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  • Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women: Politics, Personality, and Literary Production in the Life of Nun Abutsu by Christina Laffin
  • Chaw B. D’Etcheverry
Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women: Politics, Personality, and Literary Production in the Life of Nun Abutsu by Christina Laffin. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013. Pp. viii + 270. $49.00.

Early in this stimulating study of the life and writings of Abutsu 阿仏 (1225–1283), Christina Laffin quotes (p. 2) Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s observation that authors of “life narratives” (that is, autobiographies) usually multitask, “justifying their own perceptions, upholding their reputations, disputing the accounts of others, settling scores, conveying cultural information, and inventing desirable futures among othe[r] [things].”1 The example rings true, even if the parameter—autobiographies—is too limited; writers do these things in many genres, even in a book written to earn tenure at an academic institution. Laffin makes this point twice in Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women, thereby establishing her command of her craft and expressing her aspirations while elucidating the rhetorical complexities of Abutsu’s diverse body of work. In the process, she also goes some way toward clearing the intermittent nun2 of her reputation as a gold-digger. Whatever moved Abutsu to marry the much older poet Fujiwara Tameie 藤原為家 (1198–1275), scion of the celebrated poets Shunzei 俊成 (1114–1204) and Teika 定家 (1162–1241), Laffin shows that the longtime court attendant brought her own gifts to the union. Chief among them, we learn, was a keen sense of audience, invaluable in a tradition that prized language—particularly poetry—for its real-world effects.3

As Laffin notes, Abutsu’s marriage to Tameie put her at the center of medieval society. His lineage, and the teachings and disciples [End Page 116] that accompanied it, fostered the erstwhile “single mother’s”4 literary ambitions while ensuring her material comfort. The promotion from the status of Tameie’s assistant (apparently copying manuscripts of The Tale of Genji; pp. 45, 96) to that of lover must have raised eyebrows; most of the poet’s children from his first wife, from whom he eventually separated, were older than Abutsu herself. Tameie’s decision to bequeath his poetic manuscripts to their ten-year-old son Tamesuke 為相 (1263–1328) made Abutsu notorious. Tameie’s former heir Tameuji 為氏 (1222–1286) refused to grant the inheritance. In response, Abutsu took him to court.

The feud, in dividing the Mikohidari lineage into the Nijō, Kyōgoku, and Reizei schools of verse, fractured Abutsu’s reputation. Tameuji and his Nijō allies decried her as the “evil woman” (p. 13) who exploited Tameie’s affection and usurped his authority; conversely, Tamesuke’s Reizei line venerated her as a loving mother, a continuing view that Abutsu herself helped to shape.5 Both perspectives paved the way for the ascendance of Izayoi nikki 十六夜日記 (Diary of the sixteenth-night moon; 1279–1280) in modern accounts of Abutsu’s literary work.6 Seen in light of the schism, this record of her trip to Kamakura to plead her case inevitably grabs the spotlight, particularly [End Page 117] since Abutsu posthumously won the lawsuit. This narrow focus on Izayoi nikki is a pity, because, on Laffin’s evidence, Abutsu deployed the “travel diary” and her other writings for multiple purposes, not all of them concerned with her family. Laffin presents Abutsu as a writer who was prolific and enterprising well before her marriage, and as someone particularly skilled at matching her voice to the expectations of each audience.

Laffin shows how Utataneうたたね (Fitful slumbers; written by 1265), a memoir frequently “read literally . . . as the lamentation of a heartbroken teenager” (p. 14) also advertises the attendant Abutsu’s deep knowledge of the Genji. By painstakingly framing her own youthful romance in terms of the experiences of Ukifune (one of the era’s most popular heroines), Abutsu not only ensured that readers encountered her own past sympathetically; she also documented her saleable expertise, disguised in the confessional genre more conventionally assigned to her sex.7 Laffin mines similar seams in Yoru no tsuru 夜の鶴 (The evening crane; ca. 1276), Abutsu’s treatise on waka poetry. Here we find Abutsu “summariz[ing] the teachings of her husband and his...


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pp. 116-120
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