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The Japanese Traditional Tales Essay

The Japanese medieval epic the Tale of the Heike and the Pillow Book (by Sei Shonagon) have traditionally been praised for the fact that they represent a high literary value. There is even more to the literary masterpieces in question – they contain many in-depth insights into what were the discursive predispositions for Japanese society to become what it is now. The reason for this is that while exposed to the mentioned epic and book, readers will learn a great deal about the workings of one’s ‘Oriental’ mentality, in general, and this mentality’s gender-based psychological extrapolations, in particular. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, while outlining what clues about male and female ideals of medieval Japan can be inferred from the literary works in question.

It will be thoroughly logical, on our part, to use the Tale of the Heike as the source of analytical acumens, as to how men in medieval Japan used to perceive the surrounding social reality and their place in it. The reason for this has to do with the fact that the concerned epic was written by Buddhist monks (males) over a long period and also the fact that the Tale of the Heike can be seen epitomic of the so-called ‘masculine’ (patriarchal) virtues, reflective of their affiliates’ obsession with trying to impose their dominance on others, as something that has the value of a ‘thing in itself’, as well as of the sheer strength of these people’s fatalistic attitudes towards life (and death).

One of the most notable things that come into one’s sight in this respect is that the epic’s semantic content is strongly affected by the motif of ‘impermanence’ – something that endows this literary work with the unmistakably Buddhist sounding. As one of the epic’s anonymous authors pointed out: “The blossoms of the sale tree teach us through their hues that what flourishes must fade” (“The Tales of the Heike” 1289). In its turn, this partially explains why most male characters in the epic are described trying to maintain a stoic posture, even when facing certain death. After all, when assessed through the theological lenses of Buddhism, death is certainly not the end.

And, it is namely a man’s willingness to adhere to the behavioral provisions of ‘masculine virtuousness’, which according to the Buddhist monks who wrote the Tale of the Heike qualifies him to be allowed to enter ‘Amida’s Pure Land’ after he dies. The foremost of these provisions is concerned with requiring samurai warriors to never cease remaining loyal to their overlord. The scene in which the members of Minister Munemori’s entourage refuse to leave their master and to try saving their own lives is quite illustrative in this respect: “We are fighting men…. Therefore, wherever the ruler may go, be it… to the end of the clouds or the end of the sea, we will never cease to attend him!” (“The Tales of the Heike” 1297). Apparently, this particular scene in the epic points out to the fact that there were indeed many objective prerequisites for the famous Bushido code (concerned with samurai ethics) to originate in no other country but Japan.

There is, however, even more to the sheer bravery with which most of the epic’s male characters address life challenges. By acting in such a manner, they appear to have been driven by their deep-seated desire to impress females as well. This, of course, contributes rather substantially towards ensuring the psychological plausibility of the epic’s themes and motifs, as such that reflect the innate workings of one’s ‘male’ psyche.

We can speculate that these workings predetermined yet another notable feature of the Tale of the Heike – the anonymous narrators’ tendency to exaggerate many of the supposedly eye-witnessed accounts of the Genpei War. For example, while describing Kiyomori’s agonies on his deathbed, the narrator stated: “His (Kiyomori’s) body was as hot as though there were a fire burning inside it: those who attended him could scarcely come within twenty-five or thirty feet of him so great was the heat” (“The Tales of the Heike” 1291). It is understood, of course, that by exposing readers to the clearly exaggerated story this character’s suffering, the narrator strived to strengthen the would-be dramatic effect on readers. And, as we are well aware of, a man’s strong attraction towards ‘dramatics’ is indicative of plenty of the male hormone testosterone in his blood – this once again suggests that it is indeed appropriate to refer to the Tale of the Heike as the innately ‘patriarchal’ historical account of medieval Japan.

Having been written by a woman, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book could not be more different in this regard. The only thematic similarity between the epic and Shonagon’s book has to do with the fact that, just as it happened to be the case with the former, the Pillow Book contains a number of the clearly Buddhist overtones in it, such as the one concerned with ‘timelessness’. The lines of the author’s short poem, cited in the Pillow Book, substantiate the validity of this suggestion:

With the passing years

My years grow old on me

Yet when I see this lovely flower and spring

I forget age and time (Shonagon 1137).

However, as it can be seen above, there is an aesthetically refined womanly touch to these overtones. Apparently, women in medieval Japan did share many psychological traits with their contemporary counterparts – something best illustrated regarding the qualitative aspects of the ‘womanly’ type of psycho-cognitive reasoning, as seen in Shonagon’s book.

For example, while expounding on the significance of her experiences at the court of Empress Consort Teishi, Shonagon never skips a chance to provide readers with the highly detailed accounts of courtly fashions: “We gentlewomen sat with our cherry-blossom combination Chinese jackets worn draped loosely back from the shoulders. Our robes were a fine blend of wisteria and kerria-yellow and other seasonal combinations” (Shonagon 1136). Such a ‘womanly’ (and presumably ‘intellectually shallow’) quality of Shonagon’s, however, is exactly what makes the Pillow Book a thoroughly credible historical document – quite unlike what it is being the case with the earlier discussed literary work.

Another indication that the Pillow Book was written by a woman is that many argumentative claims contained in it appear highly intuitive. Instead of trying to back up the line of its reflective reasoning with some cause-effect logic (as male writers tend to do), Shonagon had made a deliberate point in allowing emotions to guide her when she reflects on the significance of a particular situation/event, mentioned in the book. For example, while expressing her opinions on the subject of religion, the author stated: “It breaks my heart to think of parents sending a beloved son into the priesthood… A young priest must naturally be full of curiosity, and how could he resist the forbidden urge to peep into a room, especially if there is a woman in there?” (Shonagon 1134).

Obviously enough, the above-quoted suggestion cannot be deemed highly analytical (due to being emotionally driven), and yet it is indeed utterly insightful and discursively progressive – the qualities that apply to the Pillow Book as a whole. Moreover, Shonagon’s book radiates a strong spirit of humanism: “Then there’s the pleasing moment when you’ve heard that someone who matters a lot to you… has been taken ill, and you’re worrying… when news arrives that the illness has taken a turn for the better” (Shonagon 1152). Therefore, there is nothing too surprising about the fact that the Pillow Book continues to enjoy much popularity with contemporary readers across the world – many of the author’s intuitive (‘womanly’) suggestions about life, in general, appear to be perfectly relevant even today.

Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate to conclude that the reading of the Tale of the Heike and Pillow Book will prove rather indispensable for just about anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of how Japanese culture came into being, in the first place. One of the reasons for this is that, as a result of having been exposed to both literary pieces in question, one will be in a better position to recognize the influence of the factor of gender on the formation of Japanese society through the process’s early phases. I believe that this conclusion correlates well with the paper’s initial thesis.

Works Cited

Shonagon, Sei. “The Pillow Book.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Eds. Martin Puchner and Suzanne Akbari. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 1131-1153. Print.

“The Tales of the Heike.”The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Eds. Martin Puchner and Suzanne Akbari. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 1284-1311. Print.

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IvyPanda. "The Japanese Traditional Tales." September 2, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-japanese-traditional-tales/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "The Japanese Traditional Tales." September 2, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-japanese-traditional-tales/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'The Japanese Traditional Tales'. 2 September.

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