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Book Review: The World Of The Shining Prince

In her own words, an introvert and largely misunderstood, Murasaki Shikibu, a fine woman, who was later termed as one of Japan’s finest literary minds was born during the Heian period into a minor
Fujiwara family. She outlived the confined and rigid life of most east Asian aristocratic women through the power of her influential prose fiction such as ‘The Tale Of Genji’.

Ivan Morris’ book, The World Of The Shining Prince, deals with the lives and the times that mattered to people like Murasaki’s protagonist Prince Genji and the aristocratic nobility of her time.Throughout the book, Ivan Morris uses Murasaki’s “The Tale Of Genji” and her contemporary Sei Shonagon’ s “The Pillow Book” to validate his book that dealt with the aristocratic life of Heian Japan.

During the Heian period (950 AD -1050 AD), Japan is said to enjoy political stability as well as growth in the Japanese culture. While Heian Japan is said to borrow many aspects from Tang China, it supposedly remained distinctly unique and Japanese in many ways. It was during this period that Kyoto became a flourishing cultural centre almost on par with the Chinese capital of that time. The Heian Japan was also credited for bringing in the military culture popularly known as the Samurai culture.


The rise of Fujiwara was an important aspect of Heian Japan and it was made possible through ‘marriage politics’ which meant that the head of a family was almost invariably the father-in-law or the grandfather of the reigning sovereign. This was achieved by making sure that the imperial consort was from the Fujiwara family.


Superstition was an important aspect of the Heian life. The heights being that in their Ministry of Central affairs, they had a Bureau of divination that controlled the human affairs. For instance, North east direction and a person’s sixteenth year of age is considered permanently unlucky. Citing instances from ‘The Tale Of Genji’, Ivan Morris said that Prince Genji did not returned from his lover’s house as it was located as at an ‘unlucky’ direction. From as trivial as taking bath to staying indoors or abstaining from all activities, the Heian Japan followed a sexanary cycle to fix certain days as taboo, thus making superstition a part and parcel of their lives.

Women In Heian Japan

The status of women in Heian Japan was both intriguing as well as equally sad. Unlike any parts in the world, the birth of a girl child was considered more of a boon because of marriage politics in Heian Japan. It was also for the first time that girls were preferred to boys in almost all the Fujiwara household.

Another positive characteristic of life of women in Heian Japan was that they were all literate in the vernacular literature and this explains us the predominance of the finest literary works by women of such phenomena as Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon. Women were also given a share in the family properties which did create a sense of economic independence.

But it did not help in empowering or uplifting their status in the society. The main reason, as the author pointed out, was because of the practice of wide scale polygamy. Due to polygamy, most women were insecure especially if they are not the official wife. Also, the women of Heian Japan rarely participated in any outdoor activities but remained indoors wherein they couldn’t distinguish between day and night.

From court life that emphasized religious procession to the teachings of Buddha that gave importance to the world as a place of great sufferings, Heian Japan was fascinating and holds an important facet of Japanese history.