Q&A: Sonja Arntzen on the The Sarashina Diary: A Woman’s Life in Eleventh-Century Japan

Gazing at this,
I might think that the snow had
out of season,
if it were not for the fragrance
of this orange blossoms tree.

The inclusion of poetry in all the classical Japanese diaries is perhaps what sets them apart most from western forms of the diary. From Tsurayuki’s time, all writers kept collections of their poetry in the hopes that some of their poems might one day be included in an imperial anthology, which was the closest equivalent to our modern idea of getting oneself not only published but favorably reviewed.

In celebration of National Poetry Month, we are featuring The Sarashina Diary: A Woman’s Life in Eleventh-Century Japan (Reader’s Edition) by Sugawara Takasue no Musume, translated, with an introduction, by Sonja Arntzen and Moriyuki Itō. Today we are pleased to present you with an interview with Sonja Arntzen.

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Q: This work is the result of collaboration between you and co-author Itō Moriyuki. What difference did it make that this work is the result of collaboration rather than a solo effort?

Sonja Arntzen: Collaboration such as this between a Japanese and North American scholar to produce a study and translation is rather unusual. I think the project took longer than it would have, had it been a solo effort on either of our parts, but the end result is much richer. The foundation of the work is Itō’s life-long dedication to the study of the Sarashina Diary and he was the one to initiate the project. Our original idea was to have me do the translation and Itō write an introduction in Japanese, which I would also translate. However, we ended up working quite closely together on the translation, and thus it reflects much of Itō’s vision of the author and his interpretation of her text. Once the translation was done, Itō worked for three years on getting the introduction going, but somehow every attempt to write the introduction turned into another very detailed and focused article suited mainly for an audience of Japanese scholars. 

Meanwhile, we were fortunate to have our draft translation used in three different courses at the University of British Columbia. Since I now reside close to Vancouver, I was able to visit these classes and collect feedback from students directly as well as receive written feedback collected by the instructors. This feedback was critical in informing us what kind of information students needed in the introduction and what aspects of the text were especially puzzling or intriguing to them. My deep desire was to have our volume be accessible not only to students of Japanese literature but also to general readers. About the time we finally decided that I should write the introduction on the basis of various outlines we had developed over the years, I started circulating drafts of chapters to friends, relatives, and neighbors, anyone who would take an interest. The introduction condenses much of what Itō has written in previous works but has also been heavily inflected by me. Over our many years of discussion, we both began to feel that our ownership of the material was equal; his ideas had become mine and mine had become his. 

Our most intensive work was done together in person. Itō and his wife came many times to Gabriola Island, where I now live, and I had the opportunity to visit Tokyo for a few extended stays. I would like to share two anecdotes of our work together that give a sense of its tenor. Once, Itō came to Gabriola in May. He and his wife stayed over at our family cabin that has a few old apple trees in the yard. The moon was full and the blossoms full too. He phoned me the next morning in some excitement to report, “I have seen asamidori ‘lucent green’,” which is the opening line of the poem from the Sarashina Diary that was selected for the Shinkokinshū imperial anthology. Itō had written an entire article about the originality and evocative power of this one phrase. He went on, “In my youth, I saw night skies without the contamination of electric illumination, but it is so long since I have been able to experience a naturally radiant sky like that.” It was a moment that deepened the understanding of that phrase for us both. The other episode took place in Tokyo in Itō’s university office. We were wrestling with how to express the way Takasue no Musume creates an overall pattern of light and dark in her work, and how darkness, in particular, is both negative and positive depending on the context. Itō looked over to me and cited Simon Garfunkel’s line, “Hello darkness, my old friend.” His use of that allusion exerted the same power as allusion has always had in classical Japanese poetry and united us in an ineffable way.

I consider myself very fortunate to have had this opportunity to collaborate so fully with another scholar. The collaboration has special meaning since, for both of us, our way of perceiving the world has been shaped by two different mother tongues and, of course, by two different cultures. We both have to thank Sugawara Takasue no Musume, a woman writer from a thousand years ago, for providing the ground upon which we came together.

Q: In the western context, the term “diary” usually connotes a text meant primarily for the eyes of the writer alone, whereas your introduction makes it clear that this work was meant for other readers right from the beginning. How should a western reader understand this difference in genre expectations?

SA: It is true that in common parlance in the west, the term “diary” implies a private text and, in most cases, diaries that did become public texts did so only after the author’s death and were shaped for public consumption by later editors.  Nonetheless, having a concern for the readers of posterity is not unknown in the west. For example, recent scholarship on manuscript corrections in the Diary of Anne Frank reveal that Anne Frank edited her diary with future readers in mind. Moreover, I suspect that anyone who has kept a diary will recognize that as one attempts to shape the story of one’s experience even for oneself, there is always in the back of one’s mind the thought that someone might be moved someday to read what one has written. And for many, is there not even a hidden desire for that?

As for the development of the form in Japan, the first diary in the vernacular, The Tosa Diary (c. 935), was clearly written to be circulated to others and set the genre expectations for the form. Written by a man employing a female persona, it allowed the author, Ki no Tsurayuki, not only to record a significant journey in his life, but also to express deeply personal feelings of loss, and most significantly, to preserve a body of his poetry. The inclusion of poetry in all the classical Japanese diaries is perhaps what sets them apart most from western forms of the diary. From Tsurayuki’s time, all writers kept collections of their poetry in the hopes that some of their poems might one day be included in an imperial anthology, which was the closest equivalent to our modern idea of getting oneself not only published but favorably reviewed. Since collections of poetry often included headnotes recording the circumstances of a poem’s composition, the difference between a personal poetry collection and a diary was rather blurred. All of this can make one wonder how appropriate the term “diary” is for these Heian works and yet I would maintain that no more suitable term exists. One simply has to let this already capacious term in English expand a little further to include these Japanese texts.

I would add as an afterword that, strangely enough, the advent in recent decades of “blogging” makes Heian diaries and particularly the Sarashina Diary easier to appreciate as private texts directed toward a public audience.  In the three years that our Sarashina Diary manuscript was experimentally shared in successive courses at the University of British Columbia, students kept mentioning that it had the feel of a blog. Although the content was personal and seemingly spontaneous as to choice of material, one could sense the author shaping her story to reach out to unspecified others who might choose to “tune in” to her private world. 

Q: The Sarashina Diary was created before the development of print culture in Japan. How was the manuscript preserved and circulated for a thousand years?

SA: There is no information about how the original manuscript survived its first century and a half. We have to assume that the original manuscript was circulated only among family and friends during the author’s lifetime and then was preserved in the Sugawara family library. 

The first evidence of its circulation outside the family was the inclusion of one of the diary’s poems in the Shinkokinshū imperial anthology (c. 1205). This was the beginning of a kind of literary immortality for the author since the Shinkokinshū became one of the two most important imperial anthologies of all time. The principal compiler of that anthology was Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). Teika’s own diary bears witness to his personal friendship with the then head of the Sugawara family and Teika was presumably able to borrow the Sarashina Diary manuscript directly from the family library. Everyone at the time must have been anxious to have Teika peruse family manuscripts in the hopes that he would choose an ancestor’s poem for the new ambitious anthology. Teika then lent that manuscript to someone else who lost it, forcing Teika to borrow another copy made from the lost manuscript by yet another person before it was lost. All this information comes from a fascinating colophon to the Sarashina Diary manuscript in Teika’s own hand that is miraculously still preserved and is the foundation for all modern texts of the diary. (The page that fronts the translation in our book displays an excerpt from the Teika manuscript.) In between the lines of this colophon, we see a situation in which poets of the 13th century are avidly passing around old manuscripts, making copies of them for themselves and studying them not only as practicing poets but as nascent scholars.

For the remainder of the medieval period, a significant number of poems from the Sarashina Diary show up in successive imperial anthologies, constituting the proof of its continued circulation at least within the confines of aristocratic society. A mass print culture begins in the Edo period (1600-186 ). The widespread availability of books in wood-block print format inspired a vogue for Heian period texts, both in adapted versions for popular reading and for the scholarly enterprise of establishing the field of kokugaku “national learning.” Copies of Teika’s manuscript of the Sarashina Diary, by this time preserved in the Imperial Library, made their way into scholars’ hands who published annotated editions of the text. Unbeknownst to these Edo scholars, however, the threads binding Teika’s manuscript had disintegrated sometime in the 16th century and the manuscript had been rebound out of order. Thus, the Sarashina Diary was a confusing text for the “national learning” scholars and did not garner as much attention as it might have, although it was duly studied. 

In the modern period, it was the discovery in 1924 of the physical evidence of the manuscript disorder by Tamai Kōsuke that made reconstruction of the text and all subsequent modern study of it possible. The Sarashina Diary took its place as one of the hallowed texts in the newly constituted canon of kokubungaku “national literature,” just at a time when the ability to read the classical language was declining rapidly. Scholars read Heian texts seeking a pure “Japanese spirit” before its distortion by too much influence from China. The works by women of the Heian period, including the Sarashina Diary, being written in the vernacular, were fundamental to this enterprise. After the Second World War, that project was decried as jingoistic, but the diaries by Heian women were rehabilitated as examples of a “literature of self-reflection” giving them a modernist cast and making them appear as fore-runners of the “I-novel,” a genre that has played a preeminent role in modern Japanese fiction. Nowadays, almost every Japanese person can recognize the title of the Sarashina Diary and will likely be able to dredge up the name of the author from their memories of studying for university entrance exams. The passage in the Sarashina Diary where the author describes her ecstasy of private reading upon acquiring her first complete copy of the Tale of Genji is included in nearly every textbook of classical language instruction.  

Q: Could you say something about the new cover for the “Reader’s Edition?”

SA: The cover art reproduces a detail from a bi-fold screen entitled Sarashina Diary by the modern Japanese calligrapher Shikō Kataoka (1928-2014). The screen was done for an exhibition at the University of Alberta held in conjunction with the 2001 conference “Across Time and Genre: Reading and Writing Japanese Women’s Texts.” The text on the screen renders in classical Japanese and modern Japanese the passage in the Sarashina Diary describing Mt. Fuji:

“Mount Fuji is in this province. It is the mountain we could see to the west of the province that I grew up in. It looks like nothing else in the world. Among its unusual features are that its flanks are as though painted a deep indigo blue; and since snow always covers its summit, it is as though someone is wearing a white short robe over an indigo gown; and from the mountain’s slightly flat top, smoke rises. At dusk, one can even see flames shooting up.”

In a nice coincidence, the World Literature scholar, David Damrosch used opening of this same passage on Mt. Fuji as a metaphor for the Sarashina Diary itself in his blurb for the hardcover edition. Moreover, the screen captures the moon image that is woven through the diary as a kind of liet motif, and also the balancing of light and dark that plays such an important role in the structure of the work. It seemed particulary fitting to have a modern work of art with a classical foundation represent this work from the past that is still very much alive in the contemporary world.

On a personal note, Shikō Kataoka was my calligraphy teacher for 25 years. I collaborated on many exhibitions of her work at universities and other institutions in Canada and the US. She passed away in 2014 and I feel that having her work adorn the cover of this book is a memorial gesture toward her. Shikō Kataoka is, to my knowledge, the only modern Japanese calligrapher who has a named collection of her work at a university outside Japan. Her works may be viewed by going to the home page for University of Alberta Art Collection

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