Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Book Review: The World of the Shining Prince

The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan
Ivan Morris
History, Sociology

An extraordinarily complete and encompassing view of something odd and beautiful. Heian-period Japan--c. AD 1000--developed a court society that was, in some ways, unique. For the tiny aristocratic elite, what counted was aesthetics (and lineage, but that's not the unique part). Not the warrior virtues, not competence, not money, not power, but beauty and culture were the currency. The nominal government didn't govern. The police and the army were largely ineffectual. Nobles spent their days in composing poems for one another, judging perfumes, conducting polygamous affairs (according to ritualized patterns), and honing their appreciation of the transitory nature of life. I find it hard to imagine that such a society could have survived long except on an island.

Ivan Morris's prose isn't brilliant, but it's serviceable. He does an amazing job bringing the Heian court to life in all of its details; you can open to any random page and find something worth knowing. Page 137: "One of the most important and active offices in the Ministry of Central Affairs was the Bureau of Divination". Page 80: "Emperor Ichijo's pet cat was awarded the theoretical privilege of wearing the head-dress (koburi) reserved for members of the Fifth Rank and above." Page 235: "The official concubine may be chosen in various ways." Morris is also pretty good at pointing out parallels from more familiar Western examples, as well as pointing out where the parallels are misleading or nonexistent.

I read The World of the Shining Prince because I was going to see an exhibition on The Tale of Genji (he's the Shining Prince, for those of you keeping score at home). It didn't make my must-recommend list, but for anyone trying to understand Heian Japan it's indispensable.


  1. Despite the fact that I live here, I've never properly studied Japanese history. I'm sure I've absorbed a lot over the years through osmosis, I suppose. It seems like a very decadent time. Yet, the culture doesn't seem to have deteriorated like other decadent cultures (I'm imagining Rome).

    1. It's complicated. As I understand it, the emperor and government in the Heian period were almost purely ceremonial. Real power was exercised by the Fujiwara family. The Fujiwaras split into factions, internal problems multiplied (and went unaddressed), Kyoto was sacked by monks from Mount Hiei, and eventually the much-despised military provincials marched in and took over. The succeeding period had a drastically different ethos. Among other things, women's status declined sharply.