I first acquired and read Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (first published in 1964) after reading the Edward Seidensticker (1976) translation of The Tale of Genji (Morris deems this the first “psychological novel” rather than the first novel). In 1990 I thought Morris’s book a model of a holistic ethnography of a long-gone culture. I reread it after reading Lisa Dalby’s (2000) The Tale of Murasaki. I still think that Morris’s book readably analyzes what can be known about Heian society/culture. It certainly explicates the place of elite Japanese women of the time. All the Heian literature that has survived was written by women. Morris himself translated The Pillow Book of Sei Shonogon and As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. Moreover, there was a preference for daughters (rather than sons) among the elite, so that they could be married to members of the imperial family. (This is not to say that there was no male privilege, not least in lack of constraints on mobility and ready acceptance of males having multiple wives and concubines.)
(Murasaki imagined writing The Tale of Genji)
Women could inherit and hold property in Heian times, though it was difficult for them to go out and supervise their holdings. Indeed, a reluctance to leave the capital (now Kyoto) also hamstrung males of the court. Eventually, regional landowners toppled the aesthetes of the Heian.
Morris says that women lived in semi-darkness, isolated by screens from male interlocutors. While their male contemporaries were writing in Chinese, some women created Japanese literature (still enamored of Chinese models) in cursive (“grass script”).
Morris’s separation of Heian beliefs into “religions” and “superstitions” feels old-fashioned, but he made a clear rationale for distinguishing what Robert Redfield called “the great [written] traditions” and “small [unwritten] traditions.”
Not much is recorded about the lives of the masses. Morris relates what can be known, while recurrently emphasizing that the culture/society that is knowable from the literature of elite Heian women had little to do with the lifeways of Heian peasants. Even provincial governors, appointed by the Emperor, were looked down upon for being away from court. And warriors had no prestige in Heian Japan (samurais were far in the future!).
“Artistic sensibility was more highly valued than ethical goodness. Despite the influence of Buddhism Heian society was on the whole governed by style rather than any moral principles and good looks tended to take the place of virtue. The word yoki (‘good’) referred primarily to birth, but it also applied to a person’s beauty or his aesthetic sensibility’ the one implication it lacked was that of moral rectitude” (207).
“As in almost any polygamous society, the possession of numerous attractive concubines and mistresses, in addition to a well-born principal wife, far from labeling the man a lecher, was an enviable status symbol—an indication of his wealth, skill, charm, and health” (248)
The evanescence of beauty was already keenly noted even back then (the sadness of mono no aware).
Morris concludes with an appreciation of The Tale of Genji as literature (not only as a source of information about the Heian court society and culture) and of the woman who became known as Murasaki, a character in it, as the author.
For anyone interested in Heian Japan and/or those wanting to understand the sociocultural context of Genji and other Heian literature, Morris’s book cannot be recommended too highly. Morris produced other interesting work (The Nobility of Failure, Nationalism and the Right Wing in Japan), outstanding translation of Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and Shôhei Ôoka’s Fires on the Plain. Alas, he died in 1976 at the age of 50, and the 1962 collection Modern Japanese Stories.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray