Sex, Feasts & Gossip
No, people, I’m not talking about the Playboy Mansion, but about Japan a 1000 years ago. In the beginning of last millennium the aristocracy of Heian Kyo (Kyoto nowadays) created their own little isolated world and went completely decadent. Still, compared to the rulers in the West, they did it in a most refined and elevated way.
That’s what I discovered in ‘The World of the Shining Prince, Court Life in Ancient Japan’ by Ivan Morris. He made a magnifiscent study about the world of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, which is still considered by many as the best work of fiction in Japanese literature. Way to go for a woman who lived in a world ruled by men a millennium ago!
There is so much to tell about the book, so I decided to make my Top 10 of weird/cool things at the Japanese court around the year 1000.
#10 Who’s becoming Japan’s next…
Without internet or tv, the Japanese nobles had to find other ways of entertainment. That’s why they made contests for everything: music, fashion, dance, pets, flower arrangements and even making your own perfumes. They did it all before Idols, ANTM or Dancing with the Stars. And to make it more interesting they gambled their butts off with every contest.
#9 Reeeemiiixx! : Religions
Unlike today’s mess with religious clashes, the Japanese had no problem mixing religions. Celebrating a Buddhist holiday with Confucian rituals in a Shinto temple? Why not!
#8 A banquet for every law
The leading class in ancient Japan knew how to party. With every new law the emperor organized a gigantic banquet, which actually became the official procedure to make it legal.
#7 Warrior monks
The Japanese monks were no pussies. They were real warriors and often descended from their mighty temples in the hills to attack the capital.
#6 Bitch fights on ox carriages
The pretty carriages of the nobles weren’t pulled by horses, but by oxes! Even back then, the capital had some serious traffic jams and the aristocratic ladies didn’t always remain that civilized. No middle fingers for these women, but real hair-pulling bitch fights!
#5 Foxes in disguise
From oxes to foxes. In supersticious Japan, people believed foxes could take human shape to trick people into their traps. ‘Wow, what a hot girl!’ Better think twice!
#4 Gossip Girls
The main goal for every Japanese aristocratic girl was to climb the social ladder through marriage. That’s why every girl was thinking 24/7 about what we now call ‘personal branding’ on the one hand and on the other hand about destroying the image of her competitors. It was THE system that made gossip into an art form. Blair Waldorf has got nothing on these bitc…, uhm I mean ‘ladies’.
#3 Pimp my letter
The upper class of Heian Kyo compensated their lack of cell phones and text messages with extreme forms of letter pimping. The colour and texture of the paper and ink, the calligraphy and drawings, their own crafted perfumes… everything had to be customized, even for the most random messages. They even added blossoms, flowers, twigs or other objects that reflected the tone and form of the letter. When it came to the writing itself: poetry was the only acceptable form and insinuations, insiders and metaphors were an absolute must.
#2 Random sex in the darkroom
Both men and women could have several bed partners at the same time and everybody was fine with that. In addition, the women’s rooms were permanently shaded because of the use of curtains, which led many a time to sexual encounters between people who weren’t even sure who the other one was.
#1 Children & ghost emperors
The Japanese emperors in those days were hardly ever old, wise men. Most of the time, they were boys or young teenagers who were too busy with ceremonial tasks to be able to actually lead Japan. That was done by the mighty Fujiwara family, who’s daughters also often became the empresses.
Another weird thing about the emperors, is that some were ghosts. The Japanese believed that ghosts could bring bad luck and haunt people, so to sooth them, they were promoted to high titles. Even the highest title of Emperor!
This is only a selection of the things I learned through ‘The World of the Shining Prince, Court Life in Ancient Japan’. If you’re interested, read the book yourself. You won’t have the feeling at all that you’re reading an academic work. It’s pure fun, with juicy pieces of information.