The Tosa Diary, by Ki no Tsurayuki

The Tosa Diary is the first extended piece of literary prose in Japanese; it was written about 935. It’s told in the form of a woman’s diary. She is in the entourage of (the wife of?) a provincial governor, and relates their trip back from the province which they have been governing after the end of their term of office, travelling mostly by sea to the capital (Kyoto), along with the poems they make up on the way. Our narrator has lost her daughter during the time they have been in the province, and many of the scenes she encounters cause her to reflect on this. That’s it: it’s about thirty pages long.

Here is my favourite depiction of the otherness of Heian culture, written by Ivan Morris in his introduction to Murasaki’s Genji, The World of the Shining Prince:

If the informed Westerner were asked to enumerate the outstanding features of traditional Japan, his list might well consist of the following: in culture No and Kabuki drama, Haiku poems, Ukiyoe colour prints, samisen music, and various activities like the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and the preparation of miniature landscapes that are related to Zen influence; in society the two-sworded samurai and the geisha; in ideas the Zen approach to human experience with its stress on an intuitive understanding of the truth and sudden enlightenment, the samurai ethic sometimes known as Bushido, a great concern with the conflicting demands of duty and human affection, and an extremely permissive attitude to suicide, especially love suicides; in domestic architecture fitted straw matting (tatami), large communal baths, tokonoma alcoves for hanging kakemono; in food raw fish and soy sauce … The list would of course be entirely correct. Yet not a single one of these items existed in Murasaki’s world.

One of the truly odd things about Heian society is the importance in it of poetry. The ability to compose, more or less extempore, poems on any given subject was a vital accomplishment for anyone who wanted to get on in the world (by which I mean, imperial service). (The world of rap culture is perhaps similar, though possibly less refined). Hence in The Tosa Diary, the reaction to an event or natural scene, is to write a poem about it. For instance:

We now pass the pine grove on the coast of Uta. I cannot judge how many trees there must be or how many centuries they have stood there. During all this time, how the waves must have splashed on the roots of the trees, and the cranes have come and gone in its branches! It is impossible merely to look upon the splendour of this scenery, and someone composed a poem something like this:

Gazing all about,
One can but believe the cranes
Have been companions
Of the pine trees upon whose tops
They have nested through the ages.

To one looking upon the place itself, the poem falls far short of capturing the beauty of the scene.

For Tsurayuki, poetry derives from an irrepressible need to express one’s feelings in verse; and in Heian writing in general, there is always this fascinating disconnect between poetry and prose. Prose is used merely to describe the world around them, as we might say in an objective manner, to state what is going on, the scenery, people’s appearances; whereas poetry is used to express one’s feelings about things, that is to say it is used subjectively, to explore one’s inner self.

The poetry is almost always oblique: a symbol is used, precisely as the thing seen – the situation – evokes another thought in the mind of the poet. This obliqueness seems to me an attempt to express what is often felt to be inexpressible; to give voice to feelings which are hard of access. All of which might of course strike one as being peculiarly modern, if by modern we mean, as so often, exactly what mankind has always thought and felt. A lot of Nathalie Sarraute (and particularly the French branch of the avant-garde), it seems to me, is a striving after these same precise things which we find at the beginning (no, I shouldn’t say beginning – a lot of poetry had already been set down) of Japanese literature. Indeed, as Sarraute pities Dostoevsky for not having at his command the modern techniques with which he might better express himself, so we might feel a pity Sarraute never picked up on the ancient techniques of Heian literature.

In general, I admit, I hate poetry when it is used in novels – it breaks up the narrative and intrudes on the reading experience. But the fascination for me with Heian literature is this peculiar relationship that always exists between poetry and prose.

The Tosa Diary is to be found in Earl Miner’s Japanese Poetic Diaries.

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2 thoughts on “The Tosa Diary, by Ki no Tsurayuki

  1. I’ve learned quite a few things, thanks for that.
    I would really like to read this.
    I think this is how it should be, using prose for descriptions and poems for feeling, when you mix them.

  2. Yes, the prose/poetry thing is a great idea. There’s a good chance Tsurayuki came up with it (though, as usual, one can’t be sure about these things); but it’s copied in pretty much every other piece of Heian literature – so you could read any to get the basic gist. The Tosa Diary isn’t necessarily seen as a masterpiece of the genre – just the founding work. – Of course, as I’ve mentioned, the Heian Japanese seemed to live and think this way anyway, so it may well not be as such a literary invention.

    I’ve put up a list of the Heian books I’m reading now on the lefthand sidebar.

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