Writers of the Heian Era: Diary, Lady Sarashina
The Sarashina nikki (Sarashina Diary, ca. 1059 CE) is the memoir of a woman called “Takasue’s Daughter,” also known as “Lady Sarashina” from the translator Ivan Morris’s name for her. Her father, Sugawara Takasue, was governor of Kazusa Province (modern Chiba, southeast of Tokyo) in what was then the remote Eastern region, where she spent some three years as a girl of nine to twelve years. Her memoir is remembered especially for two things. One is the poetic account of her family’s journey from Kazusa back to the capital in Kyoto, which is viewed as a precursor of the poetic travel journal genre later developed by medieval poet-pilgrims and the early modern haiku poet Bashô. The other is its thematization of her obsession with reading tales (monogatari), in particular the Genji monogatari, and how it detracted from her pursuit of religious piety. The passage below is particularly striking for the way it underscores the guilty pleasure of reading Genji as against the priestly admonition to read instead the fifth volume of the Lotus Sutra, where a female, the Dragon King’s daughter, famously undergoes buddhahood despite her inferior sex by first being transformed into a male.
This source is a part of the Writers of the Heian Era teaching module.
Forbidden Tales and the Lotus Sutra
I was brought up in a part of the country so remote that it lies beyond the end of the Great East Road. What an uncouth creature I must have been in those days! Yet even shut away in the provinces I somehow came to hear that the world contained things known as Tales, and from that moment my greatest desire was to read them for myself. To idle away the time, my sister, my stepmother, and others in the household would tell me stories from the Tales, including episodes about Genji, the Shining Prince; but, since they had to depend on their memories, they could not possibly tell me all I wanted to know and their stories only made me more curious than ever. In my impatience I got a statue of the Healing Buddha built in my own size. When no one was watching, I would perform my ablutions and, stealing into the altar room, would prostrate myself and pray fervently, ‘Oh, please arrange things so that we may soon go to the Capital, where there are so many Tales, and please let me read them all.’
‘What a pretty girl you’ve grown up to be!’ she [the author’s aunt] said. As I was leaving she asked, ‘What would you like as a present? I am sure you don’t want anything too practical. I’d like to give you something you will really enjoy.’
And so it was that she presented me with the fifty-odd volumes of The Tale of Genji in a special case, together with copies of Zai, Tôgimi, Serikawa, Shirara, Asauzu, and many other Tales. Oh, how happy I was when I came home with all these books in a bag! In the past I had been able to have only an occasional hurried look at fragments of The Tale of Genji, and much of it had remained infuriatingly obscure. Now I had it all in front of me and I could sit undisturbed behind my curtain, bent comfortably forward as I took out the books one by one and enjoyed them to my heart’s content. I wouldn’t have changed places with the Empress herself.
Placing the lamp close to where I sat, I kept reading all day long and as late as possible into the night. Soon I came to know the names of all the characters in the book and I could see them clearly in my mind’s eye, which gave me the greatest satisfaction. One night I dreamt that a handsome priest appeared before me in a yellow surplice and ordered me to learn the fifth volume of the Lotus Sutra as soon as possible. I told no one about the dream, since I was much too busy with my Tales to spend any time learning sutras. I was not a very attractive girl at the time, but I fancied that, when I grew up, I would surely become a great beauty with long flowing hair like Y_gao, who was loved by the Shining Prince [Genji], or like Ukifune, who was wooed by the Captain of Uji [Kaoru]. Oh, what futile conceits!
Morris, Ivan, trans. Sugawara Takasue’s Daughter, As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan. London: Penguin Classics, 1975.