- Preachers, Poets, Women, and the Way: Izumi Shikibu and the Buddhist Literature of Medieval Japan
Works of the medieval period are among the least studied by scholars of Japanese literature. The brief, didactic stories derived from oral sources that are now categorized as “anecdotes” (setsuwa)1 have received even less attention. And yet, as Kimbrough shows in Preachers, Poets, Women, and the Way, it was through the recounting of their exploits in later, medieval narratives that many of the Heian-era (794–1185) writers popularly associated with classical Japanese literature became iconic figures. Kimbrough’s ambitious book draws from a wide range of sources to explain how certain women writers were reinvented and canonized as they were woven into oral tales during the period from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. The volume builds on work in classical literature, religious studies, and art history, presenting six translations of literary sources and eight chapters of analysis. Kimbrough shows how medieval temples and proselytizers used representations of female writers alternately to condemn women and to offer them inspiration. These insights are a fresh contribution to the study of premodern Japanese literature and its reception, making the book a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on medieval culture.
Since the subtitle refers to the Heian-era writer Izumi Shikibu (b. ca. 966?), whose poetic diary has been translated by Edwin Cranston,2 readers may assume that the content focuses solely on this canonical author and her position within Buddhist literature; in fact the goals of this work reach much further. Taking up Izumi Shikibu as a charismatic figure who appears frequently within popular medieval narratives, Kimbrough uses her as a springboard to examine the relationship between temples, tales, and women. He outlines his aims as [End Page 541] determining, first, how and why Buddhist institutions used female authors such as Izumi Shikibu to proselytize and gather funds; second, how these uses affected later literary and historical representations of these women; and, third, what role gender played in the production and dissemination of these representations.
Kimbrough begins his study with an overview of classical women writers and an introduction to early scholarship on oral culture in the fields of ethnology and folklore. He examines Yanagita Kunio’s (1875–1962) efforts in the 1930s to collect accounts of Heian courtier women, trace the origins of these accounts, and explain how these stories were subsequently disseminated by itinerant entertainers and proselytizers. Kimbrough then reviews the key Buddhist notion underpinning the circulation of these stories, that of expedient means (hōben). He argues that tales of aristocratic women’s exploits were fabricated as parables that catered to the interests and abilities of their audiences not only to convey Buddhist concepts, but also to encourage elite temple patronage. Because Heian women writers like Izumi Shikibu, Ono no Komachi (fl. ca. 850), Murasaki Shikibu (d. ca. 1014), and Sei Shōnagon (b. 965?) would have been familiar figures to potential patrons, co-opting or inventing stories about such women helped temples link their own activities to an illustrious history while using these vignettes to demonstrate key aspects of their faith. Taking advantage of readerly expectations about the poetic talents and amorous nature of such women, temples used these attributes to explicate both impediments to female salvation and the means of attaining rebirth in the Pure Land. Presented by “preacher-entertainers” within the illustrated mode of “picture explaining” (e-toki), such performances had the power to recruit followers and amuse listeners. Kimbrough shows how the recounting of such tales catered to a wide class spectrum and enabled a variety of interpretations while still achieving the primary aim of securing adherents and funds.
Following the medieval development of stories about Heian women writers, Kimbrough’s argument uses the most popular of these, Izumi Shikibu, as a lens through which to examine their reception. The first three chapters trace the development of tales about Izumi Shikibu and the priest...