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Thoughts on Japan

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

July 06, 2009

Does the Shining Prince yet shine?

In my first column, I mentioned in passing the Genji Monogatari 源氏物語 (The ‘Tale of Genji’), and referred to it as Japan’s greatest literary masterpiece, promising to return to this vitally important topic at a later date. Well, that time has now come, but you may ask why a literary work written a thousand years ago should be important enough to devote time to today, if you are not a pre-modern Japan specialist. You may wonder if I don’t have an ulterior motive for writing about it, and I have to confess, I do: many years ago I came across a series of translations for academic where, ‘This is a vitally important topic,’ was given as the academic equivalent of, ‘This is the topic of my dissertation,’ and, yes, I have to admit that more years ago than I like to think of, now, I wrote a thesis entitled ‘The Tale of Genji: “A Loose Sequence of Vague Phrases”?’ where I took issue with claims by some scholars that the language of Genji is intrinsically vague and difficult to understand. So, after spending three years living, breathing and thinking Genji, I can’t claim to be entirely objective about it, however, even so I don’t think it is something you can easily ignore if you are interested in Japan and Japanese culture. To give you an idea of the work’s significance to the Japanese, I was once told that there has been more criticism and commentary written about Genji in Japanese than there has been about all of the works of Shakespeare in English – and anything which has proved so influential has to be deserving of at least some consideration. In the space I have here, I can do no more than make a pinprick on Genji’s surface, but I’m going to try and give you an idea of what sort of work it is, what made it so influential, and why it’s still worth a read now.

So, what is the Genji Monogatari? Well, it’s a lengthy literary work in fifty-four ‘chapters’, covering the life, career and loves of the son of an Emperor, the Genji of the title, called hikaru genji 光源氏 – ‘the shining Genji’, because of his extraordinary talent and beauty, and those of some of his descendants. There are affairs, triumphs, exiles, disasters, spirit possession and death, all played out against the background of the world of exquisite taste and etiquette that was life for the higher nobility. Unlike in any of the works written at the same time, however, the characters in Genji have believable and convincing inner lives, so it’s considered to be ‘psychological’ and, therefore, ‘modern’ in the literary sense, despite being written so long ago. That alone would be enough to guarantee it a place in the annals of world literature, as it’s literally the first work of its kind in history.

Imagine how unique and novel it must have seemed, then, to the aristocrats of the imperial court, who literally had come across nothing like it. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that it proved to be extremely popular – in particular with the women, who had little else to do beside wait for the slim chance that the emperor might pay them some attention. Quite apart from its uniqueness, its popularity was also due to fact that the hero of the work was, in many ways, the perfect Heian man, who, despite his many flaws, was loyal to the many women with whom he had relations and almost never abandoned them to penury after his affections cooled. This, however, would not be enough to make the work endure – that was at least partly due to the progress of Japan’s history.

The Genji was written during the zenith of Japan’s aristocratic age – when court culture was at its height. This meant that in the years and decades after its composition, the aristocracy’s power and wealth waned as the court gradually lost control of the provinces to a rising warrior class – the samurai. As a consequence, the nobility tried desperately to retain control in the one area where it still had some authority – culture and the arts – and the Genji became a crucial part of this. Quite apart from its literary merits, it came to be seen as a blueprint for a more civilised and cultured age – an unimpeachable historical record of earlier customs and events – and thus it was preserved and studied. In addition, the aesthetics of Genji were regarded as being crucial to an understanding of waka poetry: Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204), one of Japan’s most influential poets and critics even went so far as to remark that no one could be a poet who had not read it. Thus it was pored over and studied by poets and critics, becoming a practically endless source of allusions and material for poetic composition. The Genji-inspired poetry in turn inspired plays – first Noh and then Kabuki, and even Bunraku puppetry – artworks, fabric designs for kimono, pastiches, satires, and a wealth of critical works. One might almost say that it’s easier to list the bits of Japanese culture which haven’t been influenced by Genji in some way, rather than those that have, because its influence and effect is so pervasive.

That isn’t to say that there weren’t periods when it was less read, or popular, and by the end of the Tokugawa period in the mid-nineteenth century, when the language in which it was written was so remote from Japanese as it was then that only scholars could read it, the Genji as a text, as opposed to an influence, was perhaps on its way into obscurity, but once again, history intervened. With the opening of the country and the formation of the new Meiji state, the government urgently need ways to prove to the western powers that Japan was a ‘civilised’ country, and the Genji was a useful means. Thus, it began to be reread and studied with the new critical tools provided by European and American scholarship, and from there it was a short step to producing translations into modern Japanese, so that contemporary readers could experience it in their own language, and some of Japan’s greatest modern writers and poets have turned their hand to the task. For example, Yosano Akiko 與謝野晶子 (1878-1942), perhaps Japan’s most famous and passionate modern tanka poetess, and Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (1886-1965), author of the masterful Sasameyuki 細雪 (translated into English as ‘The Makioka Sisters’), each produced their own version. Tanizaki, in fact, translated it no few than three times, as he attempted to get closer to the essence of the work.

The new interest in Genji, spurred by its modern Japanese translations and inclusion as an essential text in the school curriculum, has generated a whole range of new adaptations and variations of it: films, re-writings, television dramas, manga and anime; it’s even been performed, many times, by the all-woman Takarazuka Gekijō 宝塚劇場! Many of these modern versions have provided new interpretations, or new twists, on the work’s plot, re-imagining it for new ages and generations – one of the Genji films was even the first to have an actor portray an emperor on screen, although he was only shown from the back.

The development of Japanese interest was paralleled by that in other nations, once scholars became aware of Genji’s existence. It’s now been translated into French, German, Russian, Czech, and English – three times completely, and twice partially – and is at least mentioned in almost every Japanese Studies course. Last year, 2008, was declared by the Japanese government to be the official millennium of its writing, and it was celebrated with exhibitions and conferences world-wide. You’d be hard pushed to find a Japanese who didn’t know the work’s title, and the majority would have a rough idea of the plot – like most British people would probably know that Romeo and Juliet was about a love affair that comes to a bad end. With all this going for it, how could Genji not be worth a read? If your only available language is English though, the question becomes which translation should you pick – and that’s what I’ll talk about in my next column.

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Thanks again for a great column. Not to be flippant, but recently on TV they had a fellow and his wife interviewed. Apparently he was the reclusive lead singer of a band called Hikaru Genji that was popular some time back. Maybe they were the SMAP of the 80s? I don't doubt that some Japanese youngsters first heard the name Hikaru Genji because of this band. The cultural references are still occurring today, that's for sure. And this lead singer was praised for being handsome and charismatic in a way true to the original prince's reputation (he kind of reminded me of Legolas or one of the Lord of the Rings elves).

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