Abutsu c. 1222 -1283
(Also known as Abutsu-Ni; Abutsu the Nun; Ankamon-in Shijo; Ankamon-in Echizen; Ankamon-in Uemon Suke) Japanese poet and prose writer.
Abutsu is best known for Izayoi Nikki (c. 1279; Diary of the Waning Moon), which exemplifies the classic diary style of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), and Utatane (c. 1240; Fitful Slumbers), which records her distress after being rejected by her married lover. As the mother of Reizei Tamesuke (1263-1328) and the champion of his inheritance claim, Abutsu became a celebrated public figure, and Izayoi Nikki has long been a popular minor classic in Japan. For her own work and for founding the Reizei school of poetry, she is considered one of the most important female Japanese poets of her time.
Abutsu's birth name is unknown, and nothing is known for certain of the circumstances of her earliest years or of her parents. It is believed that, upon the death of her father, her mother married Taira no Norishige, who governed the provinces of Sado and Totomi. Norishige adopted Abutsu and she became a respected poet at a young age. She began court service while possibly in her teens, serving as a lady-in-waiting to the princess Kuniko (1209-1283), who is also known as the Empress Ankamon-in: hence Abutsu's court designations. Abutsu bore three children while employed at court. Her expertise in Genji Monogatari studies led to her being hired sometime after 1251 by the most important poetic family at court, the family of Fujiwara Tameie (1198-1275), to make a copy of The Tale of the Genji. She became romantically involved with Tameie and eventually married him and bore him two sons, the elder of whom was Tamesuke. Abutsu became a Buddhist nun upon Tameie's death in 1275, and this is the source of her common name, Abutsu-Ni, or Abutsu the Nun. At once she became embroiled in an inheritance battle between Tamesuke and Tameie's eldest son, Tameuji (1222-1286). At stake was land, property, and, most importantly, poetic legitimacy and prestige. Abutsu decided to argue her son's case before the military court of the shogun, and departed Kyoto on the difficult journey to the shogunal capital at Kamakura in about 1279. The Izayoi Nikki was written on her journey to Kamakura as well as during her long stay there while awaiting a ruling. In order to carry on the poetic tradition which she felt was her son's to advance, Abutsu founded the Reizei poetry school in his honor. She is thought to have died in Kamakura in 1283.
Abutsu's first major work was Utatane, which describes her painful emotional state at the end of her love affair with a man of noble rank. Most of the first part of Utatane deals with her feelings of loss and rejection, while the second part, which begins with Abutsu chopping off her hair, describes her journey on foot to join a distant Budhist nunnery. Abutsu wrote many poems and more than eight hundred are extant. Tameie compiled an imperial anthology entitled Shokukokin Wakashu (1265; Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry Continued) and included three poems by Abutsu. Forty-five other poems by Abutsu are found in various other imperial anthologies. A student of the Reizei school, Fujiwara Nagakiyo, compiled a private anthology entitled Fubokusho (1308-10), which contains fifty-nine of her works. One hundred poems by Abutsu are included in Ankamon-in Shijo Hyakushu (c. fourteenth century) and more than five hundred in Ankamon-in Shijo Gohyakushu (also c. fourteenth century). Abutsu's most famous work is Izayoi Nikki, a loosely organized travel diary that relates her reasons for going to Kamakura, describes sights and scenes of the two-week journey, and records correspondence and poetic exchanges. Some critics believe that Abutsu wrote it as a poetry model book, perhaps to pass on to her children. Its final section is comprised of a long poem in a style popular in the eighth century. Izayoi Nikki contains 116 poems, of which eighty-six are by Abutsu herself. Abutsu also produced two letters of some renown, although their exact dates of composition are unknown: Yoru no Tsuru (The Night Crane), which is a short treatise on poetics addressed to Tamesuke, and Menoto no Fumi, abridged as Niwa no Oshie (Garden Instructions), addressed to her daughter, Ki Naisha.
Izayoi Nikki is generally not considered a first-rate literary piece in itself, and is most often criticized for its lack of focus. Jin'ichi Konishi points out, however, that the work benefits immensely when its context—an old woman undertaking a long and hazardous trip to represent her son's interests in a legal battle—is understood. Konishi explains that most of its intended audience did indeed know the context of Izayoi Nikki, as attested to by its popularity since high medieval times. Among critics the consensus is that the work is important more for historical reasons than for its intrinsic literary merit. Although Izayoi Nikki has long been considered Abutsu's major work, recent reassessment of Utatane indicates that this work, written while she was in her teens, will ultimately be recognized as her greatest achievement. John R. Wallace finds the “intensely self-reflective quality” of Utatane particularly unusual and noteworthy and finds the text fresh even today. Donald Keene writes “Utatane is an extraordinarily moving work, one of the finest examples of the Japanese diary, in every way superior to [Abutsu's] more celebrated Izayoi Nikki.”
Utatane (prose and poetry) c. 1240
Izayoi Nikki (prose and poetry) c. 1279
*Izayoi Nikki [Diary of the Waning Moon] (translated by Edwin O. Reischauer) 1951
†Utatane: Fitful Slumbers (translated by John R. Wallace) 1988
‡Izayoi Nikki [Journal of the Sixteenth-Night Moon] (translated by Helen Craig McCullough) 1990
*In Translations from Early Japanese Literature, edited by Edwin O. Reischauer and Joseph K. Yamagawa.
†In Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 43, No. 4.
‡In Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology, edited by Helen Craig McCullough.
(The entire section is 74 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction to The Izayoi Nikki, in Translations from Early Japanese Literature, Harvard University Press, 1951, pp. 3-51.
[In the following excerpt, first published in 1947, Reischauer places the Izayoi Nikki in historical context by examining trends in Japanese literature during the late classic and early feudal periods.]
1. THE IZAYOI NIKKI AND ITS PLACE IN JAPANESE LITERATURE
The Izayoi nikki (The Diary of the Waning Moon) is not a truly great piece of literature even in the original Japanese. My literal translation of it most certainly has not added to its literary merit, but neither has it robbed it of any great literary worth, simply because there is not much in the original Japanese to be lost.
Having admitted that the Izayoi nikki is not a masterpiece of world literature, I must now point out that there are many reasons why it is both an interesting and important work worthy of detailed study. One reason is its long popularity among the Japanese. It is usually considered a minor classic suitable for use as a school text, and today it certainly is one of the five or six most widely read works of the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Another reason is its value as an excellent example of some of the literary trends of the time, such as the decline of the archaistic prose style associated with the old court...
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SOURCE: “Diaries of the Kamakura Period,” in Japan Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 3, July-September, 1985, pp. 281-89.
[In the following essay, Keene examines two diaries: the Kaidoki, written by an unknown author, and Abutsu's Utatane, which he finds superior to her more celebrated Izayoi Nikki.]
The travel diaries of the Japanese medieval period most often had their origins in the writers' desire to visit places that were either of a specifically sacred character or were familiar because of frequent mentions in poetry. A special reason for travel during the Kamakura period was the presence of the government in Kamakura, a long distance from Kyoto, the site of the emperor's court. The inhabitants of Kyoto, long accustomed to thinking of their city as the focal center of all aspects of Japanese life, were dismayed that this was no longer true. They were also intrigued by reports they had heard about the splendid new city of Kamakura. Many journeyed there out of curiousity, to see the shogun's capital for themselves. Others made the journey in order to place lawsuits before the court in Kamakura.
Naturally, the famous places along the way were not ignored even by people who were in a hurry to reach Kamakura. None of the diarists failed to mention, for example, Yatsuhashi, the eight bridges poetically described in The Tales of...
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SOURCE: “Fitful Slumbers: Nun Abutsu's Utatane,” in Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 43, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 391-416.
[In the following essay, Wallace provides an introduction to Utatane, discussing its sources, authorship, style, and date of composition.]
Utatane, Fitful Slumbers, is a short prose work written in the Kamakura period by the nun Abutsu, d. 1283, best known for her association with the poet Fujiwara Tameie, 1198-1275, and her travel diary Izayoi Nikki Diary of the Waning Moon. This diary recorded her journey to Kamakura in 1227 to place before the shogunate her case regarding the rightful heirship of Tamesuke, her son, to some of the Mikohidari family poetic writings and parts of the Hosokawa estate.1
The author was known variously as Ankamon'in Echizen, Ankamon'in Uemon no Suke, and Ankamon'in Shijō, indicating her position in the service of Ankamon'in, the empress of the Retired Emperor Juntoku, and her gradual rise in court rank, before she received the tonsure and the Buddhist name Abutsu-ni, or ‘Nun Abutsu’. She was born early in the thirteenth century, her father being a man of provincial rank probably residing in Kyoto. He died when Abutsu was still young and her mother remarried Taira Norishige, governor of Tōtōmi. Norishige adopted the young girl and had her raised in the capital. When her mother died, a...
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SOURCE: “Tamekane's Life: The First Rise and Fall,” in Kyōgoku Tamekane: Poetry and Politics in Late Kamakura Japan, Stanford University Press, 1989, pp. 19-40.
[In the following excerpt, Huey discusses Abutsu's position in the conflicts between Tameie's heirs.]
To some degree Tamekane's problems were not of his own creation but repercussions of events that occurred a half-century earlier, in the days of his great-grandfather and grandfather. Tamekane's great-grandfather was the illustrious Fujiwara Teika, recognized as a poetic genius in his lifetime and practically deified by succeeding generations. His grandfather was Teika's only legitimate son, Tameie.1
Much as Teika had wished to pass on his poetic knowledge (and his land rights) to his son, Tameie at first showed little inclination for verse; he seemed to prefer kemari (a kind of kickball). Indeed, members of the Mikohidari house, Teika's branch of the Fujiwara family, were almost as famous for their kemari skills as for their poetry. But gradually Tameie developed into a competent and prolific poet. Though he never attained his father's level of greatness, many of his poems were quite good, even innovative, and as Teika's heir, he was considered the poetic sage of his day.
In 1248 Retired Emperor Go-Saga commissioned him alone to compile an imperial anthology, although often such...
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SOURCE: “Nun Abutsu,” in Waiting for the Wind: Thirty-Six Poets of Japan's Late Medieval Age, translated by Steven D. Carter, Columbia University Press, 1989, pp. 78-79.
[In the following excerpt, Carter provides a biographical sketch of Abutsu and assesses her overall literary importance.]
As is the case with so many women of her time, the precise background of the court lady now known as the Nun Abutsu is obscure. Documents indicate that she was raised by one Taira no Norishige, a low-ranking courtier of the provincial governor class. We also know that she served in her teens as a lady-in-waiting to Ex-Empress (an honorary title) Ankamon'in, whence she herself received the lay name Ankamon'in no Shijō. After being rejected by a lover, she retired from society for a time. Thereafter she seems to have accompanied Norishige to the provinces for a brief period.
Her importance in literary history began sometime around 1253, when she became a wife to Fujiwara no Tameie, son of Teika and chief heir of the Mikohidari house. For the next twenty-two years, until Tameie's death in 1275, she was in most ways his closest confidante, and one of the sons she bore him in his last years—Tamesuke—was one of the great joys of his life. An astute and careful protector, Ankamon'in no Shijō convinced Tameie to leave her son estate rights and poetic documents that would assure him a place in the...
(The entire section is 513 words.)
SOURCE: “Retrospection in Japanese Prose Literature,” in A History of Japanese Literature, Volume Three: The High Middle Ages, translated by Aileen Gatten and Mark Harbison, edited by Earl Miner, Princeton University Press, 1991, 284-96.
[In the following excerpt, Konishi explains that much of the reputation of the Izayoi Nikki stems from its external circumstances, not the intrinsic merit of the text.]
… Isayoi Nikki is a record of Abutsu's journey to the shogunal seat in Kamakura to respond to a series of lawsuits challenging her son Tamesuke's inheritance (see ch. 8). The author does not, however, write of legal matters or of her anxieties over Tamesuke's prospects. If one were to read the text of the nikki without knowing the identity of the author, one would probably conclude only that the work is a travel record made up of waka and prose.
The Nijō-Reizei lawsuits, however, had become a cause célèbre by the time Abutsu wrote the Isayoi Nikki. Fourteenth-century and later readers thus tended to project onto this work the sentimental image of an elderly mother risking a journey to Kamakura out of love for her son. Consequently, this ordinary travel account is generally recognized as an outstanding example of Japanese literature written by women. This opinion was established around the eighteenth century and remains undisputed to this day. The Isayoi...
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Brower, Robert H. “Abutsu-Ni.” In Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, pp. 5-6. Tokyo and New York: Kodansha, 1983.
Discusses Abutsu's efforts to help her son, Reizei Tamesuke, to gain his inheritance, and the impact this had on the history of Japanese poetry.
Hulvey, S. Yumiko. “Abutsu-Ni.” In Japanese Women Writers: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook, pp. 3-8. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Deems Utatane unconventional for focusing on its narrator's “unrestrained passion.”
(The entire section is 69 words.)