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The Diary of Lady Murasaki

Lady Murasaki wrote her famous novel, The Tale of Genji, about the son of an ancient Japanese emperor and a low-ranking concubine. She lived in Kyoto during the height of the Heian period and became a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Shōshi. Besides her novel and a collection of poems, her other surviving work is a “diary” that tells of the birth of Shōshi’s two sons during the years 1008 to 1010. The descriptions are punctuated with reflections on her life and the court. It is the first Japanese classic I read. Thus, although it is a chronicle, I enjoyed learning about the Heian Japanese court life.

Dress and etiquette were important. Court women painted their faces white—maybe the men did too. There is a scene when Lady Murasaki is interrupted while blackening her teeth. Long hair and tasteful dressing were admired. During ceremonies, attendants lined up according to rank. The diary records dress in great detail:

On the first day she wore crimson gown with a light purple mantle, a red jacket, and a train of printed silk. For the second day she had a mantle of purple and crimson figured silk, a dark crimson gown of glossy silk, a yellow-green jacket, and a train of variegated colors.

The descriptions of dress can extend for pages. The colors are carefully judged. Some were thought too common, others were too trendy. Some colors were forbidden to people of lower rank. Perhaps this allowed one to judge the rank of another person quickly, like the color-coding of doctors, nurse-practitioners, and nurses in my wife’s hospital. Apparently there were nine ranks and each rank was further subdivided. The number of folds in a man’s fan was determined by their rank, as was the size of their house, the number of servants they could have, and what roles they played in court rituals. There are parallels between the Heian court etiquette and the etiquette at Versailles.

As in many older cultures, poetry was admired. There are scenes when women would be asked to compose short poems on the spot. At some point Murasaki is sitting behind a screen with some women and she quotes a Chinese classic. The Minister of the Treasury overhears her and quotes the next line. Perhaps this is like quoting from a movie or a song, but I suspect their source material was longer.

Once the novelty wore off, Murasaki’s reflections become the most interesting parts to read. Here is a representative example:

So much for their looks; but their characters—that is a much more difficult matter. We all have our quirks and no one is ever all bad. Then again, it is not possible for everyone to be all things all of the time: attractive, restrained, intelligent, tasteful and trustworthy.

Here is another quote that I liked:

It is very easy to criticize others but far more difficult to put one’s own principles into practice, and it is when one forgets this truth, lauds oneself to the skies, treats everyone else as worthless and generally despises others that one’s own character is clearly revealed.

Murasaki was interested in what we call Pure Land Buddhism. Parts of the diary seem to be taken from letters. In one of them she says: “It may seem that I am merely going through the motions of being a true believer, but I assure you that now I think of little else.” The rituals performed for the baby prince seem to be part of Shingon Buddhism.