The Tale of Genji

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Written a thousand years ago in Japan by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji takes place in Japan’s imperial city of Kyoto. It is a time of aristocracy, strict social hierarchy, and imperial wealth and ceremony, and court intrigues and powerful alliances are endemic. Social order and imperial protocol...

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Written a thousand years ago in Japan by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji takes place in Japan’s imperial city of Kyoto. It is a time of aristocracy, strict social hierarchy, and imperial wealth and ceremony, and court intrigues and powerful alliances are endemic. Social order and imperial protocol frown upon superficial gallantry, gossips, and scandals, yet these very predilections prevail under the guise of good manners, social etiquette, and propriety, and flourish among lords and ladies of gentility.

Incredibly popular in Japan, and considered one of its enduring classics, The Tale of Genji has only been fully translated into English in the twentieth century. Royall Tyler’s authoritative, comprehensive, and unexpurgated new translation finally gives an English speaker the chance to enjoy Japan’s favorite medieval romance to the fullest. Presented in a beautiful, two-volume slipcase, Tyler’s translation offers an elegant prose which captures the spirit and flair of the original and reads as beautifully as some of the spectacular sights of its narrative, which are also captured in appealing illustrations.

Into this realm of Murasaki Shikibu’s rich imagination, which is drawn in part from her real-life observations but set almost a century earlier than the author’s life, Genji, a son of the emperor and his intimate Kiritsubo, is born. Since she is only the emperor’s intimate, which ranks below the consorts and even lower than his single empress, Kiritsubo’s only livelihood is Genji and the emperor’s affection. The emperor gives up his desire to make Genji heir apparent over his firstborn son because the court would not allow such an unprecedented move. Thus, his favorite son is made a commoner and given the surname Genji (or Minamoto), freeing him to a life of wide-ranging romantic action and experience.

While Genji clearly occupies the central place and is the most colorfully drawn character and hero of the novel, The Tale of Genji does not lack at all in other characters, plots and subplots, episodic occurrences, and confusing relationships and interrelationships among the lords and ladies of the imperial realm. However, it is Genji who binds the often-fragmentary novel together. In essence, he is what gives life to the book, and Tyler’s translation effectively captures the richness of his character without detracting from the many others populating Shikibu’s masterfully spun narrative.

When Genji is twelve years old, he is married to Aoi, a sixteen-year-old daughter of an influential courtier. He is too young for the marriage to affect him much. Though officially married, he still lives in the imperial palace near the emperor and his future empress, Fujitsubo, while his wife lives at her father’s residence. This was not out of the ordinary for the upper classes in medieval Japan. Despite their distant behavior and her indifference toward him, Genji and Aoi eventually have a son, Yugiri, who resembles Genji closely.

During his early years, Genji is often near Fujitsubo. Even though the required curtains, blinds, or screens separate them physically, as was mandatory between a man and a women of respectability, Genji develops a special devotion toward Fujitsubo because she resembles his late mother closely. In a culture which strongly believes in reincarnation and rebirth, this motivation is not as repellent as it may be for a contemporary Western reader. Tyler’s informative footnotes help to fill in cultural gaps, and the illustrations give a nice visual sense of the culture which gave rise to Genji’s adventures.

As Genji matures, his father does not let him be so close to Fujitsubo any longer, with good reason. Yet Genji defies the older man and succeeds in secretly making love to Fujitsubo. The result is a son, the future Emperor Reizei, whom the cuckolded Emperor believes is his own. He even deems it natural that the boy should look just like his other son, Genji.

Despite this momentous transgression, Fujitsubo is still beyond Genji’s reach. He can truly communicate with her only by writing poems and brief letters, which are delivered by messengers. These poems are what helped distinguish The Tale of Genji in its time, since medieval Japanese society considered poetry the highest and most genteel art. All early Japanese literature placed poetry above prose. Thus, it is not unusual that Genji’s messages to all his women are carefully written and crafted with poetic allusions and penned on types of paper selected according to the recipient’s rank and the occasion of the lines.

To make up for his desire to have someone entirely his own, Genji insists on taking a little girl into his care and virtually kidnaps her from her nurse when her mother is dead. Again, he is attracted because the girl is Fujitsubo’s niece and looks just like her aunt, the woman Genji can never possess. In time, the little girl will grow up to be Lady Murasaki, and become his true and greatest love. She will have the sole privilege of daily interaction with Genji. Ironically, the real first name of the Tale’s author remains unknown; she was given the name of Murasaki by her enchanted readers, who came to identify her with one of her most endearing creations.

Tyler’s translation captures well the spirit of adolescent male bonding in the classic early chapter when the teenage Genji joins three other young men to discuss the follies and virtues of women on one rainy night. Each man rates women according to their class, family support, and other backings, but mainly on their feminine charms. This amusing discussion turns out to be almost an education to the adolescent Genji, and ironically points at his ubiquitous devotion to romance.

Shikibu’s text continues in a gently ironic vein, as the many women whom Genji comes to love all seem deadly afraid of Genji because of his devastating good looks and stature. Often his lovers recoil in awe, though secretly they yearn for him. By this token resistance, they only heighten and affirm his suave and seductive ways, which has given his character the reputation of a playboy, or, more negatively, that of a sexual predator. Yet in the world of the Tale, Genji is forgiven by virtue of his perfect good looks, masculinity, charms, and elegance. He is a character who possesses the noble grace and talents in music and musical instruments, poetry, and calligraphy that Shikibu’s court culture valued above all else. Whether this makes him a literary paragon or subtle satire on that society is left for the reader to decide. What Tyler offers the English-speaking reader is a rendition of Genji’s adventures that tries to stay as close to the original as possible, and he succeeds amazingly well.

At times, even Genji cannot escape disasters and utterly comical mishaps. Finally, Genji is punished for making love to the Kokiden consort’s younger sister after her father catches him. The consort uses this excuse to have him ostracized from court, one of the worst punishments in Shikibu’s genteel society. Yet even in exile, Genji remains a romantic hero. Urged by her father, he accepts Akashi no Kimi into his heart and bed. When Genji’s punishment is rescinded by Emperor Suzaku, he returns to the imperial city. His fortune continues to rise as Akashi bears him his last child, a daughter who will later become an empress.

As the novel unfolds, Genji gains in dignity, grace, looks, and wisdom. He essentially marries the retired emperor Suzaku’s favorite daughter, Onna San no Miya, at the former’s request. Yet his heart belongs to Lady Murasaki, whose only flaw is that she gives him no children, reflecting again the values of the medieval author’s society. While Genji is away, Kashiwagi, a young courtier, becomes besotted with Onna San, and manages to make love to her. Their son, Kaoru, is naturally believed to be Genji’s son. Love- and shame-stricken, Kashiwagi dies while Genji maintains Onna San’s reputation, despite his fury at being given a dose of his own medicine.

The last third of the novel concentrates on Kaoru and Niou, who is a son of Genji’s only daughter, now empress. The two men are best friends and enjoy many adventures. Yet the innocent days of Genji’s time are less so in this new generation. Shikibu conveys that loss and is slightly critical of the time Kaoru and Niou live in because it is somewhat darker, and the human spirit sparkles less lively. The translation captures this sense of loss very well, giving the reader a sense of nostalgia for Genji’s own days.

Though both are handsome, Kaoru is always more respectable, devout, and serious, whereas Niou is the ever-gallant playboy, with a proclivity for fleeting dalliance and love affairs. In their rivalry for love, their character traits display who they are. Here Shikibu suggests that human qualities, in essence, bind them to this world—the human condition—making them real and fallible, albeit less beautiful and ideal than Genji. Kaoru and Niou get involved in a multilayered love triangle involving three daughters of an unnamed prince. Oigimi, the oldest, is the most respectable, moving Niou to court the middle sister, Naka no Kimi. Eventually both men compete for the youngest, Ukifune, and their rivalry rises to new, slightly overheated heights.

In all its leisurely length, Murasaki Shikibu’s fascinating epic tale about an idealized time and world where the hero Genji is almost godlike but still fallible has enchanted readers for centuries, and its ending echoes the human condition at its best and worst. Tyler’s eloquent and well-researched translation finally makes this classic available in an English which beautifully captures the literary craft and timeless splendor of The Tale of Genji.

Bibliography:

Bowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: “The Tale of Genji.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. This slim volume provides readable information on cultural background, including Heian politics, the author’s background and her fictionalization of history, and religions that influenced the novel. Also discusses the novel’s style, language, influence, and reception.

Field, Norma. The Splendor of Longing in “The Tale of Genji.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. Concentrates on the relationships between the hero and his women in the novel.

Kamens, Edward, ed. Approaches to Teaching Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1993. Following a section on materials and recommended reading, six essays suggest ways of studying The Tale of Genji. Other authors treat problems of reading the text and compare it with other literary works.

Keene, Donald. Japanese Literature. New York: Grove Press, 1955. The definitive commentator on Japanese literature, Keene discusses the Japanese novel’s indebtedness to The Tale of Genji and its sad obsession with mutability.

McCullough, Wilt. “Japanese Marriage Institutions in the Heian Period.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 27 (1967): 103-167. A closely annotated translation of Eiga monogatari, a fictionalized history of the Fujiwara clan. Borrows techniques of The Tale of Genji; its introduction, notes, and appendices are a gold mine of information on Heian customs.

Miner, Earl, ed. Principles of Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. Seven essays combine Japanese and North American viewpoints in discussing Japanese literature. Includes a discussion of whether The Tale of Genji is a collection rather than a single unified work and an examination of the work’s structure and narrative.

Morris, Ivan. “Aspects of The Tale of Genji.” In The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. A classic treatment of various aspects of the Heian period. Chapter 10 discusses The Tale of Genji. Also includes valuable appendices.

Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1964. An entertaining discussion of the Heian court’s cultural milieu, with much information taken from literary sources. Includes helpful appendices, charts of relationships, genealogical information, a glossary, a bibliography, and an index.

Puette, William J. Guide to “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1983. Discusses essential aspects of the world of Genji, provides chapter summaries, and examines the novel’s structure. Also includes an appendix with helpful maps, charts, and indexes.

Takehiko, Noguchi. “The Substratum Constituting Monogatari: Prose Structure and Narrative in the Genji monogatari.” In Principles of Classical Japanese Literature, edited by Earl Miner. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. Describes how Murasaki’s novel is structured by pairing, foreshadowing, cause and effect, generational correspondences, contrasts, and ellipses. These categories create depths in the monogatari’s narrative structure, with the deepest substratum consisting of the narrator’s voice.

Form and Content

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The Tale of Genji opens with a reference to a beloved “lady not of the first rank” loved by the sovereign and reflects the Chinese Po Chu’i’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” which provides the prototype for Japan’s “Paulownia Court” and initially gives the work political overtones. Murasaki Shikibu was learned and uses this evocative poem to preface her monogatari, or prose narrative, about royal succession as determined by blood ties and political power struggles.

In part 1 of the novel, Prince Genji’s nature is an aristocratic ideal: His political acumen is marvelous; his public behavior manifests wise judgments and correct actions; and his private life offers a parallel, being colorful and elegantly woman-centered. Yet, from part 2 onward, The Tale of Genji becomes uniquely Murasaki’s creation. Her transcendent structure builds in a regard for the element of time, producing a remarkably “modern” narrative style based on karma, or the cause and effect of previous existences. Murasaki implies that the lives and actions of her characters originate in acts committed in previous lives.

Part 2 of the novel depicts suffering, sometimes caused by acts committed before the characters were born. Genji’s affair with Fujitsubo, the concubine of his father, the Emperor, probably results from his awareness of his inferior lineage but may also be influenced by karma. This pattern of karmic suffering continues in part 3, in which his descendants, Niou and Kaoru, both love women of inferior lineage, especially Ukifune. The novel’s three themes gradually develop. Reality and clear insight predominate in the opening section, the second section adds the themes of karma and predetermined suffering, and the third section complements these with the addition of piety and spiritual blindness.

In order to express these themes, Murasaki’s narrative techniques include the incorporation of waka, traditional five-line poems, and classical techniques of poetic lyricism. Through this blending of narrative and poetic, she acknowledges the monogatari as of equal worth with the older waka, Japan’s premier art form. The author’s poetic echoes in her narrative text also reinforce the novel’s prestigious historical framework.

Additionally, Murasaki develops soshiji, narrational intrusion, as the author makes her presence known and offers explanations or opinions from a first-person perspective. For example, there is her comment about Genji’s leaving for exile in Suma: “I have no doubt that there were many fine passages in the letters with which he saddened the lives of his many ladies, but, grief-stricken myself, I did not listen as carefully as I might have.”

Murasaki also experimentally controls the psychological distance between the audience and the circumstances and characters in her work by developing a multilayered narrative technique, such as building in accounts from secondary narrators. She masters the technique of effectively distancing psychological portrayals by linking the reader’s consciousness to the primary narrator’s viewpoint, while transmitting the character’s emotions at the same time. In part 2, a full psychological portrayal evolves as the reader is led to follow clues that lead to discovery, which encourages repeated, careful reading.

Part 3 relies upon symbolism to present disappointing human experiences; it is a dark world, in Buddhist terms the symbol of spiritual blindness, leaving Genji’s “shining” world behind. In fact, his son’s and grandson’s names signify, not light, but perfume and scent. Here four images reoccur: mountains for piety, rivers for spiritual blindness, boats for human drifting, and growing darkness.

Today called the first psychological novel in the world, the fifty-four chapters of The Tale of Genji spread the action over three-quarters of a century and involve four generations. As an artistic entity, its three units are frequently divided: books 1 through 12 concern Prince Genji’s youth and glory; books 13 through 41 present his conflicts, maturity, and death; and books 42 through 54 reveal the story of his transcendence of death and of his descendants.

Unifying the novel are psychological relationships between men and women that sustain an awareness of time’s passage, including seasonal changes, social vicissitudes, and human emotions. The incremental repetitions of situations, settings, and characters’ relations structure the novel so that occurrences reveal their resemblance to earlier episodes, thus showing how the past overlaps on the present. These echoes demonstrate the flow of time, for example showing how a man loves a woman who reminds him of another.

Murasaki’s interest in Fujiwara power, as opposed to natural impermanence, on the surface focuses The Tale of Genji on the career and amorous adventures of its idealized hero, the Shining Prince, Genji. His adulterous loves are individually treated, as are episodic sections about his ascents and descents at court. Genji is an aesthetic and emotional ideal in terms of good looks, talent in the arts, and captivating power as a charmer of ten women. The concluding thirteen chapters follow Genji’s death and trace the darkening triangle relationship between his wife and his best friend’s illegitimate son, his grandson, and a beautiful, disinterested girl.

Places Discussed

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*Kyto

*Kyto (kyoh-toh). Japanese city in west-central Hnshu, northeast of Osaka, that was the imperial capital from 794 through 1869. Protected by forested hills and drawing its drinking water from the clear Kamo River, the city has pleasant surroundings that make it a worthy dwelling place for the imperial household during the novel’s medieval Heian period. The aesthetic pleasures of the place are deeply appreciated by the characters, foremost of whom is the refined but illegitimate son of the emperor, Prince Genji. The characters draw inspiration from Kyto and try to build exquisite dwellings that will add to the city’s many splendid residences and grace and stimulate the lives of their magnificent inhabitants. To be fully away from the city, living in other towns or remote rural dwellings, is seen as a form of unfortunate exile.

During the time of the novel, the imperial city was laid out in a strict grid pattern expressing the imposition of human order over a natural location. In line with ancient Chinese prescriptions for an emperor’s proper dwelling place, which Japan’s aristocracy adopted for its own use, the imperial palace stands at the center of the northern edge of the city. Facing south in his great ceremonial hall, the emperor beholds a city neatly divided into two equal parts. To the east, at his left hand, and symbolized by a cherry tree in the garden outside his hall, is the Left City, Genji’s favorite haunting place. At his right hand, to the west and symbolized by an orange tree, is the Right City.

This geographical division extended into society. The imperial government is divided into Left (eastern) and Right (western) factions, and Genji’s strongest opponent is the minister of the Right, who manages to have Genji temporarily exiled. The two geographically aligned factions primarily serve the interests of their aristocratic members and do not reflect differing political views.

*Suma

*Suma. Desolate stretch of coastline west of Kyto, ringed by mountains to the north and facing Japan’s Inland Sea. (Suma is now part of the city of Kobe.) The bleakness of Suma derived from its geographical distance to Kyto, the absence of societal entertainments, and the acrid smoke from the fires of saltmakers on the shore. Historically, it was a place for exiles who ran afoul of the court, and once Genji has to follow this pattern. After a horrific storm typical of the location, Genji dreams that his dead father wants him to leave the dreadful place, and he gladly acts on this.

*Akashi

*Akashi. City five miles west of Suma, and with similar geographical features, that lies outside the emperor’s home provinces and is therefore in a different political world. Genji’s spirits revive at Akashi, and he falls in love with a woman who bears him a daughter after he is allowed back to Kyto.

Rokujo

Rokujo. Fictional mansion of Genji’s estate, finished during his thirty-fifth year. It is symbolic of Genji’s return to good fortune and high social esteem. The elaborately described compound on the sixth street of Kyto has always fascinated Japanese readers as the perfect example of a nobleman’s appropriate dwelling place. More beautiful and aesthetically balanced than any real surviving medieval mansion, Rokujo consists of a tastefully built and decorated main house, in two wings of which Genji puts up his primary lovers in grand style, and an exquisite garden. The garden has a fishing pavilion, artificial lake, and a brook—all inviting guests and inhabitants to dwell on the splendid yet transitory beauty of nature and human life, a topic essential to medieval Japanese literature.

*Uji

*Uji. Typical Japanese provincial town, located south of Kyto, from which it is reached by a bridge over the Uji River. Provincial towns such as Uji always appear somewhat forlorn and isolated in the intensely metropolitan The Tale of Genji, where any place beyond a day trip from Kyto inspires feelings of loneliness. The fact that the primary romantic activities of Genji’s son Niou and his rival Kaoru revolve around three sisters in this town, rather than taking place in the capital, indicates how mundane the world has become with the passing of Genji’s generation.

Context

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Murasaki Shikibu’s central intention was to provide a woman’s response to events at Heian court, including a refreshing view of courtiers, romance, and political power. This revolutionary intention is confirmed in her diary for the years between 1007 and 1010, which rounds out the picture given in the novel of Japanese court life. She was a member of the Fujiwara clan, a widow who became part of Princess Shoshi’s entourage in 1005 or 1006. Her interest in people created a contemporary audience of women, a remarkable feat in an era when men wrote formally in Chinese. Murasaki’s world in the novel ignores Confucianism, synonymous with men’s Chinese scholarship, except for the precept of filial piety.

She represents the Emperor as an important spiritual and psychological center of Japanese court life, but he is politically impotent, a pawn in the game of aristocratic family leadership who fears his wife and is not free to promote his favorite son. Her depiction of the Fujiwara clan reveals a network of marriage ties to the imperial family that emphasize the usually overlooked importance of women’s role in securing family leadership. In her novel, women become both men’s political and sexual pawns, providing links in chains of family connections, and people who wield power in their own right through the ability to provide and withhold love.

Yet women’s lives are also revealed to be sedentary, passive, and restricted; they are named by patriarchal affiliation, place, rank, office, or family relation. Even the author of The Tale of Genji is known only by a name given her as a tribute to a female character in her novel.

In the novel, women appear serially. In the Hahakigi section, Murasaki presents a description of different kinds of women; Genji’s involvements present contrasting examples of noble women, among the most memorable Aoi, his unbending wife; the gentle Yuago; the proud Rokujo; the resisting Utsusemi; and Fujitsubo, the Emperor’s beloved concubine. Only in the Uji section of the novel, away from the capital, are female characters found happily together, but they are mother and daughter. Here a few tenuous affirmative connections are shown. In the novel, women’s frequent unhappiness in personal relationships leads to the significance of religion for them. Of Genji’s ten loves, five become nuns, one wishes to do so, and two meet untimely deaths. Only two do not become nuns but may have entered a temple, one of the customs of female aristocracy.

The author reveals men’s language as a tool of cultural and sexual domination. Murasaki and the women diarists of her day virtually invented a written Japanese language that created a medium for their attempts to define themselves in textual terms. Among the brilliant diaries of court life in this era are The Gossamer Years, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, The Sarashina Diary, and The Murasaki Shikibu Diary. These women, led by Murasaki, became Heian historians describing the parameters of a world where men were placed in the center of a polygamous society of wives and concubines, which created endless rivalry and jealousy. Her example of Prince Genji’s political marriage illustrated how aristocrats caused such women as Princess Aoi to be defined by pining, waiting, and responding, but never by initiating passion. Murasaki’s world is one in which women are hidden; viewing was identified as violation. Language became women authors’ sole way of ratifying themselves, an attempt to break out of the subjective limitations of aristocratic Heian culture by building a new social context for themselves that included the broader world of politics and history.

Historical Context

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Heian Era (794-1186)
The era gets its name from the capital, which in 794 moved from Nara. It occupies the area today known as Kyoto. Heian means "peace and tranquility." The capital was built to accommodate almost exclusively the emperor and the ranked hierarchy of the court. The scope of The Tale of Genji, then, is the refined aristocrats and not the society at large. All that was considered noble, beautiful, and worthwhile resided in the capital. Therefore, Genji's exile to the mountains and his relationship to a country woman would be seen as vulgar.

Genji, adept at all the most refined arts, epitomizes the idealized Heian aristocrat. In a culture that ranked beauty above all else, Genji possessed almost overwhelming charm. His true love, Lady Murasaki, represents the idealized Heian woman. The tale opens during the reign of Emperor Daigo (897-930), an age considered to be the high point of Heian civilization. The novel moves ahead some seventy years to Murasaki's own time. The tenth son of Emperor Daigo, Minamoto no Takaakira, might have been a model for the character Genji. Like Genji, he was made a commoner, was exiled (in 969), and later was restored to the capital.

The Heian court was weakened by the rise of military powers outside the capital, and in the twelfth century several revolts occurred. But Genji made a lasting impression on Japanese culture. Donald Keene, in Seeds in the Heart, says, "During the centuries after the completion of The Tale of Genji the court life it so superbly evoked was overshadowed by the rise to power of the samurai class, and at times its existence seemed to be imperiled; but the fierce warriors who threatened the way of life at the court generally did not remain immune to its charms, and they turned with respect and a kind of nostalgia to The Tale of Genji."

Heian Literature
The literature of the era was dominated by women. The proliferation of literature, and especially of the long novel, was made possible by a new, purely phonetic, writing system. The Buddhist Kobo Daishi, who had studied Sanskrit in India, introduced a phonetic alphabet. Hiragana consists of simple, cursive strokes in which each character represents a single syllable. Hiragana is easier and faster to write, and doesn't require a knowledge of Chinese characters. In the Heian period, women generally used hiragana and men used kana. Murasaki, however, wrote Genji in kana, making it accessible to men.

According to Richard Bowring, in Landmarks of World Literature, "Japanese prose had to wait for its true beginnings until the phonetic script had become fully established, because to write Japanese exclusively in Chinese characters was an extremely cumbersome business."

Love and Marriage
Court ladies were rarely seen by men; they were hidden behind curtains, doors, or screens. Men fell in love not based on looks, but rather from the sound of a woman's music or the words of her poem. A glimpse of a woman, though, might send a man into a swoon of longing.

Women painted false eyebrows on their foreheads in place of their real eyebrows, which they shaved off. Their teeth were blackened. Their faces: were pudgy and powdered white. A slight plumpness was considered beautiful. Hair was the most admired physical trait, custom dictating that a woman' s hair be at least as long as she was tall.

Clothing and scents were also carefully thought out. Court women's robes were layered and arranged so that various color shades and combinations could be admired in the long, dangling sleeves. Sometimes, a man could glimpse a sleeve jutting out from behind a screen or carriage door, in a style referred to as idashi-guruma. Over time, robes were delicately incensed and perfumed to create a distinctive fragrance, and a person of good breeding could easily recognize the woman by her scent.

William J. Puett, in Guide to the Tale of Genji, notes, "For the denizens of the capital, the actual world of daily activities was, by comparison to ours, largely nocturnal, where time was solely governed by the flow of events. People slept, ate, and committed their other quotidian duties around their social activities, which more often than not were conducted at night, till just before dawn. Even the design of the buildings and furniture required that, for the most part, the courtiers lived out their lives in a state of semi-darkness...."

Polygamy, or the practice of having more than one spouse at a time, was common practice. The first major marriage was arranged by family, and subsequent, lesser, marriages could be made by any combination of arrangements. After marriage husbands and wives generally lived apart, like Genji and Aoi, with the husband making occasional visits. Sexual relations with close family members, like with Genji and Fujitsubo, were not considered taboo. The problems in such relationships involved politics (tampering with the imperial succession) more than anything.

Politics
The Fujiwara clan, headed by Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1027), dominated Japanese politics. Michinaga used a carefully-designed network of marital arrangements to maintain control. He was brother-in-law to two emperors, uncle to one, uncle and brother-in-law to another, and grandfather to two more. Women were critical in the successful manipulation of these marriage politics. Women had income, property and other rights that made them more privileged than women of later eras.

The Arts
Heian women were expected to be educated at home in calligraphy, embroidery, painting, and other feminine arts. Men were to learn the Chinese classics and the histories in preparation for official careers. All members of court were expected to be accomplished musicians on a variety of instruments. In the novel, there is frequent mention of the koto, but also the lute and the flute. The 13-string koto was considered a feminine instrument. Genji was a master of the 7-string koto, which went out of fashion, historically, about the time of his fictional demise.

During the Heian period (794-1185), poetry became increasingly involved with the court. There were many poetry competitions, know as uta-awase, held under the sponsorship of the emperor or some other member of the imperial family. Poetry was often written on assigned topics. Judges heavily weighed how well a poem fulfilled the specifications. Court members composed the poetry, but never used court life as a subject. Poetry was often used to decorate paintings.

That The Tale of Genji gained high regard in Heian times and beyond is evidenced in its pervasiveness throughout the arts. In the last century of the Heian period, the illustrated narrative handscroll, the emaki, came to prominence. Dating from about 1130, the illustrated Tale of Genji represents one of the high points of Japanese painting. This system of pictorial conventions conveys the emotional content of each scene.

Religion
At least three religions impacted Heian culture: Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

In Buddhist thinking, life is characterized by suffering, which is created by desire, pleasure, attachment to this world, and rebirth. If nothing is done to end the cycle of rebirth, it will continue forever. The law of karma determines whether the cycle of rebirth is broken. Nirvana, the divine state, is possible for all human beings, but only when a person is free from human desire. Taking vows was seen as a way toward achieving nirvana. Failure, in the Buddhist mindset, is never final because compassion is central to its beliefs.

The native religion of Japan, Shinto, literally, means "the way of the Gods." All that is beautiful in nature is deified. The right to rule was tied to Shinto beliefs. Shrines were built for the exclusive use of the imperial family and were used in connection with imperial succession. Shinto, then, was important for public concerns, and Buddhism, private. The Sumiyoshi shrine, which is central to Genji's exile, plays an important part in his return to the capital and the birth of a future empress.

Confucianism remained an essential part of formal education, but like Buddhism was primarily a male preserve. Prior to The Tale of Genji, Japanese culture was heavily influenced by the Chinese, and so naturally Confucianism played a role. According to ''The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World,'' Confucian thought is characterized by a spirit of humanism, rationalism, and moralism. It relies on human experience—rather than religious doctrine—to uphold its beliefs. It places ren, meaning humanity or love, above all other values. During Murasaki Shikibu's time, Confucianism remained an essential part of formal education, and, like Buddhism, was primarily a male preserve. In Confucian belief, the ideal society could be realized because each individual had the capacity for self-actualization and the state was obligated to aid in their cultural and intellectual growth.

Publishing
The printing press did not come to Japan until the 17th century. Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji in handbooks with an inkstone and brush. Court people were probably employed to copy it as she went along. The court people who formed her audience sometimes copied chapters as they read them.

Literary Style

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Genre
The Tale of Genji does not meet many of the classical requirements of an epic. Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature defines epic as, "Long narrative poem in an elevated style that celebrates heroic achievement and treats themes of historical, national, religious or legendary significance." It goes on to report, "The main aspects of epic convention are the centrality of a hero—sometimes semi divine—of military, national, or religious importance; an extensive, perhaps even cosmic, geographical setting; heroic battle; extended and often exotic journeying; and the involvement of supernatural beings, such as gods, angels, or demons, in the action."

The Tale of Genji is written in prose, not verse. The hero and the setting are completely mortal, more realistic than cosmic. It is a time of peace and tranquility.

The quintessential epic tales—such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey—tell of great war heroes. Genji never brandishes a weapon, nor does he ever receive notice for his bravery. Rather, Genji distinguishes himself in love. His self-exile to Suma fits into the epic mold: the hero goes abroad, where he confronts and passes a series of potentially fatal tests. His hero status is achieved through national recognition of his talents in arts, manners, and beauty.

Narrative Technique
In a work of fiction, the narrator, or teller of the story, is distinct from the author. The narrator is the voice through which the author speaks.

Murasaki Shikibu's distinct narrative technique establishes a framework for the whole story. Since she wants to chronicle life in this idealized society, Murasaki Shikibu must convincingly portray the characters, setting, and action. Here, the fictional world is represented as true to the historic world. The first sentence reads, "In a certain reign..." This immediately provides a vague historical context to the story. Though the narrator, at this point, does not overtly come through the pages, she is already establishing trust with her reader. Later, the author intrudes upon the narration, lending it a conspiratorial tone, as if she is revealing something of herself to the readers. "I had hoped, out of deference to him, 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 revealing too much."

At times, the author intrudes upon the narration to comment on her rationale for leaving out certain details, on her mood, on her writing process. Otherwise, the narrator remains unobtrusive, more or less objective though not omniscient. Richard Bowring, in Landmarks of World Literature, explains, "...it is probably that Murasaki Shikibu retained the somewhat raw technique of open narrative intrusion in order to play with her audience, to remind them that they were not reading gossip and that Genji was not to be seen in the same light as its predecessors."

Plot
Genji's rise, followed by his decline, give the first 41 chapters a raw outline. In general, though, The Tale of Genji does follow traditional plotting techniques. Most stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Typically, plots exhibit causality and unity. In The Tale of Genji, the action, which covers four generations, is more episodic, meaning the action shifts from one to another incident of seemingly equal weight. Even Genji's death, which would seem of monumental importance, receives very little dramatic attention. He dies and the action picks up nine years later with a shift in focus to the next generation.

Certainly, there is tension in the novel. Genji's many affairs, and their potential consequences, stir the reader's curiosity. There is little attempt to maintain this tension, though. William J. Puett, in Guide to the Tale of Genji, writes, "A story may begin in one chapter, recede for several more, then break out in a chapter further on, while other subplots are developing at their own, very practical rate with similarly measured thrusts. Plots overlap and tangle in a complicated and totally realistic fashion."

It is difficult to say how much of the plotting can be attributed to the author's technique, and how much might be explained by the shuffling of chapters over the years.

Character Development
In the course of such a long novel, the reader learns about major characters both through narrative commentary and their action in various scenes. Murasaki Shikibu promotes her readers' understanding of characters in ways that seem related to her times. For example, characters are often described in terms of their parentage. In introducing Genji, the narrator first tells the reader all about his mother. This Heian method is known as ab ovo.

Other times, the narrator refers to new characters as if they've already been presented. Lady Rokujo appears for the first time in Chapter 4, though from the context it seems as if the reader should already know something of her biography. It is another five chapters before this character directly participates in the story. Again, it is impossible to know if this was a convention used by Murasaki Shikibu, or if it was the result of chapters being lost or shuffled.

Use of Poems
Sprinkled through the novel are nearly 800 poems. These poems illuminate the importance of artistic achievement in Heian society and also the conventions of courtship. Beyond that, the use of the poems highlights the relationship between spiritual and human. References to nature infuse many of the poems. The accumulate effect—"august clouds," "wailing groves," "river of tears"—is to equate nature with a higher power. In a line like, "The dew does not rest long upon the leaves," there is a very clear connection between nature and human existence.

Keene writes of the poems, "...they contribute not only to the beauty of the style but also to the creation of a lyrical mode of narration."

Tone
The author's attitude toward her subject matter can be deduced from the tone of the words in The Tale of Genji. This relates closely to two of the novel's major themes, evanescence and social decline. A melancholy and generally pessimistic tone communicate the premise that the material world, especially life, is fleeting, and that society is in perpetual decline. This melancholy can be detected in the scene where Genji first meets Murasaki. "She was weeping, and a vague sadness had come over Genji too. The girl gazed attentively at her and then looked down. The hair that fell over her forehead was thick and lustrous." The novel is filled with regret and sadness, especially in the final few chapters. The darker tone of the post-Genji chapters shows a world in definite decline. "Nothing more was to be done, clearly, and the boy feared that he was beginning to look ridiculous. Saddened and chagrined at his failure to exchange even a word with his so grievously lamented sister, he started for the city."

Style
Style refers to the author's unique arrangement of ideas, her use of diction, her manner of composing sentences, using figures of speech, imposing a rhythm. In essence, it refers to the qualities of her craft that make her work distinct. Murasaki Shikibu employed a somewhat ornate style of writing, in keeping with the aristocratic society of which she wrote. The author went into elaborate and meticulous detail of costumes, scents, habits.

Compare and Contrast

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Heian (Classical) Period (800-1186): About the time of the First Crusades, Japan's Heian Era, which was depicted so skillfully in The Tale of Genji, is coming to its end. This marks the end of a period of great material prosperity, of learning and the arts. As suggested in The Tale of Genji, the ruling classes are not so interested in the arts of government and war. They stay enclosed in a tight circle of high refinement and pleasure. Literature is largely the work of women. The The Tale of Genji is written towards the end of the Heian period.

Kamakura Period (1186-1336): This period is associated with the decline of learning under the rule of the Shogun, who values mainly warlike accomplishments. Ties to China, which had strongly influenced the poetry and arts represented in The Tale of Genji are mostly severed. Under the much more masculine culture of the Shogun, the contributions by women to the literature of this period are insignificant.

Modern-day Japan: Modern-day Japan little resembles the feminine court society of the Heian culture. Japan has a democratic government that represents all Japanese people, not just those related to and living near the emperor. The outside world knows of Japan more as an economic superpower than a center of the arts. (Though current Japanese artists and writers are indeed numerous and highly influential.) Nor does modern Japan resemble the Shogunate days of the Kamakura Period. The current Japanese constitution restricts the government from building up military power and from waging war, and Japan is highly connected to other countries and cultures. Both men and women contribute to the great body of current Japanese literature. Kenzaburo Oe recently won the Noble Prize for Literature.

Media Adaptations

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A CD-ROM introduces the novel through picture scroll reproductions, photographs, illustrations, and narration. It was produced in 1999 by the Futitsu Software Corporation, out of San Jose, CA.

An animated version of The Tale of Genji was produced in 1987 as a joint production of Asahi Publishing, the Asahi National Broadcasting Company, and Nippon Herald Films. Directed by Girsaburo Sugii, whose previous work includes Night on the Galactic Railroad and Street Fighter II, the film won accolades from the Japan Film Appreciation Society. It will be released on video in the fall of 2000.

A Tale of Genji museum opened in Uji, near Kyoto, in 1998. In its first eight months it had 120,000 visitors.

The last part of Saeko Ichinohe's three-part dance, The Tale of Genji premiered at New York's Lincoln Centre in early 2000.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES
Bargen, Doris G., "Yugao: A Case of Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji," in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 15-24.

Bowring, Richard, Landmarks of World Literature: The Tale of Genji, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Economist, Vol. 353, No. 8151, December 25, 1999, p. 106.

Encyclopedia of Literature, Merriam-Webster's, Merriam-Webster, 1995.

Keene, Donald, The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, Columbia University Press, 1988.

Keene, Donald, Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, Henry Holt & Co., 1993.

Puett, William J., Guide to The Tale of Genji, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1983.

Rimer, Thomas J., A Reader's Guide to Japanese Literature: From the Eighth Century to the Present, Kodansha International, 1988.

Seidensticker, Edward G., Introduction to English translation of The Tale of Genji, Everyman's Library, 1992.

Shikibu Murasaki, The Tale of Genji, English translation by Edward G. Seidensticker, Everyman's Library, 1992.

FURTHER READING
Collcutt, Martin, Marius Jansen, and Isao Kumakura, Cultural Atlas of Japan, Phaidon, 1988.
An overview of Japan's cultural history and physical environment. Illustrations include depictions of Heian court, its culture, and society.

Field, Norma, The Splendor of Longing in the Tale of Genji, Princeton University Press, 1987.
Includes a glossary of character names that helps establish their various names and relationships to each other. A thorough analysis of women and poetry in Japanese society.

Goff, Janet, Noh Drama and The Tale of Genji, Princeton University Press, 1987.
Translations of select works that were inspired by Murasaki Shikibu's novel.

Hempel, Rose, The Golden Age of Japan, 794-1192, Rizzoli, 1983.
This book focuses on art and culture in the Heian period and includes many photos and pictures.

Miner, Earl, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell, The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature, Princeton University Press, 1985.
Covers Japanese literature from its beginnings through the end of the Tokugawa period (1868). Includes a glossary of literary terms, a listing of major authors and works, and essays on literary history.

Morris, Ivan, The World of the Shining Prince, Knopf, 1972.
An overview of the Heian period, including glossaries of characters and historical figures.

Puett, William J., Guide To The Tale of Genji, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1983.
A condensed guide to the lengthy novel, plus insight into historical, cultural, geographic, and artistic aspects of the culture.

Rimer, Thomas J., A Reader's Guide to Japanese Literature, Kodansha International, 1988.
This work illuminates wide-ranging classics from poetry to essays, fiction to dramatic texts.

Bibliography

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Bowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: “The Tale of Genji.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. This slim volume provides readable information on cultural background, including Heian politics, the author’s background and her fictionalization of history, and religions that influenced the novel. Also discusses the novel’s style, language, influence, and reception.

Caddeau, Patrick W. Appraising “Genji”: Literary Criticism and Cultural Anxiety in the Age of the Last Samurai. New York: State University of New York, 2006. An examination of the analysis of Genji by nineteenth century critic Hagiwara Hiromichi. Especially useful to the general reader for its introduction, which surveys the critical reception of the work since medieval times.

Field, Norma. The Splendor of Longing in “The Tale of Genji.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. Concentrates on the relationships between the hero and his women in the novel.

Kamens, Edward, ed. Approaches to Teaching Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1993. Following a section on materials and recommended reading, six essays suggest ways of studying The Tale of Genji. Other authors treat problems of reading the text and compare it with other literary works.

Keene, Donald. Japanese Literature. New York: Grove Press, 1955. The definitive commentator on Japanese literature, Keene discusses the Japanese novel’s indebtedness to The Tale of Genji and its sad obsession with mutability.

McCullough, Wilt. “Japanese Marriage Institutions in the Heian Period.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 27 (1967): 103-167. A closely annotated translation of Eiga monogatari, a fictionalized history of the Fujiwara clan. Borrows techniques of The Tale of Genji; its introduction, notes, and appendices are a gold mine of information on Heian customs.

Miner, Earl, ed. Principles of Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. Seven essays combine Japanese and North American viewpoints in discussing Japanese literature. Includes a discussion of whether The Tale of Genji is a collection rather than a single unified work and an examination of the work’s structure and narrative.

Morris, Ivan. “Aspects of The Tale of Genji.” In The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. A classic treatment of various aspects of the Heian period. Chapter 10 discusses The Tale of Genji. Also includes valuable appendices.

Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1964. An entertaining discussion of the Heian court’s cultural milieu, with much information taken from literary sources. Includes helpful appendices, charts of relationships, genealogical information, a glossary, a bibliography, and an index.

Puette, William J. Guide to “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1983. Discusses essential aspects of the world of Genji, provides chapter summaries, and examines the novel’s structure. Also includes an appendix with helpful maps, charts, and indexes.

Takehiko, Noguchi. “The Substratum Constituting Monogatari: Prose Structure and Narrative in the Genji monogatari.” In Principles of Classical Japanese Literature, edited by Earl Miner. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. Describes how Murasaki’s novel is structured by pairing, foreshadowing, cause and effect, generational correspondences, contrasts, and ellipses. These categories create depths in the monogatari’s narrative structure, with the deepest substratum consisting of the narrator’s voice.

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