1,000 Years Ago, Depressed Housewife’s Diary Spawned Japanese Heian Literary Tradition

Illustration of Michitsuna no haha's husband: Fujiwara no Kaneie, by Kikuchi Yosai, a 19th century historical portraitist.
Illustration of Michitsuna no haha’s husband: Fujiwara no Kaneie, by Kikuchi Yosai, a 19th century historical portraitist.

Known only to us as Michitsuna no haha (mother of Michitsuna), the secondary wife of a noble Japanese aristocrat, this anonymous woman authored the oldest surviving work of Japanese literature known as nikki bungaku – diary literature. She was born the daughter of a governor in 935, and married a nobleman named Fujiwara no Kaneie in 954. At the time he was a captain, but he soon climbed the ranks of the Emperor’s courts and became regent, mostly because his daughters gave birth to future Emperors. He was already married to Tokihime, who bore him at least five children, and the aforementioned emperor bearers.

I use the word marriage with caution. During the Japanese Heian period (794-1185), marriage customs left a lot to be desired. Marriage was based around the “duolocal residence” principal in which the husband lived in his own home, and the wife lived in hers, typically never moving out of her parents’ home. Which I guess would just be still living with your mom.

During courtship, the man wrote poems and letters to the woman. If they were well received, he would begin visiting her. After about three visits they were considered married. If the husband stopped visiting, at any point in their lifetime, they were considered divorced. You can see this left the woman in a very precocious social position. As it went, Kaneie stopped visiting Michitsuna and they became estranged after almost twenty years of marriage.

To top this off, aristocratic women of the Heian period lived secluded lives, relegated to the interior rooms of their homes and imprisoned by the heavy fashion of the period. Think Kimono’s on steroids. Plus, Kaneie had at least six other wives/lovers besides Michitsuna and Tokihime.

The Kagerō Diary is Michitsuna’s haunting and poetic tale of her life and contains the opening words:

“There once was a woman who led a forlorn, uncertain life, the old days gone forever and her present status neither one thing nor the other. Telling herself that it was natural for a man to attach no value to someone who was less attractive than others and not very bright, she merely went to bed and got up day after day. But then it occurred to her as she leafed through the many current tales of the past, that such stories were only conventional tissues of fabrications, and that people might welcome the novelty of a journal written by an ordinary woman. If there were those who wondered what it might be like to be married to a man who moved in the very highest circles, she might invite them to find an answer here. Her memory was not good, either for the distant past or for more recent events, and she realized in the end that she had written many things it might have been better to omit.”

In some translations, kagerō means mayfly and in others it means heat mirage. The book is divided into three parts. The first is a recollection of the courtship with her husband. The second is the struggles and hardships of her marriage falling apart. The final section is her acceptance of her life and devotion to her children. Appreciated for her prose and raw emotionality, Michitsuna describes nights she was at home taking care of her son while her husband was with other women and a thwarted attempt to join a Buddhist nunnery to escape her life.

Historically, The Kagerō Diary is the first piece of literature that describes in detail the customs and court life of the Heian period. It is also the only major work of prose surviving from the Heian period that pre-dates the Tale of Genji, the de facto work of Japanese literature of the era (also written by a woman).

The diary was the first of its kind and had a major influence on all later diary literature of the period. Scholars are divided on the legacy of the work and promote two opposing motivations, both based on 20th century sensibilities. One school of thought suggests the diary is a conscious social commentary and protest of the Heian marriage system. The other projects that Michitsuna was an extremely depressed woman and the diary was her emotional catharsis.

Regardless, Michitsuna seems to be ahead of her times in attempting to define herself in contextual terms and offering her worldview. The work is a testament to the literary arts flourishing during the Heian period and a unique voice for the women of the time.

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