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Oskina A. Proze and poetry in the nun Abutsu's (1221?-1283) diary called «Izayoi Nikki» Печать E-mail
06.04.2014 г.

Proze and poetry in the nun Abutsu's (1221?-1283) diary called «Izayoi Nikki»

Oskina A., HSE

Current essay is dedicated to an unusual and outstanding woman who lived in XIII century and is known in Japanese literature as nun Abutsu. She was born approximately in 1221. Not much is known about her parents. Abutsu's father Taira Norishige was a governor of Totomi province. Her mother must have been a lady-in-waiting at Empresse's court. Those were the days when a daughter of a lady-in-waiting was most likely taken into service at court. When she was around fourteen Abutsu started her service at the court of Princess Ankamon'in the second daughter of the former emperor Go-Takakura and stayed at service most time of her life.

In 1253 Abutsu got acquainted with a famous poet Fujiwara-no Tameie and took up a position of a copyist at Fujiwara house's library. In 1269 Tameie marreid Abutsu. By that time she was around forty and already had a daughter and a son while Tameie was sixty two and had three sons and a daughter. Abutsu brought him two more sons. Ten years past in 1269 and then again in 1273 Tamaime rewrote his will leaving the prosperous Hosokawa estate and the literary collection of Fujiwara house to Abutsu's son. His elder son Tameuji refused to follow his father's will.

Eventually a conflict between the father and his son stayed unsettled as Tameime died in 1275. Tameuji converted the landholdings and Abutsu started a legal battle. In 1279 Abutsau travelled to Kamakura to get a decision of the court. It is her travel from Heian the capital of Imperial Japan to Kamakura the capital of the Sho:gunate that is described in «Izayoi nikki» or «The diary of the waning moon».

Already in the title, though in all likelihood it was not Abutsu herself who has constructed this, is an allusion to a diary genre nikki, that have a long tradition in Japan literature. «Tosa nikki» by Ki no Tsurayuki, «Kagero: Nikki» by Mititsuna's mother, «Murasaki Shikibu-no nikki», «Izumi Shikibu-no nikki» and «Sarashina nikki» by the daughter of Sugawara-no Takasue - these are the most familiar pieces of the genre.

Nikki (word-by-word translation «daily writings») is a prose genre even though all of the abovementioned works have poetry as a basic component. A journey description, road diary is what makes Abutsu's work's common feature with «Tosa nikki» and «Sarashina nikki». A correlation of prose and poetry in all these pieces of literature is an interesting and an important subject for scientific research.

For example the author of «Tosa nikki» simply registers the poems he had an occasion to hear and never cites his own poem. The daughter of Sugawara-no Takasue in «Sarashina nikki» versifies at famous sites she passes by. Izumi Shikibu's diary represents a word-for-word correspondence with her lover.

In Abutsu's diary poetry also plays a special part. Moreover poetry component is something very different from what we have met in the above said diaries.

First of all each part of the diary uses poetry in a unique way. There are poetry of children, her own road poems, word-by-word correspondence and a long song. Secondly a certain stereotypeness and exploitation of engrained images can be seen in the poems. This is why many scholars find Abutsu's poetry imitative. Finally with more detailed analyze Abutsu's poetry turn into the key to the understanding of the author's motives and idea.

All researchers concur that «Izayoi nikki» was not written all at once but consists of several parts:

(1) Preamble (before the departure);

(2) Daily travel notes;

(3) Kamakura correspondence;

(4) Nagauta or tyoka (長歌, «long song»).

The writer clearly underlines her affiliation to the great poetic heritage of Fuziwara house and considers herself the only one who can save poetry.

«Bearing a relation to these people [Fujiwara house. - auth.note], which might be foregone in my previous lives, I became the owner of three sons and hundreds of thousands of precious poetic manuscripts in which I read: "Save the path of poetry!", "Raise the children! ", "Pray for the deceased! "» [Takei, Yanase, 1986. Pp. 5-6].

Therefore Abutsu is playing three roles at a time, posing herself as a poet (the only one who can save poetry), a mother that can protect rights of her children and a wife that will be praying for her passed away husband.

In the preamble she describes her parting with her children in the capital. Abutsu cites her correspondence with her four sons Tamasuke, Tamemori, Teikaku, Azari, and her daughter. The preamble ends up with the words: «I have collected all my five children's poems that must be considered reckless yet I could not help collecting them all for a mother's heart was deeply moved. No matter how painful it was, I decided to leave my children».

Reischauer insists that only the second part of the work can fit in the framework of the daily note genre as he explains why «Izayoi Nikki» «can not be called a true diary or travel notes». The second part despite its strict chronological order resembles a collection of tanka, that was written on the road, with comments describing the circumstances in which the each poem was composed. Researchers note that this part was originally set upon a poetry guidebook or a sample book of poems Abutsu created for her sons to learn how to write poems dedicated to famous places, so called meisho (名所).

This theory is proved by the third part of «Izayoi nikki» representing Abutsu's correspondence with her sons, daughter, sisters and friends. In this part Abutsu quotes her own poems and those of her correspondents word-by-word. As she comments one of her son's Tamemori poems Abutsu mentions: «It seemed to me that this travel song he wrote thinking of me. They might have written these poems on the ground of my diary I had sent them from the capital earlier». The third part consists of 26 poems by Abutsu and 24 poems by her correspondents and resembles a perfect poetry guidebook with Abutsu's guidelines on the rules of poetic correspondence.

Finally the diary ends with the «long song» (tyoka or nagauta, 長歌) which is the reverse of a «short song» (tanka, 短歌). Nagauta of «Izayoi nikki» consists of 151 alternate lines of 5 and 7 syllable each. This poem brings us back to the reasons of her stay in Kamakura, retelling some of the motives given in part 1 of the book.

Researchers part company with each other trying to understand the true character of Abutsu who lived 7.5 centuries ago. Some believe the woman was an insidious follower of her own interests and blame the Fujiwara house split on her. Others believe Abutsu embodied a perfect wife and mother who took over a hard journey to fight for justice for the sake of the future of her children. The reason for the debates of this kind to emerge is the fact that there are no other sources but for Abutsu's own works, particularly diaries that should not of course be taken too literary.

«The diary of the waning moon» can be viewed as a try to present Abutsu's own poetical endowment and talents of her children. Besides there is a certain wish to prove continuity of traditions with the means of poems created using toponyms.

Demonstrating her poetical skills Abutzu proves that she is smart and educated enough to inherit the literary traditions of Fujiwara house she entered as she married Tameime. Abutsu's poems reveal her belonging to the path of poetry, vast knowledge of classics and multiversity that lets her stay within the context of the literary tradition she follows.


Laffin, Christina. Rewriting medieval Japanese women: Politics, Personality, and Literary Production in the Life of Nun Abutsu. University of Hawaii Press, 2013. 270 p.

McCullough, Helen Craig. Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology. - Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1995. 522 p.

Reischauer, Edwin O.. The Izayoi Nikki (1277-1280) // Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3/4 (Dec., 1947), pp. 255-387.

Shirane, Haruo. Traditional Japanese Literature. - Columbia University Press, New York, 2007. 1255 p.

Wallace, John. Nun Abutsu's Utatane // Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 43, No. 4, 1988, pp. 391-416.

Laffin, Christina. Tabi, jiden, keiken: Abutsu-ni no nikki o megutte [クリスティーナ・ラフィン「旅、自伝、経験 阿仏尼の日記をめぐって」/『環境という視座』勉誠出版] / Kankyō to iu shiza. Токио: Бэнсэй, 2011. pp. 133-142.

Tabuchi Kumiko. Abutsu-ni [田渕句美子『阿仏尼』吉川弘文館] . Yoshikawa kobunkan. Tokyo, 2009. p. 303

Tabuchi Kumiko. Monogatari-no butai-o aruku: Izayoi nikki. [田渕句美子『物語の舞台を歩く 十六夜日記』山川出版社] Yamakawa shuppan, Tokyo, 2005. p. 157

Takei Kazuto, Yanase Kazuo, Izayoi nikki, Yoru-no tsuru-no tyushaku [武井和人・簗瀬一雄『十六夜日記・夜の鶴注釈』和泉書院] Izumi shoten, Osaka,1986. p. 483

Tamai Kosuke, Ishida Yoshisada. Nihon koten zensho: Kaidoki, Tokan kiko, Izayoi nikki. [玉井幸助、石田吉貞編『日本古典全書:「海道記・東関紀行」、「十六夜日記」』朝日新聞社] Kaidoki Tokan kiko, Izayoi nikki. Tokyo: Asahi Shinbunsha, 1956. р. 514.
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