The term “medieval”, etymologically suggestive of the Middle Age, is defined as a period from 1185 to 1600 in the Japanese history. This period is marked by a departure from an imperial-aristocratic rule in Heian Japan (794-1185) to a warrior-centered regime; and in comparison to its subsequent period, the medieval period is an era of internal warfare different from the politically unified Japan during the Edo period (1600-1867) ruled by the Tokugawa shōgunate. Thus, historically speaking, the “medievality” of the period in question can be construed as a period exhibiting political transitions between the periods that come before and after.
This paper focuses on medieval ‘warrior tales’ (gunki monogatari), in particular the Tales of the Heike (Heike monogatari, which started to emerge from the thirteenth century), which delineate the political turmoil during the twelfth century that turned the Japanese society upside down. Conflict proceeded over a debate on imperial succession in 1156, which later came to be known as the Hōgen rebellion, during which both Taira no Kiyomori and Minamoto no Yoshitomo, who served as courtiers at court, supported cloistered emperor Go-Shirakawa’s claims against his challengers. Yet, the granting of unfairly large rewards to Kiyomori caused Yoshimoto’s resentment, and supported by other influential figures at court, Yoshimoto raised troops against Kiyomori and Go-Shirakawa in 1160, which came to be known as the Heiji Rebellion. However, the rebellion was swiftly put down, and Yoshimoto was executed. Around twenty years later, Yoshimoto’s exiled son, Minamoto no Yoritomo, rose to challenge the Kiyomori and his Taira clan in the Gempei war (1180-1185). Following the changing of alliances by Go-Shirakawa, the Taira were defeated by the Minamoto clan, leaving the Minamoto leadership under Yoritomo to set up a military government in Kamakura (eastern Japan), which became a rival of the imperial court in Kyoto (western Japan).
Similar to how historians periodise a “medieval” Japan modelled on socio-political changes, a question that requires us to examine how genres of literacy, oral-performance, and visual art popular in medieval Japan contribute to our understanding of the “medieval” first and foremost prompts us to examine the textual culture of the medieval period in relation to the preceding and succeeding periods. The medieval English literature scholar, Elizabeth Scala, observes that the textual culture of the Middle Ages is that of a manuscript culture, and what constitutes the “medievality” of the texts produced under such a manuscript culture is the intertextuality of the medieval narrative structure, as medieval texts always ‘bear witness to an other text, most often figured materially as the textual ancestor from which it has been copied’ (Scala, 2002: 1). Also, Scala states that medieval texts are much more variable and far less stable than that of a print culture, which started to merge from 1476, the year in which Caxton introduced the printing press to England (ibid).
Utilizing the western medieval textual culture as a model for comparison, similar conclusions can be drawn about the textual culture in medieval Japan. Like medieval English texts, the textual culture in medieval Japan is that of a manuscript culture typified by a large quantity of textual variants in the corpus of literary genres such as ‘tale literature’ (monogatari). The textual culture in medieval Japan differs from the preceding Heian period when literacy had been the privilege of the elite, as during the medieval period, the locus of textual transmission, composition and reception shifted from the Kyoto centre to peripheral provinces or temples. It is also distinguished from the succeeding Edo period, during which benefited by the development of printing technologies (e.g. woodblock prints), literacy became integrated with everyday life.
Yet, the word “text”, which is etymologically related to “things woven”, from the Latin textus, suggests that we ought to look at the dynamism of different elements within texts and should not treat medieval production as autonomous works. Thus, unlike Elizabeth Scala’s analysis, which mostly concerns the written element of medieval textual culture, with a focus on the Tales of the Heike of the ‘warrior-tale’ genre, this essay argues that the salient feature which characterises the “medievality” of medieval Japanese textual culture is textual variancy and intertextuality not only on a written level, but also on oral and visual levels, to the extent that a literary text cannot be fully articulated without examining such multi-layered representation of medieval literature. This thus problematises both the notion of ‘genre’ and the written/oral binary.
The ‘warrior-tale’ genre, which is one of the main genres of medieval Japanese literature, started to take form from the mid-Heian period. It may be more adequate for us to define it as a genre unified by its subject matter (as in general, they delineates historical warfare and lives of warriors and the people close to them), than stylistic traits (as the development of such “genre” woes a debt to traditions such as poetry, anecdotal stories, and oral-performance). Similar to medieval English literature such as Chaucer, most war tales during medieval Japan was produced and transmitted through a number of textual lineages. This is most typified by the written variants of the Tale of Heike, which is a body of literary texts started emerged from the thirteenth century, delineating the Gempei war fought between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan. The Tales of the Heike is represented as the ‘warrior tale’ par excellence, in which the genre category of ‘warrior tale’ is almost defined in terms of the Tale of Heike. The hundred-odd variants in the Heike corpus are traditionally classified by scholars into the categories of recited lineage (kataribonkei; texts which bears strong markers of oral composition, transmission, and performance, represented by the well-known Kakuichi variant) and read lineage (yomihonkei; texts which are intended to be read, for example the Engyōbon, Nagatobon, Genpei jōsuiki variants).
In terms of the narrative, despite that Tales of the Heike exists in large quantity of textual variants, it is a corpus of texts plotted along similar lines narrating the rise and fall of the Taira clan, echoing Scala’s idea that ‘the utterance of a medieval text always recalls for us other texts’ (Scala, 2002: 3). Nevertheless, the two textual lineages exhibit different ways of representing “history”. For example, Selinger (2014: 19) argues that the recited lineage offer a ‘western (Kyoto-based) political vision’ as opposed to the ‘eastern perspective’ of the read lineage. Selinger observes that texts of the read lineage have a focus on the early days of Minamoto no Yoritomo’s uprising, and finish with celebratory prose glorifying how Yoritomo brought ‘peace to the four seas’ by establishing in the Kamakura government in eastern Japan as opposed to the recited lineage, which end with the demise of the western military regime led by Taira no Kiyomori (ibid: 20). The differing visions offered by different textual lineages demonstrate several salient features of the textual culture in medieval Japan. Firstly, unlike mechanical copying in a print culture, which is able to produce nearly identical copies of a particular work, the person responsible for manuscript reproduction may introduce difference into the text. This can be seen in the Ellesmere edition of the Canterbury Tales, which regularizes the meter of Chaucer’s verses (Scala, 2002: 2). Secondly, it shows how the complex play of narrative forces characterises the “medievality” of the Japanese medieval textual culture, as perspectives offered by different textual variants function to re-configure the Gempei war which happened a century before the composition and compliation of the Tales of the Heike. Thirdly, on one hand, each individual variant is highly individualized as the stories are filtered by the author’s subjective interpretations of the Gempei “history”, yet on the other hand, these overlaying variants have provided us with varied representations of the same events, essentially transforming the telling of the Gempei war into a communal and participatory literary tradition. Henceforth, as shown by the Tale of Heike, it is not adequate for us to treat medieval literary texts belonging to the genre of ‘warrior tales’ as autonomous works.
Moreover, we ought to look beyond the written texts as medieval Japanese literature had a distinctively oral characteristic, which blurs the boundaries between written and oral elements of texts. Before examining the oral-performative aspects of the Tale of Heike, it is firstly important to problematise the common conception of the Heike as being strictly “prose” based on the fact that they are not represented on the page in poetic metrics. A careful reading of the style of the Kakuichi variant shows that it contains a variety of poetic forms, such as vernacular Japanese poetry (waka), popular songs in Heian Japan (imayō), and the use of antithetical couplets (tsuiku) that is characteristic of Sino-Japanese poetry (kanshi). Furthermore, descriptive narratives in the Tales of the Heike are interwoven with allusions to classical, courtly poetic traditions of the Heian period. For example, the ‘travel scenes’ (michiyuki, e.g. “The Journey down the Eastern Sea Road” in scroll ten) is a subcategory of the parting topos of the poetic tradition. Moreover, the oral poetic features of the Tales of the Heike trace back to the poetic orientation of Heian vernacular literature, where conventions of oral storytelling are evident in works like the Tale of Genji (1014) (Shirane, 2007: 9). All of these suggest the slippage of genre between poetry and tale literature, making the Tales of the Heike epic-like, thus questioning the adequacy of the binaristic categorisation of the Heike corpus into read lineage/ recited lineage, as written and oral dimensions of texts are not binaristic but complementary.
Furthermore, the relationship between the Tales of the Heike and the performance by blind minstrel-priests (biwa hōshi, lit. lute priests) reinforce that the Heike is of oral literature, as they were orally composed, performed and transmitted. Similar to the travelling minstrels in medieval Europe, who performed songs and stories of existing or imaginary historical events, the minstrel-priests Japan originally served as chanters of sacred liturgies and as wayside entertainers telling stories, reciting poems, and singing songs. The origin the Heike stories seem to be related to these minstrel-priests, as they are commonly said to be emerged from the thirteenth century, when large numbers of blind minstrel-priests congregated at the Shoshazan, a Buddhist monastic centre in Harima Province, perhaps out of a demand to gather and transmit stories about the Gempei war. There were two main strands of minstrel-priests which gathered at the Shoshazan, one type being those active especially in Kyūshū and eastern Japan who followed the troops and sang battle tales, another type were those attached to temples around Kyoto, who were mostly chanting Buddhist pieces to small audiences (Ruth, 1990: 536). The fact that the Heike stories are partly created out of the interactions among different strands of chanting as well as battle-tale songs from various battlefield regions essentially suggests that the Tales of the Heike are of an oral origin—it was composed orally and was intended to be performed and read out loud. This echoes Horton’s (Horton, 1993: 172-3 in Fröhlich, 2007: 33) argument that ‘though the vulgate version of the text was written down, its primary form of reception through the medieval period was through vocal performance’.
The analysis of the performative aspect of texts requires us to examine the reception of performed texts, as “performance” refers to a multi-media and communal act, in which the encoding of meaning of a performed text is fulfilled by the audience, as the transmission of a message is based on the knowledge that is shared between him and the audience (Fröhlich 2007: 36). It is important to first identify who were the audience of the performance of warrior tales. It is commonly understood that the commoner origin of the minstrel-priests suggests that the performance of the tales was of a folk nature and was enjoyed by commoners. To a certain extent this is true, however, the late fourteenth century warrior tale “Chronicle of Great Peace” (Taiheiki), for example, which was performed by sighted amateur performers (monogatarisō), was consumed by courtiers and warriors (Selinger 2014: 18). Such a wide circulation of warrior tales among various social classes characterises the transition of the textual culture in Japan from the Heian period to the medieval period, as during the medieval period, the locus of literary practices and audience were not only from the centre but also the peripheral, which was influenced by the changing political context mentioned at the beginning of this essay.
Furthermore, the oral-performance of the warrior tales, especially that of the Tale of Heike, had an important ritual function, which was to celebrate (shūgen) the restoration of order after the Gempei war and to pacify (chinkon) the souls of both the victor and the defeated (Watson & Shirane, 2006: 2). Here, the exorcizing function of the texts shows that medieval oral-performance was also linked to ideology, as the chanting of the Heike aimed to offer salvation by incorporating the defeated into the new social order after the war.
The Tale of Heike, especially Kakuichi’s variant of the Heike completed in 1371, gained a new “meaning” during the Southern and Northern Court period (1336-1392) centuries after the Gempei war. The general sentiment of pessimism and helplessness felt by the people due to warfare during the medieval period is epitomised by the Buddhist thought of the ‘last dharma’ (mappō) prevalent at the time, and during and after the Southern and Northern Court period, the significance of the ritual aspect of the Tales of the Heike lies in the fact that that it reassured and united those disillusioned listeners, thus bringing the past to the present, inviting the audience to participate in assigning “new” meanings to the past, making the Gempei war a war which subsequent wars were compared. The idea we are getting here is the making of a “communal tradition”, which characterises the “medievality” of the medieval Japanese textual culture: a culturally shared system of ideas and knowledge of how to re-contextualise the past was created through repeated oral-performance of a text like the Tale of Heike—‘through the re-enactment of the already known’(Fröhlich, 2007:36).
The transmission of the Tales of the Heike reinforces the inseparability of the oral and written elements in medieval Japanese texts, as the stories were first orally composed, performed through oral performance and then transmitted in writing. The question here is, what had been the motivation to transform the Heike tale-songs into authoritative texts with a definite author? What was the role of text in a medieval Japanese context?
The composer-performer Akashi no Kakuichi’s version of the Tales of the Heike (1371) is being deemed by scholars as the most complete and authoritative variant of the Heike. In my opinion, propelled by the growing competition among the Heike performers (for example the Jōkata school), the motive for Kakuichi to create his own lineage of the Heike lies in his desire to assert his status as the author of not only his version of the Heike but the Heike texts as a whole, as in the second colophon of the Kakuichi variant, Kakuichi states that ‘this book should not be circulated to the outside; the eyes of others may not see it’ (Oyler, 2006:15). This demonstrates the exclusiveness of Kakuichi’s art, and by the year of 1371, the Ichikata school of Heike recitation founded by Kakuichi’s disciples had become firmly established. Therefore, one of the roles of text in a Japanese medieval textural culture was to assert the authority and status of an author and their schools of performance over generations. Such an oral-to-written transition is perhaps what characterises “medievality” of the Japanese medieval textual culture. Furthermore, Kakuichi’s authorial claim of the Heike texts prompts us to reflect upon a medieval definition of “authorship”, as the tales in his Heike was put together and edited by him, but they were not essentially originally written by him given the overlaying, large quantity of variants in the corpus of not only the Tales of the Heike but also of the early to mid-thirteenth-century warrior tales such as the Tale of Hōgen and the Tale of Heiji, as both of them had textual and performative histories closely related to the Heike, and had been part of the biwa hōshi repertoire, thus contributing to what Oyler calls a ‘synchronic intertextuality’ (Oyler, 2006:18). Therefore, perhaps the medieval definition of “authorship” is not about by whom or from where the text producer took the story, but rather who claims the “best” edition of the story, suggesting that the Japanese medieval manuscript culture is characterized by “variancy” rather than “originality”.
Similar to the oral-performative aspect of the warrior tales, genres of visual arts, especially of painting, also reinforce multi-layered representation of the tales. To decode paintings is to decode the visual signs of paintings, which would only be “meaningful” through repetition; as visual signs is also a form of literacy like written words. The picture-scrolls (emaki) delineating the scenes of various warrior tales such as the thirteenth century “Illustrated Scrolls of the Tale of Heiji” (Heiji monogatari emaki), adopt stylistic traits of the ‘Japanese painting’ (yamato-e) (flourished during the Heian period and was employed to illustrate Heian tales such as the Tale of Genji) and employ the ‘open-roof’ (fukinuki-yatai, showing scenes from above with a bird-eye view) composition, thus reinvigorating an earlier form of painting. Also, a close examination of particular scenes featuring warriors reveals that their faces are highly stylised and their appearance are drawn in similar ways. Such a highly stylised portrayal of warriors can also be seen from the “Illustrated Scrolls of the Chronicle of Great Peace” (Taiheiki emaki) produced in the mid-seventeenth century in the Edo period, suggesting that the historical events portrayed in the picture-scrolls of warrior tales were still very important for the painters and the people of later periods. This provokes us to think about the medieval definition of “originality”, which can be argued as not referring to “innovation” but to an earlier “tradition”, demonstrating how medieval literary texts are self-conscious, defining itself in relation to the classics. Furthermore, the highly stylised portrayal of warriors in picture-scrolls of different periods relates back the idea which I have proposed earlier: the re-enactment of a single text (literally, orally, and visually) re-conceptualises the past and contributes to create a ‘stream of tradition’ of the re-telling of battle tales.
In conclusion, it is clear that when examining the textual culture of medieval Japan, genres of literary, oral-performance, and visual arts cannot be treated separately, as their highly variant and intertextual nature suggests that it is not possible for one to fully understand a literary text without examining the three elements concurrently. The “medievality” of the medieval Japanese textual culture is manifested by the warrior tales in several ways: in terms of written texts, medieval writings are characterised by textual variancy with competing narrative forces; in terms of oral-performance, we see that strict boundaries between oral and written dimensions of a single text cannot be easily drawn, thus suggesting how problematic the modern notion of “genre” is when applying to medieval literary texts, and how the medieval textual culture saw a transition of oral-to-written; and finally, visual arts in the form of picture-scrolls reinforce the idea of multi-layered representation of a single literary text. Through the analysis of all three elements in relation to medieval warrior tales, it is clear that these elements contribute to transform the narration of war stories into a “tradition” representative of a re-designed collective memory shared by Japanese people.
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