An Interview with Kathryn Lasky about Kazunomiya: Prisoner of Heaven

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: Would you tell us about the research you did for Kazunomiya's diary? What was the most interesting thing you learned about her or the Japanese culture of that period?

Kathryn Lasky: The research seemed to be unending. It began in earnest a year before I began to write the book and ended theoretically I guess a year after I handed in the first draft. It began in the Harvard Yenching Library for Asian studies which is a short two blocks from my home and with interviews of friends I have in the Boston Japanese community and continued through a trip to Japan where I walked the same garden paths that Kazunomiya had walked, visited many of the temples where she had participated in various rituals and at least seen the place where some of the palaces in which she lived had stood. Of course, because these buildings were made of wood and burned down several times over the years they were not precisely the same ones. I had to learn about everything from the kinds of art that princesses practiced, to their dress, to their food and hair and make up styles. The minutiae of the stuff I collected was seemingly monumental to me. Of course, I could only use a fraction of it or the book would have been way too long and I would have bored people to death.

RFA & EST: You write that, “Good books are often a collaboration and this diary certainly was one.” How did the collaboration for Kazunomiya's diary compare with the other Royal Diaries you have written?

KL: This diary has been my most collaborative effort so far. I don’t read Japanese so I had to call on my two good friends Keiko Thayer and Bill Wilson to translate much for me. Early on, through Keiko, I got hold of a catalog of an exhibit that had been done on Kazunomiya that was absolutely priceless. The catalog showed many of her personal belongings such as her ink stone, combs, brushes, gifts she had been given by people. It gave me a good view into the more intimate aspects of her life. In fact, there was a writing folder with paper that I imagined her using for her diary. But Keiko had to translate the text of the catalog for me and explain to me how a lot of this stuff was used. Bill Wilson is an old friend of my husband’s from college. He is one of the foremost translators of classical Japanese literature. He accompanied us on our trip to Japan and was invaluable.

RFA & EST: The teeth blackening ceremony plays a big role in this diary. Would you tell us more about this important tradition?

KL: Well, there is not all that much to tell. A substance involving iron filings mixed with some sort of liquid made the paste for it. It was considered to enhance a woman’s beauty. My friend, Keiko, remembers that her grandmother would blacken her own teeth when she was going some place special. The practice has died out over the years. It just seems that it is one of those strange aesthetics that is hard for some one from another culture to grasp. It was certainly a sign of maturity when you could blacken your teeth — like here where you are no longer a little girl but grown up enough to wear lipstick. As with all things Japanese, they had elegant little tools that made up a tooth blackening kit — little pots for mixing the ingredients, and brushes.

RFA & EST: Throughout her diary, Kazunomiya writes that she feels like a pawn. From the constant changing of her birthday to the political importance of her arranged marriage, it certainly is understandable that she feels like a chess piece. Because of this, do you think her life was unhappy?

KL: Well, I think that by her standards it was no more or less happy than other royal princesses. It is not a happy lot being a princess in any country, but especially Japan in which every tiny aspect of one’s life is governed by the most rigid rules of protocol. Even the present day princess of Japan has been reported to be suffering because of the pressure to produce a male heir. Her life is so constrained, and this is a Japanese young woman who went to high school in a suburb of Boston and was a cheerleader then continued on to Harvard for her studies. She came from an environment of total freedom and intellectual challenge. Her life has changed drastically. And it is a burden.

RFA & EST: Despite their apparent submissiveness, Kazunomiya, her mother, the Empress, and even “Auntie” showed “spark” by defying tradition. Did you find this to be unusual among Japanese women of that time?

KL: Yes and no. Superficially they all towed the line more or less, but underneath it they did find ways to, if not defy tradition, certainly assert themselves subtly for whatever power they could grab. That was what made court life so interesting and so treacherous.

RFA & EST: How is waka different from haiku, and which was the more popular poetry form in historic Japan?

KL: Haiku is three lines each made up of five to seven syllables. Waka can run longer than three lines and is made up of alternating lines of five to seven syllables. Waka is thought of as the poetic form in which royalty or very high personages write, whereas haiku is more for the common folks.

RFA & EST: You have written five books in the Royal Diaries series — more than any other author. What attracted you to writing diaries about these young royals?

KL: Actually the title of this last princess book Kazunomiya: Prisoner of Heaven is most revealing about what it was that attracted me to writing the Royal Diaries. There is this strange irony that is inherent, I would almost say congenital, to being born a princess. You are, on one hand, elevated to an extremely high position. In terms of the Japanese royal family, they were considered the direct descendants of a God. They are regarded as all powerful and possessors of unimaginable wealth, and yet they are, more often than not, literally prisoners of tradition. Despite all of their wealth and their stature they have very little freedom. It was true long ago and it is still true now. Look at the current Japanese princess as well as the late Princess Diana of England. The minute they became royal princesses their lives ceased to be their own. In actuality, they had less freedom and more rules than when they were say fourteen years old and entering high school. I find that both shocking and intriguing. This peculiar condition made for great storytelling.

RFA & EST: What has been the feedback you've had from children and young adults who have read your Royal Diaries of Elizabeth I, Jahanara, Marie Antoinette, and Mary, Queen of Scots?

KL: The feedback has all been positive, indeed wonderful. Many of the letters I get, indeed, do raise this issue of freedom and I think make readers reflect more deeply on the true meaning of being a princess.

RFA & EST:
If you could ask young readers of Kazunomiya's diary one question about the book, what would it be?

KL: I think I would ask them if they would trade places with Kazunomiya.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.

  • Subjects:
    Family Life, Asian History, Politics, Women's History and Experience
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