Monday, August 10, 2015


When Prince Genji, the Shining One, first meets Murasaki, she is a little girl, 10 years old, seemingly abandoned by her family in the northern hills of Japan. She is the niece of the woman Genji loves but cannot have and reminds him of her. Her father is said to be coming for her, but Genji preempts him and brings Murasaki to his mansion in Kyoto, where he educates and entertains her. They are charmed by each other and become quite inseparable. Genji and Murasaki are the main characters in The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu in the early part of the Eleventh Century. The translation I use is by Edward Seidensticker.

Murasaki, the name of a plant from which a lavender dye is extracted, grows up in Genji’s household. When she is old enough, Genji takes Murasaki as his wife. Genji has had many women already, but Murasaki “seemed peerless and the nearest he could imagine to his ideal.”

For the high-born of Heian Japan, a very small minority, life is a succession of court rituals, intrigues and adventures. Genji is the son of the emperor, but by a low-born consort so he is never very secure. When his father dies, the new empress hates Genji and, not willing to be humiliated, he goes into exile to the remote coast of Suma, leaving Murasaki at home. She has become more beautiful and more mature and their affection for each other is deep. But there are only fishermen’s huts at Suma. He takes a bookchest, a koto and some Chinese poetry with him.

After a terrible storm during which a tidal wave almost carries him off, Genji retreats to Akashi, where an older man with a young daughter welcomes him. The man has high hopes for his daughter and presses Genji upon her. Genji is, of course, curious and before long she becomes pregnant. Genji writes to Murasaki, “I am in anguish at the thought that, because of foolish occurrences for which I have been responsible but have had little heart, I might appear in a guise distasteful to you.” He cannot bear to keep secrets from her. Murasaki responds with this poem: “Na├»ve of me, perhaps; yet we did make our vows. And now see the waves that wash the Mountain of Waiting!”

Meanwhile, the emperor abdicates in favor of the Reizei emperor (Genji’s son, though no one knows this). Genji is recalled to Kyoto and made a minister. He sends for his new daughter telling Murasaki, “I do not have children where I really want them.” The Akashi lady is very retiring, but Genji wants every advantage for their daughter. He asks Murasaki to take this daughter under her wing. Murasaki tells him, “I will love her, I am sure I will.” Genji arranges his large house so there are apartments for the several ladies for whom he feels responsible. He tells Murasaki she has nothing to fear from any of them.

The gardens Murasaki makes in her wing flower best in spring. No one equals her in competitions to make perfume, in calligraphy and in playing the koto. She remains very beautiful and despite Genji’s many commitments, "it was an ideally happy marriage, closer and fonder as the years went by." Even Genji’s taking of another consort, the Third Princess, doesn’t disturb them, though it gives Murasaki pain. Genji’s daughter is wed to the crown prince, and children and grandchildren fill the house.

When it seems that things can be handed over to the young, both Genji and Murasaki wish to leave the world and go into monasteries. But then they would never see each other again and Genji cannot bear the thought. Murasaki, with the help of scriveners, prepares 1,000 copies of the Lotus Sutra. During the years it takes to prepare this offering, Murasaki becomes ill and soon after its dedication to the Blessed One, she dies. Genji does not last long after her.

For some, The Tale of Genji is the story of the sorrows of women. Murasaki survives because of her innate sense of herself and her tastefulness. Murasaki has very little agency in her culture, but she becomes excellent at what she can do, refining and polishing her writing and music, dressing with great care and creating a lovely and peaceful household. She is always appropriate to an occasion and manages to be happy in a polygamous culture. Even though she does not have children of her own, she has the heart to bring up Genji’s children by other women.

Taste, in the sense of the universally recognized understanding of what has quality, is worth developing. It involves recognizing what is authentic, appreciating simplicity and appropriateness, and even has an element of contentment. It derives from a sense of natural limits and patterns in things and an acceptance of the place a person takes in nature: no more and no less than the flowering of one’s gifts. When it is genuine, nothing is more attractive, as Genji constantly attests!

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