Motivations of the Author of the Kagero Nikki

by Caitlin Howell, Fall 1996 (caitlin at cs dot wisc dot edu)

In this paper, I would like to examine Michitsuna no Haha's motivations for writing the Kagero Nikki, which is known as The Gossamer Journal and The Gossamer Years in English translation.

At the outset of the Kagero Nikki, Michitsuna no Haha states her purpose in writing her journal. I have included the McCullough translation of the opening passage rather than the Seidensticker translation because I found it more compatible with the tone of the overall work:

There once was a woman who led a forlorn, uncertain life, the old days gone forever and her present status neither one thing nor the other. Telling herself that it was natural for a man to attach no value to someone who was less attractive than others and not very bright, she merely went to bed and got up day after day. But then it occurred to her as she leafed through the many current tales of the past, that such stories were only conventional tissues of fabrications, and that people might welcome the novelty of a journal written by an ordinary woman. If there were those who wondered what it might be like to be married to a man who moved in the very highest circles, she might invite them to find an answer here. Her memory was not good, either for the distant past or for more recent events, and she realized in the end that she had written many things it might have been better to omit.(McCullough 102)

In short, Michitsuna no Haha's stated intention is to give readers, presumably her contemporaries, an alternate, more realistic view of the life of a lady of the Heian court. Seidensticker interprets this passage to mean that Michitsuna no Haha's intention is "to capture on paper, without evasion or idealization, the elements of a real social situation"(Seidensticker 14) This falls within his broader analysis of the Kagero Nikki's purpose, that "the diary is in a sense her protest against the marriage system of the time, and an exposition of the thesis that men are beasts."(Seidensticker 8)

Because of Seidensticker's assertions, I read the Kagero Nikki thinking I was about to discover the first feminist treatise of Japanese origin. However, the Kagero Nikki seems to be intended only as an account the author's life and feelings. Its scope is not broad enough to be considered an examination of a social situation. As Keene points out, "the author shows hardly a trace of interest in anyone except herself and members of her immediate family."(Keene 27) There are exceptions; in one part of the Nikki she describes the banishment of the Minister of the Left. However, the way in which she expresses her sympathy reveals the narrow focus of her intention: "These are matters that have no place in a diary that describes only things that have happened to me, but since the person who felt this grief was none other than myself, I have set down what I felt." (Keene 27)

In addition to the Nikki's limited scope, it's lack of logical structure makes it seem less like intentional social commentary than personal reflection. The Nikki is not structured as an argument which refers to episodes in the author's life as they support that argument. Instead, the Nikki is told in temporal order, first as a retrospective autobiography or memoir, and in the last third or so, more as a journal.

The fact that Michitsuna no Haha states in the opening paragraph that she intends the Kagero Nikki to be read by other people may indicate to a modern reader that Michitsuna no Haha must be trying to make a statement with her work. In modern, western society, it is unheard of to pass around personal diaries, especially if they contain such unflattering thoughts as Michitsuna no Haha's Nikki does. However, it is possible that Michitsuna no Haha's Kagero Nikki was intended to reach other women at the court and establish mutually supportive relationships. There is evidence that Heian noblewomen relied on each other instead of husbands and lovers for emotional support: "Aside from these rivalries, there were strong ties between the women of the courts. Many of the romances with men seemed shifting and impermanent - affections might change. Women frequently formed a support system for one another within the courts. They wrote each other letters, sent poems, and shared the sorrows and deaths of friends."(Bingham 44) Michitsuna no Haha seems eager to reach out to other women who shared her rank. When she hears that her husband, Kaneie, is also neglecting his first wife in favor of his newest conquest, she sends the first wife a note of consolation, even though she and the first wife are rivals for Kaneie's attention.(Seidensticker 41)

There is evidence throughout the Kagero Nikki that Michitsuna no Haha was lonely. Aside from the treatment she received from Kaneie, the Nikki retells Michitsuna no Haha's reactions as her father leaves to fulfill his duties as provincial governor in the north; "The day set for my father's departure came. He was unable to hold back his tears, and my own grief I find quite impossible to describe."(Seidensticker 36) Shortly afterwards, her sister's husband takes her sister to live in a separate house; "With that they drove off, and thereafter, as I had foreseen, I spent my days and nights alone. Life for the most part was not uncomfortable; it was simply that the Prince's [Kaneie's] behavior left me chronically dissatisfied." (Seidensticker 39) It seems that Michitsuna no Haha is desperate for a companion who is at her own level. Her ladies in waiting, although somewhat sympathetic, would discuss her relationship with her husband while she tried to sleep at night; "And I would hear my women talking among themselves of his current indifference- 'He used to be so fond of her,' they would say-and my wretchedness would increase as night came on again."(Seidensticker 41) Eight years after Michitsuna no Haha's sister moves to a different house, their mother dies, and Michitsuna no Haha's mood moves from mere dissatisfaction to hopelessness: "Early in the autumn, my mother died. I had managed somehow to hold myself together while she was alive, but my wretchedness now was something few people know. I of all the family had been most attached to her, and I had hoped and prayed that I should not survive her. Now she was dead. For a time it seemed that my prayer would be answered-I quite lost control of my arms and legs, and felt that I must even stop breathing."(Seidensticker 52)

Episodes bordering on emotional breakdown are frequent enough in the Kagero Nikki that one wonders if Michitsuna no Haha's grief is normal. Although depression following the death of her mother is reasonable, many of her depressive episodes are not during periods of mourning. Compared with the Pillow Book, for example, which includes anecdotes of varying moods, the Kagero Nikki seems bleak and depressing. Perhaps a society which considers "tragic beauty" an ideal overlooked the constant unhappiness plaguing one of its most beautiful noblewomen. There are a few occasions, particularly when celebrating the accomplishments of her son, when she expresses happiness. For example, when her son, Michitsuna, participates in an archery meet, she writes, "And even I, despondent though I usually am, was swept up in the happiness of the occasion."(Seidensticker 80) However, it is notable that even Michitsuna no Haha realizes that this mood is a rare one for her. Most of the Nikki is related in a hopeless, plodding tone which ranges from misery to emotional numbness. The consistency of this mood leads me to wonder if the burden that Michitsuna no Haha laid down in the Kagero Nikki was more severe than that carried by her contemporaries, and if she was actually using the Nikki to release the burden of a mild chemical-emotional depression.

In Black Sun, a book about depression in literature, Julia Kristeva describes the voice of depression: "Let us keep in mind the speech of the depressed-repetitive and monotonous... A repetitive rhythm, a monotonous melody emerge and dominate the broken logical sequences, changing them into recurring, obsessive litanies."(Kristeva 33) Although the Kagero Nikki is quite readable in its temporal order, it does not attempt to make logical conclusions about why Michitsuna no Haha and Kaneie are in the situation they are in. She seems limited to her feelings from moment to moment and unable for the most part to step back and understand the larger picture that she is a part of. Instead, she keeps repeating how Kaneie neglects her, and how lonely she is for approximately the first two thirds of the book. One literary analyst commented that "the formal organization of the work... is not created chiefly by a logical plot an character development. The technique is more impressionistic than that, more like variations on a theme...Many incidents seem to be simply repetitions of the same basic occurrence-Kaneie's neglect and her jealousy."(Miller 184)

Kristeva also tells us that one of the models used to explain the emotional process leading to depression is "learned helplessness;" "when all escape routes are blocked, animals as well as men learn to withdraw rather than flee or fight. The retardation or inactivity, which one might call depressive, would thus constitute a learned defense reaction to a dead-end situation and unavoidable shocks."(Kristeva 34) In the first part of the Nikki, Michitsuna no Haha is not particularly interested in being courted by Kaneie. However, her mother encourages her to respond to his advances, and within the year they are married, with no particular enthusiasm on Michitsuna no Haha's part. Then, Kaneie becomes unfaithful, and Michitsuna feels trapped in this unhappy relationship. Although Michitsuna no Haha could have had an affair, or eventually received a divorce, she would have probably become the subject of harsh criticism at court for being unfaithful to her husband. The story of Izumi Shikibu, a poet born about one generation after Michitsuna no Haha, dramatically illustrates this possibility. After she was married, she had an affair with the empress's stepson, and as a result was divorced by her husband and disowned by her family.(Hirschfield and Aratani xviii)

Because she never seemed to be wildly in love with Kaneie, I think it is likely that Michitsuna no Haha was less upset about his unfaithfulness than being trapped in her lonely, powerless life. Her excursions to country temples, one of the few ways in which she can exert some control over her life, seem to bring her some contentment. In part two of the Nikki, she takes a long retreat at a temple with her son and a few attendants, and she writes "There was no word from the prince[Kaneie]. But I had come here by my own choice, and I was content."(Seidensticker 103) However, Kaneie comes to the temple and forces her to return to the court, which sends her into another episode of severe depression. As if to emphasize that she has no power over what happens to her, he makes light of her ruined plans to stay at the temple. She writes down his words in the Nikki, "There is not much for you to do but come with us. Tell your Buddha politely that you are leaving. That is the thing to do, I hear." He seemed to think it all a great joke."(Seidensticker 111)

Michitsuna no Haha's negative view of her situation and herself are as extreme as her mood. Although Keene writes that she was considered one of the three most beautiful women of her time she describes herself in the opening paragraph as "less attractive than others and not very bright."(Keene 27; McCullough 102) This goes beyond modesty; in one translation, she describes her appearance as "scarcely human"(Miller 185)

Michitsuna no Haha also brings up suicide in many of her depressive episodes. Although this could be written off to the Japanese obsession with suicide, it should be noted that Michitsuna no Haha takes the concept of suicide seriously, and her motivation is not love or honor, but despair. If Michitsuna no Haha would commit suicide, it would almost certainly be as a result of her depression. However, she does not, and she repeatedly cites her son as the only reason. She even says to her son, "I have felt rather strongly that I should like to die, but the thought of you has kept me alive until now."(Seidensticker 103)

In the last third of the book, Michitsuna no Haha seems to have almost conquered her depression. She resigns herself to living without Kaneie. At the end of book two, she writes "Although I could hardly have been called content, I had reached a certain resignation, and I no longer had the strength of spirit to worry about his coolness."(Seidensticker 119) At the beginning of book three she writes "Rain fell for about three days running from early on the Sixth, and I heard that the river had overflowed and that numbers of people had been drowned. I had sad thoughts about that and about many other things, but I was no longer concerned with the possibility of any improvement in relations with the Prince."(Seidensticker 136-137)

She turns her attention to her son and adopted daughter and seems to grow emotionally stronger as she takes interest in their lives. Finally, on a New Year's Eve, the Michitsuna no Haha goes to answer a knock at the door and the Nikki abruptly ends. As her emotions have cooled, perhaps she no longer needs an outlet in the Kagero Nikki. Seidensticker comments that "The evidence grows toward the end of Book 3 that the author has lost interest in the matter of the diary, the matter of her youth, and it seems not improbable that whoever came 'pounding' that New Year's Eve distracted her from her writing, and that she saw no point in taking it up again."(Seidensticker 16) I think that Seidensticker interpreted Michitsuna no Haha's emotional coolness and lack of need for the Nikki as a lack of interest. Interest in her own life was never an issue; the story that Michitsuna no Haha told was the story of the erosion of her depression and the obsession that accompanied it.

In conclusion, I believe that Michitsuna no Haha wrote the Kagero Nikki as an emotional catharsis, with the hope that other Heian noblewomen would read it and understand her grief. I don't believe that she had the conscious intention of writing a protest of the Heian marriage system. From the tone of the Nikki, it seems reasonable to conclude that Michitsuna no Haha's emotional state was abnormally depressed. However, the Nikki seems to have been an important part of the process that improved Michitsuna no Haha's emotional health.


Bingham, Marjorie Wall and Susan Hill Gross. Women in Japan from Ancient Times to the Present. St. Louis Park, Minnesota: Glenhurst Publications, 1987.

Hirschfield, Jane and Mariko Aratani, trans. The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu. New York, Vintage Books, Random House: 1990. xviii.

Keene, Donald. Travelers of a Hundred Ages. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989. 26-31.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

McCullough, Helen Craig, ed. Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990. 102-199.

Miller, Marilyn Jeanne. The Poetics of Nikki Bungaku. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985. 92-94, 181-197.

Seidensticker, Edward, trans. The Gossamer Years. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company Publishers, 1975.

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