The Heian Period Aristocrats
Japanese aristocratic society developed to its fullest extent during the long Heian period (794-1191). Aristocratic culture of the Heian period is particularly fascinating because many of its values, practices and customs differed sharply from those of today's world--in Japan or elsewhere. A study of Heian-period life can therefore help to de-familiarize contemporary cultural values that may seem obvious or "natural." Moreover, studying the Heian period is simply interesting. We start with basic information about the aristocracy and then turn to select cultural values and aspects of their lifestyles.
Basic Social Institutions
Before examining the lives of these aristocrats, we need a brief description of major social organization and institutions. The Heian court, headed by an emperor, claimed sovereignty over most of the territory of the Japanese islands. It did not have the power to rule with equal firmness over all of this vast territory, however, so it relied heavily on local officials who in turn relied on the cooperation of local warlords and local Buddhist temples. The central government appointed governors to each of over fifty provinces, and these governors employed local notables to collect taxes and keep order.
The vast majority of Japan's people worked in agriculture, and, as the Heian period progressed, many of them became workers on special agricultural estates known as shōen. These estates were complex legal entities that gradually became exempt from direct central government supervision and tax collection. Instead, powerful nobles in the capital held formal interests in these estates (much like owning stock in a corporation) and, in return for using their influence to maintain the special legal status of the estates, they received regular payments, often in produce, from these lands. We need not concern ourselves with any of the details here, but the main point to remember is that land holding and the distribution of the proceeds of the land was highly complex in Heian Japan and for several centuries thereafter.
In the big picture, there were four major groups who wielded political power during the Heian period. One was the emperor and the imperial family. Political theory to the contrary notwithstanding, the Japanese emperor rarely ruled as a strong monarch--in contrast to China's emperors, who often did. The emperor, while highly prestigious and often politically influential, faced a number of structural forces that tended to put him in a ceremonial and religious role. During the middle of the Heian period, the emperor was dominated by the powerful Fujiwara family, who employed the politics of marriage and court intrigue to usurp the political power of the emperors (#more details#). Eventually the imperial family devised ways to out-maneuver the Fujiwara, but doing so literally required constructing a second, shadow court presided over by a retired emperor (#more details#). Like land holding, political institutions in Heian times were highly complex.
Mention of the Fujiwara family brings up the next group of power holders: the aristocracy or nobility. These aristocrats filtered out into many different ranks. Perhaps the most important factor in deciding this rank was the overall status of one's extended family (often called a "clan" in this context). The Fujiwara family, for example, enjoyed the highest prestige except for that of the imperial family itself, which is why it was able to marry into the imperial family and thereby manipulate it. The Heian nobility, in short, was based on hereditary privilege. Although there were some weak social institutions that helped sort out aristocrats based on knowledge or ability (a civil service examination system, for example, but much weaker than the civil service system in China), heredity was the overwhelming factor in one's general status. Ability and knowledge might enable someone to advance slightly, but there was little room for social mobility in Heian Japan. The aristocracy as a whole was a powerful force, and it was rare that an emperor was able to rule in ways that the major aristocratic families opposed.
The next powerful group was organized religion, in this case the Tendai and Shingon sects of Buddhism. In terms of personnel, there was a significant overlap between the leading Buddhist clergy and both the nobility and the imperial family. It was common, for example, for imperial princes to become the heads of the major Buddhist monasteries. Furthermore, emperors and nobles alike often retired from worldly affairs to become Buddhist monks. In many cases, however, they continued to exert political influence even after joining the clergy. Buddhist temples maintained armies of warrior monks and held interests in the special estates mentioned previously. They were, in short, wealthy and powerful, and they often wielded political influence as a result.
The final group of major power holders during the Heian period were provincial warriors, or, more precisely, the heads of provincial warrior groups. There is a stereotype about Japan that it is a place where warriors have long enjoyed great prestige. This notion, however, is in part a product of modern, Orientalist-mode thinking after Japan defeated Russia in war that ended in 1905. It is from this time that Europeans and Americans became fascinated with samurai warriors, martial arts, and so forth. We will examine this matter further in later chapters, but for now, be aware that warriors enjoyed no prestige among the aristocrats of Heian Japan. Indeed, for one aristocrat to suggest that another was proficient in martial arts was a common rhetorical device for casting an insult. Of course, the warriors did have a certain advantage--deadly force--but it was not until the end of the Heian period that they began to challenge the authority of the central government.
In general, it is fair to say that the central government was inefficient and (potentially, at least) very weak. One reason it remained in power so long is that there were no external military threats to Japan from the outside. Internally, the central government relied on a balance of power strategy to maintain control of the provinces. If one warrior group threatened to cause problems (as some did from time to time), the court appointed another to neutralize it. The reward for provincial warriors groups who did the courts bidding successfully was usually the bestowal of a very minor aristocratic rank on its leaders. For a while, such payoffs were sufficient. Eventually, however, the warriors began to want more, which brought the Heian period to a close.
For more details about the basic institutions and politics of the Heian period, read #this chapter.#
Social Organization and Occupations
By almost any estimate, the Heian-period aristocracy comprised less than one percent of the entire population of Japan, and it was under ten percent of the population even within Kōyto. There remains a large quantity of literature from the Heian period, nearly all of which is by the aristocracy, for the aristocracy, and about the aristocracy. We know next to nothing about the lifestyles, beliefs and customs of the majority of the people in Japan at the time. We therefore focus our attention only on aristocratic life. But we can be nearly certain that life among the peasants and other ordinary people at the time was much different. Most of the information for this section can be found in Ivan Morris' excellent study of Heian aristocratic life, The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan.
Suppose we were to ask a random sample of well-educated U.S. citizens about typical "Japanese characteristics," or "things Japanese." Many respondents would probably come up with items such as the following:
Culture in General: tea ceremony, nō and kabuki drama, haiku poems, polychrome ukiyoe prints, shamisen music, flower arrangement, miniature landscapes.
Society: samurai warriors with their two swords, geisha.
Realm of Ideas: Zen Buddhism, bushidō (idealized samurai ethic), conflicting demands of duty and human affection, permissive attitude toward suicide.
Domestic Architecture: tatami (woven straw mats) as ordinary floor covering, large communal baths, tokonoma alcoves in houses.
Food: raw fish, tempura, sukiyaki, soy sauce.1
Although this list is somewhat stereotypical, the items on it are indeed aspects of Japanese culture, although a few, like the samurai and the ukiyoe prints, are no longer living parts of Japanese culture. One hundred years ago, this list would still have been acceptable. Even three hundred years ago, we could find all the items on the list as part of Japanese culture. But what about during the Heian period? Interestingly, none of the items on the list were important parts of Japanese culture during the Heian period, and the vast majority did not even exist at that time--so much for the Orientalist stereotype of an unchanging Japan.
Heian aristocratic society was obsessed, among other things, with rank and formal status. The basic definition of an aristocrat was one who held court rank. There were *ten basic court ranks.* Each was subdivided into junior and senior grades. Ranks four through ten were further subdivided into upper and lower. There were, in other words, approximately thirty gradations in formal rank. One aristocrat might be "junior sixth rank, upper;" another might be "senior fourth rank, lower." The major division was at the fifth rank. The emperor himself appointed those of the fifth rank and above, while a government agency issued the appointments of those of the sixth through tenth ranks. Those of the top three ranks enjoyed particularly high status and benefits. These "appointments" become mere formalities by the middle of the Heian period. What determined a person's rank was not his or her actual abilities or merit, but the rank parents or other relatives had held (plus political infighting in some cases). Rank, in other words, was mainly hereditary. Furthermore, a person's rank determined the sort of government positions, in the case of males, to which he would be appointed. For males and females, rank was the major determinant of wealth and social opportunities. There was a limited civil service examination system during the Heian period, and, early in the period, passing its difficult exams could lead to a career as a minor official. By the middle of the Heian period, however, the exam system no longer functioned as even a narrow path to government office.
From where did the ranked aristocrats originate? As mentioned earlier, they carried over from previous eras. Morris explains:
Members of the High Court Nobility [top three ranks] were recruited from among junior branches of the imperial family and from the great families who had held clan titles (kabane) in the pre-reform [Taika Reform, 645] days. The Fourth and Fifth Ranks drew their original membership mainly from the lesser clans in the Yamato region and from certain distinguished foreign families that had immigrated to Japan during the previous two centuries; the remaining ranks included the heads of the minor clans, particularly those in the provinces.2
So the members of the highest three ranks were the descendants of the ruling Yamato confederation of clans prior to the Nara period.
The holders of any of the aristocratic ranks enjoyed special legal and economic privileges. The level of privileges increased sharply for those of the fifth rank and above, and still more so for those of the third rank and above. There was a link between one's rank and nearly every detail of daily life. The type of clothing one would wear under various circumstances, the type of carriage one might use, (*example 1* *example 2*) the size and location of one's residence, and even the height of one's gatepost were all a function of rank. Would all aristocrats carry the same type of fan? Of course not! Those of the first three ranks carried fans with twenty-five folds. The fourth and fifth ranks carried fans of twenty-three folds. Those of the sixth rank and below were allowed a mere twelve folds in their fans. Rank also, of course, influenced the details of human interaction.
Owing to the accident of historical circumstances, the world of the Heian aristocrats was remarkably sheltered from many of the harsh realities of life. There was no threat of invasion from abroad. Internally, there was an occasional rebellion, but the court had little difficulty convincing rival warrior bands to do any fighting that might be required. The periodic battles that resulted took place away from the capital, with little or no direct impact on Kyōto's inhabitants until the last century of the Heian period. Local governors or their agents extracted taxes and kept law and order. There was a price for this law and order, since many of these governors took every opportunity, legal or otherwise, to enrich themselves. Because it was the source of their wealth, provincial officials tended to be loyal to the imperial system from which they derived their authority. For these and other reasons, the aristocrats in the capital rarely had grave matters of state with which to concern themselves.
The lack of urgent state business did not mean the aristocrats were idle. Though competition for the top government posts was intense, many male aristocrats held political office of some kind. Theoretically, politics was a male domain during the Heian period (in contrast with the Nara period), and men held all formal ministerial offices. Private residences and public buildings, however, featured *large open rooms.* Thin screens of fabric divided these open spaces, and women were frequently nearby in one capacity or another, particularly in the imperial place where the emperor's wives and female relatives had groups of ladies-in-waiting as attendants. No spatial arrangement could have been more ideal for political intrigue, particularly because, as we shall see, aristocratic men and women often had multiple sex partners. Conversations were *easy to overhear,* and word traveled fast in the small, gossip-loving world of the capital. Under these circumstances, women often involved themselves in politics behind the scenes, the marriage politics of the Fujiwara clan being but one example of many.
The world of formal offices and government administration was a forest of red tape and paper-shuffling. Government activity was largely a matter of external ceremony and form, with little regard for administrative efficiency. Morris provides an excellent description:
The procedure for issuing Imperial Decrees provides an example of Heian bureaucracy rampant. When the Grand Council of State have decided on a proposal, they submit it to the emperor, whose secretaries rewrite it as a State document, drafted of course in Chinese. After the emperor has read it, he automatically approves and signified this by writing the day of the month in his own hand (the year and the month having already been filled in by the secretaries). The draft is then sent to the Ministry of Central Affairs. The minister makes a Report of Acknowledgment to the emperor. He then examines the document and (approval being automatic) inscribes the Chinese character for 'Proclaim' under his official title. The next stop is the office of the Senior Assistant Minister, who, after the usual delays, writes the character for 'Received'. The same procedure is followed by the Junior Assistant Minister, except that he writes the character 'Perform.' Now the draft goes to the Scribes' Office, where it is copied. The document is then sent back to the Grand Council of State, where the Major Counsellor makes a Report of Acknowledgment. Next the emperor sees the document; this time he writes the character 'Approved' and returns it to the Great Council. Here the document is thoroughly scrutinized and, if no stylistic mistakes are found, it is sent back to the Scribes' Office for multi-copying. Each copy is signed jointly by the Prime Minister and all other officials who are concerned with the matter in hand, and then sent to the palace for the ceremony of affixing the Great Imperial Seal (Seiin no Gi). Now finally the decree can be promulgated. Since, as often as not, it is concerned with some such question as the type of head-dress hat an official of the Third Rank may wear at court, we can judge the prodigious waste of time and effort involved in government procedure.3
When viewed out of context, this sort of activity may seem a waste of time by today's standards. In the contexts of the values of Heian aristocratic society, however, proper dress was a major issue, as we see below. Form was as important, or more so, than content--if we can even make a distinction between the two. Of course, the lack of urgent problems described above was also a major reason Heian government worked the way it did. Furthermore, both in the capital and in the provinces, a host of relatively low-ranking official worked hard to keep the day-to-day machinery of government running.
The Rule of Taste and the Cult of Beauty
The tendency for ceremony to dominate affairs of government was but one aspect of a broader feature of Heian aristocratic society. According to historian George Sansom: "The most striking feature of the aristocratic society of the Heian capital was its aesthetic quality. It is true that it was a society composed of a small number of especially favoured people, but it is none the less remarkable that, even in its emptiest follies, it was moved by considerations of refinement and governed by a rule of taste."4 Sansom hit the nail on the head with the important phrase "rule of taste," which we should contrast with the rule of law (civil or moral) that prevails in many societies. In Heian Japan, subtle rules of aesthetic refinement were the major regulators of aristocratic behavior. Negotiating these rules with skill was the primary challenge for an aristocrat desirous of the coveted goal of a good reputation.
What constituted good taste? That which was beautiful constituted good taste. Heian aristocrats made a cult out of beauty. Of course, what a Heian aristocrat might consider beautiful, someone in different cultural circumstances might consider ugly. In terms of personal appearance, for example, Heian aristocrats regarded white teeth as ugly, particularly for women. "They look just like peeled caterpillars" wrote one critic of a woman who refused to blacken her teeth. To blacken their teeth Heian women applied a sticky black dye to their teeth so that their mouths resembled a dark, toothless oval when open. This particular custom of blackening the teeth (o-haguro お歯黒) persisted until the 1870s among certain elite groups of Japanese women.
There were many other aspects of a beautiful personal appearance. Both men and women prized a rounded, plump figure. The face in particular would ideally have been round and puffy. Small eyes were ideal for both sexes, as was powdery white skin. Aristocrats with dark complexions, both men and women, frequently had to apply makeup to appear more pale. Even most capital military officers, many of whom were civilian aristocrats with no military training at all, would not have dared appear in public on formal occasions without makeup.
The majority of Japanese at the time must have appeared quite the opposite of the aristocrats. Peasants and laborers engaged in demanding physical work out of doors. Food was often scarce. These conditions tended to produce lean physiques and dark skin. It seems that in nearly all human societies, beauty and wealth go hand-in-hand. In the Heian period, the plump, pale courtier was obviously someone of privilege, wealth, and leisure. Such a person had the time and resources to attend to her or his appearance.
In today's society, both in this country and Japan, conditions of life for the average person tend to produce exactly what was beautiful in the Heian period: a plump, pale appearance. Society, therefore, no longer regards such an appearance as beautiful or glamorous. A lean, dark appearance is now a signal of sufficient wealth and leisure time to join and use exercise facilities, spend time at the beach or in tanning booths, and so forth. Standards of personal beauty are largely arbitrary, in that there does not seem to be any single ideal set of criteria that has held stable across time, culture and historical circumstance. But this rule is widely applicable: it is and has been the case that societies regard as personally beautiful an appearance requiring wealth, effort, and therefore leisure time to attain.
There were still other standards of personal beauty in Heian times. For women, nature unfortunately put eyebrows in the wrong place. To correct this problem, women plucked out their eyebrows and painted them back on, usually quite thick, an inch or so above their original location, thereby beautifying the face. Also, *extremely long hair*--longer than one's own body--was de rigueur for an attractive Heian woman. Washing such hair was an all-day affair requiring the assistance of numerous attendants. Again, notice the connection with wealth and leisure. (Ideal female beauty: *example 1* *example 2* *example 3*; #transposed to contemporary anime#)
Standards of male beauty were, in many ways, quite similar to those for female beauty. Although men did not shave their eyebrows, idealized depictions of handsome men show the eyebrows high on the forehead. Men would ideally have a thin mustache and/or a *thin tuft of beard at the chin.* Large quantities of facial hair, however, detracted substantially from one's attractiveness. Looking at art of the Heian period, or even art of later periods depicting scenes of Heian courtly life, it is sometimes difficult to tell men from women from the face alone. The merging of male and female features is particularly apparent in depictions of children and people in their teenage years. (Ideal *male beauty example*)
Heian aristocrats regarded the #nude body# as disgustingly ugly. People of taste always adorned themselves with multiple layers of clothing. This clothing was inseparable from the body itself. It provided all manner of possibilities both to enhance the taste and beauty of one's appearance and to detract from it. First, clothing had to conform to a person's rank. Other key considerations included social situations (inside one's house, visiting a temple, participating in a court ceremony, etc.), prevailing weather, and the current season. Women commonly wore *five or six layers of robes,* the most crucial part of was the sleeves. Each sleeve would be of a slightly different length and color, resulting in multicolored bands of fabric at the ends of the arms. The arrangement of these colors was terribly important for conveying a sense of refinement and good taste. Just one color being a little too pale or a little to bright could easily become a point of criticism. Appearing in colors that blatantly clashed or were inappropriate for the season could ruin a person's reputation.
Pause now to examine the *major subjects in Liza Dalby's The Tale of Murasaki.* The site contains a wealth of excellent information on the lifestyles of Heian aristocratic women.
Also, you might want briefly to survey #the history of clothing# in early Japan.
There was much more to the rule of taste and the cult of beauty than one's physical appearance. All aspects of behavior were opportunities for the display of taste or the lack thereof. Walking, talking, eating, playing music--and, of course, all aristocrats *played music*--and more were all opportunities for artistic display. Most important of all was a person's handwriting. Careers were made and lost over the quality of one's writing. Love affairs began and ended similarly. As Morris points out regarding the importance of handwriting, "A fine hand was probably the most important single mark of a 'good' person, and it came close to being regarded as a moral virtue."5 (If you have a fast internet connection, you might want to #listen to some Heian aristocratic music.#)
Let us take two examples of the importance of handwriting from the literature of the time. The first is from Sei Shōnagon's Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi) Sei Shōnagon (#image#) was a lady-in-waiting of a former empress (principal wife of an emperor now retired) and was herself of aristocratic rank. Her Pillow Book, thus named because she kept it under her pillow, is a diary-like account of thoughts and events in her life. The following excerpt refers to Fujiwara no Nobutsune, an official in the Ministry of Ceremony:
One day when Nobutsune was serving as Intendant in the Office of Palace Works he sent a sketch to one of the craftsmen explaining how a certain piece of work should be done. 'Kindly execute it in this fashion,' he added in Chinese characters. I happened to notice the piece of paper and it was the most preposterous writing I had ever seen. Next to his message I wrote, 'If you do the work in this style, you will certainly produce something odd.' The document found its way to the Imperial apartments and everyone who saw it was greatly amused. Nobutsune was furious and after this held a grudge against me.6
In a scene from the lengthy novel, Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) there is a scene in which Prince Genji, the protagonist, and Lady Murasaki, Genji's lover, are lying together in her room. Murasaki is worried because a thirteen-year-old princess, Nyosan, has recently become Genji's official wife. While Genji and Murasaki are together, a letter from the young princess arrives. Murasaki is particularly anxious to see the handwriting, for this will determine the fate of all concerned. When reading the letter, Genji allows Murasaki to *catch a glimpse* of it:
Murasaki's first glance told her that it was indeed a childish production. She wondered how anyone could have reached such an age without developing a more polished style. But she pretended not to have noticed and made no comment. Genji also kept silent. If the letter had come from anyone else, he would certainly have whispered something about the writing, but he felt sorry for the girl and simply said [to Murasaki], 'Well now, you see that you have nothing to worry about.'7
Wife or not, the "Shining Prince," as Genji was known, would have nothing romantically to do with someone whose handwriting was not up to par (years later, when, presumably, her handwriting had improved, Genji changed his mind). Among the Heian aristocracy, handwriting was a direct extension of a person's character, spirit and personality.
Heian aristocrats spent little time and energy writing scholarly essays and the like. The majority of what they wrote was poetry, and sometimes poems even substituted for memoranda in government offices. Nearly any event or occasion, public or private, called for rounds of poetry. A person deficient in poetic skills would have been at a serious disadvantage in Heian society. In their poems, the aristocrats delighted in obscure references and plays on words. Poetry was the ideal medium for communicating in a delicate, refined and indirect way. Taking a specific example, one night Murasaki Shikibu (#image#), author of the Tale of Genji, was awakened by a man tapping on the shutter of her bedroom--a sure sign of someone wanting to gain admittance. Suspecting who it might be, and wanting to have nothing to do with him, she lay still and did not respond. The next morning, she received the following poem (brought by messenger, as was typical) from the powerful and lecherous Fujiwara Michinaga, the man who had been tapping on the shutter the night before:
How sad for him who stands the whole night long
Knocking on your cedar door
Tap-tap-tap like the cry of the kuina bird.
The reply to such a poem should ideally follow up on the image presented in the initial verse, the kuina bird (a small water-rail) in this case. Murasaki answered:
Sadder for her who had answered the kuina's tap,
For it was no innocent bird who stood there knocking on the door.8
One can imagine that such an exchange might be carried out in a much less refined fashion in a different time or place.
With such a stress on writing and poetry, one might think that scholarship was an important part of the life of Heian aristocrats, as it would have been for their Tang and Song Chinese counterparts. In fact, however, this was not the case. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Japanese aristocrats generally had little interest in moral philosophy or the systematic study of any body of theoretical knowledge. There was a central university, where Chinese classics formed the main curriculum. In the early Heian period, it was a significant institution, but by the end of the tenth century, increasingly fewer aristocrats studied there. There is evidence that elite aristocrats of the mid Heian period regarded its professors as laughably odd and out of place. In a passage from the Tale of Genji, for example, a number of young aristocrats cannot contain their laughter upon seeing a group of professors, clad in "ill-fitting robes," perform an induction ceremony at the university. Poetry, painting, music, calligraphy and the like comprised the educational training of most aristocrats, which private tutors usually directed. Men also had to learn classical Chinese composition, through which process they also gained a modest familiarity with the major works of Chinese literature such as the Confucian Analects. Some women also learned classical Chinese but they were under no social pressure to do so.
Aristocratic education included some subjects that today we might find hard to imagine. Although in later ages, frequent bathing became part of Japanese culture at all levels, Heian nobles took baths only rarely. In such a context, perfume was an especially valuable commodity, liberally applied to mask odor. Perfume mixing, therefore, was an important aristocratic skill for men and women alike. Perfume making contests were common, and, in the Tale of Genji, Prince Genji was a skilled perfume mixer. Some common ingredients in perfumes of the time included aloes, cinnamon, ground conch shell, Indian resin, musk, sweet pine, tropical tulip, cloves, and white gum.9
Despite its possible charms when studied
from afar, Heian-period society contained plenty of anxiety-producing elements.
These elements and the relatively primitive level of technological conveniences
of the time would likely make daily existence excruciating for modern people
seeking to recreate the conditions of Heian life (I know of no serious attempts
at this time, but historical re-enactment seems to be becoming popular in
various parts of the world). For a very interesting and readable perspective on
Heian-period social life, read the following short article,
*Why is there no talk of food or bathing in the Tale of
Women and Men in Society
We have already seen something of the nature of relations between women and men from the passages above. Heian period aristocrats spent a great deal of time and energy pursuing romantic and sexual adventures. Virginity was not prized among either sex. Indeed, remaining a virgin for an unusually long time was a sure sign of possession by one or more demons. Sexual relations in the Heian period were a mixture of promiscuity and restraint, the restraint deriving not from moral codes or legal sanctions, but mainly from the demanding requirements of good taste. Outside of the romantic or sexual realm, men and women usually lived in different worlds and had relatively little direct contact--although we should remember that the romantic and sexual lives of Heian aristocrats were closely connected with other matters such as politics. Let us look more closely at the lives of aristocratic women.
Women of aristocratic status spent most of their time as adults sitting in *their residences.* As mentioned above, these residences generally had a few very large open rooms. Portable screens made of fabric and curtains were the major means of dividing these rooms. With servants and attendants to do all the work, including taking care of children, there were relatively few pressing matters requiring attention. Boredom was a problem for many aristocratic women as they *sat behind screens with their attendants.* Although women could and sometimes did leave their residences on recreational outings, slow, plodding, uncomfortable *ox-drawn carriages* and the many social rules about appearance in public often made such outings tedious. Men, by contrast, could always busy themselves with the duties of their political offices.
This boredom was a major reason so many aristocratic women turned their attention to the literary arts, a topic we take up in the next section. Excursions to various places, especially to Buddhist temples, were another diversion. According to Morris:
For Genji and his circle, the Buddhist church had many diverse functions. In the first place, the numerous temples surrounding the capital offered an opportunity for those excursions and pilgrimages that were one of the main distractions in their somewhat uneventful lives. For women in particular, these visits provided an occasional escape from the claustrophobic confines of their crepuscular houses and an opportunity to glimpse, if only through the heavy silk hangings of their ox-drawn carriages, the wide bright world outside. . . . Visits and retreats to outlying temples also served a very secular purpose in the gallant world of Heian, since they provided an ideal pretext for trysts or adventures of one kind or another; and it appears that the priests of the more fashionable temples were quite prepared to accommodate their aristocratic clients in this respect.10
In her Pillow Book, Sei Shōnagon explained the social diversions of visiting Buddhist temples in some detail. For example:
A preacher should be good-looking. For, if we are properly to understand the worthy sentiments of his sermon, we must keep our eyes fixed on him while he speaks; by looking away we may forget to listen. Accordingly an ugly preacher may be a source of sin . . .
[ . . .]
[A] couple of gentlemen who have not met for some time run into each other in the temple, and great is their surprise. they sit down together and chat away, nodding their heads, exchanging funny stories and opening their fans wide so that they could hold them in front of their faces and laugh more freely. They toy with their elegantly decorated rosaries11 and, glancing from side to side, criticize some defect they have noticed in one of the carriages and praise the elegance of another. . . . Meanwhile, of course, they pay not the slightest attention to the service that is going on.12
Although women normally remained in their carriages during Buddhist services, with some care in the placement of the carriages there was ample opportunity for the men and women in attendance to have a look at each other. Such looks might later lead to the arrival of a poem by one of the men at attendance, which in turn might lead to a preliminary visit by him . . . and so forth.
Excursions had many drawbacks, however, the main one being the bumpy ride in an ox cart traveling at about two miles per hour. Most women stayed at home most of the time. There, visits from men were another possibility for dealing with boredom.
We should pause here to point out that marriage for Heian aristocrats did not normally mean men and women living together in close quarters as it typically does today. Married women often remained in the home of their parents, and these homes were usually large estates containing numerous rooms and apartments. Sometimes women did move to the residence of their husband but usually only in their later years. Even then, they might not live in close proximity to him. A newly-married woman, therefore, would usually await visits from her husband, or, perhaps, someone else.
Men were allowed multiple wives, though not without socially imposed restrictions such as restrictions concerning the rank of the wives and other partners. In theory and by law, married women were expected to remain faithful to a single husband. In fact, however, multiple sex partners for married women were also acceptable, though any such relationships had to conform to standards of good taste, which included being discreet--or at least going through the motions of being discreet. A quiet rendezvous at a remote Buddhist temple, for example, would have been ideal, if not always practical. In general, men were freer in their sexual relations than women, but aristocratic women in the Heian period were not nearly as restricted in this regard as were their Chinese counterparts or elite women in later ages in Japan.
Suppose a man happened to notice the outline of a woman as she rode in a carriage, found the carriage particularly tasteful (#carriages# were status symbols and tools for displaying one's tastes, like automobiles today might be), and thought he might like to meet her. He would find out where she lived and send a poem. Great care would go into this short three or so lines of verse. The handwriting must be perfect, of course. The content should convey the man's intentions in an elegant, indirect way. The type of paper must be selected with care and perfumed with just the right scent. It must be folded properly and put into a tasteful envelope, to which a sprig of some tree branch or flower would be attached--which type would depend on season and circumstances. When the woman received the poem, all of these considerations and more would be on her mind as she tried to size up the man's degree of refinement and good taste.
If she were unmarried, or married but lonesome and/or adventurous, and was duly impressed with the man's poem, she might compose her own, suggesting that he pay *a formal visit.* Now she would carefully attend to all the matters described above in an attempt to impress him with her refinement and good taste.
Attendants would announce the man's arrival and lead him onto an exterior room where the woman would *sit behind a screen.* Ideally, the screen would be sufficiently thin that he could vaguely see her outline while sitting on the other side. Here, they would chat and perhaps exchange poems. Usually, that would be all.
If both parties wanted to deepen the relationship, they would drop sufficient hints in the obligatory exchange of poems that would take place after the man's visit. She might, for example, suggest he visit on a certain night. Assuming no significant complications, they would spend the night together. If others heard or saw him enter her chambers, they would probably pretend nothing had happened, but would gossip later. For real secrecy, a remote place away from the residence would be better. In any event, the man would leave with the rising sun, as was customary. As soon as he returned to his mansion, he would ordinarily a poem or letter, and she would reply. If he should fail to send one, or if his partner would not reply, this would be a definite sign the relationship was over, though being so blunt would suggest a lack of taste. Based on the poems and letters, the relationship would end or continue.
What did they actually do while together? Of course, they had sexual intercourse at some point, but we know next to nothing about the details of sexual acts in mid-Heian times. Despite all the vast writing on the subject of romance and sex, the physical aspect of the act itself seemed to have attracted little attention or interest. Owing to the strong dislike of the nude body, we can probably guess that most couples had sex while still wearing at least some clothes. Beyond that, we can only imagine. It was the complex courtship rituals leading up to sex, the complex rituals following it, and the aesthetic experiences connected with it--but not the copulation itself--that Heian aristocrats found appealing.
Here is Sei Shōnagon's idea of an undesirable partner for the night, from the chapter, "Hateful Things" in the Pillow Book:
A lover who is leaving one at dawn announces that he has to find his fan and paper.
'I know I put them here somewhere last night,' he says. Since it is pitch dark, he gropes about the room bumping into the furniture and muttering, 'Strange! Where on earth can they be?'
Finally he discovers the objects. He sticks the paper into the breast of his robe with a great rustling sound; then he snaps open his fan and starts flapping away with it. Only now is he ready to take his leave. What charmless behavior! 'Hateful' is really an understatement.13
On the other hand, Sei also described her idea of the perfect lover. What follows is only the first of many paragraphs describing the (imagined) man's actions in minute detail:
Being of an adventurous nature, he has still not married, and now at dawn he returns to his bachelor quarters, having spent the night in some amorous adventure. Though he still looks sleepy, he immediately draws his inkstone to him and, after having carefully rubbed some ink on it, starts to write his next-morning letter. He does not let his brush run down the paper in a careless scrawl, but puts himself heart and soul into the calligraphy. What a charming figure he makes as he sits there by himself in an easy posture, with his robe falling slightly open! It is a plain unlined robe of pure white, and over it he wears a cloak of yellow rose or crimson. As he finishes his letter, he notices that the white robe is still damp from the dew, and for a while he gazes at it fondly.14
Notice there is no description of this handsome, charming man's physical body. The closest one gets is a description of his open robe. We find female authors describing handsome or ideal men frequently in Heian literature, and the descriptions are nearly all like that given here.
It is important to keep things in perspective. Yes, sexual relations between men and women were relatively free at this time in Japan's history compared with later ages or compared with certain other societies around the world at the same time. But the rules of taste imposed all manner of restrictions on personal behavior. Inappropriate sexual relations could lead to serious consequences such as a demotion in political office or even a period of exile outside the capital (a severe punishment for Heian aristocrats). Gossip about a woman's sex life could eventually cause her such grief that she would become a Buddhist nun--or even commit suicide in extreme cases. Loneliness, jealousy, and insecurity were all part of the world of Heian-period romance sex, and women suffered more from these emotions than men owing to less mobility and other structural factors. For most of its inhabitants at least, the Heian capital was no sexual paradise.15
It is interesting to examine differing interpretations of Heian period life by later historians, Japanese and non-Japanese. The modern, pre-Pacific War Japanese state promoted a rigid code of morality, sexual and otherwise, in its school system. It took a dim view, therefore, of the Heian aristocrats' sex lives as well as much of the literature of the time (often called "pornographic"). Likewise, the dour, humorless Scottish minister James Murdoch wrote a multi-volume history of Japan in the 1930s and 40s. His interpretation of Japanese history sometimes reads like a sermon:
Before a deftly turned Tanka [short poem], the tradition was that female coyness, if not chastity, was bound to yield as readily as the walls of Jericho fell flat before the blasts of the priestly trumpets and the shouts of the Israelitish people, while even the highest Ministers were apt to set infinitely more store by a reputation as an arbiter of taste in the world of belles-lettres and polite accomplishments than by renown as a great and successful administrator of the affairs of the nation.16
In this single, massive sentence, Rev. Murdoch links love of literary refinement with a lack of female coyness, or even--heaven forbid!--lack of chastity, as well as lack of desire on the part of men to be great government officials. There is little to admire in the rule of taste, in his view at least. We shall return to the matter of interpreting the Heian period in a later section.
Literature and Buddhism
The Heian period was a time of great accomplishments in the literary arts. Murasaki Shikibu produced the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji (#illustrated text of one chapter#). Other aristocratic writers produced a wealth of prose and poetry, much of which has stood the test of time and remains great world literature, available in most major languages. It was women who produced nearly all of this great literature. Most of the literature men produced was of mediocre quality and has long been forgotten. There is a clear reason for this quality gap. Men generally wrote literature in a foreign language, classical Chinese, of which the average aristocrat had a less than perfect grasp. Women, on the other hand, wrote literature in their native language. Men pompously wrote poor classical Chinese prose; women sat behind their screens and wrote great Japanese prose. When it came to poetry, men wrote in both Chinese and Japanese.
One key development that encouraged literary production was the kana script. Kana is a simple alphabet (technically, a syllabary) consisting of approximately fifty characters. Two forms of kana developed, one straight and angular (similar to printed Roman script), the other a rounded, cursive style. Kana developed from Chinese characters. The *cursive form of kana* developed by writing the characters in a fast, abbreviated manner. Here are two examples (you'll need Japanese character support installed in your browser to see them). "Ho" ほ derived from a cursive form of the Chinese character 保; "chi" ち derived from a cursive form of the Chinese character 知. The angular, "printed" style of kana derived from a single part of a Chinese character. For example, "ri" リ came from the right side of the Chinese character 利; "ho" ホ came from the bottom right part of the Chinese character 保 (compare with the angular "ho" above) (#more details#). Ordinary Japanese writing today involves a complex mixture of Chinese characters and the two forms of kana. Writing in Japanese was simpler in Heian times. Usually, it was all in kana, with perhaps just an occasional Chinese character here or there.
Heian aristocratic literature was about the lifestyles and sensibilities of Heian aristocrats, particularly, of course, aristocratic women. This literature, whether poetry or prose, was concerned with aesthetics and taste, as we have already seen in a variety of contexts. But there was a darker side to Heian literature in the form of a deep-seated sense of anxiety. The cause of this anxiety was the impermanence (mujō) of the world (#example of mujō# in a contemporary context). A sense of impermanence (mujōkan) permeated much Heian-period literature, and aristocrats were especially aware of their own personal deterioration with age.
Closely connected with this sense of impermanence was a poignant sense of the pathos associated with the transformation and passing away of things--blossoms, human beauty, life itself. This poignant sense of pathos is called mono no aware, which, coincidentally, might be rendered into a rough English translation as "an awareness of things" (mono = "thing[s]").17 A sharp sensitivity to the impermanence of the world, and the anxiety that impermanence creates for humans, is a major characteristic of middle and late Heian-period literature (#for more details#).
This concern with impermanence and its implications was a direct result of Buddhism. We will examine Buddhism in more detail in the next chapter, but here is a brief synopsis of the core doctrine. Buddhism originated the Indian subcontinent in and around the region of present-day Nepal, and it arose in response to the problem of human suffering. More specifically, if we are all destined to become ill, grow old, and die, what is the point of life? Of course, this is the basic issue with which most religions grapple.
After trying various approaches, the original Buddha (Buddha simply means "enlightened one;" anyone can become a Buddha, at least in theory) came up with a core insight that life is infused with suffering because of our insatiable desires. As a result, we should strove to eliminate our desires, which will eliminate the suffering. This proposition may sound reasonable and simple, but putting it into practice is terribly difficult.
Buddhism developed within the context of other religious and metaphysical ideas, one of which was reincarnation. Early Buddhists took for granted that we are reborn endlessly, and the quest to put an end to suffering was functionally equivalent to the quest to end the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Death, in other words, is not the end, but not in the sense of a soul traveling to some mysterious afterlife beyond earth. Instead, our deaths are just preludes to more births here on earth (as a human or some other creature). The trials, tribulations, sufferings, joys, and accomplishments of a lifetime never last. It is this poignant sense of impermanence and the mental anguish it is likely to cause that seems to have gripped the minds of most Heian-period writers.
Heian literature tends to reflect a general understanding of the basic teachings of Buddhism (recall, for example, the Four Noble Truths). Perhaps the best example of Buddhism in Heian literature is the Iroha poem, a verse that uses each of the kana one time (#example#). It was an aid for children in memorizing the kana but also contains a Buddhist message:
Iroha nioedo, chirinuruwo
Though I smell the colorful blossoms, they are doomed to scatter
Wagayo tarezo tsunenaran
Who in this world exists forever?
Ui no okuyama kyō koete
Today I cross over the deep mountains of existence
Asaki yume miji, eimo sezu
I shall no longer dream shallow dreams, no longer be drunk.
The poem starts by establishing impermanence as the true state of the world and ends with the promise of enlightenment and transcendence of the cycle of willful existence (ui, the only Buddhist technical term in the poem).
The colorful blossoms referred to in the poem are cherry blossoms, which became the most important metaphor in Heian-period literature (maple leaves in autumn were next in popularity). The cherry bursts forth in bloom during the spring, but the blossoms are fragile. Their *peak of beauty* lasts but two or three short days. At any time they are susceptible to being scattered by the wind, just as human life can end at any moment owing to disease or accident. Even under the best of circumstances, the flowers are all gone shortly after they begin to bloom. In the large picture, these frail blossoms last but for a brief moment. Cherry blossoms, and the feelings they invoked, became the ideal expression of mono no aware in literature. The second most common metaphor of impermanence was *maple leaves in autumn.*
Incidentally, In the early Nara-period poetic anthology, Myriad Leaves, which is relatively (but not totally) free of Buddhist influence, the cherry was of little importance as a literal or metaphoric image. Instead, the pine and the plum reigned supreme. The pine is sturdy and green year-round. The white blossoms of the plum, which appear in the cold of February, are sturdy and long-lasting. The pine and plum stood for strength and longevity. Here are two examples from Myriad Leaves of the pine and plum appearing as symbols of longevity and strength:
O Pine that stands [#image#]
at the cavern's entrance
looking at you
is like coming face to face
with the men of ancient times.
They say the plum flowers
blossom only to fall.
But not from the branch
I tie my marker to.18
The sentiments expressed in these poems are nearly the opposite of Buddhist teachings.
In Heian times, although the plum and the pine continued to appear in poems, the Buddhistic cherry blossom took center stage. Here is a typical example from a collection of poetry called Kokin wakashū:
Utsusemi no yo nimo nitaru ka
Indeed how they resemble this fleeting world of ours!
The cherry blossoms.
Sakuto mishimani katsu chirinikeri
No sooner do we gaze at them in bloom then they have scattered.19
The first word, utsusemi means both the human world and the empty shell of a cicada, thereby reinforcing the idea that this world is a transient place without permanence or substance--just like the cherry blossoms.
Underneath the colorful, elaborate dress, the elegant cultural pursuits, the sex and romance, and other apparently pleasant aspects of life was an anxiety over the fact that none of it would last. The amorous, handsome Prince Genji, for example, eventually came to regret a life dissipated in the pursuit of empty pleasures. In a society so concerned with superficial appearances, growing old and losing one's physical beauty became a particularly horrifying prospect. Throughout most of the Heian period, this sense of dread and anxiety was subtle. During the last century of the Heian period, and throughout the following Kamakura period, it became stronger and more overt.
Interpreting the Heian Aristocrats and Their World
Interpreting Heian-period social history has been difficult for modern historians, Japanese and non-Japanese alike. Even professional historians often assume one's own current social values are "natural" and obvious. With the rise of science in recent centuries, there has been a tendency to assume the existence of universal human values that can be discovered by "objective" research. Questions about the ontological and epistemological status of universality and objectivity remain valid philosophical and practical issues. We cannot possibly deal with them, much less settle them, in these pages. There is no question, though, that many historians and students of history have been guilty of simple-minded application of present-day values to other times and places, with the assumption that these values are "natural," obvious, "objective," and universal.
Reverend James Murdoch is an extreme example of such an approach, but not atypical among Europeans of his day (ca. 1900). Here is his summary of the Heian aristocracy:
An ever-pullulating brood of greedy, needy, frivolous dilettanti--as often as not foully licentious, utterly effeminate, incapable of any worthy achievement, but withal the polished exponents of high breeding and correct 'form'. . . . Now and then a better man did emerge; but one just man is impotent to avert the doom of an intellectual Sodom. . . . A pretty showing, indeed, these pampered minions and bepowdered poetasters might be expected to make.20
Murdoch knew what was right and wrong, natural and unnatural, and clearly Heian aristocratic society came up badly wanting when examined against such standards. Sexual life was "foully licentious." Men were "effeminate," "bepowdered poetasters." Even the "better" of them were "impotent." Had they acted like real men, fighting wars, perhaps, instead of mixing perfume, they might have accomplished some sort of "worthy achievement" instead of languishing in an "intellectual Sodom." If only they had had the benefit of Reverend Murdoch in their midst to set them straight!
It is precisely because its values and lifestyles were so different from those of many modern societies that we should study Heian society. Heian aristocratic culture offers an alternative view of sexuality, an alternative view of social control (the rules of taste as opposed to rule of civil or moral law), alternative views of gender roles (perfume-mixing men, a world of literature dominated by women), alternative views of standards of beauty, and so forth. Heian society had its share of problems, and none of these alternatives solved all of these problems, nor would they if applied today. While Heian period aristocratic life is not a comprehensive model of solutions for today's problems or the problems of any age, its study can help us see things differently.
We can dismiss the Heian period as an odd, alien place--or even condemn it, as did Murdoch, for failing to meet some modern-day standard. Taking Heian society and its values seriously (i.e., on their own terms),21 however, enables us to see more of the wide range of human social possibilities. Examining the Heian period helps us realize that our current social arrangements are in large part arbitrary. They are not "natural" or obvious in a universal sense. In this sense. the study of Heian society can help de-familiarize the present social arrangement.
1. Morris, Shining Prince, p. 153.
2. Ibid., p. 79, with minor modification.
3. Ibid., p. 85.
4. George Sansom, A History of Japan to 1334 (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1963, 1974), p. 178.
5. Morris, Shining Prince, p. 195.
6. Quoted in Ibid., p. 196.
7. Quoted in Ibid., pp. 196-197.
8. Quoted in Ibid., p. 77.
9. See Ibid., p. 205, note 34.
10.Ibid., p. 119.
11. These rosaries looked quite similar to those used in Catholicism, but with fewer beads.
12. Quoted in Ibid., pp. 119-120.
13. Quoted in Ibid., pp. 243-244.
14. Quoted in Ibid., pp. 244-245.
15. For a look at the darker side of romance and sex in the Heian capital, see Doris G. Bargen, A Woman's Weapon: Spirit Possession in the Tale of Genji (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997).
16. Quoted in Ibid., p. 193, with minor modification.
17. One guide to classical Japanese literature provides the following basic definition: "The deep feelings inherent in, or felt from the world and experiences of it. . . . [it] later [late Heian] came to designate sadder, even tragic feelings." Earl Miner, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell, The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 290.
18. Quoted in Levy, Myriad Leaves, pp. 175, 206, with minor modification.
19. My translation of Saeki Umetomo, ed., Kokin wakashū (Iwanami bunko, 1981), p. 38.
20. Quoted in Morris, Shining Prince, p. 21.
21. I am, of course, aware that today it is impossible totally to recreate the Heian aristocratic mind set and that we inevitably filter the past through our present values, even if not as blatantly as in the example of Murdoch quoted above. Nevertheless, being self-conscious of our "presentism" and some of the reasons for it may enable us in part to comprehend the past on its own terms.