ExEAS Teaching Unit

Aristocrat and Peasant in Heian Japan
Mark Jones
Department of History
Central Connecticut State University

Engaging students with pre-modern East Asian history is a challenge. If, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country, then the distant past of a non-Western area of the world is doubly (or triply) foreign. To overcome this problem, literature and film can be used to give the past a human voice and face. This unit on Heian-era Japan provides a model for doing so in an East Asian or World History course. It can be used to help students understand and learn ways of approaching pre-modern Japanese history and its social structure and politics.

Class Session 1: Lecture
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Begin with a lecture overview of Heian-era (794-1185) Japan, including discussion of the political and cultural worlds of Heian ( Kyoto) and the social and economic worlds of the rural manors known as shôen. In a discussion of the world of the urban aristocrat, emphasize the politics of culture, from matters of marriage to the power of penmanship. In short, try to make the students understand that the attention paid to things like poetry, calligraphy, color, and amorous relations within the Heian court were an integral part of maintaining and managing power-laden relationships.

Historians of Japan and others familiar with the shôen system may also include a more detailed discussion of this system as a rural-based source of wealth for the urban aristocracy to explain the connection between the center and the periphery. One can talk about how the shôen functioned, including descriptions of the social hierarchy within the shôen and the life of the peasant.

Recommended background reading for the instructor:

McCullough, William. “Japanese Marriage Institutions in the Heian Period.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, No. 27, 1967. pp. 103-167.

Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. 1979. Reprint, New York: Kodansha International, 1994.

Class Session 2: Heian Literature
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Assign selections from The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon, and “The Lady Who Admired Vermin.” In a discussion of these readings, focus on the question of femininity and masculinity in Heian-era Japan. What makes an ideal man and an ideal woman in the Heian court?

Student Readings

Backus, Robert, ed. “The Lady Who Admired Vermin.” In The Riverside Counselor’s Stories: Vernacular Fiction of Late Heian Japan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985.

Selections from:

Murasaki, Shikibu. The Tale of Genji .Translated by Royall Tyler. New York : Viking, 2001. Recommended selections: Chapter 1, “The Paulownia Pavilion” (pp. 3-18); Chapter 2, “The Broom Tree” (pp. 21-44); and Chapter 9, “Heart-to-Heart” (pp. 165-190).

Alternate Translation: Murasaki, Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Translated by Edward Seidensticker. Abridged edition. New York: Vintage, 1990. Note: Chapter 2 is omitted in this abridged edition. Chapter 1 is called “The Paulownia Court” (pp. 3-27.) Tyler’s Chapter 9 is Chapter 6 (“Heartvine”) in this edition (pp. 146-185).

Sei Shonagon. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Translated and edited by Ivan Morris. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Recommended selections: entries 1, 5, 12, 14, 29, 48, 72, 79, 174, 182, 183, 184, and 185.


Assign students to write a 2-page diary entry in the style of Sei Shônagon commenting on the world of their college or university. The assignment is not as easy as it might seem. Encourage students to pay attention to and mimic the style, language, and perspective of Sei Shônagon. Ask a few students to read all or parts of their diary entries in front of the class; then, as a class, consider whether or not the student has successfully reproduced the style and captured the voice of Sei Shônagon.

Class Session 3: Film and Discussion
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Mizoguchi, Kenji, dir. Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho dayu). 1954. Drama, 120 min. In Japanese with English subtitles. Available for borrowing from many university libraries and for purchase (under $30) from retail outlets such as Amazon.com and Facets Multimedia.

Discuss how the film illuminates important aspects of Heian-era history. Encourage students to consider how the values of the 20 th century, particularly those of the early postwar years in Japan when the film was made, might have found their way into Mizoguchi’s film.