Education About Asia

The Sarashina Diary: A Woman’s Life in Eleventh Century Japan

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The Sarashina Diary: A Woman’s Life in Eleventh-Century Japan, translated with excellent notes and short essays by Sonja Arntzen and Itō Moriyuki, gives a perfect opportunity to consider the significance of Sugawara Takasue no Musume’s “personal story.” 1 From the generation after the great luminaries Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon, the young Takasue no Musume prayed “with abandon” to be able to read more tales of the “Shining Genji.”2 Takasue no Musume had quite the chance to be successful at court and at authorship. She was related to the Imperial family through her Fujiwara mother, to Murasaki Shikibu through her stepmother, and to the great poet and statesman Sugawara no Michizane through her father, Takasue. Takasue no Musume was no ordinary woman. Yet this “diary” presents her as ordinary—in the same way as Charlotte Brontë or Jane Austen personally appear ordinary. All three women were entranced with lives of passion, wealth, and power, yet their imaginations transcended their own ability to be heroines of romance.

Before trying to analyze what Takasue no Musume’s life signifies, one needs to discuss the work that Arntzen and Itō present. They begin with an essay about the genre nikki. Commonly translated as “diary,” the English term implies an autobiographical record, written in intervals in the past; English speakers may expect a primary text untampered by retrospective revision either by the author or another. This work, however, has been reshaped in a way that an autobiography shapes the past. Ivan Morris’s 1971 translation3 uses the word “recollections,” and Richard Bowring (1982) calls Sarashina Nikki a “memoir.”4 If one wants to establish Takasue no Musume’s literary reputation, such shaping and patterning are virtues. But in order to judge the quality of an elite woman’s life in eleventh-century Japan, one must evaluate whether a text reflects the life or how the author or someone else thought the life should be viewed.

As a girl raised in the back of beyond, even farther than the end of the road to the East Country, how rustic and odd I must have been. But however it was that I first became enthralled with them, once I knew that such things as tales existed in the world, all I could think of over and over was how much I wanted to read them.

—The beginning of The Sarashina Diary, as translated by Arntzen and Itō, 90.


1. Sonja Arntzen and Itō Moriyuki, trans. and eds., The Sarashina Diary: A Woman’s Life in Eleventh-Century Japan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

2. Ibid., 90.

3. Ivan Morris, trans. As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan (New York: Dial Press, 1971).

4. Richard Bowring, trans. and ed., Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs (Princeton: Library of Asian Translations, 1982), 31. Bowring calls the Japanese scholar Teika “cavalier” in first calling Takasue no Musume’s work a “nikki.”

5. Arntzen and Itō, 19.

6. Arntzen and Itō, 14–19, discuss Teika but do not suggest that anyone other than Takasue no Musume shaped the work.

7. Ibid., 206.

8. Ibid., 208. Arntzen and Itō point out there has been debate over the authorship of the last poem (81–88).

9. Andrew Pekarik, ed., Ukifune: Love In The Tale of Genji (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 140.

10. Arntzen and Itō, 142. 11. Ibid., 184. 12. Ibid., 182.