The Diary of Lady Sarashina

In the Tenth month [of the lunar calendar], I turned, my eyes full of tears, towards the intensely bright moon.

Even into the mind always clouded with grief,
There is cast the reflection of the bright moon.

Diary of Lady Sarashina, (source)

Recently, I finished a somewhat obscure but interesting work of Japanese literature from the 10th century: the Diary of Lady Sarashina (or sarashina nikki 更級日記). It was composed by the daughter of one Sugawara no Takasue, a direct descendant of the famous Sugawara no Michizane. Per cultural practice at the time, her name is unknown but she is named after a district her father governed (Sarashina) hence she is often called Lady Sarashina in English.

The diary is one of several written by famous aristocratic women toward the latter half of the Heian Period (8th – 12th), including the diaries of Lady Murasaki and Lady Izumi. The difference is that Lady Sarashina covered a much longer span of her life, plus as a noble child raised in the provinces she offers more travel information.

Lady Sarashina also somewhat distinguishes herself, unfortunately, by her lack of success at the Imperial Court as a lady-in-waiting. The other two achieved some level of fame and reputation in their own time, but Lady Sarashina was more obscure. Her diary is an unfortunate series of mishaps, near-misses in achieving status, and losses. While she does eventually marry (albeit as a second, replacement wife) she spends much of her in isolation or passed over in aristocratic social circles until fading further into obscurity after her husband dies.

The diary is, frankly, somewhat depressing but it also shows how life outside the glamour of the Imperial Court for aristocratic families who didn’t quite make the cut.

Lady Sarashina herself is noticeably introverted (similar to Lady Murasaki) and socially awkward due to her more provincial upbringing, but does maintain a number of friendships over the years for which she exchanges poems frequently. In fact quite a bit of her poetic verses appear in the diary. Some were noted by Fujiwara no Teika who compiled the Hyakunin Isshu.

A modern portrayal of Lady Sarashina in modern Chiba prefecture, where we spent most of her childhood “in the provinces”. Photo by 本人撮影, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite her lack of fortune in Imperial social circles, Lady Sarashina was a prolific writer and poet and left behind many other works that were admired by later generations, and her diary is often studied in school in Japan. So, while she never attained fame in her lifetime, her writings and poetry have gained a much longer lasting fame in the long run.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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