The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Japan

Ivan Morris’ The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Japan is an appraisal and an attempt to restore the imaginary life of Prince Genji in the highly illustrious Lady Murasaki’s Genji Monogatari and, for the most part, to portray Japan’s regal, entrenched, strange yet vibrant world. The manuscript was both a source of pleasure to those who would want to enjoy the splendor of literature and a good source of knowledge regarding the Land of the Rising Sun – its history and culture – details that even history failed to recount.
This book has, beyond a doubt, disclosed the most intriguing and accomplished culture in our world, mulled over Japan’s classical age of marriage politics and the turbulent political currents of court life, the rise of aristocracy, Buddhists’ and Confucians’ doctrines of salvation and impermanence, the pursuit for elegance and refinement, the roles men and women play, over and above women’s role in the patriarchal society during their time.
Physically, little was known about the odd yet amusing country which was “divided into large estates ruled by feudal baronies, dominated by military men who for over a century had kept the islands in a state of almost perpetual warfare,” (p. xxiii). There was already a well-established religion, rooted in Buddhism and Confucianism. Religious leaders are, in general, wealthy, powerful, and often wielded political influence that they, at times, oppose with secular authorities in supervising the territories.

Provincial warriors also rose during the Heian period. Although, the West might have thought of their supreme power since they are physically trained, samurai warriors enjoyed no prestige among the nobles. It was only later that they ascended, which eventually lead to taking power. The Heian epoch is indubitably considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court where sovereignty lays upon the emperor. Nonetheless, power was wielded by aristocratic families, particularly the Fujiwara clan. The emperor upholds dominion over most of the territory.
But, he did not have much supremacy to rule with equal firmness over all of this vast territory compared to the aristocrats. The latter filtered out into various ranks. And it had been palpable that the imperative factor in determining an individual’s rank that time was the overall status of one’s extended family. In other words, hereditary privilege is an overwhelming factor in one’s general status. This is why landed gentry would most likely choose to marry those belonging in the upper crust for their personal gain and sustained stature.
Aptitude and knowledge might enable someone to advance to some extent, but there was little room for social mobility. The members of the Japanese court have, indeed, lived opulent lives, concerning themselves with works of art aside from their primary occupation of managing lands and came to depend on a system of private estates (shoen) for revenues. A paradoxical fact of the condition of the lower class was also shown in the masterpiece and was noticed by Morris. Ignorant peasants in their society produce nearly all of the country’s wealth but for the most part are experiencing a filthy and wobbly life.
The members of the imperial families put land tillers to work to enrich themselves rather than for the benefit of the whole country. Indeed, in the political sense, the period is known for the height of control of the noble families. On the other hand, Heian Japan is also noted for its cult of beauty. In other words, it is a culture that has put emphasis on “beautiful things” or the “splendid things. ” History would tell us that the aristocrats, particularly the Fujiwara clan, fostered a court culture which devote much of their time on refined tastes and elegant aesthetic pursuits.
Since the upper-class Heian life were believed to be confined in their palaces, men and women rarely venture the world outside their homes, “almost claustrophobic in nature, and living an indoor life to a large extent,” (p. 167), most of them had sufficient leisure time, giving them enough time to develop artistry. Consequently, they became great patrons of poetry, painting, calligraphy, music, dancing, and landscape gardening. Poetry, in fact, became one of the most important skills to develop. The mastery of its technique was necessary in both social exchanges and formal poetic gatherings.
The central figure in the Tale of Genji, to whom this book was attributed, dwelt remotely from his relatives and would exchange notes, messages, or poems once they get to see each other, especially during family gatherings. Other spare time activities include sketching and painting depicted in Morris’ account of Genji’s sketches of the sea and the hills, during the Prince’s banishment in Suma, and arrived at a conclusion that “they were almost all amateur artists,” (p. 186). A popular form of drawing consisted of sketches of men and women. It appears that these sketches were erotic (p. 86), however, there were no other details provided that will substantiate the truth of this claim. But what is apparent is the influence of the Chinese even in the arts. These portrayals reveal to us a particular age and civilization of the extraordinarily sophisticated Japan – a part of the world away from the cultivation of the West, a country so outlandish yet very rich when it comes to art, literature, and culture. The remarkable sense of aesthetics, as Morris noted, and the extent to which aesthetic beauty substituted for moral goodness both defined the characteristic of this ancient society.
The other element that should be taken into consideration during the Heian Period is the position of women in the society. The world before is, undeniably, patriarchal. Women are considered inferior to male; a mere shadow to male’s existence; living without freedom; living without name. However, Morris was able to point out women’s position in the society that time. To know that women in Heian Japan were economically independent, or at least semi-dependent, surprised him. He added that they also benefit from total subordination from the domineering sex.
This would suggest that Heian women, so long as they are financially stable, can do whatever it is that pleases them, without men dictating it. It is true that women are not quite affiliated politically, yet they were able to do well out of the freedoms that the Western women were not able to enjoy. Although, women were by and large branded as inferior, they could legally inherit and even own properties, as well as engage themselves in all sorts of leisurely activities. In fact, most of Heian prose writers were women.
Lady Murasaki, who wrote the Genji Monogatari, along with other world-renowned writers flourished during this period. According to Morris, many of the women then had their own houses and being economically independent, were free to have such relations as they wished and also to terminate them. Part of their freedom is that they could refuse their favor to a man,; they could keep him waiting; they could send him away at any time; or replace him by another lover. This freedom was perceived by Morris as promiscuous, freedom that he himself was not able to characterize during his time.
The society that surrounds them is filled with male supremacy but women in this period had a niche of their own – a nook that they know can satisfy them in some ways, in spite of the fierce standards of conduct during that time. Morris also stressed out the intricate relation between men and women of this milieu. Men can only converse with women if the latter were behind curtains. And there were even characters who lived apart from their female relatives and would see them rarely. Morris (p. 167) viewed this as an exaggerated case of formality with regard to the relation of men and women.
Incongruously, though, there were some characters like Prince Niou who go to bed with Naka no Kimi on their first meeting and for Kashiwagi to do the same with Prince Nyosan before they have spoken to each other (p. 167). This gives us the impression that women are again classed according to their economic potential. Women can have freedom only if they can keep up with the challenges freedom entails. Women can have their choices granted so long as they can cope with the consequences of their decisions. In Morris’ account of the Shining Prince’s world, we were able to have a glimpse of a paradise located at one part of the globe.
Their exquisite traditions, highly majestic politics, the rise and fall of aristocracy, exceptional artistic expression, the pursuit of elegance, and fascinating literature have been one of the world’s wonderful crafts ever hewn in the history of mankind. Overall, Morris’ attempt to discuss the narrative of an Eastern country was a brave endeavor to overcome Western ignorance. He was able to bridge distinct cultures, bringing forth understanding and high regard of unique civilizations, and in turn, minimizing indifference.
There may have been lapses in the judgment of Morris regarding Japan’s mysteries, however, somehow his work was able to give a picture of Heian society of aristocratic reign, astonishing veneration for beauty and sophistication, and finally for the depiction of the interesting roles men and women played during that period of classical Japan. Indeed, Morris has produced a work of art that will not only entertain you about Japan’s lovely mysteries but enfold an interesting tale of the efflorescence of an ancient civilization.