Contemporary Sources of Use to the Japanese Reenactor

Please excuse my obvious bias for the Heian period.  It is the period which I personally re-enact.  Therefore I know more about it than any other period.  This page, however, is designed to assist re-enactors of all eras of Japanese history.  Until my knowledge grows (or I receive suggestions from re-enactors of other eras), I am afraid the information on other periods will be scanty compared to what I can advise you about the Heian period.  But have patience.  I intend to cover all areas eventually.


Morris, Ivan.  The World of the Shining Prince.  1964:  Kodansha, New York.
There is not enough that can be said about this masterpiece.  It is as if it was written with re-enactors in mind.  However, it is not a period work.  It is rather a companion book written modernly and meant to be read along with the Tale of Genji and other mid-Heian texts as a way of better understanding the world the texts describe.  Dr. Morris evokes the spirit of the Heian period while explaining it in Western-comprehensible terms — not an easy task.  It explains court politics, society, economics, religion, superstitions, sex, marriage, ritual, the Heian calendar, the classes of society, and so much more.  Although no subject is dealt with in intricate detail, it is a wonderful place to start.  Dr. Morris’ bibliography suggests many source works for further reading.
Sei Shonagon.  Makura no soshi (The Pillow Book).  Ivan Morris, trans.  1967, Columbia University Press, New York (available from Penguin Books).
Want to get inside a Heian courtier’s head?  Read Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book.  This attendant to Empress Sadako tells us of things that annoy her, depressing things, awkward things, pleasing things, and “things I particularly like” as well as the goings-on of her mistress and her interactions with her lovers.  She is brash and outspoken, a trait that did not please her contemporary, Murasaki Shikibu.  Her style is unrestrained and familiar.  Somehow, when reading Sei Shonagon’s writings, these thousand years seem not so long a time.
Murasaki Shikibu.  Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji).  Edward Seidensticker, trans.  1976:  Tuttle, New York.
Paragon of taste and refinement, the Shining Prince Genji glimmers through the ages.  Murasaki Shikibu’s work, still regarded as the height of Japanese fiction, tells the story of a son of the Emperor who is demoted to commoner status.  The Tale runs from his birth and rise, through his death, to the lives of his offspring.  All the pastimes and intrigues of the Heian Court are described in intricate detail.  If you re-enact Heian, you must read Genji.
I should mention that there are three versions of this book.  Arthur Waley translated it first back in the 1920s.  His translation is highly readable but not terribly accurate.  The story goes he read the Tale in Japanese, closed the book, and wrote his version of it.  The truth of the matter that his version flows better than the original, but he changes chronology and cut out an entire chapter.  His translation is still available.
Seidensticker’s translation is literal, and not terribly exciting.  It’s the one we had to read in school.  But it is accurate and complete.
Helen Craig McCullough published a partial (10 chapters) translation of the Tale in 1994.  It is very readable and avoids some of the 1950s “prudeness” that shows in Seidensticker.  The ten chapters include the main story, however, and are supplemented with notes to explain what happens in between.  I wish Dr. McCullough would publish a full translation, but she is so prolific already (she and her husband have numerous titles to their combined credit) where would she find the time?
So if you want to really enjoy Genji, read McCullough.  If you need to read all the little details, read Seidensticker.  Then read Waley for fun.  If he hadn’t translated it first, we still might not know who Genji is!

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Michitsuna no haha.  The Kagero Diary (The Gossamer Years)  Edward Seidensticker, trans. 1974: Charles E Tuttle Co.
Was there ever a bigger whiner in history than Michitsuna’s mother?   This diary was written in the Heian period by the second wife of Fujiwara no Kaneie who recounts two decades of reasons to complain about her life and bemoan her fate.   The journal begins in 954 with their love poems and ends in 974 with their total estrangement.   The only product of the union, Fujiwara no Michitsuna, never gained the fame of his half-brother, Fujiwara no Michinaga, Kaneie’s first son by his principle wife.   The journal gives a wonderful picture of how a woman could ruin or advance herself by her actions.   Michitsuna no haha is too busy complaining about what she doesn’t have to notice what she is losing.
Murasaki Shikibu.  The Diary of Lady Murasaki  Richard Bowring, trans. 1999: Penguin USA.
If you’ve read Genji, the next step is the Diary of Murasaki.   The author of the Tale of Genji talks frankly about her life at the Imperial Palace, the events of the day, and the reception of the first part of her master work.   It’s short, but worth the read.
Lady Sarashina.  The Sarashina Diary (As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams)  Ivan Morris, trans. 1999: Penguin, USA.
She ain’t no Shonagon, that’s for sure!   If you want to know what it was like to be mousey and uninteresting in the Heian period, read the Sarashina Diary.   Lady Sarashina goes very far to make sure her life is as boring as possible.
Okagami (The Great Mirror): Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027) and His Times  Trans. Helen Craig McCullough. Michigan Classics in Japanese Studies, No. 4. Center for Japanese Studies. Ann Arbor, Michigan, University of Michigan, 1991 printing.
A chronicle told from the point of view of Yotsugi, a fictional narrator of sorts.   The book focuses on the life of Fujiwara no Michinaga, who weilded the real power of the court from 995 until his death in 1027, but gives plenty of foreshadowing from the early 9th century.   Although no more than a dialog in praise of the life and accomplishments of Michinaga, it gives a great deal of information which can be contrasted in other works, most notably Murasaki’s diary and Eiga Monogatari, below.
Eiga Monogatari (A Tale of Flowering Fortunes): Annals of Japanese Aristocratic Life in the Heian Period.  Trans, with intro. and notes, William H. and Helen Craig McCullough. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1980.
Can the McCulloughs do no wrong?   This two volume translation of Eiga Monogatari gives so much information on the period that’s it’s hard to beat.   The tale begins in 946 and pretends to be a historical chronicle.   Indeed it is a chronicle, but it was written in Japanese, not Chinese (as all chronicles up to that time had been), and in a “tale telling” style more akin to Murasaki Shikibu’s work than the Nihongi.   Thus the McCulloughs postulate that the writer was a woman.   And indeed, as the tale progresses, she gives us more details about clothing, furnishings, and poetry than we would expect from a male author of the time.
The footnotes and endnotes in this work alone are worth the price of the two-volume set.   A must for anyone wanting to understand court life in the Heian period from a first-hand source.


Ten Foot Square Hut and Tales of the Heike : Being Two Thirteenth-Century Japanese Classics, the ‘Hojoki’ and Selections from the ‘Heike Monogatari’ A. L. Sadler, trans.   1971: Charles E Tuttle Co.
The Hojoki (Ten Foot Square Hut) is a classic piece of Japanese literature which gives a real name and face to the chaos that ended the Heian Period.   This short work by a Buddhist monk tells of his reasons for “retiring from the world” and all the terrors he left behind in the Capital.   Makes one want to take his lead and build a hut on Hiei-zan too.
Heike Monogatari is Sadler’s translation of parts of the Tales of the Heike, the chronicle of the events that we know today as the Gen Pei War.   The translation is strained, however, and uses too many Japanese words to be easily understood.   For the student of Japanese literature in translation, it’s terrific.   But the general reader might do better with McCullough’s translation, below, or her excerpts in Genji and Heike, listed under “Tale of Genji”, above.
Heike Monogatari (Tales of the Heike).  Helen McCullough, trans.   1988: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
Minamoto no Nijo no hime.  Towazugatari (Confessions of Lady Nijo).  Karen Brazell, trans.  1973:  Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
A brilliant work covering the late 13th and early 14th century.  This is the diary of a consort to Ex-Emperor Go-Shirakawa shows what court life was like after the take-over of the Kamakura Bakufu in 1185.  On the surface, the difference from the Court represented in the earlier diaries is not apparent.  However, if read carefully, the reader can perceive a distinct longing for the past and isolation from the “real world” that marked the Court in this era of powerlessness.  Indeed the Emperor himself had been powerless during the latter part of the Heian period as well, but the controllers of the government were courtiers, the Fujiwara.  With the control of the country in the Bakufu’s hands in far off Kamakura, the Court was isolated even more from the actual rule of the country.  Whether because of her “liberation” from Heian subtleties or the distinct personality of the author, Confessions of Lady Nijo shows us a picture of the humanity of the ex-emperor, his faults and failings, and his powerlessness.  Nijo, a girl of fourteen when the tale begins, grows into a strong and clever woman, despite the loss of both her parents at a young age.  I personally find this the easiest to read of all the old diaries.
The Clear Mirror: A Chronicle of the Japanese Court During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). Trans., intro., notes by George W. Perkins. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998.

© 2000, 2003 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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