The women of Japan’s literary golden age


During the Heian Period, Japan emerged from the shadows of Chinese influence and a Japanese national identity was established. A time of significant artistic and literary developments, it was women who were at the heart of this cultural golden age.

Political power in this period was explicitly tied to marriage. Ambitious men arranged for their daughters to marry the emperor such that they would soon become the grandfather to the future emperor. Consequently, women had a fundamental place in the imperial court where they were both educated in letters and arts, to make them attractive, and exposed to aspects of culture previously denied to them.

Two such women, whose works continue to exert significant influence on Japanese and world literature, were Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, ladies-in-waiting to Heian empresses. Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, an immense work of literature spanning 1,300 pages, is widely considered to be the first novel, featuring interiority, irony, and distancing effects. Shonagon’s The Pillow Book is a diary-style composition of personal thoughts and observations on court life. To express themselves more eloquently, both these women developed a uniquely Japanese style of writing, ‘kana’, and were central to the emergence and development of vernacular literature which came to define the national literature.

Following Hiraku Genji and three generations of his descendants through various love affairs within the evocative grandeur of the imperial court, The Tale of Genji is a seminal text. Whilst the central character is male, we are given insight into the dynamics of male-female relationships from the female perspective – something we don’t see in Western literature until the time of Jane Austen. Shikibu ensures the woman is central to this text from the opening moments, immediately shifting her focus from Genji to his mother and how her attractiveness enabled Genji’s social pre-eminence.

Despite its 11th century conception, Shikibu magnifies the sexual domination of women to men of higher status in constructions of relationship all too familiar to modern readers in the era of #MeToo. In a scene where Genji is, in an anachronistic reading, assaulting a woman, he ensures her silence and his reputation by telling her ‘It won’t do you a bit of good to call for somebody since everybody yields to me. So do be quiet.’

Despite its 11th century conception, Shikibu magnifies the sexual domination of women to men of higher status’

As a further layer of complexity, Shikibu’s vivid emotional characterisation has led many to regard this as the first psychological novel. Shikibu explores fundamental and universal human truths and emotions which accounts for its lasting appeal to readers through millennia: the fraught coexistence of love and loss, awareness of the frailty of the mortal body, and internal responses to tactile and visual intimacy.

Commanding a space in the Japanese literary canon equivalent to that of Shakespeare, the influence of The Tale of Genji is entrenched in the nation’s literature. From its influence on conventions of the haiku, to Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, to its numerous adaptations in manga comics, Shikibu’s text is being continually recanonised in the Japanese cultural identity.

Commanding a space in the Japanese literary canon equivalent to that of Shakespeare, the influence of The Tale of Genji is entrenched in the nation’s literature

When, in 1925, Arthur Waley translated the text into English and it was reviewed in British Vogue by Virginia Woolf, this was a definitive moment which saw The Tale of Genji travel West to be considered as a work of international literature. Woolf admired Shikibu’s ‘hatred of bombast, her humour, her common sense, her passion for the contrasts and curiosities of human nature, for houses mouldering away among the weeds and the winds.’

The vignettes and brief observations which comprise Shonagon’s The Pillow Book deliver whimsical observations of the imperial court and her opinions about the world in which she operates. Shonagon’s writing is daring and playful: members of the court are often satirised, her personal voice is dominant and unwavering, and she possesses a tangible sense of humour.

Women continue to be forces in Japanese fiction. Mieko Kawakami, Sayaka Murata, Yoko Ogawa and Yu Miri, to name just a few, dominate Japan’s top literary prizes. They write about how their characters confront punishing beauty standards, expectations to become mothers and sexual assault. When we trace these themes back to the works of the original Japanese novel-writers, Shikibu and Shonagon, we develop a picture of Japanese women who defy the simplistic and long-standing notion that they are completely subjugated by men, and rather see that women’s voices echo loudly through cultural, political and literary life in Japan.

Image credits: Yashima Gakutei

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