About "Lady Nijō Is Sad"

Nijō, a former Japanese court lady, composed in 1307 a literary memoir called Towazugatari ("unrequested tale"). She begins her book in 1271: fourteen years old, beautiful and talented, she catches the eye of GoFukakusa, a retired emperor, and soon becomes his concubine. She describes palace goings-on and court fashions and has surprisingly many tumultuous affairs, including one with a Buddhist priest, two of whose sons she bears. Eventually she loses favor at the palace and becomes a wandering nun. Throughout, her poems and personal sensitivity charm friends and strangers alike. She closes the book hoping that it will restore her family's lost literary prestige:

Now I am anxious about the outcome of my long-cherished desire, and I worry lest the faith I have kept these many years prove fruitless. When I attempted to live in lonely seclusion, I felt dissatisfied and set out on pilgrimages modeled after those of Saigyō, whom I have always admired and wanted to emulate. That all my dreams might not prove empty, I have been writing this useless account—though I doubt it will long survive me.

Karen Brazell has translated Towazugatari into beautifully simple and natural English, originally as part of her PhD dissertation: The Confessions of Lady Nijō, Stanford University Press, 1983. The translation won a National Book Award.

The Confessions of Lady Nijō is unexpectedly great: chatty but elegant, warm and strange and evocative. It describes a deeply different world with immediate and personal emotional presence. Nijō herself is silly, friendly and unafraid, a great character, perfect for a memoir age. Go read it.

While you're reading it, though, you might agree with Brazell's introduction:

In common with ... earlier autobiographical narratives and with much other court literature, however, The Confessions of Lady Nijō sometimes strikes a tone of melancholy that grates on the modern reader, who may see in it an indulgent self-pity. Sleeves damp from weeping soon become soppy.

This is particularly true in the small poems that occur throughout, where it seems like the most common nouns are "sleeves", "dew", and "tears" and the most common adjectives are "damp" and "soaked". After Nijō first meets the Buddhist priest who becomes her lover, they exchange four poems on the theme of whether their meeting was reality or a dream. You'd think they'd have figured that out from the sex. Although all the poems are pretty over the top, some of them resonate with me:

How much longer will pity
Lead you to this garden,
As choked with weeds
As my thoughts with pain? [3.16]

Others don't.

I replied, "I know that sorrow is inherent in all things, but is grief always like this—with so much anguish?"
Am I to believe
This pain is but the suffering
Inherent in all life? [2.12]

But Brazell continues, "In mitigation it can be said that melancholy was an acceptable tone in Lady Nijō's day, when it was treasured as a sensitive response to the transience of life," and this comes through too.

Confessions is now for me the archetype of sensitive yet exasperating melancholy. When in a bad mood, I like to think of sleeves damp from autumn dew or streaming tears produced in a dream under the dawn moon near the mournful cries of mountain deer. It cheers me up.

This site is meant to bring that sleeves-dew-tears-dream-moon-deer feeling to a wider audience. The text is taken from Brazell's translation. Every poem is included, usually with a bit of context. Some prose bits got in too. The numbers in brackets are references to the text, in [book number.chapter number] form; the chapters were Brazell's interpolation.

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Eddie Kohler