Thus, both myth and folklore may be seen as sources of long fiction in Japan. Later, in The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, which describes the career of Prince Genji and two generations of his progeny as well as the society in which they lived, examples abound. To mention only one example, in the last ten chapters of The Tale of Genji, water spirits derived from Japanese mythology appear to be personified as female characters. Indeed, this most widely admired part of the text acclaimed as the supreme masterpiece of Japanese literature may be read as an extended allegory of female water spirits who invite the love of human men and who pass away like water flowing swiftly in its course from mountain springs to the salty sea, leaving behind sad memories.
The lyric, or poetic, element in Japanese long fiction is exemplified by its function in The Tale of Genji. Distributed throughout the narrative are nearly eight hundred examples of thirty-one-syllable poems known as waka or tanka. Sometimes these poems furnish the germ for a situation or mood that is then developed in the text; at other times, a verse recapitulates emotions that a character experiences, summarizing a situation and serving as a distillation of human feeling. More of these short poems appear in The Tale of Genji than in the shortest of the imperial anthologies of such verses, which were compiled between the tenth and fifteenth centuries under court auspices.
It is no wonder, then, that by the twelfth century in Japan, poets and critics expressed great admiration for The Tale of Genji, not so much because of the story and plot as because of the role of the poetry in the tissue of the text. The poet and critic Fujiwara Shunzei (1114-1204), for example, taught that familiarity with the tale was essential to every poet’s education. To him, the individual episodes together with the verses with which they were integrated conveyed the essence of various aspects of love, of the human response to the beauty of nature, and of the poignancy of human situations such as suffering, old age, and death. All these features may be subsumed under the classical Japanese exclamatory word aware, which in a nominative sense became mono no aware, a term used in the vocabulary of criticism and aesthetics to suggest great sensitivity and a range of powerful human feeling, especially with regard to objects and “things.”
Besides its sensitivity, The Tale of Genji came to exemplify another classical Japanese aesthetic quality, miyabi (courtly elegance), which exerts a soothing and civilizing influence. In large measure because The Tale of Genji survived through centuries of social upheaval and civil war, literary and artistic culture became irrevocably embedded in the fabric of Japanese culture. To Shunzei and successive generations of critics, The Tale of Genji remained a handbook for poets.
In yet another way, The Tale of Genji manifests a characteristic of traditional Japanese long fiction. This relates to connections between what may be termed “icon” and “logos”—picture and word. Unlike in England, where as late as the eighteenth century there existed a great tradition of literature with virtually nothing “that could be called a native tradition of painting,” as Ronald Paulson observes in Book and Painting (1982), Japan, as The Tale of Genji reveals, saw word and picture develop hand in hand.
Within the text itself, word descriptions could be projected by means of visual terms: When a young boy, as if especially dressed for the occasion, walked out among flowers early on a misty summer day, his trousers wet with dew, and picked a morning glory, the narrative relates, “He made a picture that called out to be painted.” Already by the time The Tale of Genji was written, there existed a pictorial tradition that accompanied such fictional narratives. Chapter 17 of the tale, “A Picture Contest,” describes in fictional terms how word and picture were connected. In fact, The Tale of Genji may be seen as a confluence of literary and iconographic systems, in which iconocentric and logocentric aspects of the human imagination are combined and integrated in a fresh and appealing way. The tradition of combining picture and word continued virtually through modern times. Successive editions of The Tale of Genji are marvelously illustrated, and other novels and romances are similarly illuminated. Even now, in long fiction published serially in newspapers, illustrations retain a prominent place.
By way of contrast, early English novels had little connection with illustrations. As Paulson points out, in the European tradition, word came first and image followed, whereas in Japan, picture and story emerged together; icon might even take primacy over logos. In the twelfth century, an edition of The Tale of Genji already existed in the form of e-maki (illustrated scrolls) that combined literary text and painted scenes in a harmonious way. Later, a system of complex iconographic conventions developed, as Miyeko Murase describes in Iconography of “The Tale of Genji” (1983). The illustrator’s pictorial imagination was often regarded as deserving credit equal to that of the...