The Japanese Way of Life

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The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu was created at the turn of the X-XI centuries by Murasaki Shikibu, the court lady of Empress Shishi. It is still considered one of the most significant works of Japanese literature. The Tale of Genji is a kind of quintessence of Japanese culture. Despite the fact that it was written during the Heian period (794-1192), it has not lost its significance today and is still popular with the readers across the world for many generations. The Tale of Genji is a rich source of information that tells us a lot about the main values of Japanese society of the time.

In The Tale of Genji, Shikibu describes the concubine system of Japanese society and the attitudes to women of aristocratic men. The main characters of the book, Prince Hikaru Genji, the Emperor’s son, is depicted as always admired by women, no matter what he does and how he treats them. Genji always, in any situation, looks extremely handsome, whereas female beauty is not particularly appreciated throughout the book. The young man often discusses women with his friends, and these talks present him as an immoral type of man. Shikibu writes that “his indiscretions might give him a name for frivolity.” It is worth noting that the Prince is a son of a courtesan and, therefore, is in search of women who resemble his mother. Hikaru Genji manages to seduce numerous women, even including his stepmother’s daughter and her niece.

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The story suggests that in the eleventh century Japan, the concept of marriage differed from the concept as the Japanese know it nowadays. During that time, daughters could inherit the lands from their mothers, which demonstrates that women could have their own properties.
Tō no Chūjō is very interested to hear the stories about Genji’s affairs with women and wants to read their correspondence. Genji’s friend is well aware that the prince treats women like his toys and leaves them even knowing that they wait for him to come. Genji’s friend notes that there is nothing really interesting about women: “It is with women as it is with everything else: the flawless ones are very few indeed.” He adds that at first, almost all women seem nice and worth attention. However, on knowing a woman better, it turns out that there is nothing special about her. Almost all women try to show off their strong points and hide weak ones. They are so predictable that Tō no Chūjō can hardly get excited by them.

Interestingly, after numerous dates with various women, children were born there quite rarely, which is also rather surprisingly. However, Shikubu suggests that both men and women were not disappointed with the birth of daughters. Moreover, even families with many sons often gently treated their only daughters. Another interesting moment is referrals to Buddhism that pervades the text through, uniting the secular with the spiritual. The many references that a woman can become a Buddha (for example, Madame Akashi, Ukifune) amaze the reader, given the place and time of the writing.

In such a way, Shikubu’s portrayals of women describe the concubine system of Japanese aristocrats. The friends also differentiate between women of high, middle, and low classes, pointing out their major differences. Japan marriage institute as described by Shikibu is famous for its traditional values. The discussion of women implies that high-rank women at the court were ‘hidden away’ by their loving parents and hoped to be loved by a man one day in the future. To achieve this, they tried as hard as they can to draw a man’s attention. Genji and his friends agree that picking a wife for high-rank men was not an easy task at all. The prince and his friends had lots of time to pursue women because they had little main duties such as some administrative work and attending the ruler. Shikibu informs the reader that “high-ranking men were polygamous, with an arranged marriage to a principal wife for political reasons, plus several concubines and freedom to play the field”.

In the first part of the book, all the thoughts and aspirations of the characters are directed exclusively to the comprehension of all kinds of earthly joys. When it comes to the second part, its main theme is rejection of any manifestation of worldly things. As taleofgenji.org puts it, the society depicted in The Tale of Genji is obsessed with ranks, yet is immensely “sensitive to the beauty of nature and the pleasures of music, poetry, calligraphy and fine clothing.” Elite group of aristocrats did not care about the world outside the capital and knew little about it. Their main values included high ranks, wealth, status, and general well-being at the court, whereas the life of the rest of the population was of no interest for them.

Telling the life story of the protagonist, the son of Emperor Kiritsubo, and his descendants the author shares her observations and thoughts with readers. Shikubu describes what Japan was like, what holidays the Japanese had and how they were celebrated, what positions were held under the sovereign, etc. The most detailed descriptions of everyday life, love and other human relationships, imbued with the so-called ‘sad charm of things’ is what makes The Tale of Genji a precious and valuable source for the contemporary reader.

  • “Background of The Tale of Genji.” Taleofgenji.org, http://www.taleofgenji.org/background.html
  • Mackenzie L. ed. Non-Western Art, A Brief Guide. NY: Pearson, 2008.
  • Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. Penguin, 2003.
  • “The Eternal Visitor.” Academic.mu.edu, https://academic.mu.edu/meissnerd/minzlaff.html

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