Travelers of a Hundred Years

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Diaries in Japan—unlike in the United States and Europe—constitute one of the principal literary genres. If artistic, they belong to nikki bunkaru, or “diary literature.” The Japanese term nikki (a modern word for the more ancient niki) literally means “day-to-day record.” It commonly implies a daily recording by a diarist of his or her experiences, actions, feelings, and thoughts—what the French call a journal intime.

The Japanese concept of nikki, however, goes much beyond this idea. A Japanese diary may be a travel diary (kiko) or a loose miscellany of an author’s observations, reflections, and feelings (zuihitsu). Further, since most Japanese diaries include poems—generally waka—such a diary may be confused with the kashu (a poetry collection by a single author) or with the utamonogatari (brief prose tales centering on one or more poems). Also, since some diarists speak of themselves in the third person or have invented a persona to represent themselves, their diaries have been confused with the monogatari (the prose narrative romance). Furthermore, few Japanese diarists date their recordings—except perhaps here and there—or even make recordings daily, and some deal only with a part of their lives. Some diaries are written years after events occurred.

Japanese diaries may be written in three different kinds of language. A diarist may write exclusively in classical Chinese (kambun—employing kanji, or Chinese ideograms), as most men did in the early Heian period; in more or less pure Japanese (wabun-using kana, or native phonetic syllables), as women commonly did, so that such orthography was known as onna moji, or “women’s writing”; or in a mixed style of Chinese and Japanese (wakan konbobun). Some diaries written in Japanese prose include poems written in classical Chinese.

Although Japanese criticism has traditionally excluded diaries written in Chinese from the category of nikki bunkaru, Donald Keene does not exclude them in his survey. Nor does he confine his discussion to strictly “literary” diaries, because he feels that some diaries, though they lack or are weak in literary value, can be important and interesting by virtue of their content or the time in which they were written. Apart from informing us as to how the art of the diary was construed and developed in Japan, Keene’s book can light our way on general cultural grounds. As he himself explains: “Diaries describe aspects of Japanese life that are not touched on in other genres.” Thomas Mallon, author of A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries (1984), sets forth the worth of diary reading generally in the following way: “One can read a poem or a novel without coming to know the author, look at a painting and fail to get a sense of a painter; but one cannot read a diary and feel unacquainted with its writer. No form of expression more emphatically embodies the expresser: diaries are the flesh made word.”

Many of the diaries discussed by Keene were not published until long after they were written. Whenever possible, he supplies the date of composition, but in some cases this is not precisely known. Keene begins his survey with a diary written in kambun by a Tendai Buddhist priest: Ennin’s Nitto guho junrei gyoki (wr. 838-847; Ennin’s Diary: The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law, 1955) describes the priest’s efforts to study his sect’s tenets at their source on Mount T’ien- t’ai. Having begun with “men’s writing,” Keene then introduces the oldest surviving diary written in “women’s language,” or Japanese: Ki no Tsurayuki’s Tosa nikki (wr. 934-935; The Tosa Diary, 1912), ostensibly an account of his return to the capital after having served as governor of the province of Tosa on the island of Shikoku. Although as a waka poet and critic, Tsurayuki displays more interest in discussing poetic theory than in describing his journey, his overriding concern is to express his grief over the premature death of his daughter. Perfectly capable of writing in Chinese, he must have felt that he could “let himself go” to better advantage in his native language. Yet sufficiently ashamed of his feminine emotionalism expressed in “women’s language,” he pretends that his diary had been written by a woman (anna). Keene states that by their nature diaries always serve as emotional outlets for their writers regardless of their gender, and he points out that “the intuitive, ‘feminine’ manner of the diarists” was “later adopted by the most resolutely ‘masculine’ poets and writers of...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, May 15, 1989, p. 750.

Library Journal. CXIV, September 1, 1989, p. 189.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 20, 1989, p. 1.

Smithsonian. XX, January, 1990, p. 158.