Heian Literature and Japanese Court Women

Heian Literature and Japanese Court Women


This short lecture discusses about two of the most famous works of literature in Japanese history, both written by court women during the Heian period (794-1185CE): Murasaki Shikibu’s "The Tale of Genji" and Sei Shonagon’s "The Pillow Book". These works offer us great insight into both the literary culture of the day as well as the sequestered, hidden lives of Japanese elite women.

Women’s Voices from Heian Japan

This article is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert.

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Women in Heian Court Marriages

Heian court marriages were arranged and often polygamous. A man could have several wives, though a woman could have only one husband. There was no formal marriage ceremony, rather the details of the marriage were privately agreed upon between the father of the bride-to-be and her suitor. Divorce could be initiated by the husband or wife and both parties were free to remarry again after. 1

Heian elite women had a prominent place in marriage politics. Since a woman&aposs breeding depended on the status of both her father and mother, women of suitable standing were rare and prized. Also, since the woman lived apart from her husband after marriage and raised any heirs of their union, she had much more influence on the next generation of her family than the father.

This Meiji Era print depicts Lady Ariko-no-Naishi, a Heian maiden, playing her instrument and weeping over an unrequited lover.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon Essay (Critical Writing)

The book The Pillow of Sei Shonagon can be regarded as a comprehensive description of the life at Japanese court at the period of Heian society. Sei Shonagon provides her insightful accounts of the life at the court. The writing is very personal and it makes the book even more valuable as it does not only reveal certain customs and traditions, but unveils the way people thought. Remarkably, the book also helps understand peculiarities of the Heian society and gender roles in it.

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In the first place, it is necessary to note that the Heian period is characterized by certain empowerment of women as they could take some roles in a social life of the state. Thus, women could obtain education which was really good and comprehensive. Earlier, education was considered to be a male task.

In Heian Japan, women had a specific role as they were leading personalities in literature. They wrote a variety of literary works which were admired by women as well as men. Women could also copy books, and this was also rather a privilege (Shonagon 1991, 148). Apart from working on literary masterpieces, women at the court did not have a privileged position.

Clearly, people of that period cherished education and mental as well as physical abilities. Sei Shonagon stresses that people who excel in studies, literature or art of war are exceptional. Therefore, such virtues as excellence in art of war, literature and politics were seen as primary.

It is also necessary to note that men were still regarded as superior creatures. Men were regarded as rulers and those who lead, while women were seen as subordinate creatures and had to play certain roles. These were roles of wives, mothers, mistresses and, of course, writers.

Thus, being a court lady, Sei Shonagon, was quite close to her Majesty Empress. Sei Shonagon enjoyed all privileges of an aristocrat of that period. Of course, she had to follow the conventions which existed at the court at that period. It is necessary to note that there were a lot of rules and traditions which had to be respected.

It is necessary to note that the court at that time was characterized by peculiarities of any medieval court. There were various intrigues, love affairs, coalitions, etc. Notably, the author pays a lot of attention to love affairs and eroticism in her book. Thus, she depicts a number of dates and night meetings. She also describes complicated traditions and customs associated with love affairs. Men and women had to write love letters, which had to have certain structure or rather form. These writings had to be deliberate and thoughtful.

The author also describes how hypocritical the life at the court was as people often pretended to be better than they were in reality. Admittedly, it was a norm to have an exemplary family where the husband and the wife love each other. However, in reality the situation was different and many couples hid their feelings.

Sei Shonagon notes that there are hardly couples who “always treat each other with scrupulous care and respect” (Shonagon 1991, 146). Therefore, the Heian court life was not different from the life at any other court (or even at any other society where people tend to create certain images top fit the society).

It is also necessary to point out that even though family values were regarded as prior to anything, adultery was also a norm. Sei Shonagon mentions a man “with two mistresses who is obliged to see them being bitter and jealous towards each other” (Shonagon 1991, 171). The author also writes about waiting for a lover in the middle of the night. This may not refer to adultery, but it is not an exemplary marital relationship. Therefore, extramarital affairs were seen as something illicit but possible.

Another characteristic feature of the court was the aristocracy’s attitude towards representatives of other societal layers. This can be easily explained as one of the major virtues of an individual was education and only aristocrats could afford being educated. Wisdom and courtesy were seen as certain priorities. Admittedly, peasants did not have time or money to obtain education. Aristocrats did not take this into account and saw peasants as inferior creatures.

To sum up, it is possible to note that Sei Shonagon reveals major peculiarities of the life at the court. The writer describes a variety of traditions and conventions which existed at the court. Clearly, the Heian court can be regarded as a conventional court of the Middle Ages as those who lived there were hypocrites.

However, the court was also somewhat exceptional as women had quite a special place. Women were able to obtain education. Women were even regarded as major figures in literature at that period. However, it is also true that this was a partial empowerment as women were still seen as inferior in many other respects. Major roles assigned to women (apart from roles of writers) were roles of wives, mistresses and mothers.

Heian Literature and Japanese Court Women - History


I began serious study of Japanese Literature in the summer of 1973 when I discovered, by taking two courses at Sophia University in Tokyo, that Japanese Literature, about which I knew almost nothing, had roughly as rich a tradition as English Literature, about which I knew a lot--since I had spent seven years studying it in graduate school, and ten years teaching it at Washburn University--before Washburn lost its appetite for the subject.
In fact, the history of Japanese literature is remarkably similar to that of that other "tight little island" on the opposite side of the globe--whose literature we in America tend to think of as our own. Both islands became literate at almost the same time--late 5th, early 6th century-- under the influence of a written language brought by missionaries from the neighboring continent. In the case of England it was Latin (and the Roman alphabet), brought by Christian priests with Japan, it was Chinese (with its thousands of characters), brought by Buddhist priests (mostly from Korea). A few native people, mostly converted priests, then learned to write that foreign language. By a century or so later, a system for adapting that foreign writing system to write the native language was developed. Thus, in the 700s--over twelve hundred years ago, but at least that long after Greece, Egypt, India, and China were writing-- Japan and England began to have a literature. In Japan the first great book, the Kojiki, dates from 712 in England, Beowulf dates from about 725--so within a single generation.
Scholars tend to divide the history of both literatures into the same five periods: Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Modern, and Contemporary. Japan clearly had the higher civilization in the late Ancient, or Heian, period (794 to 1185), perhaps the highest civilization in the world (only China could challenge it), and the higher literary achievement until at least the time of Chaucer (1343 to 1400). This early period in Japan is named after the capital city, Heian Kyo (now Kyoto), and it was definitely an aristocratic literature, centered in activities at court. Many of the greatest works were written by the women of that court, three of the most prominent the "three Heian women" of my title: first, my favorite Japanese poet, Ono no Komachi then the most important writer in all of Japanese literature, Murasaki Shikibu, author of the masterwork (and first great novel in world literature), the 1200-page The Tale of Genji, written in the year 1000 (+/- ten)--compared to which Beowulf is a primitive epic indeed--then her remarkable contemporary, the incomparable diarist, Sei Shonagon.
This was a literature of love, not warfare--plenty of sex, but little violence--coming not only before our Civil War, but before their own, which comes in the early Medieval, or Kamakura, period (1185-1333), when the center of power moves 300 miles east (south of present-day Tokyo), and the code of the samurai and a male-dominated warrior literature develops. The Tales of the Heike(mid-13th century), recounting the battles of the Taira and Minamoto clans, is the more characteristic work of that period. I may say in passing that the Ainu, most of whom lived (and still live) in the northern island of Hokkaido, and very likely are related to American Indians, have contributed little to Japanese literature over the centuries--none, in the Heian period, so far as I know. And, while the Buddhist influence was important from the beginning, as the Christian influence was in English literature, it becomes more central in that Medieval period. Heian literature was much more secular, written by and for the court elite--some of the best by a few well-placed women of rare genius.

ONO NO KOMACHI (fl. ca. 850)

My favorite Japanese poet, Ono no Komachi, comes first. She lived over eleven hundred years ago, but can very quickly introduce a modern reader to the tanka, the traditional form of Japanese poetry, for she is one of the best known, and most frequently quoted, poets of the Kokinshu, the first of a series of poetry anthologies compiled by Imperial order--in 905. The preface to that volume remarks that she lived "recently," which is all scholars have to go on in establishing her dates. The assumption is that her life, which, in later legend, came to be presented as a long one, was totally contained within the 9th century--about a century before my other two women lived.
The preface to the Kokinshu is also famous for the first Japanese statement on the function of poetry: to express feelings, often in response to nature, "about the bush warbler singing among the blossoms or the frog in the water. . . . lamenting the mist, or feeling the sadness of the dew." Most Japanese poets, from that time to this, including those in the Kokinshu, are true to this tradition. Many of the 1111 poems were anonymous, but, among those where the authors were identified, eighteen were attributed to Ono no Komachi. This is all of her work that we know for sure, a handful of poems that can be read in less than half an hour--then have been remembered for eleven centuries.
The form of almost all the Kokinshu poems, and all of Ono no Komachi's, is the tanka, almost the only pattern used in Japanese poetry until, 800 years later, the haiku became established--by dropping the last two lines of the tanka. If you have written haiku, you know the form has a fixed number of syllables in three lines--5, 7, 5. The tanka (or waka) has two additional seven-syllable lines--so 5, 7, 5, 7, 7. Everyone at the Heian court was expected to be able to write tanka--often exchanged as letters between lovers, for example. Occasionally one might write 5, 7, 5, the other responding 7, 7. In later centuries a linked-verse game played by poets developed on this principle--which then led to the birth of haiku. We might note that such definition of form by syllable count is much more natural to the Japanese language--where each syllable is a "letter"--than it is to English.
The Heian court was one of the most cultivated that ever existed anywhere in the world. Status was based, not on military power, but on artistic refinement--particularly, it would seem, in the art of love, and the ladies at court were at the center of these love games. Ono no Komachi was evidently one of these ladies, early in the period--who then became a legend. And while there are only 18 of her tanka, among thousands of others, they are, for me, among the most memorable, using the form to generate both passion and philosophical insight. The three I like best should give some idea of both form and content (the Japanese, in Roman letters, is followed by the English translation): Omoitsutsu Thinking about him
Nureba ya hito no I slept, only to have him
Mietsuramu Appear before me--
Yume to shiriseba Had I known it was a dream
Samezaramashi wo I should never have wakened
Donald Keene

Hana no iro wa The flowers withered,
Utsurinikeri na Their color faded away,
Itazura ni While meaninglessly
Wa ga mi yo ni furu I spent my days in the world
Nagame seshi ma ni And the long rains were falling.
Donald Keene This is the order of my own preference, the first and last translated by Donald Keene, who keeps the same number of syllables per line, the second by Arthur Waley, who demonstrates that the content can often be expressed in fewer syllables in English--in this case 21 instead of 31--10 fewer!
The first describes a common experience in love, in any time and place, the desire to dream eternally of the loved one. The second comments on the loss of the flower of youth. The metaphor of the flower as essence is everywhere in Japanese literature--best known to us, perhaps, in the use of the cherry blossom to symbolize the ephemeral quality of beauty, and in the way the centuries-old art of flower arranging, ikebana, is honored in Japan. But here the slow fading of the flower of life is emphasized--if anything a more universal theme, presented again in the last poem. But what I like most about that poem (particularly in this Keene translation) is the last line, comparing human mortality to the immortality of the falling rain. Sometimes, as I lie in bed listening to the falling rain, that line runs through my mind. I know that Komachi heard the long spring rain falling in Japan--as I have--and, pleased to think she still does, I respond with my own tanka:


But the acknowledged classic in Japanese literature is The Tale of Genji, written by another lady of the court, Murasaki Shikibu, who lived about 100 years later. That novel, running to over 1100 pages in its English translations, and involving over 400 characters, was probably composed in the ten years before and after the year 1000 (so exactly 1000 years ago, and providing a nice round number for the high point in Japanese literature). Not only the first great novel in world literature, it may still be the greatest. Hundreds of tanka are incidentally introduced in the Genji, as the natural medium used by the men and women at court to communicate--but it is still essentially a work of prose fiction.
There are now three full translations, the most recent, by Royall Tyler, published just this October--so in your bookstore now--which I have not read. The first, Arthur Waley's own classic, was published in 1933, the second, by Edward Seidensticker, in 1976. I've been alternating reading the two of them this year, have just finished the Seidensticker, and plan to finish the Waley, again, the last day of the year, as I did in 1975. I also assigned the book (in either, now any, translation) to the readers of my novel on my web site the first of the year--to finish both by the end of this year.
Genji, Murasaki's Shining Prince, is the hero--a singer, poet, dancer, lover, skillful musician, seducer, and adept politician, but no warrior--clearly the projection of a woman's ideal, and an ideal which established "romantic" values in the Japanese psyche almost unknown in the West until the Arthurian romances. In part because this fiction was being written--and read--largely by the women of the court, it seems much more sophisticated to us today than anything we can read in Anglo-Saxon English. Genji, as a son of the emperor, is a prince, but his mother was a lesser lady of the court, who died when he was still a child, so he depends upon the favor of his father--which, in general, he has. And, above all, he is a lover. In the first of the six books the young Genji has a new woman in almost every chapter. Clearly the memory of his mother attracts him to some of them. His most passionate affair is with one of his father's concubines, Fujitsubo, who reminds everyone of Genji's mother. She then has Genji's child, though it is thought to be the emperor's--which causes complications later.
In one of the most interesting episodes, early in the novel, Genji carefully cultivates a beautiful young girl, who also reminds him of his mother, to be his ideal wife. He first sees her when she is still a child, at a Buddhist retreat where he is recovering from a traumatic affair which has resulted in the death of one of his women, Yugao, by being possessed by the jealous spirit of another, Rokujo. He is so taken by the young Murasaki that he "kidnaps" her from her grandmother, a nun, then undertakes to train her to be the perfect wife. This is a provocative idea in any culture, and it is fascinating to see how this sophisticated court lady of 1000 years ago works out the details of the relationship.
Then, as Genji grows older, the book deals with his special fidelity to all of his women, and with his political fortunes, first in exile and then as the most powerful man in the nation. But the novel is not just "The Tale of Genji." Two-thirds of the way through, chapter 42 opens with the words "Genji was dead," and the central character in the last third is Kaoru, thought to be Genji's son, but (in a kind of poetic justice) actually the son of his best friend's son, Kashiwagi.
The last of the six sections is entitled (in Waley's translation) "The Bridge of Dreams," which I have appropriated as title for my own novel, and for the last chapter of that novel. I feel a particular kinship to that, too, as a literary concept--feel that, metaphorically, that is what these three Heian women, and other writers, offer us, as their readers. My sonnet of that title is on my handout.
The book is not structured as most Western novels are, however, for, while generally chronological, and while one complication does lead to another, for a Western reader little attention seems to be given to plot--the author is more interested in her characters (true of Japanese literature in general--of the Nobel-prize winner, Kawabata, for example). But its narrative substance, and, above all, that glorious Heian milieu, have provided story material and characters for much of the fiction and drama that has followed in the 1000 years of Japanese literature since it was written--like Shakespeare's work in English the last 400 years.

The third of my three Heian women, Sei Shonagon, was Murasaki Shikibu's contemporary, another court lady, whose The Pillow Book is the perfect companion to The Tale of Genji, for it reflects that same courtly environment as perceived by a very different temperament. Since it is a form of diary, the author is the central character. She has a strong sense of humor, so many of the experiences (and things she lists) are seen as comic, and important people at court are satirized--not the impulse of the much more sober Murasaki. But characters still often communicate with one another in tanka (there are 132 in the 250 pages of her text in Ivan Morris's translation--many fewer than in Lady Murasaki's novel but many more than we have of Ono no Komachi's), and there are times when writing one may be assigned, perhaps by the prime minister. There are also a number of other diaries of the period, many written by women, in most of which tanka are important.
The writing of The Pillow Book would have been overlapped by that of The Tale of Genji, shortly before and after the year 1000, and in the same general court environment. Sei Sh nagon, like Murasaki Shikibu, was a lady-in-waiting to an empress, but to the older, retired Empress Sadako, who evidently conducted a more relaxed court, and we are dealing with a very different product stylistically than Lady Murasaki's novel. The two women knew one another well enough for Lady Murasaki to criticize Sei Shonagon in her own dairy for being frivolous in her impulse "to sample each interesting thing that comes along," and overly self-satisfied in her Chinese compositions, that are "full of imperfections." But Donald Keene says, The Pillow Book is "perhaps the closest approach to high comedy in Japanese literature," while Ivan Morris, the translator of the English edition, calls it, "by far our most detailed source of factual material on the life of the time and . . . also a work of great literary beauty, full of lively humor and subtle impressions of the world she lived in."
The Pillow Book is so called because the author tells about the Empress receiving a "bundle of notebooks" she didn't know what to do with, and Sei Shonagon asked if she might make a pillow of them. The Japanese pillow is a solid support, not normally made of a "bundle of notebooks," but quite possibly with a drawer that might contain such for a person who liked to write things down at odd times, and no set of writings could be more miscellaneous than these of Sei Shonagon. She particularly liked to make lists of things. As Morris notes, there are 164 lists in the book's "1098 closely printed pages," but, beyond this, "Shonagon's collection contains nature descriptions, diary entries, character sketches, and anecdotes . . . a list of 'awkward things', for example, is followed by an account of the Emperor's return from a shrine, after which comes a totally unrelated incident about the Chancellor that occurred a year or two earlier and then a short, lyrical description of the dew on a clear autumn morning." The textual history is such that no one can be sure that the order of items even approximates either the original order or that finally intended by the author. Morris speculates that she did begin by just making random notes, then may have begun to put them in some order as they began to be read by others in the court. In any case, order doesn't seem to matter much, for the collection as a whole, personal notes covering ten years at court, "reveals a complicated, intelligent, well-informed woman who was quick, impatient, keenly observant of detail, high-spirited, witty, emulative, sensitive to the charms and beauties of the world and the pathos of things, yet intolerant and callous about people whom she regarded as her social or intellectual inferiors."
I've included the opening passage, which is famous, and establishes an important Japanese literary convention in passing the beauties of the four seasons in review, in my handout. This was 1000 years ago in Kyoto, but Topeka, in 2001, is still on roughly the same line of 40° North latitude.
That candid commentary on an environment presented in enough detail that you come to feel at home in it is important, but just as important is the sense that you come to know this woman speaking to you--about whatever provokes her to speak today--and I've come to have a great affection for her, as I do for these other two Heian women, so different from her. I invite you to read the four pages (9- 12) where she tells how the dog, Okinamaru, is officially beaten almost to death after attacking the Empress's cat, Lady Myobu, but still returns, and, thanks to the sympathy of the ladies at court, receives an Imperial pardon, at the end of which Sei Shonagon says, "even now, when I remember how he whimpered and trembled in response to our sympathy, it strikes me as a strange and moving scene when people talk to me about it, I start crying myself." We, too, have dogs and cats that engage our sympathies. And her list of "Depressing Things" ("A dog howling in daytime . . . A lying-in room when the baby has died . . . a hot bath when one has just woken"--and a number that tell stories a paragraph long, about a letter that didn't get delivered, or a poem written by an elderly person) or "Hateful Things" (a hair on one's inkstone, a clandestine lover and the dog starts barking) or "Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past" ("Last year's paper fan. A night with a clear moon.") are both very personal, sketch her character, and leave you nodding your head as you compare your own experience.
These three Heian woman--who lived 1000 years ago, are still available to you in their writings. I encourage you to make their acquaintance. I don't think you'll be sorry.

In Spring It Is the Dawn (First Section of The Pillow Book)

In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.
In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on the dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is.
In autumn the evenings, when the glittering sun sinks close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos more charming still is a file of wild geese, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one's heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.
In winter the early mornings. It is beautiful indeed when snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season's mood! But as noon approaches and the cold wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ashes.

Ivan Morris, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1967), p. 1.

Heian Literature and Japanese Court Women - History

Heian society prized beauty, elegance, and fashion. To be described as yoki (good), people had to come from an important family. They also had to look nice and be sensitive to beauty in nature, poetry, and art. Individuals were judged on whether or not they had good taste. The ability to recognize beauty was valued over qualities like generosity and honesty.

Both men and women groomed themselves with great care. Small, pointed beards were considered attractive on male courtiers . For women, long hair was an important beauty feature. Ideally, a woman’s hair would grow longer than she was tall.

The Japanese of this time considered white teeth unattractive, so both men and women carefully blackened their teeth. They used a dye made from iron and other ingredients soaked in tea or vinegar. Personal scent was also very significant , so both men and women wore perfume. Perfume competitions were frequent and popular. People guarded their perfume recipes carefully.

For women, makeup was also important. Women used white face powder to make themselves look very pale. Over the chalky powder, a Heian woman put touches of red on her cheeks. Then she painted on a small red mouth. She also plucked out her eyebrows and painted on a set in just the right spot on her forehead.

A woman’s clothing needed to be ornate and beautiful. An aristocratic woman might wear as many as 12 silk underrobes at one time. When she rode in a carriage, she might dangle a wrist so that people in the street would notice the lovely layers of colored silk.

The love of beauty also showed in Heian architecture, calligraphy, poetry, and artwork. Concern with form and beauty was so great that courtiers sometimes had to perform stylized dances as part of their official duties.

Nambokuchô, Muromachi, and Momoyama Periods

The imperial city of Kyoto became the capital again with the advent of the Nambokuchô era (1333–1392), a period marked by clashes between rival military clans. Warfare continued during the subsequent Muromachi period (1392–1568). Since the advent of the Kamakura era, the imperial family had ruled in name only the shogun, as the supreme military power, wielded the real power.

In regard to cultural matters, the imperial court ceased to be in the vanguard. Elite members of the military class and high-ranking Buddhist monks were the leading practitioners of the newly established and extremely aesthetic tea ceremony. The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1408) was the first important patron of the No theater.

Costumes of the No theater continued to exist in a wide variety of different types through the early twenty-first century. During the initial centuries of the all-male theatrical form, actors wore garments donated from the wardrobes of their elite patrons. By the Edo period (1603–1868), No costumes were being made specifically for use on the stage however, for the most part the costume styles did not change and continued to reflect the clothing of earlier periods.

Within the broad category of No robes called ôsode, a term referring to tall and wide sleeves that are left unsewn at their ends, are certain types of robes long since obsolete in Japan, except within the most conservative and traditional spheres of Japanese life, such as imperial court rites and Shinto rituals.

Often making use of gold threads in the form of flat, gilded narrow strips of paper, along with silk threads, ôsode costumes always have woven designs. These designs can be quite bold in scale and composition, though their coloration is more reserved, usually limited to just one color for the silk. The No theater also preserves the skirt-like trousers (hakama) of earlier times, and the layered wearing of costumes, with an ôsode robe typically worn as an outer robe.

The other principal category of No costumes features robes with sleeves shorter in height and width relative to ôsode sleeves. The sleeves are also rounded off at their bottommost outer edges rather than having a right angle as in ôsode. Sleeve ends are sewn up, allowing just enough of an opening for the hands to pass through. The name for this general category of No costumes is kosode. The same term had been used for the plain silk robe worn next to the skin and under layers of voluminous garments in the Heian period.

During the Muromachi period, the kosode literally emerged as acceptable outerwear. What had previously been private intimate wear was now permissible outside of domestic interiors. This form of dress became the principal vehicle for the expression of changing fashions and styles.

During the Edo period, most kosode-category costumes still preserved Muromachi and Momoyama period styles. Archaic styles that persisted included the use of heavy, ornate brocade fabric, extensive gilding, the splicing together of two completely different kinds of fabric in one robe, and an empty-center composition that concentrates the design motifs at the shoulders and hem of the robe. Such costumes did, however, change their over-all sleeve shape from oblong to squarish in response to an Edo period trend, and certain No robes with embroidered designs were occasionally influenced by contemporary fashion styles.

Extant No costumes date as far back as the latter part of the Muromachi period. No robes were still being made in the early twenty-first century, and some of the modern producers made use of traditional hand weaving and natural dyeing techniques.

For the purpose of providing comic relief from the tragedy and melancholy of No, kyôgen plays were traditionally performed along with No plays. Costumes for kyôgen reflect lower-class dress and are made of bast fibers (usually hemp or ramie) rather than silk, use no gold threads or gilding, and are patterned by means of dyeing—unlike No robes with their woven, embroidered, or gilded designs. Extant kyôgen costumes do not predate the Edo period.

In the 1540s, when the first Europeans reached Japan, the country was in the midst of protracted civil war. This combination of turbulent times and a new wave of foreign influence led to the creation of some astonishing examples of samurai-class dress. Western-style tailoring and the newly imported "exotic" fabrics of European woolen cloth, Indian cotton chintz, and even Persian silk tapestry can be seen in several extant jimbaori (a type of vest worn over armor).

Further creativity in male dress is evident in some short kosode-shaped garments (dôfuku) associated with the leading military figures of the sixteenth century. These robes exhibit unconventional motifs and surprising color combinations.

Murasaki Shikibu

Shikibu was born into the Fujiwara family, daughter of the governor of a province, who also was a well known scholar. Always very intelligent, as a child she learned more quickly than her brother, causing her father to lament, "If only you were a boy, how happy I should be!" He did, however, allow Shikibu to study with her brother, even letting her learn some Chinese classics, which was considered improper for females at the time.

When she was in her early twenties, Lady Murasaki was married to a distant relative. Her only daughter was born in 999. After the death of her husband in 1001 A.D, knowing of her writing talent and her brilliant mind, the imperial family brought Lady Murasaki to court.

At court, Lady Murasaki began a diary she kept up for two years. While giving a vivid account of court life, it also gives us insights into what Lady Murasaki thought. For example, she didn't like the frivolous nature of court life. Once she described a picture competition there as a "moment in the history of our country when the whole energy of the nation seemed to be concentrated upon the search for the prettiest method of mounting paper scrolls!" She also went to great pains to hide her knowledge of Chinese, fearing the criticism of those who felt it to be unladylike to be happy reading this obscure language.

Shikibu may have begun The Tale of the Genji before she came to court. Yet much of it was written there, loosely based on her years as lady-in-waiting to the Empress Akiko. It is a very long novel about complications in the life of a fictitious prince called Genji. Like many of the court ladies, Shikibu was a master at observing the daily activities and attitudes of upper class society.

The tales of Prince Genji, known as "the Shining Prince," became popular from the moment of its release. It was meant to be read aloud, and the earliest Genji manuscript was lost. Luckily early 12th century Genji manuscript scrolls survived, and through the ages, the novel has been translated into many languages and been studied and discussed by many scholars.

Little is know about Lady Murasaki's later life. She may have retired from court to seek seclusion in a convent at about the age of fifty. Her writings suggest that at the end she sensed the violent changes that were coming to her rather decadent upper class life. In the distance, the sounds of provincial warriors rumbled - the samurai who in 1192 overthrew the power of the emperor and created a feudal military government headed by a shogun.

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Heian literature: Is all fair in love and no war?

How sordid the news is! How hot the summer! One yearns for escape. Is there an island remote enough?

Yes. A plane won’t take you there but a book will. “In spring, it is the dawn.” It’s one of the most famous opening sentences in Japanese literature.

There’s nothing quite like Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185). Four centuries of peace set it apart set it outside history. We’re in another dimension. The governing class was an aristocracy of culture. Arms were foreign to them, courage an embarrassment, hatred unknown. Love, poetry, beauty — was there anything else in life? Nothing good.

Everyone was a lover, everyone a poet, musician, calligrapher. Deep sensitivity, expressed in poetry or music, revealed in a gesture or a flourish of the writing brush, excused the meanest vices. Insensitivity, betrayed by a gauche poem, a false note, clothing of clashing colors, tainted every virtue. An offense against the cult of beauty was not lightly forgiven. Admission to the circle of “good people” was accorded by birth, but respect within it had to be earned.

A tiny, exclusive circle it was. Japan’s population in the 10th century is estimated at 5 million that of Heian-kyo, the capital (today’s Kyoto), at 100,000, of whom maybe 10,000 were sufficiently high-born to count as anything other than figures of derision or exploitation. If you were outside the circle, were you even fully human? We’ll return to that question presently.

Two works of literature tower over the era, and over subsequent ones. Both were written by women — court ladies in the service of empresses. One is “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978-1016) the other is “The Pillow Book” of Sei Shonagon (c. 966-1025). “Genji” is a novel — the world’s first by hundreds of years the world’s best to this day, say more than a few critics.

The “Pillow Book” is something else altogether. The term that describes its style is zuihitsu — “follow-the-brush” whatever comes to mind. Sei invented it, and has had many imitators down the ages. You just write as you feel, about anything you like, whatever moves you, however it moves you, up or down, to delight or disgust, the only requirement being that you write beautifully. Sei is said to have written very beautifully indeed. Something inevitably gets lost in translation. We must do the best we can.

In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. In summer, the nights. In autumn, the evening. In winter, the early mornings. What else is on Sei’s mind?

This, for example: “A preacher ought to be good-looking. For, if we are properly to understand his worthy sentiments, we must keep our eyes on him while he speaks.”

Or this: “Oxen (carriages were drawn by oxen) should have very small foreheads, with white hair.”

Love, naturally: “A good lover will behave as elegantly at dawn as at any other time. He drags himself out of bed with a look of dismay on his face. The lady urges him on: ‘Come, my friend, it’s getting light. You don’t want anyone to find you here.’ He gives a deep sigh … .”

The impression Sei gives is of a woman absolutely satisfied, with herself, and with her world — which, it never occurs to her to doubt, is the whole world: “When I make myself imagine what it is like to be one of those women who live at home, faithfully serving their husbands — women who have not a single exciting prospect in life yet who believe they are perfectly happy — I am filled with scorn. Often they are of good birth, yet have no opportunity to find out what the world is like.”

“The world” means the palace, where she serves Empress Sadako as lady-in-waiting. What was “the world” like? One of her favorite words is “medetashi” (“splendid”). So much strikes her as that: “Chinese brocade. A sword with a decorated scabbard. Long flowering branches of beautifully colored wisteria entwined about a pine tree.” “A Chamberlain of the Sixth Rank cuts a magnificent figure when he arrives with an Imperial mandate.” “The eldest son of our present Emperor is still a child, but how splendid he looks when he is in the arms of Their Excellencies, his handsome young uncles… .”

“Unsuitable things” make her shudder: “A woman with ugly hair wearing a robe of white damask.” “Ugly handwriting on red paper.” “A handsome man with an ugly wife.”

This is a world in which a cat “had been awarded the head-dress of nobility and was called Lady Myobu. She was a very pretty cat, and His Majesty saw to it that she was treated with the greatest care.”

The punishment meted out to Okinamaro, the palace dog who mistreated Lady Myobu, makes a curious and pathetic story: “His Majesty ordered that Okinamaro be chastised and banished to Dog Island. The attendants all started to chase the dog amid great confusion.” The dog — failing to understand what banishment meant, perhaps — came sauntering back. And here the tale takes an ugly turn. The beast is flogged almost to death. All’s well that ends well, however: “Before long Okinamaro was granted an Imperial pardon and returned to his former happy state.”

Ranking far, far below either of these noble critters is the human herd beyond the palace gates. Sei sees little of it, but workmen engaged in palace repair work one day gave her quite a jolt: “The way in which carpenters eat is really odd. The moment the food was brought, they fell on the soup bowls and gulped down the contents. Then they pushed the bowls aside and finished off the vegetables. … They all behaved in exactly the same way, so I suppose this must be the custom of carpenters. I should not call it a very charming one.”

Fortunately the carpenters soon leave, and “the world” quickly regains its accustomed texture: “I love to hear His Majesty playing the flute in the middle of the night.”

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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The Tale of Genji: Japan’s Greatest Novel

Written in the early 11 th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the Heian Court, The Tale of Genji has been praised for its analysis of the psychology of love and relationships in ways that still resonate with modern readers. Genji’s tumultuous affairs also provide readers with pointed looks at gender relations in Heian, Japan. Most literary critics agree that Murasaki simply began writing and allowed the work to grow organically over time. A series of themes that permeate the novel—the search for the perfect relationship, the effects of the passage of time, and the problems of desire—manage to hold the vastness of the work together through 54 lengthy chapters.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of World Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

The Child of a Great Love Affair

Prince Genji, the main character of the novel. Much of the plot of of the Tale of Genji revolves around the amorous relationships that Genji engages in and the pleasures and complications they create in the story of his life. (Image: By Utagawa Kunisada/British Museum)

Genji is the child of a great love affair between the Emperor and a fascinating lady, with no strong family backing, who is hounded to death by the Emperor’s first wife—Lady Kokiden—and other powerful women at court. The Emperor mourns the death of Genji’s mother until he meets Lady Fujitsubo: a woman so like Genji’s mother that she becomes a substitute for the Emperor’s affections. She also exercises a strong fascination for Genji, who is too young to remember his mother thus, Lady Fujitsubo becomes a substitute mother for him.

Coming of Age

Genji grows up beautiful, bright, and sensitive—so much so that even his enemies at court are won over by his beauty and charm. At the age of 12, Genji passes his coming-of-age ceremony and is immediately married off to Aoi, the daughter of a powerful court minister shortly after giving birth to their son, Yugiri, she dies. When Genji turns 18, he meets a young girl named Murasaki (then nine years old) who reminds him of Lady Fujitsubo in fact, she is Lady Fujitsubo’s niece. Genji makes Murasaki his second wife, despite the fact that she has no political significance whatsoever.

Affairs of the Heart

Lady Fujitsubo allows Genji to make love to her and eventually bears him a son. They manage to hide the secret of the child’s paternity from the Emperor the child is presumed to be the Emperor’s son and will one day become an emperor himself. Genji also has affairs with other women, including the sister of Lady Kokiden. Genji’s affair with Lady Kokiden’s sister is discovered about the same time that Genji’s father retires as Emperor and then dies. Without a father as emperor to protect him anymore, and troubled by his affair with Lady Fujitsubo, Genji banishes himself to the ward of Suma.

Exile and Return

While in exile, Genji has an affair with a priest’s daughter, Lady Akashi, who is virtually forced into Genji’s arms by her father the affair produces a daughter. After another change in emperor, Genji is called back to court and takes both Lady Akashi and his daughter with him. Genji’s son by Lady Fujitsubo becomes Emperor Genji also arranges for the daughter of one of his former lovers, Lady Rokujo, to become the new Emperor’s first wife.

The Heights of Power

This point in The Tale of Genji marks the height of Genji’s political power. He creates a mansion for his four lovers and divides it into four courts based on the seasons, with the spring court (the season most cherished by the Japanese) being reserved for Lady Murasaki. But Genji’s political successes coincide with the gradual loss of control in his personal life. He fails to establish a relationship with Tamakazura, the daughter of one of his former lovers. At the same time, one of his new wives is unfaithful and bears a son to the son of Genji’s best friend. When he discovers the affair, Genji sees it as just retribution for betraying his father with Lady Fujitsubo.

Genji’s Final Years

Genji lives long enough to see Lady Akashi’s daughter get married to an emperor and bear a son who will one day be emperor himself. At the same time, Murasaki falls ill Genji takes her to another one of his estates and tends to her himself. Genji dies at 52, a year after Lady Murasaki’s death. Then, the novel traces the careers of his flawed descendants, each of whom has inherited something of Genji’s shining qualities—but none of whom is like the magnificent Genji himself.

Common Questions About The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji is important historically as it was the first novel ever written and provides a psychological look into Heian period court life .

The Tale of Genji is largely considered to be about the art of seduction , told with extremely subdued explication.

The major themes encountered in The Tale of Genjiare love, lust, seduction, affection, and family dynamics .

The Tale of Genji was written in the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu , who was a noble lady-in-waiting.

Watch the video: Women in Classical Japanese Literature