Three Heian Women


        I began serious study of Japanese Literature in the summer of 1973 when I discovered, by taking two courses at Sophia University in Tokyo, that Japanese Literature, about which I knew almost nothing, had roughly as rich a tradition as English Literature, about which I knew a lot--since I had spent seven years studying it in graduate school, and ten years teaching it at Washburn University--before Washburn lost its appetite for the subject.
        In fact, the history of Japanese literature is remarkably similar to that of that other "tight little island" on the opposite side of the globe--whose literature we in America tend to think of as our own.  Both islands became literate at almost the same time--late 5th, early 6th century-- under the influence of a written language brought by missionaries from the neighboring continent.  In the case of England it was Latin (and the Roman alphabet), brought by Christian priests; with Japan, it was Chinese (with its thousands of characters), brought by Buddhist priests (mostly from Korea).  A few native people, mostly converted priests, then learned to write that foreign language.  By a century or so later, a system for adapting that foreign writing system to write the native language was developed.  Thus, in the 700s--over twelve hundred years ago, but at least that long after Greece, Egypt, India, and China were writing-- Japan and England began to have a literature.  In Japan the first great book, the Kojiki, dates from 712; in England, Beowulf dates from about 725--so within a single generation.
        Scholars tend to divide the history of both literatures into the same five periods: Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Modern, and Contemporary.  Japan clearly had the higher civilization in the late Ancient, or Heian, period (794 to 1185), perhaps the highest civilization in the world (only China could challenge it), and the higher literary achievement until at least the time of Chaucer (1343 to 1400).  This early period in Japan is named after the capital city, Heian Kyo  (now Kyoto), and it was definitely an aristocratic literature, centered in activities at court.  Many of the greatest works were written by the women of that court, three of the most prominent the "three Heian women" of my title: first, my favorite Japanese poet, Ono no Komachi; then the most important writer in all of Japanese literature, Murasaki Shikibu, author of the masterwork (and first great novel in world literature), the 1200-page The Tale of Genji, written in the year 1000 (+/- ten)--compared to which Beowulf is a primitive epic indeed--then her remarkable contemporary, the incomparable diarist, Sei Shonagon.
        This was a literature of love, not warfare--plenty of sex, but little violence--coming not only before our Civil War, but before their own, which comes in the early Medieval, or Kamakura, period (1185-1333), when the center of power moves 300 miles east (south of present-day Tokyo), and the code of the samurai and a male-dominated warrior literature develops.  The Tales of the Heike (mid-13th century), recounting the battles of the Taira and Minamoto clans, is the more characteristic work of that period.  I may say in passing that the Ainu, most of whom lived (and still live) in the northern island of Hokkaido, and very likely are related to American Indians, have contributed little to Japanese literature over the centuries--none, in the Heian period, so far as I know.  And, while the Buddhist influence was important from the beginning, as the Christian influence was in English literature, it becomes more central in that Medieval period.  Heian literature was much more secular, written by and for the court elite--some of the best by a few well-placed women of rare genius.

ONO NO KOMACHI (fl. ca. 850)

        My favorite Japanese poet, Ono no Komachi, comes first.  She lived over eleven hundred years ago, but can very quickly introduce a modern reader to the tanka, the traditional form of Japanese poetry, for she is one of the best known, and most frequently quoted, poets of the Kokinshu, the first of a series of poetry anthologies compiled by Imperial order--in 905.  The preface to that volume remarks that she lived "recently," which is all scholars have to go on in establishing her dates.  The assumption is that her life, which, in later legend, came to be presented as a long one, was totally contained within the 9th century--about a century before my other two women lived.
        The preface to the Kokinshu is also famous for the first Japanese statement on the function of poetry: to express feelings, often in response to nature, "about the bush warbler singing among the blossoms or the frog in the water. . . . lamenting the mist, or feeling the sadness of the dew."  Most Japanese poets, from that time to this, including those in the Kokinshu, are true to this tradition.  Many of the 1111 poems were anonymous, but, among those where the authors were identified, eighteen were attributed to Ono no Komachi.  This is all of her work that we know for sure, a handful of poems that can be read in less than half an hour--then have been remembered for eleven centuries.
        The form of almost all the Kokinshu poems, and all of Ono no Komachi's, is the tanka, almost the only pattern used in Japanese poetry until, 800 years later, the haiku became established--by dropping the last two lines of the tanka.  If you have written haiku, you know the form has a fixed number of syllables in three lines--5, 7, 5.  The tanka (or waka) has two additional seven-syllable lines--so 5, 7, 5, 7, 7.  Everyone at the Heian court was expected to be able to write tanka--often exchanged as letters between lovers, for example.  Occasionally one might write 5, 7, 5, the other responding 7, 7.  In later centuries a linked-verse game played by poets developed on this principle--which then led to the birth of haiku.  We might note that such definition of form by syllable count is much more natural to the Japanese language--where each syllable is a "letter"--than it is to English.
        The Heian court was one of the most cultivated that ever existed anywhere in the world.  Status was based, not on military power, but on artistic refinement--particularly, it would seem, in the art of love, and the ladies at court were at the center of these love games.  Ono no Komachi was evidently one of these ladies, early in the period--who then became a legend.  And while there are only 18 of her tanka, among thousands of others, they are, for me, among the most memorable, using the form to generate both passion and philosophical insight.  The three I like best should give some idea of both form and content (the Japanese, in Roman letters, is followed by the English translation):

Omoitsutsu                         Thinking about him
Nureba ya hito no               I slept, only to have him
Mietsuramu                        Appear before me--
Yume to shiriseba              Had I known it was a dream
Samezaramashi wo             I should never have wakened
                                                            Donald Keene
       Iro miede                            A thing which fades
       Utsurou mono wa               With no outward sign--
       Yo no naka no                    Is the flower
       Hito no kokoro no              Of the heart of man
       Hana ni zo arikeru              In this world!
                                                                   Arthur Waley

        Hana no iro wa                  The flowers withered,
        Utsurinikeri na                   Their color faded away,
        Itazura ni                            While meaninglessly
        Wa ga mi yo ni furu           I spent my days in the world
        Nagame seshi ma ni           And the long rains were falling.
                                                                   Donald Keene

        This is the order of my own preference, the first and last translated by Donald Keene, who keeps the same number of syllables per line, the second by Arthur Waley, who demonstrates that the content can often be expressed in fewer syllables in English--in this case 21 instead of 31--10 fewer!
        The first describes a common experience in love, in any time and place, the desire to dream eternally of the loved one.  The second comments on  the loss of the flower of youth.  The metaphor of the flower as essence is everywhere in Japanese literature--best known to us, perhaps, in the use of the cherry blossom to symbolize the ephemeral quality of beauty, and in the way the centuries-old art of flower arranging, ikebana, is honored in Japan.  But here the slow fading of the flower of life is emphasized--if anything a more universal theme, presented again in the last poem.  But what I like most about that poem (particularly in this Keene translation) is the last line, comparing human mortality to the immortality of the falling rain.  Sometimes, as I lie in bed listening to the falling rain, that line runs through my mind.  I know that Komachi heard the long spring rain falling in Japan--as I have--and, pleased to think she still does, I respond with my own tanka:
  The long rains falling
  Provoked you to contemplate
  Your mortality--
  Listening to the same rain
  I reflect upon  my own.
        I certainly do not find her poems peculiarly Japanese in statement, and Komachi also serves as an excellent connecting link to the Medieval period, then later Japanese literature.  One reason I remember these poems so well is that I have a strong sense of the woman who wrote them, generated by the legend of Ono no Komachi developed by short stories, and then a series of five Noh plays, dating from the late Medieval period (1333-1600), when the Noh drama flourished.  In these plays Komachi is necessarily more legendary than historical, since so little about her life is known.  Still, the authors of those Noh plays were not given to making up their stories, so there may be more historical substance than we know--as with Shakespeare's Cleopatra.  I like to think so.  They present her as a court beauty who was quite disdainful of her lovers.  One of these was Shii no Shosho, a captain she required to keep vigil outside her home for a hundred nights.  He died on the last night (according to one version).  Then, in ironic poetic justice, Komachi became poor, ugly, crazy, and despised as an old woman, haunted by the ghost of Shii no Shosho in two of those Noh plays.
        But another part of the legend has it that, as an immortal temptress, she has the power to recapture the hypnotic beauty of her youth and exercise it over a young man.  This is the part Mishima Yukio focuses on in retelling the medieval legend as one of his Five Modern Noh Plays, and that I focus on in my novel--so this is my Komachi.  I like the literary quality of this idea, affirming the power of the imagination over aging and mortality--over love.  So I have a real sense of knowing Ono no Komachi, grounded in those few poems and the legend they provoked.


        But the acknowledged classic in Japanese literature is The Tale of Genji, written by another  lady of the court, Murasaki Shikibu, who lived about 100 years later.  That novel, running to over 1100 pages in its English translations, and involving over 400 characters, was probably composed in the ten years before and after the year 1000 (so exactly 1000 years ago, and providing a nice round number for the high point in Japanese literature).  Not only the first great novel in world literature, it may still be the greatest.  Hundreds of tanka are incidentally introduced in the Genji, as the natural medium used by the men and women at court to communicate--but it is still essentially a work of prose fiction.
        There are now three full translations, the most recent, by Royall Tyler, published just this October--so in your bookstore now--which I have not read.  The first, Arthur Waley's own classic, was published in 1933, the second, by Edward Seidensticker, in 1976.  I've been alternating reading the two of them this year, have just finished the Seidensticker, and plan to finish the Waley, again, the last day of the year, as I did in 1975.  I also assigned the book (in either, now any, translation) to the readers of my novel on my web site the first of the year--to finish both by the end of this year.
        Genji, Murasaki's Shining Prince, is the hero--a singer, poet, dancer, lover, skillful musician, seducer, and adept politician, but no warrior--clearly the projection of a woman's ideal, and an ideal which established "romantic" values in the Japanese psyche almost unknown in the West until the Arthurian romances.  In part because this fiction was being written--and read--largely by the women of the court, it seems much more sophisticated to us today than anything we can read in Anglo-Saxon English.  Genji, as a son of the emperor, is a prince, but his mother was a lesser lady of the court, who died when he was still a child, so he depends upon the favor of his father--which, in general, he has.  And, above all, he is a lover.  In the first of the six books the young Genji has a new woman in almost every chapter.  Clearly the memory of his mother attracts him to some of them.  His most passionate affair is with one of his father's concubines, Fujitsubo, who reminds everyone of Genji's mother.  She then has Genji's child, though it is thought to be the emperor's--which causes complications later.
        In one of the most interesting episodes, early in the novel, Genji carefully cultivates a beautiful young girl, who also reminds him of his mother, to be his ideal wife.  He first sees her when she is still a child, at a Buddhist retreat where he is recovering from a traumatic affair which has resulted in the death of one of his women, Yugao, by being possessed by the jealous spirit of another, Rokujo.  He is so taken by the young Murasaki that he "kidnaps" her from her grandmother, a nun, then undertakes to train her to be the perfect wife.  This is a provocative idea in any culture, and it is fascinating to see how this sophisticated court lady of 1000 years ago works out the details of the relationship.
        Then, as Genji grows older, the book deals with his special fidelity to all of his women, and with his political fortunes, first in exile and then as the most powerful man in the nation. But the novel is not just "The Tale of Genji."  Two-thirds of the way through, chapter 42 opens with the words "Genji was dead," and the central character in the last third is Kaoru, thought to be Genji's son, but (in a kind of poetic justice) actually the son of his best friend's son, Kashiwagi.
        The last of the six sections is entitled (in Waley's translation) "The Bridge of Dreams," which I have appropriated as title for my own novel, and for the last chapter of that novel.  I feel a particular kinship to that, too, as a literary concept--feel that, metaphorically, that is what these three Heian women, and other writers, offer us, as their readers.  My sonnet of that title is on my handout.
        The book is not structured as most Western novels are, however, for, while generally chronological, and while one complication does lead to another, for a Western reader little attention seems to be given to plot--the author is more interested in her characters (true of Japanese literature in general--of the Nobel-prize winner, Kawabata, for example).  But its narrative substance, and, above all, that glorious Heian milieu, have provided story material and characters for much of the fiction and drama that has followed in the 1000 years of Japanese literature since it was written--like Shakespeare's work in English the last 400 years.


        The third of my three Heian women, Sei Shonagon, was Murasaki Shikibu's contemporary, another court lady, whose The Pillow Book is the perfect companion to The Tale of Genji, for it reflects that same courtly environment as perceived by a very different temperament.  Since it is a form of diary, the author is the central character.  She has a strong sense of humor, so many of the experiences (and things she lists) are seen as comic, and important people at court are satirized--not the impulse of the much more sober Murasaki.  But characters still often communicate with one another in tanka (there are 132 in the 250 pages of her text in Ivan Morris's translation--many fewer than in Lady Murasaki's novel but many more than we have of Ono no Komachi's), and there are times when writing one may be assigned, perhaps by the prime minister.  There are also a number of other diaries of the period, many written by women, in most of which tanka are important.
        The writing of The Pillow Book would have been overlapped by that of The Tale of Genji, shortly before and after the year 1000, and in the same general court environment.  Sei  Sh nagon, like Murasaki Shikibu, was a lady-in-waiting to an empress, but to the older, retired Empress Sadako, who evidently conducted a more relaxed court, and we are dealing with a very different product stylistically than Lady Murasaki's novel.  The two women knew one another well enough for Lady Murasaki to criticize Sei Shonagon in her own dairy for being frivolous in her impulse "to sample each interesting thing that comes along," and overly self-satisfied in her Chinese compositions, that are "full of imperfections."  But Donald Keene says, The Pillow Book is "perhaps the closest approach to high comedy in Japanese literature," while Ivan Morris, the translator of the English edition, calls it, "by far our most detailed source of factual material on the life of the time and . . . also a work of great literary beauty, full of lively humor and subtle impressions of the world she lived in."
        The Pillow Book is so called because the author tells about the Empress receiving a "bundle of notebooks" she didn't know what to do with, and Sei Shonagon asked if she might make a pillow of them.  The Japanese pillow is a solid support, not normally made of a "bundle of notebooks," but quite possibly with a drawer that might contain such for a person who liked to write things down at odd times, and no set of writings could be more miscellaneous than these of Sei Shonagon.  She particularly liked to make lists of things.  As Morris notes, there are 164 lists in the book's "1098 closely printed pages," but, beyond this, "Shonagon's collection contains nature descriptions, diary entries, character sketches, and anecdotes . . . a list of 'awkward things', for example, is followed by an account of the Emperor's return from a shrine, after which comes a totally unrelated incident about the Chancellor that occurred a year or two earlier and then a short, lyrical description of the dew on a clear autumn morning."  The textual history is such that no one can be sure that the order of items even approximates either the original order or that finally intended by the author.  Morris speculates that she did begin by just making random notes, then may have begun to put them in some order as they began to be read by others in the court.  In any case, order doesn't seem to matter much, for the collection as a whole, personal notes covering ten years at court, "reveals a complicated, intelligent, well-informed woman who was quick, impatient, keenly observant of detail, high-spirited, witty, emulative, sensitive to the charms and beauties of the world and the pathos of things, yet intolerant and callous about people whom she regarded as her social or intellectual inferiors."
        I've included the opening passage, which is famous, and establishes an important Japanese literary convention in passing the beauties of the four seasons in review, in my handout.  This was 1000 years ago in Kyoto, but Topeka, in 2001, is still on roughly the same line of 40° North latitude.
        That candid commentary on an environment presented in enough detail that you come to feel at home in it is important, but just as important is the sense that you come to know this woman speaking to you--about whatever provokes her to speak today--and I've come to have a great affection for her, as I do for these other two Heian women, so different from her.  I invite you to read the four pages (9- 12) where she tells how the dog, Okinamaru, is officially beaten almost to death after attacking the Empress's cat, Lady Myobu, but still returns, and, thanks to the sympathy of the ladies at court, receives an Imperial pardon, at the end of which Sei Shonagon says, "even now, when I remember how he whimpered and trembled in response to our sympathy, it strikes me as a strange and moving scene; when people talk to me about it, I start crying myself."  We, too, have dogs and cats that engage our sympathies.  And her list of "Depressing Things" ("A dog howling in daytime . . . A lying-in room when the baby has died . . . a hot bath when one has just woken"--and a number that tell stories a paragraph long, about a letter that didn't get delivered, or a poem written by an elderly person) or "Hateful Things" (a hair on one's inkstone, a clandestine lover and the dog starts barking) or "Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past" ("Last year's paper fan.  A night with a clear moon.") are both very personal, sketch her character, and leave you nodding your head as you compare your own experience.
        These three Heian woman--who lived 1000 years ago, are still available to you in their writings.  I encourage you to make their acquaintance.  I don't think you'll be sorry.


  "The bridge of dreams"--the phrase reverberates,
  Suggesting flights of spirit, or of mind,
  Transcending all that's physical, and waits,
  Along with poor mortality, behind.
  To pass beyond the sense of time and place
  And find pure Being in infinity,
  To contemplate the Godhead, see the face
  Of all that's faceless, all we cannot see,
  Become as one with nothing, and with all,
  Embracing past and future in a breath.
  And if the world you left behind should call,
  Respond with cosmic laughter, saying, "Death,
  You have no power over me, it seems,
  For I've escaped.  I've crossed the bridge of dreams."

In Spring It Is the Dawn (First Section of The Pillow Book)

        In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful.  As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.
        In summer the nights.  Not only when the moon shines, but on the dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is.
        In autumn the evenings, when the glittering sun sinks close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild geese, like specks in the distant sky.  When the sun has set, one's heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.
        In winter the early mornings.  It is beautiful indeed when snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season's mood!  But as noon approaches and the cold wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ashes.

Ivan Morris, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1967), p. 1.