The Chick Lit of Heian Japan

The Chick Lit of Heian Japan


Subversion in feminine appraisal in classical texts

The Heian period of late classical Japan is notable for the literature its noblewomen produced, especially because the words women said were taken even less seriously than the words they wrote; for the men of the Heian imperial court, a woman’s “no” almost always meant “maybe.” How can we read these women’s literary output as resistant to male sexual dominance through its formation of an active female sexuality without reading them into a contemporary discourse of political consciousness, rights, and protest? I examine Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book for the ways they transgress the limits on feminine sexual looking that are set up by the ancient Japanese creation myths in Kojiki.


Feminine  Authorship

Between the 8th and 12th centuries, the capital of what would later be called classical Japan was Heian (now modern day Kyoto). The imperial court of the Heian period is notable for its sexually-egalitarian writing practices, if not for its egalitarian sexual relationships. This is evidenced by that fact that two women attendants of the Heian rear court produced works now cited as shining examples of classical Japanese literature, and of literature in general. Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book is a compilation of witty and biting observations and a detailed record of the goings-on in the Heian court. It would not be a stretch to call her the Heian H.L. Mencken. Shonagon’s contemporary, Murasaki Shikibu, is known for Genji Monogatari, or The Tale of Genji, which is an epic (but also proto-novelistic) narrative of the torrid affairs of a handsome and fictitious courtier, the eponymous Genji. These forms of literature were only later identified as worthy of serious attention; at the time of their writing, they were thought of in the way many currently think of romance novels and were meant only for women of the rear court to read aloud to one another. What might be the import of a literature for and by women in a period when women lacked sexual agency?


Logic of the Screen

It seems relevant, if perhaps only superficially clever, to preface a discussion of works by two Heian women in this way: The Western scholarship on Heian has described women in the imperial court as being hidden behind screens. The scholars who write this implicitly join the men from whom these women are said to be hidden (Shonagon, 1991). This is of interest because, although it is impossible to know exactly how Heian women felt about this, it is clear today that from the women’s side of the screen, it was the men who were hidden.

There are, of course, many historical facts suggesting that the logic in place in Heian was not one of reciprocity between the sexes. Men controlled polygamy; much of the evidence shows that it was the men who chose where, when, how, and with whom (Sarra, 1999). For these reasons, it seems as though my criticism of most scholars’ seemingly male perspective is moot. Despite the fact that the screens were between the men and women of Heian courts, the two realms that those screens divided were not balanced. It probably is more appropriate to say that the women were hidden from men, for that was the purpose of the screen: one architectural tool in an array of devices for preserving gender inequality.

However, there are moments in Heian literature when the concrete materiality of the screens becomes undeniable: rather than functioning like panoptic one-way glass, they allow women to peek out and look at men in the same way that men peek in and look at women. And even more often, there are moments when the woman’s gaze objectifies the man in the same sexually-possessing way that the man’s gaze objectifies the woman. This suggests that women and men objectify one another in a reciprocal way that subverts the power relations that limit women’s sexual freedom. Indeed, for the narrators of Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, men hold visual interest. They do not merely possess objects or characteristics worthy of attention; they are objects worthy of attention. This upsets the logic of having and being that in many cases serves to distinguish between man and woman. I want to argue that the Heian rear courts become the site of this upset: Reading Murasaki aloud helps to construct the object of a female gaze, and reading Shonagon helps to construct that gaze’s subject. The lustful joining of this subject of feminine appraisal to its objects functions to overturn the precedent set by the ancient text, Kojiki, to reemphasize the double logic of the screen, and to empower feminine desire.

There is no doubt a way of reading Shonagon and Murasaki’s works as critiques disguised as lower forms of literature, such as romance or gossip. Indeed, it is interesting to imagine Heian women in the rear court reading aloud to one another stories of Genji’s forced intercourse with the young Murasaki by way of sharing a private protest of the regularity of events like the one depicted. Certainly, this reading is a convincing one, especially if we take into account descriptions of Heian court salons as women’s matriarchal “rooms of their own,” in which texts were made by and for women (Okada, 1991, p. 163).

However, it is important to remember the extent to which these works perform a critical function not in spite of their concern with romance and gossip, but precisely insofar as they are titillating, and as they do engage the romantic imaginations of their female readers. Okada’s reminds us that monogatari (tales) like the Genji are by nature read aloud, which introduces a degree of difficulty in attributing their authorship to a mind of singular genius and carefully critical agenda. Okeda (1991) writes, “It is not, therefore, because the Genji texts result from an author’s ‘genius’ or represent a ‘higher’ level of ‘development’ that the mechanics of their narrating is complex” (p. 181). In short, we cannot guarantee that the critical power of these works necessarily results from authorial intention. Therefore, rather than seeking transgression merely in what works say (that is, in the events of the narrative), we should look at what the works do (provide their female readers with arousing and transgressive vantage points on the events of the narrative.) It is by giving their female readers visual language with which to desire that these works unwittingly empower; they stage the pleasures of the sexually-possessive feminine gaze. As D’Etcheverry (2007) notes, texts like Genji were written as aphrodisiacs for the men whom powerful fathers hoped would court their daughters; women read the texts aloud in the rear courts to entertain not only themselves, but also the men that came to visit. My subversive hope is that we might read them as inadvertently, though fortuitously, aphrodisiacal to the women as well.


KojikiGenji, Pillow Book

Kojiki helps to set the stage for the interplay of visibility and sexuality in the works of Murasaki and Shonagon by providing a backdrop against which their texts play. Even as early as this ancient Japanese creation myth, in the section describing the mating of sister and brother deities, Izanami and Izanagi respectively, there is emphasis on the impropriety of feminine appraisal. After Izanami and Izanagi agree to have intercourse, and to enact that intercourse by very performatively encountering one another from the opposite sides of a pillar, Izanagi realizes a crucial element has been left unplanned: it has not been determined who will speak first in appraisal of the other’s beauty. It is too late, however; as a result of this oversight, Izanami is the one to speak first: “How good a lad!” she exclaims. Feminine appraisal has objectified the man in advance of his having objectified the woman. The fatal consequences of this error are not only sexual but also social and political (Kimura, 1998, p. 154). Later in Kojiki, we discover that as a result of this impropriety, the progeny of the brother-sister union were deformed. It is only after the siblings perform the sex act in accordance with rules of propriety that they are able to produce offspring healthy enough to become the islands of Yamato (ancient Japan). We can identify this, as well as many other moments in Kojiki, as foundational to a logic of one-sided masculine appraisal as the initiating point of all proper sexual unions. Further, we can look to Kojiki and other early Japanese texts for the foundations of the association of looking with sexual possession (Sarra, 1999).

Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatai undoes this convention of the total dominance of masculine appraisal by providing instances of judgment of male objects by female subjects. Moments in the text make Genji seem more like Justin Bieber than Don Juan. In the chapter entitled “Heartvine,” we hear of women of many ranks “jostling and shoving into one another in the struggle to see” Genji’s radiant presence at the Kamo festival, in what is “not on the whole considered good form.” Amid “deafening” “sighs of admiration” from his daughter’s attendants, Prince Shikibu (a fictional character bearing no relation to the Genji’s author, Murasaki) notes how Genji has matured to dazzle the eye. It should be noted that we hear, presumably from the point of view of the lady-in-waiting narrator, that the high courtiers were handsome and well-dressed, but none as much as Genji (Murasaki, 1976, p. 162). Genji incites in women of all classes a desire so strong that it causes them to transgress their usual roles. The prince’s use of the idea of maturation makes Genji seem like a quantity, like produce, or like the young girl Murasaki (again, no relation to the author) whose maturation Genji so carefully monitors later in the novel before he plucks her from the vine, as it were. Genji is an object to be compared with other similar objects, in the same way that Murasaki is an object to be compared with her aunt Fujitsubo.

Elsewhere in the Genji we find our hero in similarly “feminized” roles; Sarra (1999) reminds us of one such instance in the chapter called “The Wizard,” where Genji attempts to avoid the gaze of others while mourning the now dead Murasaki. Similarly, Kimura’s (1998) scholarly discussion of the character Kaoru, while intending to draw attention to contradictory pictures of Kaoru that she argues could not possibly both be true unless explained by the omission of the Meshodo (or mistress) in Genji ends up painting a picture of Kaoru reminiscent of the earlier Bieber-esque one of Genji: In the chapter called “His Perfumed Highness,” we learn that Kaoru has numerous fleeting affairs, but also that he has abandoned his relationships with women. The result is to make him irresistible to “comely young serving women,” who flock to his side and, “perversely,” swoon at the slightest token of his interest in them. “It seemed wholly unlikely that he would ever urge himself upon a lady against her wishes.” These descriptors make Kaoru seem not a little like the Lady of a chivalric, European courtly love, one very different from the courtly love of Heian by which so many women were forced to engage in sex acts with men because they just happened to be around. This ideal man, who somehow occupies a middle space of being able to have enough sexual contact with women to make himself seem worth pursuing but not enough to make himself seem not worth pursuing, and who, moreover, would never pursue you, seems to be the impossible product of the pornographic imagination of collective rear court fantasy. This is a man idealized not (or not only) for the standards of other men, but for those of women. This fantastic figure is what makes the Genjifun to read, and he is also what encourages its female readers to say, as Izanami once did, “how good a lad!”

To be sure, Shonagon’s Pillow Book also provides many such examples of the object of feminine appraisal: The text abounds with descriptions of well-dressed courtiers, well-behaved lovers, and, perhaps most interestingly, well-coiffed and sweet-faced little boys. However, Shonagon also offers a glimpse of the subject of such appraisal, and as such, she models the kind of looking that Izanami did; she speaks first. To be sure, it should be noted that impossibilities of translation make various expressions of Shonagon’s “subjectivity” rather tenuous. For example, it seems notable that she says “I enjoy” and “I enjoy watching” as often as she does (Shonagon, 1991, p. 34). Because of the grammatical structure of the pre-modern language in which the book was written, however, it’s difficult to intuit what kind of “I” functioned here. Could it be that the book merely says that “it is enjoyable to watch”? It is possible that the subject is present only ambiguously.

Other instances of such linguistic ambiguity prove more productive for our reading of Shonagon, however: Sarra (1999) points to a sentence in Shonagon’s defense of the court lady’s seemingly superficial lifestyle, which, in its double reading, seems to capture the inevitable two-sidedness of the visual that her work restores to the screen: “There are very few people in the world who do not get to look at her/ who she does not get to see” (p. 225). It is not at all the point that, reversing the existing order, women should necessarily get to see men without ever being seen themselves. Rather, upsetting the order entirely, it is that men should not get to see women without ever being seen themselves.

Sarra (1999) argues that not only does Shonagon encourage woman to see and to be seen, thereby encouraging them to gain knowledge about the world, but she also puts her own connoisseurship on display, effectively letting her own gaze become the object of others’ desire. While watching from her carriage at smaller Shirakawa, Shonagon catalogues the dress of the men before her, who are, in this case, seen without seeing their observer. She compares their appearance as a group to a field of pink flowers, and notes a particularly handsome specimen by name, despite the fact that she feels she probably shouldn’t record that information; if she doesn’t, how will she remember who it was who looked so lovely on that day? Once again, she writes that she enjoys watching. I wish to emphasize that her motivation in all of this looking is pleasure. The search for visual pleasure, rather than for justice, is what meets Shonagon’s gaze as she watches the proceedings from afar. Whatever transgression does emerge, it emerges as an aftereffect, controlled neither by the men nor by Shonagon herself.


Conclusion: Pleasure before duty

Ultimately, I wish to emphasize that the emergence of a proto-feminism through these literary works does not rely on a sense of duty to represent femininity or on a sense of solidarity with other women, or at least, not as much as it might on the pleasures of reciprocality. I believe that Heian yields other areas of study where this case might be made. Visibility is not the only field in which this sort of reciprocality emerges; in “Chinese Learning,” Fukimori argues, contrary to dominant histories, that there is evidence, especially in Shonagon and Murasaki, of women’s knowledge of Chinese poetry and calligraphy, or zae. It is on this account that LaMarre (2000) can argue that, in addition to men being able to write in modified Chinese kanji, or in a feminine hand, women also can write in the original characters as well, in what was known as the masculine hand. Effectively, the sexes can write in “drag” as one another. Again, however, what is to be emphasized here is that Shonagon’s use of zae, to take hers as an example, seems more motivated by her desire for approval from her peers in the rear court and surprise from male courtiers than by any explicit feelings of responsibility to transgress gender roles, or of any mass political gains made as a result of such a transgression. As Shonagon makes clear enough through her various conservative aesthetic and social critiques of impropriety, she’s not above a rather reactionary political perspective if it brings her pleasure.



D’Etcheverry, C.B. (2007). Love after The Tale of Genji: Rewriting the world of the shining prince. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center.

Fukumori, N. (2001). Chinese learning as performative power in Makura no sôshi and        Murasaki Shikibu nikki.” Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies: Acts of Writing, 2, 101-119.

Kimura, S. (1998). Meshodo and the system of sexuality. Proceedings of the Midwest Association for Japanese Literary Studies: The New Historicism and Japanese Literary Studies, 4, 153-168.

LaMarre, T. (2000). Uncovering Heian Japan: An archaeology of sensation and inscription. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Murasaki S. (1976). The tale of Genji, (E. Seidensticker, Trans.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (Original work published 1000).

Okada, H. R. (1991). Figures of resistance: Language, poetry, and narrating in The Tale of Genji and other mid-Heian texts. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sarra, E. (1999). Fictions of femininity: Literary inventions of gender in Japanese court women’s memoirs. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP.

Shonagon, S. (1991). The pillow book of Sei Shonagon.  (I. Morris, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1002).


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