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Lady Nijo's Own Story: The Candid Diary of a Thirteenth-Century Japanese Imperial Concubine

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In about 1307 a remarkable woman in Japan sat down to complete the story of her life. The result was an autobiographical narrative, a tale of thirty-six years in the life of Lady Nijo.


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In about 1307 a remarkable woman in Japan sat down to complete the story of her life. The result was an autobiographical narrative, a tale of thirty-six years in the life of Lady Nijo.

30 review for Lady Nijo's Own Story: The Candid Diary of a Thirteenth-Century Japanese Imperial Concubine

  1. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

    The Tale "I wondered why I should have to be so torn between two men when so many women in the world could devote themselves solely to one man." It could be that Nijo feels this way because she has just heard one of her lovers, the ex-Emperor say, "I have made enquiries far and wide and I am deeply convinced that sexual relations are not sinful in themselves." Her worry, his philosophy, were spoken on the heels of a lecture given on Shingon Buddhism at the court in Kyoto. A drinking party is the The Tale "I wondered why I should have to be so torn between two men when so many women in the world could devote themselves solely to one man." It could be that Nijo feels this way because she has just heard one of her lovers, the ex-Emperor say, "I have made enquiries far and wide and I am deeply convinced that sexual relations are not sinful in themselves." Her worry, his philosophy, were spoken on the heels of a lecture given on Shingon Buddhism at the court in Kyoto. A drinking party is then held. It's great to see that 700 plus years later some things about Japanese culture have never changed: that you can study religion one minute and get irresponsibly drunk the next. That a sense of reverence and frivolity are not mutually exclusive. This exchange takes place at a moment when Nijo is ready to "renounce the world", to leave the court. She is pregnant; the drinking party takes place with the ex-Emperor and his brother in attendance, a party which her other lover Sanekane has arranged (whom she calls "Snowy Dawn"). In the early hours when everyone has had their fill, she is asked to massage their legs; the ex-Emperor, her former lover, reminds his brother that she is pregnant and shouldn't be asked "to sleep in between them." That's one of the many ambiguous passages Nijo uses in lieu of an exact description of the nature of her lovers. Shortly after that the ex-Emperor passes out. His brother spends the night with her, and the diaries, as ever, are vague about what happened, as well as the issue of willingness and consent. It makes her pleas about wishing to leave the world all the more poignant - she should leave it but she'd rather not. Her wishes to leave "the troubles of the world" behind begin in earnest several months after her daughter was born and taken away from her. Sanekane ("Snowy Dawn") and his wife's child has died after birth. An arrangement was made, with few, if any, knowing that Nijo and Sanekane have been lovers: Nijo's daughter will be raised by Sanekane's wife instead. "In these circumstances it would have been perverse for me to feel anything but happiness that the child was so fortunate in her life simply because she was now regarded as someone else's child." Moments like these in the tale raise the following questions. Who do spouses really belong to? Who are a child's real parents? These blurring of boundaries about love and possession is what also distinguishes The Tale of Genji. There is a kind of genius at work here that makes this one of the best tales I've yet read in Japanese literature. Nijo's tale is labeled a "diary" but as critics have pointed out it's more like a proto-novel. But from my reading I don't regard it as a novel because of the levels of intimacy shared, the things left out a novel might have ruined for the need to fill in (by saying specifically who is sleeping with who, for instance). In other words it's too honest to be a novel. And in the tale's final third I was moved in ways novels never do it for me: it felt more like I was reading a great memoir. Toward the end Nijo has finally renounced the world, gives a picture of society outside the court we almost never receive in The Tale of Genji, and through these experiences she reveals important details left out regarding the actions of her younger days. She has taken her vows as a Buddhist, but unlike almost every spiritual memoir you'll come across she is not really sure she made the right decision: this conflict alone sets this tale apart as a treasure. And we might never have had it. The manuscript has surfaced only within the past century. Japanese themselves have only had access to it post-Second World War. Significantly parts have been cut out, literally, by a sword - the copyist noting this expresses his frustration that it has. So not only is this tale a treasure, but that we have it at all is something of a miracle. Note on Translation There are two versions of the tale in English that came out almost simultaneously in the early 1970s. I read the Wilfrid Whitehouse and Eizo Yanagisawa version. It's a tough decision on which one to choose. The other version is from Karen Brazell. Her prose shows the prejudice of an American woman in word choice and outlook, but also lends a voice that is more recognizably female. Donald Keene's interpretation in Travelers of a Hundred Ages relies on Brazell's version, reinforcing what is a puritanical take on Nijo's sexual agency. If Brazell worked closely with a Japanese during translation she does not credit him or her. Whitehouse worked closely with a Japanese, Yanagisawa, a poet himself, like Nijo. Their style is more British, a little antiquated in word choice here or there, more stiff, slower, less fluid than Brazell's, which sounds like more of a chore to read but British English almost by definition is much better suited to handling ambiguity than American English - it's not in our nature to be ambiguous, so we have difficulty even recognizing it. I will definitely read the Towazu-gatari again, and when I do it will be the version from Brazell. Note on Atmosphere The following clip is from the television drama "Atsu-hime" (literally, "A Princess named Atsu") broadcast in 2008. It'll give you the look and feel of what Japanese court life might have been like. Its lead character is around the same age as Nijo through a large part of the tale. (view spoiler)[Atsu-hime is based on a real-life individual, a young woman from out of the provinces who ended up marrying one of the last shoguns. In the beginning of this scene she is being scolded by her mother-in-law for not fulfilling her duties: mainly for disloyalty and for not bearing the shogun an heir (:53). Atsu-hime fully prostrates herself, promising the mother-in-law full devotion as the shogun's wife (1:54). Following this everyone is shocked to see the shogun going to visit Atsu-hime in the women's quarters (2:30). They have yet to consummate the marriage. Is he gay? Is he slightly mad? Or is he just trying to keep his distance from everyone by acting a little strange? The married couple in their private chamber. He asks Atsu-hime, "If you could be reborn again what would you be?"(4:18) She doesn't know. He says, "I'd like to be something other than a human being." (4:40) "Something other than a human being?" "Yes," he says, "something like a bird where you can go wherever you want," something court life would never allow . "What about you?" he asks. "I would like everything to be exactly the same." (5:10) She has something else to say but she keeps it a secret. This leads to the couple's first tender moment. The acting of young actress Aoi Miyazaki at 5:40 is outstanding in the way she realizes she is the one who has finally broken through the exterior of the shogun. (hide spoiler)] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YME58... Note on Nijo and Murasaki It was a great joy reading these two classical poets at the same time. Each helped me understand the other poet's world better. Nijo's tale is what Murasaki's would have been had she adopted a straight first-person narrative. The shocking thing about storytelling in The Tale of Genji is that Murasaki employs first-person narrative though you'd never know it - the "I" appears only once every twenty pages or so. The Murasaki of her brief diary, when she isn't taking notes on court ritual, suggests a picture of a very enchanting woman: highly intelligent, guardedly cynical, knows the workings of power through and through, judgmental, intimidating, has strong opinions about all the women around her and their arts - the kind of woman I'd find hard to resist, exactly for the reasons others would keep their distance. A great mystery to me is why Nijo chose to keep the focus on herself and not the power structure that had apparently caused her so much misery. She is often melancholic, but unlike the misery memoirs of today, you don't feel that she's getting her back on people - honesty is more important to her than recovering dignity through fabricated means. Murasaki's intellectual and emotional range is astonishing. Nijo's is too, and with the hours she must have spent copying out sutras that we see her doing toward the end, you feel it strongly, the workings of a determined spirit and personality that wishes to see her dreams through. The individuals of Nijo's court actually modeled themselves on characters from Murasaki's tale, proving that The Tale of Genji may be the one novel in world history on which a government has fashioned itself. Murasaki created her ideal man based on the mores of the court she witnessed. Nijo has created her ideal through herself.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Annie

    So I pretty much read my early Japanese lit in ascending order of awesomeness, because from Lady Murasaki’s diary on up to this little gem, they’ve been steadily improving! Kamakura-era Lady Nijo had a lot more fun than her Heian-period counterparts of Lady Murasaki, Lady Sarashina, and Lady Mayfly, it seems. In her world, there’s a lot of sake and a lot of partying and a lot more freedom as a woman. Sex partners in Lady Nijo’s world are sort of like Pokemon cards, or the bikini section at Target So I pretty much read my early Japanese lit in ascending order of awesomeness, because from Lady Murasaki’s diary on up to this little gem, they’ve been steadily improving! Kamakura-era Lady Nijo had a lot more fun than her Heian-period counterparts of Lady Murasaki, Lady Sarashina, and Lady Mayfly, it seems. In her world, there’s a lot of sake and a lot of partying and a lot more freedom as a woman. Sex partners in Lady Nijo’s world are sort of like Pokemon cards, or the bikini section at Target. Trade, borrow, mix and match, go wild. There aren’t many rules you have to follow, unless the rules are “get drunk, have fun, and hide yo kids if you get pregnant.” Oh, and if you fuck someone you have to write them a poem the morning after. Very important. Don’t worry too much, it doesn’t have to be good. Also, they play some bizarre game where the people of the court go around beating each other up and blaming their “abusers’” family and oops-not-so-secret lovers, who then have to give the “victim” gifts. And everybody laughs. Uhhhhh okay. Chalk it up to the sake. Lady Nijo’s not locked into an annoying marriage and she’s pretty free in her role of concubine to the emperor, even if he is a pedophile and a rapist (that she somehow actually falls in love with). She’s a social butterfly and a quirky party girl who obviously spends most of her life enjoying herself, quite a contrast to the woe-is-me chorus from the Heian girls. Even when she’s exiled from court for fucking her emperor’s brother/archnemesis (that’s the one ball of yarn he didn’t want her winding, apparently) she becomes a Buddhist nun, which she doesn’t seem to mind, and spends all her time traveling around, contrary to everyone’s expectations. She continues to have adventures and plenty of profound experiences on her way. Lady Nijo’s pretty much a free spirit who doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks. She’s a talented writer and can be extremely funny, but is quite capable of being serious and giving gravity to her own emotions. I loved her. I should add it was noteworthy to see that The Tale of Genji had a major influence on Nijo’s life even centuries later. It’ll be interesting reading Genji after all these authors have mentioned its influence on them. This lovely quote was my favourite: I wished that I could renounce this life and wander wherever my feet might lead me, learning to empathize with the dew under the blossoms and to express the resentment of the scattering autumn leaves.” I was also touched by the very last line: ”That all my dreams might not prove empty, I have been writing this useless account—though I doubt it will long survive me.” Dear lady, it did! It did!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Aubrey

    3.5/5 I will admit, my lack of retention regarding exact scenes and quotes, combined with a lack of learning opportunities in general, hampered my ability to enjoy and/or engage with this. However, I also remember enough of the sense and feel of the overarching narrative of The Tale of Genji to receive this as a rather pale imitation that would have stood better had it not weighed down so much on the past and endlessly recreated the forms and functions of along ago age. Still, that exact action t 3.5/5 I will admit, my lack of retention regarding exact scenes and quotes, combined with a lack of learning opportunities in general, hampered my ability to enjoy and/or engage with this. However, I also remember enough of the sense and feel of the overarching narrative of The Tale of Genji to receive this as a rather pale imitation that would have stood better had it not weighed down so much on the past and endlessly recreated the forms and functions of along ago age. Still, that exact action that I critique offers a bevy of treasures for the intrepid scholar, much as the 600+ year gap between first concrete composition and entry into mainstream publication resulted in a most fortuitous revival of this only extant manuscript of an amazingly early autobiography. In addition, I liked Lady Nijō more the further the books of her autobiography progressed, so I was reconciled to her approved mode of behavior by the end of it, especially as there was little, if any drama of her early years at court during the later periods of pilgrimage. Times have changed and all that jazz, but it's still unpleasant to read about girls betrothed at 4 to someone 20 years their senior who was enamored with her mother, not to mention nephews married to their aunts at bridal festivals held for 14 to 15-year-olds of either gender. Even while I cannot recall any exact quotations and the particulars of TToG's plot have, save for some very striking instances, faded from my mind, the particulars of Nijō 's life and values were all familiar to me due to a sizable amount of interaction with its period and culture. It is unfair to draw such comparisons, but she is no Shōnagon or Shikibu, and oftentimes only the unusual trajectory of her existence from rise to fall infuses her observations and life choices with any sort of vitality or suspense. Her life is very uncomfortable at times, and it was aggravating to read about what is literal stalking and/or sexual assault at the hands of people who are either fully redeemed or pass form officious life to an honorable without any sense of even private recrimination, but such are the days that some would like us to return to. I enjoyed certain events of frivolity the text describes, especially one incident involving a faux whacking war between the genders of the court from which no rank, however esteemed, was spared. I also appreciated the characterizations of nature, excerpts of literature, and even the odd crafted poem at times. However, it just wasn't as rewardingly complex as other autobiographical pieces until the very end of the travels, and beyond the obvious wealth of historical context present here in a century far removed from other classical Japanese biographies by women, I wouldn't recommend this unless the reader really knew what they were doing. I, on the other hand, have made an absolute victim of this work through my comparatively abject ignorance, so if you're already motivated to read this, don't let this lackluster review dissuade you. The past may be a foreign country, but if it's survived for this long to tell itself to the present, we must reverse such half a millennium long chains of fortune, even if we don't quite understand or approve of what is being handed down to us. I've been jumping around the literary centuries of late, as well as spending a lot of time in the 19th century drawing up more a comprehensive list of contemporaneous women's writing than I have so far seen, and the need to spend effort on readjusting my frame every time I switch books is beginning to wear me out. Still, it really is marvelous that I can access such a rich spread of history through narrative, both ancient and otherwise, and sometimes I need to sit back and remind myself of such. Still, one can't like everything simply because it's old, and Nijō 's priorities in narrative commentary on her progression of existence just didn't engage as much as that of more vaunted names in history have. Ah well. It's still worth delving into far the view it gives on far removed cultural mores and less removed themes of humanity such as mourning, gratefulness, and contemplation on the great cycle and how best to pay it forward. Maudlin thoughts, but if that's too much for you, you may wish to evaluate your reading plans for this a tad: maudlin is Nijō's middle name. Sow all the words you can For in a better age Men shall judge the harvest By its intrinsic worth.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    I'm glad to have found another pillow book, much like Sei Shonagon's earlier book entitled... well.... The Pillow Book. Japanese literature, even if I do have to read English translations, is beautiful. The language choices are unusual to Western culture and simply lovely to read about. Attention to details such as clothing color and changes in the weather provide a very clear path of imagery of a complex society. Really, it's very incredible. Therefore, I'm really glad to have found The Confess I'm glad to have found another pillow book, much like Sei Shonagon's earlier book entitled... well.... The Pillow Book. Japanese literature, even if I do have to read English translations, is beautiful. The language choices are unusual to Western culture and simply lovely to read about. Attention to details such as clothing color and changes in the weather provide a very clear path of imagery of a complex society. Really, it's very incredible. Therefore, I'm really glad to have found The Confessions of Lady Nijo, since it fits all of the descriptions I've listed. Unlike any of the other Japanese works I've read, this one is a real soap opera. Notice I said a real soap opera, not a fictitious one (for all of you that might bring up Genji)! Lady Nijo really must have been a conflicted person her entire life surrounded by troubles. What a dramatic change, to be one of the emperor's concubines for years then to become a wandering nun because of mistakes with men in the past. What a hardship, truly! Her emotions are so clearly presented that I feel her sorrow when I read her words, I really feel as if I'm being sucked into her story. And like I felt with Shonagon's work, I feel like I'm really being pulled into her world, transported to another time and place. This is the wonder of pillow books for me. Since this is such a short work I don't have a lot more to say about it, but really all I can do is praise it. Despite it being such a dramatic work, the wonder of Confessions is that it's all a true account, and written very well at that. P.S. I went into this thinking it was going to be a Heian-era pillow book and I was mistaken- it's a little later than that. So it is very interesting to read a work which talks about Genji as something that's already become a popular piece of fiction and to see the connections between Heian and medieval Japan. I didn't know a lot about this period, and I think this book has let me have a little peek.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Smiley

    Some years ago, when I started my plan of reading Japanese short stories, fiction, history, memoirs, etc. due to my lingering interest and wonder on anything Japanese before and our trips to Japan which generously allowed me to see, observe and admire Japan, Japanese people, infrastructure, transports, services, etc. during our weekly stays and visits to Tokyo, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Kamakura, Hokkaido, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Nikko, etc. I simply couldn't help admiring the people, the rice fields, the fo Some years ago, when I started my plan of reading Japanese short stories, fiction, history, memoirs, etc. due to my lingering interest and wonder on anything Japanese before and our trips to Japan which generously allowed me to see, observe and admire Japan, Japanese people, infrastructure, transports, services, etc. during our weekly stays and visits to Tokyo, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Kamakura, Hokkaido, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Nikko, etc. I simply couldn't help admiring the people, the rice fields, the forests, the hills (especially, Koyasan), the rivers and canals, the flowers, the fishes in the streams, the highways, the railway stations, the Shinkansen, etc. Definitely, Japanese culture and history has long dictated what I viewed in awe and amazement since Japan, in my mind, is second to none as one of the most advanced nations in the world. That made me read two of the great writings in the Heian era, that is, Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book (Penguin Books, 2006) and As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (Penguin Books, 1975). Moreover, along my search in the Wikipedia and other books, I first read/heard the title of this memoir written around three centuries later in late thirteenth century and again I longed to read it but I simply couldn't find it anywhere, I tried by going shopping in some large bookstores but it was rare for it was not a popular book like contemporary chick-lit or manga ones. Fortunately, around the middle of last July, I came across this copy at the DASA Book Café so it's my delight to have it, a fine translation by Karen Brazell. As for her life and fame, you can visit this site for a quick look: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Nijō I'd like to say something more on its outline and some interesting extracts worth reading and pondering so that readers keen on anything Japanese would be eager to read her as one of the three amazing literate court ladies who left their writings to posterity to have some glimpses of her nostalgic thoughts, court services, daily chores, boredom management, etc. in Heian Japan as introduced by Ms Brazell "in about 1307 a remarkable woman in Japan sat down to complete the story of her life." (p. vii) The result has since been impressive in the literary world as the pioneering inception of Books One-Five, dating from 1271-1306; each Book covering the following years, that is, One 1271-74, Two 1275-77, Three 1281-85, Four 1289-93, and Five 1302-6. Before reading the real thing, after the 21-page introduction, readers would be informed by two+ pages of major characters. (pp. xxix-xxxi) Her first grief (1273-1274) It was at this time that I learned of the illness of the son I had borne to GoFukakusa last year, who was now being raised quietly by Takaaki. Hardly did I have time to ponder the evil consequences that might flow from my misconduct when I heard, on the eighth day of the tenth month, that my son had died, vanishing like a raindrop after a winter rain. I had tried to prepare myself for this, but its swiftness left me grief-stricken. . . . (p. 51) Her only view of Fujisan (1289) . . . Next I reached the Ukishima Plain at the base of Mount Fuji, which someone once compared in the fifth month to a dappled fawn. Now the metaphor seemed apt, judging from the apparent depth of the snow on that high peak, as deep, it seemed, as the layers of worry covering this transient self of mine. No smoke arose from Mount Fuji now, and I wonder what the poet Saigyo had seen yielding to the wind. . . . (p. 184) Her reflection on her life (1289-90) I persisted in dwelling on the past. I could not recall my mother's face, for she had died when I was only two. When I turned four I was taken, toward the end of the ninth month, to the palace of the Retired Emperor GoFukakusa. . . . During the years that I was well received at the palace I cherished the secret dream of becoming the pride and joy of my clan. Such expectations did not seem unreasonable, yet I decided to give up everything and enter the path of renunciation. . . . I thought I had renounced all such worldly attachments, but I still found myself longing for the palace of my youth and recalling His Majesty's great kindness. Reminded of these things, my only solace was to weep until tears darkened my sleeves. (p. 196) To continue . . .

  6. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    The world of Lady Nijo (whose real name has not survived), a court lady of late thirteenth century Japan, is not ours. At a very young age, she was offered by her father to one of the retired Emperors (there were three at the time), who had been in love with her mother and admired her from a very young age. The Tale of Genji, written a few centuries before is constantly quoted or memorialized and in Nijo's relationship with Cloistered Emperor GoFukakusa is reminiscent of Genji's obsession with M The world of Lady Nijo (whose real name has not survived), a court lady of late thirteenth century Japan, is not ours. At a very young age, she was offered by her father to one of the retired Emperors (there were three at the time), who had been in love with her mother and admired her from a very young age. The Tale of Genji, written a few centuries before is constantly quoted or memorialized and in Nijo's relationship with Cloistered Emperor GoFukakusa is reminiscent of Genji's obsession with Murasaki. Today we would find such relationships disturbing and illegal; here they seem like the arrested development of men in a world that enjoyed wealth and devotion but no real power, and therefore dedicated itself to entertainment, sensation and affairs. In the era of the cloistered emperors, the adult monarchs abdicated in favor of their younger siblings and children. In Nijo's, GoFukakusa's father and brother were also cloistered emperors and his son, still a child, was Emperor. But real power was exercised by a separate government, the Bakufu. The imperial court (at least GoFukakusa's) was full of protestations of love, following by exchanges of poetry, most of it sad, with references to sleeves wet with tears and smoke blowing in a different direction. And GoFukakusa told Nijo repeatedly that he loved her greatly, but not in any way that we would recognize. When a Buddhist monk arrived at the bedroom where the GoFukakusa and Nijo to profess his love for her, the Retired Emperor encouraged her to go off with him. GoFukakusa also made her a go between, arranging trysts and commenting with her on the sadness of what trasnpired afterward. As for Nijo, writing years later as a nun exiled from the court, she remains fixated on gifts and clothes -- she seems to remember what almost everyone wore, and whether it was stylish enough. She gave birth to several children--GoFukakusa's son died as an infant--but we mostly hear about the maternity sash she was given at five months of pregnancy. The nun who set these memoirs down is somewhat more sympathetic than the young court lady she remembers, traveling among shrines and regretting her youth, but even in penance she seems not to have come far from the lady who stormed away from court because of seating arrangements, or who could make arrangements with the monk for an assignation in the earshot of her beloved GoFukakusa. This is not the credo of a nun who has renounced the world; it seems more like the recollections of a woman whose world has renounced her.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Meg

    I'm sort of stunned by how readable and recognizable as a memoir/travelogue this is, seeing as it's from the 14th century. The main character, Lady Nijo led a fascinating life. Born into life as high-ranking court lady, she later becomes a wandering Buddhist nun and travels all over Japan. My one regret is that I really should have read Tale of Genji before reading this book, as there were continual allusions throughout that I found difficult to understand the resonance of, even with footnotes. O I'm sort of stunned by how readable and recognizable as a memoir/travelogue this is, seeing as it's from the 14th century. The main character, Lady Nijo led a fascinating life. Born into life as high-ranking court lady, she later becomes a wandering Buddhist nun and travels all over Japan. My one regret is that I really should have read Tale of Genji before reading this book, as there were continual allusions throughout that I found difficult to understand the resonance of, even with footnotes. Otherwise, I found this memoir to be a fascinating portrait of life extremely far away in time and place. My favorite character is probably one of her lovers, the priest Ariake, who I think weeps in every scene he appears in (haha!). All in all, I'm just sort of stunned by how historically precious this book is. I'd really like to read more firsthand accounts of women's lives from centuries ago and from different cultures/countries, but it doesn't seem there are many out there as prominent or well-preserved as this one. As this was a unique reading experience, I'll surely be on the lookout for more historical memoirs by women in the future.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Reuter

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. It's always fascinating to see how another culture handles events that seem clear to me. "Confessions" opens with Lady Nijo's rape by Japan's emperor; in response to her trauma, everyone yells at *her* for her "ingratitude." Yuck. -_- Yet Nijo grows into an unusually free-spirited woman; for the lives of most noblewomen, see "The Gossamer Years" (written a few centuries before, but little had changed at court). It involved sitting in one room and trying not to show how jealous you were as your hu It's always fascinating to see how another culture handles events that seem clear to me. "Confessions" opens with Lady Nijo's rape by Japan's emperor; in response to her trauma, everyone yells at *her* for her "ingratitude." Yuck. -_- Yet Nijo grows into an unusually free-spirited woman; for the lives of most noblewomen, see "The Gossamer Years" (written a few centuries before, but little had changed at court). It involved sitting in one room and trying not to show how jealous you were as your husband cheated. Nijo, however, had multiple affairs of her own and was always up to something. Later in her life she wandered the world, rather than retiring from it in a nun's cell as a "good lady" would have done. She tortures herself for this free-spiritedness, I think because of the social censure that resulted from it (also, it was fashionable in her day to agonize over life's difficulties), but she keeps going. I admired her, and I loved reading about a time long gone. -Elizabeth Reuter Author, The Demon of Renaissance Drive

  9. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca O'Sullivan

    Lady Nijo's account of her life provides an interesting glimpse of Japanese imperial court life during the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333), as well as the life of a court lady who takes religious vows. Although the title is typically translated as 'Confessions of Lady Nijo', Whitehouse and Yanagisawa avoid this, as, they say, Towazugatari actually translates as 'an unsolicited tale', and Lady Nijo makes no suggestion that she feels she is 'confessing', which I quite liked. This translation is enjo Lady Nijo's account of her life provides an interesting glimpse of Japanese imperial court life during the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333), as well as the life of a court lady who takes religious vows. Although the title is typically translated as 'Confessions of Lady Nijo', Whitehouse and Yanagisawa avoid this, as, they say, Towazugatari actually translates as 'an unsolicited tale', and Lady Nijo makes no suggestion that she feels she is 'confessing', which I quite liked. This translation is enjoyable. For some reason, though, the language feels quite modern: overall the sense of the imperial court I took from this translation feels far more informal than in translations of other Japanese tales (e.g. Meredith McKinney's translation of the Pillow Book).

  10. 5 out of 5

    sanaz

    One of the best books I have read on human emotion and condition. I am so deeply moved by the Japanese sensuality of it and I have even really cried over the fate of its heroes though I thought it was impossible for me to get so emotional over a love story again. A must read for who follows female voices in literature too!

  11. 4 out of 5

    rosamund

    Lady Nijo's story begins when her father gives her to the retired emperor GoFukakusa as his concubine. Lady Nijo's mother died when she was two, and she was raised at court, knowing GoFukakusa all her life. Lady Nijo doesn't describe her experiences with GoFukakusa as rape, but she describes being taken unwillingly to the palace, and weeping and being unable to speak for days. She spends the majority of her time at the palace with GoFukakusa and the other courtiers and his other concubines. She Lady Nijo's story begins when her father gives her to the retired emperor GoFukakusa as his concubine. Lady Nijo's mother died when she was two, and she was raised at court, knowing GoFukakusa all her life. Lady Nijo doesn't describe her experiences with GoFukakusa as rape, but she describes being taken unwillingly to the palace, and weeping and being unable to speak for days. She spends the majority of her time at the palace with GoFukakusa and the other courtiers and his other concubines. She is a person of high rank and accomplishment: she writes poetry, plays instruments, and paints. She is constantly besieged by men: men at court approach her all the time, and she has many affairs and has several children by different men. She is attached to these men, and becomes attached to GoFukakusa, but I couldn't stop thinking about how much pressure she was under, and how men constantly demanded her affection and attention. She longs to live a secluded life, and it's no surprise that becoming a nun offers freedom and solace to her. Her life is an unhappy one, but it's an amazing account: full of details of court life and of life as a travelling nun, as well as details of poetry, art and Buddhist thought. I found this book moving and sad, and I'm glad it survives.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Katie (Bookwise)

    Y'all. So as you know, 90% of my reading material this semester has been for class. C'est la Medieval Studies minor. This 14th-century autobiography was assigned for my Medieval Lit class and I was insanely impressed. The thing that most impresses me about Lady Nijo’s account is how human she makes herself out to be. In the large majority of historical narratives in which the author is a character, they are elevated somehow in the hopes that their fictional reputation will long outlive them. Lad Y'all. So as you know, 90% of my reading material this semester has been for class. C'est la Medieval Studies minor. This 14th-century autobiography was assigned for my Medieval Lit class and I was insanely impressed. The thing that most impresses me about Lady Nijo’s account is how human she makes herself out to be. In the large majority of historical narratives in which the author is a character, they are elevated somehow in the hopes that their fictional reputation will long outlive them. Lady Nijo, however, does not create a character out of herself. Known primarily for her numerous affairs, it would have been all too easy to make herself a brazen seductress or even a victim of the Kamakura court system. However, she paints her life in a remarkably realistic light. Throughout the text, the writer Lady Nijo (rather than the character) is constantly present. She tells the story while also putting the reader in the moment, a very sought-out intersection in even my writing workshop classes. Her work is accessible to the modern reader, something nine out of ten historical manuscripts struggle with. As a writer, Lady Nijo is spectacularly ahead of her time. This is how she seems the most real. “That all my dreams might not prove empty,” she says, “I have been writing this useless account- though I doubt it will long survive me.” I have been writing one particular story since I was nine years old, seriously since eleven, and the thought that nothing may ever come of it is a terrifying one. Lady Nijo’s fear is real. Unfounded, as readers today now know, but real nonetheless. Comparing The Confessions to the literature of her 14th-century contemporaries, Lady Nijo is remarkably self-aware and conscious of those who may be affected by her words. Dante’s The Divine Comedy, for example, doesn’t only bypass poetic pseudonym but directly points specific people out. Well-known political and religious leaders burn in whatever happens to be burning in their particular circle of hell, and damn the real-life consequences. The Canterbury Tales, more the happy (entirely fictional) medium between Comedy and Confessions, features human characters who tell stories and make jokes solidly rooted in their current time period. It has been a while since I’ve read it, but I do not recall Chaucer ever expressing fear that his work may not long survive him. While Lady Nijo did indeed live seven hundred years ago- not to mention that her real name isn’t even known- she writes in a way that brings the reader into the tale, getting to know not just her life story but also her, as a woman living in a time where it was rare for women to have any sort of voice. She is not only a human character in her narrative, but also a human storyteller. Her work is relatable, accessible, and remarkable in its readability. I know this isn't my normal type of review, but honestly I was pretty blown away. As a major history nerd, the lives of people who lived hundreds of years ago are endlessly fascinating to me. Lady Nijo came through so clearly that I lowkey had to share this with you all. <3

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jesheckah

    For me this book is one of the most important when you are looking into the Heian period. While it may not contain as much information about the politics of the time, it is one of the only places where you can see court rules and fashion as well as other personal choices of the individuals involved. It is also one of the only pieces of writing from that time period that depicts someone as going against the emperor and still being okay. I feel privileged that I have been able to read this diary.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Zoe Tribley

    read this for graduate course on japanese women in love Lady Nijo is a cool gal. she falls in love and becomes obsessed with the guy who rapes her, and it's all kind of sad, but also there's power to her love and her pining. read this for graduate course on japanese women in love Lady Nijo is a cool gal. she falls in love and becomes obsessed with the guy who rapes her, and it's all kind of sad, but also there's power to her love and her pining.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Cat

    Another amazing pillow book I read ages ago Love these gossipy journals from court Japan! So entertaining! So modern!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Diane Westin

    this is a good book about a young motherless girl who is taken into the palace as a concubine to the emperor.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Raphael d’Urbino

    It's amazing that this book was able to make it to this century from where it was written so many centuries ago. It's amazing that this book was able to make it to this century from where it was written so many centuries ago.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Matt Miles

    Lady Nijo captures a time and place, a sense of loss and grasping at meaning and immortality through memory, literature, and whatever means necessary, and she captures them all beautifully.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kelly W.

    I went to a conference panel discussing the benefits and challenges to globalizing university medieval studies program and walked away with a determination to read more literature from the 6th-15th centuries that wasn’t written by Europeans. I picked up Nijo on recommendation from a professor that taught it a few semesters back, and this book has been one of the most delightful “medieval” texts I’ve ever read. Things I Liked 1. Characters: Lady Nijo is absolutely wonderful, both as a character and I went to a conference panel discussing the benefits and challenges to globalizing university medieval studies program and walked away with a determination to read more literature from the 6th-15th centuries that wasn’t written by Europeans. I picked up Nijo on recommendation from a professor that taught it a few semesters back, and this book has been one of the most delightful “medieval” texts I’ve ever read. Things I Liked 1. Characters: Lady Nijo is absolutely wonderful, both as a character and as a narrator. She is extremely adept at poetry and has multiple love affairs to prove her independence, which challenge Euro-centric readers on their assumptions about women in Japan. The others are also charming in their own ways: Akebono surprised me by being extremely attentive while Nijo gave birth, Ariake has so much emotion that he challenges the West’s idea of the “manly emotionless man,” and even the emperor had his moments of compassion, despite his general creepiness of raising Nijo from childhood only to take her as a lover later. All of these character portraits certainly showed me a different literary culture than I’m used to in studying the Western middle ages. 2. Prose: Lady Nijo makes many entertaining glib remarks about the other characters in her narrative, from harshly judging her rivals to speaking truthfully about her own emotions. She also oscillates between humor and sincerity to give readers a feeling of variety, and there are moments when we’re expected to laugh at her while others elicit pity or sympathy. I was especially touched by the way she described her grief during certain characters’ deaths. 3. Court Life: Getting a glimpse of court life is incredibly intriguing for modern readers - there are so many complicated rituals, attention to dress, customs... all woven together within the narrative. I always found myself interested in what was happening with Lady Nijo and how her behavior at court was carefully calculated, especially given the numerous affairs she had to navigate. Things I Didn’t Like 1. Melancholy: There are many, many times when Lady Nijo tells readers how she longs to retire from the world but is unable to, and if you sit down and read this narrative in a short time span, the recurrence of melancholy will definitely dampen the mood. Part of it is our own modern ideas of the melancholy - as the intro to the book explains, melancholy and sadness were used to communicate the gravity of certain situations or express deep emotions. But even so, it’s difficult to see and appreciate this historical literary significance 100% of the time without letting it weight readers down. 2. Books IV and V: For me, the most exciting parts were the first three books. After them, Lady Nijo becomes a nun and travels while thinking about her past. I’m not a huge fan of religious travel narratives, so this part of the book dragged a bit for me. Recommendations: You might like this book if you're interested in Japanese history and literature, especially from the 13th century. You might also like this book if you liked The Tale of Genji or are interested in romance, secret love affairs, and court life.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Alexis

    This book just rocks. The poetry is questionable unless you really appreciate Haiku. I don't know how many tears on a sleeve one person can have an actually mean it. If anything, read it for the impressive descriptions of kimono layering. Who knew there was so much underneath? But all in all, what makes it so great is that it's a diary - here's the Amazon synop: One of the oldest books in print by a woman, Confessions of Lady Nijo contains the thoughts, reflections, and poetry of an opinionated Jap This book just rocks. The poetry is questionable unless you really appreciate Haiku. I don't know how many tears on a sleeve one person can have an actually mean it. If anything, read it for the impressive descriptions of kimono layering. Who knew there was so much underneath? But all in all, what makes it so great is that it's a diary - here's the Amazon synop: One of the oldest books in print by a woman, Confessions of Lady Nijo contains the thoughts, reflections, and poetry of an opinionated Japanese Imperial court concubine, covering the years 1271 to 1306. Writing in diary form towards the end of her life, Lady Nijo chronicles her past life in the Imperial court, where her strong personality and aspirations for a higher position provoked the jealousy of the Empress and caused her dismissal; her travels throughout the country as a Buddhist nun; and her development into a mature and compassionate woman. Whether she is commenting on fashion and personalities at court or coming to understand the lives of the lower-caste, Lady Nijo's reflections show that while much may change in seven hundred years, there is much more that does not. There are births and deaths, marriages and affairs, richness and poverty. Her writing is beautiful and often touching: "The snow covered peaks glowing against the faintly dawning sky gave an unearthly aspect to the scene. Two or three attendants dressed in plain robes accompanied him. I was sad, unbearably sad, when he left." Read this book for its history and intimacy, its feelings of familiarity and difference, its joy and sadness that reach across centuries and continents. http://www.amazon.com/Confessions-Lad...

  21. 4 out of 5

    ariane

    Medieval Japanese memoirs and pillow books aren't for everyone but I really enjoy them. This one was particularly interesting because it was written towards the end of the Kamakura Period, not during the Heian Period as I originally thought when I snatched it up on impulse. The differences in court life were interesting - more sake parties, less imamekashi snootiness - although I probably would have missed most of them if I hadn't read Brazell's excellent introduction (so don't skip it). Nijou a Medieval Japanese memoirs and pillow books aren't for everyone but I really enjoy them. This one was particularly interesting because it was written towards the end of the Kamakura Period, not during the Heian Period as I originally thought when I snatched it up on impulse. The differences in court life were interesting - more sake parties, less imamekashi snootiness - although I probably would have missed most of them if I hadn't read Brazell's excellent introduction (so don't skip it). Nijou and her boyfriends spend most of her memoir elegantly crying buckets, which at times wore my patience thin, but I still liked her. Some things never change, as they say, and despite the fact that Nijou is so far removed from postmodern women that she might as well have come from Venus there were points in her narrative when I could say, "Wow, I know EXACTLY how you feel. Uh, felt". It's for this same reason, I believe, that the The Tale of Genji still resonates with people today. Well, that's enough mono no aware for me for this month, but still, good stuff.

  22. 4 out of 5

    C.

    I had to read this for my history class, and it was just not something I would have read otherwise. But for those interested in life in medieval Japan, this would be an interesting book. Very detailed descriptions of clothing, for those who like that kind of thing. It was a well written book, and it told a very human story of Nijo's long journey from imperial concubine to pilgrimming nun. There were scenes which I really liked, and I enjoyed the many instances of poetry. I've learned more of the I had to read this for my history class, and it was just not something I would have read otherwise. But for those interested in life in medieval Japan, this would be an interesting book. Very detailed descriptions of clothing, for those who like that kind of thing. It was a well written book, and it told a very human story of Nijo's long journey from imperial concubine to pilgrimming nun. There were scenes which I really liked, and I enjoyed the many instances of poetry. I've learned more of the Japanese subtlety and the culture of the sophisticated circles. I can't say I enjoyed the book, but I appreciated it. To be fair, this probably deserves a four star, so don't let my rating throw you off. I give it a two simply because it's not something that I would read, but I'm sure many others would enjoy it much more than I.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    eh. I was really disappointed by this book. I thought it would have more flair I guess but "The Confessions of Lady Nijo" didn't. I ended up extremely bored for the last 100 pages. on the positive side, this book is wonderful for a historical study. there are many descriptions of clothes, ceremonies, decorations but not of nature, surprisingly. to accompany these descriptions are footnotes by the translator and other scholars to help readers understand Lady Njio's experience. "The Tale of Genji" i eh. I was really disappointed by this book. I thought it would have more flair I guess but "The Confessions of Lady Nijo" didn't. I ended up extremely bored for the last 100 pages. on the positive side, this book is wonderful for a historical study. there are many descriptions of clothes, ceremonies, decorations but not of nature, surprisingly. to accompany these descriptions are footnotes by the translator and other scholars to help readers understand Lady Njio's experience. "The Tale of Genji" is nearly quoted every other page and the average reader wouldn't know it if it weren't for the footnotes. there are also many lovely haikus within this pillow book. if you take a Japanese history course, I bet you'll read this book.

  24. 5 out of 5

    David

    Japanese aristocratic life in the 13th century. Nijo's candid account tells of her travails in court society as a lover of the cloistered emperor GoFukakusa. She lost her father early, and therefore her political backing in court circles, but nevertheless hung on to the most tenuous of threads in her relationship with GoFukakusa, until finally in her 20s when she was forced out by an official consort and thereafter took the Buddhist tonsure. There is a modern ring to her candid, confessional voi Japanese aristocratic life in the 13th century. Nijo's candid account tells of her travails in court society as a lover of the cloistered emperor GoFukakusa. She lost her father early, and therefore her political backing in court circles, but nevertheless hung on to the most tenuous of threads in her relationship with GoFukakusa, until finally in her 20s when she was forced out by an official consort and thereafter took the Buddhist tonsure. There is a modern ring to her candid, confessional voice that makes this easier reading than other texts from the same period but there's enough historical distance in between. I think it compares well with the Genji, if on a smaller scale.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Dayna

    I picked this book up on impulse in a used bookstore in Port Townsend. I read the first few pages and was hooked. It's the autobiography of a Japanese courtesan in the late 13th century. This book wouldn't be for everyone as there are a lot of detailed descriptions of clothes and numerous haikus about tear-drenched sleeves, but I really enjoyed it! The introduction and the footnotes are a must for understanding what's going on unless you're already an expert on 13th century Japan. And hey! The h I picked this book up on impulse in a used bookstore in Port Townsend. I read the first few pages and was hooked. It's the autobiography of a Japanese courtesan in the late 13th century. This book wouldn't be for everyone as there are a lot of detailed descriptions of clothes and numerous haikus about tear-drenched sleeves, but I really enjoyed it! The introduction and the footnotes are a must for understanding what's going on unless you're already an expert on 13th century Japan. And hey! The haikus have really started to grow on me! "This kind of life or that, it all comes out the same. One cannot live forever in a palace or a hut." (Shinkokinshu Poem 1851)

  26. 4 out of 5

    Craig Herbertson

    Credited with being the first modern romance the last words of the manuscript, are perhaps the most melancholic and profound in the history of autobiography; all the more so as the unfinished portion was cut by a Samurai sword and we are unlikely ever to rediscover what was finally said. It's a slow starter but by the final third one is compelled to read on. Credited with being the first modern romance the last words of the manuscript, are perhaps the most melancholic and profound in the history of autobiography; all the more so as the unfinished portion was cut by a Samurai sword and we are unlikely ever to rediscover what was finally said. It's a slow starter but by the final third one is compelled to read on.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany

    Beautifully written. Lady Nijo comes from a family of poets and there are many of her beautiful short poems are included. I really enjoyed this book for it was written in the 13th century and it just goes to show that the strength and force of emotion has not changed.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Althea Ann

    A translation of the autobiography of a 13th-century Japanese court lady. It's very entertaining and readable - more so than I expected. The Japanese weren't quite as uptight as Westerners at that time period!!! A translation of the autobiography of a 13th-century Japanese court lady. It's very entertaining and readable - more so than I expected. The Japanese weren't quite as uptight as Westerners at that time period!!!

  29. 4 out of 5

    Seul

    Lady Nijo is an interesting woman, you can see that in the first few pages. Sadly I feel the book got dry towards the end of the book. Still I'm glad that I picked this book up and I would suggest it to anyone that likes literature about Japan. Lady Nijo is an interesting woman, you can see that in the first few pages. Sadly I feel the book got dry towards the end of the book. Still I'm glad that I picked this book up and I would suggest it to anyone that likes literature about Japan.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas

    This diary like Japanese work follows Lady Nijo and her escapades throughout Japan. It reads much like a travel diary, and I found it more interesting than The Tale of Genji which it draws from heavily.

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