Books | WORKS BY JAPANESE WOMEN

Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon: Two pioneering women in Japanese literature

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

As we wind up our year honoring Japan’s women writers, where better to end than where it began?

The two greatest works of literature in Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185) were both penned by women: “The Pillow Book” by Sei Shonagon and “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu. No Japanese literary education is complete without considering these two works, and there are various English translations for both.

“The Pillow Book” retains a modern freshness, despite being written over 1,000 years ago, partly because it appeals to the modern trend of narrative voyeurism. It’s a behind-the-scenes peek into the life of a Heian court lady-in-waiting, Shonagon. Like reality TV or modern vloggers, she’s the star of her own life. Her humorous jottings, acerbic wit and deft descriptions of the court capture a unique time and place alongside the universality of personal human experience.

Acclaimed translators Ivan Morris and Arthur Waley both published successful versions, but I recommend Meredith McKinney’s translation, published in 2006. As McKinney admits in an interview with the Kyoto Journal, “Without the vividness of her personality, the words turn to dust. It was she herself I realized I must translate, quite as much as the text.” The book is recognized as the quintessential example of the zuihitsu genre in Japanese literature, a collection of musings, lists, essays and jottings that perfectly aligns with its personal, chatty themes.

If “The Pillow Book” parallels modern vloggers, “The Tale of Genji” stands at the pinnacle of our literary past. A sweeping, epic romance following the (mis)adventures of the “shining prince,” Hikaru Genji, it recalls in painted detail the most intimate aspects of court life. Indeed, all the existing copies from the Heian Period are illustrated, so in addition to being the world’s first novel, it is also an early example of Japan’s reverence for illustrated texts from woodblock prints to modern day manga.

Dotted throughout with the elegant poems courtesans and admirers frequently exchanged during the Heian Period, “The Tale of Genji” remains a towering literary achievement on several levels. For English translations, Waley’s classic translation from 1935 still remains my favorite. Acclaimed translator Edward Seidensticker’s version was published in 1976, followed by Royall Tyler, an accomplished poet and translator, who penned a version in 2002. Yale scholar Dennis Washburn’s 2015 translation has also gained critical accolades. Last year, Harvard professor Melissa McCormick published “The Tale of Genji: A Visual Companion,” which features essays and annotations on “The Tale of Genji Album” (1510) by Tosa Mitsunobu, a collection of 54 paired, full-color illustrations and calligraphy leaves inspired by the great classic.

Despite society’s gender imbalances, Japanese women have decidedly staked a place in its literature, no doubt thanks to the enduring success of these two pioneers in Japan’s literary history. Go back to the very beginning by picking up these classics of literature.

This is the 12th and final installment of the series “Works by Japanese Women,” which explores notable female writers of Japan. Read more at jtimes.jp/womenwriters.

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