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Reviewed by:
  • Sacred Rites in Moonlight: Ben no Naishi Nikki
  • Christina Laffin
Sacred Rites in Moonlight: Ben no Naishi Nikki. By S. Yumiko Hulvey. Cornell East Asia Series, 2005. 324 pages. Hardcover $48.00; softcover $25.00.

Women writers of the Kamakura period have long been relegated to secondary status within the Japanese literary canon. Regarded as pale shadows of their Heian sisters, their works are commonly represented as imitative, derivative, and uninteresting. S. Yumiko Hulvey's long-awaited study of Ben no Naishi nikki aims to counter this characterization of medieval diaries by affirming the value of a work of court literature written by a lady-in-waiting in the service of Emperor Go-Fukakusa (1243-1304; r. 1246-1259). Ben no Naishi's diary has traditionally been dismissed as a bright, cheerful, and frivolous companion to the "melancholy" Nakatsukasa Naishi nikki, an account of Emperor Fushimi's (1265-1317, r. 1288-1298) court, composed by a woman of the same period. Perhaps because Ben no Naishi (1228?-1270?) focuses only on the pleasant events of Go-Fukakusa's court and exposes so few glimpses of her private life, scholars have also tended to ignore the work in favor of the racier [End Page 272] Towazugatari by Lady Nijō (b. 1258), a somewhat younger attendant of Go-Fukakusa.

Despite the scant attention that Ben no Naishi has received in English- and Japanese-language scholarship, she remains one of the prominent poets of the medieval period, known particularly for her capabilities in composing renga (linked verse). Ben no Naishi was a frequent participant in poetry contests, and forty-five of her poems appear in six imperial anthologies. Her extant diary includes over three hundred poems composed by Ben no Naishi, her younger sister Shōshō no Naishi (d. 1265), and other courtiers. Her achievements as a poet were noted by Emperor Go-Saga (1222-1272; r. 1242-1246), and when she and Shōshō no Naishi required a patron, he took them into the services of his newborn son, the later Go-Fukakusa. Once Go-Fukakusa had ascended to the throne, Go-Saga likely commissioned Ben no Naishi to produce a record of his son's rule in the form of a diary. It is this record that we now read as Ben no Naishi nikki.

Hulvey places Ben no Naishi nikki within the tradition of women's kana literature, alongside works such as Izayoi nikki (1283), Nakatsukasa Naishi nikki (ca. 1292), and Towazugatari (ca. 1310). Hulvey asserts that, unlike the majority of kana diaries by women, Ben no Naishi nikki is a "factual, public nikki" (p. 54) with an official function. As such, the work presents a challenge to the traditional classification of women's diaries as lyrical works of an unofficial and private nature. Although the study does not take aim at the gender and genre constructions found in Japanese literary history, Hulvey may be alluding to this when she writes that the diary "perpetuates the Heian tradition of writing by women while at the same time subverting the family line of male literary creativity to the female side" (p. 7).

Much of Hulvey's study of Ben no Naishi nikki is devoted to mapping out past approaches by Japanese literary scholars. This reader would have liked to have learned more about how the work might present an opportunity for new approaches to understanding Japanese literary history and the role of women writers. Drawing from Konishi Jin'ichi (whose work should perhaps no longer be represented as "the current trend in Japanese scholarship," p. 43), Hulvey divides kana diaries into "fictional nikki" and "factual nikki." Although Ben no Naishi nikki shares some similarities with works like Murasaki Shikibu nikki, Makura no sōshi, and Nakatsukasa Naishi nikki, Hulvey concludes that the public, seemingly factual stance, the exclusion of private life, and the focus on Ben's sacred duties make it unique among women's diaries. The comparative sample of diaries to which Hulvey refers follows the canon of works that have been considered central to the genre of "diary literature" (nikki bungaku) constructed in the 1920s. Greater consideration of works that do not fit this mold, such as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1880-1390
Print ISSN
0027-0741
Pages
pp. 272-275
Launched on MUSE
2006-06-19
Open Access
No
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