The written word has always been a means of communication whether it’s written in novels, letters, diaries, or even writing a post on Facebook. During the 10th century C.E. the written language in Japan took on a different form entirely that would still be relevant during the Modern Era. The Heian Period in Japan spanned nearly four centuries would spawn two of the most known books in literature and would show how life inside the Japanese imperial court was like. Two of the most well-known books of the time were written by women who lived within the Japanese court. Wealthy Women during this time in Japanese history were well educated and often worked within the imperial court as ladies in waiting serving the imperial family. One very surprising aspect of this time in Japanese history is that some women were as educated as men, and men weren’t given preference when it came to higher education. The Kana writing system which is still used in Japan was developed during this time to deviate from the Chinese style of writing that was used in Japan. The characters used in the Kana writing system was much easier to learn and read verses the old traditional writing system this made it easier so that anyone could also write and learn from books. This change in writing made it easier for writings published during this time to be translated later on. Much of the literature during this time was written in kana by court ladies who were educated with this writing system. Was the literature written by these ladies in waiting true to the lives they lead in the imperial court or was it made up to pass the time? These books written at this time showed the truth about what was happening at the imperial court, they included things about the everyday life of those they served with some omissions or name changes as to not identify anyone who made any kind of mistakes at court.
The most well-known works of literature of the Heian Period was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu who was at the time a Court Lady, the novel is considered a work of fiction but there is much speculation that Lady Murasaki had written about some of the aspects of court life of those around her. Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji is considered to be the first written novel and a true interpretation of court life during the height of the Heian Period. The Tale of Genji follows the story of Hikaru Genji, the son of an Emperor and his favorite concubine their love to one another is illustrated in the beginning of the novel stating, “In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill and came to spend more time at home than at court.” Genji’s mother who was the Emperor’s favorite is also used as a reference in the novel for Chinese Emperor who fell in love with his concubine and his love for her lead to trouble for his people, this reference in the story was used against her as a way to remind her what her relationship would do to the people of the land. It wasn’t until she gave birth to a son that it was truly known that she was the emperor’s favorite. Concubine’s during this period of time were generally women who were from a lower social standing than the court nobles many of which hoped to improve their station in their lives as well as the lives of their families. After the death of the emperor’s favorite concubine the story’s main character is demoted to a commoner and his name is taken off of succession for the throne. Genji grows up to become a very handsome man and much of the novel follows his romantic relationships as well as the lives of his descendants. The majority of characters in the novel are female who are a part of the court in one way or another, the most notable of these female characters is Murasaki who is in most of the novel. Murasaki is with Genji for much of the novel starting when she was ten years old when he kidnapped her from her father’s house because she resembled Genji’s father’s favorite concubine. She’s also the one he loves the most but she’s unable to bare children and has to live through Genji’s marriages until her death because she’s not from a proper social standing to be able to marry him. This shows another aspect of court life during this time in which women are educated but there are some social standings that they wouldn’t be able to move up towards because of their birthparents. Even though sons are given the privilege to become a part of the royal court women aren’t. What’s learned from the novel is not about the life of the main character but the lives of the women around him and how they’re treated within the imperial court.
Another work of literature written by a court lady in waiting was written by Sei Shōnagon it is called The Pillow Book which is referenced as a type of diary that was kept by people of the court that they would hide under their pillows. Unlike Murasaki’s novel Shōnagon’s book is an autobiography of her life as a lady in waiting, though it’s characterized as a fiction, the book is entirely filled with stories of Shōnagon’s life serving at the imperial court. Within the pages of The Pillow Book there are poems and musings which show how women in these times were educated as well as opinionated about how children should be raised. One of the earliest entries in the book Shōnagon describes how there are “Different Ways of Speaking”
“A priest’s language.
The speech of men and of women.
The common people always tend to add extra syllables to their words.”
This is an example of the difference in language between men and women because since women learned kana they’ll know more Japanese then men whose language is still influenced by Chinese, because of the difference in language both groups could be speaking about the same thing but the words would be different. This emphasis in language from the author illustrates the main differences of men and women in the imperial court and how they’re educated in language, but it also demonstrates that women were indeed educated compared to other countries in which women even those who lived in a court system were only educated in certain aspects over others. What makes Shōnagon’s work entirely different from Murasaki is the aspect of a true court lady where what they really exposed to were little things like the changing in days as well as the fact that they were confined to their own thoughts. Shōnagon’s work focuses more on what it’s like to live as a lady in waiting for the Empress over living as one of the Emperor’s concubines. The work also shows the lives of other’s within the court and how they’re seen by those around them. “It is hateful when a well-bred young man who is visiting a woman of lower rank calls out her name in such a way as to make everyone realize that he is on familiar terms with her.” Shōnagon’s reasoning towards this is because she believes that the man should take care of his reputation in the court and slur the name of the girl so that he doesn’t allow people to know that he’s familiar with her in anyway. During this period a person’s rank is very important especially for men who could marry into a different status that women could not, so being familiar with someone could tarnish their reputation in the Japanese court because gossip could spread quickly. Sei Shōnagon’s book shows how her life was at the imperial court but it also hints at the fact that some women in the imperial court had a lot of time on their hands if they could write books about the gossip that occurred in the court.
Those who lived in the Heian Period probably didn’t realize that centuries after the end of their era of life in Japan that their exploits in the imperial court would be looked upon and studied or that the way women were educated would help keep the era alive for generations after. The role of women in the imperial courts of Japan changed over the course of seven hundred years in some ways but much of the same traditions that lived on during the Heian Period for women lived on. The major changes for women is their role in the family and in society became more restricted as it did throughout history for many cultures because of political or religious influences, or the change in the family dynamic. Women who could once own land and pass it down to their heirs during Heian Period were no longer allowed that right. It was during the Tokugawa Period where the role of women changed even more dramatically, “The orthodox ideals of Tokugawa society held that women should be kept ignorant and in the kitchen.” The women who lived in the times of Sei Shōnagon and Lady Murasaki who were strong and capable whether real or fictional who spoke their opinion in their writings and their actions were no longer around because of the feudalistic system that had changed Japan. What made both books different were how they were told The Pillow Book was written from the perspective of Sei Shōnagon and her life at the imperial court, while The Tale of Genji is told from the perspective of the novel’s title character who is a male protagonist which could be why the book appealed to a wider audience. The true importance of the women who lived in the imperial court system during the Heian Period is that they were able to write incredible works of literature that would still be known widely throughout history. Their works are what educate people about the court system that was in japan over eight hundred years before and are now recognized as historical works and not as just fiction.
Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan. New York, Oxford University Press, 2014
Seidensticker, Edward G., and Shikibu Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. Unabridged. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2013.
Shōnagon, Sei, and Ivan I. Morris. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. Print.