*Japanese Studies General Guide: East Asian Exhibitions

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About This Page

This page, created in conjunction with the "International Women's Day" exhibition, an IAS exhibit series held in 2015, features two notable Japanese female novelists in the 10th century: Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon.

Female Novelists of 10th Century Japan: Sei Shōnagaon and Murasaki Shikibu

 In terms of quality and quantity, Japanese literature ranks as one of the major literary genres of the world. The initial development of Japanese literature was significantly influenced by China, since there was no native writing system in ancient Japan. Myth, songs, and legends were documented only after the introduction of Chinese characters, as shown in the early 8th century works The Record of Ancient Matters (Kojiki) and The Chronicle of Japan (Nihon shoki). Poetry and prose written in Chinese, kanshi and kanbun, remained popular until the mid-19th century. However, kana was created for the phonetic representation of Japanese by the mid-9th century. Kana was used during the Heian period (794-1185) to write waka poetry and private documents, such as letters and diaries. This writing system was used by women, who were incapable of studying Chinese classics. The introduction of kana led to the development of literary works by women. For example, Ono no Komachi (c. 825-c. 900) is considered one of the “Six Best Waka Poets” of the early Heian period. She is also included in the “Thirty-six Immortals of Poetry” selected by Fujiwara no Kintō, with four other female poets.

 The ascendancy of the Fujiwara regents in the late 10th century, whose power over emperors depended on the reception of their daughters as imperial consorts, resulted in the formation of literary coteries of women in the courts of empresses. These women were the ones responsible for producing the great prose classics of the 11th century in kana. Two superlative prose works distinguish Japanese literature of the period around the year 1000. One is The Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi), the first example of essay collection, written by Sei Shōnagaon (c. 966-1025?), a lady-in-waiting to Empress Teishi (976-1001), the first official Empress of Emperor Ichijō. The other is The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), a prose novel of 54 chapters, by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978-c. 1014), a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi (988-1074), Emperor Ichijō’s second official empress.

Sei Shōnagon

 Sei Shōnagon is a nickname given to her when she served Empress Teishi in the early 990s. Among many court ladies, she displayed a talent and became friends with many contemporary court people. The Pillow Book, regarded as one of the best three zuihitsu (random jottings) works in Japanese literature, gives a detailed account of events and customs at the Heian court through her eyes. She finds something beautiful and something interesting in her surroundings and describes them as “ito okashi (very lovely).” The Pillow Book conveys her vivacious personality and witty style.

 When Teishi’s father, Fujiwara no Michitaka, passed away in 995, the balance of power in the court was shifted to Michitaka’s rival, Fujiwara no Michinaga. The fact that Michinaga unprecedentedly had his daughter Shōshi become another official empress of Ichijō further weakened Teishi’s political influence. Though loved most tenderly by Ichijō, she was placed in an obscure position and died in 1000 after giving a birth to her third child. Sei Shōnagon left the court shortly after Teishi’s death. Though she must have witnessed the misfortunes of Teishi, her Pillow Book is silent about Teishi’s last years and instead glorifies her most prosperous time. The current image of Emperor Teishi, as portrayed by Sei Shōnagon, is that of an elegant lady.

Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu

Murasaki Shikibu

 It is said that Murasaki Shikibu began to write The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) after she lost her husband in 1001. She circulated chapters of Genji to her friends who would have re-copied them and passed them on. The story became known among the court people and she was requested to serve for Empress Shōshi. While serving at Shōshi’s salon, she continued to write Genji, which vividly reflects the customs of the contemporary imperial court. Her story was well received among the nobles. Her nickname, “Murasaki Shikibu,” is taken from the character “Murasaki.”

 The Tale of Genji, the “first great novel in world literature,” describes the life and loves of the titular prince. He was not granted royal status because his mother, though the most-beloved wife of the reigning emperor, lacked social standing. The prince was given commoner status and the family name Genji. After the death of Genji, the story shifts its focus to his son Kaoru, who is actually the grandson of Genji’s best friend.

 Initially read to and by a small circle of noble people, both The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji seem to have gained an immediate popularity.  Murasaki Shikibu began to serve at the imperial court after Sei Shōnagon left the palace. They did not concurrently serve at the imperial court.  It is unknown how Sei Shōnagon viewed Murasaki Shikibu or her work, but Murasaki Shikibu, who served Empress Shōshi, was clearly conscious of Sei Shōnagon. Murasaki Shikibu left her personal accounts, known as The Diary of Lady Murasaki (Murasaki Shikibu nikki), in which she expresses her pessimistic view of life in this diary. She also reveals harsh and bitter criticism of Sei Shōnagon, who, according to her, “was dreadfully conceited” and “thought herself so clever, littered her writing with Chinese characters, ‘which’ left a great deal to be desired.” But such comments show how Sei Shōnagon and her work was known among court people even after she left and her sense of rivalry with her reputation as a writer.