Chocho Monogatari Part IV

Part IV

Change of setting but still the same story. I know I’m no good at drawing fighting scenes, I promise I’ll practice more.

The Heian period was a time of peace. Nobody in the aristocracy would even think about fighting and the only armed danger that was really mentioned were pirates during sea travel. That is probably one reason why the people in power positions changed completely between the Heian period and the following Kamakura period (1185-1333) that introduced the very first Shôgun to Japan, Minamoto no Yoritomo. The Heian period ended with a 5 year war that was the beginning of the famous Samurai age.

One thing that I remember was discussed in class was the emergence of fighting Buddhist monks, gaining influence and using force to invade and plunder villages. Not the kind of Buddhist monks you usually hear about. I am afraid I don’t know much about them, but the thought of actual warrior monks seemed so intriguing that I decided to use that idea anyway.

The sign in the hall says seishin ittô (精神一到), by the way, a shortening of the expression seishin ittô nanigoto ka narazaran (精神一到何事かならざらん) which could be roughly translated as “where there’s a will there’s a way”. The little monk’s name en is written with the character for circle (円) that is nowadays used for the currency (Yen) as well. A lot of monks had that character in their name and I like it for its simplicity.

Chocho Monogatari, Part Three

Chocho Monogatari Part III

So, let’s talk about what’s up with her face. Why is she so determined to hide it all the time?

Well, Heian women basically always lived behind a wall or a folding screen, hidden from the eyes of men. There is a whole culture built solely around attempts by men to catch a glimpse of a lady’s kimono, hair or face. The men hid behind fences and patiently waited for a moment when she deemed herself all alone and looked out onto the terrace so they could see her face.There is even a word for that behavior, kaimamiru (垣間見る) which means exactly that, to look through a fence (onto a woman).

Even brothers and sister often were not raised together. It’s entirely possible for a man not to meet his own sister until they were both adults. Since they were not raised as siblings this led to some confusion more than once, when the young man discovered a sexual desire that was entirely unsuited for his sister.

Our little lady here has probably not met many men in her life and most certainly no strangers with rough, wild faces instead of the white doughy moon faces of the Heian nobility. It’s no wonder she’s so shocked. Will she keep hiding her face for the rest of the story? Of course not, we will be able to see her face soon enough, don’t worry.

Chocho Monogatari, Part Two

Part II

Let’s talk about the key metaphorical element in this part: Her sleeves wet from the rain.

Poems were the most important way of communication during the Heian era, they were used to express all kinds of emotion, but also in games for entertainment. One metaphor you will find in many poems are the wet sleeves. They are alluded to in a number of ways (one of which is rain) but they always expressed only one thing: tears. ( I know it’s pretty cheap) There are probably thousands of Japanese poems in which someone is writing about lost love, making their sleeves drip with tears. There is even a gesture in Nô, a form of traditional Japanese theater, where an actor lifts his arms towards his face, indicating catching the tears with his sleeves. It was perfectly acceptable for men to cry just as much as women, by the way. Not only when their hearts were broken, men could also break into tears just because they looked at a cherry blossom and remembered that all things will pass.

The Heian era was a time so sensible that they even had an expression for the feeling of being touched by something: Mono no aware (ものの哀れ). It was the ultimate feeling and every man and every woman of the nobility had to possess it. People during the Heian time had a Baroque-like sense of memento mori without the redeeming carpe diem to accompany it, so basically just depression. Imagine being locked in dark rooms all your life, without much moving but lots of alcohol, it’s not hard to guess where those feelings came from.

Chocho Monogatari, Part One

Part I

Part one, yeah!

Now, what’s going on here? To understand why this lady is so heartbroken about a two-night-stand that didn’t call her back we’ll have to take a peek at the Heian era wedding traditions among nobility.

A marriage was a political move, mostly decided between the parents. The whole procedure then began with the gentleman writing an artful and thought out letter to the lady describing his deep feelings and his unstoppable desire to know her love – even though he’d never met her before. The lady might answer with a similar letter or express her very ladylike shyness by not answering not at all but never mind, time for phase B.

The next step was the gentleman sneaking into the lady’s bedroom at night and sneaking out again before dawn without anybody noticing. This occurred for exactly three nights – preferentially in a row – until on the morning of the third night the gentleman accidentally failed to escape before dawn and was discovered by a maid, much to the surprise of the whole family. Mind you, this all happened in houses with walls of paper or very thin wood and the two were probably doing it like rabbits throughout the whole night, but still it was very important that everybody pretended not to notice anything. Now those two were officially married and a party with sake and rice cakes and often presents took place because nobility during Heian times loved a good party.

Now you understand how devastated the young lady must have felt because her lover, the Shônagon (which is a court rank not a name), broke off their engagement because obviously he found a better party, the Lady Sanjô (which is a street name, both terms were very common to describe a person).

The Heian era was a polygamous time, by the way, with a noble man being obligated to take two or more wives to demonstrate his political power and his wealth. Adultery among men as well as among women was very common, as was raging jealousy. Incest was wide spread as well and tolerated as long as they weren’t directly related such as brother and sister. Even though it is not directly mentioned in the literature and I have yet to read up on it, I’m pretty sure homosexual relations were wide spread as well.

A common conception about these first visits during courtship phase is that they were basically rape. That must have certainly been true for a number of the girls since they were often young, shy and saying no didn’t really impress the man. However, to automatically assume that every single young woman was raped on her first sexual encounter denies, in my opinion, the female sexuality entirely. These women were locked up in their homes 24/7, most of them never stepped outside, their feet never even touched the ground. They were lonely and they were bored to death. Nothing was left to them but to read contemporary love stories that were brimming with love, sex, adultery, desire and jealousy. They were young girls with a blossoming sexuality, dreaming all day about the steamy encounters their heroines experienced. (Women could very well read and write back then and they did so excessively. The Genji monogatari, written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu was basically the Fifty Shades of Grey of Heian times but longer and with more sex.) I can’t imagine that some of them weren’t relieved, when at last some guy turned up, writing them hot letters about his yearning for her, giving them a chance to escape the boredom of their everyday lives. At least, that’s what I with my limitless optimism would like to believe.

Something else that I find noteworthy – due to the courtship rules, that varied greatly from contemporary European courtship, technically the girl had her first sexual experience before her marriage. Sure, it was, like, two days before, but still the whole notion of „waiting patiently until my wedding night“ became somehow blurred. I like that.

Japanese Proverbs: Akinasu wo Yome ni Kuwasu na (秋ナスを嫁にくわすな)

Akinasu wo Yome ni Kuwasu na

This is a funny proverb. It’s literally saying: “Don’t let the bride eat autumn aubergines.”

Why not? Actually, even the Japanese themselves couldn’t agree on one meaning, which is why there are several interpretations of this proverb. The most common are:

– autumn aubergines are said to be very sweet and delicious, so the mother-in-law (as drawn in the picture) doesn’t want to share them with the detested daughter-in-law

– since they are so delicious, the young wife will probably eat too many and become sick

– autumn aubergines are said to have no seeds, thus being a symbol of the bride conceiving no children

– aubergines are said to lower body temperature – which will, again, make it harder for the young wife to conceive children

While I like this proverb for its weirdness and drawing it was fun, it should not be seen as having relevant meaning nowadays. We should be far beyond believing in the stereotype that all mothers-in-law hate their daughters-in-law and that a wife is nothing more than a host for the children.

Maybe we can interpret it in a new, more relevant sense, though. Such as, even though something tastes really good, be careful not to eat too much and watch out for your loved ones as well.

Japanese Proverbs: Isseki Nichô (一石二鳥)

Isseki Nichou

Literally: Killing two birds with one stone. Since it’s the exact same proverb in English there’s not much explaining to do. The German equivalent is “killing two flies with one swat” which is used in the tale of the Valiant Little Tailor who kills seven flies with one swat and later marries a princess. That escalated quickly.

Japanese Proverbs: Uma no mimi ni nenbutsu (馬の耳に念仏)


Literally: Whispering nenbutsu into the horse’s ear. It means sharing your wisdom and opinion with someone who doesn’t appreciate it. Who doesn’t know that feeling?

Nenbutsu is a term from Buddhism, above all in the Pure Land Buddhism and the True Pure Land Buddhism. Yep, that’s two different schools. Both schools came to Japan during the 12th to 13th century via China from India. They use the nenbutsu as a kind of prayer to find absolution and reach the Pure Land after death. They basically made Buddhism, which had formerly been the religion of the nobility, accessible to the broad masses.

The difference between the two schools? While Pure Land Buddhism teaches that you have to say the nenbutsu as often as possible during your lifetime, True Pure Land Buddhism teaches that you only have to say it once but really really mean it. Yeah, they really wanted those people to like Buddhism. In Japanese saying the nenbutsu goes like this: “Namu Amida Butsu.” That’s it. Now go get absolved.