Claustrophobia? It’s relative.

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An illustration from a late Heian picture-scroll, showing a “respectable” lady behind curtains of state. She is surrounded by her less-respectable gentlewomen.

“Respectable” ladies in Heian Japan lived their lives hidden away behind barricades of screen and curtain and bundled into layers upon layers of robes. Theirs was a sedentary life, spent away from the prying eyes of men. Indeed, the ladies of Heian Japan led confined existences that any modern observer (female or not) would no doubt find oppressively claustrophobic.

Heian ladies certainly were supposed to live sedentary lives indoors, safe from the unwanted gaze of men. That was the ideal, anyway. Unfortunately for the women of Classical Japan – and for men and women everywhere throughout time – ideals have a way of remaining little more than abstractions, their existence serving as a frustration to those who can’t make things quite measure up. So it shouldn’t really be too terribly shocking that the reality for women in Heian Japan didn’t quite meet the ideal.

For one thing, the openness of Heian architecture precluded the use of anything like a sturdy interior wall. The boundaries of interior space were sometimes marked off with flimsy partitions akin to the modern Japanese shōji. Blinds – an even less solid division between interior and exterior – might take the place of these. Indeed, the division between interior and exterior was quite vague. Beyond the definitely private, inner sections of the house marked off with proto-shōji and blinds, there was a sort of buffer zone delineated by latticed shutters. Beyond these shutters was an open veranda. Both shutters and blinds could be raised to leave the innermost sections of the house totally open to the outside.

Quite apart from the intentional openness of the architecture, the screens and curtains that supposedly protected the respectable lady’s privacy weren’t all that good at their job. Contemporary literature abounds with references to the attentions of unwanted and unwelcome voyeurs.

Murasaki Shikibu (c.973 – c.1020), the greatest author of Heian Japan (but, as a gentlewoman, not quite “respectable.”) was well aware of this. Her great novel The Tale of Genji is full of the troubles caused when men see things (invariably, this means respectable ladies) they aren’t really supposed to see – sometimes quite by accident, but more often entirely on purpose. The openness of houses, coupled with the flimsiness of a woman’s defenses, made things very easy for a Peeping Tom.

Perhaps not surprisingly, surviving accounts describe both respectable ladies and their less-respectable gentlewomen (who were expected to hide at least their faces from male view, but who lived with far fewer restrictions regarding their mobility and public behavior) never explicitly express feelings of claustrophobia or confinement. Instead, women such as Murasaki Shikibu and her near-contemporary fellow gentlewoman Sei Shōnagon (dates unknown, fl.1000) are more often willing to express complaints of feeling “exposed.”

It is the feeling of exposure, rather than any feelings of confinement, that characterize many complaints left by Heian women. Sei Shōnagon’s account of her early days serving as a gentlewoman in the Court of Empress Teishi brims with the memory of her initial timidity. Particularly striking is her story of an encounter with Teishi’s brother, Korechika. Though Sei was hidden behind a curtain, Korechika was determined to get a better look at her. He went so far as to grab the fan that shielded her face, much to her dismay. The entire episode is related in such vivid detail that it is hard to not sympathize with Sei’s embarrassment.

In fact, were a woman suddenly forced to live the life of a Heian lady, she may well find the lack of privacy just as onerous as the confinement – maybe more. Perhaps she too would complain first of feeling “exposed.”