising me was deeper than the waters of the four great seas…Nothing I could ever do would erase the grief of this parting”.(I, 3)

‘Nijo’ reveals herself as an ardent, passionate woman who found it hard to say no to a persistent lover. She took not one, but two lovers, both highly placed and powerful court officials, one also a priest. This was the great love affair of her life, hidden because of their respective positions as High Priest and Emperor’s Concubine, and suddenly terminated by his death in an epidemic when ‘Nijo’ was only 23. There is some embarrassment in her account of how she managed to conceal this, complicated by the fact she bore children to all three men and had to hide the paternity of those by her two surreptitious lovers.

6 cherry blossomsThe cherry blossom’s time is brief, but beautiful

My usual irresolute nature, further weakened by his virtuous promises, made it impossible for me to refuse him, so I let him into my room. His eloquence throughout the long night would have softened the heart of a Chinese tiger, not to mention my own which is far from adamantine, so although I had not the slightest intention of giving myself to him, I did…” (I, 4)

‘Nijo’ continues with vivid accounts of the personal politics of the Emperor’s court (though there is as much about the actual political scene as there is of Napoleon in Jane Austen). Finally a jealous Empress successfully intrigued against her, she left the court, and went on pilgrimage before entering a Buddhist monastery. These journeys are recounted with the same skill and immediacy as her account of the Emperor’s court. Her expulsion from court leaves her quite desolate, and the narrative bogs down with lengthy descriptions of festivals and religious ceremonies rather than her own feelings and emotions, as though she is in a state of shock. But soon she is her ebullient self, giving a lively account of priests and shrines and the way of devotion in Buddhist Japan of her times. Later she learns of Go-Fukakusa’s death, and the news evokes an emotional storm that recalls to her her deep grief over her father’s death 30 years earlier. Her story comes to an end, perhaps with some chapters missing and still to be discovered. The text could have been censored. As ‘Nijo’ wrote to reclaim the lost literary prestige of her family (as she thought) there must have been a courtly patron responsible for encouraging her to write and able to distribute her book to influential people. A poor Buddhist devotee without connections would have had no readers. Perhaps this led later to the text being “cut with a sword” as a commentator puts it.

That all my dreams might not prove empty, I have been writing this useless account…though I doubt it will long survive me”. (5, 27) ‘Nijo’ is a writer worthy of being compared to her much admired ‘Murasaki’, and her Towazugatari, just as much as Genji Monogatori, effortlessly bridges the centuries, a timeless work of genius. It is rare to come across an author who can convey so vividly her times and society, and her own responsive nature.


It might seem surprising, but nikki are the foundation of Japanese literature, because in them for the first time Japanese was used for literature. It had previously been just a spoken language, and anything important had been written in Chinese. Nikki were written in women’s language (Japanese) as women usually didn’t learn Chinese.

7 memoriesA memory is locked in the past

Nikki wasn’t a genre, though treated as one by critics. As the account I’ve written shows it could include: diaries as such, poetry, stories, travel writing, criticism, religious reflections, accounts of dreams, gossip, advice, and character assassination. It was a form written at first by women. Perhaps the women didn’t understand about genre.

More importantly, from our perspective, nikki are also the genesis for the Japanese novel. Not only was one of the greatest of novels written by a writer of nikki, Gengi Monogatori, but stories, monogatori, are everywhere alluded to in surviving nikki, and their matter and technique so prevalent that some nikki are also monogatori. And from the monogatori come the novel, from Genji comes one day Tanizaki’s Makioka Sisters for example.

Even more importantly, nikki form a network connecting us to times past, evidence that human nature need not change so very much over the centuries, that the emotions that move us now, moved a group of remarkable writers in Japan over a thousand years ago.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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