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Thoughts on Japan - Japanese Literature Archive

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.

October 13, 2009

Amber or Green Tea - Part One

The title of this column may seem a bit obscure, particularly as I said last time I was going to talk about the English translations of Genji Monogatari, but bear with me, all will become clear shortly.

As I mentioned in my last column, there are five English translations of Genji, three complete, and two partial. Here are the translators’ names and the dates of publication:

• Suematsu Kenchō (1882)
• Arthur Waley (1925)
• Edward Seidensticker (1976)
• Helen McCullough (1994)
• Royall Tyler (2001)

As you can see, the translations are widely separated in time and appeared at the end of the nineteenth century, in the early and latter parts of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first century, meaning that the translators’ purposes in translating, their readers, and the translations’ reception were bound to be different. This also means that each of them is a very different work, and will give you a very different idea of Genji depending upon which one you read now. I’m going to deal with the first two translations this week, and will discuss the others later.

Suematsu’s translation is incomplete, covering only the first seventeen ‘chapters’ of the original. It starts as follows:

The Chamber of Kiri[i]

In the reign of a certain Emperor, whose name is unknown to us, there was, among the Niogo and Kôyi[ii] of the Imperial Court, one who, though she was not of high birth, enjoyed the full tide of Royal favour. Hence her superiors, each one of whom had always been thinking—“I shall be the one,” gazed upon her disdainfully with malignant eyes, and her equals and inferiors were more indignant still.

[i] The beautiful tree, called Kiri, has been named Paulownia Imperialia, by botanists.
[ii] Official titles held by Court ladies. (Suematsu Kenchō, 1974, 19)

One could take issue with the translation of the title, the uninformative footnotes, and, now, the somewhat old-fashioned phrasing (‘gazed upon her disdainfully with malignant eyes’), but overall there if much to commend here: it is a faithful reflection of the original’s content, and goes some way to replicating its rhythm and style.

In his introduction Suematsu explicitly states his purpose in translating:

[It] is not so much to amuse my readers as to present them with a study of human nature, and to give them information on the history of the social and political condition of my native country nearly a thousand years ago. They will then be able to compare it with the condition of mediaeval and modern Europe. (Suematsu Kenchō, 1974, 17) 

Suematsu was a diplomat despatched to Britain by the Meiji government, and his translation was a way to emphasise that Japan, far from being a barbaric, peripheral nation, had equalled, and even exceeded, the cultural developments of the western powers. This was in keeping with the Japanese government’s major foreign policy aim of securing a revision to the ‘unequal treaties’ signed by the Tokugawa shogunate. It was a translation for a political purpose, in other words. The contemporary critical reception of the translation, however, was patronising, to say the least:

The story, if story it may be called, when there is not a vestige or anything like a plot, is exceedingly tedious…The best things in the book are the scraps of verse, which are sometimes really pretty. (The Spectator 1882)

Despite this seemingly negative reception, however, the translation was reprinted in 1898, at which time the following review appeared:

…the text carries with it innumerable verses, which are to us utterly meaningless…we now understand the wonderful art of Japan, but perhaps it will be never given to us to appreciate her fiction. (The New York Times 1898)

At this time the very existence of Japanese literature was an object of curiosity, and, it was never considered that it could be in any way equal to the literary achievements of Europe, or, not to put too fine a point on it, English. This should come as no surprise: Britain, in particular, was still in the grip of the self-confident Victorian assumption of its own superiority, and any work of world literature, not just those from Japan, was likely to be regarded in the same way. So, you could say that Suematsu’s translation was, and to some extent still is, a curiosity and not worth a great deal of attention.

The first complete translation of Genji, by Arthur Waley, and published in six volumes between 1925-32, however, was a different matter. It was widely read, and highly praised by the British literary establishment. On the cover of the edition which I own, in an excerpted quotation from the New York Times, it is described as being ‘as robust as “Tom Jones,” as discerning as “Don Quixote,” as untrammeled as “The Arabian Nights”’, clearly placing it in the company of other, more familiar, major works of English, European and world literature.

Waley begins his Genji like this:


At the Court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of very high rank was favoured far beyond all the rest; so that the great ladies of the Palace, each of whom had secretly hoped that she herself would be chosen, looked with scorn and hatred upon the upstart who had dispelled their dreams. Still less were her former companions, the minor ladies of the Wardrobe, content to see her raised so far above them.

[i] This chapter should be read with indulgence. In it Murasaki, still under the influence of her somewhat childish predecessors, writes in a manner which is a blend of the Court chronicle with the conventional fairy-tale. (Waley, 1935, 7)

Setting aside the footnote – I think the last thing one would do nowadays when translating a literary work is insult one’s author on the very first page - you can see immediately, I hope, that this is a more literary version than the previous one. A reader is caught at once by the initial, long, sentence and swept away by its rhythm. This is easily done as Waley has decided, for example, to translate the terms nyōgo (女御) and kōi (更衣), which Suematsu simply transcribed, even if the translations themselves are somewhat opaque. He has, though, left the chapter title untranslated, and unexplained. How much you enjoy it, I suppose, depends on whether you like this relatively flowery style (an American student of mine once remarked that this could only ever have been written by an Englishman), but I have to confess to finding it enchanting, and I am not the only one: for example, writing in Vogue in 1925, Virginia Woolf made these effusive comments:

While the Aelfrics and the Aelfreds croaked and coughed in England, this court lady...was sitting down in her silk dress and trousers with pictures before her and the sound of poetry in her ears, with flowers in her garden and nightingales in the trees, with all day to talk in and all night to dance in-she was sitting down about the year 1000 to tell the story of the life and adventures of Prince Genji. (Woolf, 1966, 265)

With positive reviews such as this to drive it, Waley’s translation was read by many people and evaluated highly. Again, this is, perhaps, unsurprising, given when it appeared: in the early 1920s the First World War remained an unhealed wound upon the psyche of the British people, many of whom could perceive little hope for a better life in the immediate future. It seems unsurprising, therefore, that they should seize on Genji as offering an escape into a romantic and more civilised world, and that it should exercise a strong influence on the British literary establishment, with Aldous Huxley relating in later years that the Tale of Genji was ‘the essence of all tragedy, refined to a couple of tablespoonfuls of amber coloured tea in a porcelain cup no bigger than a magnolia flower’ (Huxley 1939: 156).

This brings us to the title of the column and the crux of the matter: it’s a fact that Japanese tea is, of course, green, and amber tea can’t help but seem foreign, or rather, un-Japanese (the Japanese word for Indian tea is kōcha 紅茶which literally translates as ‘scarlet tea’, as you probably know already). Although Huxley may not have meant it this way, Waley’s translation departs in both letter and spirit from the Japanese original in order to make the resultant English text more palatable to the English reader. The technical term for this in Translation Studies is domestication, and there’s no doubt that Waley’s Genji is thoroughly domesticated, with European furniture and other accoutrements inserted, changes in characterisation and motivation, and substantial deletions, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, or influential.

Next week, I’ll talk about the more recent translations – those which are more akin to green tea.


Mccullough, Helen (1994), Genji and Heike Selections from the Tale of Genji and the Tale of the Heike Stanford, Stanford University Press.
Seidensticker, Edward G. (1981), The Tale of Genji Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Suematsu Kenchō (1974), Genji Monogatari Tokyo, Tuttle.
Tyler, Royall (2001), The Tale of Genji Harmondsworth, Viking.
Waley, Arthur (1935), The Tale of Genji Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Company.
Woolf, Virginia (1966), "The Tale of Genji", 264-268, in Virginia Woolf (Ed.) Collected Essays London, Hogarth Press.

November 05, 2009

Amber or Green Tea - Part Two

This week, I’m continuing my discussion of Genji translations with a consideration of the more recent versions of the work. Forty-four years after Arthur Waley’s version, the second complete English Genji translation, by Edward Seidensticker, appeared. In his preface, Seidensticker criticises Waley’s version, saying Waley’s ‘translation is very free…his excisions seem merely arbitrary…Waley embroiders marvelously’ (Seidensticker, 1981, xiv), making it clear that his motivation in retranslating the work was, at least in part, to correct perceived errors in the earlier version and, indeed, the points of difference between the two translations formed a major parts of the reviews of Seidensticker’s translation with, for example, Marian Ury claiming, ‘it is clear that the cuts and alterations that Waley made in his translation are such that it is no longer possible to take it as a faithful representation of the original. Waley's book is an intriguing hybrid; but we have not really had a Genji in English until now’ (1977, 201), and Helen McCullough going even further to say, ‘few who have access to Seidensticker's translation will feel inclined to re-read his predecessor’ (1977, 93).

So, what is this wonderful new translation like? Well, here’s Seidensticker’s version of the beginning of the tale:

The Paulownia Court

In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and lesser ladies were still more resentful. (Seidensticker, 1981, 3)

In fact, this is even more like a cup of amber tea than either of the previous versions, in some ways. The chapter title is translated, the sentence structure is simplified, and some of the imagery is cut, producing an English version which is easily comprehensible, but somewhat terse. This observation is not original – Edwin Cranston in his review of the Seidensticker translation for the Journal of Japanese Studies noted as much, saying that it was ‘drier, brisker, more quotidian’ (Cranston, 1978, 24), than Waley’s, while Roy Andrew Miller makes the comment that, ‘in place of the smoothly articulated, arching structures of the text, we are given…a paragraph of short, effective sentences…it offers nothing unfamiliar or strange; it does not confront the visitor with anything in the least unexpected or novel’ (Miller, 1986, 113) – both of these comments suggest that ease of reading for the target audience was paramount in Seidensticker’s translation strategy, although it is certainly true that his Genji is identifiably set in Heian Japan.

Moving on the fourth translation, Helen McCullough’s 1994 version is incomplete and consists only of ten selected chapters from the work. It was published in a book composed of the Genji excerpts and selections from Heike Monogatari 平家物語 (‘The Tale of the Heike’), another classical Japanese tale. Her intentions in making the translation were to provide a resource for ‘students in survey courses and others who may lack the time to read The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Heike in their entirety’ (McCullough, 1994, ix), and as such it is not usually mentioned in considerations of English Genji translations, but for completeness’ sake, here is her take:


During the reign of a certain sovereign, it happened that one rather insignificant lady enjoyed far greater Imperial favor than any of the other consorts and concubines. She was regarded with contempt and jealousy by proud ladies of superior status—personages who had always taken their own success very much for granted—and her equals and inferiors among the concubines felt even more disgruntled. (McCullough, 1994, 25)

The most recent translation, by Royall Tyler, unfortunately, has failed to become much of a talking point: I have been able to locate only a single review appearing in an academic journal, framed in less than entirely glowing terms:

[I]t will not give rise to the rapturous transports or sensory revelations that readers of Woolf's…generation experienced through Waley's version; nor…is there much reason to look for the epochal revisions of scholarly protocols and the global shifts in interpretation that reviewers thought would follow from the publication of Seidensticker's. (Kamens, 2003, 339)

It is a sad fact that in academia today the publication of a new translation of a work often fails to excite much interest. Kamen’s review cannot be called negative, but it displays a denigratory attitude to translation as an academic activity, dismissing it as a ‘faulty but necessary medium’ (Kamens, 2003, 334). Thus, while simultaneously praising Tyler’s work, Kamen’s attitude can be summed up as implying that translations are only important or relevant insofar as they stimulate readers to read, or do research on, the original texts. As he himself says, ‘I hope it will invite at least some readers to look beyond translation to imagine what else may be done’ (Kamens, 2003, 339).

This isn’t the place to go into what I think of that in detail – suffice it to say that more than one colleague has said to me that the work that gives them most satisfaction, and of which they are most proud, is their translations, but that in order to comply with institutional priorities, and for the sake of their careers, they are obliged to write research article after research article. Leaving that aside, though, what about the translation itself? Here’s Tyler’s version:

The Paulownia Pavilion

Kiri means “paulownia tree” and tsubo “a small garden between palace buildings.” Kiristsubo is therefore the name for the palace pavilion that has a paulownia in its garden. The Emperor installs Genji’s mother there, so that readers have always called her Kiritsubo no Kōi (the Kiritsubo Intimate), although the text does not.

In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still. (Tyler, 2001, 1-3)

Immediately, one can see that this is a very different animal, indeed, from the previous versions. The rhythm is closer to that of the first two translations, and there is also a significant amount of editorial apparatus, leaving the reader in no doubt about the significance of the title. This is replicated throughout the text – ‘there are few pages…that do not have at least one if not several notes’ (Kamens, 2003, 336) – and there is a wealth of additional material contained in appendices and afterwords. The overall result, then, is that readers are constantly aware that they are reading a translation and being informed about Heian Japan. In addition, Tyler goes further in attempting to replicate in English, as closely as is possible, the experience of reading the original Heian Japanese. To this end he refers to characters with titles, rather than names, and blends, to some extent at least, narration and quotation which, again, leaves one in no doubt that one is reading a work written in a very different way from something written in the English tradition. It certainly is a cup of green tea.

To conclude, then: the reception of each of the major translations of Genji has been different, and reflects the period in which it appeared: Suematsu’s was a curiosity; Waley’s a romantic work of English literature; Seidensticker’s a correction of Waley’s errors and a major step forward in Japanese Studies; and, finally, Tyler’s which appears to have had only a limited literary and academic impact.

Which, then, should you read, if you want to get better-acquainted with Genji? Are you the amber-coloured tea type, in search of a fantastical and romantic reading experience? Choose Waley, then. Do you want to get a quick, yet faithful sense of the work’s content? Choose Seidensticker. Or, are you the green-tea type, wanting to get the closest possible equivalent in English to reading a classical Japanese work, while at the same time learning about its setting? Then, Tyler has to be your choice. Each has its strengths, and each its weaknesses, and perhaps the most important question to ask, is ‘Will I enjoy reading this text?’ and if the answer is, ‘Yes’, then that’s the translation for you.


Cranston, Edwin (1978), "Review: The Seidensticker Genji" Journal of Japanese Studies 4 (1), 1-25.
Kamens, Edward (2003), ""A Beautiful, Quiet World"? The Tale of Genji and Its English Translations" Journal of Japanese Studies 29 (2), 325-339.
Mccullough, Helen (1977), "Review: The Seidensticker Genji" Monumenta Nipponica 32 (1), 93-110.
Mccullough, Helen (1994), Genji and Heike Selections from the Tale of Genji and the Tale of the Heike Stanford, Stanford University Press.
Miller, Roy Andrew (1986), Nihongo: In Defense of Japanese London, Athlone Press.
Seidensticker, Edward G. (1981), The Tale of Genji Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Tyler, Royall (2001), The Tale of Genji Harmondsworth, Viking.
Ury, Marian (1977), "Review: The Complete Genji" Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 37 (1), 183-201.



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