Writing Women

One of the first books by Japanese writers I ever read, was Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book. Afterwards, I read some parts available in Dutch translation of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. In that period of my life, I had to choose what I wanted to study at university, and these books really coaxed me into Japanese studies. I already found observing different cultures in general very interesting, but ultimately I choose Japan as major. Why? I don’t really know. But I do know that Heian literature (794 – 1185) left a great impression. And what is that period called? Yes, the “golden age of women’s writing”.


Murasaki Shikibu

Sato Hiroaki points out the prominent presence of women poets, starting from the seventh century and even earlier. “Both sexes are well represented, but the best Japanese prose is written by women. This prose was in so far admired, that it inspired many male authors up to now,” according to Jos Vos. Compare this with women’s presence in Western literature from the same period. Right, not much to observe there. That was not the case in Japan. Orikuchi Shinobu even goes as far as to call it “Japan’s historical habit of recognizing women’s poetry as the same as men’s in rank”. Nevertheless, this is to be taken with a grain of salt. Yoda Tomiko makes clear that “the identification of Heian literature in feminine terms was variously construed and contested”.


Who were these women? Most of them served as court ladies to members of the imperial family. Their real names are often unknown, and they gained recognition under their court nicknames. During the Heian period, literature seems to have been an inescapable means to survive the daily grind at the palace. The ladies in waiting, for example, enjoyed a certain sexual freedom. But nightly visits by their lovers were only made possible after some poetical correspondence. Many court ladies also wrote in detail about their daily joys and sorrows in poetic memoirs, like Sei Shōnagon. Other ones preferred fiction, and brought dazzling princes like Genji to life.

In the Heian, women were usually not educated in Chinese. At that moment, the Japanese people had adopted the Chinese characters to match their native language. In fact, there was no Japanese writing system. So how then did these women write? They invited their own syllabic script, kana 仮名.

Yoda Tomiko describes Heian women’s writing as “narrative fiction, poetry, and memoirs that evoke complex insights into matters such as romance, literary discourses, familial relations, and sexuality.” I was attracted to these writings because they were modern as far as writing style and originality were concerned, but they seemed at the same time from another world, something exotic and intangible. I agree with Jos Vos on this point: “Such writers made a modern impression because of their open-heartedness. Despite differences in life style, they sound as intimate as your best friend. And they demonstrate psychological depth.”


Genji Monogatari

Izumi Shikibu is not as well-known as her fellow court lady Murasaki Shikibu, but I dare say she has some spirit. I love the way she expresses her self-consciousness and shows some mild sarcasm in the following tanka 短歌.


Of no use at all-
these cherry blossoms blooming
around my house.
For it is the tree’s owner
people really come to see


In my idleness
I turn to look at the sky-
though it’s not as if
the man I am waiting for
will descend from the heavens.

And to conclude with: a fragment out of The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon .


Sei Shonagon

Sparrows feeding their young.
To pass a place where babies are playing.
To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt.
To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy.
To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival.
To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.
It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters.


– Orikuchi Shinobu, Josei Tanka-shi, vol. 11, Zenshuu, 4th rev. ed. (Chuuoo Kooron Sha), 1984.
– Yoda, Tomiko. Gender of National Literature. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.
– Sato, Hiroaki. Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2008.
– Carter, Steven D. Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003.
– Vos, Jos. Eeuwige Reizigers: Een Bloemlezing Uit De Klassieke Japanse Literatuur. Amsterdam [etc.]: De Arbeiderspers, 2008.
– Sei Shōnagon, and Meredith McKinney. The Pillow Book. London: Penguin, 2006.
– All pictures from Wikimedia Commons.

3 thoughts on “Writing Women

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