Response paper

With this assignment you get a chance to engage with a longer piece of literature that represent two different time periods: literature written by women at the Heian court (794-1185), and popular culture of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868).

You only have to write one response paper. All texts are provided as PDFs through Google Drive.

  1. Practicalities
  2. Texts


  • What is a response paper? (check the link)
    • A good response paper will provide and analyze concrete examples from the text to support the point(s) you make.
    • You do not need to find additional new materials. You may draw on other course materials, or use good quality additional sources (check your notes from the library session), but make sure to provide references.
  • How long should it be?
    • 800 words (±10%) of main text: excluding notes, bibliographic information, name etc.
  • What reference/citation system should we use?
    • Chicago, notes and bibliography.
    • Include a fully formatted reference to the text you chose to respond to!
  • When is it due?
    • Anytime before May 4. You may submit a first version and get feedback. Only the final version (or the version as it stands on May 4) will count towards your grade.
    • I will arrange peer-reviews with your classmates for work received by April 24
    • Rewrite and submit the final version by March 4.
  • Format: Google doc, share with me.
  • Assistance: Remember the Writing Center is available to assist you with any part of the writing process, from helping you brainstorm for ideas to putting the final touch on the grammar. Librarians are also very happy to help you with the formatting of footnotes and bibliography. Remember we use Chicago Notes and Bibliography style.


Heian Court Literature: Women’s Voices

Women wrote in kana, the Japanese script that was developed to write the Japanese language. Their writings are more personal, more reflective, and often provide insights into the psychological world of the court. Yet often we know very little about the authors, and they are not even known by their personal name.

The marriage system at the time, and the position of women was, by our present-day standards, very unfair and highly problematic; in your paper you should move beyond a simple condemnation of those practices. Instead you can reflect on what the text tells you about the position of women at the court and in the capital, their experiences, their motivations for writing, how they fight against or manage to find peace within this system. It will also be useful to see how the text connects to what we have learned about Heian Japan (incl. in Varley’s textbook).

  1. Michitsuna’s Mother (Approximately 935-995). The Gossamer Years: Kagerō Nikki : The Diary of a Noblewoman of Heian Japan , translated by Edward Seidensticker. Unesco Collection of Representative Works. Japanese Series. Tokyo: C.E. Tuttle, 1973. (PDF)

“Indeed, as I think of the unsatisfying events I have recorded here, I wonder whether I have been describing anything of substance. Call it, this journal of mine, a shimmering of the summer sky.”

Michitsuna’s Mother (Michitsuna no haha), as the author of this diary is known, was stuck in an unhappy marriage to her husband Fujiwara Kaneie. The love letters from the early part of the diary make way for her reflections on her husband’s succession of affairs with multiple mistresses, and she did not hide the burning jealousy.


2. Takasue’s Daughter (1008-?). As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan. Translated by Ivan Morris. London: Penguin Classic, 1975. (PDF)

“We crossed Mount Ashigara at dawn. Even if the bottom of the mountain could scare me, how much more terrifying it became as we made our way into the depths of the forest, going higher and higher until we were stepping on the very clouds!”

Takasue’s Daughter (Takasue no musume) was the niece of Michitsuna’s Mother, author of the Gossamer Years. The memoir is unusual for a Heian woman, because it documents the journey from her father’s post in eastern Japan to the capital, made when the author was about twelve; she also made many pilgrimages to shrines. Yet she spent a lot of time in the capital, and escaped in fantasy and dreams.

Popular Literature of the Edo Period

Literacy rates increased during the Edo period (1603-1868), and together with urbanization and merchant wealth, this resulted in the production of literary works aimed at a wider part of the population for entertainment. In addition to finding connections with the historical context, you could also look at the storyteller’s craftsmanship.


3. Takeda Izumo, Shōraku Miyoshi, and Senryū Namiki. Chūshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers): A Puppet Play, translated by Donald Keene. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1981 (1971). (PDF)

This is a bunraku play that was (and still is) extremely popular. The story is set during the Ashikaga shoguns’ reign, but was based on “current events” (see Chapter 8, Varley). It is a longer text than the others, but it is hard to cut parts from the story. In Edo of course viewers would have been familiar enough with the story that the theaters would only perform the highlights. There is also a list of main characters if you struggle to keep up with who’s who.

4. Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693). The Great Mirror of Male Love, translated by Paul Gordon Schalow. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990. (PDF)

“Male love” or male homoeroticism and homosexuality was not frowned upon per se, but in these stories love, honor, and social expectations are mixed into complex dramatic stories. The first set of short stories focuses on samurai, the second set on kabuki actors. Part of the introduction is included at the end of the PDF to help you understand where some of the misogyny expressed in the stories comes from. Saikaku’s acerbic brush spares no-one, it seems.

5. Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693). The Life of an Amorous Woman, and Other Writings, edited and translated by Ivan Morris. Unesco Collection of Representative Literary Works. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1963. (PDF)

More background in Varley, Chapter 7. This is the story of a woman who’s in search of love, and stops at nothing to get a man into her bed (or herself into a man’s bed).