The Heian period(794-1185), the so-called golden age of Japanese culture, produced some of the finest works of Japanese literature.1 The most well known work from this period, the Genji Monogatari, is considered to be the “oldest novel still recognized today as a major masterpiece.”2 It can also be said that the Genji Monogatari is proof of the ingenuity of the Japanese in assimilating Chinese culture and politics. As a monogatari, a style of narrative with poems interspersed within it, the characters and settings frequently allude to Chinese poems and stories. In addition to displaying the poetic prowess that the Japanese had attained by this time period, the Genji Monogatari also demonstrates how politics and gender ideals were adopted from the Chinese.
The Tale of Genji is considered the first great novel in the history of world literature. Murasaki Shikibu’s actual name is unknown, however it was common to name women after the office held by a male relative. Her father admired her academic brilliance but wished she were born a man instead because in the Heian society, Chinese learning was only valued for men. Men and women were strictly segregated in Heian Japan. Typically, women were married around ten or eleven, and their role was to bear children. The purpose of marriage was to continue the family line and create alliances with other families. Heian women’s literature thrived in this world of gender asymmetries. As female authors, women voiced how they suffered from their dependence on their husbands.
Joan Scott, an American historian in gender history and intellectual history, argues that gender is the key category to analyze history, and Joan Piggott and Akiko Yoshie point out the incontrovertible fact that women did rule in ancient Japan. Scott argues that it is crucial to study how culture constructed femininity and masculinity. She applied theory to the study of the relationship of gender roles in different societies, and also linked this history approach to poststructuralism. The examination of the category women must be carefully analyzed in terms of the process of how gender created the difference in male and female identities. Therefore, it is vital to study historical female sovereignty, in order to understand the political significance, in this case, of female emperors in ancient Japan.
If I happen to encounter poetry imbedded within prose, I tend to either skip over it, scan it, or otherwise read it as quickly as possible if it seems uninteresting. I am almost shamed to admit that my reading habits hold no exception for traditional Japanese literature, although I guess I am forced to go back and actually read them thoroughly now, since that happens to be the topic of this paper. First of all, I can grasp the meaning of the poem if it is obvious enough in context. For someone unfamiliar with Japanese literature, history, language, etc., it is difficult to understand, let alone recognize the allusions present. Luckily, Royall Tyler was kind enough to footnote a good majority of the poems for the inexperienced readers such as myself, and I am much obliged to him. Even then, I sometimes find that the meaning is beyond me, too dependent on cultural references, or simply too sappy.
Brinkley F. Captain. " Japan (East Asia) Its History, Arts, and Literature." Oriental Series. Volume I, Chapter VI, " The Heian Epoch." Page 157. Copyright Date 1901.
Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, set in the Heian Period, gives a good idea of what the model Heian man and Heian woman should look like. Genji himself is like a physical embodiment of male perfection, while a large portion of the Broom Tree chapter outlines the ideal of a woman—that it is men who decide what constitutes a perfect woman, and the fact that even they cannot come to decide which traits are the best, and whether anyone can realistically possess all of those traits shows that the function of women in the eyes of men of that period was largely to cater to their husbands and households. Broken down, there are similarities and differences between the standard for Heian men and women, and the Tale of Genji provides excellent examples of characters who fit into their respective gender roles.
The Japanese medieval age consists of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (from approximately 1185 to 1600). During this time, the political power was switching from the imperial family to a militaristic government. In addition, civil wars (from 1156 to 1568) were increasing throughout Japan. This change of centrality in society’s focus from court to warriors shifted the perception and style of Japanese literature.
Throughout history artists have used art as a means to reflect the on goings of the society surrounding them. Many times, novels serve as primary sources in the future for students to reflect on past history. Students can successfully use novels as a source of understanding past events. Different sentiments and points of views within novels serve as the information one may use to reflect on these events. Natsume Soseki’s novel Kokoro successfully encapsulates much of what has been discussed in class, parallels with the events in Japan at the time the novel takes place, and serves as a social commentary to describe these events in Japan at the time of the Mejeii Restoration and beyond. Therefore, Kokoro successfully serves as a primary source students may use to enable them to understand institutions like conflicting views Whites by the Japanese, the role of women, and the population’s analysis of the Emperor.
Based on Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji” the ideal man and the ideal woman of the Heian Court can easily be discerned as not truly existing, with the main character, Genji, being the nearly satirical example of what was the ideal man, and descriptions of the many women in the story as prescription of the ideal woman with the young Murasaki playing a similar role to that of Genji in the story.
Being a student interested in the field of biology, one knows that studying life in the past plays an important role in the history of organisms that lived on this earth. Similarly, being Japanese, studying the past of how Japanese were plays an important role in Japanese history. Despite all the general aspects of life that have changed from the Heian period, the one idea that has definitely not changed is the romantic relationships between a man and woman. Though the general concept is the same, from reading The Tale of Genji, it is what was considered the ideal woman and ideal man that were both surprising and thus worth discussing.