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Murasaki Shikibu

Japanese Writer


A selection from

Narrated by Ellen Archer

Download mp3 file: The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu

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It was on the seventeenth of the Frost month that the Queen went back to the palace. The time had been fixed for eight o'clock in the evening, but the night was far advanced. I could not see more than thirty ladies who tied up their hair. To the east balcony of the Queen's apartments came more than ten ladies-in-waiting from His Majesty's Court [to escort the Queen]. Her Majesty's senji [woman who repeats the Queen's words to outsiders] went in Her Majesty's coach with her. The Lord Prime Minister's wife and Lady Sen, the nurse, holding the August Infant in her arms, went in a coach adorned with silk fringes. Lady Dainagon and Lady Saisho were in a gold-studded coach. In the next one went Lady Koshosho and Lady Miya-no-Naishi. The Lieutenant-General of His Majesty's stud was in the next one. I was to go in that one. His manner expressed dissatisfaction with so mean a companion and I was much discomposed. Lady Jiyu, Ben-no-Naishi, Lady Saemon, the Prime Minister's first attendant, and Lady Shikibu went in their proper order in their palanquins. As it was bright moonlight I was greatly embarrassed, and in the palace I followed the Lieutenant-General not knowing where I trod. If some one had been looking at me from behind, I must have been ashamed indeed.

I passed that night in the third little room on the corridor of the Kokiden. Lady Koshosho came and we talked of the sadness of our lives. We took off our kimonos and put on doubly wadded ones, and making a fire in an incense-burner we were complaining of the cold when the Chamberlain and the State Councillor and Lieutenant-General Kinnobu came to inquire for us. I wished I might have been entirely forgotten this evening. It annoyed more than it pleased us; nevertheless, as they had come to make inquiries, I said: "To-morrow I will return the compliment and go to inquire after you. To-night I am shivering with cold." Saying these words we secretly stole away from that room. Some were now preparing to go back to their homes; we thought them to be some of the lower officials. I do not say this as comparing them with myself. By the way, Lady Koshosho is very noble in character and beautiful, but I notice she is thinking sadly of the World. One reason is her father's rather humble rank which makes good fortune delay to come to her.

This morning Her Majesty saw in detail last evening's presents from the Prime Minister. The hair ornaments in a case were more lovely than words can express. There were a pair of salvers. On one of them were poem papers and bound blank books. On the other were the poetical collections of the Kokinshu, Gosenshu, and Juishu. Each was bound in five volumes. The copyists of these volumes were the King's Adviser and attendant of middle rank. The covers were of thin figured silk; the fastenings of braided silk of the same material. They were fitted into a basket. There were also ancient and modern poetical collections of various families. The copies made by Enkwan and Chikazumi 2 were kept for the Queen's private use. They were made in the new fashion.

On the twentieth day of the Frost month the dance of Gosetchi was performed. A costume was given to the young lady whom the King's attendant and State Councillor offered for the dance. The Lieutenant-General asked for a garland for his dancer, which was given. At the same time a box of perfume ornamented with artificial leaves and plum blossoms was given her. As the arrangements had been made a long time beforehand this year, there was great rivalry among the dancers. Torches were lighted in close rows along the outer doors of the eastern veranda so there was day-brightness, and it was really awkward to walk there. I felt for the girls, but it was not they only who were embarrassed. Young nobles looked at the girls face to face, almost bringing the lights down in front of them. They tried to draw a curtain before themselves, but in vain, and the nobles' eyes were still on them. My heart throbs even at the memory of it.

The helpers of courtier Narito's daughter were dressed in brocaded karaginu, which was distinctive and pleasing even at night. She was overwhelmed by her dress and her movements were ungraceful, yet the nobles paid her special attention. The King came to see the dance. The Lord Prime Minister, too, crept in from the side entrance, so we felt constraint.

The helpers of Nakakyo's daughter were all of the same height. They were graceful and charming, and people agreed that they were not inferior to any ladies.

The State Councillor and Lieutenant-General had all his maids as helpers of his daughter. One of them was ungraceful, being fat and countrified, so all were laughing at her. The daughter of To gave a fresh and distinct impression because of her family. 1 She had ten helpers.

The ladies who were proud of their good looks seemed more beautiful in this artificial light.

On the morning of the day of the Tiger the courtiers assembled. Although it is a common custom to have the dance, the younger ones were especially curious to see the dancers. Was it because they had acquired rude country manners during these months of absence from the Court? There the dress dyed by rubbing the leaves of the indigo plant was not to be seen. When night came the second official of the Crown Prince was summoned and perfumes were bestowed upon him. Quantities of it were heaped up in a large box.

That night the dance was performed in the Seiryoden. The King was present to see it. The Prime Minister's wife sent a messenger to the Governor of Owari.

As the August young Prince was to be present, rice was thrown to keep off evil spirits, and people reviled them and called them names. It gave us a queer feeling. I was weary and wanted to rest a little, so I remained in our chamber thinking to present myself when it should be necessary. Lady Kohyoé and Lady Kohyobu sat beside the brazier. We were saying that the hall was crowded and nothing could be seen distinctly, when the Lord Prime Minister came in. "Why do you stay here? Come with us!" so we went reluctantly. I watched the dancers thinking how tired they must be, and what a heavy task they had before them. The daughter of the Governor of Owari became ill and retired. Human fate is like a dream, it seems! After the dance His Majesty retired.

Young noblemen talk of nothing these days but the rooms of those dancers. Even the borders of the curtains were varied according to the taste of the dancer. Their hair-dressing and their style also varied extremely, so the young men talked about that, and more improper things too. Even in ordinary years when there was no unusual festivity the dancing girls' hearts are always filled with anxiety, how much more so this year. While I was thinking about it they came out in single file. My heart swelled with sympathy. It may be they have no great patrons to depend on who could protect them. As they are all chosen for their beauty all are attractive, and it would be difficult to say which is superior to the other, although the man of fashion may perhaps perceive differences. In this brilliant light they may not even shade their faces with their fans. They are placed in rivalry with each other in rank, in prudence, and in wit, and must struggle each to excel the other, although at the same time they feel shyness in the presence of the young men. Surrounded by the young nobles, they are forced to hold their own among them worthily. I feel sorry for them.

Governor Tamba's daughter wore a darkish blue gown. The State Councillor To's daughter wore red. The maids of the latter wore the blue karaginu of a girl and were so beautiful that they made us women jealous. One girl did not seem at all dignified. The daughter of the State Councillor and Lieutenant-General was tall and had beautiful hair. Her attendants wore deep-coloured clothes trimmed with five folds and their outer garments were varied according to taste. The last girl wore a plain grape-coloured one, and that simple dress was more beautiful, as it showed taste in colour combination.

The secretaries of the sixth rank went towards them to take away their fans. They threw them down themselves. Though they were graceful they did not seem like girls. If we were in their places it would seem like a dream to us. I had never supposed I should mingle with these court ladies! Yet the human heart is an invisible and dreadful being. If I became accustomed to court life my bashfulness would be overcome and I could easily stand face to face with men. As if in a vision my future appeared to me, and such a state of things appeared to me undesirable. My mind was greatly troubled and I could observe nothing.

More information about Murasaki Shikibu from Wikipedia

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