Japanese literature spans over a large period of time for writing. Earlier literature work was greatly influenced by Chinese literature, but after opening its ports to Western trading, Japan eventually developed its own style and quality of literature. Like most literature around the world and through history, we can learn a lot about Japans history through its literature. The Heian, Kamakura, Muromachi, and Tokugawa periods are the time period in which we see the development of a Japanese culture that resembles less Chinese culture than the time periods we see in the previous period in Japanese history.
The Heian period was between 794 and 1185 and was named for the location of the imperial capital. This time period within Japanese history is characterized by the flourishing culture of the court aristocracy, which actively pursued aesthetic refinement which led to new developments in art and literature (Heian Period). From one of the groups I chose “The Tale of Genji” because it is a great record of life for the nobility during this time period, it also considered some of the best literature in the world.
The Tale of Genji” displays the complex relationship between the literary past and its later transformation from the material you find within the story (Janet Emily Goff, 1982: p. 144). To the poets in Japan during this age, the Tale of the Genji epitomized Heian court life in its depiction of the life of Prince Genji and his affairs with various court ladies, while the inclusion of nearly eight hundred poems had offered poets a guide to proper poetic expression on a wide variety of occasions. The Tale of the Genji falls under the category of ancient literature and is considered to be one of the world’s first novels.
The book is just full of poems between men and woman during the Heian period and how they communicated among each other (Web Page Template). Court life was able to flourish during this time period because of the development of the shoen, large estates of land that were owned by the kuge, the court in Kyoto, but were run by managers sent money to the kuge and this is what the Tale of the Genji tells us historically about Japan (Web Page Template). During this time period, women could not be seen or communicated with except during certain occasions, like festivals, so many woman wrote poems and in journals to communicate to men.
This means that by looking at literature during this time we can find out a lot between the gender roles and how men and women communicated during this time period, which in turn can be very important when studying a culture and how life was on a day to day basis, because primary documents within the study of history are the most important documents you can find. Another documents that I looked at was the “Kagero Nikki” which is an autobiography narrative that covers the years 954 to 974, part memoir and part dairy, written by the second wife of Fujiwara no Kaneie who was a high official of the Heian court.
The author who is Mitchitisuna no Haha’s intention of the writing was to give readers and alternate, more realistic view of the life of a lady of the Heian court. Her goal was to capture on paper, the elements of a real social situation without evasion or idealization (Motivations of the Author of the Kagero Nikki). In a general sense though, the dairy is in a way her protest against the marriage system of the time, and supports the idea that men are beasts.
But what is important is that we see a time period where woman are able to write literature and become educated, but they must write this literature in Japanese because it is forbidden that they do it in Chinese like the men. What we can see from this is a beginning of Japanese literature that strays away from the Chinese influence and also a literature that is not dominated by men, The next period to take place in Japan after the Heian period was the feudal periods which were the Kamakura and Muromachi periods.
The Kamakura period began with the transfer of power from the imperial court to the Kamakura shogunate and this time period is also considered the medieval age for Japan. The third piece of Japanese literature I look at was “The Tale of the Heiki” which is Japans most famous war story. The war story was composed during the 14th century and is an account of the Genpei War which was the war that ended Heian period which makes the literature so important when taking a look into Japanese history from that time period (Oyler, Elizabeth).
The story portrays the war as a heroic clash between two great warrior lineages, the Minamoto and the Taira. This literacy work is important within Japanese history, because it is believed to be the first to reach people of all social classes in that you didn’t have to know how to read in order to hear or understand the story. Even those who could not read could listen to the tale because it was sung in public areas and performers often spread the tale and traveled around Japan in order to do so (Oyler, Elizabeth).
In today’s world, the tale is often viewed as both a source of stories about Japanese history and also as a eulogy for the spirits of the dead. The tale was also a great source for medieval and early modern codes of warrior behavior which is very similar to the westerns worlds’ idea of Knights chivalry during their medieval age. During this time period, Buddhism was also prominent due to the ongoing large influence of Chinese culture, and central to Buddhism is the impermanence of life.
Buddhists according to Robert Oxnam see a need to announce worldly attachments to escape the sufferings of human existence, and that Japanese literature reflected these beliefs. The literature work of Kamo no Chomei called “An Account of My Hut” can give us a good outlook on the life of a Buddhist during this medieval time period within Japan, along with the transformation in Buddhism, since the book is Kamo no Chomei’s own transformation into the religion and beliefs of Buddhism as a Buddhist monk.
Within the literature, Kamo no Chomei describes of the most disastrous periods for any important city in history. He describes the great fire, the Whirlwind, the moving of the capital, the famine, and the earthquake, all while civil war between the Taira and Minamoto clans is going on (Hojoki). The late medieval period of Japan was considered a time of the development of a number of Buddhists and the influence it had in Japan.
This is what I believe makes this literature so important when reflecting on the Japanese history because it gives us a outlook on the perspective a Japanese Buddhist during this time period that turned out to be quite disastrous. The literature of the time reflected the unsettled nature of the period and we can see this perfectly within An Account of My Hut because it describes the turmoil of the period in terms of the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and the vanity of human projects.
So both of these Japanese works of literature: The Tale of the Heike and An Account of My Hut both reflect on the Warrior spirit within the medieval time period of Japan along with its distress and cause, which both define the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. The next piece of Japanese literature I looked into was “Hizakurige” which is considered the most humorous and entertaining book in the Japanese language by some. It is story of two irrepressible men from Edo along the Tokaido, the great highway between Kyoto and Edo.
It is considered by many that the literature of the Tokugawa period is inferior to earlier achievements by Japanese writers (Japanese Literature). The literature during this period was much more peaceful than the Japanese literature we would find during the Japanese medieval period and this was because there was a lack in war now and there was a rise in of the working class within Japan and the country had lost a bunch of money, and I think that this is what defined this period for Japan. And we can see that the literature from this time period represents the economic struggle in which Japan was having.
The last piece of Japanese literature I looked at was The Love Suicides at Sonezaki which is the most famous and best loved play by Chikamtsu. It was based off of real events and instantly became a big hit during its time. The play also reflects the cycle of Buddhism, in that the numbers of suicides that take place during the play reflect the subtle cycle of Buddhism. Buddhism by the Edo period or late Tokugawa period was widely established and practiced under the acceptance of the Tokugawa government.
The Love Suicides at Sonzaki also reflect on the marriage customs during that time for the Japanese people The connection that I see during these historical phases of Japan is that all three have some emphasis on literature and the beginning and continuing of separating Chinese and Japanese literature. But in reality I think that each period is very different. For example the medieval period of Japan was full of chaos and war while the ancient period of Japan was considered much more peaceful. The rulers and government rulers changed by period also.
During the Heian Period, the Fujiwara family controlled the political scene (Japanese History: Nara, Heian Periods). But the Fujiware family rule came to an end when the Tiara family took charge until they were beat out of rule by the Minamoto Yoritomo family. During the Kamakura period the ruler was Minamoto Yoritomo who would be replaced by Ashikaga Takauki for the start of the Muromachi period. And during the Edo period the head of government were the shoguns and the government was considered the Tokugawa shogunate.
Japanese literature is important within its culture and we can learn a lot from any counties or cultures literature. As I reflected on these literary pieces by Japanese I found that they all reflected on some kind of event that was taking place from within Japan, and what makes these pieces so useful for historians is that they are the insight from someone who was there during that period. It is obvious that a Japanese citizen will look at these periods differently than a Japanese citizen that is living today. Each period has its own effort and growth put into Japanese literature to make it what it is today.
Courtney from Study Moose
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