murasaki’s place in Japanese literature


Although the literary genre we call the novel did not exist in the eleventh century, Murasaki's magnum opus, The Tale of Genji, has often been called one, and UNESCO has designated Murasaki herself "the world's first novelist." However classified, her work is a masterpiece. It continues to engage readers despite the fact that the social configuration of its characters seems impossibly foreign and far away—even to modern Japanese, let alone to people of other cultures. The Tale of Genji was a pyrotechnical display of literary creativity that exploded in the sky a millennium ago but sends its sparks shimmering on through the centuries.

   Murasaki's Genji tales were popular during her own lifetime. Everyone in the literate fraction of Japan's eleventh-century population knew the Genji Monogatari. Written in the diffuse, ambiguous, and poetic diction of the aristocratic ladies of the court, The Tale of Genji was cherished by scholars during the subsequent centuries of warfare and rise of the samurai. Even as its archaic language ceased to be read in any popular sense, Genji remained an important part of the literary canon for an educated person in Japan, its poems, characters, and motifs embedded in the popular idiom.

   Murasaki herself was never far from people's minds. Every ideology was eager to claim her for its own. In the fourteenth century she was judged by severe Buddhist clerics to have gone to hell for the sin of writing the falsehoods of fiction. Rather than condemn her, though, pious readers offered prayers for the salvation of her soul. And others turned the Buddhist condemnation on its head, claiming that Murasaki was in fact an avatar of the Bodhisattva Kannon, come to earth to write her tale as a morality story for people's enlightenment. Ishiyama Temple preserves a huge hanging-scroll portrait of this "Saint Murasaki."

   In the Tokugawa period, Confucian scholars read The Tale of Genji as a demonstration of the principle "reward good, punish evil," making Murasaki out to be a closet Confucianist. Abridged versions of Genji were put forth as primers of feminine deportment for young ladies. And then in the eighteenth century, in reaction to this period of heavy Chinese literary influence, scholars searching for the roots of a native Japanese tradition snatched her away from the Confucianists. Murasaki Shikibu's work was held up as the prime example of pure Japanese literary perceptiveness. In particular, her fascination with the aesthetic of impermanence, the heightened sense of beauty aroused by knowledge of its imminent destruction, seemed to the nativists to distill the essence of a uniquely Japanese sensibility.

   Throughout the centuries that Murasaki was championed by one ideological camp or another, her work continued to affect Japanese literature. Genji influenced the vernacular tales of the Japanese middle ages, supplying images and characters for Noh drama, waka and linked verse. It eventually became a rich source for parody—as in Ihara Saikaku's The Man Who Loved Love (Kôshoku Ichidai Otoko) in the seventeenth century, and Ryûtei Tanehiko's Imposter Murasaki, Rustic Genji (Nise Murasaki, Inaka Genji) in the early nineteenth. Curiously, although many annotated versions of Genji were compiled over the ages, only in the early twentieth century did someone undertake to present The Tale of Genji as a readable novel rather than as material for arcane scholarship.

   This person was the flamboyant poet and essayist Yosano Akiko (1878-1942), a woman also known for her avant-garde literary connection to the French symbolists and her involvement in the nascent Japanese women's liberation movement. Between 1912 and 1914, Yosano Akiko translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese, and in succeeding years did the same with numerous other classic Heian-period works.

   Yosano Akiko was one of the few women to play an important part in the burst of literary creativity that occurred in Japan between 1905 and 1920. Most Japanese male writers of the time were experimenting with social realism, writing in the vernacular, or penning highly introspective autobiographical novels. Yosano Akiko, however, was first a poet, and her favored mode of expression was the venerable form practiced by the literati of Genji's era—the waka. Waka had been the most common form of Japanese poetry for twelve hundred years, superseded in popular appeal by the three-line haiku only in the eighteenth century. By the early twentieth century, waka had become so rigidly rooted in the past in terms of subject and diction that contemporary poets scorned the genre as moribund. Yet within this utterly traditional structure, Yosano found a vessel to contain her passionately nontraditional emotions.

   I am intrigued that such a fiercely modern woman as Yosano Akiko should have been attracted to the literary voices of the sheltered aristocratic women of the eleventh century. Clearly Murasaki Shikibu held a fascination for her that went beyond historical, or even purely literary, interest. It was as if she felt a resonance between the contemporary post-WWI vogue for romantic women's literature and the world of multiple romantic entanglements depicted by the author of Genji. Thus, ironically, the passionately modern, free-thinking, slightly outrageous Yosano Akiko was the one to resurrect the time-honored, over-refined, ultra-confined corpus of Heian literature by giving it a voice that would speak to Japanese women of her generation.

   Murasaki Shikibu herself was fascinated by earlier literature. Because she could read Chinese (a rare, slightly scandalous ability for a woman of her time) she knew the corpus of Chinese literature that had been imported to Japan by the eleventh century. She was accordingly able to recognize and define her own style of writing against the venerable setting of Chinese culture. The male writers of Murasaki's day—her father is a good example—tended to be swallowed up by the Chinese backdrop.

   Because Chinese was the written language of the court, men in official positions were expected to use that language for their literary compositions, while women wrote in the cursive simplified script called kana. Directly phonetic, kana could represent the sounds of spoken Japanese, providing a means to write stories with realistic dialogue. This being the case, when men wanted to write stories, their work was also composed in this "women's script" (onnade). Perhaps writing as she did in the early twentieth century among mostly male writers imbued with the foreign voices of European literature, Yosano Akiko felt another sort of pull toward Murasaki Shikibu—a kinship of writer's spirit.

   The Tale of Genji has been translated into modern Japanese by other major literary figures in the twentieth century as well. The important modern novelist and short-story writer Tanizaki Jun'ichirô did his first version in 1938, but it was suppressed by the military government because of the scandal implied by Genji's illicit affair with his step-mother Fujitsubo. Such was the ridiculous extreme to which wartime officials went to assert the inviolability of the imperial lineage. Tanizaki did two other translations subsequently: one in 1949 retaining archaic grammar faithful to the original, and in 1964 a version in modern literary Japanese. Novelist Enchi Fumiko's racy rendition, with love scenes described in rather more detail than Murasaki provided, appeared in 1973. The most recent serious translation, thick with notes, was done by Hashimoto Osamu in 1995, and the most popular, easily readable version is by the former novelist turned Buddhist nun, Setouchi Jakuchô, who published the final volume of her ten-volume set in 1998. Setouchi's self-proclaimed purpose is to make the Genji available and understandable to every modern reader as the foundation of their Japanese literary heritage. Nobel prize-winning author Kawabata Yasunari was also working on his own Genji translation at the time of his death in 1972.

  Genji was introduced to the non-Japanese world primarily through Arthur Waley's somewhat abridged English translation that came out in six volumes between 1925 and 1933. What this version lacked in completeness, it more than made up for in literary merit. With it, Genji stepped upon the stage of world literature. Translations were subsequently done from the Waley version into various European languages. Oscar Benl's own translation in German appeared in 1966; Rene Seiffert's French Genji in stages between 1978-88. Edward Seidensticker did a complete new English translation in 1976, and Helen McCullough a partial version in 1994. Royall Tyler has done the first Genji translation of the twenty-first century. Seidensticker also published the fascinating chronicle of his own obsession with The Tale of Genji in 1977, in a memoir called Genji Days. The sparks of Genji set off by Murasaki Shikibu a millennium ago continue to drift through the night sky.