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‘The Confessions of Lady Nijo’: a memoir of timeless depth and beauty

by T.C. Jones

In 1940, a scholar was going through the holdings of the Imperial Household when a manuscript in the geography section caught his eye. Seeing it titled “Towazugatari,” meaning “Unrequested Tale,” he took it home to inspect it more closely. It soon became clear that the work was not a treatise on geography at all, but a lost masterpiece of Japanese literature. Translated as “The Confessions of Lady Nijo,” the book is an extraordinary evocation of a life governed by ritual, dreams and nostalgia for an idealized past.

The Confessions of Lady Nijo, From interpretations by Tsugita Kasumi, Translated by Karen Brazell.
288 pages
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, Nonfiction.

Written around 1307, the narrative covers 36 years of Lady Nijo’s life, beginning with her entering the service of retired Emperor Go-Fukusaka at the age of 14 and ending with her travels as a wandering Buddhist nun. Her frank narration offers an unparalleled view of a world utterly different from our own.

Toward the end of her account, Lady Nijo sees a vision of her deceased father in a dream. “Sow all the words you can,” he tells her. “For in a better age men shall judge the harvest by its intrinsic worth.”

We are lucky she heeded her father’s words. Forgotten for centuries, “The Confessions of Lady Nijo” contains writing of great beauty, drawn from a deep understanding of the pathos of life. Though the world described may long have been lost to history, Lady Nijo’s depth of feeling ensures her memoir has the timelessness of all great literature.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.