Lady Sarashina

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Lady Sarashina

Excerpt from The Diary of Lady Sarashina

Published in Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, 1920

"That evening, after I had gone to my room, my companion came in to tell me that he had replied to my poem: 'If there be such a tranquil night as that of the rain, I should like in some way to make you listen to my lute, playing all the songs I can remember.'"

D uring the Heian period (hay-YAHN; 794–1185) of medieval Japan, when the capital was at Heian, or Kyoto, life in the Japanese imperial court began to turn inward. Nobles tended to look down on people outside the capital; hence Lady Sarashina (1009–1059) was embarrassed by the fact that she had lived in the country for part of her childhood, writing in her diary that "I am ashamed to think that inhabitants of the Royal City will think me an uncultured girl."

During this time, the division between city and country became so severe that the rural provinces functioned almost as separate countries. This period saw the rise of a feudal system much like that of medieval Europe, with landowners controlling peasant farmers through the military power of their knights or samurai. As with Europe in feudal times, there was a strongly romantic flavor to the world of samurai and noble ladies, an atmosphere reflected in many poems and other works of art.

Though men held most of the power, women enjoyed a lively cultural life of their own. The Heian period saw the writing of the world's first novel, the Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki (c. 978–c. 1026). Lady Sarashina was heavily influenced by Lady Murasaki's story, as she confessed in her diary. It is not a diary in the Western sense, a day-by-day account of events: rather, it is a life story. Through their autobiographical writings, Japanese women—Lady Sarashina was one of several whose diaries have survived—found a rare opportunity to express their deepest feelings.

Lady Sarashina

Lady Sarashina was born in Kyoto, then the Japanese capital, but when she was nine years old her father became governor of a distant province. As a young girl, she became fascinated by romance novels, particularly the Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki (c. 978–c. 1026). A novel is an extended work of fiction, and the Tale of Genji is generally regarded as the first of its kind. But Lady Sarashina seemed to later regret her interest in such stories: romantic tales, she suggested in her diary, did not prepare a woman for real life—and her own experiences appeared to bear this out.

When she was thirteen, her family returned to the capital, and later she became a lady-in-waiting, or attendant, to the princess Sadako. Sadako married a later emperor, and as the fortunes of the princess improved, so did those of Lady Sarashina. Yet when Sadako died in 1039, the emperor took a new wife, and Sarashina—who by then had become lady-in-waiting to Sadako's daughter—found herself outside the inner circle.

It was during this time, when she was in her early thirties, that she met, and had a brief romance with, the unnamed man described in the excerpt from her diaries. Later in her diary, she refers to a husband, but never indicates when she was married: apparently the husband came from a lower social rank than herself, and was such an embarrassment that she chose not to dwell on it. The end of her diary indicates that her latter years were not happy: "My people went to live elsewhere and I remained alone in my solitary home. I was tired of meditation and sent a poem to one who had not called on me for a long time [a friend who was a nun]: 'Weeds grow before my gate / And my sleeves are wet with dew, / No one calls on me, / My tears are solitary—alas!'"

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Diary of Lady Sarashina

  • The leadership of Heian Japan tried to separate themselves from everything that was not Japanese, but educated members of the court still took much of their cultural guidance from China's T'ang dynasty (TAHNG; 618–907). At the same time, however, the Japanese developed a number of artistic forms uniquely their own, among these a style of poetry noted for its subtlety, or delicate understatement. In order to fit in socially, a person of the upper classes had to display a keen knowledge of native poetic styles. Thus Lady Sarashina and the unnamed man spoke mainly of poetry, and addressed each other in poetic lines.
  • Whereas many Americans are inclined to say exactly what they mean, this is not the case in most Asian societies—including that of medieval Japan. Therefore, to get the full meaning of Lady Sarashina's reflections on her brief love affair, one has to read between the lines. The man and Sarashina speak of love in a highly indirect fashion, and this was doubly so for Sarashina, as a woman: instead, she uses poetry to say things she cannot say directly.
  • The events described in this passage took place over a two-year period that began when Lady Sarashina was thirty-three and serving as a lady-in-waiting, or attendant, at the royal court. Though thirty-three was a rather advanced age for a woman in those times to have been unmarried, as a lady of the court all of her attention was focused on the princess. Court ladies had little privacy, since they had to sleep near the royal person they attended; therefore it would have been difficult to maintain a marriage in such circumstances.
  • The passage is peppered with references to Japanese culture, including traditions associated with the religions of Buddhism and Shinto, which in medieval times were practiced together. Thus there is mention of sutras (SOOT-ruz), or Buddhist sayings, and of the Shinto shrine at Ise (EE-say). Emperor Enyu, mentioned by Lady Sarashina's friend, reigned from 970 to 984.

Excerpt from The Diary of Lady Sarashina

… On a very dark night in the beginning of theGods-absent month, when sweet-voiced reciters were to readsutras throughout the night, another lady and I went out towards the entrance door of theAudience Room to listen to it, and after talking fell asleep, listening, leaning, … when I noticed a gentleman had come to be received in audience by the Princess.

"It is awkward to run away to our apartment [to escape him]. We will remain here. Let it be as it will." So said my companion and I sat beside her listening.

He spoke gently and quietly. There was nothing about him to be regretted. "Who is the other lady?" he asked of my friend. He said nothing rude oramorous like other men, but talked delicately of the sad, sweet things of the world, and many a phrase of his with a strange powerenticed me into conversation. He wondered that there should have been in the Court one who was a stranger to him, and did not seem inclined to go away soon.

There was no starlight, and a gentle shower fell in the darkness; how lovely was its sound on the leaves! "The more deeply beautiful is the night," he said; "the full moonlight would be too dazzling."Discoursing about the beauties of Spring and Autumn he continued: "Although every hour has its charm, pretty is the spring haze; then the sky being tranquil and overcast, the face of the moon is not too bright; it seems to be floating on a distant river. At such a time the calm spring melody of thelute isexquisite.

Gods-absent month

Gods-absent month: October.


Sutras: Sayings based on the teachings of Buddhism.

Audience room

Audience room: A place where a royal person receives visitors.


Amorous: Sexual.


Enticed: Attracted.


Discoursing: Talking.


Lute: A stringed instrument.


Exquisite: Nearly perfect.


Koto: A harp-like stringed instrument.

"In Autumn, on the other hand, the moon is very bright; though there are mists trailing over the horizon we can see things as clearly as if they were at hand. The sound of wind, the voices of insects, all sweet things seem to melt together. When at such a time we listen to the autumnal music of thekoto we forget the Spring—we think that is best—

"But the winter sky frozen all over magnificently cold! The snow covering the earth and its light mingling with the moonshine! Then the notes of thehitchiriki vibrate on the air and we forget Spring and Autumn." And he asked us, "Which captivates your fancy? On which stays your mind?"

My companion answered in favour of Autumn and I, not being willing to imitate her, said:

Pale green night and flowers all melting into one in the soft haze—

Everywhere the moon, glimmering in the Spring night.

So I replied. And he, after repeating my poem to himself over and over, said: "Then you give up Autumn? After this, as long as I live, such a spring night shall be for me a memento of your personality." The person who favoured Autumn said, "Others seem to give their hearts to Spring, and I shall be alone gazing at the autumn moon."

He was deeply interested, and being uncertain in thought said: "Even the poets of the T'ang Empire could not decide which to praise most, Spring or Autumn. Your decisions make me think that there must be some personal reasonswhen our inclination is touched or charmed. Our souls areimbued with the colours of the sky, moon, or flowers of that moment. I desire much to know how you came to know the charms of Spring and Autumn. The moon of a winter night is given as aninstance of dreariness, and as it is very cold I had never seen it intentionally. When I went down to Ise to be present as the messenger of the King at the ceremony of installing the virgin in charge of theshrine, I wanted to come back in the early dawn, so went to take leave of the Princess in a moon-bright night after many days' snow, half shrinking to think of my journey.


Hitchiriki: A reed pipe.

When our inclination is touched or charmed

When our inclination is touched or charmed: In other words, when something appeals to us especially.


Imbued: Filled.


Instance: Example.


Shrine: A holy place for believers in a religion.


Awful: Awe-inspiring.

Did not seem to be anything happening in this world

Did not seem to be anything happening in this world: In other words, it seemed like something from another world.

"Her residence was an other-worldly placeawful even to the imagination, but she called me into an adequate apartment. There were persons [there] who had come down in the reign of the Emperor Enyu. Their aspect was very holy, ancient, and mystical. They told of the things of long ago with tears. They brought out a well-tuned four-stringed lute. The musicdid not seem to be anything happening in this world; I regretted that day should even dawn, and was touched so deeply that I had almost forgotten about returning to the Capital. Ever since then the snowy nights of winter recall that scene, and I without fail gaze at themoon even though hugging the fire. You will surely understand me, and hereafter every dark night with gentle rain will touch my heart; I feel this has not been inferior to the snowy night at the palace of the Ise virgin."

With these words he departed and I thought he could not have known who I was.

In the Eighth month of the next year we went again to the Imperial Palace, and there was in the Court an entertainment throughout the night. I did not know that he was present at it, and I passed that night in my own room. When I looked out [in the early morning] opening the sliding doors on the corridor I saw the morning moon very faint and beautiful. I heard footsteps and people approached—some reciting sutras. One of them came to the entrance, and addressed me. I replied, and he, suddenly remembering, exclaimed, "That night of softly falling rain I do not forget, even for a moment! I yearn for it." As chance did not permit me many words I said:

What intensity of memory clings to your heart?

That gentle shower fell on the leaves

Only for a moment.

I had scarcely said so when people came up and I stole back without his answer.

That evening, after I had gone to my room, my companion came in to tell me that he had replied to my poem: "If there be such a tranquil night as that of the rain, I should like in some way to make you listen to my lute, playing all the songs I can remember."

I wanted to hear it, and waited for the fit occasion, but there was none, ever.

In the next year one tranquil evening I heard that he had come into the Princess's Palace, so I crept out of my chamber with my companion, but there were many people waiting within and without the Palace, and I turned back. He must have been of the same mind with me. He had come because it was so still a night, and he returned because it was noisy.

Only for a moment

Only for a moment: The unspoken idea here is that for a moment, their hearts were as one.

I yearn for a tranquil moment
To be out upon the sea of harmony,
In that enchanted boat.
Oh, boatman, do you know my heart?

So I composed that poem—and there is nothing more to tell. His personality was very excellent and he was not an ordinary man, but time passed, andneither called to the other….

Neither called to the other

Neither called to the other: In other words, "we never met again."

What happened next …

As Lady Sarashina indicated, the romance went no further. Apparently she later married and had children with a man for whom she did not feel nearly as great an attraction as she had for the stranger at the palace. She spent her final years away from the capital, and apparently died unhappy.

The Heian period lasted long after her death in 1059, and though it was a time of great cultural advancement in Japan, it was also a troubled era characterized by near-constant warfare. Even greater confusion followed, as a series of shoguns or military dictators took power after 1185. Japan did not become fully unified until 1573.

Did you know …

  • Later Europeans would claim credit for developing the novel as a literary form, and would attribute its creation to male authors of the Renaissance, but in fact the world's first novel was the Tale of Genji, written by Lady Murasaki between 1001 and 1015. It tells the story of a character named Prince Genji with astounding subtlety and complexity of plot, and the romantic elements of the story had a great influence on young women such as Lady Sarashina. The Tale of Genji is still widely read today.
  • Samurai, which appeared in Japan during the Heian period, were the equivalent of European knights: instead of fighting in mass military formations, they were heavily armed individual warriors. Their armor was made of bamboo and not metal, however, and they placed a greater emphasis on the sword than knights did. In Europe, lances and crossbows made it possible to fight at a greater distance, but combat in Japan was face-to-face, and swords were so sharp they could slice a man's body in half with a single stroke.

For More Information


Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki). The Tale of Genji (abridged). New York: Knopf, 1993.

Omori, Annie Shepley and Kochi Doi, translators. Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920.

Lady Sarashina. As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Reflections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan. Translated by Ivan Morris. New York: Penguin USA, 1989.

Web Sites

"Sarashina." Hanover Historical Texts Project. [Online] Available (last accessed July 28,2000).