Abutsu Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.