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The Art of Love in Heian Period Japan

Updated on July 23, 2011
An illustration of Genji from 'Genji Monogatari', or 'The Tale of Genji'.
An illustration of Genji from 'Genji Monogatari', or 'The Tale of Genji'. | Source

Heian Period Japan, which ran from around 797 to 1180 CE, was a rich period of culture that was given rise to by the frivolity and tastes of an exclusive aristocratic elite formed by a small number of high ranking families surrounding the Imperial line. Of these the Fujiwara clan was the most prominent, which vied subtly but strongly for power and control in the Imperial court system. As often is the case in societies around the world, in times of peace, and where a rich, elite class is present more attention can be spent on patronizing the arts.[i] Even the name of this time period suggests a peaceful time for in Japanese ‘Heian’ can be translated to mean “peace and tranquility.” Far from the violence of wars and the misery and poverty of the commoners this aristocratic class cultured a unique interest in the perfection of the arts and ceremony. Because of its emphasis placed on enriching the arts and the romantic intrigues within the social hierarchy of the aristocracy, Heian Japan is considered one of the most culturally and physically rich periods in Japan’s history.

Japan was, and still is a nation of ingenuity. It borrows and learns from other cultures, transforming items and traditions until they become distinctly Japanese in their own right. Among the many things that Japan “borrowed” from the Chinese mainland was its first written form of language. Before contact with China the Japanese language did not have a written form, but Japan was able to adopt the Chinese pictographic symbols, which are now known as kanji, to suit their native language. With well over ten thousand symbols to learn, Chinese script was at first reserved for official documents only. To write in Chinese calligraphic style was highly prized and considered to be a mark of high learning or status.

During the Heian Period, however, men of the court adopted the written language into an art form with emphasis on poetry and calligraphic artistic style. Poetry became a fond pastime of the aristocracy; competitions and poetry writings sessions were often held. Clever poems were sent as messages, many times to lovers or consorts. Care was taken even to selecting the color of paper the poem was to be written on, and they were sometimes sent with a flowering sprig or a branch of a tree for added depth and meaning for the recipient. The individual brushstrokes, the style of writing, even the folding of the paper, all could have symbolic meaning. In order to understand all of the symbolism involved with writing and comprehending poetry composed of Chinese characters the writer or recipient must have been of high learning. And thus, by using Chinese for the writing system the aristocracy of Heian Period Japan further elevated their social standing, even amongst themselves, for their wisdom and learning by being able to read and write kanji.

While writing with Chinese symbols was something seen reserved for the men of the elite it is not to say that women were not literately active during this period. Seen as a lower form of writing, kana, or the syllabic writing of Japanese, was adopted by the women and more literate commoners. Women in fact wrote most of Japan’s earliest and greatest literature. The majority of these novels are nikki, or diaries, of women of the court, that often deal with the romantic intrigues of court, such as in The Gossamer Years (or Kagero nikki). The Gossamer Years is the memoir of a woman known only as the mother of Fujiwara no Michitsuna about her woeful twenty-year marriage to an elite man of the court who seldom graced her with the love and attention she desired. The author’s writing style was so valued that the diary mentions that she composed some poetry that was to adorn screen paintings for the Emperor. In the book attention is paid to emotions, and a strong emphasis on the power of poetry in a relationship, especially seen in the first of the three sections of the book, which is composed primarily of poems between the woman and her husband.[ii]

While on the outside, often cloaked by screens or a coy fan women of the Heian Period seldom showed their true emotions, but through their writings insight is gained into the true thoughts of women of the period on subjects such as courtship, marriage, and romance, to current trends and tastes. The Pillow Book is one such book, which focuses on taste through a collection of essays on various subjects.[iii] Through the writings of one of her contemporaries and rivals, Murasaki Shikibu, it is learned that Sei Shonagon, the author of The Pillow Book even combined some kanji with kana in her writings.[iv] Murasaki Shikibu is commonly referred to as simply Lady Murasaki for her true name is unclear, but there is a character in her famous novel The Tale of Genji that is believed to be reference to herself which has been called Murasaki (meaning purple). In much of the Japanese literature of this time period the characters are rarely actually called by name.

Lady Murasaki’s masterpiece, The Tale of Genji is a fairly long piece of literature, written originally in a flowing cursive style of calligraphy unique to the author so that both in the story itself and the visual presentation of it The Tale of Genji is an immensely brilliant work of art. The story is about the life of a young and handsome man by the name of Genji, a Prince, the son of the Emperor through a beloved consort, who is thought to be an example of the perfect in man in both appearance and action (and, as described in the book, an extremely wonderful dancer that moved spectators to tears with his grace and beauty).[v] The Tale of Genji is one of the best-written examples of the court life of the elite. Through Genji’s discussions about women, love and life in general with his male companions the thought process about morals of the time is revealed, indicated by Genji’s close friend and technically brother-in-law who disagrees with how Genji mistreats his official wife in favor of courting deeply romantic flights of fancy that touch his curiosity and are often quite out of his reach. Through Genji’s various relations with women insight is gained into what was considered a desirable female companion of the time and the rituals of courting.

Well-rounded women of the arts were valued in Heian Era Japan. In order to be a proper member of society and not an embarrassment to her husband or family a woman should not only to be able to write, but play a music instrument decently, and know the correct manner of speech and actions called for in formal situations. Even Genji admits that a woman not favored with good looks may be made tolerable through excellence in these other areas of life. Servants or slaves carried out most actual chores of the house of the rich, but even the women of higher class were called upon for sewing and embroidery. Several times the neglected wife in The Gossamer Years is called upon to sew garments for her husband.

The ornate and rich costumes of the aristocracy of the Heian Period are still admired in modern Japan. On holidays such as Shichi-Go-San and Girl’s Day in Japan girls are presented with dolls with clothing mimicking the fashions of Heian Japan. This is a reminder of the rich cultural heritage women have been a part of in Japan since Heian times, and is a statement about the prestige associated with that era. The dolls are often heirlooms passed down through the family.[vi]

The rich of Heian Japan placed high regard to visual appearance in everything of one’s life. A poorer member of the court may be judged for the obvious need of repair in their house structure or lack of care of the ground as a reflection of their character. The rich wore fine garments, the best of which were created from silk imported from China. When appearing in public, even in the covert, care was taken to look one’s best. This was reflected in the choice of carriage used, and how many attendants one had marching beside the decorated carriages was a statement of one’s status. A particular scene in The Tale of Genji in which Genji is part of an escort for the virgin maiden priestess to a shrine many carriages flock to the roadside, vying for a view Genji. This passage describes the process and appearance of these carriages when Genji’s wife Aoi’s caravan manages to push away the carriage of one of Genji’s lovers, a high ranking woman of the Fujisawa line and a consort of the Emperor, because the lover has had to come in disguised carriage and cannot reveal herself but Aoi has come in full regalia and splendor. Because of the rank denoted by her carriage Aoi was able to shame the other woman to the back, even though the lover was of a higher status than Aoi herself.

To the aristocracy of Heian Japan status and rank meant everything. Marriage was often a political ordeal to secure a family’s rank for subsequent generations. The Fujiwara clan held the majority of power in the court system because more often than not the Emperor was persuaded to take a wife of the Fujiwara line, and many of his consorts were also Fujiwara. When an heir to the throne was born through a Fujiwara woman the Emperor was convinced to abdicate to his son, sometimes when the heir to the throne was but a child. When this occurred it was usually the maternal grandfather’s role to guide and advice the young Emperor, which furthered the Fujiwara’s control at court.[vii]

While marriage during this time was mostly for political gain, love was freely expressed and given during this time. While men usually only had one official wife through which their official heir would come (if a wife did not produce an heir it was considered grounds for divorce) a man was free to have as many lovers and consorts as he wished, as long as they were kept secret from the public eye. So it was common as seen in the author of The Gossamer Years and Aoi in The Tale of Genji that a wife felt neglected for there might be many long absences of the husband with no excuse. While the wife may truthfully know that her husband was off with other women it was rare for her to actually find out the identity of these other lovers, for those passionate relationships were highly secretive, and sometimes two lovers may never actually know the other’s identity. Many times Genji approaches a new fancy in disguise at night, and often he was denied the pleasure of writing his lady friends, for if their relationship were somehow discovered through a stray message the difference in their ranks would bring shame to one party or the other if it became known to the public.

This practice of secretive love caused much angst and woe amidst lovers, several accounts of which are described in high detail as the subjects of some of the literature previously mentioned. Many times in The Tale of Genji, Genji mopes and sulks from the anguish of being unable to write to a woman he loves. That a fleeting greeting or exchange of a poem on a painted fan could be cause for one to swoon and woe it means that at that time a great importance was placed on personal connections and the notion of love. So to speak it could be said that the Heian Japanese believed in “love at first sight.” For Genji at least it didn’t matter the woman’s rank in life, only that she roused his curiosity enough for her to preoccupy his thoughts. The pleasure of the relationship, through whatever contact it was carried, is what thrilled him.

It is not surprising that the aristocracy of Heian Japan reveled in the pleasure of certain things. While to the lower classes it may have seemed foolish to squander resources on unnecessary things the aristocracy enjoyed embellishing most everything. As already discussed the clothes they wore were very fine, and they played musical instruments of all kinds, ranging from the flute to the samisen. The court also spent a great deal of time in parties, celebrations, and gatherings all of which were carried out with a high amount of ceremony. It makes one wonder that with all the time spent pursuing relationships and keeping up appearances when did the court find time to deal with matters of state? Eventually it was the aristocracy milking the economy dry that led to the downfall of this peaceful era. The imperial court ran its finances into the ground, taxing the peasants for all they were worth. Revolution was at hand.

While in the long run the Heian Period may have not been the most frugal in Japan’s history, it is still remembered for its richness in a positive aspect, rather than focusing on the negatives it led to. After all it was during this time that literature and calligraphy saw its high points. Women wrote great pieces of literature, and everyone of education exchanged, wrote and valued poetry and all the aesthetic properties that went with it. Fashion was rich and the people of the court turned love into a delicate yet deeply passionate art form. Beauty was highly valued and the aristocracy seemed to live in a world outside of violence and poverty. It is for its deeply rich affinity for culture, beauty, and love that Heian Period Japan will always be remembered.


[1] Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, A Global History, Thirteenth Edition (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005) 217.

[2] Edward Seidensticker, The Gossamer Years: The Diary of a Noblewoman of Heian Japan (North Clarrendon, VT: Tuttle Publishin, 1964.)

[3] Helen Craig McCullough, Classical Japanese Prose (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995) 158-199.

[4] Patricia Ebrey, Anne Walthall and James Palais, Pre-Modern East Asia: To 1800, A cultural, Social, and Political History. Second Edition, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company) 153.

[5] Arthur Waley, The Tale of Genji (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925).

[6] Joy Hendry, Understanding Japanese Society, Third Edition (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003) 145-163.

[7] John Whitney Hall, Marius B. Jansen, Madoka Kanai, and Denis Twitchett, The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 2: Heian Japan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 64 – 73.


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