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In the late ninth and early tenth centuries, Japan's literary scene saw the emergence of a significant amount of compositions that were written in the Japanese phonetic script instead of Chinese for the first time. During this period, women of the Heian court dominated prose literature, known as monogatari, and their intimate, autobiographical journals were called nikki bungaku. Michitsuna's Mother's (936?-95?) Gossamer Years is one such memoir that expresses well the author's discontent and anxiety of uncertain social status as being the secondary wife to a high-ranking official. In a world where children were a vital political asset to husbands, Michitsuna's Mother's gave birth to only one child. This fact, coupled with her inadequately subservient attitude to her husband, Kaneie, led to his decision to distance himself from her. The memoir describes the twenty difficult years of Michitsuna's Mother's marriage.
The authors of nikki bungaku write about the intimate and emotional sides of life, focusing mainly on their own private lives. The beautifully refined Heian period memoirs are remarkable for their assortment of relationships, affective depth and delicate understanding of human relationships. In this realm, the narrator's tone is intimate, her observations sensitive and sophisticated, and her outlook on life almost always pessimistic; uncertainty and anxiety are easily the most repeated moods in these works. Sometimes the narrator's fashion of explaining things, thinking, and loving seem foreign and outdated; at other times they come off as surprisingly modern, as if the emotions of humans have remained constant through time. Heian memoirs might be considered as literary acts for their enticing balance between crafting a story and revealing the narrator's self-characterization. However, in actuality, they are really meant to be long letters meant to be read by a select few significant people.
All memoirs are driven by the agendas of their authors. The author of Gossamer Years appears to want to set the record straight about her life with her husband Kaneie and what he is "really" like. Michitsuna's Mother's also wished to throw out the fairy-tale perceptions others had about aristocratic women living easy and blessed lives; to her, life was far from that.
Michitsuna's Mother had to deal with the fact that she was the second wife to Kaneie. Not only did she worry over maintaining a necessary politeness about her in regards to the other women (wives or mistresses of Kaneie), the issue of childbearing also burdened her conscience throughout the story. At the mercy of her father, Michitsuna's Mother was married off to Fujiwara no Kaneie, a provincial government official who promised a financially secure and stable life. Michitsuna's Mother's father was also a provincial government official and hoped that his daughter would go on to produce a large amount of offspring and become the favored wife of the household. However, Michitsuna's Mother never received romantic attention comparable to Kaneie's first wife, Tokihime (928-979). Tokihime bore the first five children of Kaneie; she gave birth to three boys and two girls. The boys all became Regents, the top government appointment. One of the boys, Michinaga, became the supreme political figure of his day. The daughters of Tokihime became consorts and gave birth to future emperors. Michitsuna's Mother gave birth to only one child, a son whose final appoint was Grand Counselor. The position is of high prestige but it is significantly less respectable in comparison to Regent. As a result, her role in the day's aggressive game of marriage politics was negligible. Tokihime's children were clearly favored over Michitsuna's Mother's. Michitsuna's Mother's son reaches the same rank as his rival siblings, but his government appointment is inferior.
Where the woman or couple lives is one indication of an affair's status. Changes in residences often symbolize the shift in mood or message of a Heian memoir. By examining the changes of Michitsuna's Mother's residencies, we can map the growing emotion distance between her and Kaneie as Kaneie became less and less interested in her. Michitsuna's Mother had four residences in the story: her family's home, two places selected by Kaneie, and a villa belonging Michitsuna's Mother's father. She began the narrative living in her mother's home, and then spent a great deal of time at residences designated for her by Kaneie. Michitsuna's Mother complained that her mother's residence was too far from Kaneie's - two or three kilometers away. In 967, thirteen tears in their marriage, Kaneie decided to do something about this and arranged for Michitsuna's Mother to stay in a place that is closer to him. The advantage of this for Michitsuna's Mother was that she may have been able to see her husband more often than before and somehow gain a greater romantic hold over him. Her ultimate goal was to be accepted by Kaneie as his favored wife, however, her aspirations were never realized and she knew for the most part that it would be this way. Shortly after the move in 967, Michitsuna's Mother is forced to move again in 969 at the request of Tokihime. An apparent dispute between the servants of Michitsuna's Mother and those of Tokihime. Michitsuna's Mother reports the happenings of the incident: "My husband took my side in the matter. And though he truly seemed to regret it, because I had thought that all such friction was the result of being so close and was thus suffering under the situation, he moved me. I was relocated to a place that is somewhat distant. He came there every other day. I should have been satisfied but I thought only that even if I was not wearing brocade, I just wanted to go home." Kaneie's decision to move Michitsuna's Mother at the request of Tokihime illustrates the social -romantic hierarchy of Kaneie's wives. Kaneie had always had significantly more romantic feelings towards Tokihime than Michitsuna's Mother, and thus, he decides to share his estate with her rather than Michitsuna's Mother. After this is decided, Michitsuna's Mother returned to her mother's residence and claimed that her reasoning for the move was because recent renovations had been completed there. In reality, Michitsuna's Mother's reason for moving was because she had not been chosen over Tokihime to be installed into Kaneie's personal estate.
The manner in which Michitsuna's Mother presented the other women and interacted with them illustrates the competitive, constantly changing social environment in which she wrote. In Heian prose works, the road to marriage, the status of and existing marriage, and future marital commitment are presented as difficult to measure and without a sure guarantee. Promises are made to wives and lovers with knowing skepticism; for them whether or not the man actually visits is the trustworthy standard. Where the woman or couple lived was one indication of an affair's status. It was customary for a man to first visit a woman at her residence. Marriage was a process of proposal, acceptance by the family, and three consecutive nights of visitation in the woman's house. This process is still loosely used by other cultures in which the marriage process takes three days. The lengthy period of waiting tests the couple's true devotion to each other.
Tokihime was treated differently than Kaneie's other women by Michitsuna's Mother because it was solely with Tokihime that she corresponded. Because of this, she had to maintain formal politeness but this didn't keep them from sending each other undertones of rivalry. For example, Michitsuna's Mother sent Tokihime this poem when she found out that Kaneie had been frequenting the Koji Mistress: "Even from there, where it had so deeply rooted, I have heard that it has cut itself off, the komo grass. In what type of marsh, I wonder, might it now root?" Michitsuna's Mother heard that Kaneie is not frequenting Tokihime's place any more that hers and decided to remind Tokihime that her hold of Kaneie is far from certain. Michitsuna's Mother's diction shows off her technical poetic skills and suggests that she was already confident of her reader's sympathy. In her reply, Tokihime refused to talk about Kaneie and instead talked about her relationship with Michitsuna's Mother: "Indeed it seems it is Yodo Marsh from which the komo grass has been harvested; I imagine yours is the marsh in which he will set down his many deep roots." Tokihime matched the technical virtue found in Michitsuna's Mother's in her own poem and returned the rivalry undercurrents by reminding Michitsuna's Mother that she is second in line to Kaneie. These undercurrents continued to travel back and forth between Michitsuna's Mother and Tokihime for some time to come. At the Kamo Festival, the two women had their carts positions across from each other, signifying their constant rivalry. Michitsuna's Mother decided to write a poem which she gave to Tokihime, expecting a response. Michitsuna's Mother's portion of the poem read: "Though I had heard that today I may meet someone, there, not acknowledging me, stands you." Michitsuna's Mother had the poem delivered to Tokihime's cart. Tokihime responded to the poem, mimicking Michitsuna's Mother's style: "You that pretends not to know me, such yellow fruit's sourness I behold today." Kaneie heard the details of this exchange and responded by say "At least she didn't say 'I feel like I would dearly like to crush and swallow you.'" This imbalance of reciprocation of formalities is justified by Tokihime's comfortable position as the favored wife. She wishes to maintain he hold on Kaneie and steers clear of any activity that might threaten her position, such as becoming too close to Michitsuna's Mother.