The main event of the evening is a Chinese poetry contest. Genji and other guests are given a “rhyme word,” which they must use to compose a poem in Chinese. Genji's poem is the hit of the banquet.
The novel includes 800 poems about the Heian court, known as waka. They provide a detailed portrait of the life of the Japanese court at the time, including descriptions of members of the court creating poetry, music, and calligraphy. Lady Murasaki uses her complex tale to comment on life in the court.
The Heian romances like that of Murasaki are haunted by a sense of sadness. Writers of poems lament that love does not last, and beauty is soon gone. Perhaps this feeling of melancholy was prophetic. Outside the walls of the elegant Heian court, clouds of rebellion and civil war were gathering.
What was significant about the rise of Japanese literature during the Heian Period?
This illustration from The Tale of Genji shows the Heian court at leisure, a world Lady Muraski depicted through her tale of human emotions and the beauty of nature.
While the emperor presided over the splendid court at Heian, rival clans battled for control of the countryside. Local warlords and even some Buddhist temples formed armed bands loyal to them rather than to the central government. As these armies struggled for power, Japan evolved a feudal system. As in the feudal world of medieval Europe, a warrior aristocracy dominated Japanese society.
In theory, the emperor stood at the head of Japanese feudal society. In fact, he was a powerless, though revered, figurehead. Real power lay in the hands of the shogun, or supreme military commander. Minamoto Yoritomo was appointed shogun in 1192. He set up the Kamakura shogunate, the first of three military dynasties that would rule Japan for almost 700 years.
Often the shogun controlled only a small part of Japan. He distributed lands to vassal lords who agreed to support him with their armies in time of need. These great warrior lords were later called daimyo (DY myoh). They, in turn, granted land to lesser warriors called samurai, meaning “those who serve.” Samurai were the fighting aristocracy of a war-torn land.
Like medieval Christian knights, samurai were heavily armed and trained in the skills of fighting. Over time, they developed their own code of values. Known as bushido, or the “way of the warrior,” the code emphasized honor, bravery, and absolute loyalty to one's lord.
The true samurai had no fear of death. Samurai prepared for hardship by going hungry or walking barefoot in the snow. A samurai who betrayed the code of bushido was expected to commit seppuku (she POO koo), or ritual suicide, rather than live without honor.
Bushido set values for the samurai and showed them how to live even when they were not fighting. It reflected ideas from Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism. Bushido stressed Buddhist teachings about discipline and the importance of moderation along with Confucian emphasis on loyalty and duty.
During the age of the samurai, the position of well-born women declined. At first, some women in feudal society trained in the military arts or supervised their family's estate. A few even became legendary warriors. As fighting increased, though, inheritance was limited to sons.
Unlike the European ideal of chivalry, the samurai code did not set women on a pedestal. The wife of a warrior had to accept the same hardships as her husband and owed the same loyalty to his overlord.