The Heian Court: a shimmering world of princes and princesses, courtesans and courtiers, noble men and women that together comprised the yoki hito, or “Good People.” For an age known primarily for its embrace of the arts and other aesthetic pursuits, one might suppose that the predominance of poetry, painting, and song in court life might have filled the air with romance. Tearful proclamations of regret at leave-taking after a night spent in a lover’s arms, and the hastily-composed poems that were sure to follow them paint an image of gallant courtship of ladies by gentlemen, and amour between the sexes not unlike that of Medieval Europe. Under somewhat closer scrutiny, however, does the romantic motif remain intact? Like sukima in the wall of a Heian lady’s quarters, the extant literary works of the time provide us with a sliver of insight beyond those silken walls, and into the hearts of the Good People.
What, then, were love and marriage to the people that populated the Heian court and the literature of the period? It would seem that the carefully crafted veneer of pomp and ceremony, then so ubiquitous, extended beyond the ritual pursuits of the court and into the bed chambers of the Heian cast of characters.

Men and women of Heian were not generally free to intermingle, and the occasions in which they did share the same space, court ceremonies and other ritual gatherings, for example, afforded them the opportunity to assess one another in various ways. In terms of visual appeal, both sexes are known to have garbed themselves in elaborate flowing robes of a hue appropriate to the season, and were well-coifed above the collar as well. As the numerous layers of clothing effectively served to conceal the female form, it could be argued that physical traits, cascading black hair and well-painted face notwithstanding, were not that which initially prompted a man of the court to open a dialog with a woman. Instead, it was probably a sharp wit and facility with poetry, regularly subject to public exhibition and evaluation, that would spark the interest of a male.

In quite the same fashion, women were attentive to a man’s ability to demonstrate a knowledge of classic poetry and to construct poems of merit, as well as to the raiment in which they attired themselves. Omitting physique, then, one might assume that intelligence was elevated as the standard by which suitors and the objects of their affection were measured, initially at least.

However, does talent in the field of classical poetry, for example, denote superior intellect, or merely superior education? Far from meritorious, Heian aristocratic society conferred power and prestige based as much on genealogical factors as those of intrinsic skill, and an examination of the benchmarks employed by women when considering a mate might indicate an emphasis on high birth. By the same token, men were required to restrict their formal (i.e.- publicly recognized) relationships to those with women of sufficient class. This concern with status reflects other practices of the time which involved considerable behind-the-scenes maneuvering by elevated persons in the court designed to preserve position and power.

In courtship, it was generally incumbent on the male to initiate communication, and he would usually do so in the form of a poem sent via messenger to the women of his fancy. In it he would attempt to compose lines of elegant verse that would generate interest in him on her part, and thereby yield a response in similar form. Much as the woman had done with his, he would then evaluate her response both in terms of content and handwriting. This exchange could be all that was necessary to clear the way for a late-night visit, or yobai, by the suitor. Although the yobai (lit. “night-creeping) was thought of as a “secret” meeting, the members of the woman’s household were less than oblivious to the nocturnal rendezvous. What exactly transpired in these situations is never clearly defined in the available literature of the period, but it is generally understood that intercourse was involved.

Here some clarification is called for, I think, because the casual reader of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book might, for example, conclude that Heian women served as little more that ladies-in-waiting of another sort entirely, which is to say that the night found them at the sexual whim of whoever may choose to dally there on his yobai excursions. Despite the widespread promiscuity of the time, though, this was not the case at all. The nighttime meetings conformed to a standard ritual that was very much a part of courtship, and which often resulted in the legal union (i.e.- marriage) of the parties involved.

But what of love? Are we to understand that a poem overheard, a surreptitious glance at a woman’s face through a partially open door, or a brief liaison under cover of darkness could move one to feelings of love and yearning? Was “love” as we think of it today even part of the formula that produced a marriage? Perhaps not. For example, in her Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon seems to place much more importance on matters of grace and form than on the sincerity or depth of a lover’s emotions. The following excerpt from note 27, Hateful Things, illustrates this clearly:

Indeed, one’s attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking. When he jumps out of bed, scurries about the room, tightly fastens his trouser sash, rolls up the sleeves of his Court cloak, over-robe, or hunting costume, stuffs his belongings into the breast of his robe and then briskly secures the outer sash–one really begins to hate him.

There are numerous such examples in the work that indicate the importance of form over substance. Even in matters of spirituality, the author in one case ties the attractiveness of a priest’s features to his ability to convey his message to an audience whose attention would presumably wander were he less than comely. Consider, then, that if etiquette, grace and status are what brought couples together, what characterized their union subsequent to wedlock?

Matrimony in Heian-kyo fell into two broad categories. The first was the initial marriage, typically an arranged affair designed to benefit one or both of the parties involved by aligning them with a person of status via his or her familial ties. Based on the fact that neither party was involved in the selection process, and since the bride and groom were generally in their early teens at the time of marriage, one could assume that there was little, if any, emotional component present in the union. Although this may sound to the contemporary reader to be a pitiable fate for a young couple, it merely reflects traditionally held notions that separated one’s familial responsibilities as spouse and parent from the pursuit of individual needs, such as love and sexual gratification. These needs were fulfilled outside of the realm of arranged marriage and involved unions with consorts, or “secondary” wives, who existed in the second marriage category.

Heian society was quite polygamous; it was not unusual for a man of import to have numerous secondary wives in addition to the primary one, and the greater the number of wives a man had only added to his status. In fact, more than simply window dressing for the status-conscious male, secondary wives were implicitly required for a man of consequence, whose duty it was to sire as many children as possible. In Pink Samurai, Nicholass Bornoff writes, “With a painfully short average life span and a high infant mortality rate, producing a large number of offspring was a practical imperative assuring continuation of the line” (p. 122).

The primary wife, or kita no kata, enjoyed a status greater than that of subsequent wives, and was entrusted with, among other things, the rearing and education of her daughters so that they would one day be able to marry into good families. Elevated as she was, however, all was not sake and chysanthemums, for she was often required to vie with his secondary wives for the affection and attention of her husband.

Secondary wives as well could have had cause for considerable nuptial grief. Although they would often continue to reside in their parents’ home even after the wedding ceremony, they could also be installed in the residence of the husband, and therefore under the proverbial thumb of the kita no kata, who there reigned supreme. In Ochikubo Monogatari, for example, a cruel kita no kata terrorizes the helpless daughter of her husbands former wife. Ivan Morris writes in The World of the Shinig Prince that, although the move to the house of her husband would clearly legitimize the relationship, it also “had the disadvantage of exposing [the secondary wife] directly to the hostility and competition of the man’s principal wife and of other secondary consorts, past and future” (p. 233).

Moreover, the more wives a man had, the less time he had to devote to each one. This must have been a dismal fate indeed for those women who, because of their status as wives to powerful figures, were unable both to pursue relationships with other men or spend more than a modest amount of time with their spouses. By contemporary standards this would be intolerable, but what about in Heian-kyo? Based on the literature available we find a spectrum of perceptions ranging from acceptance (Murasaki Shikibu) to bitterness (Mother of Michitsuna, the disgruntled wife of Fujiwara no Kaneie). Ultimately, the matter of the necessity of this arrangement was probably understood by all of the parties involved, though this understanding may not have served as solace for many a Heian woman, relegated as she was to merely conjugal visits on those evenings when her spouse came calling.

Not to paint too ghastly a picture of Heian romance, I should note that the period is not without its share of love stories and other works, fictive and otherwise, that reveal great emotional depth in the relations of the people represented therein. Even Genji himself, a Lothario by any standard, is nonetheless a creature of deep feeling who is seen to possess ardor of the most sincere sort. But are these declarations of love, the carefully composed poems and endearments whispered as one “lies buried under the bedclothes” (Shonagon, p. 64) truly expressions of affection, or simply part of the role of “lover,” contrived and scripted like so much else in the Heian court?

In Heian times as in all others, humans were nonetheless human, and to discount the candor of their emotions would be to call into question our own. It is clear, though, that ritual and ceremony permeated most, if not all, facets of Heian society, including the relations between men and women. To the cynical eye, all might seem to have been an exercize in fraud, wind-up dolls pretending at being in love with sugared words and empty endearments. To this reader, however, there is a beauty that exists in the way their emotions, surely ablaze beneath a perfunctory mien, were regulated and frugally discharged as laconic lines of verse, or tears that fell on long, silk sleeves.