Literature has always reflected the perceptions, ideals, and environments of its authors; Japanese waka and prose during Japan’s transition from the “classical” Heian period (794-1185) to a more turbulent medieval period (1100-1500) is a fascinating window into this cultural metamorphosis. Japan was irrevocably changed during this period both politically and ideologically, and Japan’s literature followed suit.
Several characteristics of the “classical” Heian period of Japan were the introduction and sophistication of several schools of Buddhism, literature focusing on court life and the associated intrigue, and a fascination with Chinese culture and its emulation. The political landscape of Japan was relatively stable during this period; there were several upsets, but power rested solely in the hands of the court nobles. There was very little class mobility, and power came through birth rather than by threat of violence. The introduction of the medieval period drastically changed this fairly benevolent situation with the rise of the samurai warrior class, and the fall of Japan’s aristocratic class and the power they held. Power was now determined by blade and fire instead of birth. During the medieval period Japan was subject to frequent warfare, not to mention a series of devastating natural disasters; both of these factors contributed to a mild religious movement and interest in alternative schools of Buddhism stressing asceticism. Japan’s people were living in a much harsher world than during the Heian period, and this was evident in their writing.
The Heian period was a very complex time for Japan ‘s literature; Japan’s poets and authors not only developed their own kana writing system, but also started to explore different writing methods. During the Heian period we saw a transition from only oral tradition to written waka and even the development of publicized poetry contests. Several forms of literature such as zuihitsu and monogatari were developed during the Heian period and carried onward to the medieval period, but the writer’s content within these literary structures changed drastically as the environment of Japan also changed. It is impossible to generalize the entire collected literature of a time period within a few categories, but the Heian period’s literature was focused on love, the changing of the seasons, and courtly intrigue. There were also many distinctly Buddhist influences. Poetry was used as a method of communication between lovers, and to be an “elegant” writer was very attractive. Poetry was a very public practice in the court setting, and even outside the court different styles of poetry were encouraged and shared. This was a true “renaissance” age for Japanese literature.
During the medieval period poetry showed many signs of the changing environment; as Huey mentioned in the Medievalization of Poetic Practice waka moved from a form of social expression toward a form of art. Characteristic of the...