The Confessions of Lady Nijō, by Lady Nijō

The Confessions of Lady Nijō was written in the Kamakura period (early c14th), but might as well have been written in the Heian period, since a) this is the world it constantly seeks to reference and emulate, and b) the emperors, having been overthrown by the Kamakura shoguns, nonetheless continue living on in their strange Kyotoan world as if nothing has ever happened.

It’s an autobiography, and the first half recounts Lady Nijō’s life as a concubine of the retired Emperor GoFukakusa. When I say concubine, I mean this: that, since the age of four, she has been brought up in the Emperor’s service with the intention of making her a concubine and then, at the age of around fourteen, with the complicity of her father and the rest of the court, she is raped by the Emperor in a series of traumatic scenes, after which she falls in love with him – although this doesn’t stop her from having a series of relationships with other men. I describe it in this way, because this is the way it appears. There is, in fact, in all these relationships, always a sense of unwillingness, a sense of rape, and then a sense of a sudden change of heart (occurring after a night spent together), followed by the usual longings associated with love. The equivocation in everything is really quite unsettling.

In general this first half was quite interesting: the otherworldliness of early Japanese society, with its odd rituals, always is – though I could have done with less poems involving dew, the moon, tears and sleeves. But the second half of the book is considerably more tedious: Lady Nijō is banished from the court, as we find out because the Empress finally takes exception to her, so she gives up her worldly goods and travels round Japan on a series of pilgrimages. The ascetism here feels peculiarly Christian – is, therefore, one part of this strange world we can relate to – although, perhaps still we feel an unfamiliar equivocation here, since at times she seems only resigned because of her banishment, and longs in truth after a return to court.

Here’s a passage which I’ve chosen as entirely representative of the certain of the work’s (and indeed all early Japanese literature’s) recurring obsessions: strange court rituals, the importance of the colour of clothes, turning every experience into a poem, obsessive referentiality to the rest of Japanese literature etc. This is where retired Emperor Kameyama comes to visit retired Emperor GoFukakusa, and they have a football match:

Upon his arrival Kameyama inspected the seating arrangements, which had the two retired emperors carefully placed in positions of equal honor. “Inasmuch as these matters were already decided in our late father’s time, this arrangement is incorrect, ” he said, and order his place moved to a lower level.

GoFukakusa entered and remarked on this. “When Emperor Suzaku visited Genji he gave instructions that his host’s seat be moved into a position of equality. Today, our guest has seen fit to move his own seat down. How extraordinary!” Everyone commented on the elegance of this response.

After the welcoming banquet and the usual round of cermonial toasts, the crown prince arrived, and the kickball game began. During the interval betwen halves, when Kameyama had retired to an inner room, I placed a ceramic cup in a wicker box and poured some persimmon sake into a metalwork pitcher; then, in order that I might serve His Majesty, I handed them both to Lady Bettō to carry in. She was dressed in a five-layered garment in shades of green and purple under a white gown lined in green; over this gown she was a yellow formal jacket. Kameyama insisted that I have the first drink. The kickball game lasted until dusk, so torches were lit for His Majesty’s return.

The following day Nakayori brought me a letter from Kameyama written on crimson paper and attached to a willow branch:

What has happened to me?
That image cannot be real –
Merely a dream I’m convinced
Yet I still cannot awaken.

It would have been highly improper not to reply to this, so I wrote a poem on pale blue paper and tied it to a cherry branch:

Reality or a dream
What does it matter?
Cherry blossoms bloom but to fall
In this fleeting world.

After this I contined to receive pressing letters, until at last I decided to send for a carriage and go to the home of my relative Morochika.

I read this for Tony’s January in Japan challenge.


2 thoughts on “The Confessions of Lady Nijō, by Lady Nijō

  1. Classic Japanese literature is an area I haven’t explore yet, so I’m intirgued by this one. The seduction/rape issue is one I’ve come across a lot more than I’d like in J-Lit (and other, less literary areas, of Japanese culture) – I’ve even seen it in TV shows…

  2. It must be something deeply embedded in their culture then. – Aside from the first incident in Nijō, it does seem as if Nijo is playing a role, when she pretends unwillingness. On the other hand, she has little choice but to “love” these men who “seduce” her.

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