Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women: Politics, Personality, and Literary Production in the Life of Nun Abutsu
280pp. January 2013
Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women: Politics, Personality, and Literary Production in the Life of Nun Abutsu
Author: Laffin, Christina;
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.

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“Throughout her study, Laffin demonstrates that, while Abutsu was the possessor of great literary skill and luck, her aspirations and knowledge were shared by her peers as well. Particularly enlightening is Laffin’s focus on the interrelationships among women. . . . Owing to Laffin’s efforts to contextualize Abutsu’s life and texts, her study forges connections to the insights of other scholars, making it highly rewarding reading for specialists and nonspecialists alike. Readers interested in waka and more generally in Heian and Kamakura literature and history will find Laffin’s book enormously useful; but it also deserves the attention of a much wider audience of students of women and gender studies.” —The Journal of Japanese Studies, 41:1 (Winter 2015)

“Laffin draws on an impressive array of primary and secondary sources in Japanese and English to create the most comprehensive picture we have to date of a remarkable woman who has been written out of the standard narratives of Japanese social, political, and literary history. This book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the role of women in the complex interplay of power, poetry, and politics in medieval Japan.” —Rajyashree Pandey, Goldsmiths, University of London

“The time is ripe for a book on this important and prolific medieval woman writer. Laffin’s contextualizing approach sheds light on a wide array of cultural and historical aspects of aristocratic women’s lives, and her re-readings challenge the one-dimensional image of Abutsu we have had until now. Abutsu is a fascinating subject for students of both literature and history.” —Edith Sarra, Indiana University
Author: Laffin, Christina;
Christina Laffin is associate professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia and the Canada Research Chair in Premodern Japanese Literature and Culture.
Read Chapter 1 (PDF).

1 Nun Abutsu and Women’s Writing in Medieval Japan  
2 A Woman’s Guide to Career Success: Nun Abutsu and Court Life in The Nursemaid’s Letter  
3 Lover and Nun: Embodying the Heroine in Fitful Slumbers 
4 Women and the Way: Nun Abutsu as Poet and Genji Scholar 
5 Politics and Poetry: Diary of the Sixteenth Night Moon as a Literary Appeal 
Epilogue: Abutsu’s Legacy 

Appendix I: The Mikohidari Lineage 
Appendix II: A Chronology of Nun Abutsu