Japanese Women in the Heian Period (794-1185)

by Fujiwara no Aoi

It's cherry blossom time again in Kyoto and all thoughts turn to the heyday of the ancient capital (well, my thoughts do anyway). Heian-kyo, now known as Kyoto, was the capital of Japan and the imperial residence from 794 until 1868. For most of that period, the Emperor was just a puppet figurehead and the Shogun really ran the country. But back in the tenth century, Heian-kyo was the center of wealth, commerce, power, and style.

The Heian period stands in great contrast to more commonly studied periods in Japanese history. For one thing, female children were prized. Far from the practice of killing baby girls by exposure, in the Heian period only a female child could advance her family's position in society. A man was only as high-ranking as his father. But a woman could become a concubine of the emperor, therefore winning titles for her father, brothers, sisters, uncles, and cousins. More importantly, if she were skilled in the arts of koto, samisen, poetry, and fashion, she could be elevated to the position of empress (not all imperial wives were named empress). This in itself was not a powerful position in the government, but rather afforded the woman's family even better social standing. However, if the woman bore a son, upon his elevation to Emperor the Heian lady would take on the weighty role of Imperial matriarch. The matriarch ruled the roost, as it were, governing over all the other women in the household, and had her son's exclusive confidence. In the Heian period, many children were elevated to the role of Emperor. Therefore, their mothers were often only twenty years old.

A woman didn't have to be an empress to have power and freedom in Heian Japan. Unlike most periods of Japanese history, in this era women were allowed to be as free-living as the men. Marriage was not the be-all and end-all for these women. In fact, many of the Empress' courtiers never married but rather had numerous affairs. Children born from these affairs were accepted socially if they were recognized by their fathers. They were often recognized since disloyalty to one's mate was not an issue. These affairs were not discouraged in any way and did not make the woman cheap or wanton in the eyes of society. In fact, a worldly woman was highly respected.

In education, the women of Heian profited also. Although it was not the practice to teach one's daughter the Chinese classics, a woman of the Heian period was expected to know the one thousand classic Japanese verses by heart. A woman's elegance was determined by her ability to quote the perfect verse for the occasion. Composing impromptu verse was also a skill that every Heian woman needed. Often the Emperor or Empress would pit their courtiers against each other to write the perfect verse about the moon or the cherry blossoms or the snow. A lady of Heian would have to constrain herself to the ancient forms while inventing new poems. References to the classic one thousand verses were prized. And a well-turned pun was the height of elegance.

We can thank the women of Heian themselves for how much we know about their daily lives. While men wrote in archaic Chinese script that is now difficult to decipher, women wrote in kana, the syllabaries used today. Therefore, women's writings from the Heian period are still highly accessible. The classic Tale of Genji, by courtier Murasaki Shikibu, intricately illustrates court life in the tenth century. Also, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon (another courtier to the Empress) wrote diaries that not only tell us about the people of the court, but about the everyday pastimes, arguments, and opinions of the courtiers. Reading Sei Shonagon's accounts of her encounters with the men in her life, her feuds with her roommates, and her complaints about the other courtiers make us feel that not much has changed in one thousand years. However, the raucous style in which she writes shocks us as it is nothing like the subdued, self-conscious, bashful style of the Japan of later centuries.