Interviews

Women Writers in Ancient Japan

The immense cultural achievements of women writers in ancient Japan — Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973 or 978-c. 1014 or 1031 CE), Sei Shonagon (c. 966-c. 1017 or 1025 CE), and Izumi Shikibu (c. 976-c. 1040 CE) — facilitated the first flowering of classical Japanese literature. Women wrote Japan’s and perhaps Asia’s first autobiographical narratives in diaries and memoirs, as well as miscellaneous writings composed of poems, lists, observations, and personal essays during the Heian era (794-1185 CE). For this reason, the Japanese can uniquely claim to have a literary golden age dominated by women.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE) speaks to Professor Lynne K. Miyake of Pomona College about the importance of these women writers and what enabled their literary brilliance.

JW: A thousand years ago, the city of Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto) in Japan was one of the largest and most sophisticated cities in the world. Like Abbasid Baghdad (750-1258 CE) or Hangzhou under the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), Heian-kyo boasted a resplendent imperial court where the arts played a central role in the conduct of daily life.

Professor Miyake, what socio-cultural forces enabled the prominence of Japanese women writers during this time; what was it that made Heian-kyo such an hospitable place for women writers?

LM: Succinctly put, the forces that enabled women writers to flourish during the Heian era are three fold: the adoption of the scholar-bureaucrat tradition from Tang China (618-907 CE); the utilization of the dual writing systems of classical Chinese and vernacular Japanese; and the establishment of a regent government where male relatives married their female relatives into the imperial family to gain access to the throne.

“In this world love has no color — yet how deeply my body is stained by yours.” ~ Izumi Shikibu (c. 976-c. 1040 CE)

In accordance with Chinese practice, those in power were required to be scholar-bureaucrats with training in the official historical and philosophical texts in classical Chinese, and also in the arts of calligraphy, poetry, music, and painting, thus giving the arts great prominence in governance. But much of the language of governance — imperial edicts, documents, and the like — was written in classical Chinese and deemed off-limits to women.

With classical Chinese as the language of privileged discourse, things might have been exceedingly difficult for women writers had it not been for the marriage politics in play. One family, the Fujiwara clan, gained ascendancy at court by marrying their sisters and daughters into the imperial family and ruling as regents in place of their young charges, who were placed on the throne as children. The only way men outside of this coveted family could access power was by marrying their own female relatives into the Fujiwara family. This union of women to men of power — for political reasons — is not a rarity in the history of the world, but what made it unusual was the practice of educating women in letters and the arts to make them attractive mates, marriage pawns if you will, which ironically enabled women to create what later came to be considered the belle lettres of the period.

Empress Shoshi with her infant son Atsuhira is depicted in this 13th-century painting with her father Fujiwara no Michinaga and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu, presiding at the 50-day ceremony of the child's birth. Unknown, detached segment from Murasaki Shikibu Nikki Emaki. (Tokyo National Museum. <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empress_Sh%C5%8Dshi#/media/File:Empress_Shoshi_and_son.jpg"><strong>Free Domain</strong></a>.)

Empress Shoshi with her infant son Atsuhira is depicted in this 13th-century painting with her father Fujiwara no Michinaga and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu, presiding at the 50-day ceremony of the child’s birth. Unknown, detached segment from the Murasaki Shikibu Nikki Emaki. (Tokyo National Museum. Free Domain.)

This, of course, did not preclude men’s literary production, which included composition of poetry in both Japanese and classical Chinese, diaries in classical Chinese, and even prose tales, which were predecessors to great works like The Tale of Genji. However, while the men were occupied writing in both Japanese and classical Chinese, the women came to write largely in Japanese, creating what the literary economies of the twentieth and twentieth centuries have come to celebrate as the major literary pieces of the Heian period.

“…it might be best to say that the zeitgist of the period is a composite if not amalgamation of all these women’s writings…”

Some scholars, like Professor Victoria V. Vernon, argue that women writers in ancient Japan achieved success through lineage — having the right pedigree to acquire training in the literary arts; language — being able to compose in vernacular Japanese with the freedom to engage and explore genres, which were shunned by men; and leisure — possessing the time and space to write because they were confined to their homes, and not saddled with the social and official responsibilities associated with male courtier service. Of course, the ladies-in-waiting like Murasaki Shikibu and her contemporary Sei Shonagon did serve at court, as did other women writers of the period, but their duties were largely limited to serving their master or mistress. They did exercise their own agency in creative and personal matters. Additionally, women like Murasaki Shikibu and Shonagon learned classical Chinese; however, they incorporated it into vernacular Japanese and created what can be termed a “hybrid style.”

JW: The greatest work produced during the Heian era is undoubtedly The Tale of Genji written by Murasaki Shikibu c. 1010 CE. Widely considered the world’s first “novel,” The Tale of Genji is an immense tale of 54 chapters, which meticulously evokes the splendor of old Kyoto and the Heian imperial court.

Why though is The Tale of Genji considered a masterpiece within the canon of Japanese literature? Is it because of the complex relationships between its the characters as well as its psychological depth?

LM: Before I begin answering the substance of your question, I should say that I do not take issue with the general referencing of The Tale of Genji as a “novel,” as long as it is considered one in twentieth or twenty-first century and not in 19th-century classic realist terms. The reason for my concern is that the tale actually simulates an oral tradition — it’s closer to the 18th-century The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman than the classic omniscient novel.

Izumi Shikibu, shown here in a Kusazoshi by Komatsuken from c. 1765 CE, was a fêted poet at Empress Teishi's court. (This work is currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Free Domain.))

Izumi Shikibu, shown here in a Kusazoshi by Komatsuken from c. 1765 CE, was a fêted poet at Empress Teishi’s court. (This work is currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Free Domain)

Much is lost, however, when the tale is translated into English, for it is transformed into a “classic novel” in its utilization of the past tense. In actuality, the tale operates more like a written version of a “spoken word” text; that is, the tale loses its sense of a orally-delivered narration directed to an intimate few, perhaps sitting in a darkened room, transfixed as the tale unfolds before them in medias res. Much is in code as cultural and social information is required of the listener-reader for the tale is constructed for in-group, collaborative readers, who are “in-the-know.”

Ironically this actually works to draw in present-day readers, as they are made to feel welcome in a very special world, which looks exceedingly different but which has much that readers throughout the centuries have been able to understand, recognize, and engage. The tale speaks to the trials and tribulations of both men and women living in a court society over a millennium ago, to their desires for love and acceptance and power in terms that we all understand; however, at the same time, these serve as foils that mask the power struggles at an ancient court where love relationships are not just for love, but also as a means to create alliances to solidify positions at court.

Philosophical, religious, aesthetic themes and concerns abound; the more one knows and brings to the text, the richer and fuller the experience and appreciation. Complex relationships, psychological depth, bringing to life a bygone world, and more, are what make it a masterpiece.

JW: Another famous Heian writer is the witty conversationalist Sei Shonagon, who was a rival to Murasaki Shikibu. Shonagon’s Pillow Book (Makura no Soshi), which is composed of personal thoughts and whimsical observations, is as delightful to read now as it was over a millennium ago.

Can one fairly compare the two given their different approach to style and genre? There are those scholars who would contend that Shonagon was Shikbu’s literary superior. What are your thoughts?

LM: An oft asked question indeed, James. It can be likened to comparing apples with oranges, for Shonagon is often described as warm, lively, witty, while Murasaki Shikibu has been stylized as dark, more introspective, and even taciturn. Their writings may indeed indicate such a reading, but Miyoko Iwasa (1926-), a scholar of the ancient and medieval diaries (nikki bungaku), has a wonderfully innovative take on the two writers.

A drawing of Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai (1788–1878 CE). Shonagon was a rival to Lady Murasaki and authored the Pillow Book. (Free Domain.)

A drawing of Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai (1788–1878 CE). Shonagon was a rival to Lady Murasaki and authored the Pillow Book. (Free Domain.)

Iwasa determines that the greatest variable to be found in the writings of Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon come from the differing political realities in force during the times the two women served in court. She argues these realities greatly impacted the relationship between empress and lady-in-waiting, and most prominently fashioned The Pillow Book, Murasaki Shikibu’s diary (The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu), and even The Tale of Genji. Although the two women are often thought of as “contemporaries,” Iwasa notes that the heydays of the two courts were separated by a critical period of ten years.

Between the years of c. 993-1000 CE, Teishi (977-1001 CE), the empress whom Shonagon served, was the sole recipient of the emperor’s favor, so she could maintain a showy, attractive salon, establish a supportive, stimulating relationships with her ladies, and even bestow overt favor on Shonagon without repercussions for this favoritism. By the time that Empress Shoshi (988-1074 CE) arrived on the scene in 1008 CE, the political climate was so finely calibrated that the fortunes of the family could not be left in her hands alone. Shoshi’s father, the powerful and cunning Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1028 CE), could not afford to bank solely on Shoshi’s charms to draw the attention of the emperor, for Teishi was the older, more experienced, and the emperor’s favorite. As a result, Michinaga maintained stringent control, causing the much gentler Shoshi to take the safer, less conspicuous route in terms of both her salon and her relationships with her ladies.

All of this is reflected in the writings of the two women: Shonagon’s style is daring, flashy, and witty, while Shikibu’s, especially in her diary, appears more guarded, circumscribed, and even psychological.

JW: A lesser-known figure in the West is Izumi Shikibu, a renowned poet, diarist. She was another contemporary to Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu. Her scandalous love affairs and lyrical brilliance secured her pre-eminence in Japanese literature.

Izumi Shikibu’s 240 poems are a mélange of eroticism, lost love, and a decidedly Buddhist-world view. Would it be fair to say that Izumi best delineates the zeitgeist of this rarefied age, Professor Miyake?

LM: One of the brilliant minds of the period, Izumi Shikibu, who served in the same salon as Murasaki Shikibu, is well known for her poetry and her Izumi Shikibu Diary, which is suitably filled with her poetry. This work also relates her love affair first with Prince Tametaka, a close relative of the imperial family, and then later with his half-brother Atsumichi. So extensive was her reputation as a great lover — this gleaned as much from her poetry and her diary as from her life — that she is often stylized as the female counterpart to the talented poet Ariwara no Narihira (c. 825?-c. 880? CE) and as following in the steps of Ono no Komachi (c. 825-c. 900 CE), who is also known for her intensively passionate poetry.

A page from an illuminated manuscript of the second collected works of Izumi Shikibu. Ink on decorated paper, 12th century CE. (Tokyo National Museum. <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Izumi_Shikibu#/media/File:A_page_Ms_2nd_collected_works_of_Izumi_Shikibu.jpg"><strong>CC BY 3.0.</strong></a> Created: 26 September 2004.)

A page from an illuminated manuscript of the second collected works of Izumi Shikibu. Ink on decorated paper, 12th century CE. (Tokyo National Museum. CC BY 3.0. Created: 26 September 2004.)

We must also not forget another prominent writer of the age: Michitsuna no haha (c. 935-995 CE), author of the Kagero Diary, who recorded her rather tortured relationship with Michinaga’s father, Fujiwara no Kaneie (929-990 CE). Hers is the first in a long series of nikki bungaku (diary literature) written by women. For this reason and for the presence of Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, it might be best to say that the zeitgist of the period is a composite if not amalgamation of all these women’s writings and, of course, those of the male courtiers too.

JW: The products of the Heian women’s “writing brush” have been read through the ages as historical records. How and why should we read their collective works as “history”?

LM: The Tale of Genji and the other women’s writings of the Heian period have been read as “history” most likely soon after their inception. And, if we take Leo Tolstoy’s comments in regards to the significance of his War and Peace, it is precisely the history of the “little people,” the people living their everyday lives rather than just the great historical figures, which constitutes history, then the fictional or semi-fictional writing of the Heian women writers should indeed be considered history. But is there any writing that we can consider to be the “true” rendering of any period since all writing, just like all thinking, is interpretive?

What I mean is that even in autobiographical studies, securing the “true” rendering of a life, of events of that life, is moot, for there is no one truth. Renderings of any event depends on perspective; for example, what is usually considered mainstream and often the privileged perspective in many parts of the world, including the U.S., are still largely white, heterosexual, first world, and male. Once we add ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, and so forth, the perception of an event becomes multiple and diverse. Determining which account is “right” seems close to impossible.

Illustration of The Tale of Genji -- "Wakamurasaki," traditionally credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691 CE). (Part of the Burke Albums, property of Mary Griggs Burke. (<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murasaki_Shikibu#/media/File:Ch5_wakamurasaki.jpg"><strong>Public Domain</strong></a>.)

Illustration of The Tale of Genji — “Wakamurasaki,” traditionally credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691 CE). (Part of the Burke Albums, property of Mary Griggs Burke. Public Domain.)

That being said, is there anything that we can consider “history” in the accounts of the women writers of the Heian period? I think there is if we are cognizant of several facts. In the case of the Heian women writers, if we are careful to think about them as accounts of the lives of women from the point of view of the women who wrote them, as well as realizing that other concerns also fashioned these writings, we can use them as guide posts as to what life was like. From there, we can also ponder what might be considered the material, emotional, social, and cultural, if not political, history of the period.

JW: Professor Miyake, where can visitors to Kyoto and its environs encounter the evocative vestiges of this dazzling golden age? Do you have any recommendations or suggestions?

LM: I must confess that my knowledge of Heian vestiges in present-day Kyoto was limited to the Byodo-in Temple (originally the country villa of Fujiwara no Michinaga) and the presence of the Uji River into which Ukifune, the youngest of the princesses from the last ten chapters of The Tale of Genji, is supposedly to have thrown herself or at least been seduced into entering its waters.

I turned to my colleague, Professor Bruce Coats, who teaches Japanese and Chinese art history at Scripps College in Claremont, California. Professor Coats notes that Byodo-in “is fairly authentic and that the pond has been recently been reshaped to be closer to the original [form and that] the Ujigami jinja, across the river from the Byodo-in, is the oldest shrine in Kyoto, dating from the Heian period but, of course, rebuilt over the centuries in the original style.” He continues that the “nearby Hokaiji Temple is another Amida Hall, dating to the late Heian Period, and its statue is [from the] eleventh century [CE].” Most interestingly, he explains that the “Kamo Shrines preserve their Heian layouts, and the Shimagamo supposedly has trees that might date back to the Heian Period — certainly it is a ‘primordial glade’ that has survived.”

As you can see, I am very indebted to Professor Coats for the providing such detailed information! But what an interesting question, James.

Byodo-in's Phoenix Hall is a Japan's National Treasure in Uji, Kyoto prefecture, Japan. It was built in 1153 CE. Byodo-in was registered as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site "Historic monuments of ancient Kyoto." (CC BY 2.5. Created: 27 November 2010.)

Byodo-in’s Phoenix Hall is a Japan’s National Treasure in Uji, Kyoto prefecture, Japan. It was built in 1153 CE. Byodo-in was registered as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Historic monuments of ancient Kyoto.” (CC BY 2.5. Created: 27 November 2010.)

JW: Professor Miyake, I cannot thank you enough for your time and consideration. It has been a pleasure to discuss these ancient women writers with you.

LM: I thank you for providing such a wonderful opportunity to talk about one of my favorite subjects — the literary products of the Heian women writers and especially the Genji. I continue to work on the Genji in what would no doubt be considered a surprisingly different take on the subject in my examination of the Japanese manga comics versions of the tale!

miyakelynne2007

Professor Lynne K. Miyake

Professor Lynne K. Miyake has a background in classical Japanese literature, and she works extensively in the narrative prose and diary literature traditions of ancient Japan. In particular, she examines the different narrative strategies employed by authors, narrators and readers in the creation of the textual experience. She also looks at how gender is configured through the various players, for example, in a narrator who is a continuum composite of male and female rather than simply one or the other. Her studies have more recently included the intersection between contemporary authors, scholars and film makers, and classical Japanese literature. Currently, Miyake is Professor of Japanese and Coordinator of the Japanese Section at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Edited by James Blake Wiener for AHE. Special thanks is extended to Liza Dalby. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved. © AHE 2016. Please contact us for rights to republication.

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James Wiener

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.