During Heian period (794-1185) in Japan arts flourished especially poetry and literature.
Kyoto was chosen as capital city of the country and there, within the imperial court, noble men and women had access to a wider variety of masterpieces of Chinese and incipient Japanese literatures. Love stories between noble people were articulated through love letters. Thus, if a man and a woman passed the night together and the man enjoyed the experience, he should leave a letter expressing his feelings. Depending on intensity and formal elegance of used language, woman could know if man was really interested in her or not. Obviously if there was no letter the morning after, story was ended. But if style and words were enough shocking and tender, woman would reply with another poem the next day (and she should keep this high level, at the risk of being rejected).
An old Japanese tale, the Tale of Ise, recounts us that a man was walking along the street when, suddenly, looked through a window and found two beautiful and distinguished women. He was so taken before such a discovery that felt the irrepressible wish of knowing them. Thus, he ripped a bit of his hunting trousers and wrote on it a poem to give them:
Like the random pattern of this robe,
dyed with the young purple
from Kasuga Plane,
even thus is the wild disorder
of my yearning heart.
This highly refined environment caused that women inside court began to write, and now, from 21st century, we can affirm with no doubt that women wrote the best classical masterpieces of Japanese literature. Besides, they used their own language to write these pieces (the use of Chinese was restricted to men). This language was the seed of current Japanese language.
One of those women was Murasaki Shikibu, who worked as a courtier in Emperor’s house and wrote The Tale of Genji, a monumental novel which tells us the story of young Emperor Genji, from childhood to death, and then the life of his successors. Shikibu’s capacity to reflect the complex psychology of characters –whether it is from male side through the continuous flings of young prince Genji, or from female side, showing the contradictory feelings that this handsome prince caused on noblewomen inside the court- makes that many specialists consider this work the first modern novel of History. It is really an authentic “river-novel” which could have been written by Proust (but almost 7 centuries after!). It is a huge book, but I recommend you to read it if you like these never-ending love histories, also if you want to know how the life inside Kyoto’s court was and even if you want to get a very accurate portrait of Japanese middle age.
Also in this period, Sei Shonagon, another noblewomen and open rival of Murasaki Shikibu, wrote several pieces. The most famous is The pillow book. It is no clear which is the reason for this title, but it seems that, as it is a diary, Shonagon left it below her pillow every night after writing on it. In front of magnificence and huge size of The Tale of Genji, The pillow book is imbued with a truly special sensibility. Shonagon thinks (and writes) about the life in the court, by using a style that approaches her surprisingly to our current essays, criticizes ironically her rivals (Shikibu included) and composes one of the most lyrical works that Japanese literature gave us: with her lists of “things that expand the heart”, “distressing things”, “depressing things” and so on, Shonagon enters inside the territory of pure poetry.
As an example, a depressing thing for Shonagon is “a letter that came from provinces, but is not accompanied with any present. It would be the same if this letter was received by a person in provinces from someone in capital city, but at least it would bring interesting news about social events and would serve us to find some consolation…”
Of course, I recommend you also to read, enjoy and laugh with Shonagon. I am sure you will do!
Finally I leave you with a poem that a lover left on the pillow of his beloved someday during Heian period, somewhere inside Imperial palace. After reading this, could you resist?
If you love me,
let us sleep together,
thought it be in a weed-choked house
with our sleeves