Story of Japan

Japanese History and Research for a Historical Novel

Month: July 2017

Women’s Voices from Heian Japan

The Heian Period

Peeking through the fence

Before the samurai, before geisha, before kimonos or bushido, there was a golden age of Japanese civilization. This period produced the finest literature in the history of Japan, and some would argue, the finest literature in the history of the world. This was the Heian period, an era spanning the years 784–1185 A.D. The thing that makes the Heian period particularly significant is that most of the really noteworthy literature, particularly Genji Monogatari, known as The Tale of Genji in English, was written by women.

In Heian Japan, the government was controlled by a hereditary bureaucracy located in the capital of Heian-Kyou (which gives the era its name), the city later renamed Kyoto. The bureaucracy was their aristocracy. It was a small, insular community estimated to comprise no more than 10,000 people, almost all of whom lived in or around the capital. To their minds, nothing outside the capital was important. Indeed, for hundreds of years, exile to the provinces was considered terrible punishment for a crime. Some preferred execution to having to leave the capital.

Their relentless parochialism led to such neglect of the governance of the areas of the country outside the capital that local warriors eventually rose up and displaced them as the masters of the country, leading to the government of the samurai more familiar to most of us.

Marriage and Family in the Heian period

Heian Japan was a polygamous society. The number of wives a man could have was determined by his rank, in fact, practically everything was determined by rank. Concubines were limited by what he could afford. While there were laws on the books prohibiting women from engaging in adultery, people tended to look the other way if she was discreet.

Aristocratic women in Heian Japan actually had many more rights and privileges than their daughters who lived under the later samurai governments. They had the right to own property, inherit in their own names, and to bequeath that property as they desired on their death. Furthermore, women were somewhat outside the extremely rigid rank structure that the men lived under so that a woman could sometimes marry up, gaining rank and status for her children. The opposite situation was extremely rare, where a man married a woman of a substantially higher social class.

Marriage Politics

This opportunity for women to improve their social status culminated in the practice of “marriage politics” where families would groom their daughters to catch the eye of a highly-placed nobleman and hopefully induce him to make her a wife or concubine. The best way to provide that opportunity was to have a girl serve at the imperial court as a lady-in-waiting. The imperial households employed an enormous number of low-ranking noblewomen to wait on the imperial family, particularly the wives of the Emperor. The most powerful men in the nation, as well as countless lesser nobles looking to better themselves, congregated at the court. There was ample opportunity for a woman to meet and attract a suitable mate. The competition for the positions at court was intense, and the successful applicants usually had strong family backing, often relying on relatives highly placed in the government to push their names to the Emperor along with the beauty and accomplishments of the women themselves.

Family connections were key to the advancement and success of a man. Without strong family support, careers languished and promotions were few and far between. Much of the support came from the mother’s and wife’s family. When a man got married, he would usually move into the house of his wife’s parents. He might rotate residency among the residences of his various wives, but his children lived with and were raised by their mother. This meant that the support of the mother’s family was of paramount importance in the success of the children. Unlike many societies, there was no real concept of “illegitimacy”–if a nobleman acknowledged a child, then it didn’t matter the circumstances of the child’s birth. All acknowledge children were generally treated equally. In noble households, higher-ranking wives would often adopt the children of lower-placed concubines in order to ensure proper education and familial backing for them.

Women behind curtains

A Woman’s Life

Relations between men and women were strictly regimented. When speaking with males other than her immediate family, a woman was expected to ensconce herself behind portable screens or curtains. In the romances of the times, a common trope is for a man to catch an unexpected glimpse of a woman’s arm or hair and become immediately entranced with her. Fashionable women wore layers and layers of clothes, chosen to showcase their good taste by the selection of colors. One estimate places the weight of full formal court robes at about forty pounds. Women mostly stayed indoors at their residences, only venturing out for pilgrimages to local temples and other religious purposes.

We know a surprising amount about the life of upper-class women in the Heian era because the diaries that many of them kept, some of which have survived into the present day. One of the most compelling diaries of the time, Kagerou Nikki (translated as Gossamer Diary by Edward Seidensticker) tells the heartbreaking story of a woman afflicted by depression and bouts of self-loathing as she lays bare all the thoughts and angry feelings she harbored towards her wayward husband. She speaks freely of boredom and frustration of waiting in her house interacting only with family and servants. It was the only social contact she was allowed with the outside world other than writing letters and visiting Buddhist monasteries. The most exciting thing in her life was the visits from her husband. But he often sent word that he was going to come and then would fail to show up, something that frustrated her to no end. In the end, he stopped visiting and sending presents, the Heian equivalent of a divorce.

We will probably never know for sure, but many experts believe that it was the time hanging heavily on the hands of the upperclass women of Heian Japan that led them to write so much in diaries and poems. The most famous example of a memoir from this period is called Makura no Soushi or The Pillow Book. It was written by a court lady we know as Sei Shonagon. It is not so much a diary, as a compilation of thoughts and stories. She had a biting wit with a keen eye for human foible. She gives a remarkably clear picture of what life was like at the imperial court in her time. For example, she tells us:

I really can’t understand people who get angry when they hear gossip about others. How can you not discuss other people? Apart from your own concerns, what can be more beguiling to talk about and criticize than other people? But, sadly, it seems it’s wrong to discuss others, not to mention the fact that the person who’s talked about can get to hear of it and be outraged.

Murasaki writing Tale of Genji

A contemporary of Sei Shonagon was named Murasaki Shikibu. She also wrote a diary, but that is not what she is best known for. She was the author of Genji Monogatari, the world’s first novel. Murasaki seems to have been the first person in either Japan or the world to have the idea of telling a story, but doing so in a way that the action, the people, and the setting were all “realistic.” Her characters are finely drawn, with motivations and aspirations that are clear even to us peering back through the barrier of a completely different language, a thousand years, and an alien culture. From her we read the Heian ideal of a man, Prince Genji. He was handsome, clever, and sensitive. He excelled at the arts of calligraphy, perfume making, and poetry. He was so attractive few women denied him, and those that did, he generally took anyway. The book follows him through his many affairs.

The women of Heian Japan left us a rich and enduring legacy of their thoughts, their feelings, and their lives through the medium of their writing, both autobiographical journals and diaries and fictional works such as Tosa Nikki and Genji Monogatari. It was a legacy that would rarely be equaled, and never surpassed, in the history of Japan.

Why Research is Important

Carol and I just recently finished our second novel, Tiger in the Shadows. Unlike our first novel, which was an historical fantasy set in the Heian era of Japan, the new novel was set in Edo period, in the year 1680, to be precise. It was very interesting to study the time period of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Japanese historians label the Edo period, which ran from 1600 to 1876, the “Early Modern” period of Japanese history. This designation is quite apropos. It is startling how modern this period of Japanese history feels, particularly when examining the urban culture of Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka, the three large cities that dominated this period. Edo, in particular, was a vibrant, thriving city that epitomized much of what we would consider an “urban lifestyle.” During much of the Edo period, it was the largest city in the world, having an estimated population of over one million by the end of the seventeenth century. According to Nishiyama Matsunosuke

This was a period of unprecedented cultural prosperity. Even the general public took part in leisure pursuits and played an active role in the creation of new cultural norms. The average commoner read books or visited the theater; some even wrote haiku verses and senryu (seventeen syllable comic verse) or performed musical genres such as gidayu, kato bushi, shinnai, or nagauta. Others went on pilgrimages sponsored by religious associations an toured distant places. The Edo period saw a rise in the quality of the culinary fare that commoners consumed; clothing and housing too showed marked improvement. Even the poor managed occasionally in the luxury of purchasing a “custom-made” comb or an ornamental hairpin. The demand for such cultural items fostered a highly refined handicraft industry.[1]

Edo had the world’s first mass-consumer culture. The cultural items that Matsunoke references above were often sold in catalogs that bear a striking resemblance to the catalogs of Sears Roebuck and Company that would debut two centuries later in the United States. Bookstores sold novels whose publication runs numbered in the hundreds of thousands. There were dozens of theaters performing the latest kabuki plays, which featured performers every bit as popular and well-known as a modern movie actor or rock star. The clothing these celebrities wore became the latest in fashion and were marketed throughout the country in catalogs similar to those used for the cultural items. Huge corporations had chain stores in the big cities and sometimes even in some of the larger castle towns.

However, the resemblance to modern culture was not just in the more pleasant and inconsequential aspects of life. The Tokugawa shogunate was the world’s first modern police state. In addition to the usual police forces to maintain order in the cities, there was also an extensive secret police apparatus whose primary purpose was internal security. They employed an enormous network of paid informers to keep tabs on the populace.[2]

For someone viewing the Edo period from a modern perspective, it all feels very familiar. It is easy to forget that it was a very different culture. Carol and I ran into this while writing Tiger in the Shadows. In the course of the novel, we need to stage an uprising by the inhabitants of Edo. We thought, “What kinds of things cause people to rise up and riot against their government?” We chose a time-tested and common grievance of citizens everywhere — high taxes.

There was only one problem with that. For all the political and mercantile sophistication of the age, the government was still run on age-old principles. And in the East, the oldest principal of all is that rice is the measure of wealth. Outside of revenues from gold and silver mines and other government owned facilities, the revenue for the government came from rice taxes levied on peasants who worked the fields outside the main urban centers. Despite the fact that Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto were three of the most commercially active and wealthy cities in the world, it apparently never even entered the minds of the rulers to tax commercial transactions or to levy some kind of property tax on residents of the cities. In the latter part of the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate faced terrible financial difficulties, so much so that they were almost insolvent by 1876, when they were overthrown. Despite this, the shogunate never made any attempt to find alternative sources of funding. Thus, our idea to have the city population revolt because of high taxes was a complete non-starter — they didn’t pay any taxes.

Once we discovered the absence of taxes on the urban population, it was easy to see how it had come about. The Tokugawa government was an evolutionary adaptation of the military governments that had existed in Japan since 1185. The “rice tax as revenue” model dated from over a thousand years before, when there was no appreciable large scale commercial activity. While the government was evolutionary, the times were revolutionary. The mores and sensibilities, lifestyles, and large commercial sector that were the hallmark of the Edo period were new and different from anything that had come before. The Tokugawa shogunate was a fundamentally reactionary government. Its main purpose was to maintain the status quo of the military class as ruling elite and the Tokugawa family as the leaders of the military class. The men who had power in the government were constitutionally incapable of understanding the changes going on around them and so, were unable to take advantage of the opportunities they afforded.

And that is the lesson here. No matter how much a different culture resembles your own, there are going to be surprising differences. Or perhaps the lesson is that no matter how hard you try, it is almost impossible to rid yourself of your innate biases. It never even crossed our minds that the Tokugawa government would work so differently than European governments of the same time period. We allowed superficial similarities to fool us.

There are a couple of interesting points here for aspiring writers. First, it is almost impossible to overcome your innate biases. Until I had my nose rubbed in the fact of the absence of any taxes on the city dwellers, it never would have even crossed my mind. Who would have believed that a government finance officer would be so unimaginative to not invent sales tax, income tax, and property tax? It is like it is a fantasy world. Carol and I allowed superficial similarities between the shogunate and European cultures to fool us into thinking they would operate similarly to European monarchies of the same period. Second, no matter how familiar something seems, it is probably different than you believe. Writers who are world building for a fantasy or science fiction novel should take this to heart: When you make a government or corporation, mix things up. Don’t always do things the way that we do it at home. Have your galactic empire collect taxes on only the energy output of your planets or something. Give them a surprising way of doing things and then figure out what the implications are. If you are clever, you might find ways to improve your novel while you are at it.

Going back to our original problem, you may be wondering what Carol and I did when we couldn’t raise taxes. We finally decided that rice prices are so high that the people riot in desperation to try and get some action to relieve the food shortage in the capital. Fortunately, rice riots were a staple of the Edo period, so we are on solid historical ground here.

[1] Matsunosuke, Nishiyama, and Gerald Groemer. Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868. University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.

[2] Edo Period Police (Infogalactic Article)

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