A History of Japanese Literature/Book 3/Chapter 4

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We now come to two works which by common consent mark the highest point to which the classical literature of Japan attained, namely, the Genji Monogatari and the Makura Zōshi. The authors were contemporaries, and both of them were women.

The real name of the author of the Genji Monogatari has not come down to us. She is known to history as Murasaki no Shikibu. Critics are not agreed as to the reason why she was called Murasaki, a word which means "purple," nor does it greatly matter. Shikibu, if it meant anything, would indicate that she was in some way connected with the Board of Rites. It was, however, customary at this time for the ladies of the court to take to themselves fancy official designations which had no particular application. In her case the name was perhaps suggested by the circumstance that her father held office in that Department.

Murasaki no Shikibu belonged to a junior branch of the great Fujiwara family, or rather clan, which held so distinguished a position in Japan during many centuries of its history, and which has produced such numbers of Mikados, statesmen, literati, and poets. Her father had a reputation for scholarship, and others of her family were poets of some note. Murasaki no Shikibu herself displayed a love of learning at an early age. She was well versed both in Japanese and Chinese literature, and her father often wished that such talents and learning had not been wasted on a girl. Married to another Fujiwara, she lost her husband after a short time, and seems to have then attached herself to the Empress Akiko, also a Fujiwara and fond of learned pursuits. This would explain her familiarity with the ceremonies and institutions of the court of Kiōto. Her writings bear unmistakable testimony to the fact that she moved in the best circles of her time and country.

The Genji is generally supposed to have been finished in A.D. 1004, but this date has been disputed, and it may have been composed a few years earlier. There is a pleasing legend which associates its composition with the Temple of Ishiyama at the southern end of Lake Biwa, where the river Uji issues from it. To this beautiful spot, it is said, Murasaki no Shikibu retired from court life to devote the remainder of her days to literature and religion. There are sceptics, however, Motoöri being one, who refuse to believe this story, pointing out, after the manner of their kind, that it is irreconcilable with known facts. On the other hand, the very chamber in the temple where the Genji was written is shown—with the ink-slab which the author used, and a Buddhist Sutra in her handwriting, which, if they do not satisfy the critic, still are sufficient to carry conviction to the minds of ordinary visitors to the temple.

The Genji Monogatari is a novel. There is nothing remarkable, it may be said, in a woman excelling in this branch of literature. But Murasaki no Shikibu did more than merely write a successful novel. Like Fielding in England, she was the creator in Japan of this kind of fiction—the prose epic of real life, as it has been called. In the quality of her genius, however, she more resembled Fielding's great contemporary Richardson. Before her time we have nothing but stories of no great length, and of a romantic character far removed from the realities of daily life. The Genji Monogatari is realistic in the best sense of the word. Here we see depicted men and women, especially women, as they are, in their everyday lives and surroundings, their sentiments and passions, their faults and weaknesses. The author does not aim at startling or horrifying her readers, and she has a wholesome abhorrence for all that is sensational, unnatural, monstrous, or improbable. Such a hero as the nineteenth-century novelist Bakin's Tametomo, who has two pupils to his eyes and one arm longer than the other, and who, after falling over a cliff many thousand feet high, presently picks himself up and walks home several miles as if nothing had happened, would have seemed to her as ridiculous as he does to ourselves. There are few dramatic situations in the Genji, and what little of miraculous and supernatural it contains is of a kind which might well be believed by a contemporary reader. The story flows on easily from one scene of real life to another giving us a varied and minutely detailed picture of life and society at Kiōto such as we possess for no other country at the same period.

The hero is the son of a Mikado by a favourite concubine, whose colleagues are all jealous of the preference shown her, and are continually annoying her in a petty way. She takes this so much to heart that she falls ill and dies. Her death is related with much pathos. Genji grows up to be a handsome and accomplished youth of a very susceptible disposition, and his history is mainly an account of his numerous love affairs, and of his ultimate union with Murasaki, a heroine in all respects worthy of him. It continues the story up to his death at the age of fifty-one. The last ten books, which relate chiefly to one of Genji's sons, are by some considered a separate work.

The style of the Genji has been called ornate. The writer who applied this epithet to it was probably thinking of the courtly honorifics with which it is in many places burdened. But there is much excuse for this. The Genji is a novel of aristocratic life. Most of the characters are personages of rank, in describing whose sayings and actions a courtly style of speech is indispensable. To a Japanese it would be simply shocking to say that a Mikado has breakfast—he augustly deigns to partake of the morning meal, and so on. The European reader finds this irritating and tiresome at first, but he soon gets accustomed to it. In truth, such language is in entire consonance with the elaborate ceremonial, the imposing but cumbrous costumes, and much else of the rather artificial life of the Japanese court of the time. Apart from this the style of the Genji is not more ornate than that, let us say, of Robinson Crusoe, and incomparably less so than that of many Japanese books of later date. It is free from any redundance of descriptive adjectives or profusion of metaphors such as we are accustomed to associate with the word ornate.

Others have objected to the style of the Genji as wanting in brevity. It must be admitted that its long, involved sentences contrast strongly with the direct, concise manner of the Ise Monogatari. But, as Motoöri points out, a brief style may be a bad one, and lengthy sentences full of detail may best fit the subject. Murasaki no Shikibu's fulness is not prolixity. On close examination it will be found that there is nothing superfluous in the abundant details of her narrative. That is her method, and is essential to the effect she aims at producing.

The Genji is not intrinsically a very difficult work, and no doubt the author's contemporaries found it quite easy to understand. But since then the language, institutions, and manners and customs of Japan have changed so much as greatly to obscure the meaning, not only to European students, but to the Japanese themselves. Piles of commentary by native editors have been accumulated over it, and their interpretations are often so blundering and inadequate that Motoöri found it necessary to devote to its elucidation a critical work[2] in nine volumes, mostly taken up with correcting the errors of his predecessors.

The enormous bulk of the Genji will always remain another obstacle to its just appreciation by European readers. It is in fifty-four books, which in the standard (but not very satisfactory) Kogetsushō edition run to no less than 4234 pages. The genealogical tree alone of the personages which figure in it, comprising several Mikados, a crowd of Princes, Princesses, and Imperial consorts, with a host of courtiers, occupies eighty pages.

Japanese critics claim for the Genji that it surpasses anything of the kind in Chinese literature, and even deserves to be ranked with the masterpieces of European fiction. None, however, but an extreme Japanophile (the species is not altogether unknown) will go so far as to place Murasaki no Shikibu on a level with Fielding, Thackeray, Victor Hugo, Dumas, and Cervantes. On the other hand, it is unjust to dismiss her summarily with the late M. George Bousquet as "cette ennuyeuse Scudéry japonaise," a verdict endorsed by Mr. Chamberlain. There are in the Genji pathos, humour, an abundant flow of pleasing sentiment, keen observation of men and manners, an appreciation of the charms of nature, and a supreme command of the resources of the Japanese language, which in her hands reached its highest point of excellence. Though never melodramatic, she gives us plenty of incident, and is seldom dull. A scholar, she abhorred pedantry and fine writing, the bane of so many of the modern novelists of Japan.

It is unnecessary to discuss here the opinion of some Japanese writers, that the Genji was written to inculcate Buddhist doctrine, or the notion of others, that the teaching of Confucian morality was its aim. Nor need we trouble ourselves with the suggestion that it is a novel à clef, and that the personages are to be identified with real persons who were alive at the time when it was written. As Motoöri very justly observes, all these ideas show an ignorance of the true object of novel-writing, which is to excite our sympathies, and to interest and amuse by the presentation of a picture of real life.

Another subject much dwelt on by native critics is the morality of the Genji, some denouncing it, as it deserves, while others strive to defend what even from the Japanese point of view is indefensible. Truth to say, the laxity of morals which it depicts is deplorable. It is a satisfaction to add that it belongs to the age and country in which the author lived, and that her own private life is admittedly free from any stain of this kind. Of coarseness and pruriency, moreover, there is none in the Genji, or indeed in the literature of this period generally. The language is almost invariably decent, and even refined, and we hardly ever meet with a phrase calculated to bring a blush to the cheek of a young person.

It is difficult to give much idea of the Genji by quotation. The following passages may serve as well as any others for this purpose; but the writer is conscious that here, more perhaps than anywhere else in Japanese literature, the chasm which divides us in thought, sentiment, and language from the Far East forms an insuperable obstacle to communicating to a translation the undoubted charm of the original.

Genji, aged sixteen, discusses feminine character with a young friend:—

"It was an evening in the wet season. Without, the rain was falling drearily, and even in the Palace hardly any one was to be seen. In Genji's quarters there was an unusual sense of stillness. He was engaged in reading by the light of a lamp when it occurred to him to take out from a cupboard which was close by some letters written on paper of various tints. The Chiujō [his friend] was inordinately eager to have a look at them. 'There are a few of a kind that I can let you see,' said Genji, 'but there are others that are imperfect;' and these he refused to show him. 'Oh! but it is just those written without reserve and couched in moving language that I like. Commonplace ones don't count. What I wish to see are letters which reveal the various circumstances of the writers. When they are inspired by petulant jealousy or written at the hour of eve—a prey to passionate longings and the like—it is then that they are worth reading.' It was unlikely that any which demanded the strictest secrecy should be left lying about in an ordinary cupboard. Such were no doubt carefully concealed, and these were of the second order of intimacy. Genji therefore, being thus pressed, allowed his friend to read passages from them here and there. 'What a variety!' said the Chiujō, and began to guess at the authors. 'This is from so-and-so, is it not?—that from such another?' he inquired. Sometimes he guessed right, and even when he missed the mark Genji was much amused by his inferences and suspicions. But he said little and maintained his reserve, putting his friend off with dubious answers. 'You must have a collection of your own,' said Genji. 'Will you not let me see a few of them? In that case, my cupboard would open its doors more cheerfully.' 'I am sure none of mine would be worth your while to read,' replied the Chiujō. 'I have at last [he was aged sixteen] discovered,' continued he, 'how hard it is to find a woman of whom it may be said, "Here at any rate is the one. Here no fault can be found." There are plenty who may be considered fairly tolerable, girls of superficial sensibilities, ready with their pens, and competent to give intelligent responses[3] upon occasion. But how hard it is to pitch upon any of whom you can say that here is one who compels your choice. Often they have no thought for any accomplishments but such as they themselves possess, and depreciate those of others in a most provoking way. Some, again, there are, made much of by their parents and not allowed to leave their side, who, while they remain within the lattice which bounds their future, may no doubt make an impression on the hearts of men who have had little opportunity of really knowing them. They may be young, attractive, and of sedate manners; and so long as they are without external distractions, they will naturally, by the assiduous imitation of others, gain some skill in frivolous pastimes. But their friends will screen their defects and represent their good qualities in the best light. How is anybody to condemn them in his own mind without a proof, and say to himself, "That is not so"? Whereas if we believe all that is said of them, we are sure to find on further acquaintance that they fall in our estimation.' Here the Chiujō paused, ashamed of his own precipitancy. Genji smiled, thinking of something of the same kind, though not absolutely so, in his own experience, and said, 'But surely they have all some good points?' 'Just so,' replied the Chiujō. 'If they had none, who would be taken in? Of those utterly sorry creatures who are beneath notice, and of the superior women for whose accomplishments we feel an unqualified admiration, the numbers are alike few. Those born in a high station are made much of by their friends, and their faults are concealed, so that in outward appearance they are naturally second to none. In the middle class, there is greater freedom of expression of individual feeling, and thus the means are afforded of distinguishing among them. As for those of the lowest station of all, they are quite unworthy of our attention.'"

Here Genji and the Chiujō are joined by two other friends. The conversation is continued at considerable length, and various types of womanhood are discussed with illustrative anecdotes drawn from the speakers' experience. This passage, known as the Shina-sadame, or Critique (of women), is much admired by the Japanese, and is considered by critics to be the kernel of the whole work, the chief idea of which is to present to the reader a picture of various types of womanhood.

Genji, having retired to a monastery in order to be exorcised for ague, espies in a neighbouring temple a young girl who is living with her grandmother, a nun, and who is destined to fix his vagrant fancy at a later period.

"At this season the days were very long, and time passed slowly; so under cover of the deep evening mist he approached the low hedge of which he had been told. Here he sent back all his attendants, retaining with him only Koremitsu. Peeping through the hedge, he could see straight before him the western front of the house, where there was a nun performing her devotions before a private image of Buddha. She raised up the hanging screen and made an offering of flowers. Then taking her place by the middle pillar, she placed a Sutra on an armrest, and proceeded to read it in a voice which betrayed much suffering. This nun seemed no ordinary person. She was something over forty years of age. Her complexion was fair, and she had an air of distinction. She was thin, but her face had a puffy appearance from ill health. Whilst looking at her, Genji was struck with the beauty of her hair, which seemed rather to have gained in elegance by having been cut.[4] Two comely grown-up women were in waiting on her.

"Now there were some children playing in and out of the room. One of them, who might be perhaps ten years of age, wore a white silk gown lined with yellow, and not too new. She had no resemblance to the attendants or to the rest of the children, and her beauty seemed to give promise of a future for her. Her hair was tossed in waves like an expanded fan, and her eyes were red with weeping. The nun looked up when she saw her near, and said, 'What is the matter? Have you been quarrelling with some of the children?' As Genji looked at them, it occurred to him that there was a resemblance, and that the little girl was probably her daughter. 'Inuki has let go my sparrow that I had put under a basket,' said she dolefully. The waiting-woman exclaimed, 'He is always doing thoughtless things like that and plaguing the poor girl, all because he does not get scolded enough. I wonder where it has gone to? It had at last become so delightful, and now I'm afraid the crows have discovered it.' So saying, she went out.

"This woman's hair hung down loose and was very long. She was a pleasant-looking woman. The others called her Nurse Shōnagon, and she seemed to have charge of this child. 'Come now! be a good girl,' said the nun, 'and don't do such naughty things. You forget that my life is but for to-day or to-morrow, and you can think of nothing but your sparrow. Haven't I often told you that it was a sin [to keep birds in a cage]. You pain me greatly. Come here, child.' The little girl stood forward with a rueful expression of face, and a mist hanging round her eyebrows. The contour of her forehead, from which the hair was combed back in childish fashion, and the style of her hair itself were very lovely. 'What a charming girl she will be when she is grown up!' thought Genji, and his eyes dwelt on her with interest. She greatly resembled one to whom formerly his whole heart had been given, and at the thought his tears began to fall. The nun, stroking the little girl's head, said, 'What beautiful hair, though you think it so much trouble to have it combed! I am greatly concerned that you are so frivolous. At your age some girls are so different. When your late mother was married at the age of twelve she had an extraordinary amount of good sense. But now if you were to lose me, what would become of you?' And she burst out weeping. Genji, at this sight, was moved unawares to sorrow for her. The little girl, child as she was, looked at her, and with downcast eyes bent her head to the ground, so that her hair fell loosely forward, showing a lustre that was very beautiful.

'There is no sky [weather] to dry up
The dew [of my tears] at leaving behind
The tender herb
That knows not where shall be its abode
When it has reached full growth.'

"So the nun. 'True,' said the other waiting-woman [not the girl's nurse], and with tears answered her—

'So long as the first blades of grass
Know not what will be their future when grown up,
How can the dew
Think of becoming dried?'"

This notice may be fitly closed by the following poem, in which Motoöri in his old age expressed his intention of returning, if time permitted, to the study of the Genji:

"So dearly do I love them,
Again I would come to see
The violets on the plains of spring
Which I left ungathered—
Though to-day I may not pluck them."

The author of the Genji Monogatari wrote a diary called Murasaki no Shikibu Nikki, which has come down to us. It is not without merit, but its fame has been wholly eclipsed by that of her greater work.

  1. There is a translation of the first seventeen (out of fifty-four) chapters of this work by K. Suyematsu. Although a highly creditable performance under the circumstances, it is not satisfactory. The translator had not Motoöri's commentary before him, and the Kogetsushō edition is a very uncertain guide.
  2. The Tama no Ogushi. It was left unfinished at his death.
  3. Probably poetical responses of thirty-one syllables are meant.
  4. Nuns at this time did not shave their heads, but only trimmed the hair short.