Not So Free Love: Hidden Stigma in Heian Japan

Many societies all across the globe have held women to difficult moral and sexual standards. Even though Heian Japan was, by all accounts, not a bad place for a woman historically speaking, it was still not easy. Even though adultery was not a crime for women (unlike in Christian and Muslim countries, or in China), and women in the lower echelons of aristocratic society were remarkably unrestricted in their choice of sexual partners (take as many as you want!), “respectability” still meant a monogamous attachment to a husband. Yet unlike in Christian Europe, the husband was not supposed to be monogamous in return. “Respectability” usually also meant a very confined life, away from the heart of society. It’s perhaps no wonder that the women who seem to have been having all the fun were the gentlewomen, who were seen as a sort of necessary evil by the aristocrats. Yet even the gentlewomen were held to standards, and they faced consequences for violating them.

Heian Japan has been characterized as a sort of free-love paradise, often based solely on Ivan Morris’s work The World of The Shining Prince, which relied solely on romantic literature to paint its picture of sexual mores.(1) Try to construct a similar picture of American sexual norms from romance novels, and you will understand just how misleading Professor Morris’s picture was.

Yet even reading some of the sources that Morris himself used, one can clearly see that there were consequences for improper sexual behavior. Morris heavily relied on The Tale of Genji, which chronicles the rampant couplings of its eponymous hero, and later his (supposed) son and grandson. Yet even in this work, women face deep shame and social stigma for their perceived transgressions, and most of all, they are consumed by guilt at having given into what they perceive as inappropriate desires. Poor Ukifune tries to commit suicide after being seduced by her lover’s best friend. Fujitsubo is so ridden by gossip and rumor regarding her relationship with Genji that she becomes a nun. Both these women transgressed. Both faced consequences.(2)

Some might still point to the gentlewomen, those free spirits, as being totally liberated and independent. Yet this is not really true. Sei Shōnagon certainly wasn’t free to hook up with just anyone, as a famous episode from Makura no Sōshi demonstrates:

I heard people saying there’d been a man in the Long Room who had no business being there.  He’d been seen emerging at first light and going off with his umbrella up. As I listened, it dawned on me that the rumours were actually about me. Well, he may not be a senior courtier, I thought to myself, but he’s not someone who should be so simply dismissed after all. (3)

When it is said that Sei’s lover “had no business” in the Long Room, there are deeper implications than simply “what is he doing here at this hour?” Only certain, privileged individuals were allowed to enter the Emperor’s residence hall (the Seiryōden). This man clearly was not one of those individuals. No one would have questioned the presence of a senior courtier, at any time of the day or night, as aristocrats were often made to live in the palace, and certainly many would be called at odd hours.

This man, however, was not a senior aristocrat. He was not one of the “in-group.” No one had a problem with Sei’s other lovers, who were very important men. Who was going to tell Fujiwara no Tadanobu, the head of the Empress’s household, that he couldn’t sleep with a gentlewoman? Who was going to tell Fujiwara no Yukinari, another important man, that he couldn’t have a lover? Senior courtiers were allowed to sleep with the gentlewomen, and it didn’t matter how many of them were sleeping with any one lady. Should a gentlewoman decide to pick someone closer to her own socioeconomic status however…that was a problem. Can’t have the servants sleeping with just anyone.

  1. Ivan Morris, The World of The Shining Prince, New York: Kodansha International, 1994 (reprint)
  2. Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, translated by Royall Tyler. New York: Penguin Press, 2001
  3. Sei Shōnagon, The Pillow Book, translated by Meredith McKinney, New York: Penguin Press, 2006. 195.

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.”