The Lady Murasaki and the First Modern Novel

“Pretentious, awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous, scornful” and the mother of the modern novel.

Lady Murasaki, was a courtier at the Heian court at the end of the first millennium. She wrote the massively influential The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogartari); a novel that is still considered one of the most important pieces of Japanese literature. The novel is a staple of the Japanese curriculum.

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The Heian period (794-1185) was the most glorious period in Japanese history. Moving from Nagaokakyo to Heian-Kyo (present day Kyoto) to counter balance the overly-powerful Buddhists in Nara. The period is defined as one of decadence and refinement.

Through careful manipulation and marriages the Fujiwara clan dominated Heian politics. Lady Murasaki was born c.973 to the northern branch of the Fujiwara’s. Although her great grandfather had been the first regent of the period, by the time of Murasaki’s birth her family had fallen from grace; despite their status her family had a literary reputation with many of her ancestors being famous poets.

Although in Heian society husbands and wives kept separate households with children raised by their mothers; Murasaki lived in her father’s house along with a number of siblings (it is most likely that their house was on Teramachi Street in Kyoto). From a young age she showed talent in her writing and classical Chinese (a subject usually taught to boys only) Her father often said;

“Just my luck, what a pity she wasn’t born a man”

After a short marriage to a much older second cousin and the death of her brothers, Murasaki was brought to court by the mighty Michinaga. Michinaga’s time as regent marked the peak of Fujiwara power. He married of (pimped out) four daughters to four emperors.

Murasaki was brought to attend the court of MIchinagas 12 year-old daughter Soshi who he had named Empress (even though the current Empress was still alive). The relationship between Murasaki and Michinaga was most definitely one with benefits. In her diary she documents having to fight off many advances from Michinaga. In the translation of her diary it describes the way she would bore him with the minutiae of her life at court, his daughters comings and goings and even the birth of his grandson in ‘elaborate’ detail.

Of course the sausage-fest that is Japanese history, the names of women are not officially documented. Women were known by nicknames. Murasaki had two nicknames; one being ‘Our Lady of the Chronicles’ which she most likely earned by teaching Soshi Chinese. The nickname Murasaki came from a character in the Tales of Genji. The only hint of what Murasaki’s real name could have been comes from Michinaga writing down some of his favorite ladies-in-waiting. In a 1007 diary entry Fujiwara Takako is mentioned.

The Heian court was immensely fashionable. Courtiers were increasingly isolated with very little to do art, writing and sex was all they had. Women wore floor length hair, white faces and blackened their teeth. Their clothes were cumbersome and multilayered. The well known Hinamatsuri dolls are an example of what was fashionable at the time. Women held salons, vying for status and respect. The company was carefully selected, the original Empress Teishi had had Sei Shonagon, celebrated author of The Pillow Book. Soshi was surrounded by talented female authors such as Izumi Shikibu and Akazome Emon. Murasaki showed her exactly how she viewed her rivals, writing of Izumi in her diary as;

“…not very satisfactory. She has a gift for dashing off informal compositions in a careless running-hand; but in poetry she needs either an interesting subject or some classic model to imitate.”

It is not known when or where Murasaki started the Tale of Genji. It is possible she wrote the first chapters for a private benefactor. At 445px-Lady_Murasaki_writingthe time paper, ink and calligraphers were expensive; it is almost a certainty that Michinaga provided Murasaki with the tools to complete the manuscript. The Tale of Genji is a novel in three parts. It spans over a thousand pages and is thought to have taken over a decade to complete. It tells the story of the gorgeous ‘shining prince’ Genji, continuing after his death.

She redefined the genre of the monogatari, avoiding the tradition of fantasy and fairy tale clichés. Murasaki’s contrast of formal Chinese style and mundane topics give the work a satirical voice. The themes found in the book are common for the period. By far Murasaki’s favourite phrase is ‘物の哀れ (mono no aware) – the sorrow of human existance’ she uses it over a thousand times. Genji is comely, refined, gifted yet sympathetic and human. Historians have deduced that in the book Murasaki found an escape from her boring life at court. Helen McCullough atributes the universal appeal of The Tale of Genji to its ability to;

“transcend both its genre and age. Its basic subject matter and setting—love at the Heian court—are those of the romance, and its cultural assumptions are those of the mid-Heian period, but Murasaki Shikibu’s unique genius has made the work for many a powerful statement of human relationships, the impossibility of permanent happiness in love … and the vital importance, in a world of sorrows, of sensitivity to the feelings of others.”

There is a running theme throughout  that Prince Genji is able to recognize the inner beauty and fragility of his many lovers.

The Tale of Genji was enormously popular. It is generally thought that it was finished by 1008, but before that Murasaki notes in her diary that Michinaga regularly came to steal chapters. Despite it being written in Japanese the Emperor had it read to him. The book was scarce in the provinces but copies were highly sought after. By as little as 100-years later it was seen as a classic. Poets in the medieval ages used it for references of classical diction. The language used in The Genji Monogatari was seen as pure Japanese, a Japanese that needed preserving.

The fact that the novel was written in Japanese helped its popularity. At the time of its writing Japan was beginning to become increasingly insular. The Tang Dynasty (Japan’s touchstone to Chinese culture) was losing its grip. By the end of the Heian period Japan had ceased diplomatic visits that wouldn’t recommence for almost 500 years.

The Tale of Genji has had a huge cultural impact on Japan. Murasaki’s written work (along with other Heian poets) forged the Japanese language and its mix of kanji and hiragana.

A sample of writing showing the mix of Japanese kana and Chinese Kanji
A sample of The Genji Monogatari.

Its legacy has been used by many different groups from far-right nationalist claiming it as the finest piece of literature (ever, of all time) to the Japanese treasury that put a scene from the novel on the 2000 yen note.

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The date of Murasaki’s death is not clear, some have her dying in 1014 others have her living to 1025. At the time of her death she would have been around forty to fifty. She is buried in a small garden in the city of Kyoto. In the year 2008 Kyoto held a year of celebrations to commemorate one thousand years of The Tale of Genji.

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In the town of Uji, where the final chapters of the tale take place there is a statue of Murasaki.
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Japan’s Secret Christians

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マリア観音 – Maria Kannon

In 1637 an uprising comprised of mainly Japanese peasant Catholics was brutally crushed by the Tokugawa Shogunate, with almost 37,000 rebels and supporters beheaded and buried in the ruins of their castle stronghold.

The shogunate, accusing Portugeuse settlers, implemented the Sakoku (鎖国 – Locked country) policy, limiting foreign influence and forbidding Japanese citizens from leaving. Catholic missionaries and priest were expelled and converts either killed or tortured.

This started the sect of the Kakure Kirishitan (隠れキリシタン – hidden Christian). Worshiping in secret rooms they adapted prayers learnt from memory to sound like Buddhist chants and idols of the Virgin Mary and crucifixes were built in Buddhist styles. Eucharist was performed with rice and Sake.

17th Century crucifix

Over time the original meanings of the prayers were lost and the Kakure Kirishitans beliefs became more ancestor worship based, with Christian martyrs taking the place of actual blood relations.

When religious sanctions were lifted in the mid 19th century many of the Kakure returned to the Catholic church. Only a handful remained.

In 1991, anthropologist Christal Whelan traveled the Goto Islands, southern Japan to speak with the few surviving Kakure Kirishitans. A preview of her documentary Otaiya; Japan’s Hidden Christians can be seen on Youtube.

Ono no Komachi

Ono no Komachi (c 825-900) was a famous and prolific waka poet. She is placed within the Thirty Six Poetry Immortals.

Komachi was renowned for her beauty and charm. As a poet, she specialized in erotic love themes, mostly about  anxiety, solitude and  passionate love. 

Komachi’s birthplace is unknown but, according to one tradition, she was born in what is now Akita Prefecture (northern Japan),  Her social status is also uncertain but she is believed to have been the daughter of a low ranking lord and subsequently become an emperor’s lady-in-waiting , possibly Emperor Ninmyō (r. 833-850).

Legends abound of Komachi in love. The most well known is a story about her relationship with a high-ranking courtier. Komachi promised that if he visited her every night for a hundred nights, then she would become his lover. He obliged but failed once towards the end. Despairing, he fell ill and subsequently died. When Komachi learned of his death she was overcome with grief.

Komachi’s old age when she had lost her beauty, been abandoned by her former lovers, and now regrets her life, wandering around as a lonely beggar woman is also frequently portrayed in later-period literature including many noh plays. What is fiction and what is fact is the subject of debate.

Today the name Komachi still evokes the image of classical feminine  beauty  and is a popular girls name to this day

Though I go to you
ceaselessly along dream paths,
the sum of those trysts
is less than a single glimpse
granted in the waking world.

Yōkai; Rokurokubi

轆轤首 – Rokurokubi (potter wheel neck)

Rokurokubi are normal women by day, but at night they gain the ability to stretch their necks to ridiculous proportions.

It is said that rokurokubi live undetected during daylight and may even take mortal husbands trying to keep their demonic forms secret. They are tricksters by nature, however, and their compulsion to frighten and spy on human beings is hard to resist. Some rokurokubi thus resort to revealing themselves only to drunks, the sleeping, or the blind in order to satisfy these urges.

Other stories say that the rokurokubis were humans who had broken Buddhist law. They feast on the blood, favoring that of those who had also broken religious doctrine.

Yōkai; The Shirime

尻目 – Shirime (bum eye)

In the run up to halloween, I want to introduce you to the strange and wonderful world of the yōkai.

The story of the Shirime starts with a lone samurai walking to Kyoto. On hearing someone calling to him he turns to find a naked man, ass up. From where the man’s poop chute should be a HUGE GLITTERING EYE opens.

The famous haiku poet and artist Yosa Buson liked the story so much he included the Shirime in many of his yōkai pictures, like the one above.

Hisashige Tanaka

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Today is the 213th birthday of legendary Japanese inventor Hisashige Tanaka (田中久重).

Born in 1799 in Chikugo prefecture (modern-day Fukuoka), he invented a loom at the age of 14. By his 20’s he had become famous with aristocrats for his karakuri dolls which were capable of complex movements.

In 1834, he started his experiments in pneumatics, hydraulics and various forms of lighting based on rapeseed oil. However, he soon moved on to Kyoto, where he studied rangaku, or western learning, and astronomy. With the development of the Sonnō jōi movement, the atmosphere in Kyoto became increasingly dangerous towards foreign influences and technology, and Tanaka was invited by Sano Tsunetami to the Saga Domain in Kyūshū.

While in Saga, Tanaka designed and built Japan’s first domestically made steam locomotive and steam warship from a Dutch reference book, and a demonstration of a steam engine conducted by a Russian diplomat during his visit to Nagasaki in 1853.

He was also involved in the construction of a reverberatory furnace in Saga for the production of Armstrong guns. In 1864, he returned to Fukuoka, where he assisted in the development of modern weaponry.

In 1873, six years after the Meiji Restoration, Tanaka, by then aged 74 was asked by the Ministry of Industries to come to Tokyo to make telegraphs.

After his death in 1881, his son founded Tanaka Engineering Works The company changed its name after Tanaka’s death to Shibaura Engineering Works in 1904, and after a merger with Tokyo Denki became Tokyo Shibaura Denki, more commonly known today as Toshiba.

Today he is the Google home page.

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生首掛け軸

Namakubikakejiku, An Edo jidai portrait of an executed criminal (possibly a samurai). These pictures were posted as a warning. The red was painted in the executed’s blood.

When this picture was shown on TV, it was noticed that the eyes seemed to be opening and moving during the segment.

Tsukimi

During the Heian period (平安時代 794-1185), moon viewing parties came into fashion. The eighth month of the lunar calender (Gregorian September) the moon was thought to be at its brightest. Aristocrats would gather to recite poetry and make offerings to the moon in order to secure a good harvest.

Japanese mythology claims a mochi  (rice cake) making rabbit lives in the moon instead of the western man in the moon.

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The traditional way to throw a Tsukimi party is to decorate your house with pampas grass and eat Tsukimi dango (white rice dumplings).

Other tsukimi time foods are  Tsukimi udon/soba; noodles served in a broth with a raw cracked egg and in Kyushu they serve eggs on yakisoba and many fast food restaurants have tsukimi menu items such as Mcdonald’s “tsukimi burger”.

2012’s Tsukimi day is September 30th.

Obon お盆

Obon during the late Edo period.

Obon (お盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour ones dead ancestors. It has been celebrated in Japan or over 500 hundred years; in recent years the traditional Buddhist Confucian customs have evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people travel back to their hometowns to visit relatives and clean the graves of passed family members.

Renowned  his ability to mind read and converse with ghosts and gods.

The customs supposedly originate from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana, an important disciple of the Buddha, who used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. He asked the Buddha how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and saw his mother’s release. He also began to see the true nature of her past unselfishness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him.

After she had moved up from the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts (what a name!) he was so happy he danced for joy This birthed a new custom know as Bon Odori.

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Bon Odori is different from region to region. Typically the dancers, dressed in light-weight summer kimonos known as yukata, line up in a circle around a wooden scaffold band stand. Large drums or taiko beat out the rhythm and the dancers proceed around and perform set dances. Each region has its own songs and moves. Tokyo has Tokyo Ondo, Hokkaido, Soran Bushi and Gifu has Gujo odori.

The moves are also influenced by the history of a region. One of the most famous dances is the Tanko Bushi from the Miike Mine area in Kyushu. Its moves depict mining life, digging, cart pushing, lantern hanging, etc.

Bon Odori has moved away from its religious roots and is now seen as a summer dance that is performed at most summer festivals. Current pop songs are also adapted to have an odori  of their own.

Another Obon tradition involves making horses and cows out of cucumbers and aubergine. These are left on family altars, they are meant to be vehicles for spirits to get around. Also lanterns called bonchochin are placed beside the altar to help guide the spirits home.

After Obon the animals and lanterns are either floated in the ocean or rivers or burnt to ensure a safe journey back to the world of the spirits.

Obon is celebrated at 3 different times in differing parts of Japan. When the lunar calendar was replaced during the Meiji Restoration, regions reacted differently. The “official” Obon week is around August 15th. Although it is not a public holiday, leave is generally given and it is one of the busiest travel times in Japan with many places increasing prices.

10,000 yen

Our third and final PEOPLE OF MONEY post.

The biggest and *my personal favourite* bill, the 10,000 yen bill features Japan’s Voltaire/Benjamin Franklin; Yukichi Fukuzawa.

Born into a poor samurai family in 1835 he started classical training from the age of 5. This was during a time when Japan was still a closed island nation. He was among the members of the first diplomatic visit to the United States in 1859 and upon his return he decided to write the first English-Japanese dictionary.
He was a integral figure during the westernization of Japanese society. He also founded Keio University, the oldest institute of higher education in Japan.

 

Fukuzawa has been on the 10,000 yen note since 1984. He was the only figure to remain after the 2004 change of series.