The Gosechi Dances



Since I’m researching for a story set in the Heian period (794-1185), I thought I’d write a little about the ancient Japanese December (Eleventh Month) festival of Toyoakari no Sechie and its accompanying Gosechi Dances. Originally a Shinto thanksgiving ritual celebrating the rice harvest, it became a court ceremony imbued with pomp and splendour, enabling the patrons of the four female dancers to vie with one another in putting forward the most attractive and most gorgeously dressed girl.

The Gosechi Dances, a print by the Edo period artist Hokusai

The Heian period is often considered the ‘golden age’ of Japanese history. The capital, Heian-Kyo, was modelled on the great Tang Dynasty capital of Chang’an in China, and Japanese nobles – known as ‘the good people’ – studied and wrote in Chinese. By the middle of the Heian period, contact with China and indeed most of the outside world was on the wane. The few Chinese who visited the islands were not impressed by what they saw, perceiving the Japanese to be backwards and copying customs outdated by at least a hundred years.

Yet it was a time of peace and remarkably little civil unrest. Unencumbered by having to deal with foreign policies and trade envoys, the Heian nobility turned their attention inwards upon an extraordinary court culture. Social hierarchy was absolute and dictated not just how people should behave and who they should associate with, but also what colours they could wear and the kind of poetry they should write.

It was a time of sexual tolerance, where polygamy was common practice and men and women were free to take lovers of either gender. The principle rule for behaviour was that anything one did, it should be done tastefully. Lovers were required to send one another ‘morning after’ letters, consisting of a poem written on appropriate paper in an appropriate style of calligraphy, folded in a certain way and accompanied by a flower that had significant meaning. Woe betide the lover who neglected his morning after letter, for he would face almost certain ridicule amongst the court ladies and gentlemen for his boorish manners.

The Emperor had only nominal control over his kingdom. As a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess and as the high priest of Shinto, the Emperor’s role was mainly sacerdotal. It could be said that his sole purpose in life was to breed heirs, and by the height of the Heian period, the Empresses and imperial consorts were drawn mainly from the Fuijiwara family, who controlled most of the government. Rival factions even within families battled it out for supremacy, not via warfare but through cunning use of their womenfolk.

One way to capture the imperial attention was through dance, and the Gosechi Dances presented a great opportunity for noble families to thrust their daughters into the spotlight. The Dances originated from a legend of Emperor Temmu (673-686), who played the koto (a zither) with such skill that a goddess descended from Heaven and danced to the music, trailing her sleeves in five patterns.

Murasaki Shikibu (c.973-1025), whose Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) is sometimes called the world’s first historical novel, wrote about the Gosechi Dances in considerable detail. In her personal diary, she records the events surrounding the Dances, which took place over four days towards the end of the Eleventh Month – in her diary, 20-24th December (the actual days can vary due to the Japanese calendar being based on the lunar cycle). The dancers, along with their attendants (ten each, usually young girls aged about 10 years old and drawn from noble families), entered the palace on the first day and performed a dress rehearsal. The second day was a banquet for the Imperial Rehearsals, with a presentation by the dancers’ attendants on the third day. The main Gosechi Dances were held on the fourth day, with the dancers wearing special white paper headdresses and layers of coloured silk robes to evoke the feeling of ethereal illusion.

Murasaki describes the dancers as looking ‘tense’ during their presentation to the throne, and writes of the gifts of dresses, pendants and incense given by the Empress and a number of court ladies to increase the rivalry between the dancers. She also describes the ‘terrible ordeal’ faced by the dancers of being presented by torchlight, as their bodies would be revealed through their thin costumes – much to the delight of the watching noblemen (noblewomen concealed themselves behind fans or moveable standing curtains).

In The Tale of Genji, chapter 21 is concerned with the hero Genji’s role as patron of one of the Gosechi dancers. He chooses the pretty daughter of his foster-brother and friend Koremitsu, who is now a provincial governor. Genji, who has a reputation as a great lover (much of the book is concerned with his romantic entanglements), remembers a youthful affair with a Gosechi dancer: What will the years have done to the maiden, when he/Who saw her heavenly sleeves is so much older?

Genji’s son, Yugiri, is smitten by the sight of Koremitsu’s daughter as she arrives to perform in the Gosechi Dances, and though young, he shows a precocious charm by sending the girl a poem: Were you aware of it as you danced in the sunlight/The heart that was pinned upon the heavenly sleeves?

Koremitsu sees the letter and puts a stop to the romance with the age-old cry of parents everywhere: “You’re too young!”

Advent Calendar Giveaway!


And it’s an almost seamless segue from Japan to Korea, which is where today’s seasonal pressie is from.

In recent years, the Korean TV and film industry has produced a number of GLBT-themed works, many of them historical. This year’s sumptuous and sensual film A Frozen Flower is based on a true story and is set during the latter stages of the Goryeo era (918-1392), a time when Korea was a puppet nation under the control of Yuan Dynasty China.

The King has been in love with Hong Lim, the captain of the royal bodyguard, since they were children. Though genuinely affectionate towards the Queen, the King can’t bring himself to sleep with her, preferring to spend all his time with Hong Lim. When the Chinese ambassadors find fault with the Queen for not producing an heir and suggest instead that a more politically expedient adult nobleman be installed as the Crown Prince, the King realises he must take drastic measures. He orders Hong Lim to sleep with the Queen and get her pregnant.

Against a backdrop of civil discontent and political upheaval, A Frozen Flower charts the tragedy of a King who has everything and yet is helpless in the face of his own emotions. The love triangle between the King, the Queen, and Hong Lim is brutal, raw, and emotionally complex.

Starring the gorgeous Ju Jin-Mo as the King, Song Ji-Hyo as the Queen, and Jo In-Sung as Hong Lim, the costumes, cinematography, and especially Jin-Mo’s acting are a delight to behold. Oh yes, and there’s naked naughtiness.

If you fancy winning a copy of A Frozen Flower, leave a comment to this post and I’ll draw a name at random. Please note that the DVD is REGION 3 NTSC format and is in Korean with English subtitles!

17 Responses

  1. Okay. Go home and WRITE. Please.

  2. Thank you for this most interesting post. I’m taking a break from studying for my upcoming Eastern Religions exam, so your subject material was actually topical for me *grin*

  3. Great post. Love the illustration and the movie sounds incredible. Would it work for American dvd players?
    Fascinating glimpse into a history unknown to most of us.

    • Hi Jeanne,

      Region 1 is what US players work on but if you have a multi-region player (or a laptop that offers the same function) then it’ll work fine 🙂

  4. Fascinating post, thank you! I love information about ancient Japan.

  5. This was a lovely post. If it’s typical of your writing style, you have a fan. As a typical American who knows way too little of other cultures, I always enjoy posts like this, which give glimpses into a world and a time I didn’t even know existed. I especially loved the paragraph about the tolerance–imagine if such tolerance existed everywhere! — and the idea of the “morning after” letter.

    I found this very surprising: “In recent years, the Korean TV and film industry has produced a number of GLBT-themed works, many of them historical.” I’m assuming this is South Korea doing this, not North Korea.

    Re: the DVD. It sounds lovely, but I’m pretty sure only DVDs called Region 1 work in players in the US and Canada. I think a person can find out for sure on Amazon. It’s too much to hope there would be a Region 1-compatible version.

    • Sexuality in the Heian period is fascinating, Ruth. There’s a lot of transgender stories in the literature of the time as well as acceptance of homosexuality/bisexuality.

      LOL yes, it’s South Korea! *facepalm* should have been more specific about that *g*

      Many laptops/PCs offer the chance to switch region codes on DVDs, so it *should* be okay… plus if you search online for your DVD player, you can check if there’s a ‘cheat’ to enter that’ll temporarily switch the region 🙂

  6. You learn something new everyday. Thank you for a fascinating post! And thanks for the region warning! I have a region-free DVD player since I had to research films from all over the world for my last book, so I’m up for any format. 🙂

  7. I love glbt- themed historical movies. I’d like to have a chance to watch this one, the artistic part seems to be stunning to say the least. Nice review, thanks 🙂

  8. This calendar is proving very educational!


    • LOL Charlie, I wasn’t sure how to pitch it – so far the posts have been all so very different and fascinating! I’m enjoying tuning in each day *g*

  9. Sounds truly fascinating. I love the print. I have a wonderful book of Hokusai.

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