A History of Japanese Literature/Book 3/Chapter 1

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search





In 794 the capital was removed to the site of the present city of Kiōto. It received the name of Heian-jō, or the "City of Peace." The Mikados continued to make it their residence until the revolution of 1868, but the term "Heian period" is restricted to the time when Kiōto was the real seat of government, namely, about four centuries. When Yoritomo, at the end of this period, established the Shōgunate, or rule of the military caste, at Kamakura, in the east of Japan, all practical authority was transferred thither.

With the founding of Heian-jō (Kiōto) the wave of progress which received its impulse from the combined influences of Chinese learning and the Buddhist religion reached its height, and a period of great material prosperity ensued. But the usual results were not long in manifesting themselves. The ruling classes became indolent and luxurious, and neglected the arts of government for the pursuit of pleasure. There was great laxity of morals, as the literature of the period abundantly shows; but learning flourished, and a high state of refinement prevailed in that narrow circle which surrounded the Mikado and his court.

The Heian period is the classical age of Japanese literature. Its poetry may not quite reach the standard of the Manyōshiu, but it contains much that is of admirable quality, while in the abundance and excellence of its prose writings it leaves the Nara period far behind. The language had now attained to its full development. With its rich system of terminations and particles, it was a pliant instrument in the writer's hands, and the vocabulary was varied and copious to a degree which is astonishing when we remember that it was drawn almost exclusively from native sources. The few words of Chinese origin which it contains seem to have found their way in through the spoken language, and are not taken straight from Chinese books, as at a later stage when Japanese authors loaded their periods with alien vocables to an extent for which our most Johnsonian English affords a feeble parallel.

The literature of the Heian period reflects the pleasure-loving and effeminate, but cultured and refined character of the class of Japanese who produced it. It has no serious, masculine qualities. History, theology, science, law—in short, all learned and thoughtful works were composed in the Chinese language, and were of poor literary quality. The native literature may be described in one word as belles-lettres. It consists of poetry, fiction, diaries, and essays of a desultory kind, called by the Japanese Zuihitsu, or "following the pen," the only exceptions being a few works of a more or less historical character which appeared towards the close of the period.

The lower classes of the people had no share in the literary activity of this time. Culture had not as yet penetrated beyond a very narrow circle. Both writers and readers belonged exclusively to the official caste. The people from time to time showed their dissatisfaction with oppression and misgovernment, but their discontent found no expression in literature. It took the form of outbreaks and rebellions, robbery and piracy.

It is a remarkable and, I believe, unexampled fact, that a very large and important part of the best literature which Japan has produced was written by women. We have seen that a good share of the Nara poetry is of feminine authorship. In the Heian period the women took a still more conspicuous part in maintaining the honour of the native literature. The two greatest works which have come down to us from this time are both by women. This was no doubt partly due to the absorption of the masculine intellect in Chinese studies, and to the contempt of the stronger sex for such frivolous pursuits as the writing of poetry and romances. But there was still a more effective cause. The position of women in ancient Japan was very different from what it afterwards became when Chinese ideas were in the ascendant. The Japanese of this early period did not share the feeling common to most Eastern countries, that women should be kept in subjection, and, as far as possible, in seclusion. Feminine chieftains are frequently mentioned in the old histories, and several even of the Mikados were women. Indeed the Chinese seem to have thought that the "monstrous regiment of women" was the rule in Japan at this time; at least they often style it the "Queen-country." Many instances might be quoted of Japanese women exercising an influence and maintaining an independence of conduct quite at variance with our preconceived notions of the position of women in the East. It is this which gives their literary work an air of freedom and originality which it would be vain to expect in the writings of inmates of a harem.

The fact that the Heian literature was largely the work of women no doubt accounts partly for its gentle, domestic character. It abounds in descriptions of scenes of home and court life, and of amours and sentimental or romantic incidents. Though the morality which it reveals is anything but strait-laced, the language is uniformly refined and decent, in this respect resembling the best literature of China, upon which the Japanese taste was formed, and contrasting strongly with the pornographic school of popular fiction which disgraced Japan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Heian period witnessed an important advance in the art of writing, the invention of the phonetic script known as Kana. The ancient Japanese had no writing. When they began to write their own language phonetically they had no alternative but to use Chinese ideographs for the purpose. This system was open to two objections. A Chinese character is a complicated contrivance, consisting of numerous strokes, and as a complete character was required for each syllable of the polysyllabic Japanese words, an intolerable cumbersomeness was the result. The second objection was that a given Japanese syllable might be represented by any one of several Chinese characters. Some hundreds were actually in use to write the forty-seven syllables of which the language consists. It was no easy matter to remember so many, either in reading or in writing. To meet these difficulties the Japanese did two things: they restricted themselves to a limited number of characters for use as phonetic signs, and they wrote these in an abbreviated or cursive form. There are two varieties of the script thus produced, which are known as the Katakana and Hiragana. No exact date can be assigned for their introduction, but for the present purpose it is sufficient to know that both had come into use by the end of the ninth century. They simplified writing enormously. It is hardly too much to say that without them the labour of committing to paper the lengthy compositions of this period would have given pause to the most industrious scribes.