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“The Tale of Heike” and “The Pillow Book” Essay

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Updated: Sep 2nd, 2020

Although the concept of gender normativity used to be considerably less flexible in the past, it would be wrong to assume that the issue of gender roles and stereotypes was not challenged in different eras and by the representatives of different cultures. Both The Tale of Heike and The Pillow Book provide a rather peculiar perspective on the issue, which could be deemed as quite unusual in the 16th century, when the novels were published. Although the authors sometimes succumb to the traditional gender tropes, the subtle changes to the roles that men and women played in the 16th-century society, as well as the behavior norms that they were supposed to meet at the time, makes the novels insightful and revolutionary. Despite the fact that the way in which the male characters The Tale of Heike and The Pillow Book act are quite different, the former subverting traditional gender tropes and the latter reinforcing them, both books make a very legitimate statement about the significance of teaching both genders to accept their emotions.

The Tale of Heike can be viewed as rather progressive in the way in which it portrays its male characters addressing emotional issues. The scene in which all male characters burst into tears is very powerful since it points explicitly to the fact that crying is not only acceptable for men but also is not shameful. The latter idea rarely appears in art, in general, and as especially uncommon for the Japanese literature of the 16th century, in particular. It would be wrong to claim that the narration does not feature the description of the men’s acts of courage and bravery – quite on the contrary, The Tale of Heike features quite a number of scenes in which men save the day and participate in huge battles. However, the fact that the men are allowed many emotional moments shows that the novel attempted at subverting the traditional image of a man being emotionless and, instead, offered a different way of looking at the male identity.

Seeing that the novel featured traveling monks for the most part, the role of women in it was downplayed significantly, though. As a result, while being progressive in its interpretation of the image of a man in the traditional Japanese society at the time, it seemingly pays little attention to the opposite side of the gender issue. However, the few female characters that were portrayed in the novel were depicted in the fascinating manner that allowed reinterpreting the concept of gender roles in the Japanese society completely. Particularly, the portrayal of Tomoe Gozen, a female samurai, can be viewed as the endeavor at redesigning the role of women in the Japanese society and allowing female members of the community participate in the social and political processes. It could be argued that the mentioning of violence toward women sets the equality ideas in the background: “Enma directed the hell wardens to conduct him to the Hell of Scorching Heat, where Hozo’s mother was undergoing punishment” (“The Tale of Heike” 1291). However, the fact that the author points to the unfair treatment that female characters receive shows that the premises for a dialogue are created.

A similar tendency to portray men as sensitive and emotional can be traced in The Pillow Book. Indeed, on a range of occasions, the male characters give vent to their emotions, allowing the reader to empathize with them. It is quite remarkable that even animals are assigned with a specific gender and are referred to as male or female, i.e., either “he” or “she” in the novel. Although not quite typical, the identified approach allows considering some of the gender issues even closer by transferring metonymically some of the associated qualities to animals. For instance, when revealing that Okinamaro, a dog belonging to Her Majesty in The Pillow Book, received a beating, the author mentions that it burst into tears as the narrator started expressing her sympathy with it: “I set down the mirror and said, ’So you’re Okinamaro, aren’t you?’ and he threw himself on the ground, whimpering and weeping” (Shonagon 1135). The use of the pronoun “he” when referring to the dog, in its turn, paves the way to the idea of men’s emotions being just as acceptable and natural as those of women.

As both stories evolve, the concepts of gender normativity as it was viewed in the 16th-century Japan are subverted to an even greater degree. For instance, the fact that the representative of the royal family that has the greatest amount of power and is mentioned throughout the novel is female needs to be addressed as a graphic portrayal of the changes in the gender roles in Medieval Japan. As the Empress, Her Majesty has a nearly unlimited power over the political and social processes in the state, which is addressed in the novel quite often. Therefore, it can be assumed that the novel suggests a more progressive view of gender normativity and the roles with which men and women were assigned in the Japanese society of the 16th century.

It would be wrong, however, to claim that both novels promote solely revolutionary ideas regarding the roles of men and women. The characteristics of the roles, responsibilities, and rights that men and women were assigned with from the day that they were born in the 16th century work their way into the book in a barely tangible manner. For instance, the fact that the narrator, which is obviously female in The Pillow Book, writes poetry, instantly characterizes her as feminine since the identified area of art was typically associated with women at the time:

The writer of the Pillow Book lived in an aristocratic milieu that very much valued the creative production of women, painstakingly trained in Japanese poetry, calligraphy, painting, and music, as well as in other important arts such as incense blending, an elaborate sartorial sense and minute nuances of proper speech and behaviour. (Flotow 243)

In other words, while subverting the traditional concept of gender roles in some areas, particularly, as far as the depiction of the Empress is concerned, the novel reinforces other aspects of gender differentiation. Apart from addressing the gender issues directly,. However, the author also provides rather subtle touches when depicting the subject matter in the novel. For instance, the appearance of the characters tells a lot about the gender issues in Japan of the 16th century. Specifically, the way in which the characters dress and behave can be viewed as a hint at the specifics of the gender issues of the specified time slot. The “cherry-blossom combination Chinese jackets” (Shonagon 1136) label the characters as feminine instantly even before the reader is informed that the author talks about women.

Therefore, gender stereotyping occurs at a much deeper level than the social interactions between the characters and the emotional development thereof. One might argue, however, that the way in which the appearance of the male characters is depicted in the novel does not allow for creating the impression of stunning masculinity and power, either: “He was wearing a rather soft and supple cloak in the cherry-blossom combination, over deep violet gathered trousers of heavy brocade and white under-robes, and he had arranged the sleeves of his wonderfully glowing deep scarlet-purple damask cloak for display” (Shonagon 1138). As the description above shows, the same elegance and the propensity for using subtle and light colors can be traced in the way in which the men’s wardrobe is portrayed.

Therefore, despite failing to confront the gender biases of the time completely, both novels provide a rather original and unique way of showing that the concept of gender roles should not be viewed as completely undisputable. Instead, as the authors of the stories show in a rather subtle manner, the concepts of femininity and masculinity need to be challenged. Otherwise, the lack of equality in the relationships between the genders is inevitable. Pointing at some of the traditional tropes with which male and female images in the culture of the 16th-century Japan were associated, the authors of The Tale of Heike and The Pillow Book created the characters that helped question the lack of sensibility in the traditional perspective and suggested new patterns of behavior. Furthermore, both authors address the issue of emotions as the essential difference between the portrayals of men and women in the society. As a result, the social norms suggesting that specific emotions should be off limits for either men or women are subverted successfully. Thus, premises for a successful promotion of healthy relationships between the representatives of both genders are created.

Works Cited

Flotow, Luise von. Translating Women. University of Ottawa Press, 2011

Shonagon, Sei. “The Pillow Book.” Voices of East Asia: Essential Readings from Antiquity to the Present, edited by Margaret Childs and Nancy Hope, Routledge, 2015, pp. 1135-1138.

“The Tale of Heike.” Voices of East Asia: Essential Readings from Antiquity to the Present, edited by Margaret Childs and Nancy Hope, Routledge, 2015, pp. 1289-1311.

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