Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Trials of Lady Ochikubo


Page references in parentheses are to the 1971 Doubleday Anchor paperback edition of the translation by Wilfred Whitehouse and Eizo Yanagisawa.
Bracketed numbers indicate footnotes.


The aristocrats of Heian Japan cultivated aesthetic sensibility to a subtlety unparalleled in ancient Greece or Rome. [1] Not so very many hundred of years after Japan had acquired writing and then Buddhism from the Chinese, a remarkable efflorescence of literature occurred, one in which women took a leading role. [2] In The Tale of Lady Ochikubo (the Ochikubo Monogatari) the main character and her antagonist, the nasty stepmother, are both female as is her loyal attendant Akogi. The lady’s lover is such a gentleman that he assists her in her sewing. The other principal works of the era were also written by women. In the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and the so-called Mother of Michitsuna’s Kagerō Nikki the modern reader can glimpse the extraordinarily sophisticated development of the era’s taste for beauty. Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji, touted by some as the earliest novel [3] (and by Kenneth Rexroth as “what may well be the world’s greatest novel” [4]), is a monumental and incredibly elaborately refined exploration of karma, sexual love, and Buddhist mysticism. The Tale of Lady Ochikubo written slightly earlier during the last quarter of the tenth century CE, can hardly fail to suffer by comparison, though it has substantial virtues of its own. Within the context of the hyper-aesthetic Heian society, this anonymous work [5] conveyed the prevailing social and artistic values of the period, though it also expressed certain tensions within these received ideas, but with a realistic narrative, sometimes comic or improper. The simplest theme the story suggests is karma, but the working out of revenge is so fanciful as to seem more a huge game than a matter of the highest importance. No one seems particularly enlightened, though some are more attractive and more virtuous than others.

People speak through poetry or allusions to older poetry which would be familiar to all those raised in courtly society. Even Hyōbu no Shōyu, mocked as “the White-faced Colt,” who defecates in his pants while trying to make love (93), is capable of composing lyrically encoded messages. A character’s intentions and integrity are discerned from poetry. (113)

These nobles often speak in other indirect ways as well. It was impolite to address someone by a personal name. Generally titles are used, though other by-names are used as well. Not only do these often change in the course of the story, but, in addition, several characters sometimes occupy the same position and are thus called by the same name. Though one’s status and thus identity are contained in the title, apart from a few visits to court, one hears nothing of their work. They seem highly competitive, spending prodigious energies on intrigues centered around sex or power.

Aesthetic cultivation is repeatedly evident. The author spares readers the inclusion of tedious and unnecessary detail. (148, 149-50, 193) At one point the author says that it would be “useless” to describe the grand celebrations for the old Chūnagon’s seventieth birthday and then proceeds to devote four pages to a single screen, though its scenes and verses have only the slightest relation to the narrative. (203) Precious reduplicative onomatopoetic expressions note the sound of tears falling (“tsubu, tsubu” 58), horse sounds (“hi hi”106), and intestinal rumbling (“koho, koho” and “hichi, hichi” 93). The Lady is so delicate that she finds it an exquisite torture when she is confined in a storeroom containing smelly sake, vinegar, and fish. (70) Such sensibility is tightly linked to wealth and status. Even religious objects, the rolls of sutras and other offerings, are described as luxury goods meant to impress in exactly the same way as clothing or carriages. [6]

The identification of social standing, quite literally defined as proximity to the emperor, with good taste, artistic ability, and skills as a lover is linked as well to powerful codes that justify pride, even to the extent of high-handedness, in the well-born, and corresponding disgrace, shame, and clumsiness for those on lower ranks. [7] Thus the Third and Fourth Ladies are abashed upon learning that their half-sister has far surpassed them in wealth and exclaim “how ashamed our father and mother must be at the contrast.” (187) The Kata no Kita is “humiliated when her carriage of forced off the road and her room is taken from her (124, 128) and when the old Chūnagon learns what happened, he feels such “disgrace” that he ponders renouncing the world (156) just as Fourth Lady had done. (178) Even at the end of his life the old Chūnagon feels he will be in “disgrace” if he does not achieve another promotion before he dies, worrying “it would be said of me that I was predestined never to rise to high rank.” (209) Even the powerful Minister of the Left fears social opprobrium when he advises his son, “Do not invite the criticism of the public.” (156)

In this context, so determined by social standing and concepts of shame and guilt, the theme of karma or of fate or destiny repeatedly recurs in the story, but it is always linked to these social and aesthetic values far more clearly than to moral or spiritual ones. Once she ascends above his station, the Lady’s father regrets mistreating her, but he consoles himself by reflecting that his behavior arose not from moral failing but “an unfortunate Fate.” He feels “ashamed” because the, now Taishō, for whom he had never done a favor, has elevated his social standing, while his own sons are thoughtless and negligent and “have done nothing but bring disgrace upon me.” (211)

Still, the misdeeds of some characters are quite precisely balanced by the consequences they suffer, even if the instrument of retributive justice is the extraordinary Shōshō, who might seem an unlikely tool of Heaven, indulging in sentimental melancholy at first and noble magnanimity in the end, but displaying thoughtless light-heartedness as well as vindictiveness along the way. The entire vindication of the Lady is dependent on this individual, who is described as possessing almost superhuman beauty and ability as well as an unchallenged supremacy in the favor of the Mikado. Peculiarly qualified to right the Lady’s wrongs, he cannot be challenged and can rescue her from a lifetime in obscure servitude in her lower room.
His schemes take years to accomplish, during all of which time she is kept in obscurity. Meanwhile the shame and distress she had experienced is transferred to her oppressors until all is set right in the end. The comb box the Kata no Kita had taken eventually finds its way back. The Lady’s offensive suitor Tenyaku no Kata is repaid by Shōyu the White-faced Colt, though the latter actually sleeps with the Fourth Lady and engenders a child.

Though the book does portray realistic conditions and conversations and the action is, for the most part, plausible, the characters are more like simple counters in almost mathematical relationships than like fully rounded human beings. While perhaps too much is made of the story’s similarity to Cinderella, it does share the folk-take narrator’s unconcern for psychological subtlety. [8]

The Lady herself is primarily an object of pathos as she accepts indignities and thankless labors without a cross word, only weeping in her solitude. The European reader will recall the popularity of the theme of a delicate lady pursued by an unworthy would-be seducer in a later era in which many women produced and read novels. It matters little whether the cad reforms (as in Richardson’s Pamela), or is replaced by his better (The History of Sir Charles Grandison), or even if the lady dies virtuous though violated (as in Clarissa). The better part of these narratives are spent in contemplating suffering beauty. Lady Ochikubo rarely exhibits any characteristic not implied by her general excellence in every way, undimmed by for the difficult conditions imposed upon her. She forgives her wicked stepmother (e.g. 67) and is, in general, passive throughout.

Quite naturally her antagonist the Kita no Kata presents a mirror image. Wicked without motive, she is said on the very first page to be “peculiar.” Later her peculiarity is specified as “spite” (57, 222 and elsewhere), resulting in her being categorically “evil-minded.” (223) Unregenerate to the end (see 211, for example) she fumes, “I hated her so.” (178)
Her husband is a weak and faded fellow from the start. The old Chūnagon is described as dotty from the start, “stupid” (178), his memory fading (131), and soon to die (147), but he is capable not only of failing to see how his daughter is mistreated, but of saying such things as “starve her to death” (68) and “I don’t even want to look at her.” (70) He is however amenable to reconciliation despite having been “in his dotage for many years.” (195)

The Shōshō (later Minister of the Left), clearly the single heroic figure of the story, though invaluable to the heroine, might be questioned in several ways. He is lacking in filial piety toward the Lady’s family and his own. Though he is said to be “unforgiving” (81), he ultimately does forgive and make amends. At one point he tosses off a justification for his hostile actions on social grounds, saying he feels he had been treated with “intentional rudeness,” (180) but he later provides a fuller explanation, noting that, he had fallen in hopelessly and irreversibly in love with the Lady upon hearing her stepmother torment her. On the basis of this commitment he thereupon formulated the entire plan of revenge and subsequent munificence. (237) Thus romantic love, even an affair of which his mother does not fully approve, emerges as a preeminent value. [9] To Tachihaki his master’s power as a lover is legendary. “There has been nothing like his great love, neither in the present nor in olden times.” (42)

Thus, while The Tale of Lady Ochikubo is a profoundly conservative work in that it accepts without question the extremely hierarchical system of the Heian aristocracy and virtually all the social apparatus that accompanied it, the novel nonetheless spotlights a hero motivated by erotic desire combined with utter faithfulness. This irregularity allows him to ignore his own mother and makes possible the Lady’s rise in status. Her harsh early life only served to magnify her virtue and make her more attractive to her lover. The passions are exalted in a feudal game of intrigue and acting and oblique poetic composition. The lover must be won by one’s good taste which, it seems, must accompany moral character, beauty, intelligence, and skill. By secret meeting and furtive glances, the affair progresses. The putative Buddhism of all the characters plays no role.

Sophisticated and allusive, elitist and elegant as the book is, I suspect it also has some affinity with mass market romance novels. Arising as the monogatari did from oral story-telling on all levels of society, it would be surprising if it did not contain popular elements, but in this case, they are refined to a high level.



1. Of course the cultivated and opulent luxury of perhaps one-tenth of one percent of the population was possible only with the servitude of the rest of the population. The military, that is to say the samurai, later came to assume decisive power at the expense of the old aristocratic families.

2. To my knowledge, the closest parallels to the prominence of women writers during this era are in medieval Provence and archaic Greece.

3. For others The Tale of Ochikubo is the first, though such judgments can mean little as they are entirely determined by the critic’s definition of the genre. For the Japanese works to have priority one must exclude, for instance the five Greek romances, the Satyricon, Golden Ass, Dashakumaracharita and Kādambari in Sanskrit, etc. Quite often one finds a reference to Don Quixote as the first novel.

4. In “The World of Genji.”

5. In early times the book was attributed to the celebrated tenth century scholar Minamoto no Shitagau along with the Taketori Monogatari and the Utsobo Monogatari. Other suggestions have been made, but today most scholars regard the author as unknown. Curiously, several have ventured the opinion, on impressionistic stylistic ground, that the author must be male. This makes little sense. I like the suggestion of Whitehouse and Yanagisawa that it may have been someone resembling the character of the noble lady-in-waiting Akogi who, in the last line of the story, was said to have lived two hundred years.

6. See 196 for the sutras, and 194 for clothing and carriages. Clearly both are examples of conspicuous consumption.

7. The modern reader is apt to be shocked when the Tenyaku no Suke is beaten. One learns that he never really recovered and died. Within the book’s values, however, the Shōshō’s actions are beyond criticism due to his lofty position, while the Kata no Kita’s mistreatment of the Lady is totally blameworthy. Apart from this physical attack, in order to discomfit the Kata no Kita, he sees to it that the Fourth Lady has sex, and indeed becomes pregnant, with Hyōbu no Shōyu.

8. The step mother and, to a lesser degree the step-sisters are similar, and the trip to Ishiyama temple has something in common with the royal ball. Surely both stories play on sibling rivalry and a terrible mother archetype, but the Japanese story is fundamentally realistic. Its themes of social disgrace and hyper-aesthetic pastimes are absent in the European story.

9. Thus the genre of aristocratic romances (tsukuri-monogatari) came to be more popular than war stories (gunki-monogatari) or historical chronicles (rekishi-monogatari).
Those familiar with medieval European literature will note how ideals of courtly love spread through the courts and shaped the poetry in a similar way even to the concept of love at first sight.

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