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Cross posted especially for [livejournal.com profile] danabren , regarding the thread on the Tousando on dressing in formal court dress.

Historical background summary for those not familiar with the period the following source comes from:
In 1185, Minamoto Yoritomo becomes shogun and forms a military government based on Kamakura. The Imperial court remains at Kyoto, with the Emperor's role becoming more focused on the religious and ceremonial. In practice, dating from the Heian period, many Emperors ascend as young children, retire in adulthood to take religious vows and in some cases then form a "cloister government" in which they continue to play an important political role. While the shogunate is the backbone of Japanese government during this period, retired emperors and members of the court continued to play a political role. That said, the lifestyle of the 13th century court tries to mirror the golden age of the Heian period in fashion and the arts.   

The following is an account of a fire in the Kan'in Palace, recounted in the 13th century diary of Ben No Naishi, one of the high ranking guardians of the Imperial regalia (Sacred Sword, Mirror and Jewels).

"Late at night on the first day of the second month [of 1249], Ben no Naishi went from the Table Room to fasten the cloth partition at the entrance to the Demon Room, but the lights looked dim and she sensed something unusual...." Ben no Naishi reports to the royal apartments and trades a poem with His Majesty, who was practicing his calligraphy at the time. "....middle captain Kintada came on duty looking very flustered. He said, "It's terrible. A fire has been reported in the Royal Dowager's Apartments." She [Ben no Naishi] was astounded, dumb struck. She could not believe it was happening. Removing the willow combination robes and a lined Chinese jacket [the term "karaginu" translates as Chinese jacket] of golden yellow she had been wearing, she went to her apartment wearing just her divided skirt and pounded on the door. Hurriedly she changed into the plum combination robes that had been hanging in her apartment and put on a Chinese jacket of a maroon-plum color. When she left her room, Lady Koto no Naishi was already in the Royal Bedchamber taking out the Sacred Sword. She went to the Aburanokoji Gate. Lady Nii cradled His Majesty in her arms and went out to the same gate with Lady Chunagon no Suke."

Ben no Naishi rouses her younger sister by pounding on her door, then returns to the Emperor's apartments to find them deserted and full of smoke. She runs into Lady Senji, also fully dressed in "a light Chinese jacket over triple layered robes." Senji has the Guardian Sword and asks Ben no Naishi to ask Lady Azechi no Sanmi where to take it. Ben no Naishi replies that she doesn't know what to do. She exits towards the street, tells someone that Lady Senji is still inside with the Emperor's personal Sword, then attends to getting the Emperor and other members of the royal family into palanquins, and protecting the royal regalia they have brought out of the palace.

From Section 81 of Sacred Rites In Moonlight: Ben no Naishi Nikki, translated by S. Yumiko Hulvey, Cornell University Press, 2005. ISBN 1-885445-22-9. (Pages 145-147).


While this behavior seems almost incomprehensible to a modern reader, Ben no Naishi stops in the middle of a fire to change into more formal clothing because she is a court official who will be seen in public as soon as she evacuates the palace with the regalia in her charge. Footnotes to the text identify the new outfit as suo naru umegasane no kinu, a set of robes with a blue-green hitoe (chemise-layer) innermost, with maroon and gradually lightening layers of pink over it, then a darker karaginu on top of it all. That's about 30 pounds of clothing (based on my karaginu mo, which has something like 70 yards of fabric off 44" inch wide bolts in it), most of it trailing on the ground - through a fire.

Why? 

Because she may be a junior naishi,* but safeguarding the sacred jewels is her job. No, more than a job, it's a sacred trust. Guarding the regalia is guarding the Empire itself.

Because her worldview is shaped by the fact that court women stay IN the palace. When they appear "publicly" that means they are dressed in their best and hiding their faces behind a fan - or sitting behind screens or blinds.

Because palace fires are part and parcel of life in the court: wooden buildings lit by oil lamps and heated by charcoal braziers. Even in the Heian period, the Emperor frequently had to shift to other residences around Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) because of fires. 

*Did the math: Ben no Naishi's birthdate is 1228 - she is first known to be at court and participating in poetry contests at the age of 15 (1243), and would've been about 20 or so at the time of the fire.


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