Japan Literature from the Origins to Heian Period Part II

By | January 23, 2022

The Utsubo monogatari (“Tale of a hollow tree”) and the Ochikubo monogatari (“History of Ochikubo”), both by an unknown author, represent a much longer kind of tale, a mixture of fantastic and folkloric elements, and descriptions of the life of the aristocracy of the time. The road was now open towards the creation of the Genji monogatari (“Story of Genji”), the most representative work of the Heian period and, perhaps, of the entire Japanese literary history. Written by the lady-in- waiting Murasaki no Shikibu around 1001, consisting of 54 chapters, has as its protagonist Hikaru Genji, the “shining prince”, ideal court man, refined esthete, delicate poet and sensitive lover; the work is populated by numerous characters, all with their own individuality. The author intervenes freely in the course of the narration, passing from the dialogue to the description or reflections of the protagonists without apparent solution of continuity, controlling the unfolding of the story through a series of anticipations, shots and references.

The genre of the private diary, inaugurated by a man, the aforementioned Ki no Tsurayuki, with the Tosa nikki («Tosa’s Diary», c. 935), was soon adopted by women. Little is known about the author of Kagerō nikki (“Diary of an ephemeral”), known only by the nickname “mother of Fujiwara no Michitsuna”. The diary covers the period from 954 to 974 and deals with the private events of the author, her difficult relationships with her inconstant and unfaithful husband, but above all the meaning of her existence. The Izumi Shikibu nikki is also attributed to S. Izumi, one of the most sensitive and original poetess of the time(«Izumi Shikibu’s Diary»), mostly dedicated to the story of her love for Prince Atsumichi. The pen of Sei Shōnagon, third of the great court ladies of the Heian period, is instead due the Makura no sōshi, a collection of aphorisms, thoughts and reflections, precious for the acute observation of the social and aesthetic habits and conventions of the time.

In the late Heian period a female figure still emerges, known as “the daughter of Sugawara no Takasue” (b. 1008), author of the Sarashina nikki (“Diary of Sarashina”), where society, whose political power (if not cultural) began to decline, however it is remembered by the woman, daughter and wife of provincial governors forced to live far from the capital, with dreamy nostalgia. A completely different work is also attributed to the same person, the Hamamatsu chūnagon monogatari (“History of the Middle Counselor of Hamamatsu”), written around 1053-58, where the Buddhist theme of reincarnation and the dominant presence of dreams are mixed to the numerous adventures of the protagonist in Japan and in an imaginary China.

Other monogatari written in this period reveal a growing awareness of the literary and cultural tradition, a growing nostalgia for an idealized era that recedes into the past, as well as an unconditional admiration for the Genji monogatari, of which they present themselves as imitations. A mention deserves the Tsutsumi chūnagon monogatari (“Stories of the Middle Councilor of Tsutsumi”, c. 1055) by an anonymous author, composed of 10 short stories in which humor, irony and an undeniable unity of writing seem to be dominant.

According to Getzipcodes, the tradition of collections of uplifting legends inspired by Buddhism was established with the 9th century Nihon ryōiki (“Miraculous stories of rewarded good and evil punished in this life in Japan”), written in Chinese and first of a long series of collections of anecdotal or setsuwa stories. However, it is with the Konjaku monogatari (“Tales of the time that was”), towards the end of the 11th century, that the setsuwa, although impregnated with religious elements, begin to deal with themes that are not exclusively of an edifying nature. The tales of the monogatari Konjaku (more than 1200) vary greatly in quality, style and subject, dealing with lives of saints and tales of miracles, but also biographies of famous people, grotesque adventures, fantastic tales, documentary anecdotes. Monks and gentlemen of the court remain the favorite characters, but warriors and common people also appear, hitherto almost completely ignored within the monogatari.

In the latter part of the Heian period, another genre in prose also develops, consisting of “historical tales” (rekishi monogatari), inspired by a new awareness of the past and the desire to preserve the memory of the splendor of the court when its decline seemed inevitable. Dates and authors are often uncertain, but the new historical interest gave rise to a series of important works that would also have represented a moment of conjunction between the Heian era and the subsequent Kamakura era (1192-1333), with which the Middle Ages began.. The Eiga monogatari (“Story of splendors”) deals with numerous historical figures, but it is in fact the celebration of Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1027), through which the power of the Fujiwara family and the splendor of the Heian court reached the highest level. The Eiga monogatari was followed by the Ōkagami (“The great mirror”, c. 1119), which differs from the previous one both in the structure and in the spirit with which the story of the protagonists is treated, with greater emphasis given to the transitory and ephemeral character of the glory, prosperity and political power. In the same historical line are the Ima kagami (“The mirror of the present”), the Mizu kagami (“The mirror of water”), which was composed between the end of the Heian era and the beginning of the Kamakura era, and the Masu kagami (“The immense mirror”) which is certainly a product of the 14th century.

Japan Literature from the Origins to Heian Period 2