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Winter 2007, vol 5 no 4

A Poetics of Courtly Male Friendship in Heian Japan
by Paul Gordon Schalow
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Rutgers University Professor Gordon Schalow's book explores the role male friendship played in the literature of Japan's Heian Court and in doing so, gives the reader an in depth look into the mindset and sphere of influence that helped to define this era's literary output.

Says Schalow, "This study is concerned with clarifying how Heian literature articulates the nobleman's wish to be known and appreciated fully by another man - or what may be termed the hope of transcendence through male friendship." It should be noted that women played a different role in the Heian court and were looked upon as less than equal by their counterparts. A Japanese male wasn't concerned with how he was thought of by women. How he was thought of and regarded by men was a different matter. The court of that era consisted of approximately 5,000 men. A male member of the court therefore had to vie for position, status, rank, and attention. It was a competitive arena. How other males in the court thought of a male made or broke him. And if a lower level aristocrat wanted prominence and respect in the court, literary attainment was a good route to take.

Posits Schalow, "It is from the class of provincial governors, on the periphery of court power, that many of the greatest Heian writers emerged, a result perhaps of the tendency for people on the margins to develop a critical perspective and analytical consciousness towards centers of power. Thus, while a nobleman's aristocratic birth provided little solace in the face of his lack of political clout, at least literary attainments in the Chinese classics and Japanese poetry (or 'Yamato song' waka) could provide the basis for his participation in a cultural and aesthetic regime of power that emerged in relation to political power of the Fujiwara Regency. Verses and narratives depicting a disenfranchised hero who vied for the love of women and the friendship of men show that literature provided the Heian court with a cultural arena of the imagination, where power lost in the public realm might be recouped through the art of writing and reading."

Take, for example, the following waka, expressing male friendship, which is almost indistinguishable from a love poem between a man and a woman:

wakaruredo ureshiku mo aru ka koyoi yori ai minu yori nani o koimashi
although we part / I am filled with happiness / for now I wonder / whom I might have thought I loved / before we two met tonight

Says Schalow, "It expresses feelings of longing for a Prince he has just met. The headnote reads, 'Composed on parting from Prince Kanemi after first conversing with him.'"

How Japanese male members of the Imperial Court viewed one another is culturally different from how modern Japanese men view one another, and even more foreign to Western views. It would be easy for a Westerner, unfamiliar with the text and the culture of that time, to think the author of the waka was expressing something other than heterosexual male bonding:

Lute, poetry, wine—my friends all have deserted me;
snow, moon, flowers—these seasons, I most often think of you.

Bo Ju-yi (Chinese Tang Dynasty poet)

This kind of male bonding wasn't indigenous to Japan. As you can see by the above poem excerpted from Schalow's text, which was included in Fujiwara no Kinto's anthology Wakan roei shu, it was part of the Chinese culture as well. China had a vital influence on Japanese poetry and the way members of the Imperial court viewed and understood the world around them. Aristocrats in the Japanese court were expected to read and write poetry in the Chinese language. Immersion in the mindset and language of another culture cannot help influencing a person's thinking.

Schalow covers in depth the similarity of both cultures in relationship to male bonding and how one influenced the other.

". . . the deepest experience of friendship resides in the friend's absence, not in his presence. In a poem about friends who are absent, the reader is forced to imagine a moment when the pleasure of shared camaraderie is past—whether in the contexts of music, poetry, or wine or in the seasons of snow, moonlight, or flowering trees—and only then is he prepared to comprehend what Bo Ju-yi would have called the 'truth' of friendship."

Schalow's book covers the subject of male friendship in depth. Readers are also given more insight into the contributions of Chinese poetry and philosophy to Japanese poetry.

To fully understand a waka from another era, one must do his homework. And thanks to scholars like Schalow, we have some good reference books to help us in this endeavor.


A Poetics of Courtly Male Friendship in Heian Japan
by Paul Gordon Schalow
University of Hawai'i Press
ISBN 978-0-8248-3020-5