Takeshi WatanabeApr 13, 2021
Women Exorcising History in Heian Japan
Harvard East Asian Monographs 2020
Telling stories: that sounds innocuous enough. But for the first chronicle in the Japanese vernacular, A Tale of Flowering Fortunes (Eiga monogatari), there was more to worry about than a good yarn. The health of the community was at stake. Flowering Tales: Women Exorcising History in Heian Japan (Harvard University Press, 2020) is the first extensive literary study of this historical tale, which covers about 150 years of births, deaths, and happenings in late Heian society, a golden age of court literature in women’s hands. Takeshi Watanabe contends that the blossoming of tales, marked by The Tale of Genji, inspired Eiga’s new affective history: an exorcism of embittered spirits whose stories needed to be retold to ensure peace.
Tracing the narrative arcs of politically marginalized figures, Watanabe shows how Eiga’s female authors adapted the discourse and strategies of The Tale of Genji to rechannel wayward ghosts into the community through genealogies that relied not on blood but on literary resonances. These reverberations, highlighted through comparisons to contemporaneous accounts in courtiers’ journals, echo through shared details of funerary practices, political life, and characterization. Flowering Tales reanimates these eleventh-century voices to trouble conceptions of history: how it ought to be recounted, who got to record it, and why remembering mattered.
Jingyi Li is a PhD Candidate in Japanese History at the University of Arizona. She researches about early modern Japan, literati, and commercial publishing.