lady nijo

Do you watch Girls? Do you become vaguely obsessed with how narcissistic and self involved every single character on that show is, except for Soshanna, and God knows why she is friends with those people?

Sure you do. And you’ve probably heard older people talk about how this show is indicative of how privileged young people are, and how they don’t have any work ethic (like in that moment when Thomas-John shrieks at Jessa that she’s a whore with no commitment). And often, this is said as though it is news – young people being awful.


No, it is not new.

Lady Nijo, the author of Confessions of Lady Nijo  was just so much worse than any entitled, bratty 20-something you will ever run into right now.

But, as is the case with many of the characters on Girls, I like her, in spite of myself. In part because I do think that it was somewhat harder for a woman to be a brat in 13th century Japan.

Although it probably helped that Lady Nijo came from a high ranking family. The Fujiwara Nijo family held powerful positions at the Emperor’s court, and were also known for their literary output. And Emperor Go-Fukakusa was in love with Nijo’s mother, Sukedai. It was unrequited, which honestly struck me as really surprising, because I keep forgetting that droit du seigneur was not dreamed up until centuries later. But, when Sukedai died, the Emperor asked if he could have her adolescent daughter as a concubine. That is a totally normal, reasonable reaction, because women are a lot like iguanas, and if you do not enjoy one of them, you can replace her almost instantly with another. If you go quickly back to the pet/woman store, no one will even know!


All iguanas look the same in essentially any light!

No, that is not actually how things work.

But it was kind of more acceptable in the 13th century, I guess. In any event, after her mother’s death, Lady Nijo was given to the Emperor as a concubine with her father’s permission. She was 13 and Go-Fukakusa was 26, which does not seem like as large an age difference as I expected!

Lady Nijo was seemingly not at all upset about her mother’s death, but very, very excited about the clothes she was going to wear. That is seemingly a part of numbness that Camus left out of The Plague.

Shortly after arriving at court, she announced to everyone that she was the best dresser and also, the best poet in the world. She actually said, “The most important accomplishment for a beautiful woman is the ability to write poetry” which makes you wonder about the most important accomplishment for an ugly woman

I bet it is cookery.


I would like to point out that Elizabeth Abbot, in A History of Mistresses (which is a great book if you like these kinds of stories) calls Nijo “swaggeringly proud of her (mostly indifferent) poetry.” Here is a sample of her poetry:

A hidden love and tears
Enough to form a river-
were there a shoal of meeting
I would drown this self of mine


And another:

How much longer will pity
Lead you to this garden,
As choked with weeds
As my thoughts with pain?

She doesn’t write a lot of happy poems.

People should write more about death.

People should write more about death.

I genuinely have no idea whether this poetry is good or mediocre, but I guess we should be happy that she was writing at all. Until we remember that, Hannah Horvath like, she had to go around telling everyone that it made her a good person.

Her father died shortly afterwards, which seemed to upset her more than the loss of her mother, as she wrote “I shed tears of longing when I recall the care my father gave me”. But then, Lady Nijo always seemed to feel more for men than women.

Like, a lot of men. Lady Nijo was amazingly unfaithful, in a society that did not favor that propensity. She even bore another man’s child, shortly after giving birth to the Emperor’s. And she kept the birth secret. She wrote that:

After the lamps were lit I suddenly felt that my time was near. Yet there was no twanging of bows [to keep evil spirits away] on this occasion; unaided I suffered under my gown until, when the late-night bell tolled, I could stand it no longer and tried to get up.

“I’m not sure, but isn’t the woman supposed to be held around the waist?” Akebono asked. “Perhaps it’s taking so long because I’m not doing that. How should I hold you?” I clung to him as he pulled me up, and the baby was safely delivered….


He lit a lamp to look at the child, and I got a glimpse of fine black hair and eyes already opened. It was my own child, and naturally enough I thought it was adorable. As I looked on, Akebono took the white gown beside me and wrapped the baby in it, cut the umbilical cord with a short sword that lay by my pillow, and taking the baby, left without a word to anyone. I did not even get a second glimpse of the child’s face.


I wanted to cry out and ask why, if the baby must be taken away, I could not at least look at it again; but that would have been rash, and so I remained quiet, letting the tears on my sleeves express my feelings.


“It will be all right. You have nothing to worry about. If it lives you’ll be able to see it,” Akebono said on his return, attempting to console me. Yet I could not forget the face I had glimpsed but once. Though it was only a girl, I was grieved to think that I did not even know where she had been taken. I also knew it would have been impossible to keep her even if I had so desired. There was nothing for me to do but wrap my sleeves around myself and sob inwardly.

However, Emperor Go-Fukakusa was surprisingly okay with this. When she decided she was going to seduce the high priest, Ariake (because, like Jessa on Girls, she was un-smoteable?) her husband actually encouraged her.

To be fair, every single teenager who has either seen Cruel Intentions or read Dangerous Liaisons wants to try that, but not many people have their husbands egging them on. And also, this was before those ideas were spread by movies. Seriously, the 1200s were before anything.

Though not before high priests took vows of celibacy.

However, once Nijo and Ariake fell in love, the Emperor felt considerably less okay with the idea. Nijo writes:

Back in my own quarters I lay pondering our apparently inescapable bond when my rest was interrupted by a summons from GoFukakusa. “All night I have waited in vain for you to come,” he complained. “You have just left him, haven’t you, and you are still so affected by the remorse of parting that the dawn sky seems cruel.”

He went on in this this vein, leaving me utterly speechless. I thought of the vast numbers of people in the world who are never confronted by such dilemmas, and I wondered why I was always singled out. Then I burst into tears….


GoFukakusa, however, was convinced that I was weeping only for Ariake and that I resented his summons, and so he broke off in mid-sentence and left the room. More disturbed than ever, I made my way back to my own quarters.

To which one might point out that she was having an affair with a high priest and thought her husband was being really annoying for being upset about it. That’s kind of something she might have expected.

The thing about Nijo’s diary is that, while she was correct to feel victimized in some situations – awkward childbirth – she feels victimized in every single situation. I think she was out of line on this one, but then, every story she tells ends with her sobbing inwardly.

However, her problems didn’t really begin until she decided to have an affair with the Emperor’s younger brother Kameyama, of whom the Emperor was intensely jealous. I do not know how Lady Nijo seemingly decided to live her life quite so much like a soap opera given that she had no soap operas to turn to for inspiration.

During her last encounter with Emperor Go-Fukakusa she takes time to describe that she wore a beautiful, shimmering silken gown with a red hood and a blue design depicting pampas grass and arrowroot. (There are pages upon pages of Nijo describing her clothing and its superiority to everyone else’s clothing.)

Apparently the Emperor muttered, “How I hate arrowroot.”

“How could he be so unfeeling?” Nijo reacted.

Oh, God, to be fair, I love clothing too, so I don’t know, Nijo. I do not know how he could be so unfeeling. I bet your arrowroot looked great except that you were also sleeping with his brother, and that overshadowed it somewhat.

Lady Nijo was cut off from the Emperor without financial support, and she became – wait for it, this is weird – a Buddhist nun. That wasn’t entirely uncommon at the time, and it was one way to avoid prostitution for many women of the period. She was an unusual sort of nun in that she travelled among common people advising them on interior decorating. I am not making this up.

At one point, however, she encountered Go-Fukakusa at a religious shrine. She was apparently wearing a nun’s traveling costume – which was disheveled – and had a dwarf as her traveling companion.

It breaks my heart that I cannot find a picture of this scene, because some  Renaissance painter would have loved to capture its poignancy. I don’t know which one specifically, but “any of them” sounds about right.

Supposedly, at the time, the Emperor said, “Love affairs have not the charm nowadays that they used to have.”

Which,  Renaissance painting or not, seems like the most poetic sentiment in the book. Everyone has felt this way, sometimes.

Nijo wasn’t allowed to attend the Emperor’s funeral, and so visited her father’s grave instead.

Following the Emperor’s death, Nijo decided to record her story, and wrote:

I went to the crematory at Kaguragaoka, the site of my father’s funeral pyre, where I was grieved to find that ancient lichens wet with dew and a blanket of dead leaves half buried the stone tablet which marked the resting place of his ashes.


As I stood there, I thought with deep sorrow that none of my father’s poems had been included in the recently published anthology of poems collected by command of the Emperor GoUda. Had I still been in service at the court, I should certainly have pressed the compiler to include a few, for some had been included in each anthology since the Kokinshu, Second Series.


I myself had taken part in poetry compositions at the court and had carried on the family tradition, but it grieved me that with me would come to an end this tradition of poetical composition which had lasted through eight generations of the Koga family….

Then her father appeared to her in a dream, of which she said:

Gazing at me steadfastly as he was leaving, he recited the poem:


“Be of good courage;
Guard well the poems you write,
For the day will come
When once more good poems
By low or high are treasured.”


I woke up startled as he disappeared, but his image remained only as it was mirrored in my tears, and his voice lingered only on the pillow of my dreams.

From this time I devoted myself more and more to poetical composition

Unlike many of the dreams Nijo records in her journal, this one actually did come to pass. Admittedly, there are few other female writers from the period  for comparison but she did ultimately become “the voice of her generation. Or, a generation.”

Pictures via Wikipedia, Girls, Webquest

Additional Reading:

The Confessions of Lady Nijo, by Lady Nijo

“Nijo”, Other Women’s Voices