Claustrophobia? It’s relative.


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.”

5 thoughts on “Claustrophobia? It’s relative.

  1. I’ve always been left with the romanticized images of figures just visible beyond the blinds or the tantalizing tips of sleeves hanging out of the carriage, but had never thought much about how these little glimpses that were so plentiful were so challenging. Beyond being poetic and instilling longing, it seems like a very relatable, everyday problem.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog posts.

      One recent disappointment for me was learning from the passages of a contemporary work quoted in Liza Dalby’s excellent Kimono just how carefully choreographed many of those displays were. Once you read the instructions…actually, once you realize that there were instructions (!!!)…the romantic images of the beautifully colored sleeves spilling out from under a screen kind of lose a bit of magic.

      I believe it was in Masasuke’s handbook where there are instructions on setting up one’s gentlewomen to best advantage, as if they were living knicknacks. The how-to sounds incredibly tedious. Those beautiful sleeves had to be so carefully arranged. It took a lot of work. When you read about “pulling them all the way out” and lining up the hems, and weighting down the fabric so it doesn’t bunch up….you realize how much hard work went into all this.

      It’s also somewhat deflating to realize that those beautiful displays in the carriages were similarly choreographed! In fact, ladies often wore special clothes when they were out riding around, ones that had extra-long sleeves on the “display” side. Sei Shōnagon singled these special robes out for ridicule, because they obviously looked so ridiculous if you weren’t in a carriage. She complained that they made one look “lopsided.” In fact, these robes were so cumbersome, they had to be secured to the carriage with hidden threads, to keep from simply dragging about.

      Sei Shōnagon was onto something when she complained about the lengths people go to in order to look fashionable.

      1. Ah, my beautiful Heian imagery ruined! Or so I’d like to say, but it’s not terribly surprising–it just makes it all the more interesting.

        I’ve seen the color combinations in Liza Dalby’s work, and although I am ashamed to admit I haven’t read Sei Shonagon’s works, I do remember hearing about an exerpt in which one layer of the court lady’s sleeve was a shade too light or too dark, which made her the target of ridicule. What with being hidden-away-yet-not, it’s almost to be expected that they’d have the time to obsess over fashion details. That’s why I loved “The Girl Who Loved Caterpillars” so much, because it not only featured a girl who broke the mold, but showed what the mold was like to begin with. Learning more about the actual practices they had is fascinating! What sort of plans do you have for your research, and do you plan on posting more tidbits?

  2. The passage about the lady’s sleeves is very famous, but no one seems to remember where it comes from. 😉 It’s from “The Diary of Lady Murasaki.”

    I’d HIGHLY recommend reading “The Pillow Book” in either of its major translations, or preferably both, because they’re both excellent reads. Sei was a fascinating woman, and she was herself something of a “mold breaker” as you say. She had lots of men fawning over her, and unlike Murasaki, she was bright and cheerful.

    As for what I’m going to write next….I’m in graduate school. I have no idea. It depends on what I can muster up enough spoons to put together.

  3. Reblogged this on Flight of the Hamsa and commented:

    This is the oldest post on this blog, made when it was still called “The Red Faery” and was primarily historical in focus. I’m trying to go back to writing more informative posts, rather than personal ones. Any suggestions?

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