The age is ours!

Sam Sacks

  • The Tale of the Heike translated by Royall Tyler
    Viking, 734 pp, $50.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 670 02513 8

The decline and fall of the Heian nobility, which is chronicled in The Tale of the Heike, provoked much lamentation among the poets of Japan. At the start of the 13th century, the court poet Kamo no Chomei was passed over for a prestigious post and left the imperial capital of Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto). He took the tonsure, and lived henceforth as a grouchy hermit in a hut. There he produced his masterpiece, the verse-essay Hojoki, which translates as ‘Writings from a Place Ten Feet Square’.[*] A charmingly disenchanted blend of Thoreau and the Prophet Jeremiah, the work takes a bitter satisfaction in looking back at his nation’s fall from glory. Chomei describes an age visited by fire, drought, famine and plague. Corpses are piled in the streets of the capital and citizens loot temples and chop up Buddhas for kindling. Noble families have passed into obscurity: ‘Decorously dressed folk/in hats and gaiters,/went from house to house,/frantically begging.’ From his mountain seclusion he recalls a brief spell of collective repentance after a devastating earthquake in 1185:

there was talk
of the vanities of this world,
and people seemed to be rid
of the sinfulness in their hearts.
But days and months went by,
then years,
and no one spoke of it again.

At its height, in the 10th and 11th centuries, Heian Japan existed on a perhaps unmatched plane of aristocratic refinement. Nearly any scene from Murasaki Shikibu’s extraordinary court romance, The Tale of Genji (completed in 1021), gives an idea of the premium placed on aesthetics. Genji, the Casanova-like hero, holds the rank of commander, but not once do we see him bothered with state or military matters. He is instead preoccupied with music recitals, poetry, calligraphy, perfume, fashion, love affairs and an aristocratic form of Buddhism that simultaneously smiles on earthly pleasure while offering a path to bliss after death.

To understand the decline of Heian imperial authority you might think of what happened to Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire. In Japan, the ruling houses attached to the crown had always had difficulty controlling landowners in remote provinces. For a time they had kept these far-flung manors quiet by promising immunity from taxation. But as the court in the capital became more and more insular and rarefied (men were often appointed to crucial posts entirely on the basis of good looks and good deportment), provincial landowners formed militias and staged revolts, joined by bellicose warrior-monks, undaunted by the Buddhist prohibition against taking life. Their raids on the capital had become annual occurrences.

The crown had no standing army, but relied instead on warrior clans from the capital, who were dispatched to snuff out insurrection in return for royal favours and preferential appointments. The outcome was predictable: power shifted from the emperor to the warlord (or shogun), and Japan entered a medieval age in which the country was controlled by feudal landlords with manorial estates (called shoen) protected by private warriors (samurai). This would remain the situation for more than six hundred years. In the 12th century, in the final throes of the Heian period, there was a decades-long civil war between the two most powerful warrior clans, the Heike (also known as Taira) and the Genji (or Minamoto). The end of the conflict, which came with the annihilation of the Heike and the establishment of the unchallenged supremacy of the Genji, is the subject of the Heike monogatari, The Tale of the Heike, newly translated by Royall Tyler.

Tyler is the most prominent translator since Arthur Waley and Edward Seidensticker to take on the Sisyphean task of rendering Japan’s vast classical literature into accessible English. The Tale of the Heike is an especially challenging work for Western audiences. The Tale of Genji, with its eerily Proustian anatomisation of social protocol and matters of the heart, is approachable (Tyler’s 2001 translation is the one to read), but The Tale of the Heike feels much more antique, a military chronicle cobbled together from a mishmash of adventure yarns, religious cautionary tales, folk legends and portraits of heroism.

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[*] Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World, translated by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins (Stone Bridge Press, 1996).