Many things can be said of Murasaki Shikibu’s fictional account of the Heian aristocracy, set in eleventh century Japan. Yet the true heartbeat of The Tale of Genji, is the recurring rhythm of artful seduction that pulsates through Hikaru Genji, i.e. the shining genji, the novel’s main protagonist.
It is thought that Genji’s character is most likely based on the real-life man, His Excellency, the Grand Counsellor, Fujiwara no Korechika. Korechika is described in The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon as a man of incredible charm with a hypnotic effect on women. Shonagon goes on to describe Korechika as arriving at court “wearing a rather soft and supple cloak in the cherry-blossom combination, over deep violet gathered trousers of heavy brocade and white under-robes.” He arranges “the sleeves of his wonderfully glowing deep scarlet-purple damask cloak for (optimal) display” (17).
The fictitious version of Korechika starts life as the son of the emperor. In The Tale of Genji: A Reader’s Guide, Genji or as he is sometimes called, Lord Hikaru is describes as a beautiful son, who is so magnificent that he is a possible rival to the title of the crown prince. Robert Greene in The Art of Seduction refers to Genji as one who never lost certain childlike charms from his personality, an attribute that others find irresistibly alluring.
The first to fall under the Shining Genji’s spell is none other than the emperor of Japan, Genji’s own father:
“The emperor’s thoughts were on his youngest son even when he was with his eldest… (The emperor) made constant inquiry after (Genji)” (7).
Though Genji is described as having “the face of one who should ascend to the highest place and be father to a nation…” (14) He is nevertheless striped of any imperial title and appointed to the non-royal Gin clan. The reason for his fall from grace can be attributed to the fact that Genji’s mother is “…a lady not of the first rank, whom the emperor loved more than any of the others” of all the wives and concubines” (3). Despite all this, Genji retains the position of most beloved son to the emperor.
Notwithstanding this political setback, Genji is far superior in deportment and disposition to most anyone else so “that few find it in themselves to dislike him” (13). As it turns out, he is a child wonder with inexplicable talent, like the musical prodigy Mozart. When Genji is only seven years of age, “he (recites) the ceremonial reading of the Chinese classics” (13). The aristocrats of the royal court had never before heard or seen such talent in one so young.
Not only is Lord Hikaru an extraordinarily handsome man as well as the beloved son of the emperor with uncanny artistic talents, he has seemingly unlimited time and wealth that enables him to retain the wild independence that makes a child so gloriously charming. These are just a few of the ways he is able to have such a provocative effect on most everyone with which he comes in contact.
Despite all this, Genji is not perfect. Impulsive to a fault, he follows his heart, more often than not, though it may lead to disastrous results. Particularly in the case of several wives or consorts to other men that invariably catch his attention. One such infamous encounter results in Genji’s banishment from court, though only temporarily it is a sorrowful time in his life.
Still, for many other women, Genji fills the order as Sei Shonagon would say of “Things that make your heart beat fast—“ one being a “fine gentleman (who) pulls up in his carriage and sends in some request” (30). One thing for certain, Genji savors each and every one of his conquests with a singular devotion.
The next to succumb to Genji’s charms is his step-mother, Kokiden, mother of the present heir apparent, Genji‘s older half-brother. “Admitting the boy to her inner chamber, (Kokiden) was pleased (even)…reluctant to let him go. She had two daughters, but neither could compare with (Genji) in beauty” (13). All this, even though in the recent past Kokiden proves a deadly rival against Genji’s birth mother.
At age 12, Genji is married to the Minister of the Left’s daughter. His boyish charm is enough to win over his father-in-law, though Genji’s wife, Aoi–five years his senior, is less than enthusiastic about the relationship.
As a young man of seventeen, Genji bewitches an even younger boy, Kojimi, age 12 and the boy’s reluctant older sister, Utsusemi, the wife of a government official:
“The two voices, very sleepy, resembled each other. (Utsusemi said,) “‘And where is our guest? (Kojimi’s) voice was low. ‘I saw him. He is every bit as handsome as everyone says’” (41).
Genji searches to find Utsumei alone. “His manner was so gently persuasive that devils and demons could not have gainsaid him” (32). “(Utsumei) was bathed in perspiration and quite beside herself at the thought of what… the others… would be thinking… Yet the sweet words poured forth, (from Genji’s lips) the whole gamut of pretty devices for making a woman surrender” (43).
As Utsusemi flees Genji’s further advances, she leaves behind her daughter-in-law, Nokiba-no-ogi. Though a bit startled by the unexpected visitor, Nokiba is quite happy to give her time and attention to the charming young man. “The girl beside him had a certain young charm of her own and presently he was deep in vows of love” (54).
On another occasion, Genji finds himself whisked into a passionate search to find a mysterious lady that has given him a “heavily scented white fan” to place a plucked white flower in, “known as ‘evening faces’” (58). Later Evening Faces, as the lady is referred to, is found to be the mother of another young woman who Genji will love, Tamakazura.
Even people who have nothing in common with Genji are drawn to him. On occasion someone may receive a “little poem from him or (having) been treated to some little kindness found him much on their minds. No doubt it distressed them not to be always with him” (63).
From a very young age, Genji’s true passion is for his step mother, Fujitsubo, only five years his senior, the same age as his wife Aoi. After the untimely death of Genji’s birth mother, the emperor is to the point of inconsolable grief. He is told about a “lady famous for her beauty” (15). Fujitsubo, also called, “‘the lady of the radiant sun’” because she ranks beside Genji in the emperor‘s affections (16). Her resemblance to Genji’s dead mother is uncanny. For this same reason, and that Genji seems to have little emotional connection to his own wife, Fujitsubo is for him “a vision of sublime beauty” (18).
Although their relationship is in every way forbidden, Genji manages a night alone with the beautiful Lady Fujitsubo. Afterwards, she is found pregnant with his child. No doubt suffering from humiliation and various other unpleasantries, she becomes ill leaving the tenderhearted Genji quite beside himself with concern for her. Much to his sorrow, from this day forward, Fujitsubo will not see him alone.
In his search to fill the empty place left in his heart, Genji meets the child Murasaki, the ten-year-old niece to Lady Fukitsubo. Murasaki will one day become the “true” love of Genji’s life:
A “sudden realization brought him close to tears: the resemblance to Fujitsubo, for whom he so yearned, was astonishing” (88).
From the beginning, the little girl is also quite fond of Genji:
“She would be the first to run out and greet him when he came home, and she would climb on his lap, and they would talk happily together” (111).
While Murasaki is still a child, Genji encounters the Lady of the Misty Moon during a cherry blossom festival. He has little trouble enticing the lady into his bed:
“She came (could he believe it?) to the door. Delighted, he caught at her sleeve. ‘Who are you?’ She was frightened. ‘There is nothing to be afraid of… (He assured her). Quickly and lightly he lifted her down to the gallery and slid the door closed. Her surprise pleased him enormously. Trembling, she called for help. “It will do you no good. I am always allowed my way”, Genji assures her (152).
Robert Greene tells us that “This “self-belief is half of Genji’s charm.” In fact another’s resistance “does not make him defensive; he (merely) retreats gracefully, reciting a little poetry, and as he leaves, the perfume of his robes tails (is left deliciously) behind him” (Greene 65).
Another of Genji’s conquests is the Lady of the Orange Blossoms, the younger sister of one of his deceased father’s former consorts. Genji quietly makes his way to where the younger sister resides. She has never seen a visitor of such “unsurpassed good looks” (217). His manners are tender and she is soon convinced that he would never lie to her when he whispers sweet things in her ear.
Another of Genji’s special talents is his attention to important and intimate details. The way he seduces the object of his desire is to adapt to their moods with tacit details that fill their sights, and sounds while swirling them into a fantasy of delectable scents that will later remind them of the pleasure of his company. This is shown to perfection when Genji is enticed by the beautiful Tamakazura. As Genji shows his regard for the much younger woman, she is made uncomfortable by his attentions. She feels his behavior is inappropriate since she thinks Genji is her father or in the least her protector. In fact her real father is Genji’s former brother-in-law, the Lady Aoi’s brother.
To win Tamakazura, Genji uses his considerable charm, ingenuity and consummate accomplishment on the koto of which he is a master. His majestic playing of the seven-string instrument won her when none of his other tactics did.
The modern reader no doubt sees Hikaru Genji as an incorrigible Don Juan, a shameless rake. Yet Ivan Morris tells us in The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan that for the modern reader who inhabits a monogamous society, The Tale of Genji provides valuable insight into a world where polygamy is the order of the day. The possession of numerous wives and consorts is normal and actually a respectable means of behavior for Heian gentleman.
In the Heian aristocracy, large families have an important advantage, one being that women tend to die young. Also the fact that women are almost completely dependent on men, therefore, a wealthy man who possesses numerous wives and concubines is not labeled a lecher. In fact, it is considered a status symbol.
The type of disapproval our modern-day societies would put on unfaithful husbands is instead directed at the man who has only one or two wives. He is considered anti-social.
The way Genji comports himself during his romantic liaisons falls into the proper ways a courtier is expected to behave. A Reader’s Guide: the Tale of Genji gives us the appropriate guidelines for ladies and gentlemen of the aristocracy. They should “compose delicate poetry,” written in a certain way with just the proper “shade of the ink”. Even “the selection of the paper” is important, the texture, the color. All these nuances are “meticulously scrutinized for evidence of courtly sensibility” (49).
In the Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature we find more valuable information such that the particular way a courtier paints their calligraphy is very important. They should prepare special music that would entice an erotic encounter. In this way, both men and women carry on their romantic affairs around the standing screens posed between them.
The reason for much of this painstaking decorum is that the women of the upper had few options to deal with the mind-numbing monotony of their lives. These were love and literature. They must have something exciting to fill their days.
In regards to Genji, it is not only his astonishing looks, his sensitivity, and his remarkable artistic talents that elevate him as the ideal male. It is the way in which he savors each of his romantic encounters and their various, individual virtues with almost religious devotion. In Heian Japan, an era when a man could walk away at anytime for any reason, leaving the woman destitute if he chose, once Hikaru Genji gives his support to a woman, he never withdraws it, even though he may have lost all interest in her as a mistress. In fact, he builds a magnificent mansion with rooms enough to house all his women.
Brulotte, Gaetan. Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. 680, 682.
Greenway, Robert. The Art of Seduction . New York: Penguin Books, 2001. 55, 271.
Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in
Ancient Japan. New York: Kodansha America, 1994. 236-237.
Puette, William J. A Reader’s Guide: The Tale of Genji. Massachusetts, 1992. 49, 63, 104.
Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. 3-454.
Sei Shonagon. The Pillow Book. Trans. Meredith McKinney. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. 17, 30.
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