Tag Archives: Tale of Genji

Ivan Morris’s engaging and comprehensive analaysis of Heian culture/society


I first acquired and read Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (first published in 1964) after reading the Edward Seidensticker (1976) translation of The Tale of Genji (Morris deems this the first “psychological novel” rather than the first novel). In 1990 I thought Morris’s book a model of a holistic ethnography of a long-gone culture. I reread it after reading Lisa Dalby’s (2000) The Tale of Murasaki. I still think that Morris’s book readably analyzes what can be known about Heian society/culture. It certainly explicates the place of elite Japanese women of the time. All the Heian literature that has survived was written by women. Morris himself translated The Pillow Book of Sei Shonogon and As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. Moreover, there was a preference for daughters (rather than sons) among the elite, so that they could be married to members of the imperial family. (This is not to say that there was no male privilege, not least in lack of constraints on mobility and ready acceptance of males having multiple wives and concubines.)


(Murasaki imagined writing The Tale of Genji)

Women could inherit and hold property in Heian times, though it was difficult for them to go out and supervise their holdings. Indeed, a reluctance to leave the capital (now Kyoto) also hamstrung males of the court. Eventually, regional landowners toppled the aesthetes of the Heian.

Morris says that women lived in semi-darkness, isolated by screens from male interlocutors. While their male contemporaries were writing in Chinese, some women created Japanese literature (still enamored of Chinese models) in cursive (“grass script”).

Morris’s separation of Heian beliefs into “religions” and “superstitions” feels old-fashioned, but he made a clear rationale for distinguishing what Robert Redfield called “the great [written] traditions” and “small [unwritten] traditions.”

Not much is recorded about the lives of the masses. Morris relates what can be known, while recurrently emphasizing that the culture/society that is knowable from the literature of elite Heian women had little to do with the lifeways of Heian peasants. Even provincial governors, appointed by the Emperor, were looked down upon for being away from court. And warriors had no prestige in Heian Japan (samurais were far in the future!).

“Artistic sensibility was more highly valued than ethical goodness. Despite the influence of Buddhism Heian society was on the whole governed by style rather than any moral principles and good looks tended to take the place of virtue. The word yoki (‘good’) referred primarily to birth, but it also applied to a person’s beauty or his aesthetic sensibility’ the one implication it lacked was that of moral rectitude” (207).

“As in almost any polygamous society, the possession of numerous attractive concubines and mistresses, in addition to a well-born principal wife, far from labeling the man a lecher, was an enviable status symbol—an indication of his wealth, skill, charm, and health” (248)

The evanescence of beauty was already keenly noted even back then (the sadness of mono no aware).

Morris concludes with an appreciation of The Tale of Genji as literature (not only as a source of information about the Heian court society and culture) and of the woman who became known as Murasaki, a character in it, as the author.

For anyone interested in Heian Japan and/or those wanting to understand the sociocultural context of Genji and other Heian literature, Morris’s book cannot be recommended too highly. Morris produced other interesting work (The Nobility of Failure, Nationalism and the Right Wing in Japan), outstanding translation of Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and Shôhei Ôoka’s Fires on the Plain. Alas, he died in 1976 at the age of 50, and the 1962 collection Modern Japanese Stories.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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.”