Literature of the Heian Period: 794-1185

Student Reading: "The Court at Kyôto: Japan's Golden Age"

The following reading is designed to provide students with a brief introduction to Japan's classical period. Although the reading can stand on its own, we recommend that teachers use it as the historical introduction to one of three literary selections (waka, The Pillow Book, or The Tale of Genji) that can best convey to students the flavor of classical Japan.

Toward the end of the eighth century, the Emperor and his court chose a new site for the capital in central Japan and built a city surrounded by beautiful mountains. The new city was called Heian-kyô, "the capital of tranquility." (It has become the modern city of Kyôto.) During the Heian period (794-1185), named after this city, the country really was at peace, and the aristocrats of the Imperial Court spent much of their time creating a classical culture that still lives today. The Japanese had imported many things from China in the few preceding centuries — Buddhism, Confucianism, poetry (and the language, Chinese, in which poems were recorded), art techniques, methods of organizing government, even the plan for the city of Heian-kyô itself. But as the Heian period progressed, the Japanese took less and less from China, concentrating instead on integrating what they had learned so that it fit their country, their values, and their attitudes. Just as the symmetrical grid arrangement of the streets of the new city gave way to an asymmetrical form, Chinese imports were altered and grew in particularly Japanese ways. The culture that flourished in the tenth and eleventh centuries was dominated by aesthetic concerns and produced art and literature that continues to influence Japanese society and the way Japanese perceive the world.

The aristocrats who lived in Kyôto considered poetry, music, and indeed all the arts to be the most important human accomplishments. They included aesthetic skills we rarely think of now, such as mixing incense to make the most beautiful fragrances. Lovers courted each other with poetry, often written in the form of waka or tanka, and affairs succeeded or failed according to the sensitivity of the poems and the beauty of the writer's handwriting (calligraphy). Men often gained favor at court more for their abilities in the arts than for their bureaucratic skills. The tales, romances, and diaries of women became the classics of the literature, and the favored poetic form of this age lasted for the next thousand years.

The Pillow Book by the court lady Sei Shônagon seems to take us right into the court, as she records her opinions about the small world around her and her experiences with the events of her day. The greatest work of fiction, The Tale of Genji, by the lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu, gives a clear and moving image of the ideals and sentiments of the age. It tells of the life of "the shining Genji," his loves and his troubles, and of the melancholy and sense of decline in the generation after his death.

By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the courtiers' neglect of the more practical matters of government began to tell. The military rulers of the provinces became more and more powerful, until in 1185 power passed out of the hands of the Imperial Court and into the hands of the warriors, the samurai. But even the samurai of later ages owed a debt to the Heian aristocrats, inheriting and developing their Buddhism, their poetry, and their appreciation of beauty.

Background for Teachers

Selections from The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon combine to give a balanced picture of life among the aristocracy in Japan at the height of the Heian period. Sei Shônagon's sharp and witty descriptions of court life offer an astringent account of the manners of the age, while Murasaki's fiction expands on its ideals and attitudes with striking psychological insight. They are an important corrective to the warrior-dominated image we often have of premodern Japan, reflecting instead an earlier age when gentler arts were the most highly valued. The very fact that these two works, acknowledged as the greatest prose writing of a very rich period, were written by women is an important indication of the varieties of social organization in Japanese history. It was not until the later feudal period that women's status declined to the position of docile subservience familiar to us from samurai movies and modern stereotypes. At the height of the classical era, women had considerable freedom socially, economically, and artistically, and their creative accomplishments, especially in literature, set the standards for the age.

The Japanese have drawn upon the sensibilities of the characters and the author of The Tale of Genji for nearly a millennium in defining and extolling the national character. Later literature, from medieval Noh drama to modern novels, has reworked and reexamined themes and events until the novel has become as much a part of Japanese thinking as Shakespeare's plays are in our own tradition. More than a few modern writers — from the poet Yosano Akiko to novelists Tanizaki Junichirô and Enchi Fumiko — have spent years in the labor of love of translating the lengthy novel from its difficult classical language into modern Japanese.

On the other hand, Sei Shônagon's prose style is still studied as a model of classical literary style. High school students memorize passages for their college entrance exams, and with the words absorb her views and aesthetic pronouncements. The miscellany, or collection of random thoughts, observations, and emotions, has since her day become a widely used genre in Japanese literature.

As is clear from these prose selections, the short poem (or waka, called tanka in modern times) was an important medium of both communication and expression in Heian times and thereafter into the twentieth century. While it is no longer in the mainstream of high literature, it remains a popular amateur form and is held in high esteem by the Japanese as a unique cultural achievement.

© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University | http://afe.easia.columbia.edu