Dreams in a Mirror: The Sarashina Diary

We tend to think of diaries as private records written for our own personal reflection or amusement. But journals are sometimes kept for publication with a wider audience in mind. And while Anglo-Saxon bards were still bellowing about the deeds of Beowulf, the noblewomen of Japan had already perfected this literary form into an instrument of great subtlety. The Heian period saw the flowering of this unique art. These works might be more accurately called memoirs and offer a unique window into a remote time and place. However, what strikes us most is not their historical or local color but their remarkable thematic complexity and emotional depth.

One of the foremost of these is The Sarashina Diary. Written in the 11th century by Sugawara No Takasue No Musume, also known as Lady Sarashina, it records experiences from her 13th to her 50th years. However, readers will soon notice something distinctly odd. While some life events, such as her sister’s death, are recorded in detail, many others are passed over in silence. We hear nothing, for instance, of her marriage or the birth of her children except in oblique allusions. Instead, the writer chooses to focus on the delicate and ephemeral moments of her life; two persons sharing a drink from a cold mountain spring, a dialogue about the meaning of the seasons, or the views of nature seen on a religious pilgrimage.

Many writers, from St. Augustine to Marcel Proust, have chosen to make their lives the subject of their literary endeavors. But unlike In Search of Lost Time, Lady Sarashina is not writing a fictionalized account of her life. Instead, more in the manner of The Confessions, she casts her real life in the form of a literary memoir. In doing so, much of her art lies in the deft selection material to be included. The omissions that we noted above draw us deeper into the meaning of the work and her life.

In one sense, it is an unremarkable life. Lady Sarashina was born the daughter of a provincial governor and grew up in Kazusa. At about the age of thirteen, her family moved to the capital city of Kyoto. Her father hoped for an appointment to the court but was bitterly disappointed. Around the time of Sarashina’s 18th birthday, he was sent to act as the governor of Hitachi province. His family could not accompany him, which meant that his daughter’s life was effectively placed on hold since no marriage could be arranged in his absence. Instead, the young woman occupies herself with reading, religious devotions, and exchanging poems with her friends. When her father returns, the family’s fortunes improve, and they move to a large house near the imperial palace.

Sarashina sometimes acts as a serving woman at the court, but she views herself as an outsider and never establishes a place in the hierarchy of court life. Eventually, she marries and has children, although the narrative leaves these events in obscurity. Finally, after seventeen years of married life, she tells us that her husband fell ill and died. She is now past her prime and can no longer serve at court. With her children nearly grown and her husband gone, she is alone and without support in the world. Her grief is inconsolable, and her memoir ends on this note of unresolved suffering.

These are the facts of her life, and if they were the whole of the matter, her Diary would not occupy the position it does as one of the most celebrated works of Japanese literature. But in shaping her story through careful selection, the narrator draws out a different meaning to her life rich with paradoxical beauty.

In order to see this aspect of the work, we need to return to its beginning. Sarashina opens her account by telling us of her early love for literature. “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. At leisure times during the day and evening, when I heard my elder sister and stepmother tell bits and pieces of this or that tale or talk about what Shining Genji was like like, my desire to read these tales for myself only increased.” 1

This theme is reiterated later when her aunt gives her a complete copy of The Tale of Genji. She is ecstatic and writes that “With no one bothering me, I lay down inside my curtains, and the feeling I had as I unrolled scroll after scroll was such that I would not have cared even if I had the chance to become empress! I did nothing but read, and I was amazed to find that passages I had somehow naturally learned by heart came floating unbidden into my mind.”

In addition to this unreserved enjoyment of literature, the narrator obviously relishes the scenes of natural beauty she encounters. Her account of their family’s journey to the capital offers the rare pleasure of observing the world through the eyes of a child and is one of the most engaging parts of the Diary. The following passage provides a poignant example. “We left early on the morning of the seventeenth. Long ago, a man named Manoshitera lived in Shimosa Province. We crossed by boat a deep river where it is said there are the remains of the house where he had tens of thousands of bolts of cloth woven and bleached. The four large pillars standing in the river’s flow apparently were the remnants of his old gate pillars. Listening to the others recite poems, I composed to myself,

Not rotted away,
if these pillars in the river
did not remain,
how would we ever know
the traces of long ago.”

Later as she goes on pilgrimages to various shrines, we catch glimpses of that same wonder, as if that little girl were still very much a part of her experience. What emerges is a portrait of a vivacious, highly articulate, and individualistic person who is strongly responsive to beauty both in her natural environment and the beauty of literature.

Undercutting these themes and in tension with them are the writer’s frequent observations of her own frivolous character. In a typical passage, she writes, “In this way, life went on, and airy musings continued to be my preoccupation. When on rare occasions I went on pilgrimages, even then I could not concentrate my prayers on becoming somebody in the world. Nowadays, it seems that people read the sutras and devote themselves to religious practice even from the age of seventeen or eighteen, but I was unable to put my mind to that sort of thing.”

The narrator most often expresses this theme through dreams. The Sarashina Diary records eleven dreams, ten of which are religious in character. These frequently feature some high-born person or monastic adept urging Sarashina to greater devotion to her Buddhist faith and practice.

The most central of these is a vision of a monk who was asked to offer a mirror on her behalf to a far-off shrine. The monk tells of a woman coming to him while he slept and showing him Sarashina’s mirror. In it, he sees a woman bowed down and weeping sorrowfully. The lady then displays the mirror a second time. This second viewing depicts a happier scene. “Amid beautiful bamboo blinds and other hangings, various robes poured out from under curtains of state; plum and cherry blossoms were in bloom; and from the tips of tree branches, warblers were singing.”

Given that the final exchange of the book takes place with a nun, it is likely that Sarashina wished her readers to see her Diary as that of a woman whose disappointed worldly hopes led her to seek consolation in her religion. She explicitly references the mirror dream in the closing passages, identifying herself with the figure bowed down with sorrow and weeping.

However, the way in which her account is structured presents a different view. Throughout the narrative, she takes obvious delight in recounting the “airy musings” which fascinated her. She invites her readers to share in her enjoyment of them.

One possible reading of the Sarashina Diary, then, is that both visions in the mirror came true. Paradoxically, she is a woman whose disappointed worldly hopes possibly led her to seek solace in religion. But the story that she recounts, filled with wonder and a rich interior life, is the vision of the opulent robes and blossoming branches where the sweet birds sing. Like the pillars in the river, these memories she has recorded will stand against the flow of time and show others the traces of long ago.

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  1. All quotations from The Sarashina Diary by Sugawara No Takasue No Musume, Translated from the Japanese by Sonja Arntzen and Ito Moriyuki, Columbia University Press, 2014

Dreams in a Mirror: The Sarashina Diary: Copyright Jonathan Golding 2021. All rights reserved.

Artwork: Woman Admiring Plum Blossoms at Night by Suzuki Harunobu. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Open Access, Public Domain.

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