The classical Heian-period primary sources excerpted here constitute the earliest full-length forms of women’s writing known in the globe. This fact is so striking that modern readers must endeavor to discover why and how women wrote, what sociopolitical circumstances enabled their literary production. Clearly women authors like Sei Shônagon and Murasaki Shikibu were highly educated, which leads us to reflect upon the important role of education in women’s lives and achievements. We must ask why, considering that it has not always been a priority in premodern world history, it was considered important for Japanese women in the Heian period. Since these women authors were members of the court aristocracy (albeit the middle or lower-middle rungs of it), should we conclude that social class was a dominant enabling factor for their writing? Literacy, the ability to read and write, has ever been a prerequisite for respectable membership in the upper classes in East Asia.

The situation for Heian women’s education was also influenced by gender difference and segregation. Women of the aristocracy were kept away from the public gaze after puberty and even after marriage; the only males allowed to see them directly were their fathers, husbands, and children. Lovers in illicit relationships could only come at night, which did not guarantee a visual knowledge of each other. This is not to say that women had no social life, only that male visitors were required to converse with them through a portable wood-framed barrier of curtain panels.

Did the fact of gender segregation encourage the apparent promiscuity of letters and poems exchanged between the sexes and the plot of the Heian love story, which inevitably begins with the stolen glimpse of a lady as the inciting force? Again, it is striking to note that there are no very explicit descriptions of a woman’s face and body in Heian writing. Not even from the women writers themselves, who resided in close quarters with other women at court. On the contrary, it is the breeding, education, cultural training, sensitivity, and character revealed by a woman’s speech, writing, poetry, music, behavior, and so on that are used to describe her.

In this segregated milieu, a woman’s identity was a construct, an affect or effect inscribed by her culture as filtered through her correspondence and other people’s impressions of her. Thus, writing was a woman’s vital link to others outside her immediate circle. Where she was not seen, she could be heard or read.

Much has been made of the Heian gender difference in education. (See Introduction.) Males were formally schooled in the Academy (Daigaku) with a curriculum consisting of the Chinese classics in the fields of philosophy, ethics, ritual, and letters or literature, including poetry and history. Females did not need such schooling, but they had to be proficient in Japanese (as distinct from Chinese) writing and reading, poetry, and music. Were women deprived of opportunities due to their confinement to the sphere of the Japanese language? Would their minds and their writing have gained in scale and profundity had they been trained in the Chinese classics?

Here we must consider that intellectually curious women like Murasaki Shikibu did not allow social and gender conventions to keep them from reading Chinese. This is clear from her writing. Yet, we must ask how even richer Heian writing would have been had women been schooled, as a matter of course, in the philosophical and ethical issues raised in the Chinese classics. And more to the point, how their social position would have been legitimized by such schooling. The ambivalence with which learning (i.e., Chinese learning) in a woman was viewed is evident in Murasaki’s comic depiction of it in one of the excerpts here.

And finally, is it not one of the ironic effects of history that it was the women, deprived of a formal Chinese education, who pioneered what would later be recognized as the distinctly Japanese literary tradition? And women who, in their concern for the private and personal—family and kinship ties, love relationships, the details of a lived life, self-introspection—produced such revealing portraits of an age so far removed from ours yet so close in their similar concerns?

Discussion Questions:
  • In what way do questions raised by Sei Shônagon in her Pillowbook indicate a proto-feminist attitude? For example, analyze her defense of service at court as lady-in-waiting, which may be considered a career for the upper- and middle-class women of the Heian period. What does she see as its advantages over the ordinary role of housewife? Consider also, in this connection, Sei’s admiration for high office and apparent envy of the fact that almost all offices were reserved for males. Note her apparent pride in the praise her poetry receives from some male courtiers, and their inability to top off her lines. Do her attitudes reveal an awareness of the weak position of women in Heian society and a desire for greater gender equality?
  • One of the many reasons why the Heian period is important for Japanese cultural history is because its poetry, collected in the court-commissioned anthology Kokin Wakashu (compiled ca. 905 CE), became the model for poetic forms and themes in all the subsequent centuries. The most distinctive characteristic of Heian poetry is that in it, nature becomes a language, at once vast and minute, for the expression of human feeling. And it is this poetic sensibility, assimilated into the prose descriptions and narratives of women’s writing, that becomes associated with a distinctively Japanese literature. Sharpen students’ understanding of the women writers’ attitude to nature by articulating how time is of the essence in this awareness, how it is the temporal perspective that is the basis of evocations of light, color, temperature, tactility, etc., in Sei’s nature descriptions—time grasped as the succession of the seasons, or as the hour of the day and its changing atmospheric manifestations in natural phenomena and places. Speculate on how the possession of such an awareness can become, as it did become, a kind of index of one’s membership in a certain class, and later of one’s belonging to a certain people, the Japanese.
  • Is it feasible to discuss female desire on the basis of women’s writing? Reflect on whether or not women, in the Heian period or other times and places before our own, are free to explicitly reveal their desires. Might Sei Shônagon be exceptional in her candid (some would say opinionated) expression of her likes and dislikes? When it comes to love, a theme commonly associated with women’s writing, does she seem more interested in the way it is conducted rather than the sincerity of feeling? Or is it precisely the way the lover behaves that indicates his seriousness? Is courtesy, the observation of etiquette and good manners, as important as unadulterated feeling? Why? Is it possible that ritual and etiquette are more advantageous for women than not? Given her sense of gender rivalry, is Sei perhaps more interested in the power balance (or imbalance) in gender relations than in questions of love? Is desire for recognition of one’s authority an acceptable female desire?
  • The Tale of Genji thematizes in great detail what men desire in women early on in the novel, in the section called “rainy night disquisition on the types of women.” In discussing this section, it is important to note that the point of view represented is solely male, since there is not a single female participant in the conversation. Except, that is, for the author-narrator, the woman writer representing the male, which one may assume is the orthodox view. Thus, it is useful to adopt a certain irony when reading this passage, to point out in what way this irony, though very subtle, is indicated. If one reads Genji itself, it will be evident that the female characteristics laid out here are foregrounded in the subsequent stories of various heroines, and that there is an implicit protest against the objectification of women by typecasting them in this way. Would it be fair to say that the men reveal their egoism in considering only their own desires and not that of the women also? Articulate the logical relation between male authority, whether verbal or sociopolitical, and female self-denial.
  • Use the excerpt from the Sarashina Diary to discuss the apparent attraction, even seductiveness, of women-authored fiction and stories evoking the feminine imaginary as against the moral, didactic stories in religious literature like the Lotus Sutra. Read the fifth volume of the sutra to discover how the female body is represented in one of the major Buddhist canonical texts. Consider Heian women’s writing as “subaltern” literature in relation to the Confucian and Buddhist canons.
  • Analyze the reasons for the ambivalence some women apparently felt about Chinese learning based on the excerpts from The Tale of Genji and the Murasaki Shikibu Diary. Note the existence of a hierarchical gender difference in writing: Chinese writing was considered male and learned and Japanese writing female and graceful. Consider Murasaki Shikibu’s discomfort with becoming the subject of gossip due to her interest in the Chinese classics within the context of this ideological gender divide. Relate it to the comic/parodic treatment of the learned woman in Genji and Murasaki’s anecdote in the Diary about her early proficiency in the Chinese classics compared to her brother.
  • What are the disadvantages, from a woman’s perspective, of the Heian marriage practice of polygamy (ippu tazai, one husband to many wives) or polygyny? Speculate on why jealousy or sexual anger seems to be considered the gravest fault in a woman. In reading the excerpt about Lady Rokujô in Genji, note how the author delves into Rokujô’s psychology of mingled pride and shame, the public loss of dignity she suffers as the widow of a crown prince in love with Genji, who is married to another woman, Aoi, and has no apparent intentions of making Rokujô one of his wives.