Genji Monogatari
Category: Novels
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Genji Monogatari is a classic Japanese book written in the 11th century by noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu and translated in 1900. The story centers on the life of a young boy and son of an Emperor, Genji. The story begins with the death of his mother and then the introduction of a new beautiful stepmother. Genji's early experience and interactions with women seem to negatively affect him as he struggles with relationships for much of his life. Will Genji ever find love, or is he destined for unfulfilling affairs?

Genji Monogatari

Murasaki Shikibu

Translated by Suyematz Kenchio

Genji Monogatari


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.

Another merit of the work consists in its having been written in pure classical Japanese; and here it may be mentioned that we had once made a remarkable progress in our own language quite independently of any foreign influence, and that when the native literature was at first founded, its language was identical with that spoken. Though the predominance of Chinese studies had arrested the progress of the native literature, it was still extant at the time, and even for some time after the date of our authoress. But with the ascendency of the military class, the neglect of all literature became for cen turies universal. The little that has been preserved is an almost unreadable chaos of mixed Chinese and Japanese. Thus a gulf gradually opened between the spoken and the written language. It has been only during the last two hundred and fifty years that our country has once more enjoyed a long continuance of peace, and has once more renewed its interest in literature. Still Chinese has occupied the front rank, and almost monopolized attention. It is true that within the last sixty or seventy years numerous works of fiction of different schools have been produced, mostly in the native language, and that these, when judged as stories, generally excel in their plots those of the classical period. The status, however, of these writers has never been recognized by the public, nor have they enjoyed the same degree of honor as scholars of a different description. Their style of composition, moreover, has never reached the same degree of refinement which distinguished the ancient works. This last is a strong reason for our appreciation of true classical works such as that of our authoress.

Again, the concise description of scenery, the elegance of which it is almost impossible to render with due force in another language, and the true and delicate touches of human nature which everywhere abound in the work, especially in the long dialogue in Chapter II, are almost marvellous when we consider the sex of the writer, and the early period when she wrote.

Yet this work affords fair ground for criticism. The thread of her story is often diffuse and somewhat disjointed, a fault probably due to the fact that she had more flights of imagination than power of equal and systematic condensation: she having been often carried away by that imagination from points where she ought to have rested. But, on the other hand, in most parts the dialogue is scanty, which might have been prolonged to considerable advantage, if it had been framed on models of modern composition. The work, also, is too voluminous.

In translating I have cut out several passages which appeared superfluous, though nothing has been added to the original.

The authoress has been by no means exact in following the order of dates, though this appears to have proceeded from her endeavor to complete each distinctive group of ideas in each particular chapter. In fact she had even left the chapters unnumbered, simply contenting herself with a brief heading, after which each is now called, such as “Chapter Kiri-Tsubo,” etc., so that the numbering has been undertaken by the translator for the convenience of the reader. It has no extraordinarily intricate plot like those which excite the readers of the sensational romances of the modern western style. It has many heroines, but only one hero, and this comes no doubt from the peculiar purpose of the writer to portray different varieties and shades of female characters at once, as is shadowed in Chapter II, and also to display the intense fickleness and selfishness of man.

I notice these points beforehand in order to prepare the reader for the more salient faults of the work. On the whole my principal object 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 be able to compare it with the condition of mediæval and modern Europe.

Another peculiarity of the work to which I would draw attention is that, with few exceptions, it does not give proper names to the personages introduced; for the male characters official titles are generally employed, and to the principal female ones some appellation taken from an incident belonging to the history of each; for instance, a girl is named Violet because the hero once compared her to that flower, while another is called Yûgao because she was found in a humble dwelling where the flowers of the Yûgao covered the hedges with a mantle of blossom.

I have now only to add that the translation is, perhaps, not always idiomatic, though in this matter I have availed myself of some valuable assistance, for which I feel most thankful.

Suyematz Kenchio.

Tokyo, Japan.

Genji Monogatari

Chapter I.
The Chamber of Kiri

In the reign of a certain Emperor, whose name is unknown to us, there was, among the Niogo and Kôyi of the Imperial Court, one who, though she was not of high birth, enjoyed the full tide of Royal favor. 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.

Such being the state of affairs, the anxiety which she had to endure was great and constant, and this was probably the reason why her health was at last so much affected, that she was often compelled to absent herself from Court, and to retire to the residence of her mother.

Her father, who was a Dainagon, was dead; but her mother, being a woman of good sense, gave her every possible guidance in the due performance of Court ceremony, so that in this respect she seemed but little different from those whose fathers and mothers were still alive to bring them before public notice, yet, nevertheless, her friendliness made her oftentimes feel very diffident from the want of any patron of influence.

These circumstances, however, only tended to make the favor shown to her by the Emperor wax warmer and warmer, and it was even shown to such an extent as to become a warning to after-generations. There had been instances in China in which favoritism such as this had caused national disturbance and disaster; and thus the matter became a subject of public animadversion, and it seemed not improbable that people would begin to allude even to the example of Yô-ki-hi.

In due course, and in consequence, we may suppose, of the Divine blessing on the sincerity of their affection, a jewel of a little prince was born to her. The first prince who had been born to the Emperor was the child of Koki-den-Niogo, the daughter of the Udaijin (a great officer of State). Not only was he first in point of age, but his influence on his mother’s side was so great that public opinion had almost unanimously fixed upon him as heir-apparent. Of this the Emperor was fully conscious, and he only regarded the new-born child with that affection which one lavishes on a domestic favorite. Nevertheless, the mother of the first prince had, not unnaturally, a foreboding that unless matters were managed adroitly her child might be superseded by the younger one. She, we may observe, had been established at Court before any other lady, and had more children than one. The Emperor, therefore, was obliged to treat her with due respect, and reproaches from her always affected him more keenly than those of any others.

To return to her rival. Her constitution was extremely delicate, as we have seen already, and she was surrounded by those who would fain lay bare, so to say, her hidden scars. Her apartments in the palace were Kiri-Tsubo (the chamber of Kiri); so called from the trees that were planted around. In visiting her there the Emperor had to pass before several other chambers, whose occupants universally chafed when they saw it. And again, when it was her turn to attend upon the Emperor, it often happened that they played off mischievous pranks upon her, at different points in the corridor, which leads to the Imperial quarters. Sometimes they would soil the skirts of her attendants, sometimes they would shut against her the door of the covered portico, where no other passage existed; and thus, in every possible way, they one and all combined to annoy her.

The Emperor at length became aware of this, and gave her, for her special chamber, another apartment, which was in the Kôrô-Den, and which was quite close to those in which he him self resided. It had been originally occupied by another lady who was now removed, and thus fresh resentment was aroused.

When the young Prince was three years old the Hakamagi took place. It was celebrated with a pomp scarcely inferior to that which adorned the investiture of the first Prince. In fact, all available treasures were exhausted on the occasion. And again the public manifested its disapprobation. In the summer of the same year the Kiri-Tsubo-Kôyi became ill, and wished to retire from the palace. The Emperor, however, who was accustomed to see her indisposed, strove to induce her to remain. But her illness increased day by day; and she had drooped and pined away until she was now but a shadow of her former self. She made scarcely any response to the affectionate words and expressions of tenderness which her Royal lover caressingly bestowed upon her. Her eyes were half-closed: she lay like a fading flower in the last stage of exhaustion, and she became so much enfeebled that her mother appeared before the Emperor and entreated with tears that she might be allowed to leave. Distracted by his vain endeavors to devise means to aid her, the Emperor at length ordered a Te-gruma to be in readiness to convey her to her own home, but even then he went to her apartment and cried despairingly: “Did not we vow that we would neither of us be either before or after the other even in travelling the last long journey of life? And can you find it in your heart to leave me now?” Sadly and tenderly looking up, she thus replied, with almost failing breath: —

“Since my departure for this dark journey,
Makes you so sad and lonely,
Fain would I stay though weak and weary,
And live for your sake only!”

“Had I but known this before — ”

She appeared to have much more to say, but was too weak to continue. Overpowered with grief, the Emperor at one moment would fain accompany her himself, and at another moment would have her remain to the end where she then was.

At the last, her departure was hurried, because the exorcism for the sick had been appointed to take place on that evening at her home, and she went. The child Prince, however, had been left in the Palace, as his mother wished, even at that time, to make her withdrawal as privately as possible, so as to avoid any invidious observations on the part of her rivals. To the Emperor the night now became black with gloom. He sent messenger after messenger to make inquiries, and could not await their return with patience. Midnight came, and with it the sound of lamentation. The messenger, who could do nothing else, hurried back with the sad tidings of the truth. From that moment the mind of the Emperor was darkened, and he confined himself to his private apartments.

He would still have kept with himself the young Prince now motherless, but there was no precedent for this, and it was arranged that he should be sent to his grandmother for the mourning. The child, who understood nothing, looked with amazement at the sad countenances of the Emperor, and of those around him. All separations have their sting, but sharp indeed was the sting in a case like this.

Now the funeral took place. The weeping and wailing mother, who might have longed to mingle in the same flames, entered a carriage, accompanied by female mourners. The procession arrived at the cemetery of Otagi, and the solemn rites commenced. What were then the thoughts of the desolate mother? The image of her dead daughter was still vividly present to her — still seemed animated with life. She must see her remains become ashes to convince herself that she was really dead. During the ceremony, an Imperial messenger came from the Palace, and invested the dead with the title of Sammi. The letters patent were read, and listened to in solemn silence. The Emperor conferred this title now in regret that during her lifetime he had not even promoted her position from a Kôyi to a Niogo, and wishing at this last moment to raise her title at least one step higher. Once more several tokens of disapprobation were manifested against the proceeding. But, in other respects, the beauty of the departed, and her gracious bearing, which had ever commanded admiration, made people begin to think of her with sympathy. It was the excess of the Emperor’s favor which had created so many detractors during her lifetime; but now even rivals felt pity for her; and if any did not, it was in the Koki-den. “When one is no more, the memory becomes so dear,” may be an illustration of a case such as this.

Some days passed, and due requiem services were carefully performed. The Emperor was still plunged in thought, and no society had attractions for him. His constant consolation was to send messengers to the grandmother of the child, and to make inquiries after them. It was now autumn, and the evening winds blew chill and cold. The Emperor — who, when he saw the first Prince, could not refrain from thinking of the younger one — became more thoughtful than ever; and, on this evening, he sent Yugei-no Miôbu to repeat his inquiries. She went as the new moon just rose, and the Emperor stood and contemplated from his veranda the prospect spread before him. At such moments he had usually been surrounded by a few chosen friends, one of whom was almost invariably his lost love. Now she was no more. The thrilling notes of her music, the touching strains of her melodies, stole over him in his dark and dreary reverie.

The Miôbu arrived at her destination; and, as she drove in, a sense of sadness seized upon her.

The owner of the house had long been a widow; but the residence, in former times, had been made beautiful for the pleasure of her only daughter. Now, bereaved of this daughter, she dwelt alone; and the grounds were overgrown with weeds, which here and there lay prostrated by the violence of the winds; while over them, fair as elsewhere, gleamed the mild lustre of the impartial moon. The Miôbu entered, and was led into a front room in the southern part of the building. At first the hostess and the messenger were equally at a loss for words. At length the silence was broken by the hostess, who said: —

“Already have I felt that I have lived too long, but doubly do I feel it now that I am visited by such a messenger as you.” Here she paused, and seemed unable to contend with her emotion.

“When Naishi-no-Ske returned from you,” said the Miôbu, “she reported to the Emperor that when she saw you, face to face, her sympathy for you was irresistible. I, too, see now how true it is!” A moment’s hesitation, and she proceeded to deliver the Imperial message: —

“The Emperor commanded me to say that for some time he had wandered in his fancy, and imagined he was but in a dream; and that, though he was now more tranquil, he could not find that it was only a dream. Again, that there is no one who can really sympathize with him; and he hopes that you will come to the Palace, and talk with him. His Majesty said also that the absence of the Prince made him anxious, and that he is desirous that you should speedily make up your mind. In giving me this message, he did not speak with readiness. He seemed to fear to be considered unmanly, and strove to exercise reserve. I could not help experiencing sympathy with him, and hurried away here, almost fearing that, perhaps, I had not quite caught his full meaning.”

So saying, she presented to her a letter from the Emperor. The lady’s sight was dim and indistinct. Taking it, therefore, to the lamp, she said, “Perhaps the light will help me to decipher,” and then read as follows, much in unison with the oral message: “I thought that time only would assuage my grief; but time only brings before me more vividly my recollection of the lost one. Yet, it is inevitable. How is my boy? Of him, too, I am always thinking. Time once was when we both hoped to bring him up together. May he still be to you a memento of his mother!”

Such was the brief outline of the letter, and it contained the following: —

“The sound of the wind is dull and drear
Across Miyagi’s dewy lea,
And makes me mourn for the motherless deer
That sleeps beneath the Hagi tree.”

She put gently the letter aside, and said, “Life and the world are irksome to me; and you can see, then, how reluctantly I should present myself at the Palace. I cannot go myself, though it is painful to me to seem to neglect the honored command. As for the little Prince, I know not why he thought of it, but he seems quite willing to go. This is very natural. Please to inform his Majesty that this is our position. Very possibly, when one remembers the birth of the young Prince, it would not be well for him to spend too much of his time as he does now.”

Then she wrote quickly a short answer, and handed it to the Miôbu. At this time her grandson was sleeping soundly.

“I should like to see the boy awake, and to tell the Emperor all about him, but he will already be impatiently awaiting my return,” said the messenger. And she prepared to depart.

“It would be a relief to me to tell you how a mother laments over her departed child. Visit me, then, sometimes, if you can, as a friend, when you are not engaged or pressed for time. Formerly, when you came here, your visit was ever glad and welcome; now I see in you the messenger of woe. More and more my life seems aimless to me. From the time of my child’s birth, her father always looked forward to her being presented at Court, and when dying he repeatedly enjoined me to carry out that wish. You know that my daughter had no patron to watch over her, and I well knew how difficult would be her position among her fellow-maidens. Yet, I did not disobey her father’s request, and she went to Court. There the Emperor showed her a kindness beyond our hopes. For the sake of that kindness she uncomplainingly endured all the cruel taunts of envious companions. But their envy ever deepening, and her troubles ever increasing, at last she passed away, worn out, as it were, with care. When I think of the matter in that light, the kindest favors seem to me fraught with misfortune. Ah! that the blind affection of a mother should make me talk in this way!”

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