National TreasureTale of Flowering Fortunes

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  • Ink on paper
  • Large books: 30.7×24.5 cm each; small booklets: 16.3×14.9 cm each
  • Kamakura period, 13th century
  • Kyushu National Museum
  • B19

This is the oldest existing manuscript of the Tale of Flowering Fortunes (Eiga monogatari) that is written in Japanese kana script. It contains a chronological telling of history that covers the mid- to late Heian period (10th–11th century). Originally passed down in the Sanjōnishi family, it comprises seventeen books in two sizes: ten large, and seven small. According to Sanjōnishi Sanetaka’s diary, he had purchased these seventeen volumes in the eleventh month of 1509 for 100 hiki (a unit of currency). From the style and format of the calligraphy, we can determine that the large books were transcribed in the mid-Kamakura period, while the small books were done so in the early Kamakura period.

Structurally, the Tale can be divided into two large sections, with thirty chapters forming the main story, and ten forming a sequel. However, these two sections were likely written by different people, with the sequel being appended after the main story was completed. Authorship of the main story has long been credited to a woman named Akazomēmon. Akazomēmon was the daughter of poet Taira no Kanemori, and wife to Ōe no Masahira, one of the most prominent scholars at the time. She had also been in the service of Minamoto no Rinshi, wife of Fujiwara no Michinaga, a regent during the mid-Heian period. Her roles put her in a position to learn about and become familiar with the history of the imperial court. As for the sequel, scholars have suggested women like Dewa no Ben and Suō no Naishi as possible authors, but others believe that it may have been written by more than one woman serving in court. In addition, it is estimated that the main story was completed around 1030, while the sequel was dated to around 1100.

Content-wise, the Tale covers around two hundred years’ worth of court history, spanning the reign of the 59th emperor, Uda, to that of the 73rd emperor, Horikawa. The first half of the story revolves around Fujiwara no Michinaga, describing how he had emerged victorious amid a power struggle among aristocrats by leveraging his blood relations to the emperor, and following his journey in pursuit of greatness. The latter half of the story broadens its scope to cover events happening around Michinaga, and continues on to narrate historical events following his death. Although intended as a chronological historical text to succeed the Six National Histories of Japan (Rikkokushi) or the never-completed New National History (Shin-kokushi), it contains many alterations to historical facts and events listed out of chronological order. Nevertheless, its detailed accounts of episodes in everyday life, from anecdotes to descriptions of people’s appearances, as well as annual rites, events, and costumes, are valuable aids to our understanding of customs of the time.