Accepted paper:

Lovesick Ladies, Emotional Gentlemen, and a Japanese Don Quijote: Some Humoristic Points of Impact in the Court Literature of the Heian Period


Stina Jelbring (Stockholm University)

Paper short abstract:

In the works of the Heian period we find examples of various kinds of humour such as parody. One outstanding object of parody was, the aesthetic ideal to which sensitivity could be counted. We may see that this ideal manifests itself in easily moved male courtiers, who could be depicted as comical.

Paper long abstract:

When, at the end of the 8th century, the capital of Japan moved to today's Kyoto, the so-called Heian period (794-1185) began. At court, persons with literary skills gathered in a kind of literary salon wherein they found a circle of readers.

What kind of literature and aesthetic ideals were predominant? One way of describing it is that it put sensitivity and suggestion in first place: Literature should evoke emotion towards the transitoriness of things and human relations.

However, what did not warrant equal attention was that this sensitivity to inconstancy could also bestow a humorous touch. We actually find frequent examples of various kinds of humour such as irony, parody, wordplay, etc., in this literature. Among these, one outstanding object of parody was, according to the courtiers, the exact aesthetic ideal to which sensitivity could be counted.

In, for example, the 10th century Tales of Ise (Ise Monogatari) - a collection of short stories revolving around poems, which are said to depict the "elegance at the court" - it is quite evident that the ideal of sensitivity to transient things manifests itself in easily moved male courtiers, who were at times depicted as comical. In Episode 9, there is even a witty comparison of how an abundance of tears could make "the rise swell", and in Episode 63 it takes even more drastic forms when the story of an elderly woman's longing for love is told. In this story, the paragon of an irogonomi character, Narihira, also appears.

Another instance of parody worth mentioning is the way the narrator, to some extent, makes fun of her main character Genji in the second chapter of the 11th century Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari). She introduces him as if he would have been laughed at by the personification of a real hero, and after this follows a series of amorous affairs that only lead to disappointment. This makes us wonder whether Genji should be regarded as a Don Quijote figure rather than a Don Juan figure, as he has often been regarded.

panel S3b_04
Parodic representations of irogonomi characters in classical Japanese literature