Japanese Literature, Art & Drama of the 9th-10th Centuries

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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson you will explore the major developments of literature, art, and drama in the height of the Heian Period in Japanese history. Then you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Japan in the Heian Periods

Japanese culture wasn't always Japanese culture. You know what I mean? I'm just saying that what is Japanese now didn't used to be Japanese until it became something more Japanese. Got it?

Let me try that again. What we see now as traditional Japanese culture didn't just appear out of nowhere. At one point in history, Japanese artists created works of art that were so influential that they became parts of the culture that lasted into today.

Much of what Japan considers to be its traditional culture comes from an era called the Heian Period, which lasted from 794-1185 when the imperial court was moved to the city Heian-kyo, known today as Kyoto. During this time, artists and writers developed new styles of art and literature that influenced Japan for centuries to come.

Heian Literature and Drama

Literature blossomed in the Heian Period, due largely to a major development in writing. In the early 9th century, the Buddhist priest Kukai traveled to China and came to conclusion that the Japanese language was better represented by characters for sounds, rather than characters for ideas like the Chinese written language. So he developed kana, the Japanese alphabet of characters that represent syllables. Each character equals a sound in the Japanese language, rather than an entire word or idea.

With the rise of kana and a strong intellectual culture that thrived in Japan's imperial court, literature entered a golden age, characterized by the development of a new style called Monogatari. Monogatari is a form of literature featuring a lengthy fictional narrative, and Monogatari works are some of the first forms of writing comparable to the modern novel.

Monogatari literature was very popular during the Heian Period, especially in the 9th and 10th centuries. Japanese authors composed dramatic works about imperial life, love, betrayal, and even science fiction. In the early 11th century, a noble woman named Murasaki Shikibu completely mastered this form of literature and wrote The Tale of Genji, considered the first masterpiece in Japan and one of the great novels of world history.

The Monogatari style was a major part of Heian literature, but it was not the only form of writing in the Japanese court. In this time, diaries became very popular as a form of literature, and Japanese poetry also thrived. One Heian poem, 'Kimigayo,' still plays a major role in modern Japan as the nation's national anthem. However, despite the major importance of literature to Heian culture, only nobles and Buddhist priests were literate, and most of the population could neither read nor write.

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