The oldest onnae (scroll paintings) from Japan, believed to have been painted in the 1120s or 1130s AD, contain 19 illustrations from Genji Monagatari (源氏物語, The Tale of Genji). Written in the early 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady in attendance at the Japanese court, The Tale of Genji is a graceful work of imaginative fiction which is also infused by a comprehensive knowledge of Chinese and Japanese poetry. In short, it is not an easy piece of literature.
The work of fiction is written in a notoriously complex style, incorporating many nuances and contained over 800 inserted poems. But it is a timeless classic and has been immensely influential in Japanese literature and thought as it has been read, studied, alluded to, quoted and imitated in countless Japanese literary works and theatre ever since. The Tale of Genji vividly describes the complex life and relationships of Genji, a handsome courtier, an excellent lover and a worthy friend. But, at its most basic, the Tale of Genji serves as an introduction to the culture of the aristocracy in early Heian Japan (794 – 1185 AD) ranging from its forms of entertainment, dress and daily life to the very strict moral codes of society at the time.
The Trouble With The Tale Of Genji and its Audience
Like many classical works, The Tale of Genji presents a certain degree of difficulty. The high level of modesty and decorum of the court life presents a complication for readers and translators. The Heian-era court manners considered it unacceptably blunt and too familiar to freely refer to a person by their given name. Therefore, instead of giving an explicit, instantly-recognizable name, the characters are referred to by their function or role (Minister of the Left), an honorific (His Excellency), their relation to other characters (Heir Apparent), words used at a meeting, by the rank of a prominent male relative if the character is a woman, and even the color of their clothes. All of these naturally change as the character marries, assumes a new position, or even simply changes clothes as the novel progresses.
Then there is the trouble with the language. The Tale of Genji was written in an ancient language of the court that became unreadable just a century after it was written. So even native Japanese speakers would have read annotated and illustrated versions of the work since the 12th century. Even without this issue, Murasaki’s language, the Heian period court Japanese, was highly inflected with a very complex grammatical structure, thus making it difficult even for an average person of the era to master.
Another aspect which complicated the reading of the tale was the use of poetry in conversations, particularly in the tanka form. From the latter half of the eighth century AD, the term tanka was used to refer to short-form poems. Tanka became the dominant form of poetry in Japan. It was therefore expected, even fashionable, in the Heian court for the characters to modify or rephrase a classic poem according to the current situation or allude to a perceived slight or scandal using a poem. Most of the poems would have been well known to the intended audience, which were the court-ladies of the time. Therefore, one would find that the novel often only presented the first few lines of the poems, leaving the readers to complete the poems themselves, as Murasaki expected her readers to already know the poems very well. In the modern world, this would be like saying “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” or “to be or not to be…” without finishing the sentence, as one expects listeners to have pre-knowledge without taking into consideration that not everyone is familiar with, likes or even understands the works of Shakespeare.
As it was written by a woman, it was likely that the original manuscript of Tale of Genji was written mostly in kana (Japanese phonetic script) because it was written for a female audience instead of the kanji (Chinese characters that are used in the Japanese writing system) favored by the men, thus narrowing its target audience even further.
The Summary of the Much Longer Story of Genji
Set at the height of the Heian period during the reign of Emperor Daigo from 897 to 930 CE, The Tale of Genji spans around 70 years – the lifetime of Prince Genji and, later, his descendants. The story starts with Genji ‘s birth. His mother, Kiritsubo, was a woman of a low rank in court who was mistreated by the other wives of the emperor. Kiritsubo died when Genji was just three years old. Prince Hikaru Genji (Hikaru means ‘Shining’) was the son of an emperor, but not in direct line to the throne. A Korean fortune-teller predicted that if ever Genji acquired the throne the state would have suffered a disaster. This was amplified by the emperor’s consort, Kokiden, who was also jealous of the attention that young Hikaru was getting from her husband. The emperor responded to the prophecy by demoting Hikaru from his rank as a prince, to a mere nobleman with the surname Minamoto or Genji. However, the emperor loved Genji very much and permitted him to reside in the royal palace.
The emperor then met a woman named Fujitsubo, who closely resembled Genji’s late mother and soon invited her to court to be his first consort. Genji fell desperately in love with his stepmother but he was already promised to another. Therefore, at aged 12, he married Aoi who was six years his senior. Due to his feelings for Fujitsubo, Genji’s marriage was an unhappy one. He had numerous affairs, most notably with a low-born girl named Murasaki whom he would later marry. Genji had a son with Aoi, called Yugiri, and another son with his stepmother who, recognized as the emperor’s own, later became the future Emperor Reizei. Although Genji was ashamed of his affair with Fujitsubo, when Reizei discovered that Genji was his real father, he bestowed on Genji the honor of a rank equal to that of a retired emperor.
The retired Emperor Suzaku asked Genji to marry his third daughter after the death of Genji’s first wife Aoi. Thus, Genji’s other wife, Murasaki, became jealous despite Genji’s explanation for his actions and his repetitive declarations of his love for her. Murasaki expressed a wish to become a nun but she fell ill and died.
The final part of the book is set after the death of Genji and tells us about the problems and intrigues which beset his descendants, particularly one of his sons, Kaoru, and Genji’s grandson, Niou. Both of these men fell in love with the same woman, Ukifune. Ukifune, caught in this impossible situation, attempted suicide but failed and became a nun, refusing to see her former lovers.
One Prince is not Like Another: The Minamoto Name and The Royal Lineage
As with every work of literature, it is helpful and rather fun to look behind the story and figure out the lives and times in which the text was composed. And so it is with the Tale of Genji.
Minamoto (源) is the surname given to Genji by his father. It is also one of the surnames bestowed by the emperors of Japan upon members of the imperial family who were excluded from the line of succession and demoted to the ranks of the nobility – echoing the circumstances of Genji’s position. The practice reached its peak in popularity during the Heian period (794–1185 AD). The Minamoto clan is also called the Genji (源氏), using another reading for the word Minamoto.
During the Heian period, the Minamoto was one of four great clans that dominated Japanese politics — the other three being the Fujiwara, the Taira and the Tachibana.
The first emperor to grant the surname Minamoto to his children was Emperor Saga (786 – 842 AD). He reigned from 809 to 823 AD. He had 49 children, which resulted in a significant financial burden on the imperial household. To alleviate some of the pressure of supporting his many offspring using the imperial money, Emperor Saga demoted many of his sons and daughters to the ranks of nobles instead of royals. He chose the word Minamoto (meaning ‘origin’) for their new surname to signify that the new clan shared the same origins as the royal family.
This practice of giving their non-heir sons or daughters the name Minamoto was continued by several emperors that succeeded him. As these very specific hereditary lines sprang from different emperors, their lineage was then referred to by the emperor’s name followed by Genji (e.g. Seiwa Genji, which implied a demoted son or daughter of Emperor Seiwa).
Within royalty there was also a distinction between princes. There were those with the title shinno (親王) (meaning ‘able to advance’ or, in other words, eligible to become the new emperor). This title was given to those who could ascend to the throne. Another group of princes was given the title o (王) (meaning ‘great’) which signified that, although they were members of the royal class and thus still outranking members of the Minamoto clan, they were not members of the line of imperial succession.
Many later clans in Japan originated from the Minamoto clan. There are also known monks of Minamoto descent. However, although they are often noted in genealogies, they did not carry the clan name due to them being given dharma names upon their ordinations.
A Part of Life’s Beauty and Poetry: Murasaki Shikibu and Prince Fujiwara No Michinaga
Murasaki Shikibu was writing at the height of the power of Prince Fujiwara no Michinaga (966 – 1028 CE), who was the Regent to the king in all but name. Michinaga was reputed to be courageous, as well as a skilled horseman and archer. His gift of poetry was praised by his friends and he was evidently quite proud of it. At a party to celebrate his grandson becoming the Emperor Go-Ichijo in 1016, Michinaga composed Mochizuki no Uta (望月の歌, ‘Song of the Full Moon’), where he said: “This world, I think/ Is indeed my world./ Like the full moon I shine,/ Uncovered by any cloud.”
Given the success of his tactics and political maneuvers, Michinaga clearly had a high degree of understanding of people and the human heart. He frequently held extravagant gatherings and entertainments, indicating his taste for opulence and luxury as a trademark as opposed to the tasteful modesty that characterized the Heian period. However, even his extravagance had a particular purpose, as it demonstrated the wealth and power of the Fujiwara clan, thus impressing his allies and intimidating his rivals.
Michinaga’s vast expenditures included shrines and temples. He was known to rebuke courtiers who neglected Shinto ceremonies and was a devoted follower of the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra, ‘Lotus of the Good Law Sutra’), one of the earlier Mahayana Buddhist texts venerated as the quintessence of truth by the Japanese Tendai and Nichiren sects. When the Pure Land Buddhism began to grow and developed during his rule, Michinaga supported and adopted its teachings. The Pure Land Buddhism is a broad branch of Mahayana Buddhism and would later become one of the most widely practiced traditions of Buddhism in East Asia. Murasaki may have partially based the character of Genji on her knowledge and experience of Michinaga.
Perhaps in keeping with the Heian period’s sense of decorum that viewed direct reference to a person’s real name as improper, Murasaki Shikibu’s birthname is not known, although there has been some common suspicion that her real name might have been Fujiwara no Kaoruko, who was mentioned in a court diary as an imperial lady-in-waiting in 1007. If this is true, then it was likely that she was born into the northern Fujiwara clan which dominated court politics until the end of the 11th century through regencies and strategic marriages of their daughters into the imperial family. This particular branch of the Fujiwara clan gradually lost power, and by the time of Murasaki’s birth, the clan’s status was demoted to the middle to lower ranks of the Heian aristocracy, roughly to the level of provincial governors which were typically posted away from court to undesirable positions in the provinces. This rank was often sneered at because of its lower position and the countrified behavior and speech of those bureaucrats who had to spend time away from the capital. This might have explained her entrance to court as a lady-in-waiting in her early to mid-thirties, and not earlier.
The name Murasaki Shikibu was merely a descriptive name for her. Murasaki was a nickname meaning ‘purple’ and Shikibu (meaning ‘secretariat’) referred to her father’s position, as it was customary at the time to call a daughter by her father’s position. It was likely that Murasaki became a nyobo (lady-in-waiting) at court because of her already established reputation as an author. In her diary, it is revealed that, after the death of her husband, Murasaki exchanged poetry with Michinaga. Richard John Bowring, Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Cambridge, states in his introduction to The Diary of Lady Murasaki (1996) that although Michinaga was the one who brought her to court without following official channels, there is no evidence that Murasaki Shikibu was brought to court as Michinaga’s lover or concubine.
It was perhaps also due to her comparatively late entry into the court that Murasaki held no illusion of life at court. The elite group of aristocrats depicted in the Tale of Genji through Murasaki’s eyes is portrayed as being uninterested in anything but their own leisure, with the emperor at the center of their world. Obsessed with rank and breeding, they were highly receptive to nature’s beauty and music, poetry, calligraphy, and fine clothing. Heian courtiers knew nothing about the world outside of the capital and took even less notice. They never traveled and regarded the common people as almost sub-human.
Hidden Women and the Art of Flirting in the 11th Century
Although there are no evidence of any non-platonic relationship between Murasaki Shikibu and Michinaga, the fact that Murasaki exchanged poetry with Michinaga led to debates about the nature of their relationship – mainly because, for the time period, the exchange of poetry between a man and a woman was considered to be very intimate.
The only men who should have laid eyes upon Heian ladies were their fathers and their husbands. Locked behind a number of windows, blinds and fans, these women lived most of their adult life in dark spaces. When they left their homes, they travelled by suitable transportation in an ox-drawn carriage with a slit for the ladies to peer out from. So it is understandable that these house-bound ladies were entranced by fantastic tales in the same way that English women would become addicted to the 18th-century Gothic novels. A Heian lady’s only escape from a sedentary lifestyle was to undertake occasional pilgrimages to Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines.
Seeing that it was very rare for a woman to leave their homes and the men can’t see anything more of them apart from perhaps their silhouettes behind the blinds, one can imagine that the Heian people were not really interested in the physical attractiveness of a woman as they rarely got to see a woman in the first place. Therefore, the notion of a woman being “attractive” would confine itself to parts of her that a man could see. For example, the only physical feature of concern was a woman’s hair, which had to be thick and longer than the length of her body – very difficult to cover! This fascination with long hair was one reason why a woman becoming a nun was regarded with such seriousness as her hair could never again grow to its full length. This explains why, in The Tale of Genji, Genji refuses to allow his wife Murasaki to become a nun.
Many feminine qualities that fascinated a gentleman at that time were impeccable breeding, exquisite poetry and calligraphy skills. Also very important was her attire and perfectly matched colors. The day’s fashion statement was for ladies to allow the overlapping sleeves of their various robes to be seen protruding from below the edges of their screens or gaily dangling from their carriage. The small fabrics of the sleeves attracted men, and a beautiful and clever poem turned that attraction into love.
To grasp the style of courtship at the time, it is useful to look to the male courtiers of the palace who had plenty of time and exposure to pursue women, as their main duties were serving the emperor with very little administrative work involved. Usually, high-ranking men were polygamous with an arranged marriage for political purposes to a principal wife and many concubines, as well as the right to seduce other women who took their fancy. Seduction was largely a matter of getting behind the screens of the lady whether or not she was prepared to have a liaison with him.
A love affair consisted of the gentleman visiting his lady secretly at night and leaving before dawn with a tender farewell. It was de rigeur for the man to send a ‘morning-after poem’ as soon as he arrived home, and most of the affair was performed as an exchange of poems handed down by messengers. The ladies undoubtedly wondered how long the attention of the man would last and their doubts of his commitment were usually justified.
You can find a copy of the Tale of Genji anywhere these days, but Project Gutenberg has a royalty free version of the book translated by Arthur Waley (1889-1966)