Peaceful Heian period cultivated unique Japanese culture

I think most Japanese people know the existence of works such as The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book. However, those people were not the only ones absorbed in reading them because they thought they were interesting, but also many people learned part of them in classics class at school or studied them because they would be required in entrance exams.

In other words, in our times, we might think that literature and culture in the Heian period is something that we learn as our study and not something we would like to encounter because we are interested in it.

I think the background for this is that current Japanese society focuses on practical learning, and there is a climate which values something that is immediately useful or something visibly easy to understand. So, many people regard classic works as something for us to become cultivated by or something to bring a little consolation during our busy daily lives.

But conversely, is it really practically useless to learn traditional Japanese culture?

If we think about Heian period culture again, it is often said to be a time when kokufu bunka (indigenous culture) was established.

It has been said that the abolishment of kentoshi (Japanese missions to Tang China) in 894 largely contributed to the cultivation of unique Japanese culture, but in recent years, some arguments express skepticism about this theory.

Surely the abolishment of kentoshi was one of the factors. However, in the first place, one of the significant characteristics of Japanese is that they are good at creating something new by skillfully merging and arranging what they have with cultures and technologies that came in from outside.

Therefore, it is imagined that even if kentoshi kept bringing in unusual culture from the continent, Japanese would have made their unique letters, literature, and culture flourish.

Rather, the continuation of a very peaceful state without major conflicts for 400 years in the Heian period seems to have had a larger impact. We can say that women such as Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon could write literary pieces because of the continued peaceful time.

Moreover, the nobility at that time not only integrated cultures from the continent but also related literature that they generated and cultivated to crafts, paintings and clothing and started some sort of cultural fusion movement. This can be said to be a unique movement and idea of Japan.

I think it will lead to a significant value to understand such Japanese characteristics, all the more because we are in this so-called global age when things that are unique in Japan and irreplaceable in other countries are said to be important.

Color was an important factor of the culture

One of the characteristics of Heian culture is color.

For example, since the Nara period, vegetable dyeing techniques, in which various shades are added to cloth, had advanced. In the Heian period, “kasane-no-irome” (combination of colors created by layering of garments) was developed to express seasons and nature, and the nobility started to enjoy their clothing with colors.

In the first place, clothing materials for the nobility then were mostly limited to silk, and shapes and sizes were fixed. They did not have so many options for materials and designs like the fashion of our times. The only thing they could obsess over and enjoy was color.

The nobility enjoyed wearing their favorite colors or suitable colors as well as “kasane-no-irome.” Therefore, how tasteful they were could be also judged by how they used colors.

In the Heian period, they did not have a dyehouse on the street. Each aristocratic residence had its dyeing place and they dyed their cloth by themselves. Of course, perhaps the nobility did not dye by themselves, but every one of them had knowledge about dyeing skills.

In The Tale of Genji, there is a passage describing who are good at dyeing among women surrounding Hikaru Genji. They would be judged how tasteful they were by which color they were wearing. Thus, the skill of dyeing was important for the nobility of the time.

Also, the nobility at that time could tell what kind of plants were used to make dye by looking at the color. So, if someone was wearing a color that could only be dyed with precious plants, they could discern the standing and the financial status of the person.

Aristocratic sense of color that was cultivated as such would also be used in literary expressions.

Women who appear in The Tale of Genji have their different symbolic colors. Lady Murasaki wears only red or purple shades. Lady Akashi wears white shades. Contrast of colors is linked to each character and will be expressed.

Also, for example, there are poems in the Manyoshu which relate the dyeing skills to expression. Expressions such as “ashes are used for purple” or “use ashes of camellia” appear in the collection of poetry because for people at that time it was common sense to use ashes of camellia for purple-color dyeing.

Alternatively, red is used to express transient feelings or ephemerality. People at that time shared an understanding that red color will disappear or fade when it is covered with alkaline ashes.

Such impressions of colors that developed in literature would then be related to real-world clothing.

In other words, actual colors and dyeing skills became motifs of the literature and expressed in literary works. Those images would then be used in society, or the context of the literature including such images would become motifs of art such as craftworks or paintings. This is how these relations would occur.

For example, we can cherish the flower painted on furniture just as a beautiful flower. However, for someone who knows in which scene that flower would appear in The Tale of Genji, the person can enjoy the furniture together with the context.

When these relations are layered, today’s independent genres, such as literature, art, craft, and clothing, will merge and be formed as composite art. Someone who can enjoy that is the one who is cultured and tasteful.

This means, a person needs to have inspiration or creative power to solve the mystery which the flower symbolizes, besides viewing the painted flower simply as a flower. And that will enable a person to enjoy an art piece in front of them more profusely.

Such elaborate charm or ingenious charm started in the Heian period and was passed on to the Edo period, and then to the modern period, and grew into unique Japanese traditional culture.

Providing an entrance to understand traditional culture is important

In current times, the culture of generating and enjoying such artistic relations is diminishing. But we can say that it is also a changing pattern of culture and a natural phenomenon.

What is worrisome is that the background to it is the climate of getting immediate pleasure of sensation, supported by materialistic affluence. Continuing to pursue such instant pleasure is by no means sustainable.

As I previously mentioned, something like this seems to be generated by the trend of focusing on efficiency, plainness, and utility, based on the practical learning-centric approach.

There may be a thought that we cannot win the competition if we do not cultivate human resources by focusing on practical learning in our times, when the global economy is spreading.

However, amid globalization, the originality that is irreplaceable will be truly important. If that is the case, it is very important to review the process that generated Japanese traditional culture.

The way of generating something original by arranging things through introducing foreign cultures. In addition, relating what is generated with rich creative power and ideas to various expressions and creations and building up such relations.

There, we can find a totally opposite process from the one in which we quickly and materialistically accept what is in front of us. Isn’t it also important to review and reevaluate it instead of letting it diminish?

If it is, by enjoying Japanese traditional culture, I think we can find an irreplaceable value, and it will also lead to generating new values, rather than just ending up being more cultured or getting peace of mind.

For instance, there is an area which is prospering by making use of The Tale of Genji as a tourism resource. The more stories shrines and temples have, the more people visit them. This is because the literature, art, and history stimulate people’s imagination, generate stories, and they are related to those places.

From the perspective of the entire world, Japan is a country where abundant irreplaceable Japanese qualities remain. If we let their roots diminish, I think the presence of Japan in the global society will also diminish.

On the other hand, when we convey the Heian period culture and some sort of idealistic beauty to the students who entered our university, growing up with the value of focusing on efficiency, plainness, and utility, unexpectedly many students become interested.

I think this is because for them it is refreshing information and content.

This tells us that the profit and loss account in front of us is not the only thing that matters, and it is important that we adults provide young generations with more content that gives them opportunities and access to know about the world of the broad power of creativity and imagination.

* The information contained herein is current as of February 2023.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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