The Little-Known Life and Work of Michitsuna’s Mother

The Heian Court of the tenth and eleventh centuries produced a number of remarkable literary works. They were mostly written by women, with the exceptions of the history-tale Ōkagami, and the faux-travelogue Tosa Nikki – which perhaps should not count, as it the acclaimed poet who wrote it utilized a female persona and was clearly aiming at a female audience. Yet apart from these two, the truly remarkable works of literature that have come down to us were authored by women and perhaps primarily for women as well.

Some time in the closing decades of the tenth century, a woman known to us only as “Michitsuna’s Mother” began to chronicle her twenty-year marriage to Fujiwara no Kaneie (929 – 990), in a work that has become known as Kagerō Nikki. Kaneie was a powerful figure at court, and as polygyny was ubiquitous in the Heian aristocracy, Michitsuna’s Mother had to share her husband with a number of other women. She was undoubtedly his wife; her writing records that she made court clothes for him – an important responsibility in Heian society, and one that was reserved for a man’s in-laws.

Kagerō Nikki is not truly a diary, as large portions its accounting of her marriage have obviously been recorded in retrospect. It is clearly more of a memoir. And Michitsuna’s Mother often seems to have an agenda when she relates her tale. Her twenty-year marriage to Kaneie was over at the time she wrote. They were estranged, and their marriage does not seem to have made her very happy. She resented his constant wanderings, and his neglect of their son Michitsuna. As such, she presents the early years of her marriage in what is clearly a revisionist light. She comments on Kaneie’s bad penmanship and presents his love poems as trite. It is as if she wishes to impress upon her audience how disappointing this man was, from the very beginning.

Michitsuna’s Mother never finished her work. Her date of death is unknown, but she did predecease Kaneie – his records indicate payment for a Buddhist anniversary service for her death, though they do not indicate which anniversary it was. Yet it seems unlikely that it was death that interrupted her writing. As Edward Seidensticker – who translated Kagerō Nikki into English – noted, the author was able to develop a true creative detachment from her work as it progressed. For a work on such an emotional, personal topic (her failed marriage) this is a remarkable achievement for any writer in any age. However, it is at least possible that the writing of the memoir was undertaken as a catharsis, and thus, once Michitsuna’s Mother had relieved herself of her pain and despair, she simply felt no need to write any further. The diary ends abruptly, with the author reporting that someone is knocking about outside. Seidensticker himself theorized that Michitsuna’s Mother went to answer her caller and never felt the need to return to her writing.

FOR FURTHER READING:

Edward Seidensticker, trans. The Gossamer Years: The Diary of a Noblewoman of Heian Japan Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1989

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