Genji Monogatari, the original of this translation, is one of the standard works of Japanese literature. It has been regarded for centuries as a national treasure. The title of the work is by no means unknown to those Europeans who take an interest in Japanese matters, for it is mentioned or alluded to in almost every European work relating to our country. It was written by a lady, who, from her writings, is considered one of the most talented women that Japan has ever produced.
She was the daughter of Fujiwara Tametoki, a petty Court noble, remotely connected with the great family of Fujiwara, in the tenth century after Christ, and was generally called Murasaki Shikib. About these names a few remarks are necessary. The word “Shikib” means “ceremonies,” and is more properly a name adopted, with the addition of certain suffixes, to designate special Court offices. Thus the term “Shikib-Kiô” is synonymous with “master of the ceremonies,” and “Shikib-no-Jiô” with “secretary to the master of the ceremonies.” Hence it might at first sight appear rather peculiar if such an appellation should happen to be used as the name of a woman. It was, however, a custom of the period for noble ladies and their attendants to be often called after such offices, generally with the suffix “No-Kata,” indicating the female sex, and somewhat corresponding to the word “madam.” This probably originated in the same way as the practice in America of calling ladies by their husbands’ official titles, such as Mrs. Captain, Mrs. Judge, etc., only that in the case of the Japanese custom the official title came in time to be used without any immediate association with the offices themselves, and often even as a maiden name. From this custom our authoress came to be called “Shikib,” a name which did not originally apply to a person. To this another name, Murasaki, was added, in order to distinguish her from other ladies who may also have been called Shikib. “Murasaki” means “violet,” whether the flower or the color. Concerning the origin of this appellation there exist two different opinions. Those holding one, derive it from her family name, Fujiwara; for “Fujiwara” literally means “the field of Wistaria,” and the color of the Wistaria blossom is violet. Those holding the other, trace it to the fact that out of several persons introduced into the story, Violet (Murasaki in the text) is a most modest and gentle woman, whence it is thought that the admirers of the work transferred the name to the authoress herself. In her youth she was maid of honor to a daughter of the then prime minister, who became eventually the wife of the Emperor Ichijiô, better known by her surname, Jiôtô-Monin, and who is especially famous as having been the patroness of our authoress. Murasaki Shikib married a noble, named Nobtaka, to whom she bore a daughter, who, herself, wrote a work of fiction, called “Sagoromo” (narrow sleeves). She survived her husband, Nobtaka, some years, and spent her latter days in quiet retirement, dying in the year 992 after Christ. The diary which she wrote during her retirement is still in existence, and her tomb may yet be seen in a Buddhist temple in Kiôto, the old capital where the principal scenes of her story are laid.
The exact date when her story was written is not given in the work, but her diary proves that it was evidently composed before she arrived at old age.
The traditional account given of the circumstances which preceded the writing of the story is this: when the above-mentioned Empress was asked by the Saigû (the sacred virgin of the temple of Ise) if her Majesty could not procure an interesting romance for her, because the older fictions had become too familiar, she requested Shikib to write a new one, and the result of this request was this story.
The tradition goes on to say that when this request was made Shikib retired to the Buddhist temple in Ishiyama, situated on hilly ground at the head of the picturesque river Wooji, looking down on Lake Biwa. There she betook herself to undergo the “Tooya” (confinement in a temple throughout the night), a solemn religious observance for the purpose of obtaining divine help and good success in her undertaking. It was the evening of the fifteenth of August. Before her eyes the view extended for miles. In the silver lake below, the pale face of the full moon was reflected in the calm, mirror-like waters, displaying itself in indescribable beauty. Her mind became more and more serene as she gazed on the prospect before her, while her imagination became more and more lively as she grew calmer and calmer. The ideas and incidents of the story, which she was about to write, stole into her mind as if by divine influence. The first topic which struck her most strongly was that given in the chapters on exile. These she wrote down immediately, in order not to allow the inspiration of the moment to be lost, on the back of a roll of Daihannia (the Chinese translation of Mahâprajñâpâramitâ, one of the Buddhist Sûtras), and formed subsequently two chapters in the text, the Suma and Akashi, all the remaining parts of the work having been added one by one. It is said that this idea of exile came naturally to her mind, because a prince who had been known to her from her childhood had been an exile at Kiûsiû, a little before this period.
It is also said that the authoress afterwards copied the roll of Daihannia with her own hand, in expiation of her having profanely used it as a notebook, and that she dedicated it to the Temple, in which there is still a room where she is alleged to have written down the story. A roll of Daihannia is there also, which is asserted to be the very same one copied by her.
How far these traditions are in accordance with fact may be a matter of question, but thus they have come down to us, and are popularly believed.
Many Europeans, I daresay, have noticed on our lacquer work and other art objects, the representation of a lady seated at a writing-desk, with a pen held in her tiny fingers, gazing at the moon reflected in a lake. This lady is no other than our authoress.
The number of chapters in the modern text of the story is fifty-four, one of these having the title only and nothing else. There is some reason to believe that there might have existed a few additional chapters.
Of these fifty-four chapters, the first forty-one relate to the life and adventures of Prince Genji; and those which come after refer principally to one of his sons. The last ten are sup posed to have been added by another hand, generally presumed to have been that of her daughter. This is conjectured because the style of these final chapters is somewhat dissimilar to that of those which precede. The period of time covered by the entire story is some sixty years, and this volume of translation comprises the first seventeen chapters.
The aims which the authoress seems always to have kept in view are revealed to us at some length by the mouth of her hero: “ordinary histories,” he is made to say, “are the mere records of events, and are generally treated in a one-sided manner. They give no insight into the true state of society. This, however, is the very sphere on which romances principally dwell. Romances,” he continues, “are indeed fictions, but they are by no means always pure inventions; their only peculiarities being these, that in them the writers often trace out, among numerous real characters, the best, when they wish to represent the good, and the oddest, when they wish to amuse.”
From these remarks we can plainly see that our authoress fully understood the true vocation of a romance writer, and has successfully realized the conception in her writings.
The period to which her story relates is supposed to be the earlier part of the tenth century after Christ, a time contemporary with her own life. For some centuries before this period, our country had made a signal progress in civilization by its own internal development, and by the external influence of the enlightenment of China, with whom we had had for some time considerable intercourse. No country could have been happier than was ours at this epoch. It enjoyed perfect tranquillity, being alike free from all fears of foreign invasion and domestic commotions. Such a state of things, however, could not continue long without producing some evils; and we can hardly be surprised to find that the Imperial capital became a sort of centre of comparative luxury and idleness. Society lost sight, to a great extent, of true morality, and the effeminacy of the people constituted the chief feature of the age. Men were ever ready to carry on sentimental adventures whenever they found opportunities, and the ladies of the time were not disposed to disencourage them altogether. The Court was the focus of society, and the utmost ambition of ladies of some birth was to be introduced there. As to the state of politics, the Emperor, it is true, reigned; but all the real power was monopolized by members of the Fujiwara families. These, again, vied among themselves for the possession of this power, and their daughters were generally used as political instruments, since almost all the Royal consorts were taken from some of these families. The abdication of an emperor was a common event, and arose chiefly from the intrigues of these same families, although partly from the prevailing influence of Buddhism over the public mind.
Such, then, was the condition of society at the time when the authoress, Murasaki Shikib, lived; and such was the sphere of her labors, a description of which she was destined to hand down to posterity by her writings. In fact, there is no better history than her story, which so vividly illustrates the society of her time. True it is that she openly declares in one passage of her story that politics are not matters which women are supposed to understand; yet, when we carefully study her writings, we can scarcely fail to recognize her work as a partly political one. This fact becomes more vividly interesting when we consider that the unsatisfactory conditions of both the state and society soon brought about a grievous weakening of the Imperial authority, and opened wide the gate for the ascendency of the military class. This was followed by the systematic formation of feudalism, which, for some seven centuries, totally changed the face of Japan. For from the first ascendency of this military system down to our own days everything in society — ambitions, honors, the very temperament and daily pursuits of men, and political institutes themselves — became thoroughly unlike those of which our authoress was an eye-witness. I may almost say that for several centuries Japan never recovered the ancient civilization which she had once attained and lost.