Lady Sarashina: Writer and Lady-in-Waiting of Heian Japan

18th century anonymous illustration of an episode in The Tale of Genji, now in the Honolulu Museum of Art.
18th century anonymous illustration of an episode in The Tale of Genji, now in the Honolulu Museum of Art. | Source

The Heian Era of Japan (950–1050CE) was particularly notable for the proliferation of talented women writers emanating from the Imperial Court. The most famous of these women was, of course, Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973 – 1020 CE) who wrote the sprawling episodic novel Genji Monogatari or The Tale of Genji, as well as leaving behind some journals and a collection of poetry. The acerbic Sei Shonagon (c.965-?CE) has also left us her unforgettable Pillowbook, in which she records her witty and often heartless observations about the court, and offers entertaining lists of her likes and dislikes.

Less well known than these two is the self-effacing, would-be Lady in Waiting known to us as Lady Sarashina (C.1008-?CE), who wrote a diary recording her travels through Japan and her impressions, dreams and experiences with a vividness and intimacy that makes reading them feel like a privileged glimpse into the private world of an individual who once lived so long ago. Devoted to reading fiction, particularly the Tale of Genji, easily overwhelmed by her emotions, shy and full of longings for religious and literary fulfillment, Lady Sarashina is an intense and sympathetic personality.

Key Events in Lady Sarashina's Life

  • c. 1008 Born in Kyo, the Heian Capital
  • c. 1020 Sarashina and her family make the long journey from Kasusa back to Kyo.
  • c. 1023 Death of Sarashina's sister in childbirth.
  • c.1032-1035 Sarashina's father Takasue away from Kyo, serving as Assistant Governor of Hitachi.
  • c.1039 Lady Sarashina begins service at court.
  • c.1044 Lady Sarashina marries Tachibana no Toshimichi. They had three children.
  • c. 1058 Death of Tachibana no Toshimichi

Lady Sarashina produces the memoir of her life in the years following her husband's death. The date of her own death is unknown.

Who was Lady Sarashina?

We do not know the real name of the woman we call Lady Sarashina. Japanese conventions of the time avoided the use of personal names and tended to use more indirect ways of referring to people such as alluding to the district in which they resided. The name Sarashina in fact refers to a place in central Japan which Lady Sarashina never even visited, but vaguely alludes to in one of her poems. This name was chosen by later copyists as the title of her diary, the Nikki Sarashina, and she is known from this title of her work.

The father of Lady Sarashina was Sugawara no Takasue, a provincial official, whose duties obligated his family to make long journeys across Japan to his various postings. Lady Sarashina thus came from a family which ranked below the High Court Nobles, the Kugyō, which made up the first three ranks in that highly stratified society. For the High Court Nobles, spending time away from the rarefied atmosphere of the Heian capital Kyo (modern Kyoto) was close to social death, and so Lady Sarashina's background put her at a considerable social disadvantage.

Lady Sarashina's mother was rather more highly connected, belonging to a minor branch of the great Fujiwara clan which dominated Imperial politics from behind the throne. She was also the sister of another illustrious writer, the author of the Kagero Nikki, translated as The Gossamer Years.

The Structure and Content of The Sarashina Nikki

Unlike many of the Nikki, or autobiographical writings emanating from the Heian period, the Sarashina Nikki is not a diary or journal in the true sense, but rather a memoir, written in later life. It is written in a loose episodic format, much punctuated with the short poems that were the Heian aristocracy's habitual means of communicating both socially and in writing, whether conventionally returning a greeting or expressing the depths of grief or despair.

The narrator begins by telling us that she was brought up in a remote province, far from the capital and cultural centre of Kyo. This was Kazusa, where Lady Sarashina had spent four years of her childhood as her father was posted there as governor. Here she grew up on second hand renditions of The Tales of Genji and other fiction told her by her stepmother and sister, she had a longing to return to the capital, Kyo, where she was born and where she could find copies of these novels to read for herself.

Ban Dainagon Ekotoba, 12th century illustrated scroll showing an ox cart, the usual method of travel for the Heian aristocracy.
Ban Dainagon Ekotoba, 12th century illustrated scroll showing an ox cart, the usual method of travel for the Heian aristocracy. | Source

The Journey to Kyo

The narrative proper begins when Lady Sarashina was twelve years old and finally gets her wish as the family make their journey back to Kyo. Although this journey would be only a seven hour drive now, for Sarashina and her family it entailed almost two months of travelling by boat and lumbering ox cart. Along the way, Lady Sarashina reports on the different landscapes through which she passes, often with picturesque stories attached to them. Notably, she provides an early reaction to a sighting of Mount Fuji.

Lady Sarashina shows early sign of her affectionate nature and capacity to suffer from her own intensity of feeling when she describes her distress at being parted from her nurse who was giving birth. Later that night, presumably because she had been crying and unable to sleep, Lady Sarashina's older brother carried her over to see her nurse who had been sequestered alone in a very basic hut. Lady Sarashina was very affected at being united with her nurse and distressed to see her in such surroundings, weeping bitterly when she was carried back to bed. The episode illustrates both the habitually callous attitude of the Heian aristocracy to those lower on the social scale, and the depth of feeling that could nevertheless exist between those who coexisted daily despite their all-important difference in rank.

Late Heian landscape screen, silk.
Late Heian landscape screen, silk. | Source
Later illustration from the Tale of Genji.
Later illustration from the Tale of Genji. | Source

Lady Sarashina at Kyo: Literature and Loss

As soon as the young Lady Sarashina was installed in her new home next to the Sanjo Palace, she eagerly pursued her quest for stories to read. Obligingly, her stepmother contacted her cousin, Lady Emon, a lady-in-waiting to a princess of Sanjo Palace who kindly sent her a collection of Tales. Lady Sarashina was delighted, but soon hungered for more; she was getting episodes of the Tales of Genji piecemeal and she longed to own the complete set.

Meanwhile, her young life was shaken by a series of losses and bereavements.

First, her stepmother unhappy in her marriage to Lady Sarashina's father, left, taking her young son with her. To her tearful stepdaughter she made a promise to return when the cherry trees were next in blossom and the unhappy young girl watched and waited for them to come in bloom. When they flowered once again and her stepmother did not return, Lady Sarashina sent a melancholy poem of reproach.

That same spring, an epidemic swept the city and carried off Lady Sarashina's beloved nurse, whom she'd earlier been heartbroken at parting from.

Harder to empathise with is Lady Sarashina's emotional devastation on learning of the death of a young woman she'd never even met. This was the daughter of the Chamberlain Major Counsellor and Sarashina's connection with the lady was that on arriving at Kyo, she had been given a book of her calligraphy as a model for her own practice.

Calligraphy was a most important art among the Heian nobility. The elegance of a person's handwriting was seen as providing a clue to their character. From that point of view, it is more understandable that having spent many hours studying the woman's handwriting, Lady Sarashina should have come to feel that she knew her intimately.

Attempting to dispel her dejection, Lady Sarashina's stepmother sought out more tales for her. It was an aunt, however, who finally made Sarashina a present of the complete set of the Tales of Genji alongside other works of fiction.

Overjoyed, Lady Sarashina now immersed herself in the fictional world of Genji, devoting herself to long hours of solitary reading behind her screen. She enjoyed imagining herself as one or other of the elegant heroines of the Tales of Genji, and, for the time being, ignored a dream in which a handsome young priest urged her to give some of her attention to reading the Buddhist sutras.

Yet again, however, grief intervened to draw Lady Sarashina out of her blissful immersion in fiction. Their house burnt down, and with it perished the cat whom she and her older sister had taken in (stolen?). The two girls believed that the cat was in fact a reincarnation of the daughter of the Major Chancellor and the cat responded to that name. It seemed an awful irony that the new incarnation of that lady should meet such a pitiful end. It was in fact a fairly frequent occurrence for houses to burn down in that period. They were flimsily built of flammable materials, easy prey for an unattended brazier or lantern.

Lady Sarashina was less than happy in her new home, which was smaller and with less pleasing surroundings. It was a further loss, however, that was to plunge her into grief. Her older sister died in childbirth. For a young girl who had been overwhelmed with grief for the death of a stranger, the loss of her sister was shattering.

For most of her young adult life, Lady Sarashina lived quietly at home. Her reminiscences of those years record her poetic responses to the changing seasons, social interactions and the landscapes of the places she visited while on pilgrimage outside the city. Pilgrimages to Buddhist temples were the primary occasions on which an aristocratic Heian woman would travel far from home.

An illustration from a twelfth century scroll of the novel Genji Monogatari, the favourite reading of Lady Sarashina.
An illustration from a twelfth century scroll of the novel Genji Monogatari, the favourite reading of Lady Sarashina. | Source

Lady Sarashina's Service as Lady-in-Waiting

It wasn't until Lady Sarashina had reached the age of thirty that a relative suggested to her parents that it was not good for her to spend her life secluded and lonely at home.

The past years had been dreary for Sarashina. Her father had been away for four years on official duties in the provinces and, although they missed each other deeply and Lady Sarashina was delighted by his eventual return; however, she was depressed to realise that he had in effect renounced the world and remained at home, taking no interest in external events. Meanwhile, Lady Sarashina's mother had also become a nun, though remaining cloistered within their home, rather than retiring to a convent. The retiring Lady Sarashina thus found herself in charge of managing the household in place of her two elderly reclusive parents.

When Lady Sarashina received a formal invitation to attend at Court as Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Yushi, her father attempted to dissuade her, feeling that she would find the atmosphere at Court very difficult and perhaps also anxious not to lose her services as housekeeper. Other voices were raised in protest, insisting that visiting Court could only advance a young woman's situation.

With typical ingenuousness, Sarashina describes her first night at Court as something of a disaster. Used to living quietly at home and associating only with friends of similarly literary inclinations, she was overwhelmed by the bustle of court and tells us that she went about in such a daze of confusion that she decided to return home the next morning.

She lasted several days on her second attempt, though she found the lack of privacy at Court, spending the night with unknown ladies-in-waiting lying on either side of her, very difficult and was not able to sleep all night. During the day, Lady Sarashina hid in her room and wept.

Lady Sarashina herself was not unconscious of the piquant irony that one who had spent so many of her days reading about the fictional adventures of court ladies and imagining herself in their place should find the reality so unpleasant and bewildering. It is an irony that has doubtless been repeated many times before and since in literary life.

Despite her initial reaction to court life, Lady Sarashina found the claustrophobic atmosphere at home equally difficult. Her parents were pitifully relieved to have her back, commenting dolefully on how lonely and deserted their house was without the presence of their daughter.

Lady Sarashina's disillusionment with the romance of Court life seems to have encouraged her to turn her mind towards more spiritual matters. It's an often repeated theme of her memoir that, despite being visited at intervals by dreams urging her to attend to matters of religion, she tended to be easily distracted from pious concerns and was haunted with a vague feeling of regret and anxiety that she should do more to take care of her soul.

Sarashina comments that she believes she would have taken to court life in time and been accepted there, if her parents hadn't insisted on keeping her away. Nonetheless, she continued to receive sporadic invitations to Court, later in the role of guardian of her two nieces. Although she felt herself to be a peripheral figure at Court, Lady Sarashina did appear to make some friends amongst the Ladies-in-Waiting and come to enjoy some aspects of court life.

There are even reports of a minor flirtation with a distinguished courtier, Minamoto no Sukemichi (1005-1060), Minister of the Right. From behind her screen, Lady Sarashina exchanged poetry and aesthetic comparisons of the relative merits of Spring and Autumn with this gentleman, with whom she seems to have been much taken. However, she ends the episode by concluding rather forlornly that “He was an unusual man with a serious character, not the type to bustle about asking what had become of me or my companion.” (157)

Late Heian portrayal of the Amida Buddha, painted on silk.
Late Heian portrayal of the Amida Buddha, painted on silk. | Source

Lady Sarashina's Marriage and Widowhood

Not long after her flirtation with Minamoto, Lady Sarashina got married, at the age of thirty six. Her husband was Tachibana no Toshimichi, a man of the provincial governor class, a similar rank to that of her father. Sarashina doesn't refer directly to her marriage as an event, but simply begins alluding to her husband, later in her narrative. Her life seems to continue much as before, punctuated by pilgrimages, friendships with other women and sporadic service at Court.

Lady Sarashina had three children, two boys and a girl and mentions her concerns as being to give them the best possible upbringing and to hope for her husband's success in his career. If anything she does seem to have more freedom to do as she pleased than when her life was circumscribed by the needs of her parents.

At one stage, Sarashina mentions that she was having difficulties in her marriage, to which she reacted characteristically by departing for a religious retreat. Focusing on religious duties especially pilgrimages seems to have brought Sarashina a great deal of solace, providing hope for a favourable rebirth.

Despite her hitherto rather offhand references to her husband, Lady Sarashina writes of her desolation when he died after around fourteen years of marriage. She would have been around fifty years old at this stage. The following years seem to have been gloomy ones, in which the widowed Sarashina felt deserted by friends and family to a life of squalid isolation. One comfort was a vivid dream of the merciful Amida Buddha promising to come for her when her time came. This gave Sarashina hope of being reborn in Amida's paradise. It was in these quiet years that Sarashina seems to have written the memoirs.

In a final paragraph, Sarashina writes that the years of sadness following her bereavement had taken on a dreamlike quality, but finishes her narrative with a poem from a nun who replies to her poem complaining of her isolation by describing it as the marker of one who has finally separated from the world. Sarashina, perhaps, had fulfilled the spiritual promptings that had clamoured for her attention throughout her life.

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mySuccess8 profile image

mySuccess8 2 years ago

Classical Japanese history during the time the capital of Japan was moved to Kyoto, being written here with great photographs. I have traveled to Japan twice, and love to visit this unique country rich in traditional culture and history, and this well-written Hub brings back memories of my visits. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM

This was fascinating to read. I have not heard of this Japanese woman before reading this. It is always good to read of strong women not matter the culture in which they lived. She had an amazing life and we are fortunate she wrote it down in a memoir so that centuries later we could learn about her and the Japanese culture during that time period. Very interesting and informative and the images used are exquisite. Congratulations on HOTD!

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

Intriguing story, beautifully written. I can just see this shy, gentle lady behind her screen discreetly passing notes and other bits and pieces to her friend Minimoto. It came as a surprise to learn later that she had married and raised a family before she was 50. I thought she would end up in a convent, or equivalent, quietly contemplating whilst willows wept and cranes waded in the lake.

Voted up and shared. A fully deserved HOTD.

SarahLMaguire profile image

SarahLMaguire 2 years ago from UK Author

Thanks, MySuccess8. You are very lucky to have had the opportunity to visit Japan. I would love to visit there one day.

Leilani Allmon 2 years ago

This was a very interesting piece. Thank you for posting. I was surprised, given the time period, that she was wed and produced children at 36. Back then, that was considered ancient. She sounds like an unusual woman. I'll be sure to read more about her in future.

Colleen Swan profile image

Colleen Swan 2 years ago from County Durham

Beautiful article, researched and well presented. What we think is the ideal of today has all been lived before.

Ruby H Rose profile image

Ruby H Rose 2 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

Quite interesting piece of Japanese history. Such a beautiful choice of artwork too. An older life, but not much of a different life.

SarahLMaguire profile image

SarahLMaguire 2 years ago from UK Author

Hi Suzzetenaples Thanks! Yes, it's wonderful when we discover women's voices from other times and places. Their experience is so often lost unrecorded. Heian Japan was exceptional in that it provided an environment where a tiny elite of women writers could flourish.

SarahLMaguire profile image

SarahLMaguire 2 years ago from UK Author

Thanks Chef de Jour! I was surprised too when Sarashina's husband casually entered the narrative in the last third of the memoir. Interesting that she doesn't mention how the marriage came about, whether it was set up by relatives or was someone she met herself. Marriage just seems to have happened in the midst of her reading and dreaming.

SarahLMaguire profile image

SarahLMaguire 2 years ago from UK Author

Thanks, Leilani Almon. Yes, thirty six was certainly unusually old for a first marriage. She does seem to have been an unusually reserved and dreamy individual. Her parents also seem to have been very keen to keep her at home. It's a shame there's little clue how the marriage came about.

SarahLMaguire profile image

SarahLMaguire 2 years ago from UK Author

Thank you, Colleen Swan :) Yes, human nature is much the same whatever the time or place though ways of thinking can seem so different.

Maria Antonia profile image

Maria Antonia 2 years ago from North Carolina

Thank you for sharing such a beautifully written Hub.

SarahLMaguire profile image

SarahLMaguire 2 years ago from UK Author

Thank you, Ruby H Rose. Yes, the art of the Heian period and later ages of Japanese art used to illustrate the Genji Monagari is beautiful and researching it was one of the pleasures of writing this article.

SarahLMaguire profile image

SarahLMaguire 2 years ago from UK Author

Thank you Maria Antonia, it was fun researching such a fascinating period and researching the life of such an unusual individual.

dhimanreena profile image

dhimanreena 2 years ago

First I want to congratulate you on choosing as the 'Hub of the day'. Undoubtedly, you have done an extensive research on the subject and come up with the unique hub.

SarahLMaguire profile image

SarahLMaguire 2 years ago from UK Author

Thanks Dhimanreena! :) Doing the research for this was really fascinating.

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