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Japanese literature

The Heian Era

The addition of two phonetic syllabaries ( katakana and hiragana ) during the Heian era (794–1185) opened the classic age, in which Japanese literature reached its first peak of development. Classical Chinese still predominated in intellectual literary circles and official court communications, yet literature in the native language, the only written medium permitted to educated women, gained increasing prestige. In his travel journal Tosa Nikki [Tosa diary] (936), the poet Ki no Tsurayuki assumed a female persona in order to write in Japanese.

Much Heian literature of note was written by aristocratic women, foremost among whom was Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki). Her Genji monogatari [tale of Genji] (early 11th cent.) is ranked with the world's greatest novels. Sei Shonagon, another contemporary court lady, wrote Makura no soshi [the pillow book], a compilation of miscellaneous notes and reflections that provides an excellent portrait of Heian aristocratic life, with its emphasis on elegance—always an important element of the Japanese aesthetic.

Ki no Tsurayuki was the leading spirit in the compilation of the Kokinwakashu [collection of ancient and modern verse], the first imperial anthology of Japanese poetry. This collection, which established the model for 21 subsequent imperial anthologies, contained some 1,100 poems organized by topic, written in the tanka form of 31 syllables. The Japanese have always esteemed poetry as the highest of literary arts, and poets regarded inclusion in a poetry anthology as a supreme honor.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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