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Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women

Politics, Personality, and Literary Production in the Life of Nun Abutsu

Christina Laffin

Publication Year: 2013

Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women explores the world of thirteenth-century Japan through the life of a prolific noblewoman known as Nun Abutsu (1225–1283). Abutsu crossed gender and genre barriers by writing the first career guide for Japanese noblewomen, the first female-authored poetry treatise, and the first poetic travelogue by a woman—all despite the increasingly limited social mobility for women during the Kamakura era (1185–1336). Capitalizing on her literary talent and political prowess, Abutsu rose from middling origins and single-motherhood to a prestigious marriage and membership in an esteemed literary lineage.

Abutsu’s life is well documented in her own letters, diaries, and commentaries, as well as in critiques written by rivals, records of poetry events, and legal documents. Drawing on these and other literary and historiographical sources, including The Tale of Genji, author Christina Laffin demonstrates how medieval women responded to institutional changes that transformed their lives as court attendants, wives, and nuns. Despite increased professionalization of the arts, competition over sources of patronage, and rivaling claims to literary expertise, Abutsu proved her poetic capabilities through her work and often used patriarchal ideals of femininity to lay claim to political and literary authority.

Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women effectively challenges notions that literary salons in Japan were a phenomenon limited to the Heian period (794–1185) and that literary writing and scholarship were the domain of men during the Kamakura era. Its analysis of literary works within the context of women’s history makes clear the important role that medieval women and their cultural contributions continued to play in Japanese history.

2 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. 1-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Initial funding for this study of Nun Abutsu and the extraordinary spectrum of works she produced took place during my doctoral studies at Columbia University, as an East Asia fellow and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada doctoral fellow. ...

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Chapter 1. Nun Abutsu and Women’s Writing in Medieval Japan

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pp. 1-18

This book traces the life and works of an extraordinary thirteenth-century woman who is known today as Nun Abutsu. Abutsu was born in 1225 into the elite social echelon of courtiers who lived in what is now Kyoto, and she died in 1283 while residing in the new, warrior-based political center of Kamakura. ...

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Chapter 2. A Woman’s Guide to Career Success: Nun Abutsu and Court Life in The Nursemaid’s Letter

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pp. 19-59

The life of Nun Abutsu can be seen as a medieval success story—the tale of a midranking aristocratic woman who proved herself a capable attendant at court and who eventually overcame difficulties to wed an influential and prosperous courtier and literary luminary. ...

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Chapter 3. Lover and Nun: Embodying the Heroine in Fitful Slumbers

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pp. 60-97

Based on the memoir that Abutsu wrote describing her youth, she appears to have followed the instructions outlined in The Nursemaid’s Letter and committed to heart canonical poems and narratives that she then used to tell her own story.1 She certainly was able to master The Tale of Genji, ...

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Chapter 4. Women and the Way: Nun Abutsu as Poet and Genji Scholar

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pp. 98-135

Abutsu’s diary Fitful Slumbers contains a total of twenty-two poems, all but one of which were composed by the author. It also includes the first of Abutsu’s forty-eight poems that would appear in imperial anthologies. If we assume that Abutsu wrote Fitful Slumbers at the early stages of her relationship with her future husband Fujiwara no Tameie, ...

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Chapter 5. Politics and Poetry: Diary of the Sixteenth Night Moon as a Literary Appeal

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pp. 136-172

Abutsu’s husband Tameie died at the age of seventy-eight. During his last years, he and Abutsu resided together in her home in the north of the capital, after he passed his own residence on to his daughter Tameko.1 Abutsu was fifty-one years old and in the prime of her life as a poet. ...

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Epilogue: Abutsu’s Legacy

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pp. 173-180

Abutsu died in 1283, likely still awaiting her court case in Kamakura. Some later sources suggest that she was able to return to the capital,1 but since her case dragged on and there is nothing to corroborate her presence in Kyoto after 1279, it seems she spent her last days in Kamakura teaching a large circle of students, ...

Appendix I: The Mikohidari Lineage

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pp. 181-182

Appendix II: A Chronology of Nun Abutsu

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pp. 183-188


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pp. 189-240


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pp. 241-258


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pp. 259-270

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837853
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835651

Publication Year: 2013