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  • Female Readers and Early Heian RomancesThe Hakubyō Tales of Ise Illustrated Scroll Fragments
  • Joshua S. Mostow (bio)

In the post-World War II era, Japanese scholars reached the consensus that the keyword to the early court romance The Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari) is miyabi.1 Miyabu is to perform or conduct oneself in a manner appropriate to a miya, or court—especially the court of the sovereign—suggesting the translation "courtliness." Miyabi, however, was not limited to the imperial court, and its possession was in fact a matter of contestation, being claimed as well by aristocratic groups that had been politically marginalized by the emergence of the Fujiwara regency in the tenth century. Scholars such as Watanabe Minoru and Katagiri Yōichi thus see Ise as intended to demonstrate the "courtliness" of Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) and his associates, such as his father-in-law, Ki no Aritsune (815-877), especially after their candidate for emperor, Aritsune's nephew Prince Koretaka (844-897), was passed over in favor of his younger brother, who was the grandson of Fujiwara no Yoshifusa (804-872) and who ascended the throne as Emperor Seiwa (850-880, r. 858-876).2

Although it has occasioned little comment, Watanabe specifically contrasts Ise's emphasis on courtliness with the perspective found in works of so-called "court women's literature" (ōchō joryū bungaku), such as The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu (Murasaki shikibu nikki, ca. 1010). As is well known, the Diary includes a whole section assessing the character of various [End Page 135] other ladies-in-waiting, such as Sei Shōnagon (966?-after 1017) and Akazome Emon (fl. 976-1041). According to Watanabe, such character assessment is not concerned with individual, discrete words or deeds, but is a synthesizing evaluation based on observation over a period of time. In contrast, the episodic Ise is interested only in discrete, individual actions and in assessing whether they qualify as "courtly" or not.3 Since the authors of Ise are presumed to have been male, Watanabe's contrast is a gendered one. And indeed, as we shall see below, Ise focuses resolutely on its male protagonist(s), with women by and large simply providing the occasion for the display of "courtliness."

The question then arises, how did women read Ise? It will be my argument here that by at least the beginning of the eleventh century we can discern a mode of reading Ise that is oriented to the women of the tale and their character, a mode of reading that brings this early monogatari much closer to concerns typical of women's autobiographical writing of the period—what might be called a "feminine" mode of interpretation. I will further argue that this interpretive strategy is evident in the fragments of the oldest surviving Ise illustrations, Hakubyō Ise monogatari emaki, and was intimately connected to the hakubyō ("plain ink") genre.

The Texts of Ise monogatari

It is widely accepted that The Tales of Ise came into existence over a considerable period of time and with the help of many hands. The three-stage theory developed by Katagiri Yōichi has found general approval:4 the genesis of Ise is to be found in a relatively small collection of poems written and compiled by Ariwara no Narihira, necessarily before his death in 880. Then, sometime around the mid-tenth century, the text was significantly expanded, and the names of historical figures known to have been associated with Narihira were incorporated. The focus on miyabi was introduced at this stage. Finally, sometime around the compilation of the third imperial anthology, the Shūi waka shū (ca. 1005-1011), a final group of episodes was added, typically episodes that resembled ones already contained in the text, in a kind of theme-and-variation development.

Ise reached its definitive state under Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). Teika collated and copied the text a great number of times during his lifetime. The three copies most influential for later readers were those that came to be known as the Rufu-bon, the Takeda-bon, and the Tenpuku-bon: all comprised 125 episodes (dan), differing in small but substantive ways. The Rufu-bon...


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