“the confessions of lady nijo,”


written sometime after 1307 by a 50-year-old woman of aristocratic birth who served at the japanese imperial court and was, from the age of 14, a mistress of the retired emperor gofukakusa, is a window into an extraordinary culture.  it was written more than 200 years after murasaki shikibu wrote “the tale of genji” and like genji, it describes life at court in kyoto.

lady nijo and her contemporaries exert tremendous effort to replicate the customs, styles, artforms and aesthetics of the heian period in which “genji” was written.    like murasaki, lady nijo constantly describes the carefully considered layering of gowns (as well as being related to the seasons, every color of fabric and embroidered pattern had signficance in the intricate social pecking order of the court), presentation of gifts, observance of holidays, communication through poetry and romantic intrigues of the palace.  but while “genji” is a mostly fictional work written serially for the entertainment of ladies at court, “confessions of lady nijo” is the frank account of one woman’s personal life there.

even if it is by her own account, lady nijo is an impressive character.   in addition to her considerable writing ability, she’s accomplished in music and painting and social skills.    she must have been alluring.    i lost track of the number of (powerful) men who were her lovers (or wanted to be) while she was gofukukusa’s mistress.   and she’s tough.   for twelve years she was able to maintain her status as a favorite of gofukukusa though her parents were dead and she had no close male relatives furthering her career at the court.   she had three children with men other than gofukukusa, all of whom she gave up at birth.   and she treated her protector and source of stability – gofukukusa – rather poorly (she may have even had an affair with his brother and political adversary).    at the age of 26 she was banished from the court – the only home she had ever known.   for the rest of her known life – at least twenty years – she was a traveling buddhist nun.

i admit to finding nijo’s perpetually “damp sleeves” (she uses them to wipe her tears) boring.  she’s an extremely intelligent and privileged woman living in luxury.    during her life at court she’s a sophisticated, reckless and manipulative young woman.   most of her dramas are self-initiated.   but in a time when few options were open to women, she took every opportunity to direct her own life.   and as the book nears it’s end (though she’s still in tears a good part of the time), you see her as an insightful and thoughtful person.

it’s not for everyone – like “genji” there’s no plot – events happen and time just passes – but this is a great book.  it’s both a view into a completely foreign world and a lesson in how all similar all people are.

the photo was taken by david stroud in kyoto.

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