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positions: east asia cultures critique 8.2 (2000) 465-497

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Literary History against the National Frame, or Gender
and the Emergence of Heian Kana Writing

Tomiko Yoda

A number of narrative tales and diaries written during the mid-Heian period are counted among the most important works of premodern Japanese literature. The emergence of these texts in the late tenth and eleventh centuries is said to reflect Japanese language and literary culture coming of age, helped by the invention of native script, kana, and by women who were the primary users of the script. Hence modern Heian studies have presupposed a powerful association between Japanese language, national literature, Heian court women, and feminine mode of writing. This essay attempts to rethink the key distinctions made in Heian texts—between kana and mana, Chinese poetics and Japanese poetics, and masculine and feminine writing—against the grain of this received literary history. Through this analysis, I examine how the modern assumptions concerning national language, national culture and gender identity have functioned as the overarching frame for understanding these texts. [End Page 465]

Feminine Hand in Heian Literary History

According to widely accepted historiography, the tenth century marks a critical juncture in the evolution not only of vernacular literature but also of the Japanese language and its writing system. The appearance and the rapid development of vernacular prose literature occurred at a time when Japanese poetry, which the popularity and prestige of Chinese poetry at the court in the early Heian period had virtually eclipsed, was gaining new legitimacy. A principal factor catalyzing the development of a native literature is said to have been the appearance of the new phonetic syllabary, kana. Particularly, a type of kana called the “feminine hand” (wonnade) (and considered the direct precursor of today's hiragana) became the primary script for a reinvigorated native poetry and the newly emerging literary prose. The feminine hand is said to have developed out of an earlier form of inscription in which the Japanese—who did not have an indigenous writing system—adopted Chinese characters as phonetic scripts to write in their native language. Scholars have called such scripts man'yogana after the first Japanese poetic anthology compiled in the eighth century, Man'yoshu. Feminine hand evolved from man'yogana through two major transformations: the standardization and contraction of the pool of graphs used as phonetic scripts, and the radical cursification and simplification of Chinese characters. Compared with man'yogana, Heian kana is deemed a superior form of phonetic writing system, providing easier and more efficient means of transcribing the mother tongue. Thus, the development of Heian kana is thought to mark the Japanese acquisition of a distinct form of writing, well suited for the native language.

This argument about the history of kana is often accompanied by claims regarding women's role in the development of the feminine hand. Excluded from training in Chinese writing, which was a required skill for male courtiers, aristocratic women helped create and popularize theexpedient phonetic script. Their distance from the masculine domain of Chinese language, literature, and culture, furthermore, kept them more anchored in spoken Japanese and its oral literature. Many aspects of the new vernacular literature supposedly germinated in women's everyday linguistic activities—their oral storytelling, private letters, diaries, and informal exchanges [End Page 466] of poetry. The legacies of these anonymous women laid the groundwork for the rise of vernacular masterpieces that illustrious women writers after the late tenth century produced, including Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji (written in the early eleventh century), the most celebrated text of premodern Japanese literature.

The above is a composite of textbook versions of Heian literary history. There are, of course, more nuanced and sophisticated representations of the history that are cautious about drawing broad inferences from limited evidence, avoiding simplistic causal explanations, and excessively rigid binarism between Japanese versus Chinese language and literature. The link between kana script and native speech (as well as oral literature), or the central role of women in the development...


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