Poetry has a long history in both Western and Eastern literature. As an art form, it is thought to even pre-date the written word (“Poetry,” n.d.). Some argue that the role of Eastern poetry, specifically Japanese, differs from that of the West because in Japan it is meant to capture a moment of emotion whereas Western literature is meant to describe an emotion. Nonetheless, poetry plays an extensive role in new and old Japanese society—some of the earliest written texts and the most important were poem anthologies. In the Heian period, the role of poetry reflected its real life matchmaking role; that is, it was a reflection of the romanticism an individual, which was considered an important factor in their suitability for marriage. Also, poetry was a mark of social sophistication—those who could create and reference the classics were thought of as very refined. This was further narrowed down in the narrative prose of the era which was frequently romantic: poetic ability was a much more important factor than physical appearance, and the poems themselves would strengthen the relationship in the same way a modern-day date would.
To understand poetry’s role in narrative prose, you first must understand its significance to society as a whole. Poetry, and the ability to create poetry, was a highly-regarded value in Heian society. The Japanese originally had no writing system prior to Chinese influence and, like the ancient Hawaiians, traditionally relied on oral histories. Chinese, like Latin in the West, was considered the language of academics and was the foundation of men’s academics (Gerber, 2007). Additionally with the introduction of kanji, “the ancient songs of the oral tradition… could now be put down on paper (“Handout 2,” n.d.).” Studying the Chinese classics inspired a deep appreciation for poetry as an art form, especially after the Chinese T’ang Dynasty. During this time missions to China stopped, and Japan had to “look inward (“Waka”, n.d.)” and create from Chinese techniques their own deviations. This is when the waka form flourished and the
Kokin Wakashuu (古今和歌集), the first of many court poem anthologies, was established.
A courtier was judged on his ability to construct good poetry and was at a serious disadvantage if he was unable to do so. Like nowadays in which quoting Shakespeare, Mark Twain, or some other literary giant are considered signs of intelligence, or at the very least education, the esteem at which Chinese poetry and classics were held at also meant that if one was able to allude to them in verse, it was a considered sign of sophisticated culture (Joseph, 2004). In Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, Genji desires a relationship with the Third Princess and sends her what was considered an elaborate poem, only to receive a reply “gaudily wrapped in thin scarlet paper (Gerber, 2007)”. The reply is described as childish and as a result, Genji and his wife Murasaki think little of the princess.