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.
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
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]
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
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
Back to "Lady Nijō Is Sad"
— Eddie Kohler