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Thoughts on Japan - Traditional Japanese Culture 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

February 13, 2009

A Love Affair in Five Acts

I was going to devote this week’s column to the topic of the Japanese language – and why it is, or isn’t, a difficult language to learn, but on noticing that the annual chocolate fest that is Valentine’s Day in Japan was nearly upon us, I decided that instead this week I’d devote to some thoughts about the Japanese idea of love, although as Lewis (1996: 270) says ‘Valentine's Day in Japan, for example, has a multiplicity of meanings that connect very strongly to issues of gender and power in that country, and that have little to do with the holiday as it is understood in America,’ or any other English-speaking country, for that matter, and has very little to do with love at all. That, however, is a matter for another time, although if you follow the link above, you'll learn that among this year's chocolate must-haves are gyaku choko 逆チョコ 'reverse chocolates', which have their labels printed in reverse (so that men can give them to women), chocolate flavoured ramen and, as a present for oneself, a chocolate facial!

How you express love for another person differs according to age, sex and, of course, cultural background, and what may be perfectly acceptable and normal behaviour in one cultural context can be beyond the pale in another. It’s also true that customs change over time: I well remember an anecdote told me by one of the Japanese members of staff at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, while I was doing my doctorate, about her grandmother’s wedding night. It seems that upon being escorted into the marital bedroom for the first time, she found her new husband, with whom she had barely exchanged two or three words before – this being a traditional miai 見合い – kneeling seiza 正座 beside the futon with a piece of paper, a brush and an ink-stone before him. He pushed these towards her with a brusque, ‘Koi no uta o yondekure’ 恋の歌を詠んでくれ (‘Compose me a love poem!’), and so her first act in married life was to wrack her brains for memories of the classical love poems she had learnt at school, and cobble something appropriate together out of the pieces.

I have no idea how many new Japanese husbands still ask their wives to do this – almost none, I suspect – but the exchange of poems between lovers has an extremely long history in Japan, and Love is by far the most important topic in traditional tanka 短歌 poetry, matched only by the combined four seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. You might wonder why this should be the case – well, the origins lie in the way relations were conducted between noble men and women in Japan’s classical, aristocratic age – the Heian 平安 Period between the ninth and twelfth centuries.

At that time, the only men a noblewoman was likely to meet face-to-face were her father, brothers and husband, unless she was fortunate enough to get a position at court. Any other men would be met through blinds and curtains, and if she was relatively senior, would only be communicated with through intermediaries – if a man called, the lady would speak to one of her serving women, who would approach the curtains dividing the room and speak to the man on the lady’s behalf. The lady herself might not even hear his voice as he spoke to her servant, and he might not even hear hers, as the servant passed on his words.

How, then, was a man to impress a lady enough that she might admit him into her bedchamber? And how was a lady to know what a man was like? On what basis could they form a judgement, when neither knew what the other looked like, sounded like, or were like? Well, the answer is that there was one means of communication open to them – writing, and more specifically, love poetry. A man would write a poem to a lady, and if she liked the sentiments of the poem, the look of his handwriting, his choice of paper, and the dress of the servant who delivered it, she might write back. On receiving her reply, the man would assess it in the same way, and decide whether he wanted to continue pursuing her. (If the lady was unwilling, but her serving women deemed the man a good one, they might write back on her behalf, and more than one Heian lady was surprised to find herself suddenly in the company of a man, who had been admitted by one of her servants, thinking she just needed a little push.)

This vital role that poetry played in relations between the sexes accounts for its importance as a topic for poetic composition. Poetically, a relationship was expected to go through five distinct stages: anticipation, consummation, satiation, desperation, and separation. So, you get poems yearning for a lover who doesn’t even know you exist, poems of joy after a relationship has been consummated, poems of affection between lovers who are close to each other, poems of grief when a lover has turned cold and either refuses another meeting, if a lady, or fails to come visiting, if a man. Finally, there are poems railing against a lover who has moved on, when the relationship is over and done.

A tryst was expected to be carried out according to detail rules of etiquette: the man had to arrive after dark, but he should not keep the lady waiting too long. After admittance to her house, he might play music – usually a flute (fue 笛) – while the lady accompanied him on the koto 琴. Next, he might be permitted to approach close to her curtains, while she approached from the other side, and they would converse directly. It was then understood that he would thrust the curtains aside, and the two would become lovers. This might be the first time the pair had ever seen each other, and thus in classical texts miru 見る ‘see’ almost always means ‘sleep with’ when referring to a man ‘seeing’ a woman. After spending the night together, buried under their kimono 着物 (other kinds of bed covering didn’t start being used until much later), the man had to be up and depart at dawn, before the rest of the household was officially awake. His first task, on returning to his own residence was to write a ‘morning-after’ poem, usually about how his sleeves had got soaked with dew, that is, tears, on his way home. This was an anxious period for the lady, for until his poem arrived, she didn’t know how serious the man was, and if it came tardily, or not at all…well, that would be dreadful. Once the man’s poem came, she would reply, usually along the lines of how she grieved at how brief their time together had been, and would seek to dream of his face while they were apart. Of course, if she didn’t think much of him, she would reply late, or not at all.

All this would usually be taking place in her parents’ house, and frequently with their connivance, if they approved of the man. If they did not, then they might post guards, or take other steps to keep him out – there are any number of sorrowful poems by men whose access to their lovers has been severed by disapproving parents. Once a man had spent three consecutive nights with a lady, and both parties agreed, the pair would be considered ‘married’ (there was no religious ceremony equivalent to a wedding – the Shintō ceremony used today was invented in the early twentieth century for the wedding of the Taishō Emperor), and he might be allowed to stay on past dawn, if he was lucky. (If you want to look into Heian marriages more deeply, the best place to start is probably with the classic article on the subject by William H. McCullough (1967), which discusses the different types of relationship and the property relationships involved; while Wakita and Gay (1984) provide a different analysis and also consider how customs changed after the decline of court culture and the rise of the samurai.)

It seems a strange way to carry on relationships, but it lasted for several hundred years, and though there was much grief and jealousy – unavoidable when it was a given in the system that one man would have a number of ‘wives’ in different locations and visit them – and there were double standards, in that a woman was expected to remain faithful, no matter how dilatory the man, but there was also much joy and passion, and through reading the poems these people have left behind you can form a connection with them as human beings, despite their living a thousand years ago in a society which is alien to us in almost every respect.

If you’d like to read more classical love poetry, check out my translations on my website (there’s over 3000 translated poems there, covering the entire range of poetic topics – you can even subscribe to my mailing list to get a weekly dose of poetry). I’ll leave the final word to Izumi Shikibu 和泉式部 (?976-?), perhaps Japan’s greatest ever poetess, and a beautiful poem which I love for its simple description of a single tender moment between two lovers:

Topic unknown.

kuro kami no
midarete sirazu
madu kakiyarisi
Fito zo koFisiki

My black hair’s
In disarray-uncaring
He lay down, and
First, gently smoothed it:
My darling love.



Lewis, George H. (1996), "The Somersaults of Monkeys: Diffusion of Culture and Meaning across the Pacific Rim" Journal of Popular Culture 30 (1), 263-276.
McCullough, William H. (1967), "Japanese Marriage Institutions in The Heian Period" Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 27, 103-67.
Wakita Haruko and Gay, Suzanne (1984), "Marriage and Property in Premodern Japan from the Perspective of Women's History" Journal of Japanese Studies, 10 (1), 73-99.

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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