homosexuality in murasaki’s day

Several centuries after the Heian era, in the society of medieval Japan after the rise of the warrior class, male homosexuality among samurai, priests, and actors was prevalent and obvious. However, there are very few clear indications of how people regarded such relationships in Murasaki's time. One scene in The Tale of Genji is always pointed to as indicating a certain blasé acceptance. At the end of the chapter "The Broom Tree" Genji is rejected by the lady Utsusemi, and so invites her younger brother who had been serving as messenger to spend the night with him instead. In Seidensticker's translation:

"Well, you at least must not abandon me." Genji pulled the boy down beside him. The boy was delighted, such were Genji's youthful charms. Genji, for his part, or so one is informed, found the boy more attractive than his chilly sister.

There is even less direct evidence for homosexual relations between women unless one considers the love poetry. Most scholars in the field of classical Japanese literature view the sentiments of love and longing expressed in such poems between women as metaphorical. Yet, were the context given as being an exchange between a man and a woman, there is no question but that the poetry would be considered to express an intimate relationship. All I have done is take the poems at their word.

Murasaki's poems to her women friends are the main source for my characterization of her lesbian crushes and relationships with other women. There is also a scene from her Diary where she returns to the room she shares with Lady Saishô, and, finding her friend asleep, pulls her sleeve away from her face.

‍ "You look just like a princess in a fairy tale." said Murasaki. 

Saishô grumbled, "Are you out of your mind, waking people up like that?" 

Murasaki records how charming her flushed features look.

‍ Because of the way the palace women lived in such close quarters, with relatively few men about, it seems more reasonable to suppose that homosexual relations among women occurred than to suppose they did not. Also, absent any sort of religious or moral injunction against same-sex relations, it seems to me even more likely. In fact, my guess would be that such situations were so taken for granted that there was no need to remark upon them.

subject index