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
— 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
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.