The Heian Period
The Golden Age of Japanese Civilization

 

The Nara Period
710-794


Todaiji


The Heian Period
794-1185

Sanjusan-gendo


Byodo-in


 
By the tenth and eleventh centuries, self-consciously literary diaries began to be compiled, which were sometimes deliberately intended for others to read. In one famous case, Sei Shonagon (b. ca. 965) claimed that her so-called Pillow Book began as private jottings that were accidentally discovered by a visitor and passed around at court. Fictional tales were also composed to entertain the household and circulated in manuscript form. This newly developing Heian women’s literature was written in the Japanese language, using the new Japanese syllabic writing system. ... Serious texts were still expected to be written in Chinese. Hiragana was, in fact, commonly known as women’s hand (onnade). This was so much the case that, although the first great literary diary in Japanese, Ki no Tsurayuki’s (883-946) Tosa Diary, was actually written by a man (around 936), he apparently felt obliged to adopt the pose in writing it of being a woman. (HEA, 128)
 
The Pillow Book
[Hateful things] A lover who is leaving at dawn announces that he has to find his fan and his paper. “I know I put them somewhere last night,” he says. Since it is pitch dark, he gropes about the room, bumping into the furniture and muttering, “Strange! Where on earth can they be?” Finally he discovers the objects. He thrusts the paper into the breast of his robe with a great rustling sound; then he snaps open his fan and busily fans away with it. Only now is he ready to take his leave. What charmless behavior! “Hateful” is an understatement.
       Equally disagreeable is the man who, when leaving in the middle of the night, takes care to fasten the cord of his headdress. This is quite unnecessary; he could perfectly well put it gently on his head without tying the cord. And why must he spend time adjusting his cloak or hunting costume? Does he really think someone may see him at this time of night and criticize him for not being impeccably dressed?
       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, as if to say that the night has not been nearly long enough and that it is agony to leave. Once up, he does not instantly pull on his trousers. Instead he comes close to the lady and whispers whatever was left unsaid during the night. Even when he is dressed, he still lingers, vaguely pretending to be fastening his sash. ...
       Indeed, one’s attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking. When he jumps out of bed, scurries about the room, tightly fastens his trouser-sash, rolls up the sleeves of his Court cloak, over-robe, or hunting costume, stuffs his belongings into the breast of his robe and then briskly secures the outer sash — one really begins to hate him. (The Pillow Book, 49-50)

The full-length fictional prose novel also emerged from this Heian women’s literature. The titles of some eighty tales survive from the ninth and tenth centuries, but the renowned The Tale of Genji overshadows all other Heian productions and puts its stamp on the age. Lady Murasaki’s (978-1016) lengthy fictional narration of the life and loves of the Shining Prince Genji is the consummate example of the exquisitely refined aesthetic taste perfected by the Heian court at its eleventh century peak. This Heian period women’s literature, moreover, although not without references to China, was uniquely and thoroughly Japanese. From the late ninth century, a distinctively Japanese high culture had emerged that was not so much a return to ancient pre-Taika native traditions as a dynamic new creation, revealing itself in cooking, clothing, and painting styles as well as the new Japanese language literature.
 
The World’s First Novel?
According to Arthur Waley: Murasaki, like the novelist of today, is not principally interested in the events of the story, but rather in the effect which these events may have upon the minds of her characters. Such books as hers it is convenient, I think, to call ‘novels,’ while reserving for other works of fiction the name ‘story’ or ‘romance.’ (Seeds of the Heart, 508)
 
We tend to remember, even more than the plot of The Tale of Genji, the characters created by Murasaki Shikibu. This in itself was an extraordinary achievement: nothing in any of the earlier monogatari prepares us for these characters. Only in the diaries does one come across people with the complexity of real human beings and who can be conceived of as having an existence apart from the book. Genji himself is not especially complex, but on almost every page devoted to him there is some little touch that makes us believe in him. (Seeds in the Heart, 495)
 
 
The Shining Prince
Genji’s Beauty
No one could see him without pleasure. He was like the flowering tree under whose shade even the rude mountain peasant delights to rest. And so great was the fascination he exercised that those who knew him longed to offer him whatever was dearest to them. One who had a favorite daughter would ask for nothing better than to make her Genji’s handmaiden. Another who had an exquisite sister was ready for her to serve in his household, though it were at the most menial tasks. Still less could these ladies (i.e. the ladies who served the Rokujo Lady) who on such occasions as this were privileged to converse with him and stare at him as much as they pleased, and were moreover, young people of much sensibility — how could they fail to delight in his company and note with much uneasiness that his visits were becoming far less frequent than before. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 112)
 
 However, his amorous relations frequently result in unintended consequences, such as when he takes a young lover, Yugao, to a deserted mansion for a night of love ...
 
 
Despite such consequences, he always remains above reproach, for he unfailingly demonstrates his sincere concern for each of his women, as we see in the following passage, which occurs after the living spirit of one of Genji’s lovers, Lady Rokujo, kills Genji’s wife out of jealousy. Lady Rokujo decides to accompany her daughter to Ise, the shrine of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, where she is going to become a priestess. Unable to allow her to leave, Genji meets her at a small shrine on the outskirts of the Kyoto:
 
The autumn flowers were fading; along the reeds by the river the shrill voices of many insects blended with the mournful fluting of the wind in the pines. Scarcely distinguishable from these somewhere in the distance rose and fell a faint, enticing sound of human music. ... They came at last to a group of very temporary-looking wooden huts surrounded by a flimsy brushwood fence. The archways, built of unstripped wood, stood out black and solemn against the sky. Within the enclosure a number of priests were walking up and down with a preoccupied air. There was something portentous in their manner of addressing one another and in their way of loudly clearing their throats before they spoke. In the Hall of Offerings there was a dim flicker of firelight, but elsewhere no single sign of life. So this was the place where he had left one who was from the start in great distress of mind, to shift for herself week after week, month after month! Suddenly he realized with a terrible force all that she must have suffered. ...
 
  
At last the night ended in such a dawn as seemed to have been fashioned for their especial delight. ‘Sad is any parting at the red of dawn; but never since the world began, gleamed day so tragically in the autumn sky.’ And as he recited these verses, aghast to leave her, he stood hesitating and laid her hand tenderly in his. (Seeds of the Heart, 498-9)
 
What Confucianism deems good Buddhism may not; and what Buddhism considers good Confucianism might regard as evil. Likewise, references to good and evil in the Tale may not correspond to Confucian or Buddhist concepts of good and evil. Then what is good or evil in the realm of human psychology and ethics according to the Tale of Genji? Generally speaking, those who know the meaning of the sorrow of human existence, i.e., those who are in sympathy and in harmony with human sentiments, are regarded as good; and those who are not aware of the poignancy of human existence, i.e., those who are not in sympathy and not in harmony with human sentiments, are regarded as bad. ... Man’s feelings do not always follow the dictates of his mind. They arise in man in spite of himself and are difficult to control. In the instance of Prince Genji, his interest in and rendezvous with Utsusemi, Oborozukiyo, and the Consort Fujitsubo are acts of extraordinary iniquity and immorality according to the Confucian and Buddhist points of view. It would be difficult to call Prince Genji a good man, however numerous his other good qualities. But the Tale does not dwell on his iniquitous and immoral acts, but rather recites over and over again his profound awareness of the sorrow of existence, and represents him as a good man who combines in himself all good things in man. (Sources of Japanese Tradition (1st ed.), 533-4)