The illustration of Caroline Parkinson

Illustration, caricatures, sketches, and comics

Beneath The Clouds- An introduction to Heian Japan



I’ve been blogging about my new online comic for a while. The characters and the plot have been established, and our protagonists have embarked on a road trip. 

But what’s Heian Japan, and why do I keep harking on about it? After all, everyone knows what historical Japan looks like- samurai, katanas, geisha and sushi.

Well, not exactly. Most of those tropes are from the Sengoku period or the Edo period, which are much later. 

Samurai…well, they were around, but they weren’t called samurai, and they wore tachi, a longer, heavier sword than a katana, designed for fighting on horseback. These proto-samurai’s speciality was mounted archery. The tradition of horse archery is still alive in modern Japan and you can find videos of it on Youtube.

Heian Japan ran from roughly 780 to 1160 and is seen as a golden age of Japanese culture. It produced arguably the first novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, and one of the most famous ancient diaries, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. The authors worked as ladies-in-waiting to rival empresses. There’s a snide reference in Murasaki’s diary criticizing Sei’s writing as “presumptuous” and “full of imperfections”, and a small but active modern Sei/Murasaki slash fiction fan base.

The Heian period is also known for the art of writing poetry, the founding of the modern city of Kyoto (Heian Kyo) and the beautiful costumes worn by high ranking court ladies.

The Comic

I was introduced to Heian culture as a teenager by Liza Dalby’s novel The Tale of Murasaki, and read as many books written and based in the period as I could get my hands on. Several years later, on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, I wondered what it would be like to make the same journey a thousand years before. Eventually that thought became a comic book.

I’m unsure as to what I find so attractive about Heian culture. The majority of the surviving writing from that time from that time is an odd mixture of high culture, ennui, high school social drama,  and rather shocking glimpses of a world where life could definitely contain far worse things than boredom (many of the diaries relate the horror of seeing corpses piled in the streets during a carriage journey). Perhaps, as an artist, it’s a glimpse into a world where art was central to people’s lives.

At least, the rich, literate 1% of people whose thoughts survived to the present day.


Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.