Although the reception of ancient literature indicates that patriarchal systems tended to marginalize women, the translation of Japanese classical literature reveals that Japan’s Heian- period aristocratic society extolled women’s literary achievements.
At the same time, women writers focused on three main: gender, social change, and identity. While the translations of “The Pillow Book” of Sei Shōnagon and “The Tale of Genji” are commendable, they remain blind to the culture and history that existed in ancient Japan. Against this backdrop, individual understanding of the processes and events in Japanese literature is shaped by the translators’ presentations of the Heian period. \
An implication of this is that the fluidity of gender structures depict women as both empowered yet under patriarchal rule. Through a close reading of “The Pillow Book” and “The Tale of Genji”, it is evident that the formation of self-identity is based on power dynamics over sexuality and social processes resulting from existing social norms.
It is not surprising that there was women-written literature in Japan’s Heian-period aristocratic society. A testament to this is the woman-authored “The Tale of Genji” which remains the most famous translated Japanese classical novel. Nonetheless, the participation of women in the literary circles of the Japanese aristocracy did not elevate their position in society. Instead, the women poets mainly served as women-in-waiting with brief roles of entertaining the emperor (Morris 37). In fact, female authors did not stop serving in the private space of the nobility (Morris 35). Of note, female authors expressed themselves in Japanese while their male counterparts used
Chinese. Thus, women received an inferior education and were not expected to learn Chinese: “A woman will lack charm if she achieves full mastery of the three histories and five classics, the core of the Chinese curriculum” (McCullough 57). Consequently, the male authors tended to command more respect because Chinese was considered superior to the Japanese. On the other hand, the citizens identified with Japanese works thus endearing female authors to the Japanese people. Yet, the association of males with Chinese points to a society that constricts the capacity of women to express themselves in a language of their choosing. In this light, Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book” is an embodiment of gender and social rank differences that prevented women from expressing themselves or rising beyond their social ranks.
A closer study of “The Pillow Book” and “The Tale of Genji” stresses the importance of women in the formation of identities, yet the events in the novels avoid bringing out the female voice. In “The Pillow Book”, women have to conform to gendered identities. For example, Shonagon brings out the theme of social classes in her description of the female nobility: “This is the day when members of the nobility who live outside the Palace arrive in their magnificently decorated carriages to admire the blue horses….What lucky women, I thought, who could walk about the Nine-Fold Enclosure as though they had lived there all their lives!” (Morris 22). Although Shonagon stresses the importance of women by showing their involvement in state matters where men lobby noble ladies for appointment to state positions, they are not involved in the substantive decision-making processes (Morris 22-23).
The depictions of interactions in the translations show that men othered women and that women derived their identity from their association with men. The otherness of women is exemplified by several incidences. Genji has multiple sexual relations suggestive of the sexualization of the female body. In the introduction, McCullough observes that “Chapters 3-6 describe a series of hidden-flower adventures, each centering on a different woman (or child, in one case)” (11). Also, the portrayal of women as
helpless or passive actors in sexual consent is seen when Genji consummates his union with Murasaki. Besides portraying the helplessness of women in the sexual process where men shape their identity as sexual bodies, the detailed account of the morning after the non-consensual sex suggests that men treat women as property. Further, the identity of women cannot be separated from cultural or social norms. In Shonagon’s book, the princess had to flee her home because her claim to political rule was weak after her father’s death. This suggests that she derived her right to rule from her father. Overall, women were identified with the ranks of their husbands or fathers.
The translation of prose literary works authored by women is mainly analyzed in terms of gendered identities, sexuality, and power dynamics. This discussion of Japanese literature contributes to an exploration of the role of women as depicted in women-authored literature. Arguably, the events in
the novels suggest the helplessness of women writers in creating or promoting a women’s voice. For women in the “The Pillow Book” and “The Tale of Genji”, their identities are interwoven with gender, power structure, and social norms. Thus, the failure to create a distinctly female voice is motivated by the multiple sources of female identity. While women authors were treated with respect in the Heian period, their writings provided a platform to portray the gendered realities in society. Rather than focus on the perceived equality between men and women based on intellectual capacity, the women authors capture female bodies as sexualized grounds over which men exercised domination. Although this sexualization of women was a cultural norm in Japanese society, the same undermined the place of women. Consequently, the works analyzed herein suggest that the adverse treatment of women in the domestic space affected their capacity to determine their own identities. Overall, the translation of Japanese literature contributes to an understanding of social and political forces that shaped gender identities.
McCullough, Helen, trans. Genji and Heike: The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Heike.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994. Morris, Ivan. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. New York: Columbia University