Category Archives: insularity

Stop Exercising

An aristocratic Heian woman did not move very often. She would not have played sports, nor would she have spent time on long solitary walks. Instead, wealthy women lived extremely sedentary lives, spending much of their time sitting around, playing board games with others, practicing penmanship, or eagerly anticipating a response to a sent poem. This is yet another reason why Heian women dominated Japanese literature of the period to such a degree – there was nothing else to do but sit and write.

Sitting on the floor > than sitting on an exercise bike.

To modernize this behavior, spend your time sitting around your room. Talk to your friends on the phone or online. Start writing in a notebook or a blog. Or just feel melancholy. The choice is yours!

But whatever you do, don’t go for a jog. It’s really not very Heian.



Filed under exercise, insularity, Ladies, melancholy, sedentariness

Retreating to the Monastery

An ascetic retreat.

An ascetic retreat.

Michitsuna no Haha, otherwise known as the author of the  “The Gossamer Years”, an account of her life as Kaneie no Fujiwara’s much ignored second or third wife, frequently sought respite from the misery and boredom of her sedentary aristocratic life in Buddhist monasteries in the mountains. Wives in Michitsuna’s time frequently lived at home with their parents, rather than in a new home with their husband, and their husbands would visit them. Irregular visits were common, and a total cessation of visits altogether was akin to a divorce. The strange, undefined marital customs of the time, which included polygamy and concubines, as well as affairs and discarded wives, meant a great deal of emotional turmoil and, at times, material hardship for noblewomen of Heian Kyo.

Unmarried aristocratic women generally had a fucking blast. Sei Shonagon and her fellow ladies-in-waiting were amusing themselves with idle chatter, bizarre wagers, constant travel and ceremonies, poetry contests and games of Go. Such was not the life of a married aristocratic woman in the capital. An unmarried woman  could discreetly have affairs, drink too much sake, gamble, or publicly deride powerful men for their crappy poetry. However, a married woman or daughter was expected to live a sedentary, indoor life, hidden away behind various screens and curtains, unseen. As such, boredom gave way to extreme introspection, as “The Gossamer Years” demonstrates.

Sitting alone in a room all day with little contact from Kaneie, all poor Michitsuna finds herself able to do is write and think about him, and wonder whether she will see him again. The only action that appeared to help her to feel better was to retreat to a Buddhist monastery in the mountains, to such a degree that her son, the only biological child she had with Kaneie, had to stop her from taking a nun’s vows multiple times.

Despite the glamor and enviable high culture of the period. there were many drawbacks for certain citizens, and that included aristocratic women.

….On the other hand, life in the palace for royalty and their attendants was essentially The Real World: Kyoto. I might take my chances.

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Filed under buddhism, diaries, insularity

Shelter Yourself from Outside Reality

Due to a multitude of historical circumstances and Japan’s geographic status as an archipelago, Heian-era aristocrats had little in the way of urgent state business. They no longer had contact with foreign states, nor was there any conflict from abroad. There were occasionally internal revolts, but provincial military clans easily took care of such things with the reward of minor titles.

While there may have been battles once in a while, they generally took place quite far from Heian Kyo, and thus had little to no impact on its denizens.  The aristocrats’ wealth came from large holdings of land across the country, but provincial governors loyal to the emperor collected taxes from the peasantry and kept law and order.  Not only did Heian aristocrats rarely leave Heian Kyo, but they were rarely forced to confront the world outside of the city walls.

A Heian lady spies on a game of Go rather than a foreign enemy.

This peculiar situation explains, in large part, the blind focus on the world at hand – gossip, intrigue, and matters of rank. Why focus on outside matters if you don’t have to?

If you live in contemporary America, though there may seem to be all kinds of world problems, the fact is, they probably are not directly affecting you. There is no real threat of foreign invasion by sea or over the Mexican or Canadian border, civil war or internal revolt beyond protest seems unlikely, and the battles we do know about or participate in happen in far off lands most of us will never go to. So if you want to truly have Heian mentality, turn off the news! Don’t read that newspaper. Gossip about your rival. Try to overhear conversations around board games. Pay attention to other peoples’ outfits at the store, and complain about them later. You’re truly Heian now.

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Filed under insularity, travel

Looking Inward

Heian people were not interested in much outside of the mores of Heian society. There was little emphasis on intellectual curiosity or the study of foreign lands. Rather, one obsessed over, as we’ve seen, handwriting, poetry recitation skills, learning Chinese (only if you were a man, God help you), weeping, gossip, nature as seen through your carriage or bedroom window, behaving properly, wearing the right colored robe to that particular ceremony, and various Buddhist and Shinto ceremonies throughout the year.

Therefore, one wonders what a Heian aristocrat might make of a blog dedicated to their particular curious world. Though they would certainly understand being obsessed with their own social circle (and indeed they were, and we have all the writings about the same people and their goings on to prove it), the concept of learning and writing about a particular culture of a particular era would have struck them as strange. What, perchance, would they make of someone ordering these Heian-era dolls from Ebay?

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Filed under dolls, frivolity, insularity