Friday, 12 March 2010

Seduction and poetry in medieval Japan

I've been meaning to write about this article for over a year now, so I think I'd better shift this brain crack before it starts eating away at me.

In the academic paper linked above John Wallace gives an exciting, new reading of the memoirs of medieval Japanese widower Izumi Shikibu. She wrote her memoirs in an attempt to shift her bad reputation, in order to ingratiate herself with a successful literary salon.

Izumi had a reputation as a homewrecker and a golddigger because of her love affair with her late husband's brother, Sochi no Miya. She tries to give the impression that she entered the love affair out of boredom (tsurezure) and longing for her late husband. She has to prove that she isn't a homewrecker or a golddigger. As a widower in a male-dominated society, Izumi's social and economic standing was very precarious. As an imperial prince, Miya is in a position to lift Izumi out of this situation by giving her a job and a home, and he has enough authority that if he was to demand her affection she wouldn't be in a position to refuse. The rational thing for a smart girl in her situation was to seduce prince charming, and then claim that he had been in charge all along.

There's lots of juicy stuff in the article from page 495 onwards, so I'll only give one example here. At one point, Miya uses a poem to accuse Izumi of cheating on him because he found her door locked, and she responds in kind, saying that he should have knocked to find out what was going on:

While standing
before the wooden door
that was not opened
I experienced
a cruel heart

How can you experience
whether or not
that heart is cruel?
You just left untouched
my wooden door

In her commentary Izumi tells the readers that she hadn't been with another man, but she never tells Miya such a thing explicitly. She allows him to believe that she is seeing other men in order to show control over who has access to her body. She also does this by threatening to become a Buddhist nun. In the end, his fear of her sleeping with other men and desire to take control of the availability of her body leads him to house her in his own home, which was probably what she intended all along.

If you're interested and you have access to Jstor, you should read the rest of the article. There's a nice bit when Izumi lures Miya to her hut by saying something along the lines of, "It's raining so hard. I'm getting all wet."

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