March is Women’s History Month, and today we’re going to revel in the writing of Japanese women from the Heian period.
Women have been writers as long as writing has existed, but their work often has been lost or neglected. However, while the literary professions were generally dominated by men, it was women who were the driving force behind the Golden Age of Japanese literature, and their work has come down to us through the centuries.
The Heian period (794-1185) is known for its memoirs, autobiographical narratives, and love poems. The masters of Heian literature were women of the Imperial Court and members of the aristocracy who offer intimate glimpses into the lives of the powerful and the passionate.
The writer known to us as the “Mother of Michitsuna” wrote the Kagerō Diary, the first of the long tradition of diary texts written by women.
Lady Murasaki (the pseudonym of Murasaki Shikibu) wrote The Tale of Genji, often referred to as the first novel. It is remarkable for its philosophical insight into the world of the Japanese court.
Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book fascinated her readers with its behind-the-scenes account of court life. It is noteworthy for its gossipy observations and its exhaustive, eclectic lists.
Izumi Shikibu was one of the greatest Japanese poets, and one of only five women included Fujiwara no Kintō’s anthology, Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry. Her love poetry was so passionate, rumors flew about her robust love life, some of which were true.
Akazome Emon, a contemporary of all three writers above, was a poet and historian much admired by Murasaki Shikibu.
There are several theories about why were women so prominent in Heian literature. In this era of great respect for literature and the arts, families who educated their daughters were more likely to marry them off to men with access to power. While educated men wrote in Classical Chinese, their counterparts were free to write in their own language – the Japanese vernacular that was becoming more and more popular.
Professor Lynne Miyake goes into more detail in this interesting interview.
So let’s remember these remarkable women, whose own talents and industry fitted them for a place and time that recognized their merits and gave beauty and brilliance to their own time and ours.