To the Luminous Kimi” Sei Shonagon is cheerful and Murasaki Shikibu is negative? Surprising episodes of the great writers of the Heian period | FRIDAY DIGITAL

To the Luminous Kimi” Sei Shonagon is cheerful and Murasaki Shikibu is negative? Surprising episodes of the great writers of the Heian period

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In addition to women writers, the book introduces “literary giants” in various genres, including diaries, waka and Chinese poetry collections, and essays (Illustration by Kawahara Mizumaru, from “Heian no Bungo”).

The era of women writers represented by Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu was one of the most glamorous in the literature of the Heian period. After stopping the Japanese envoys to the Tang Dynasty, Japan successfully digested Chinese culture, which it had been increasingly adopting, and transformed it into something distinctively Japanese in the national style culture. The same was true in literature, as the development of kana script made it easier for the Japanese to express their unique emotions, and stories and essays were written, and it was in this context that these women appeared.”

The 2012 NHK historical drama “Hikaru Kimi e” will be based on Murasaki Shikibu, and Atsushi Kawai, a historical researcher and writer, speaks of such female Heian-era writers as follows.

In his book, “Heian no Bungo” (The Great Writers of the Heian Period) (Poplar New Book), Kawai introduces not only “wives” and poets who served their queen at court, such as Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, but also politicians and priests who left works that he considers “literature” during the approximately 400 years of the Heian period. Their works include waka poetry collections, diaries, stories, encyclopedias, travelogues, and more. We asked Mr. Kawai about the true faces of these “literary giants.

In those days, reading and writing were limited to aristocrats, priests, and others with a high level of knowledge. They were familiar with the Chinese classics from a young age, and this was considered to be their culture. Until the early Heian period, texts were basically written in Chinese, and the aristocrats of that time could even communicate with Chinese people in writing.

In what kind of situations was writing, which was only available to a very limited number of people, practiced?

For example, a “diary” was not only for recording, but also for writing down various court ceremonies and events so that they could be passed on to descendants. Since precedent was very important in those days, it was an important record of what our ancestors did and how they did it. Diaries were passed down from generation to generation, and in some cases were sold or bought.

In contrast, “stories” were for entertainment. However, most women’s literature was written by women serving the emperor, empress, and aristocrats, who were called “wench” during the regal government. Besides that, there were travelogues, encyclopedias, and many other genres.”

Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu were wives who served the court, and the end of the 10th century was a special period when women’s literature using kana script shined in the world of regency politics, as represented by Fujiwara no Michinaga.

The Empress, the mother of the Emperor, was a powerful and important figure in the power structure that took advantage of her position as an external relative. The queen was served by a group of about 20 women, called wives, who formed a kind of salon.

The nobles would approach the queen for their own political purposes, and the wives would act as their intermediaries. The role of the concubine was important, since the concubine to whom they entrusted their affairs would determine whether their demands would be conveyed accurately. There were two types of wives. For example, Michinaga chose two types of wives for his daughter Akiko: one was a relative of Michinaga’s wife Rinko, and the other was a person of lesser status but with outstanding literary talent and ability. Murasaki Shikibu and Izumi Shikibu are of the latter type.

The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji written by these women were popular among the court ladies, but what were the reasons for their writing and how were they read?

Of course, since publication was not possible in those days, I think the works were probably read in real time by people who read them in turn or copied them from manuscripts. Also, paper was so valuable that there is a story about “The Pillow Book” that Sei Shonagon wrote it because she was given paper by Sadako, the queen whom she served: ……. So, I understand that writing the work on paper and copying it for reading motivated people to write and read. The fact that he wrote his works on paper and then copied them for reading shows that he was highly motivated to write and read.”

However, it is the content of the stories that concerns me. For example, in “The Tale of Genji,” Hikaru Genji, the son of the emperor, has a relationship with his father, the emperor’s future wife, or mother-in-law. …… In “Izumishikibu Nikki” (Izumishikibu Diary), Izumi Shikibu wrote under his own name that he was wooed by a prince of the time, and when the prince died, he had a relationship with his brother ……. I wonder if such contents did not violate the taboo of the time.

It seems that everyone was quite happy to read it. It may be the same with “FRIDAY,” but scandalous things always attract attention, and people in those days also loved them (laughs).

Also, it may seem that the aristocrats of those days were just having fun, but this is by no means the case. In fact, they are engaged in a dromatic power struggle, and their main focus is politics. Every day, there is a tremendous amount of rituals and events, and the chief of the province, for example, hardly has a day off. The men of the nobility seem elegant in the stories, but that is because their wives do not see the political part of it.

The people of that time seem to have been not so different from us in their love of gossip and other aspects. Kawai says that the kana script, which came into use during this period, played a significant role in conveying the sentiments of people in the past to the present.

In particular, Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book” really gives us a clear picture of what people of the time thought and how they viewed things. The same is true of “Haru wa akebono (Spring is Akebono ……),” which shows how the people of the time used their aesthetic senses in this kind of place. That is not easy to express in Chinese poetry.

As ukushikimono (cute things), he mentions “a sparrow’s child approaching as if dancing when it imitates a mouse’s cry” and “a parent bird walking with a chick”. Also, As “something to be thankful for (something that rarely happens),” he mentions “a marriage that is praised by the people of Alexandria. As a thankless thing (something that rarely happens), he mentions “a marriage that is praised by the mother-in-law, and a bride who is thought of by the mother-in-law,” and as a measly thing (something that is not so neat), “when someone calls someone else but they think it is you and leave the house.

Although the work was written 1,000 years ago, it is surprising that its contents are also applicable to people of today. It is exactly what we would call “a certain way of life” today, and the point of view is amazing. I think that’s why the people of the capital were so moved by it. It is truly literature.

However, Murasaki Shikibu, another representative female literary figure, was critical of Sei Shonagon.

Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu served Sadako and Akiko, the Empresses of Emperor Ichijo, respectively, but the time periods were slightly different and the groups of wives were also different. It is even possible that Sei Shonagon did not know Murasaki Shikibu. Nevertheless, when Murasaki Shikibu entered the court, Sei Shonagon, who had probably already left, had a reputation as “a wonderful woman! ‘ and she was miffed by that.”

At that time, it was considered unbecoming for a woman to flaunt her culture. Murasaki Shikibu is said to have accused Sei Shonagon of flaunting her education, saying, “I pretended that I could not even read the Chinese character for ‘i’ ……. This is a rather blatant jealousy, but Murasaki Shikibu must have had that much confidence in herself.

Sei Shonagon was brilliant and bright, and Sadako, whom she served, was the most tragic of all. Sadako, whom she served, met a tragic end, but there are no dark stories in “The Pillow Book” at all.

Murasaki Shikibu, on the other hand, was a negative thinker and had some droll times at court. ‘Even if you meet them, they all ignore you!’ And, ‘Even if I write letters, they ignore me! He wrote a complaint. On the way back from somewhere, I got on a cattle car with another wife, and she blurted out to me, ‘I got together with someone who is not good.’ …… She must have been jealous because she herself was excellent. She even went home and shut herself away after six months of serving at the palace.”

The drama will star Yuriko Yoshitaka as Murasaki Shikibu and First Summer Uika as Sei Shonagon. To make the story more interesting, the two will probably have a connection.

The period in which such women’s literature flourished was a very short period during the Heian period, which lasted for about 400 years.

The system of government shifted from the regal to the insei system. As the form of the system changed, the power of the wives, who had backed the power of the emperor’s mother and queen during the regal government, also disappeared. Thereafter, the nyobo never became the center of women writers. However, her works have not faded away and are still loved today.

This is a good opportunity to learn more about Heian-period literature, which you may have only been familiar with in textbooks from your school days.

The “Midou Kanpaku-ki,” a diary written by Fujiwara no Michinaga for more than 25 years from the age of 30, is the world’s oldest autograph diary (illustration/Kawahara Zuimaru).
Minamoto Jun’s “Wana Ruijusho” was the first encyclopedia created in Japan. Izumishikibu’s “Izumishikibu Nikki” (Izumishikibu Diary) is not certain if it was actually written by Izumishikibu himself (Illustration by Zuimaru Kawahara).

Heian no Bungo” (The Great Men of Letters of the Heian Period) (Poplar New Book)

  • Profile of Atsushi Kawai Atsushi Kawai

    Born in 1965. Historical researcher and writer. Visiting professor at Tama University and part-time lecturer at Waseda University. His wide-ranging activities include writing historical books and historical novels, lectures, historical research, and supervision.

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