Tag Archives: Heian

The diary of the author of The Tale of Genji

There are not a lot of thousand-plus year-old diaries. (Prior to the Norman conquest of the Anglo-Saxons, the English language did not even exist.) There are, however, some Japanese ones, even if one excludes the “Pillowbook” of Sei Shônagon. The Diary of Lady Murasaki (ca. 973 ca. 1020) is predominately the view of a lady-in-waiting of the Northern Fujiwara empress Shôshi.” Murasaki” is the name of the major female character among the hundreds of paramours of Genji, the resplendent and sensitive-to-women’s feelings son of an emperor in Genji monogatori (The Tale of Genji), the very long (1200+ pages in printed English) and episodic novel written by a lady-in-waiting whose name is unknown.


The “Diary” is less of a diary in the modern sense than ones kept by some male courtiers, who dated their entries. The first half recounts the birth of a prince (Aysuhira) to Shôshi in the tenth year of her marriage (some of the delay undoubtedly was that her marriage preceded menarche) in 1008. This consolidated the position of Shôshi and her court, including her courtier, the widowed “Murasaki.” Jockeying for position was the primary dynamic of life among rival courts, in the profusion of wives, young emperors, and abdicated emperors who were free of ritual obligations and in many cases did more in the way of ruling after they stopped reigning. Michinaga, Shôshi’s father, besides having been emperor himself was brother-in-law to two other emperors, uncle and father-in-law to another, and grandfather to two more.

Knowing how important producing a male heir was is crucial to understanding the fuss made about the birth to Murasaki’s patroness of a male baby. She did not explain the series of rites (translator Richard Bowring’s footnotes and substantial introduction do that) following that birth. The diarist records considerable detail about who was wearing what. Bowring notes that the detail is “almost suffocating,” and I’d drop the “almost.”

To understand Heian Japan, Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince is far more informative and readable than Murasaki’s diary (the “shining prince” is Genji, whose father, an emperor, made him a commoner, thus not a prince…). Having slogged through the latest (Royall  Tyler’s) translation into English of Genji monogatori (I prefer Edward Seidensticker’s), I read the slim volume out of curiosity about the author… about whom I learned very little. Many characters in her novel become nuns, but their creator realized she was still attached to the world, however annoyed she was by the vanity, jockeying for attention and position, and censoriousness of her social peers.

The most interesting part of the volume is in the form of a letter, and in that, after short descriptions of various other women, what surely is a reminder to herself as much as a communication to an unknown correspondent: “It is very easy to criticize others, but far more difficult to put one’s own principles into practice, and it is when one forgets the truth, lauds oneself to the skies, treats everyone else as worthless, and generally despises others that one’s own character is clearly revealed.” Since this is in the midst of a criticism of another courtier whose letter has fallen into her hands, one cannot exonerate “Murasaki” of not practicing what she preached. In the same “entry” she calls the other great Heian writer, Sei Shônagon, who had retired from court before Murasaki became a courtier of being “dreadfully conceited.” (There is a whole paragraph of criticism of her.)

Not that there are no women whom she praised, especially her patroness empress, but the wife of the governor of Tanba in the particular section from which I’ve quoted.


(Empress, baby, Murasaki, with Michinaga below)

And “Lady Murasaki” is modest about the poems she produces—in an elite in which extemporaneous concoction of poems was a skill recurrently tested and severely judged (as any reader of Genji knows very, very well). Being very stylized thirteen-syllable poems (usually rendered into English as couplets, but written in one vertical line in Japanese), Bowring warns against making inferences about the views, values, or personalities of the poets. Many are allusions to T’ang Dynasty Chinese poems, and though I am sure Bowring is right that the poems are not windows to the souls of the Heian poetasters, there has to be something in what someone remembered and was able to use, though je ne sais quoi!

The date of Aysuhira is established in multiple sources, and various rites occurred x days after that, but it is not certain that the descriptions were written on those days, and the other parts of the diary are not only undatable but even their order is uncertain.

I can’t imagine the book of being of interest to anyone who has not read Tales of Genji and the Pillowbook of Sei Shônagon, and, probably Gossamer Days, and is desperate for more Heian writing.

The original (Princeton University Press, 1982) edition of Bowring’s translation also included the 120 poems attributed to Lady Murasaki. Dropping them is a decision difficult to understand.


©2010, Stephen O. Murray


I think that Lisa Dalby put both the poems and diaries to great use in her novel, The Tale of Murasaki.

An absorbing fictional memoir of the author of “The Tale of Genji”

Reading Lisa Dalby’s imagined life of the author of what some call “the first novel,” The Tale of Genji,  in the hospital, I read many paragraphs more than once, and at least one sentence four times. That and the constant interruptions that caused me to lose my exact place did not lessen my esteem for Dalby’s feat of historical empathy for the Heian-era writer (whose world is explored by Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince, which I intend to reread.)



Dalby provides a plausible portrait of the author of The Tale of Genji, pressed into imperial service after her tales had started to circulate and interested the regent, Michinaga. He wanted her around to influence her portrayal of the shining prince to be like himself. He did less to act to like Genji, except in multiplying sexual conquests, than he hoped to see himself in what his courtier wrote. He forced her to write reports of the ceremonies after the birth of a boy child to his daughter, Shôshi.

Dalby used the surviving poetic output of “Murasaki” as well as surviving diary fragments. I think the makes an interesting, unpretentious character who would rather observe than be observed hates being talked about, as she was by other female courtiers),] has a low sexual drive, but two passionate relationships, the first with a female peer, Kerria Rose, the second with the son of a Chinese diplomat whose father was negotiating with her own father, a self-styled expert on Chinese poetry, though he was quite ignorant of the culture. Ming-Gwok explains much to the enraptured but discreet young Japanese woman. And she tells him about Japanese culture, though not yet having her own experience of the court in Miyako (Kyoto).

Before accompanying her father to the frontier province of Echizan (a posting that was based on his knowledge of written Chinese), she had been pledged to the promiscuous, rich Nobutaka, a marriage she evaded as long as she can. She genuinely missed him after he dies and does not take up with any other men. (She admits she enjoyed thwarting Genji’s seductions, though she first conceived him as an imagined ideal lover.)


(Hioshige illustration of the usual screen barrier between male and female interlocutors)

She does meet and is intrigued by the former courtier whose Pillow Book is another Heian era classic, Sei Shônagon. The novel’s heroine feels pity for Shônagon’s fall from the palace and finds offputting her Pillow Book stories that all seem to end in self-celebration. Murasaki is more self-annulling Buddhist, as unconcerned as a woman in her position can be about the esteem of others (which her book, nonetheless, draws).


“I had exhausted myself trying to capture the nature of the twisted relationships into which men and women fall… I had been concerned lest Genji succumb to flights of magical fantasy. I wanted him to be wonderful but at the same time believable, and my readers, judging from their responses, found him so. I amazement for over twenty years I watched Genji grow until eventually it seemed I myself was merely a tool for his shining persona. Was I writing Genji? Or was Genji just using me…. Finally, I came to the realization that fiction ultimately creates its own truths.”

The sumptuous colors of “Jigokumon” (Gate of Hell)


Jigokumon” (Gate of Hell), directed by the veteran film-maker (and former onnagata silent-film actor) Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982), was one of the movies from Japan in the early 1950s that awed film-lovers in the rest of the world (following Kurosawa’s “Rashômon” and Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu,” also starring Machiko Kyô). Unlike most of the canonical Japanese classics of the 1950s, “Jigokumon” was in opulent color. The court and warrior costumes were so impressive that the generally very ethnocentric voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose to award it the Oscar for costume design for a film in color (the first technical award given to a film not in English, I think). It was also selected best foreign-language film (before that was a formal category) by Academy voters and by New York film critics, and received the Palme D’Or at Cannes.

“Jigokumon” still looks very impressive. It seems that many of the films (none of them new) I’ve seen of late have been more impressive visually than dramatically. In the middle of watching “Jigokumon,” I thought it was another film to add to that list. The dramatic gears grind slowly between a flamboyant beginning and an ending that retrospectively justifies the slow-seeming middle (relatively slow: the whole movie only take 86 minutes) and surprises expectations. I certainly do not want to specify what happens, or, more to the point, what is said at the end. In no sense is there a trick ending: the surprise is more cerebral than physical.

Even allowing for cultural differences between 21st-century America and 12th-century Japan, the plot is somewhat perplexing. The first part is straightforward enough. While the military commander who is also a monk is gone, a rebellion within the palace in Kyoto occurs. The defenders of the regime need someone to impersonate the empress and to draw off attackers so the real empress can slip out. Lady-in-waiting Kesa (Machiko Kyô volunteers and dons an extraordinary golden robe not just belonging to but signifying the empress.

The samurai in charge of getting Kesa to safety Moritoo (Kasuo Hasegawa [A Kaubuki Actor’s Revenge, Crucified Lovers]) has to face down his brother who has joined the rebels. The escape to Moritoo’s home is hokey and the failure of the rebels to seize the woman they think is the empress is inexplicable. (Also, the viewer does not learn what happened to the real emperor and empress). After Moritoo carries the news to the commander, Lord Kiyomori (Senda Koreya) and catches and slays a spy, the rebellion is put down. It seems that “Jigokumon” is a samurai film about an early period of unrest (the declining Heian period, ca. 1160), but in one of those scenes in which samurais and officials kneel motionless as decisions are announced, the genre shifts from treachery and swordplay to stubbornness and erotic obsession.

The commander (shogun?) asks Moritoo what he wants as a reward for his role in putting down the rebellion—anything but the commander’s head or that of his family. What Moritoo asks for is Kesa. When informed that she is already married, he refuses to drop his request and the commander can neither deny nor grant it. To save his face, Moritoo should withdraw the request, though underlings could be (imperatively) “asked” to break their marriages (this is central to the later masterpiece “Samurai Rebellion” which also focuses on unseemly stubbornness defying everyone’s expectations).


Lady Kesa is mortified and feels that she must somehow be to blame for the outrageous request, but her very dignified husband Wataru (Yamagata Isao [Samurai Rebellion]) does not blame her or take the bid for his wife particularly seriously. Moritoo persists and behaves more and more outrageously (all the more so judged by the samurai code). Why he is not transferred to some far frontier or ordered to kill himself (or trapped on one of his forays) is inexplicable to me, but honor is eventually upheld (albeit in unexpected ways, as I’ve already noted).

The married couple is placed in a position that they find untenable and I find hard to believe could happen in a courtly society with extremely rigid rules of decorum. The plot requires more suspension of disbelief than I can muster and there is practically no revelation of motivation of the characters through most of the movie. I don’t think that “Jigokumon” is a great movie (as “Ran” or “Sanshô dayû” are), but it is a very impressive one, particularly visually. The opening battle and the horse race are especially striking, as is Wataru’s final speech are especially noteworthy, as are the cinematography of Mizoguchi regular Sugiyama Kôhei and Wada Mitsuzô’s costume design.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray