Abutsu Criticism - Essay

Edwin O. Reischauer (essay date 1947)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.]


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 aristocracy and the increasing imitativeness and formalism of poetry. Indeed, the hundred-odd poems of the Izayoi nikki, though not among the best in Japanese literature, afford an excellent insight into the heart, or rather mind, of the medieval Japanese poet and into the nature and some of the weaknesses of Japanese poetry in general. Still another reason why this text is of interest both to the student of literature and the historian is the author herself, “the nun Abutsu” (Abutsu-ni). Despite the largely imitative quality of her writing, she stands out as a great personality. As the last famous woman writer before the late nineteenth century, she marks the end of an epoch in Japanese literature and social history; as the wife of one of Japan's best known poets, Fujiwara Tameie (1198-1275), and as the progenitor of one of the greatest hereditary schools of poets of medieval times, she is a significant figure in the history of Japanese poetry. Lastly, the historical incident around which the Izayoi nikki centers throws much light on the institutions and mores of early feudal Japan.

If the Izayoi nikki is to be regarded not as a timeless masterpiece but merely as an interesting example of broad literary and cultural trends, it is necessary, before undertaking a study of it, to have some understanding of the literature of the late classic and early feudal periods in Japan. Unfortunately, Aston's pioneer work, A History of Japanese Literature, still remains, fifty years after its first publication in 1898, the only serious history of Japanese literature in English.1 Reflecting the rudimentary level of Japanese literary criticism of that day, it is neither a clear interpretation of the development of Japanese literature nor a repository of accurate information. I am forced, therefore, before proceeding with a study of my text, to sketch briefly the major trends in Japanese literature from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, so that the Izayoi nikki can be properly evaluated and viewed in its true perspective. I hope that my own inadequacy for this task will help spur others on to undertake the writing of a satisfactory history of Japanese literature and thus fill in one of the most serious gaps in our understanding of the civilization of the Far East.

The period from the eighth to the early eleventh century can be called the classic age of Japanese literature. This period saw the first flowering of Japanese civilization, following the heavy cultural borrowings from China during the seventh, eighth, and early ninth centuries. During this period the prestige of all things Chinese remained so great that more emphasis was placed on writing in Chinese than in Japanese. Despite this primary concern with Chinese, however, the Japanese court aristocrats, both men and women, produced a prodigious number of poems in Japanese. Some members of the nobility, particularly the court ladies, who were less skilled in writing Chinese and less ashamed of writing Japanese than their menfolk, produced Japan's first great prose literature in the tenth and early eleventh centuries.

This classic age saw the compilation of the two greatest collections of Japanese poetry, the Man'yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), completed some time after 759, and the Kokinshū (Collection of Ancient and Modern Times), completed in 905. During the first two decades of the eleventh century appeared two of Japan's greatest prose masterpieces, the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) by Lady Murasaki Shikibu and the Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi) by Lady Sei Shōnagon.

The classic literature of Japan was the undisputed monopoly of a small court aristocracy. It was written by members of this group about themselves, their lives, and their thoughts, and in all probability it was read almost exclusively by the same small educated class. The court aristocracy was a privileged class, living in comparative luxury and indolence, and the literature it produced clearly mirrors the life and interests natural to such a class. Despite a carefully nurtured and savored sense of poetic melancholy, the poets and authors of this age had a strong hedonistic zest for life—a desire to enjoy the experiences and emotions of life to the fullest, to drain the last emotional draught from each scene of nature, each amatory encounter, and all the arts and diversions of court life. There was correspondingly little interest in the more fundamental problems of life, in philosophy or religion, except insofar as religious ceremonies served as diversions or opportunities for display.

Notwithstanding the prestige of the Chinese language at this time and the usual attempt on the part of most courtiers to do their serious writing in that language, Japanese literature of the classic age was largely free from Chinese loan words. In sharp contrast to most prose writing of later ages, it was relatively pure Japanese both in structure and vocabulary.

The classic age of Japanese literature coincides roughly with the period when Japan was controlled by the imperial court at Kyōto, first under the leadership of Emperors, and later under that of Regents (Sesshō) and Chancellors (Kampaku) belonging to the all-powerful Fujiwara family. The eleventh century saw the start of profound political and economic changes, as actual control of the nation began to pass from the weakening grasp of the court aristocracy to the hands of a more vigorous and much larger class of provincial gentry. This group had a double role as stewards of the local estates and manors and as warriors responsible for the preservation of order in each community. Eventually, during the second half of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, a dominant clique of provincial warriors created a nation-wide feudal political system, the Kamakura Shōgunate (1185-1333).

As the old order began to crumble and the new took its place, there appeared a growing spirit of pessimism, particularly in court circles, and a rising interest in Buddhism, not merely as an elegant diversion, but as a means of salvation from a corrupt world. This growing interest in religion culminated in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries in a great religious awakening and in the founding of new Buddhist sects, which have ever since been the dominant sects of Japanese Buddhism.

With such great social and spiritual upheavals during these centuries, it was inevitable that the classic literature of Japan should undergo great changes. With the political and economic decline of the court nobility, the literature which this class was producing became progressively less creative and increasingly imitative and sterile. At the same time, new literary forms appeared which were more expressive of the growing popular concern with religion and the interest of the rising warrior class. Thus, this period is characterized by the parallel and sometimes mingling flow of two dissimilar currents—one the placid but dwindling flow of the old court literature, the other the fresher, growing current of newer literary forms better able to express the spirit of a new age dominated politically by the warrior class and spiritually by the new Buddhism.

As an indirect result of the political and economic decline of the Kyōto court, the knowledge of Chinese on the part of the court aristocracy gradually declined. As it became increasingly difficult for Japanese to write correct Chinese, they sometimes resorted to a mixed Chinese-Japanese style, which might be described as Chinese written with the aid (or obscuration) of Japanese grammar. Such a style is found in the Konjaku monogatari (Tales of Modern and Ancient Times), a collection of Buddhist and other stories from India, China, and Japan, which is traditionally attributed, somewhat gratuitously, to Minamoto Takakuni (1004-1077). By the thirteenth century a new type of Japanese prose had developed from this style, which, while largely Japanese in grammar and structure, used a vocabulary rich in borrowed Chinese words or Sino-Buddhist terms.

The decline of Chinese learning in Japan also resulted in a lessening of the prejudice on the part of men against writing prose in Japanese. Men gradually came to take the lead in Japanese prose literature in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and by the latter part of the thirteenth century the woman writer had become a rarity. There continued to be women poets, but few attained any great prominence after the thirteenth century, and, as mentioned above, Abutsu, who died not long after completing the Izayoi nikki in 1280, was the last famous woman prose writer before the late nineteenth century.

Another result of the decline of the Kyōto court and the rise of new political institutions was the growing interest in the recent past, which was looked back upon with nostalgia by those who regretted the passing of the old and also with curiosity by those who wished to explain the present. This can be seen, on the one hand, in the increasing imitativeness and traditionalism of the older literary forms and, on the other hand, in the popularity of historical subjects in the newer literary forms. This interest in history ranks with the new emphasis on Buddhism and the warrior class as one of the outstanding features of Japanese literature of early feudal times.

Still another result of the decline of the Kyōto court, the rise of the provincial warrior class, and the appearance of a new interest in Buddhism was the spread of literature to other classes besides the court aristocracy. Gradually members of the warrior class and monks from all classes began to join the court nobles as important figures in the literary world. By the late fourteenth century literary leadership had definitely passed from the courtiers to other groups.

Among the various literary forms popular in the late classic and early feudal period, it was poetry, particularly the thirty-one syllable tanka, which remained truest to the classic pattern. In fact, it was conservative to the point of imitativeness, though the Japanese poets, particularly those of this time, felt no shame in this. On the contrary, they delighted in recalling by allusion or quotation some earlier poem to which they would give a new interpretation or some unexpected twist. Drawing inspiration from the Kokinshū, and later also from the Man'yōshū, the court aristocracy, now joined by monks and warriors, continued century after century to compose their tanka and to collect the best of them in periodic imperial anthologies, based on the pattern of the Kokinshū, which is the first of the anthologies of Japanese poetry compiled on imperial order. In all, twenty-one imperial anthologies were compiled, nine during the century and a half of the Kamakura period alone. The last was completed in 1439.2 In addition, there appeared some private anthologies, as well as scores of private collections of individual poets, attesting to the assiduousness if not the genius of the poets of the time.

The poets of the latter part of the twelfth century and early thirteenth century, particularly the monk Saigyō (1118-1190), the courtier Fujiwara Toshinari (or Shunzei) (1114-1204), and the lattera's son Sadaie (or Teika) (1162-1241), are credited with having brought not only new techniques but also new freshness to the old art of composing tanka. The Shinkokinshū (New Collection of Ancient and Modern Times), an imperial anthology compiled by Sadaie and four other courtiers during the first decade of the thirteenth century, contains many poems by these three men and their contemporaries and is usually considered to be the most important of the twenty imperial anthologies which followed the Kokinshū.

As the thirteenth century progressed, however, poetry became even more imitative and artificial than before. One factor in this growing sterility and formality was the development of hereditary lines of poets, claiming to possess the only true tradition. Poetry, like the other arts practiced in feudal Japan, became a sort of feudal right, maintained as far as possible within a single hereditary line by the transmission of a secret tradition. The most important of these hereditary lines sprang from Sadaie's son, Tameie, the husband of Abutsu. The three schools into which his descendants were divided dominated the poetic field during the next two or three centuries and helped to stifle what remaining creative spirit there may have been. At first the transmission was from father to son in these schools, but in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the leading protagonists of these schools were usually non-related disciples, more often than not, monks.

The ending of the imperial anthologies in the fifteenth century was perhaps as much due to the loss of interest in a sterile poetic form as to the political and economic decline of the imperial court. But the art of tanka writing never did die out in Japan. It is still practiced by thousands of Japanese and is officially recognized in the annual imperial poetry competition. However, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries popular interest began to shift from it to other poetic forms. There were the popular songs and chants which played a part in the development of the great medieval dramatic form, the Drama. There was also the poetic diversion of renga (“chain poems”), in which different poets composed alternating seventeen- and fourteen-syllable strophes, each taking as its point of departure the immediately preceding strophe. The composition of renga gradually developed into something more than a diversion and in time became the most highly regarded of all poetic skills. It flourished particularly under the great renga poet, the monk Sōgi (1421-1502), and it in turn gave birth to the seventeen-syllable haiku,3 which, in the hands of the haiku master, Bashō (1644-1694), was to become the great poetic form of the seventeenth century.

The romantic novel was another decidedly conservative literary form. The long romantic novels of the late eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries were usually quite self-consciously archaistic in subject matter and in style. In both these regards, they clearly showed the influence of the Tale of Genji and sometimes of earlier novels of the tenth century. For the most part they adhered closely to the native Japanese vocabulary and grammar of the early eleventh century, although in the novels of the thirteenth century there is sometimes a somewhat greater admixture of newer grammatical forms and words of Chinese and Buddhist origin. Plots frequently were nothing more than new adaptations of old themes and concerned the lives and loves of court nobles of an earlier age. With these markedly archaistic characteristics, it is small wonder that the romantic novels of this period displayed a sharp decline in creative imagination, which in turn no doubt accounted for a rapid loss of popular interest in this type of literature.

Among the better known romantic novels of this time, the one which most closely followed the pattern of the Genji monogatari was perhaps the Sagoromo monogatari, probably dating from the second half of the eleventh century or the early twelfth century. The Hamamatsu chūnagon monogatari, which probably dates from the middle of the eleventh century and may have been the work of a lady known to history simply as “the daughter of Sugawara Takasue” (b. 1008), followed the precedent of the Utsubo monogatari (dating from about 970) in taking its hero to China. The Sumiyoshi monogatari, which dates from some time before the year 1271, following the theme of the Ochikubo monogatari of the second half of the tenth century, centers around the trials and loves of a persecuted step-daugher. The most original and most noteworthy of the late novels is the Tsutsumi chūnagon monogatari, attributed to the eleventh, twelfth, or thirteenth centuries by different authorities. This work, breaking with the tradition of the long romantic novel, is made up of ten independent chapters which are scenes from life rather than stories. The approach is fresh, and the subject matter in some cases is novel. Some enthusiasts have even called the ten chapters of the Tsutsumi chūnagon monogatari Japan's firts short sotries.

The archaistic romantic novel did not survive the thirteenth century as an important literary form. Long before this, the historical novel, the military novel, and collections of short historical and Buddhist stories had supplanted it in popular appeal. During the later feudal period, a new literary form, usually called the Otogi-zōshi, proved to be the most popular story form among the people at large. The Otogi-zōshi were short and often fantastic adventure stories, sometimes more in the nature of fairy tales than realistic stories. They were an important literary form from the fourteenth until the seventeenth centuries, and, in a closely parallel and often almost identical form called Kōwakamai,4 were recited or chanted during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Otogi-zōshi and Kōwakamai in their somewhat archaistic grammar and vocabulary may have harked back to the romantic novel, but in subject matter they derived more closely from the historical and military novels and still more from the collections of historical and Buddhist stories.

The historical novel5 first appeared during the eleventh century as an outgrowth of the classic romantic novel. Like the collections of historical and Buddhist stories, it was perhaps a natural literary expression of an age of change which viewed with nostalgia the glories of a departed day. The two earliest and most famous of the historical novels are the Eiga monogatari (Tale of Splendor) and the Ōkagami (The Great Mirror). Both were at least in large part written during the eleventh century, and both, while treating of court history from the latter half of the ninth century until the eleventh, center their attention on Michinaga (966-1027),6 the most glorious and renowned of all the heads of the Fujiwara family. The Eiga monogatari, which ends with the year 1092, is arranged chronologically, while the Ōkagami, which goes only as far as 1025, follows the pattern of Chinese histories in its division into imperial annals and biographies of courtiers. In their imaginative detail and their emphasis on court ceremonies, incidents of court life, and poetic exchanges, both works show the strong influence of the old romantic novels, though in vocabulary they diverge from the novels in their use of Chinese and Buddhist terms.

The author of the Ōkagami puts his story into the mouths of two aged men, one 190 years old and the other 180, with occasional comments by a younger man representing the judgment of the contemporary age. This device, as well as the name of the book, was imitated in a series of later historical novels which sought to continue the Ōkagami or supplement it. These were the Imakagami (The Mirror of Nowadays), continuing the story from 1025 to 1170, the Mizu-kagami (The Water Mirror), dating probably from the latter part of the twelfth century and telling the history of Japan from its mythological beginnings through the first half of the ninth century, and the Masu-kagami (The Clear Mirror),7 covering the period 1180-1333.

Collections of historical and Buddhist stories8 represent another literary form which paralleled the historical novel in its emphasis on the past and in the history of its development. The first collection of this type not written in pure Chinese, and at the same time the largest and most famous, is the Konjaku monogatari, already mentioned as a good example of the mixed Chinese-Japanese style of the eleventh century and, thus, one of the ancestors of the normal written style of the Kamakura period. As was frequently the case in such collections, many of the stories in the Konjaku monogatari are about Buddhist subjects. A distinctive feature of this particular collection is that, of the total number of thirty-one scrolls into which it is divided, five each are devoted to stories from India and China.

There were many later collections of a similar nature, recounting famous stories drawn from the history and the cultural traditions of the Far East. Some centered largely on Buddhist themes, others on literary stories, particularly incidents capped by some courtier's apt Chinese poem or tanka. Two of the later collections might be singled out for specific mention. One is the Uji shūi monogatari (Tales Gleaned at Uji) of the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, which added a strong moralistic note to its stories. The other is the Jikkinshō (The Miscellany of the Ten Maxims) of 1252, which fittingly illustrates the spirit of a strongly Buddhist age by grouping its stories under ten moral principles drawn from Buddhism. All of these collections of historical and Buddhist tales are either in a mixed Chinese-Japanese style or else in Japanese loaded with Chinese and Buddhist words.

Perhaps the most distinctive literary form of the Kamakura period was the military novel.9 This was clearly an outgrowth of the historical novel. At the same time, in its heavy admixture of Chinese words, it showed the direct influence of contemporary histories and accounts of wars written in Chinese, and, in its organization into a series of incidents, each with its own title, it showed the influence of the collections of historical and Buddhist stories. The military novels of the Kamakura period were vigorous in style. Telling as they did of the life and wars of the newly-risen warrior class, they enjoyed great popularity throughout the feudal period. For the most part they took as their central theme the wars between the Minamoto and Taira clans during the second half of the twelfth century.

The greatest of the military novels, the Heike monogatari (Tale of the Taira Clan), written early in the thirteenth century, covers the years 1132 to 1213 but dwells especially on the collapse of the Taira clan during the years 1177 to 1185. Its great popularity in medieval times is attested to by the fact that it was commonly chanted by traveling minstrels. Two shorter works, the Hōgen monogatari and the Heiji monogatari, tell respectively of the wars of the Hōgen and Heiji periods, which occurred in 1156 and 1159-1160. Very similar in style and organization, these two works may be by a single hand. Scholars are not yet agreed as to the dates of their composition, some placing them before and some after the Heike monogatari. The Gempei seisui ki (Record of the Rise and Fall of the Minamoto and Taira Clans), dating from about the middle of the thirteenth century, covers much the same material as the Heike monogatari, and the Taiheiki (Record of the Great Peace) recounts the political history and battles between the years 1318 and 1367.

There remain for discussion various intimate writings such as diaries,10 travel accounts,11 and personal miscellanies or jottings.12 The literary trends within this category were as diverse as the elements of which it was constituted. The court lady's diary, which had been so important a literary form during the classic age, remained essentially conservative and imitative both in content and style. After the Sarashina nikki (Sarashina Diary), written in 1059-1060 by the daughter of Sugawara Takasue, mentioned above as the reputed authoress of the Hamamatsu chūnagon monogatari, there were few diaries of any great literary merit or renown. The Izayoi nikki stands out as the only famous later work of this type, and it might be better classed as a travel account or, as we shall see, as a purely poetical work.

Besides the Izayoi nikki, the only well-known travel accounts of this period are the Kaidōki (Record of the Sea Road) of 1223 and the Tōkan kikō (Eastern Barrier Travel Account) of 1242, which, like Abutsu's more famous work, tell of trips from Kyōto, the old imperial capital, to Kamakura, the new feudal capital. Both, in the usual style of travel accounts, are highly poetic, but they are less archaistic than the Izayoi nikki and make more use of words of Chinese and Buddhist origin.13

There are only two famous personal miscellanies or jottings dating from this period, but both are regarded as masterpieces of Japanese literature. One is the Hōki (Record of a Ten Foot Square [Hut]), usually accepted as a work written early in the thirteenth century by Kamo Chōmei (1153-1216). The other is the Tsurezuregusa (Grasses of Ennui) written by Yoshida Kenkō (or Kaneyoshi) (1283-1350), probably some time between 1324 and 1331. The two authors have points of striking similarity with each other. Both were born in priestly Shintō families in Kyōto; both became Buddhist monks and recluses; both were among the greatest poets of their day. Their two works, however, are quite dissimilar. The Hōjōki is a very short philosophic account of Chōmei's retirement from the world. The Tsurezuregusa is a much longer work and a true miscellany in the style of the Pillow Book of Lady Sei Shōnagon. The Hōjōki and Tsurezuregusa are alike in that they show the pervading spirit of Buddhist pessimism of the period and are written in a style which is neither over-archaistic nor too heavily burdened with Chinese and Buddhist terms. The Tsurezuregusa has a unique position in the history of Japanese literature as perhaps the last great work belonging to the classic stream of literature.

This brief outline of the major trends in Japanese literature during the late classic and early feudal periods may help to resolve the apparent inconsistency of my evaluation of the Izayoi nikki as an important text but not a great piece of literature. As the last famous work by a woman, as the best known diary or travel account in Japanese written between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, and as one of the five or six most read works of the Kamakura period, the Izayoi nikki has an important place in Japanese literature, though this place is not that of a great example of creative writing. Archaistic in style, imitative in concept, and formalized in expression, it is only the echo of a great literature.

The reader, however, should be reminded that this judgment is contradicted by the long and continued popularity of the Izayoi nikki among Japanese. This is attested to by the early printing of the book and the many modern commentaries upon it. No very early manuscripts are known, but the Izayoi nikki was printed as early as 1659 and again in 1689, and a great commentary on it was published together with the text in 1824. Since 1885 further commentaries have come out in rapid succession, no less than fifteen appearing within the subsequent fifty years, and the text of the Izayoi nikki has been printed again and again in modern collections of Japanese literature.14

Such intensive study of the Izayoi nikki would seem to indicate much greater literary merit than I have suggested. However, it should be borne in mind that many of the recent commentaries on the Izayoi nikki have been occasioned by its common use in schools and not by any spontaneous demand on the part of readers. More significant perhaps are the views of Japanese students of literature. For the most part they seem reserved in their comments on the literary merit of the Izayoi nikki. Tsugita15 calls the prose graceful and concise and sometimes vividly beautiful, though he admits that it is poor in artistic effect and that the poems are not particularly distinguished. Fujimura emphasizes the intense mother-love Abutsu displays as the most interesting feature of the Izayoi nikki. Ichimura calls it a beautiful work of high literary merit which combines harmoniously an expository style with an emotional approach, but he finds the poems remarkable only for Abutsu's skill in making plays on words and in giving a new twist to old poems, though he feels that Abutsu was perhaps the most faithful transmitter of Sadaie's poetic heritage. Sano points out that the prose, though only incidental to the poetry, is better than the poems, which he finds too cluttered up with verbal tricks and obscure because of their dependence on earlier poems for understanding. However, he makes clear that Abutsu's poetic weak points were those of her day, and he admits that her prose, too, is sometimes lacking in clarity. Kazamaki, while pointing out that the judgment of time has been that the Izayoi nikki is great literature, states that in parts it is monotonous and even fatiguing, showing how much the diary style of the classic age had decayed by the thirteenth century. He feels that, despite the obvious sincerity and intensity of the emotions Abutsu expresses, the chief literary value of the Izayoi nikki lies in its poems and its chief interest in what it teaches us of the poetry of the time.

The Izayoi nikki, though commonly called a diary or a travel account, is neither, except in a most limited sense. It falls into four distinct parts. The first is a short introduction telling why Abutsu made her trip from Kyōto to Kamakura and of her parting from her children, with the poems she exchanged with them on that occasion. The second part tells of her trip, which lasted from the sixteenth day to the twenty-ninth day of the tenth moon of 1277. It is a day-by-day account in diary style, though it would be safe to conclude from the vagueness of parts of this section that it was not written down in this form until after her trip had been completed. The description of her trip is limited to the briefest of notices concerning the places she lodged each night and some of the chief sights along the way, usually in connection with, or as an introduction to, one of the fifty-five tanka which stud this part of the text. The third section makes no pretense of being a diary. It tells of Abutsu's correspondence, while she was in Kamakura, with her friends and relatives in Kyōto, and quotes many of the poems exchanged in these letters. The last poem in this section was composed presumably in the early autumn of 1278, but the writing of the section was clearly completed some time later, for her final words are, “Later many poems from the capital piled up. I shall write them down another time.”

The fourth and last section has no organic relationship with the rest of the work. It is a chōka (or nagauta), that is, a “long poem” as opposed to a tanka or “short poem.” It consists of 151 alternating five- and seven-syllable verses, with the last two of seven syllables, followed by a tanka, which, as the last element of a chōka, is called a hanka and serves as a sort of summary, supplement, or keynote for the rest of the poem. The chōka recites again the reasons for her presence in Kamakura, thus repeating some of the material of the first section. Her reference in this poem to “the advent of the spring of the fourth year” indicates that it was not written until the spring of 1280, over a year later than any other part of the text. This chōka has not been highly regarded by Japanese critics. Even Ichimura feels that it has no great literary value, and Sano calls it simply tedious. But it is of interest as a rather unusual poetic work for the thirteenth century. The chōka had had its day in the time of the Man'yōshū, and from the tenth century on was a poetic form little esteemed and only infrequently employed.

It is not known when the Izayoi nikki first was given its present title, which can be translated as Diary of the Waning Moon. This title is really applicable only to the second section, which is in diary style and concerns her trip from Kyōto to Kamakura, made in the second half of the tenth moon. The night of the sixteenth day of the moon and that day itself had the poetic name of Izayoi or sometimes Isayoi, which literally means “tardy” or “faltering” and had specific reference to the fact that this was the beginning of the waning of the moon. Not only was the sixteenth the day Abutsu started her trip, but in the introductory section she even indulges in the conceit that she had set forth, “enticed by the waning moon (izayou tsuki).” Later she quotes a poem from one of her correspondents, suggesting, with reference to the day of her departure, that “the waning moon that rose that night” would be for her correspondent “a memento” of Abutsu. To this Abutsu makes the poetic response that she trusts “in the future when it will come around again—the waning moon.” The title was probably inspired by these three references and by the diary style of the second section.

From the brief description of the make-up of the Izayoi nikki given above, it can be seen why it cannot be called a true travel account or diary. Only one of its four parts, constituting slightly over a third of the whole text, bears any resemblance to either, and then only superficially. Actually even this section is more a selection of tanka written during her trip, arranged chronologically and bound together with brief comments describing the circumstances under which each poem was composed. Kazamaki has put forth the thoroughly plausible thesis that this section is in reality a sort of textbook or poetry model book written by Abutsu for the benefit of her sons to show them how poems on the famous sights of the Tōkaidō, the “Eastern Sea Road” between Kyōto and the Kamakura region, should be composed. He points out that forty-nine of the fifty-five poems in this section are on places about which famous poems had been composed in the past and that, of the fifty-one place names mentioned in this part of Abutsu's text, thirty-five figure in her poems and several of the others are indirectly connected with them. This theory is supported by a statement Abutsu makes in the third section where, commenting upon some poems sent her by one of her sons, she says, “They seem to have been composed on the basis of the diary of my trip down here, which I had sent them.” Kazamaki goes on to suggest that the third part, with its twenty-six poems by Abutsu and twenty-four sent her by her correspondents, is likewise simply a poetry model book for her sons, showing how poetic exchanges by letter were to be written. All this seems reasonable enough in view of Abutsu's obvious concern over the poetic education of her sons and of the transmission of the correct tradition to them.

Whether or not one accepts Kazamaki's theory that the Izayoi nikki was written merely as a poetry model book, there can be no doubt that it is entirely dominated by its poetic element. The 116 tanka, eighty-six by Abutsu herself, together with the concluding chōka make up almost half of the total text, and the prose parts are clearly nothing more than introductions, either to the work itself, or to the individual poems. The prose has the merit of being simple and, for the most part, clear, but it tends to be monotonous both because of its restricted archaistic vocabulary and because of its staccato style, which is probably the result of the many simple introductory statements.

One returns inevitably to the poems and to what Abutsu says, or rather implies, about poetry as the heart of the Izayoi nikki. One of its chief values is as a sort of unconscious commentary on poetic trends of the Kamakura period. Abutsu's attitude toward the art of poetry as the exclusive hereditary property of her husband's family and her determination that the correct tradition, and the perquisites which accompanied it, should be passed on to her sons rather than to her stepsons, show how emphasis on tradition and belief in hereditary right were taking the place of genius in the field of poetry. Her tendency to compose poems on themes traditionally accepted as proper poetic subjects and even to compose her poems in imitation of, or at least with reference to, some famous poem of the past shows how far imitativeness and traditionalism had supplanted inspiration. Her reliance on literary allusions, on timeworn clichés, and on verbal tricks in the nature of puns show how far formalism had taken the place of real emotion in the composition of poetry.

The poems of the Izayoi nikki, while not regarded as among the finest of Japanese poetry, have their value for the insight they give into Japanese poetry in general. Japanese poetry in the original is at best not easy for the foreigner to comprehend or appreciate. In translation it is usually even more obscure, and whatever emotions it arouses, whether of appreciation or otherwise, are often more the result of the work of the translator than of the original poet. Japanese poetry is highly elliptical and suggestive. For the most part, understanding depends on the reader's ability to picture to himself a scene only suggested by one of its elements and to sense an emotion merely hinted at by some symbol. Often the context is necessary for this. In the past, compilers of anthologies usually recognized this fact by prefacing each poem with a brief explanatory note.

The interest of a Japanese poem depends as much on the way an idea is expressed as on the idea itself. It depends upon an apt metaphor, a clever figure of speech, or an unusual sequence of ideas. In the more formalistic type of poetry represented by Abutsu's poems, there is far too much reliance on word-plays in the nature of puns; but, good or bad, a full understanding of this type of poetry requires a comprehension of these verbal tricks. Similarly, appreciation of the imitative poetry of the time also depends on the reader's ability to recognize literary allusions and new turns given to old concepts and phrases.

With all this necessary to the understanding and appreciation of a Japanese poem, it is not hard to see why the usual translation falls so far short of expressing all that is in the original. It may suggest the scene and sometimes it may correctly express the mood, but only rarely can it do both and at the same time give an idea of the pun or neat turn of phrase which has made the original something more than the flat, dull statement it appears to be in translation. In this connection, the poems of the Izayoi nikki are particularly illuminating for the student of Japanese poetry, for the prose sections afford the context needed for an understanding of the scene described and the emotion expressed, while Abutsu's concentration on the more obvious sort of verbal tricks makes this aspect of her poetry reasonably apparent. Her pervading mood is made amply clear throughout the Izayoi nikki, and most of the poems are accompanied by short explanations of exactly what she saw or what happened to occasion each specific poetic expression of her feelings. The context, however, usually does not help with either the literary allusions or the plays on words. The former I have pointed out, whenever necessary, in footnotes; the latter I have attempted to indicate by literal and sometimes double translations as well as by footnotes.

What I have called verbal tricks or plays on words fall into three major categories. One is the fixed epithet or “pillow-word” (makura kotoba), originally a descriptive term, often become almost meaningless, which is traditionally prefixed to a name or word or even to the first element in a name or word.16 These I have translated as literally as possible to preserve the flavor of the original and have explained in footnotes.

The second type of plays on words is the engo or verbal association. An engo is a word used in one part of a poem with one specific meaning, but carrying with it an overtone because of its common association in a different meaning with a word or phrase in another part of the poem. For instance, if one were to say, “The sight of the woodland creature recalled to me the image of one once dear to me,” the word “dear” would be the engo, being associated in a different meaning, “deer,” with the phrase “woodland creature” and suggesting in this second meaning something more about the character or appearance of the loved one. I have pointed out the more obvious engo in notes.

The third type of word-play is the kakekotoba (or), usually translated as “pivot-word.”17 This consists of a word or phrase which in whole or in part has two distinct meanings in the poem, one in association with the preceding clause or phrase and the other in association with the succeeding clause or phrase. In other words, it serves as a pivot between two clauses or phrases which overlap on this single word or phrase which has two meanings. An example in English would be, “As far as one could see (i.e., sea) and sky were all the eye did meet.”… Our example…would be, “As far as one could {see / sea} and sky were all the eye did meet.”

In addition to these three well-recognized types of plays on words, there are many other less clearly defined puns and double-entendres in the poems of the Izayoi nikki. Where appropriate, I have handled these by double translations, as in the case of the pivot-words, and have pointed others out in notes.

The importance of the sequence of ideas, and therefore of the sequence of words and phrases, poses a particularly difficult problem for the translator. All those who have attempted to render Japanese into English know how the English translation constantly reverses the order of words, phrases, and clauses of the original Japanese. But a Japanese poem in reversed word order is in no way the same poem or even an approximation of it. On the other hand, some reversal of words and phrases is absolutely necessary if the translation is to be comprehensible. Faced with this dilemma, I have divided each tanka into two halves and have given these two halves in their original order while changing the sequence of words and phrases within each half as demanded by English grammar. This division of the tanka is in conformity with its nature. The thirty-one syllables of the tanka are divided into five verses of the following syllabic pattern: 5-7-5-7-7. The five verses normally fall into two groups, the first three verses and the last two, as follows: 5-7-5—7-7. I have followed this method of division both in the two-line English translation and in the transliteration of the Japanese text. For the sake of...

(The entire section is 18377 words.)

Donald Keene (essay date 1985)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5249 words.)

John R. Wallace (essay date 1988)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 3345 words.)

Robert N. Huey (essay date 1989)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 8830 words.)

Steven D. Carter (essay date 1989)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Jin' ichi Konishi (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 824 words.)