Richard W. Amero




So widespread was the power of The Tale of Genji that Buddhists and Confucian thinkers claimed it as their own.  To Buddhists the novel was a literary rendition of the Lotus Sutra, while to Confucians it contained edifying female biographies.  As a counter to these distortions, Motoori Norinaga, an eighteenth century critic, said the love poetry of The Tale of Genji was superior to didactic verse and its reflections on beauty superior to essays on good and evil.


The ability of foreign readers to transcend some of the national peculiarities of the Japanese enables them to perceive certain aspects of the novel.  When Lady Murasaki wrote The Tale of Genji, the aristocracy combined polite manners with self-seeking motives and ignored the welfare of outsiders.  Stereotyped ways of responding based on literary precedents which one may see taking shape in the novel led in time to mechanical and perfunctory attitudes toward people.


Since the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) well-bred Japanese have adhered to a stoical tradition which made it difficult for them to show personal emotions in public.  Either because of their homogeneous society or because of their inability to develop into strong individuals, many cultivated Japanese have been beset by boredom and have been fascinated by suicide.


Donald Keene has described the stereotypical behavior of people in contemporary Japanese novels:


One has the impression always that the people are acting within a situation which has implicit in it certain regular reactions.  At first these reactions have to be learned as a part of everyday etiquette, but later they became the spontaneous expression of feelings.  Thus, in taking leave of ones host after a party one had to apologize for ones bad behavior, and thus when viewing the falling cherry blossoms or foam on water, one had to utter exclamations on the brevity of life.


Such conformist behavior is not unique to the Japanese as witness the sameness of conduct of the AOrganization Man@ in the American business world.  In both cases Ahollow men@ avoid cultivating feelings and interests that would set them apart from their peers.


In Aesthetics and History, Bernard Berenson remarked that Anothing in the graphic arts of Japan contemporary with Lady Murasaki or later including many attempts to illustrate her masterpiece so much as suggests a visual equivalent.@  Because he was devoted to the High-Renaissance glorification of man, Berenson underrated Japanese art.  Art in the East is not an end in itself, but a means of achieving beauty in life.  Laurence Binyon has written, Aart is conceived as a sort of apparition from a more real world of essential life.@  Granted Eastern arts greatest achievements are in landscape forms, it is, nonetheless, far more than Adecorative.@  Eastern art shares with High-Renaissance art a belief in spiritual powers through which man gains divinity.  Whatever the term Avisual equivalent@ may mean to a parochial critic, there are so many equivalents to Lady Murasaki=s novel in Japanese painting, one hardly knows which to choose.


As for direct attempts to illustrate The Tale of Genji, what can one say of the scrolls of Fujiwara Takayoshi in the eleventh, the panel screens of  Tawaraya Sotatsu in the seventeenth, the prints of Yeishi, also known  as Hosoda or Chobun-sai Eishi, in the eighteenth, and the prints of  Taiso [Tsukioka] Yoshitoshi in the nineteenth centuries.   There are faults in these works when judged by Western standards, but all of them convey sadness and compassion for people and for places caught in times inexorable course.


Parker Tyler wrote of Fujiwara Takayoshi=s debt to Lady Murasaki:


Unquestionably, the Yamato, or first native style, could have existed without Murasaki as an inspirational source.  Yet it is doubtful, had it not been for the rare atmosphere of magic and realism communicated by the manuscripts of The Tale of Genji, that Yamato illustration would have reached the height of Takayoshi=s individually supreme and influential example.


Toda Kenji demonstrated how the tsukuri-e style of painting exemplified the world presented in The Tale of Genji:


The paintings are done in the tsukuri-e (Amake-up picture@) technique. . . . The coloring of tsukuri-e is finished by manifold coatings and washings of pigments, and presents delicate nuances of warm and cool colors, of primary and secondary colors.  It may be called a symphony of colors.  No other style of painting could so well visualize the dreamlike world described in The Tale of Genji.


Writing of the four surviving  Tale of Genji scrolls from the Heian Period (894-1185), attributed to Fujiwara  Takayoshi, Noritake Tsuda was struck by the kinship between the  scrolls and the atmosphere of the times:


The peculiar style of the court painters of this period may be studied in the delineation of faces of the Fujiwara nobility.   .  .  .   The eyes are drawn with two lines, and the nose with two broken lines.  This peculiarity of style is called “hikime-kagihana,” or drawn eyes and key nose.  This mode of delineation induces a feeling of quietness and unaffected elegance; and not only in the faces, but in the posture and in the natural background, there is something concordant with this feeling, which spreads itself all over the canvas.  It is no other than the general atmosphere of the late Fujiwara period, and as these pictures depicted the life as it was actually lived, the feeling was thus reflected in them.


There are Avisual equivalents@ of Lady Murasaki=s novel in the ukiyo-e or Afloating world@ style of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Even in moments of travesty, prints of this time by Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige picture a world of grace and beauty that echoes the refinements of the Heian Period.  The sensitivity of the lovers of Suzuki Harunobu and the scenes of festivities of Torii Kiyonaga display, on a popular level, a world akin to the stratified society of Heian courtiers.


Writing of “Girl on her Way to the Shinto Shrine on a Stormy Night,” a wood block print by Suzuki Harunobu, Akiyama Terukazu questioned whether there was not “a mysterious correspondence between “these pretty ladies and the fine ladies of six centuries before” described in The Tale of Genji.  He responded that this wood block, and by implication the majority of wood blocks made by masters of Japanese prints from the 17th to the 19th century, were conscious evocations of the aristocratic Heian Period.


Along with Suzuki Harunobu, his protégé and successor Kitagawa Utamaro (1750-1806) specialized in depicting beautiful women from the Yoshiwara, or pleasure district of Edo.  Many of  his models were high-ranking courtesans in varying stages of dishabile.  They had thin bodies, long necks, narrow heads, slits for eyes, extended noses,  tiny mouths, blackened teeth, gleaming black hair held in place by a tie, and sloping shoulders.  These “professional” women were more unlike than like the well-robed court ladies of Heian society, whose long black hair trailed behind their bodies and whose twelve-layers of unlined kimonos concealed the shapes of their bodies.  For all their being sequestered behind screens and forbidden access to learning, Lady Murasaki and her peers  enjoyed a high degree of personal freedom.  They may have been sex objects for courtiers trapped in dull official marriages, but they were not commodities.  However bleak it may have seemed to them, their future was brighter than that of high-class geishas who, when their “bloom” was gone, were fated to disease and destitution.  Practical and perceptive as she was, Murasaki would have understood this.  Not being Murasaki Shikibu, Kitagawa Utamaro could not.


During the Tokugawa Period (1615-1867) painters in rival Kano and Tosa schools resorted to The Tale of Genji  for subjects.  Their paintings of standardized subjects from The Tale of Genji sometimes took the form of scrolls or albums.  Prominent among these artists were Tosa Mituyoshi, Tosa Mitsunori, Tosa Mitsuoki, and Kano Tanyu.  Their work was skillful, meticulous, decorative, literary, and conventional.  The greatest artist to profit from these schools was Tawaraya Sotatsu (1576-1643), a painter to courtiers and members of the imperial family, who forsook the miniature detail of the Tosas for the more expansive work of the Kanos, officials painters to the Tokugawa Shoguns.  Among his masterpieces are a pair of folding screens illustrating scenes from The Tale of Genji, in the collection of the Seikado Foundation.  As  with other paintings from his best period, the screens are characterized by bright colors, lively movement, and vibrant contrasts of background and foreground.  More than any other painter of his or prior times, Sotatzu put masculine zest into the genteel pages of The Tale of Genji.  Results were so impressive that Berenson would have been obtuse not to see them.


Lady Murasaki wrote The Tale of Genji in the hiragana or native Japanese syllabary, a form of phonetic writing, at a time when men were using a language fashionable in China five hundred years before.  Her use of a language close to common speech separates Lady Murasaki from most of the writers of her time.  As a woman, she was not expected to know Chinese.  The men, because of their training in a foreign language, wrote about what others had seen.  Women, such as Lady Murasaki and Sei Shonagon, wrote from personal experience.  Nevertheless, the penetrating use of language in The Tale of Genji stems from Lady Murasaki=s skill in exploiting the common languages limited means of expression.  So personal was her facility in handling the vernacular that the style she originated, though copied by later writers, has never been equaled.


Captivated by the devotion to esthetics in the Heian Period, Japanese critics converted Heian attitudes into a canon of good taste.  The critics stressed the importance of sensitivity to things (aware); to charm and beauty (en); and to appropriate decorum (miyabi).


The Japanese were entranced by the dreamlike character of The Tale of Genji.  Though shocked by the sexual promiscuity of the leading figures, they were intrigued by their pathos of sentiment and elegance of manners.  An awe-struck writer went so far as to make Genji a deity in the Shinto pantheon in the Noh play Suma Genji.  Finally an air of gentle melancholy became a permanent attribute of the dispossessed Fujiwara aristocracy.  Though the court became in part, like the aristocrats, thin and bloodless, during the Higashiyama Period, in the fifteenth century, the influence of The Tale of Genji, in combination with Zen Buddhism, blossomed in the Noh drama, the ink paintings of Sesshu, the tea ceremony, incense parties, and flower arrangement contests.






The superlative quality of The Tale of Genji has constituted a prime challenge for subsequent Japanese novelists who have aspired to greatness.  Ihara Saikaku, a Genroku novelist of the seventeenth century, parodied Genji in his novel The Man Who Spent His Life in Love.  Here the love affairs of the indefatigable Yonosuke parallel those of Genji in a contrast between bourgeois and aristocratic values.


If Saikaku=s attitude is irreverent that of the twentieth-century novelist Junichiro Tanizaki brings the pendulum back for much of his work was a tribute to the ideals of The Tale of Genji.  In Tanizaki=s novel Some Prefer Nettles his hero Kaname rejects the culture of the Genroku era in favor of the art of the Heian Period with its power to inspire veneration.


In the fourteenth century,  Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) revised an existing Noh play based on Lady Rokujo's possession of Aoi, Genji's wife, entitled Aoi no Ue.  Noh at the time was a dignified theatrical entertainment cultivated by courtiers in the Muromachi or Ashikaga Shogunate (1393-1573).  The play had an edifying purpose as it was intended to show the evil effects of jealousy in women and to demonstrate how evil passions, even those in spectral form, could be allayed through the ministrations of a Buddhist mountain ascetic.  Unlike the episode in the novel, the angry ghost of Lady Rokujo is expelled by the ascetic, thus allowing Lady Aoi to live.  What this change in plot might have done to developments in the novel is not explained.  Aoi no Ue was so popular it was acted many times during Momoyama, Edo and Meiji Periods.  Juro Kara revised and expanded the play for performances in Japan and abroad in the 1970's. 


After lifelike puppet shows and rollicking Kabuki plays took the place of restrained Noh dramas in the Genroku Period (1688-1703), producers bypassed  The Tale of Genji in favor of dramas of a more topical, melodramatic and erotic nature that appealed to middle-class audiences.  To make up for past neglect, Kabuki actors presented a three-part, twelve-hour dramatization of The Tale of Genji in the 1951-52 theatrical season.  When the Azumi Kabuki dancers appeared in the United States in 1954, they performed a dance derived from The Tale of Genji titled Ocho, or Ancient Matters.  During this decade Kimisaburo Yoshimura, one of Japan 's famous directors, made the novel the subject of a successful motion picture.  Through its varied aesthetic, cultural, historic, melodramatic, and psychological accomplishments, The Tale of Genji continues to hold spellbound the Japanese and other people.






To many people art is in a state of warfare with something called Athe enemy.@  Often the enemy is depicted as blindness, selfishness and greed.  But these despicable enemies are the enemies of everyone.  No one can say Lady Murasaki did not despise these egregious qualities.  Nor can one say Henry James and Marcel Proust rush recklessly toward depravity.  Perhaps no writers in any language have been so vilified as James and Proust.  Doubtless Lady Murasaki would share a like fate if she were to become a cult object.


Some states, schools, people and critics claim man knows everything there is to know about ultimates.  In science where one might expect to hear such claims there is silence; but this is not so in art, in theology, in philosophy, or in psychology.  It is definitely not so in politics where people in opposite camps possess a wisdom the other fellows dont.


Good and evil are not easy concepts to deal with for wherever good is present, evil is often found.  Sometimes the two are inextricably related.  Nothing is so simple it can be resolved by blanket condemnation whether it comes from a poet like John Milton, a novelist like Leo Tolstoy, a dramatist like George Bernard Shaw, or a humanist like Bernard Berenson.


Milton, Tolstoy and Shaw have been trounced by others so no one should be surprised at finding them here.  For anyone to call Renaissance critic Bernard Berenson a bigot may come as a shock.  As an upholder of Renaissance traditions, Berenson uses a Alife enhancement@ standard to measure art.  In applying this standard, he rejects primitive and modern forms of expression.  Though his circle is closed, even within its confines, Berenson has doubts for sometimes Renaissance artists are not Alife enhancing@ enough.  On such grounds, he condemns Michelangelo=s painting of “The Last Judgment.”


The fallacy in Berenson=s unsound views is easy to see; but for someone who has surrendered to these touchstone ways of thought, it is difficult to depart from their narrow focus.  This is Berenson=s dilemma.  His views, though concerned with painting, have a lethal application to literature.  If they were to become controlling criteria, Dostoyevsky and Melville would be considered too extreme for civilized tastes.  Even Tolstoy, the man with so few ideas and with so much experience to force through them, would not go so far in his own medium; though in music he found it easy to condemn Beethoven on the grounds he brought out the worse in people!


Berenson=s dogmatism is pertinent to Lady Murasaki.  A humanism based on rigid rules of classical perfection can be just as paralyzing as a religious aversion to Athe world, the flesh and the devil.@  In both instances, provincial minds keep their side of the faith at the expense of a richer understanding of the ways of God and man.


Berenson=s contention that the graphic arts of Japan have failed to suggest a Avisual equivalent@ for The Tale of Genji is false.   As it is commonplace in Western criticism to speak of Japanese art as slight, this observation is not acute.  Also, while commenting on Japanese art, lofty critics confuse morality with esthetics and start talking about Alife enhancement,@ or AChristian truth,@ or APlatonic excellence.@  Take J. Ingram Bryan who says, Ahistory cannot show an advanced stage of literature or art, to be always attended by a corresponding progress of the humanities and pure religion.@  Speaking directly of the literature of the Heian Age --- which includes Lady Murasaki --- he declares:


Where literature does not minister to vigor of intellect and development of imagination, nobility of sentiment and soundness of body and soul, it but injures itself and civilization.


Bryan is engaging in legerdemain.  He establishes goals that are too abstract to have tangible meaning, then decries everything that fails to meet these goals.  He may as well decry life itself.  When has there been such progress in the humanities or Apure religion@ without its attendant cruelty?  The era of Christianity with its mutations --- which by the way is Apure religion?@ --- and the era of Renaissance confidence in man=s abilities were not ideal by any applicable standards of virtue.


The simple reason why Japanese art does not conform to the unrealistic strictures of moralists and humanists is that it is art and not propaganda. In its devotion to beauty Japanese art can hold its own against art anywhere.  Lafacadio Hearn said Japanese art has Afollowed the line of least resistance.@  Even here, however, the creation of objects of beauty, though they are utilitarian in purpose, is not trivial.  If excelling in sword making, cloisonne and pottery is the line of least resistance, perhaps the line of most resistance is in writing like Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe.  But did these people praise virtue and condemn vice wholeheartedly?  Even if their right to some pinnacle of virtue can be conceded, why should everyone imitate them?


Beauty may not be truth as man knows it.  It may not even be manmade as the grandeur of the universe testifies, but the recognition of its presence depends on man alone.


Is Japanese art less rewarding because as J. Ingram Bryan said, ANature was so much more perfect and delightful than society.  Even animals and birds and fishes became more powerful art motives than the human form and character?@  George B. Sansom has written, AI think our Western studies of Japanese history would advance more rapidly and more usefully if we could --- for a time at least --- abandon our preconceived notions as to what is good and what is wise.@  He is referring to the condescension among Western students of the history of Japan that has been so evident among Western critics of its art.


Man is what he is, and Lady Murasaki has depicted him as such --- his gross reality and his transcendent luminescence.  She cannot be blamed for her depiction, though there will be many who do not like what they see because they don=t see at all.


The treatment of sex presents more difficulties to the doctrinaire moralist than any other aspect of The Tale of Genji.  Sex during the Heian Period was an innocent party to whatever people made of it.  It was not the cause of their social failures which can be traced to economic disparities, political divisions and religious insecurities.  People approached sex deviously without recognizing its claims or the need for its control.  It was not an exultant force that people could enjoy with pride because the pessimistic teachings of Buddhism and the hypocrisies of society impeded its expression.  It remained, however, a challenge, as it is for all people who are activated by hormones.


Due to the universal nature of sexual instincts, Genji=s and Kaoru=s frustrations cannot be attributed exclusively to their personal natures or to the flaws of their epoch, for they were products of the human condition.  For her part, Lady Murasaki has said the novel came about because Athe storyteller=s own experience of man and things moved him to an emotion so passionate that he cannot keep it shut up in his heart.@  In other words, The Tale of Genji was written to show honest responses to perceptions that do not subserve the preconceptions of anti-sexual prudes.


Is The Tale of Genji immoral?  Will the reader imitate Genji, Karou and Niou and turn himself into a modern equivalent of a screen buzzer, possibly a peeping Tom?  The novel will help people understand more of the complexities of living.  It will deepen sympathies and awaken aspirations toward beauty.  It will not turn out libertines because, like any great work of art, it appeals to a sense of detachment, not to an imitation of people who are externally different.


The Tale of Genji ends, as E. M. Forster has pointed out, Ain that vague and vast residue into which the subconscious enters . . . that land of the rainbow.@  Lady Murasaki gives her readers the land of the rainbow along with the terrestrial Aworld of dew.@


Lady Murasaki need not be explicit about her intentions.  She may not have been aware she was fulfilling an artist=s function as we think of it today.  Nonetheless her superbly crafted writing excites admiration.  Reading The Tale of Genji suggests a way of enjoying the experiences of life as they pass by without the haste and preoccupation which obscure the eternal present.


The Tale of Genji as translated by Arthur Waley was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1935.  A second translation by Edward G. Seidensticker was published by Alfred  A. Knopf  in 1976.  Waley=s translation is wordy, rhythmic and coherent.  Seidensticker=s translation while lacking Waley=s ornate soarings, conveys the details of life in Heian Japan better than Waley who tended to Westernize his incidents.


It is unfortunate that The Tale of Genji=s audience has been so small, for Lady Murasaki speaks to modern readers of matters that have a place in man=s psyche.  The only prerequisites readers need have are curiosity and concern for people who lived one thousand years ago.


The love theme is The Tale of Genji.  In the end the loves of Genji and Karou have ethical as well as esthetic implications.  Thus The Tale of Genji is a romantic novel because it probes the relations between men and women.  It is a novel of hope because it inspires the reader with respect for the wholeness of the complete love toward which men and women aspire.  And it is a novel of grief because it tells readers love is momentary and is gone, like the petals of cherry trees, before people are aware that it is there.


AThe wings of the dove,@ to use Henry James= phrase, stretch beautifully over us when we are in Lady Murasaki=s world, and life is imbued with a delicacy and beauty, the like of which is seldom seen.