Appeal in Murasaki Shikibu's Thousand-Year-Old Novel

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Image a white-faced, black-toothed woman. Painted eyebrows crest either side of her forehead. Her hair falls down to the floor. She hides behind a screen, just the ornate sleeves of her robe in plain view. On the other side, a carefully-scented man. At home waits his wife, and his other wife, a couple of concubines, a pseudo-adopted daughter who someday will be his lover. But for now—as he sends off a love haiku via messenger—his passion swells for this woman whose koto he heard as he sat under the cherry blossoms.

Ever since the first installment of Arthur Waley's English translation appeared in 1925, critics of Mirasaki Shikibu's eleventh-century Japanese novel The Tale of Genji have remarked on its seeming modernity. Even today, readers find the novel far more accessible than other dated classics. White-faced women, modern? Polygamous men, modern? Haiku poetry? Kotos?

Nearly a thousand years and a continent separate the contemporary American reader from the Japanese society of Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji. Homer, Milton, Chaucer, through Shakespeare—the study of these great writers happens tentatively, and only with an arsenal of study guides. Genji, somehow, has a more timeless quality. Why?

Edward G. Seidensticker, in a 1993 introduction to a reissue of his own English translation, writes, "The Genji describes the highest levels of Heian society, so high that the governor who was god to the rustics out in the provinces could himself be treated like a rustic buffoon. Yet all the important characters fall within the ordinary range of human experience."

Content, in this case the focus on characters and their psychological and emotional experience, is the main ingredient in Murasaki Shikibu' s recipe for an ageless story. Craft, especially the author's decision to portray an entirely realistic world, makes the recipe come out right. The modern reader has a warehouse of emotional experience in which to relate to any story. In so many antiquated tales, though, the circumstances, the characters, and the setting seem so foreign as to be absurd. The footnote is the clumsy, cumbersome antidote to this problem.

Writers of long ago—due to standard literary conventions, social norms, political pressure, and other now largely-defunct expectations—seldom invented worlds that seemed true to their time even during their time. It could be that Murasaki Shikibu benefited from her rare circumstances: an intellectual and artistic woman working in a form dominated by women, living in a culture that regarded art above all else. She makes no apologies for her novel or the behavior of its characters. Murasaki Shikibu uses precise, detailed descriptions to make her Japanese aristocratic society come to life. The reader develops an immediate trust for the narrator, lets the narrator guide her through the book. The customs, manners, and style might seem odd to, say, an American teenager living in New York City. But they always make sense in context. Once the reader trusts the world, then she can also trust the emotions. The object that inspires the emotion—an old shoe, a kite, a white-faced woman—becomes, in a sense, arbitrary.

The title character Genji invites compassion. He is deemed, from his early childhood, a commoner, somebody who will be held down by his lack of birthright. He is a hero in the vein of all the mutt heroes to come. Yet, Genji defies the word common. His natural beauty combines with the other skills he cultivates in dance, song, poetry, music, painting. Nobody compares to his prowess in any of the arts, of which romance seems to be one. So Genji is at once a mutt and a thoroughbred, a character accepted...

(This entire section contains 2171 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

by almost everybody.

Perhaps Genji's great compassion comes from his disadvantaged birth. Throughout the novel, the hero repeatedly shows affection, even respect, for characters well below his station. When he stumbles across a down-on-her-luck Safflower Lady, Genji, by now the highest aristocrat, instinctively wants to help. He restores to order her disheveled mansion and brings the red-nosed woman to his own mansion.

One thousand A.D. or two thousand, it doesn't matter: decency, kindness, and especially humility hit home.

It starts with beauty. America's cultural obsession with beauty is well documented: pretty faces and perfect tans and washboard abs dot the advertising landscape. Billboards smile, and television ads blink, and web sites pop up: all the pitch men and starlets reek of beauty. Though the Heian era's definition of beauty differs from Y2K America's definition, the obsession remains the same.

"[Genji] was wearing several soft white singlets with an informal court robe thrown loosely over them. As he sat in the lamplight leaning against an armrest, his companions almost wished that he were a woman." One can almost imagine that very sentence, with an updated wardrobe, in the pages of a Hollywood gossip rag. As American fans marvel over the minutia of a star's life, so too does Murasaki Shikibu marvel over the minutia of her star's life. She mentions Genji's dazzling looks at every turn. "The chrysanthemums in Genji's cap, delicately touched by the frosts, gave new beauty to his form and his motions, no less remarkable today than on the day of rehearsal." "A slight flush from drink made Genji even handsomer than usual." "...the messenger was able to observe Genji at close range. He was moved to tears of admiration by what he saw." One almost couldn't cast Genji in a Hollywood production. Tom Cruise, too short. Mel Gibson, too macho. Jackie Chan, not enough charm. Genji's kind of beauty is rare indeed.

Genji obtains hero status much like so many American heroes gain pop culture stardom. Genji's reputation spreads far and wide. Murasaki Shikibu seems intent on exploring his inner workings. The modern American can easily understand Genji's accomplishments without understanding the finer points of the culture. The context is Genji's ranking: first, by far. One need not know what a koto is or what it sounds like to know that Genji's skill in using it is astonishing. One need not appreciate the Heian culture's sense of beauty to understand that Genji sends women into a swoon.

To describe Genji as merely a lover is to cheapen his overall effect. At his core, Genji, it is true, is a romantic. He lusts after countless women, no single one able to suppress his great sexual appetite. He goes to great lengths to conduct clandestine affairs: he travels far, he uses disguises, he employs messengers and enlists allies. Even when he suffers from malaria, Genji musters the strength to pursue the child Murasaki. During his exile he manages to find a new partner.

In the course of Genji's amorous adventures, he risks everything: his reputation and social standing, the continued happiness he has with his true love, standing with the Gods. He does not come through it unscathed. Genji's self-imposed exile, to cite the most dramatic instance, is the result of an unwise affair.

Genji's exhilaration, the recklessness of his infatuations, predates by hundreds of years Shakespeare's Romeo and Goethe's Faust. It predates Tristan. The modern era is filled with such stories of reckless, hopeless romance. Importantly, Genji is not a cad. Unlike Don Juan, his interest is never in the conquest. Unlike Don Giovanni, who humiliates Donna Elvira for belaboring their affair, Genji never forgets any woman he has loved. He sees to the needs of the Safflower Lady with her big red nose, and pretends to maintain an interest in her. He educates rather than chastises Omi for her crassness. Though Genji hoists himself on his share of women, such as the frightened Yugao, he redeems himself through a genuine interest in their lives.

Genji's narrator relates, "There were no ordinary, common women among those with whom he had had even fleeting affairs, nor were there any among them in whom he could find no merit; and so it was, perhaps, that an easy, casual relationship proved durable. There were some who changed their minds and went on to other things, but he saw no point in lamenting what was after all the way of the world."

The famous rainy night conversation, in which Genji and To no Chujo debate the characteristics of the ideal woman, is noteworthy. To a modern reader, the discussion presents an array of chauvinistic viewpoints. Again, though, Genji's magnetic personality helps bridge this cultural gap. According to William J. Puett, in Guide to the Tale of Genji, "... each character in the discussion does emerge as a distinct personality and, most of all, Genji's sensitivity and open-mindedness are seen by comparison."

The sexual politics of the novel might present the greatest difficulty for a contemporary American reader. For somebody whose legal and moral system deems it inappropriate for a boss to ask an underling on a date, it must seem wrong indeed for a man to scoop up a woman in a moment of lust and literally carry her off to his home. Male dominance might have been a fact of life in Heian society, but that doesn't mean the modern reader will want to tolerate it. Why do they, then?

Before long, Genji has a complex for his women so enormous as to anticipate suburban sprawl. Construction crews seem constantly at work making new living quarters for the latest concubine, wife, or casual conquest. Always, the reader senses that Genji does not abide by the usual rules of male chauvinism. He cares.

Donald Keene, in Seeds in the Hearts, writes, "Genji responds perfectly to each woman. He is a genius at lovemaking, and if he had lived in a society where monogamy was strictly enforced or if, deciding that Murasaki was an ideal wife, he had never looked at another woman, the world would have been the poorer. Unlike Don Giovanni, he not only woos and wins each lady but he makes each feel sure of his love, and each is content with her small part of his life."

Genji's sensitivity, his sympathy, his loyalty continue, today, to be respected qualities. These characteristics are easily seen against any backdrop, even Heian-era Japan. Genji's flaws, his mistakes, seem to accentuate these qualities. For every mistake, he seems all that much more in touch with the complicated fabric of his life as it collides with other lives.

Genji's underlying humanistic tendencies give him a more rounded and identifiable profile than the archetypal hero. He betrays family and friends. He regrets poor decisions. Even in his betrayals, maybe because of them, he appreciates his impact on the world around him. He is able to laugh at himself.

When Genji and To no Chujo meet in the elderly Lady Naishi's bedchamber, it is a most embarrassing moment for The Shining One. "Still ignorant of the latter's identity, Genji thought of headlong flight; but then he thought of his own retreating figure, robes in disorder, caps all askew." As the scene progresses, and the two rivals engage in mock battle, Genji swallows his pride. "Somewhat rumpled, they went off together, the best of friends." It's not the only time Genji gets caught with his pants (or robe, as the case may be) down. The Minister of the Right catches Genji and Oboro-zukiyo in the act. A derobed Genji can be read figuratively as a character exposed to the world. A hero with insides.

Genji, as the embodiment of mono no aware [a sensitivity to things], is acutely aware of the fleeting quality of life. Though Genji has a tremendous lust for life, he understands his time as a flicker in space. "But he was also obsessed with evanescence....He wanted to withdraw quietly and make preparations for the next life, and so add to his years in this one." This mindset derives from Buddhist philosophy. But the origins, again, are irrelevant. People through the ages, in whatever capacity or form suits them best, have had to deal with the reality of death. Genji's great sadness over the loss of Fujitsubo, Aoi, and especially Murasaki seems extremely modern. He mourns what was, even as he anticipates what will be.

"There seemed to be nothing in the least false about Genji's own tears, which gave an added elegance and fineness of feature."

The fact that Genji has invaded the pop culture, especially in Japan, but also here in America, suggests that the modern reader can easily cast Genji as a modern hero. There is a popular Genji comic book. An animated film. A Murasaki Shikibu stamp. A Genji museum in Kyoto. A sandalwood and musk-scented Genji shower gel. Many, many web sites.

Those readers who especially admire Murasaki Shikibu's great achievement, who appreciate The Tale of Genji as great literature, might take offense at such treatment. After all, to lump the refined and incomparable Genji in with Pokemon and Brittany Spears seems like a grand insult. But in modern American society, such recognition constitutes flattery. It means that The Tale of Genji, far removed in time and place from its birth, has not lost its appeal.

Source: Donald Evans, for Epics for Students, Gale, 2001.

The Tale of Murasaki Shikibu

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1001-19

The modern novel was born at the imperial court of Japan.

Almost exactly 1,000 years ago, a young woman in a small town in Japan began to write the story of an imagined prince who had just about everything—brains, looks, charm, artistic talent and the love of well-born ladies. He was Genji, "the shining one", so dear to his father, the emperor, that the latter reduced his rank to that of a commoner, to spare him the malice at court.

Born in the first chapter of The Tale of Genji, the prince reinvents himself as the most powerful commoner in the kingdom. When last seen, by now aged 52, he is planning to seclude himself in a mountain temple. Further chapters concern his supposed son Kaoru, troubled to find out that his adored father is not his natural father at all.

Today, The Tale of Genji is acknowledged as the world's first modern novel, and its writer, Murasaki Shikibu, not just as a pioneer but as one of enormous talent, not least in her use of irony. This long book is peopled by dozens of well-wrought characters, sophisticated figures in an aristocratic society that values celebrity and ambition. It has often been compared to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Both works "explore memory and passing time. The psychology of the characters is complex; the central drama is their internal conflict," says Haruo Shirane, professor of Japanese literature at Columbia University, in New York.

Murasaki's characters and their setting reflect the reality around her. Genji's seduction of court women is also political opportunism. He fathers at least one emperor and an empress. In the late Heian era (893-1185), when the book is set, the ruling Fujiwara clan of upper-class commoners (to which Murasaki belonged) would send their daughters to court at Kyoto, hoping that one would give birth to a crown prince and ensure their control of the imperial power.

Little is certain about Murasaki Shikibu. The name itself is a pen-name. She may have lived from around 975 to 1025. Until her marriage she perhaps lived in the province on the Japan Sea where her bureaucrat father had been appointed governor. She married probably in 998; had a daughter; was widowed in about 1001; and probably then began Genji. She kept a diary, which reports her arrival at court—thanks to both her connections and her talent—in 1005 or 1006.

There, in Kyoto, an attendant to Empress Akiko, she was Lady Murasaki, "pretty yet shy, unsociable, fond of old tales," as her diary puts it. Everyone wanted to read the story of Genji. The young empress was the first to see the work-in-progress, which Murasaki did not complete until about 1019.

She wrote the novel in her own hand; court amanuenses copied it as she went along. Ladies-in-waiting and courtiers sought it out, even stealing unrevised pages from her room. Although Murasaki read Chinese, and indeed instructed Akiko in its ideograms, she wrote her book in the Japanese phonetic kana syllabary. That was one reason for its appeal. Educated men studied Chinese; few women did.

The Tale of Genji soon became essential reading for the upper class. In the late 12th century, digests of it were required reading for poets. At last, in the 17th century, when the printing press came to Japan, the book was available to the masses. Murasaki's style became the Japanese model for writing, if not for morality: her hero's active sex life, and the luxury of the ancient court, as she represents it, were deplored as decadent by Japanese purists into the 20th century.

In Japan today, The Tale of Genji is as natural to the culture as Mount Fuji and the cherry-blossom season. High schools teach sections of the ancient text, in its classical Japanese, to prepare pupils for university entrance. Novelists challenge themselves by writing modern translations. The most recent, by a Buddhist nun, 76-year-old Jakucho Setouchi, came out in ten volumes, the final one in 1998. Between them, they have sold over 2m copies. Other well-read modern versions by Akiko Yosano, a poet, and by two novelists, Junichiro Tanizaki and Fumiko Enchi (who supposedly lost her eyesight working on Genji), also are in print.

Spin-offs from the book, serious and less so, are legion. A CD-ROM about it has sold 15,000 copies. Internet websites abound, most created by academics. Several films have been drawn from it. The late 1980s brought a successful pop group calling themselves Hikaru Genji—Shining Genji. An animated Genji film came out in 1987, following a television series. A Tale of Genji museum opened in Uji, near Kyoto, in 1998. In its first eight months it had 120,000 visitors, mostly middle-aged or elderly women. This year, the last part of Saeko Ichinohe's three-part dance The Tale of Genji was premiered at New York's Lincoln Center.

Modern translations of the novel have been published in Chinese, German, French, Italian and English. Arthur Waley, a British scholar also known for his translations of Chinese literature, published his version from 1925 to 1933. It was his limpid prose that brought Genji to western readers, as they re-examined Japanese culture after the second world war. An American author-translator, Edward Seidensticker, produced a fuller translation in 1976, using a matter-of-fact voice akin to Murasaki's own. His is the preferred version in the United States today.

Source: “The Tale of Murasaki Shikibu," in The Economist, Vol. 353, Issue 8151, December 25, 1999, p. 106.

Yugao: A Case of Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Japanese national classic, Murasaki Shikibu's Genji monogatari, is chiefly valued for its exquisitely drawn psychological character portrayals and detailed realistic descriptions of tenth-century Heian court life. Yet the work also contains highly dramatic episodes and animated scenes of spirit possession. One of the most memorable scenes occurs in a minor episode in which Higekuro's wife dumps ashes on her husband's head. She is violently enraged by the prospect of being ousted from her position as principal wife by a new mistress, and she is possessed. According to the Heian practice of polygymy, she was expected to tolerate another woman joining the household, and therefore her indignant and undignified behavior is perceived as that of a madwoman:

Suddenly she stood up, swept the cover from a large censer, stepped behind her husband, and poured the contents over his head. There had been no time to restrain her. The women [in attendance] were stunned.

The powdery ashes bit into his eyes and nostrils. Blinded, he tried to brush them away, but found them so clinging and stubborn that he had to throw off even his under robes. If she had not had the excuse of her derangement he would have marched from her presence and vowed never to return. It was a very perverse sort of spirit that possessed her.

Higekuro's wife's case is the exception to the rule which takes spirit possession seriously and requires that it be treated with respect. Inasmuch as spirit possession "permits the expression of things that cannot be said ordinarily or directly," it is, as a technique of communication, eminently suited to the general cultural preference for elegant indirections and subtleties in Heian Japan (A.D. 794-1185). Thus it is the very directness of the distraught woman's physical attack on Higekuro that renders her blunt action comic. Precisely because her behavior is undisguised and straightforward, and thereby unconventional, it paradoxically appears as an instance of the infuriated lady's "derangement." This particular madcap version of possession is counterproductive; direct action defeats its own purpose.

The relative simplicity of this comic possession contrasts with the extraordinary complexity of a series of possessions which involve the eponymous hero of The Tale of Genji. In the first of them, Genji's affair with Yugao is suddenly terminated when Yugao is possessed. Her death puzzles Genji and his puzzlement leads us to speculate about the phenomenon of spirit possession and its relation to gender and courtship conventions at the peak of the Heian period (c. 950-1050). These speculations enable us to understand spirit possession as a female protest against the polygymy of Heian Society.

A few readers have begun to speculate about The Tale of Genji's four major possession cases. William H. McCullough has pointed to "the havoc wreaked upon Genji's lovers and wives by the possessing spirit of the very possessive Lady Rokujo," whose spirit he sees as "one of the principal unifying elements" in the Genji. McCullough draws several useful conclusions. First, the victims of spirit possession in Heian times—indeed in most cultures, and especially in polygymous societies—are women. Second, the spirit who attacks is most typically that of a dead person, and third, the spirit's motive is jealousy. These insights are valuable, but, in light of the questions raised by anthropologists, they merely lay the foundation for an investigation into the very complex interaction between the possessed, the possessor and society.

The phenomenon of spirit possession is an old and universal one, but anthropological research into the subject is relatively new. The opinion that spirit possession is not simply a primitive, pathological practice of superstitious peoples is even more recent. Since the pioneering work of Oesterreich (1921), the many varieties of spirit possession have been divided into two basic categories: voluntary (self-induced) and involuntary (spontaneous). Similarly, the response has been twofold: spirit possession is either thought to be desirable or undesirable. In the latter case, exorcism is deemed necessary. In the most problematic case, then, someone involuntarily enters an "altered state of consciousness" that is considered undesirable or is feared by society at large. It is important to note that spirit possession is not merely a conflict between the possessed and the possessor; it is also a test of the values of the whole society. These values are usually, but not always, represented by exorcists who employ a medium to approach the possessed and drive out and identify the spirit. With identification of the spirit and the promise to meet its wishes, the spell is broken, the victim and the spectators are relieved and, curiously, life goes on much as it had, until the next seizure occurs. Unlike witches, the possessed are not persecuted or punished.

When such dramatic occurrences are placed in the realm of fiction, they must be understood within their literary context. While in reality altered states of consciousness can have purely physical causes, as, for example, the hardships of pregnancy, nutritional deficiencies or the use of drugs, the literary manifestations of possession can usually be traced to grave psychological disturbances or conflicts.

Certain peculiarities about the phenomenon of spirit possession—such as the elements of ecstasy and self-enhancement in the state of dissociation or speaking in different voices—have raised important questions about the meaning of spirit possession. Who are the possessed in relation to the possessor and the witnesses? What public statement does the intensely private and esoteric experience of spirit possession make about the society in which it occurs? In other words, what do the spirits' complaints and wishes, voiced either directly through the possessed, or indirectly through a medium, say about the values of the society? How successful is possession as a psychological strategy?

It is mainly women who are possessed because they and other peripheral groups oppressed by the dominant group release their tensions and frustrations in this way. Their protest, however, is not directed straightforwardly at the dominant group, but indirectly, through the mysterious esoteric language of spirit possession. Joan M. Lewis has aptly described the nature of this protest as "oblique aggressive strategy."

Jealousy is traditionally regarded as the major force behind spirit possession in the Genji because female grievances are revealed to be rooted in the polygymous system which constantly threatens women's status and lowers their self-esteem in the very sensitive matter of sexual relations. Thus it is a conspicuous fact that the mainly female authors of Heian tales and diaries voice complaints that are universal to polygynous societies, namely, that competing wives, concubines and mistresses become the agents or victims of jealousy. And to the extent that Heian aristocratic women enjoyed exceptional freedom and economic independence, they made bold to express psychological conflicts in a variety of ways. However, from a pool of diverse grievances, scholars have singled out jealousy as the symbol—or source—of women's rebellious rejection of their assigned role in society.

As the case of Higekuro's wife demonstrates, openly violent, aggressive behavior was viewed with contempt in an elitist society that prided itself on its refined esthetics and an exquisite code of manners in harmony with the society's hierarchical structure. Therefore hostile and aggressive feelings could not easily find expression. They must be repressed or find their own culturally accepted idiom. Higekuro's wife's behavior was not respectable because of the violation of options available to women under intense psychological pressures. These options encompassed a wide range of activities, such as religious austerities or devotion to the arts. Spirit possession was a woman's most dramatic strategy.

Yugao's possession is the first of the major possession cases. It is prototypical and symptomatic of the cause and purpose of possession, even though its technical apparatus is minimal: there are no exorcists, no mediums and consequently no public ritual. The only spectator, aside from a lady-in-waiting who merely confirms but does not perceive the possessing spirit, is Genji, the woman's lover. Although spirit possession constitutes the climax of an intensely private love affair, its larger social implications cannot be ignored. What especially distinguishes this possession from the others is its direct termination in death.

For many critics of the Genji, spirit possession is virtually synonymous with death. Yet between the first and the last case a remarkable progression takes place. While possession and death are practically synchronic events in the first case, in the next three cases the fatal consequences of spirit possession are postponed or avoided completely. Consequently, a note of hope is sounded in the last case: a suicide attempt is converted into spirit possession, which is transformed in turn into an act of artistic affirmation. Ukifune, the last of the heroines in the Genji, sublimates her self-destructive desires into spirit possession and then resolves her psychological crisis through the therapeutic composition of poetic memoirs.

Yugao, however, is seized by a spirit, and dies. The mystery of the sudden possession and its tragic end challenges the witness's analytic powers. The events before and after the climax of the affair—the possession—are viewed mainly from Genji's male perspective. His biased interpretation complicates and psychologically charges this famous episode.

Crucial to an understanding of the affair between the son of an emperor and an aristocratic lady of relatively low rank are the lovers' secretive motivations that lead to the mysterious, supernatural event of spirit possession. The mystery of this affair is largely due to the lovers' sustained incognito. One singular aspect of Heian courtship ritual was that the lover frequently had no inkling of his or her sexual partner's physical appearance and identity before the consummation of the affair. Esthetic responsiveness was all that mattered and furtive glimpses of the prospective lover were ever so much more enticing than full visibility. In the case of Genji and Yugao, however, the couple's tantalizing secretiveness continues beyond their initial encounters and into the phase of intimacy. Why? The lovers' previous adventures determine their response to each other, and provide a clue to the tragedy that results from their departure from courtship routines.

Yugao's unhappy love affair with Genji's best friend To no Chujo bears directly on her subsequent relations with Genji.

An orphan without the parental backing necessary for marriage, Yugao was at the mercy of her former lover and had no choice but to forgive him for his frequent neglect. However, after three years of mistreatment, her patience was exhausted. When To no Chujo's wife dealt the last blow by humiliating her, Yugao resolved to disappear, to live without her lover's support, and to take with her the daughter she had borne him—a strategy that contained elements of self-assertion, protest and self-sacrifice. Her inaccessibility revives To no Chujo's interest. In the famous "Rainy-Night Discussion," he confides to Genji the story of his lost love. Genji is intrigued and, through a fortuitous turn of events, begins to court Yugao, whom he does not initially recognize as the lost lady described by his friend. She is caught in a psychological conflict between lovers which provokes her to terminate the new relationship with a strategy that is the logical, forceful extension of the first: spirit possession and death.

Genji's discovery of Yugao is serendipitous. He is attracted by a humble flower whose name is the sobriquet of the woman of lower rank with whom it is symbolically associated: Yugao. When Genji comes upon the woman, he is captivated by the Yugao flower, its mystery deepened by the poem penned on the fan that accompanies it. Genji pursues this enticing flower-woman despite the fact that he is married to Aoi (To no Chujo's sister) and is still interested in his first passion (Lady Rokujo) and in other ladies of high rank. Much later when Genji has taken not only the flower but also the woman, he fully realizes what he had merely suspected: he has coveted his best friend's love.

While Yugao sees herself in two triangular situations—as a rival of To no Chujo's wife for his love and as the object of an implicit rivalry between Genji and To no Chujo—Genji perceives quite a different triangle. Aware of his own promiscuity, he imagines his neglected ladies consumed by jealousy over the new mistress. From his perspective, the figural constellation seems initially to involve several females and one male. Genji's subsequent awareness of Yugao's identity complicates matters considerably. The ominous thought crosses Genji's mind: "Might she be the lady of whom TŌ no ChujŌ had spoken that rainy night?" The possibility of identifying Yugao with To no Chujo's unassertive lady is so disturbing that it is, at first, entirely repressed: "Genji did not know who the lady was and he did not want her to know who he was."

As his love becomes like "madness," Genji grows increasingly reflective about his fascination with Yugao: "What was there about her, he asked himself over and over again, that drew him to her?" The lady, in addition to her profound excitement, is unduly worried and through her anxiety betrays the fact that she is experiencing this affair in the traumatic context of the previous one: "She was frightened as if he were an apparition from an old story." While the bittersweet memory of the "old story" with To no Chujo causes her to repress the source of her pain, the mystery of her new incognito lover evokes once more the half-forgotten past which casts its ominous shadow on the present and well into her daughter's future. It is unacknowledged triangular complications of this kind that trigger spirit possession.

Genji alludes lightheartedly to the uncanny mystery of their bond. The metaphor used for their reciprocal seductiveness is the fox: "Which of us is the mischievous fox spirit?" As the fox in Japanese folklore induces sexual passion by taking either male or female shape, the image is appropriate and occurs in other possession scenes. Approaching the height of his passion, Genji is again reminded of To no Chujo's unassertive lady. Although he intuitively recognizes a strong resemblance between his friend's lost love and Yugao, his behavior indicates that he still resists identifying the two.

It is at this point that the first crisis in their love affair occurs. During their harvest-moon love-making at Yugao's residence, Genji fascinated at first, but soon exasperated, by the epitome of lower-class life, the "plebeian voices in the shabby houses down the street," which he finds "genuinely earsplitting." Such a difference in the lovers' sensibilities would ordinarily have been unthinkable in Heian court life, but here dark romantic passion overpowers conventional etiquette. Genji manages to resolve the crisis. Inspired by a pious old man, he makes a modest vow to Yugao and takes her, against her wishes, to a desolate, isolated villa. This forced move triggers their second crisis, and it is lethal for her.

Yugao may seem unreasonably "frightened, and bewildered," but the fears that she experiences as she approaches the climax of the relationship concern a power no less than nemesis. Of lower rank than her former and her present lovers, she must consider herself fortunate to be favored by such high-ranking courtiers. At the same time, she has learned to be distrustful of uneven matches. Yugao, whose self-confidence the earlier affair has already impaired, suffers from anxiety about a similarly abrupt end to passionate love.

The move to Genji's desolate villa is an ambiguous statement that both threatens and elates Yugao. On the one hand, Genji's earlier plan to establish her at Nijo, his main residence, was rather quickly abandoned in order to avoid all risk of public scandal. In this sense, Yugao interprets the isolation of their affair as her lover's refusal to acknowledge her and as an omen of inevitable rejection. On the other hand, "Memories of past wrongs quite left her" when she considers how much she must mean to a disguised lover willing to risk his own peace of mind at a neglected residence where "devils" might come forth. The lovers oscillate between psychological stress and the joys of passion, but the trauma of her first love intensifies Yugao's conflicts to a degree not experienced by Genji.

At the deserted villa, in the dead of night, Yugao becomes possessed. It is important to note that the phenomenon is described from Genji's perspective. Because of his successful repression of all thoughts concerning Yugao's affair with To no Chujo, he interprets the possession as an expression of his imagined triangular conflict, i.e., simply as the result of female jealousy. However, for Genji's other women to have been jealous of the new mistress required their knowledge of her existence. Since the affair had been kept a secret, none of them knew of the new affair and each of them had reason to attribute Genji's neglect to attentions paid to one of the others rather than to the unknown Yugao. Yet critics have unanimously adopted Genji's preliminary interpretation of jealousy. In fact, in their exclusive focus on Lady Rokujo, they have been more definite than he. And they have ignored the function of the possession and its meaning for the afflicted female protagonist.

Time and setting help induce Yugao's extreme mental and physical agitation: "The girl was trembling violently. She was bathed in sweat and as if in a trance, quite bereft of her senses." Genji too is entering an altered state of consciousness—albeit on a quotidian scale—that of sleep. While sleeping, he has a nightmare of "an exceedingly beautiful woman" who berates him for neglecting her in favor of Yugao. Genji awakens just as this specter of one of his neglected ladies is turning to snatch his beloved away from his bedside. He has been jolted from sleep by Yugao's violently restless possession trance. His first thought is for himself: he does not at once conclude that Yugao is possessed: "He awoke, feeling as if he were in the power of some malign being." This moment has gone virtually unnoticed by scholars because Genji reaches for his sword, symbolic of male power, and quickly dispells his fears for himself. Nonetheless it is important to see that the drama of Yugao's possession is so powerful that Genji feels compelled to share her altered state and continues to do so, in a form of "possession once removed," even after she has died.

While Genji's waking, dozing and sleeping during that fateful night are minutely described in reference to Yugao's crisis, the heroine's perspective is dramatized in far less detail. It is through Genji's feverishly involved perspective, at crucial times bordering on the hallucinatory, that Yugao's rapid psychological and physical decline are first assessed. Genji's frame of mind is, therefore, at least as pertinent to our understanding of Yugao's tragedy as her own history of anxieties. In fact, the violent dénouement of the love affair forces the hero into the role of interpreter. Due to the suddenness of Yugao's death and the absence of an exorcist who might have lent the seal of authenticity to the mysterious, Genji must psychologically master his lover's possession and death without the aid of esoteric magic rituals.

It is only when Genji's "rationalizations" include his role in the drama of spirit possession that he gradually learns to come to terms with Yugao's death. With a certain amount of self-pity, Genji acknowledges his share of guilt: "He was being punished for a guilty love, his fault and no one else's ... he would gain immortality as the model of the complete fool." Torn between the conflicting emotions of grief for the lost lover and a terror akin to that of a murderer who must dispose of a dead body, Genji's breakdown seems inevitable. His suffering does not end when his confidant Koremitsu takes care of practical matters. Indeed, he further implicates himself by lying to the suspicious To no Chujo about the cause of his absence from court and his present inaccessibility. Not surprisingly, emotional distress is accompanied by psychosomatic symptoms, such as headaches, lack of appetite and fever. Again, only his confidant can help him by suggesting practical ways of doing penance, instead of passively "torturing" himself.

Although Genji risks discovery of his involvement in Yugao's fate, he feels compelled to pay his last respects to his departed lady. At a mountain temple he overcomes some of his own grief by commiserating with her lady-in-waiting. Yet, exhausted from guilt and shame, and perhaps from a momentary sense of relief at having completed this tragic affair, he falls from his horse, like a fool. It is as if this accident were the worst fate liable to afflict a courtier who has been romantically involved with a woman of lower rank.

Back at Nijo he must endure the after-effects of stress in a twenty-day crisis. His readjustment is slow and painful: "For a time he felt out of things, as if he had come back to a strange new world.… He spent a great deal of time gazing into space, and sometimes he would weep aloud." Since "gazing into space" was a common expression of Heian women's "immobile existence," Genji's form of suffering gives him the appearance of a woman possessed. In short, Genji now reenacts a milder version of Yugao's trauma which the court, despite their ignorance of Yugao's tragedy, diagnose as akin to possession: "He must be in the clutches of some malign spirit, thought the women."

From Genji's standpoint, Yugao's tragedy can be traced back to his offenses against several women, thus evoking the possessing spirit of jealousy, the stock explanation for female hysteria. That this spirit might attack him as well as any preferred lover is vaguely sensed by the female public's assessment of Genji's psychological state. Yet males in Heian culture generally fancied themselves not only aloof from but even immune from the untidy, specifically female emotion of jealousy. Hence Genji remains fixed on the "exceedingly beautiful woman" of his nightmare as the victimizer of Yugao.

Although the possessing spirit is never named, a significant detail (foot) noted by one reader, most critics have identified the "exceedingly beautiful woman" as Rokujo. But the image of the beauty is a collective image, an allegory of Genji's betrayed ladies. To single out Rokujo "whose sense of rivalry" becomes a serious threat only in the second possession case, or to speculate about others such as Aoi, is equally beside the point.

The emphasis of the author is not on solving the riddle of the spirit's identity but on analyzing the male response to the complex phenomena. The critics have neglected the role which To no Chujo plays in Yugao's possession and in Genji's guilty reaction to it. While the affair with Rokujo is over as far as Genji's is concerned, Yugao's affair with To no Chujo lies in the immediate past and is, moreover, the very affair confided to Genji in the "Rainy-Night Discussion." As accomplices in love, Genji and Yugao have both, each in his or her own way, betrayed To no Chujo. It can plausibly be argued that this betrayal contributed to Yugao's possession and death and to Genji's profound misery. The wrong done to To no Chujo is, after Yugao's death, followed by Genji's continuing offenses. Not only does the hero dishonestly cover up the affair, but he also blocks To no Chujo's paternal rights until Chujo's daughter by Yugao is nearly grown. Genji is, in fact, claiming to be doing penance by caring for Yugao's child, but his charitable intentions appear rather selfish in the light of his friend's frustrated natural privileges. No wonder, then, that Genji develops a painful conscience. After the 49th-day services for Yugao, Genji is in a bad way: "His heart raced each time he saw To no Chujo." He concludes that the secret affair with Yugao was actually an "unfortunate contest of wills." Once again, Genji is haunted by the nightmarish dream "of the woman who had appeared that fatal night." This dream had originally functioned to repress Genji's guilt toward To no Chujo, and it continues to do so.

The problem, however, is that Genji's initial interpretation of the nightmare and the possession, and his subsequent guilt about his betrayal of To no Chujo, ignore the one person who suffers first-hand from the casual behavior of both men: Yugao. Genji's other women and his best friend are all quite unaware of Yugao's affair with Genji. In short, only Yugao, the most vulnerable of all the people involved, had been in a position to know all the relevant facts. If anyone had a motive for the oblique aggressive strategy of spirit possession, it was she, the otherwise helpless woman who had been victimized once and was fearful of a second victimization by a second lover. Unfortunately for Yugao, her feverish attempt at spirit possession fails because Genji is simply unable to realize that she, a woman made vulnerable by her lower rank, is the person most likely to use the only psychological weapon available to her in her unequal position visà-vis Genji, To no Chujo, and their high ranking aristocratic wives and concubines. Ironically, then, after a moment of fear that he himself might be possessed, he interprets her possession and death neither as an obliquely hostile act nor as an appeal for sympathy and reassurance; he can do no better than to assume egoistically that Yugao's trauma is the result of female rivalry over him. His halting efforts to fathom To no Chujo's and his own complicity in Yugao's fate cease. His perceptions are too gender-bound to see that the complex relations between men and women in polygymous Heian society are reflected in the superimposed triangular constellations of his affair with Yugao. Consequently, his guilt remains diffuse. In later years, it intensifies. When his wife Aoi and his favorite concubine Murasaki become possessed, Genji's sympathy for his women grows, but his intellectual response remains clouded by the mores of the times. Finally, spirit possession cannot change the social structure, and male-female relations remain as they were.

Yugao, the female heroine, is doomed to lose in her non-verbal oblique aggressive strategy; in her case, spirit possession is a self-destructive protest. Yet at the end of the Yugao chapter, the author of the Genji, herself a lady at the Heian court, verbalizes the heroine's grievance against the hero by making a direct appeal to the reader. Monogatari conventions, which required the hero of a romance to be an idealized prince, are flouted. In short, Murasaki Shikibu refuses to make concessions to public taste: "I had hoped, out of deference to him [Genji], to conceal these difficult matters; but I have been accused of romancing, of pretending that because he was the son of an emperor he had no faults. Now, perhaps, I shall be accused of having revealed too much." Yugao's case of spirit possession is an oblique criticism of male behavior toward women in polygymous society. Unlike subsequent possessed heroines, who are more eloquent, this unassertive lady has, quite literally, no voice to express her fears. Her spirit possession neither castigates the men who toyed with her, nor does it calm her agitated mind. She may nonetheless have scored a victory. The shock of her spirit possession left Genji vaguely, uncomprehendingly, uneasy. In the attempt to penetrate the mystery of his dream and her possession, he is compelled to rehearse—again and yet again—the drama of her death.

Source: Doris G. Bargen, "Yugao: A Case of Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji," in Mosaic, Vol. XIX, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 15-24.

Religious Threads and Themes in The Tale of Genji

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In the lengthy and complex Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji, Buddhist priests attend court ceremonies, women disappointed in love become nuns, jealous spirits possess the bodies of Genji's wives and mistresses, and folk superstitions work their way into the most dramatic of adventures. These varied and apparently conflicting religious elements pose some questions about the dominant religious attitudes in the story. Are the various practices exclusive, and are they ever at odds with each other? How do knowledge of religious rites and understanding of the associated beliefs illuminate both the plots in the novel and the themes that dominate it?

Rather than maintaining distinct identities, these religious beliefs and their related customs tend to come together in Japan.

In order to approach these questions, one may look at religious practices in Japan to illustrate the eclectic nature of the general attitudes toward Buddhist, Shinto, folk, and even Christian beliefs. A historical context shows them most clearly. The folk religions, indigenous to Japan, came first, before history. The mythological beginnings of Japan, imbedded in folk tales, were transmitted, preserved, and undoubtedly transmuted by storytellers until they were permanently committed to writing in the Kojiki and Nihongi in the eighth century as the official history of Japan. Shinto priests kept the manuscripts for many centuries more, and the myths solidified into part of the Shinto orthodoxy. Folk legends outside these documents still hover around shrines and landmarks, especially in rural areas, and recently anthologists have compiled amazing numbers of such stories and variations of them. Shinto became the national religion and remains in its "pure" form at the state shrines at Ise and elsewhere. After 1945, however, the government declared state and religion separate. It denied the belief in the emperor as divine in heritage and act, though many adults today still consider Hirohito to be ordained by the gods. The role of religion nationally remains controversial.

Buddhism arrived in Japan in the eighth or ninth century through China and Korea. At first a threat, it merged into the established religion by a creed known as Ryobu, or two-way Shinto. The practices mingled, and Buddhism became increasingly Japanese as new sects such as Zen groups and followers of Nichiren emerged. Christianity first came via Portugese Jesuits in the fifteenth century. Toccata Hidetada declared it illegal in the seventeenth, and his son, Tokugawa Iemitsu, who also closed Japan to outsiders, had Christians pursued and persecuted. They went underground, and preserved their icons in disguise; artifacts purportedly Buddhist but containing secret Christian symbols appear from time to time. Missionaries arrived again in the nineteenth century when Japan reopened itself to foreigners.

Rather than maintaining distinct identities, these religious beliefs and their related customs tend to come together in Japan. Of course, they exist officially in relatively pure forms, but many supposedly Shinto Shrines bear decorations in Buddhist style. A wedding may have both Christian and Buddhist ceremonies, and when a baby is born, his parents might take him to a Shinto shrine for a ritual visit. Legally, funerals must proceed according to Buddhist conventions. Even young Japanese consciously or unconsciously maintain respect for their ancestors as well as for family honor. Most homes keep small altars which display pictures of deceased parents, often with incense burners beside the portraits. A missionary at a theological seminary told me about a Christian student who, after his ordination, went directly to a cemetery to "tell" his ancestors.

In the eleventh century, when Murasaki Shikibu was writing The Tale of Genji, Christianity had not yet reached Japan, but Ryobu Shinto had already assimilated much of what was Buddhist in ritual and architecture as well as belief, and folk superstitions were only more present than they are today in the intensity of their reality to the Japanese. Therefore, when one examines religion in the novel, he must consider its eclectic nature. In the novel, most of the religious ceremonies at the court appear to be Buddhist. The installations, coming of age rites, purifications, and prayers for success or prevention of trouble seem to follow these conventions. Exorcisms, though Shinto in origin, are performed by Buddhist priests. On the other hand, a religious conflict occurs when Lady Rokujo's daughter becomes Vestal Virgin at Ise. Rokujo accompanies her to that royal Shinto shrine. When she returns, however, Rokujo feels a definite struggle, even a sense of guilt at having violated the Buddhist faith by observing the Shinto rites, and decides to become a Buddhist nun.

Lady Rokujo is also a primary figure in one of the most complicated tangles of religion and superstition and the occult that occur in the story. With her, Genji has his first adult affair of consequence. As the liaison progresses, she becomes irritable, demanding, and jealous, the last with some reason. While Genji is trying to disentangle himself from this "older" woman (she is in her middle twenties, he in his teens), he meets a mysterious girl. She is called Yugao, after a flower translated as "evening face," because of her lovely, fragile appearance, their nocturnal meetings, her shadowy background, and the terrifying nighttime circumstances which bring about her death. As this affair proceeds in great secrecy, neither party revealing name or history, a spirit suddenly possesses Yugao and kills her. Since the whole situation is so clandestine (the body is disposed of quickly and silently), and Genji is prostrated by grief for weeks afterward, no one investigates the cause of Yugao's death. Twice on the night of the disaster, however, Genji has seen at their bedside a dreamlike figure of an angry woman who is undoubtedly responsible.

Some years later, Genji's proud and estranged wife, Aoi, develops the symptoms of a similar possession after she gives birth to Genji's only legitimate son. Because the circumstances of her illness are more public, unlike the secrecy with Yugao, Aoi is subjected to prayers and incantations to remove the spirit which is debilitating her, although no one is absolutely certain that she is really possessed. She dies, and Rokujo seems to be the only person jealous enough of Genji to be responsible. Rukujo acknowledges that on occasion her body and spirit do feel detached from each other, and though she emphatically intends Aoi no harm, she may not be able to control the hatred she cherishes toward Genji's wife. She admits to herself that she has retained a deep sense of injury against Aoi since that lady's servants rendered Rokujo an unintentional insult during Aoi's pregnancy. In Japanese folk literature, spirits of the jealous, both living and dead, may enter the object of that hatred and kill that person: this belongs to the most ancient of recorded beliefs. Still later in the novel, Genji's beloved consort Murasaki falls prey to an identical malady (though she is not pregnant), and Genji again calls in quantities of priests to force the spirit out. At length, a medium induces the spirit to identify itself as Rokujo, who has died several years before, and it answers that it had caused the deaths of both Yugao and Aoi. It tries unsuccessfully to persuade Genji to call off the priests. Murasaki partially recovers for a while but later dies anyway, and Genji follows soon after. It is interesting in this context to note that the beliefs regarding possession are folk beliefs, the priests are Buddhist, and the acts of exorcism are Shinto: nowhere is there any indication that those beliefs and practices should be exclusive, nor, in spite of the failure of the rites, that any is more powerful than the others.

Both folklore and Buddhism subscribe to the theory that a spirit of a person longing for a loved one at the time of his death will not be able to rest. Hence, Rokujo's spirit remains active after she dies. Similarly, in Book Five, Hachi no Miya, a half-brother of Genji, is urged to stop mourning his wife in order that he, a priest himself, might be at peace after his own death. He dies, still longing, mourned by his two daughters. The story proceeds in a different direction, enhanced by more folk superstitions. One of the girls, Agemaki, is courted by Genji's supposed son, Kaoru. She resists all of his advances and offers, and she tries to turn his affections toward her younger sister, Kozeri. Genji's grandson, Niou, however, begins an affair with Kozeri first, and carries her off as his mistress. Worn out by resisting Kaoru and worrying about the future of her sister, Agemaki wastes away and dies. Heartbroken by the loss of both girls, Kaoru locates a half-sister of theirs, Ukifune, becomes intimate with her, and prepares to set her up near him. Niou, single-minded and voraciously competitive in regard to women, again moves faster and visits her secretly. When Ukifune finds that Kaoru has learned about her infidelity, she attempts suicide by jumping into a rushing river, and her household gives her up as dead. A group of travellers find her and nearly run away because they fear that she is a fox-spirit. According to folklore, foxes are notorious shape-changers. They may assume the form of beautiful maidens and seduce men, or they may perpetrate other kinds of mischief. Apparently a good deal of trouble had occurred in the locality where Ukifune appeared, for an old man reported,

"Oh yes, it's a fox that has done that … They're always doing odd things just here. It's their favorite tree. Only last autumn one of them carried off a child or two and brought it to this very spot. And when I came running up, do you suppose that fox took any notice of me? Not at all." "What a dreadful thing!" said one of the priests. "The child, I suppose, was dead?" "No, it wasn't," said the old man rather testily, "it was alive. Fox isn't a fellow to do any real harm. He just likes to give people a bit of a fright sometimes; that is all."

Nevertheless, the travellers decide Ukifune is really human and nurse her, though she lies half-conscious for months, not revealing her identity. Her rescuers feel, of course, that she must be possessed, and request a priest to exorcise her. The spirit he contacts makes a significant admission:

"I, too, in my day was a master of magic such as yours. But I died with something on my mind. Not much—a trivial resentment; but it was enough to hold me back, to keep me drifting hither and thither, back and forth between this world and the next. I walked into a house. It was full of beautiful women. One of them [Agemaki?] I destroyed. Then I bided my time, and presently this girl here gave me the chance I sought. Day after day, night after night, she lay moaning and weeping, and calling for death to come. At last, one evening when it was very dark, I saw her get up and leave the house. I followed her, and when she was alone, I did my work."

Later, the priest states an additional theory of his own: that because she was found in a clump of trees, Ukifune may have been a tengu, or tree-spirit. Tengu are also shape-changers and causers of mischief, and even as recently as 1860, official documents contained warnings against them. Ukifune, still pursued by Kaoru and yet another suitor, retreats from these complications by becoming a nun. The story, then, incorporates a number of folk myths and creatures as well as possession and exorcism.

Many of the superstitions and folk beliefs have bases in common sense, as a matter of fact. Possession explained many illnesses that medical science has more clearly defined in recent years. Custom dictated, however, that a person weakened by sorrow or guilt was more vulnerable to wandering spirits than a happy and stable one might be, as in any illness. The possessing spirit was generally one of an unhappy, grieving, or jealous individual, as is the case with Rokujo and with the spirit that worked upon Agemaki and Ukifune; hence the concern that a person be done with worldly attachments before he dies. Themes of the damage caused by jealousy, shame, and guilt run through the novel like threads of different colors but of similar texture. Genji and his descendants alike compromise their happiness and that of their offspring by repeating mistakes engendered by passion or willfulness.

The cluster of stories surrounding Rokujo establishes one dominant theme: that hatred kills, directly or indirectly. The jealousy in her destroys the three most important women in Genji's life, and his death is surely linked with that of Murasaki. It works inversely in the case of Rokujo's final illness; her hostility may well have provoked it. Genji has tried desperately to placate her, even to arranging the marriage of her daughter to the heir apparent. She finally seems to accept his attempts to make amends and his apologies at her deathbed, but her spirit still runs its destructive course afterward.

In fact, it becomes increasingly clear through the novel that one is fundamentally responsible for his feelings and desires as well as for his acts, and that religious belief has firm grounding in common sense. In Buddhist as well as Christian thought, the sins of the father are visited on the sons, and the corruption may affect or express the condition of his country. For example, Genji has an affair with his beautiful stepmother, Fujitsubo, who has a baby, Ryozen. The child is apparently Genji's step-brother but really his son. The boy becomes Emperor while still a small child and comes painfully to find that he was born out of divine succession. The priest tells him, "… the Powers Above are manifesting their displeasure; for, as you have been taught, it frequently happens that the sins of one generation are visited upon the next." He knows that by continuing as Emperor he is violating religious and ancestral traditions. According to Waley's note, "In sacrificing at the Imperial tomb (as if in honor of his father), etc., he was committing an outrage upon the dead." Moreover, this time is one of political and astrological unpleasantness. Public dismay coupled with irregularities in astronomical and weather conditions seem to portend displeasure on the part of the Sun God, from whom the Emperor of Japan is supposed to descend. Now that Ryozen is of sufficient age to understand the problem of his birth and its possible consequences, he worries about whether or not to resign. Genji feels acutely his own guilt in the matter, but attempts to persuade his son to continue as Emperor, because if the reason for his resignation became known, it would appall the Japanese people, who had never known the line of succession to be broken before. The political effects might be drastic. Nevertheless, after some years Ryozen quietly resigns with the excuse of poor health. Thus, the religious belief in divine succession is intertwined with issues of practical responsibility and the consequences of guilty knowledge.

Further links between the effects of sexual misconduct, the physical ravages of guilt or shame, and the kind of understanding that leads to forgiveness come up in a parallel situation. In his later years, Genji takes on an unwelcome marriage of convenience with a niece, Nyosan, in whom he (surprisingly, for Genji) has little interest. He neglects her outrageously. A nephew of his, Kashiwagi, falls in love with Nyosan and seduces her, and she bears his son, Kaoru (mentioned earlier in connection with Agemaki and her sisters). Kashiwagi, a young man who makes heavy demands on himself and who is anxious to be right and perfect in whatever he does, breaks down completely, overwhelmed by grief and guilt at having betrayed his friend and idol, Genji. When Genji finds that Nyosan is pregnant, knows that the child is not his, and suspects Kashiwagi, he is angry only at first. Remembering that he behaved in an almost identical fashion toward his father and that his child by Fujitsubo had been a constant source of discomfort and guilt, he regains his compassion. Consequently, Genji acts kindly toward his nephew, but Kashiwagi feels terrible remorse and imagines that Genji must be justly angered at both himself and Nyosan, and declines rapidly in health. Moreover, he feels that death would remove his "treachery" from Genji's memory, and in his last days confesses to Genji's legitimate son, Yugiri, "for if I died with it on my conscience I should be held back from Salvation in the life to come." His self-hatred finally destroys him. As Fujitsubo had done before her, Nyosan becomes a nun: her shame, too, drives her out of the world.

Genji is a character of sufficient magnitude and intelligence to sustain successful affairs with a score or more women; to seduce his father's wife and to father an emperor out of succession; to survive exile (provoked because of still another affair with another emperor's prospective consort) and return to political prominence; and to develop enough self-knowledge and conscience to forgive the nephew who philanders with his wife. He is a gifted musician, dancer, calligrapher, poet, and diplomat, among many other accomplishments. With every woman he seduces or even desires, he maintains a gentle consideration for the remainder of her life; he even employs or grants places in his household to several former favorites (who get along amazingly well), and he never forgets one or deliberately treats any unkindly. Genji's descendants inherit a number of his physical assets but lack, however, his self-consciousness and moral strength. As the story about Agemaki and her sisters indicates, Genji's grandson, Niou, and supposed son (really his great nephew by two routes), Kaoru, expend themselves on affairs with women without putting similar energy into other accomplishments. Nothing particularly distinguishes either young man except charm and good looks. Niou stands out only in his appetite for new affairs, from which he quickly tires: he may have more than Genji, but he does not exhibit the concern that Genji has lavished on his ladies, even the old and unattractive ones. He vies with his more serious cousin, Kaoru, trying to reach first any woman Kaoru might have been courting. (Genji and his cousin, To no Chujo, Kaoru's real grandfather, had carried on a lighthearted rivalry as youths: Yugao, for example, attracted them both.) Kaoru, indeed, inherits some of the moral sensitivity that appears in both Genji and Kashiwagi, his real father, but he finds himself unable to act upon it and wastes his time in ceaseless worry and indecision. After his successive failures with Agemaki, Kozeri, and Ukifune, he, too, wants to leave the world and take up the religious life, but he never manages to decide to do so.

In religious as well as practical terms, a person not only bears the responsibility of his own acts and inclinations, he also passes on those predilections and their consequences. For example, Genji's affair with his father's consort grants him understanding when his own wife is seduced. Genji's grandson, Niou, inherits his ability to carry on numerous affairs, and they both have liaisons with women who are really possessed or supposed to be. Though Genji passes on his charm and beauty to his descendants, he cannot prevent them from repeating his errors; though he can understand Kashiwagi, he remains unable to extricate him from the consequences of his affair; and though Genji's relationship with Yugao is one of the most profound in his life, that of Niou (and Kaoru as well) with the lady Ukifune dwindles off into nothingness.

Thus, the religious elements of court ritual, exorcism and folk superstition, and themes of jealousy, guilt, and responsibility turn out to be so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. Possession and other folk beliefs work together with the practical realities of jealousy and hatred and the destruction they work on both the object and the source of those emotions, as in the stories about Rokujo. They point up the physical as well as the spiritual consequences of anger and depression. Adherance to Shinto and Buddhist ritual becomes intimately connected with politics in the case of the Emperor Royzen's tenure. Belief that crosses religious boundaries, as in the recurrent emphasis that a man's errors affect his children, is Buddhist in the context of The Tale of Genji but universal in its implications.

Source: Mary Dejong Obuchowski, "Religious Threads and Themes in 'The Tale of Genji'" in CLA Journal, Vol. XX, No. 2, December, 1976, pp. 185-94.

Previous

Critical Overview