The Female Condition in Eleventh Century Japan

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            Getting a clear idea about the condition of women in ancient Japan is to a great extent problematized by lack of authentic sources. Majority of the written materials are either lost or yet to be decoded for the usage of complex grammar and the kana phonetic scripting instead of the traditional Chinese characters. However, what the experts have managed to recover speaks for a rich literary tradition that developed in Japan around the Heian period. Diaries of the ladies-in-waiting during this period recorded a detailed anthology of the Japanese culture at the royal court and position of women. Based on the account of Murasaki Shikibu, Sarashina Nikki and Sei Sh?nagon, this essay is going to discuss the lives and values of upper-class Japanese women. The fact that the Heian era, unlike the preceding Nara period, was far more receptive to women education and empowerment is clearly reflected in the sharpness and honesty of personal accounts that act like a virtual window into the behind-the-curtain lives of the court women of ancient Japan. These well-educated and reasonably independent women writers were blessed with a subtle sense of wit and a powerful faculty of observation. Hence, their diaries present an accurate firsthand delineation of the times they belonged to, without turning out to be merely sappy tales of romance and intrigue.

            The literary landscape of the Heian period was dominated by both male and female writers alike, particularly by those hailing from the aristocratic segment of the society. Since the scope of expression was limited only to the depiction of interior lives, the modern readership gets a highly subjective chronicling of the same. Using classical poetry in conversations in the form of allusions was a common custom in Heian court life, and it made its way into the literary tradition of the time. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu bears prolific witness to extensive usage of poetry in the classic Japanese tanka form.

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            In order to realize the significance of the literary diaries of Shikibu, Sarashina and Sh?nagon, we need to have a clear perception about the context in which they were written. Unlike the modern concept of diary writing, which is to keep a record of one’s personal thoughts and impressions, these diaries were meant for circulation. So the language used and experiences shared had a generic intent about them for the appreciation of the target audience. While personal diaries give a true and unbiased viewpoint on one’s own life, literary diaries are to a great extent fictional in content, if not in form. As argued by Hooker (1996), this trend of literature is called self-fashioning in which the autobiographical elements are carefully blended with psychological insights into the minds of others. What made the diaries compelling works of literature was that no two women writers viewed the same situation from a similar perspective. A unique literary sensitivity emerges out of each writer’s subjective qualities. Therefore, it is imperative that we should study them separately in order to get an overall picture of not just female lives and sentiments, but also of the imperialism that flaunted its dominance in ancient Japan.

            The diary of Murasaki Shikibu, narrating The Tale of Genji, is widely regarded to be one of the supreme classics of Early Japanese literature. Her sketching of the court events and elaborate religious ceremonies during the times of Empress Sh?shi serves not just as a historical anecdote, but also as a revealing analysis of women psychology in the pampered setup of the Heian court. Blessed with an exquisite command over language and finesse of witticism, she goes on observing the unique mannerisms of the prominent ladies-in-waiting at the court, and arrives at certain conjectures about their character. However, the subjectivity of her diary rests in her self-assessing tone. When it comes to relationships, she finds most women surrounding her to be her rivals. The feeling of superiority and bullying attitude were quite common among the women of royal repute. At the same time, the embarrassment at being condescended upon by both men and women for indulging in too much gossip was always on the mind of Murasaki Shikibu. It is clear from her diary that albeit her own position in the court was favorable, she made very few friends whom she could confide in. This was partly due to the emotional loneliness she suffered for being inexpressive and withdrawn, and partly due to the diversified cultural backdrop of the court.

            Compared to the journal of Murasaki Shikibu, the Sarashina diary is far more personalized, rendering an interactive appeal that importunes the reader to visualize the thwarted dreams of a young lady. Even though she lacks the literary intuition of Shikibu, she makes it up by adopting a spontaneous style of discourse. It is from this account that we get a veridical picture of the inner world of women in ancient Japan. More than just chronicling the social and religious customs of the court, the Sarashina diary concerns the fanciful romances of young ladies. The author lived in a fictional world of wish-fulfilling plots where she could indulge in spending her leisure time reading romance stories. This is evident from the ornate language of the diary and also from frequent poetic dictions. However, she soon realizes the impossibility of attaining such a preconceived state of dreams and clings onto religious teachings by Buddha. This diary does not turn away from loyally portraying the inevitable disillusionment many upper class women encountered for their obsession with romance. However, the author makes a clear distinction between the actual disappointment and a person’s own responsibility behind it. Sarashina is a lady who loves to live in a world of romances, and there is little to feel surprised about when she is met with an overwhelming sense of sadness. In the process of identifying this, one would instantly understand what lay at the heart of woman’s culture in the Heian era.

            The Pillow Book by Sei Sh?nagon speaks generously of the educated women class in the eleventh century Japan. Just as Murasaki Shikibu held the prestigious seat of lady-in-waiting in Queen Akiko’s court, Sei Sh?nagon was a venerable figure in Queen Sadako’s court. Based on the account of Shikibu, Sh?nagon was her literary rival. This is evidenced by the astonishing aesthetics she accomplished in The Pillow Book which, alongside The Tale of Genji by Shikibu, is considered to be one of Japan’s finest literary masterpieces. With a touch of lightheartedness, this diary records the impression of an intelligent woman who is well aware of the business of the world. The refined taste and judgment of literature in talking about gender roles, relationships and individuality of a learned woman manifests itself beautifully in this epic journal.

            The position of women in Japan around the Heian period was on equal terms with men, if not better. Resultantly, some of the most authentic literary creations were conceived of by women writers who enjoyed supreme ascendancy in the social circle of Japan. For modern readers, their diaries are indispensable for piecing together the historical components of a nation which rose to the pinnacle of literary excellence as early as the eleventh century.


Hooker, R. (1996). Women & Women’s Communities in Ancient Japan. Retrieved April 28, 2009, from


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