During the Heian Period of Peace and Tranquility, from 794 A.D. to 1186 A.D., Japanese culture reached a height of perfection. In its production of an art of pleasing beauty, this age is comparable to the Augustan Age in Rome, the T'ang Age in China, the Golden Age in France, and the Elizabethan/Jacobean Period in England.
The Tale of Genji, a novel in six volumes spanning three generations of nobles, is the greatest contribution of the Heian Period to the world's art. It is outstanding not only for its specific virtues, but for the miracle of its creation at a time when the novel as a unified literary form was unknown. A comparison of this novel with its predecessors in Japanese literature, The Tales of a Bamboo Hewer and The Tale of Ise, reveals the shaping hand of the authoress who, not content to ramble from place to place or story to story, could bring the incidents of her narrative together under themes that sustained them and under people who exemplified them. (History of Japanese Literature by W. G. Aston, D. Appleton, 1933)
A small, peripheral group of men and women belonging to the lesser nobility fashioned the culture of the Heian Period. Lacking the wealth that would enable them to move in the center of society, they were forced to behold other men's lives. Bereft of the privilege of self-expansion, their compensation lay in their superior insight into the delusions and the irony in being (as were the leading nobles) big, childish and unscrupulous.
The government was monarchical with an Emperor as nominal head of state. In reality, Fujiwara clansmen controlled the Emperor and the country. Through their domination of the Imperial line, the Fujiwaras had over centuries acquired vast estates. Their power came from their wealth, prestige and skill at intrigue rather than from armed forces. Taira and Minamoto clansmen and Buddhist priests also clamored for the Emperor's favors. As tax-free estates increased, growing numbers of peasants deserted the dwindling public domain and became serfs and soldiers for an emerging class of feudal lords. (Economic Aspects of the History of the Civilization of Japan by YosaburoTakehoshi, Macmillan, 1930) Those peasants who still tilled their tiny tracts endured staggering extortions of their labor and produce by the central government. (Outline History of Japan by Gowan, D. Appleton, 1927)
Under Fujiwara hegemony, favoritism and intrigue took the place of government. The legislation they enacted dealt with rules of etiquette, details of ceremonies, and degrees of rank. (Early Japanese History by R. K. Reischauer, Princeton University Press, 1937) As believers in Buddhism and Confucianism, they were not bloodthirsty. Their severest punishments for rivals were banishment and confiscation of estates.
Through marriages with the Emperor and his heirs, the Fujiwaras held leading government posts. Fathers-in-law kept the Emperor and his family absorbed in rituals, while they took over the mechanics of administration. United against outsiders, the four main branches of the Fujiwara family competed with one another for wealth and power.
Infatuated with the gay life of the court, the Fujiwaras stayed in Kyoto, the capital, while their retainers supervised the tax-free estates that provided them with their wealth. (A History of the Japanese People by Brinkley, Encylopedia Britannica, New York, 1915, Ch. 20, 253) For a Fujiwara aristocrat to be born outside the capital was a stigma. To be posted outside the capital was a punishment. To be exiled from the capital was a disgrace.
The precarious position of the Fujiwaras, combined with their religious beliefs in the mutability of phenomena and their fascination with the transient beauty of earthly things, produced in them a sense of aimlessness and a foreboding of doom. (Art, Life and Nature in Japan by Masaharu Anesaki, Marshall Jones, 1933, 59-66) Kyoto, a city of half a million people, was the Versailles of Japan where the gardens and palaces of the aristocracy were hidden from the hovels of the populace. (Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant, Simon and Shuster, 1955, 834)
The chief problems of the times centered around who was to own the land --- State, clans or monasteries, who was to become strong enough to govern, and what was to be done to ease the misery of the peasants. Between 645 A.D. and 701 A.D. the Taikwa institutes (patterned after the T'ang system of land ownership in China) were promulgated at Nara, several years before the court moved to Kyoto in 794 A.D.. The purpose of these institutes was to establish the supremacy of the Emperor by declaring all land his property. To implement the institutes, a Confucian-style bureaucracy was created to conduct the affairs of state and to oversee regular distribution of land to farmers. To sustain the state, these farmers would contribute taxes in labor and produce to district governors.
The Taikwa institutes failed because the Fujiwara regents made too many concessions to their own and other clans and to Buddhist priests. With each concession gained, potential opponents of the Fujiwaras became more confident of their powers. Rather than creating an ethical system that would unite the country, Fujiwara aristocrats replaced the Chinese-version of a merit-based Confucian bureaucracy with a system of "marriage politics," through which they forced successive boy Emperors to marry Fujiwara girls, to produce heirs, and to retire at an early age, thus keeping their regency intact.
In 901 A.D. Tokihira Fujiwara proposed reforms to strengthen the Taikwa institutes by stopping the granting of tax-free manors to members of the ruling class and the flight of farmers to these manors to escape government levies. The reforms were not accepted. In 1068 A. D. Emperor Go-Sanjo II attempted to abolish unlawful manors but failed because Yorimichi Fujiwara, the greatest holder of such manors, would not sanction the Emperor's program. (Takehoshi, opus cited)
Between the efforts of Tokihira Fujiwara and Go-Sanjo II falls the regency of Michinaga Fujiwara (995 A.D. - 1018 A.D.). Through the marriage of his daughters with the Emperor's family, he, as father-in-law and as grandfather, controlled three emperors and their children. During his regency, Fujiwara culture reached its zenith. Murasaki Shikibu, a member of an impoverished branch of the Fujiwara clan, around 1008 A.D., wrote The Tale of Genji in pure Japanese while serving as a waiting woman to Second Empress Akiko, Michinaga's daughter and wife and first cousin of Emperor Ichijo (986 - 1011 A.D.)
Historian George B. Sansom considered Heian Japanese to be limited in expressive capabilities. It was, therefore, remarkable that Lady Murasaki was able to make of the contemporary language "a fit medium for sustained artistic effort." Sansom thought Arthur Waley's 1925-33 English translation to be richer, stronger, and more various and supple than the language used by Lady Murasaki in the original work. (Japan: A Short Cultural History by George B. Sansom, D. Appleton Century, 1943, 240)
Suematsu Kencho, who translated parts of The Tale of Genji into English about 26 years before Waley, admired Lady Murasaki's concise and elegant language and considered it "almost impossible" to render her delicate touches in another language. He claimed that contemporary admirers of the novel may have transferred the name of Murasaki, a modest and charming woman in the novel, to the authoress. Murasaki means "violet" and refers to the flower and to the color. Shikibu means "ceremonies" and may allude to Lady Murasaki's office as an attendant to Empress Akiko or may have been derived from her father's or her husband's title as "master of ceremonies." ("Introduction of 'Genji Monogatari', translated by Suematsu Kencho, Literature of the Orient, Vol. 8, Colonial Press, London, 1902, 4)
In 1976 Edward G. Seidensticker published a translation of The Tale of Genji which many readers consider to be more precise than Waley's. It is shorter than the Waley translation, though it contains more material including a chapter, "The Bell Cricket" omitted by Waley, which adds depth to the novel. As Waley adapted his translation to the conventions and diction of his day, so Seidensticker did the same to his. To make the novel more comprehensible to Western readers, Waley made parallels between religious customs in Japan and the Western world. Such parallels exist . . . nuns, monks, convents, cloisters, hells and purgatories exist in both worlds --- but a scrupulous translator, such as Seidensticker, might choose more specific terms to describe the Japanese versions. Sensitive to the nuances and verse structures of Chinese and Japanese poetry, Waley could give poetic dimension to his translation, which Seidensticker, aiming for literal transcription, could not.
For accuracy, Seidensticker's translation is to be preferred. Waley is adept at conveying the wistful mono no aware (sadness at the transitory nature of things) quality that gives the novel its charm. It is Seidensticker and not Waley, however, who pointed out that "one of the things the Genji means is that the good days are in the past." (Introduction, The Tale of Genji, translated with an Introduction by Edward G. Seidensticker, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1982). Elaborating on this point, poet and lecturer William J. Puette claimed Seidensticker presented the religious aspect of "the pathos of things," better than Waley who romanticized this quality so that it would be easier for English-speaking readers to understand. (A Reader's Guide to 'The Tale of Genji' by William J. Puette, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1873, 57)
What little is known about the woman who wrote The Tale of Genji comes to us from the Murasaki Shikibu Diary. Before coming to court, Murasaki Shikibu was married, gave birth to a daughter, and became a widow. While her age is not known, she was much older than the young Empress Akiko with whom she formed a close friendship, a friendship which did not extend to other ladies in waiting who considered her to be "unsociable, proud, fond of romance, vain and poetic." It is not known when Murasaki Shikibu retired from service and died. Akiko and Michinaga jest with her about her writing of the novel in the Diary.
The loss of effective governing power is shown by the spectacular nature of Michinaga's 23-year regency --- a heyday of extravagance and immorality. The nobles of Kyoto were never more accomplished than at this time. They used religion, art and love for play. They occupied themselves with flower fetes, poetic contests, pleasure trips, love stories, court intrigues, romantic adventures, religious ceremonies and perfume contests. To quote Anesaki: "art and religion and life were brought close together; life was a display of art as art was an integral part of life." (Masaharu Anesaki, opus cited, 145-46) As Will Durant commented: "Literature flourished and morals decayed." (Will Durant, opus cited, 836)
Together with The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon (circa 1000 A.D.) and the Tosa (circa 936 A.D.), Kagero (circa 954-974 A.D.), Murasaki Shikibu (circa 978-1015 A.D..), and Sarashina Diaries (circa 1037 A.D.), The Tale of Genji tells of life at the court with scanty references to life outside. It was, as historian George Sansom observed:
. . . a little society preoccupied with art and letters, quick to criticize a weak stroke of the brush, a faulty line of verse, a discordant colour [sic] or an ungraceful movement; great connoisseurs in emotion and judges of ceremonies and etiquette; sentimentally aware of the sadness of this dew- like fleeting world, but intellectually unconcerned with all its problems.
Following the rule of Fujiwara Yorimichi (1018 A.D. - 1069 A.D.), Michinaga's son, the country was split by Buddhist warrior monks and by Taira and Minamoto military clans. Emperors Go-Sanjo II (1068 A.D. - 1072 A.D.) , who did not have a Fujiwara mother, and Shirakawa (1072 A.D. - 1086 A.D.) tried to govern the country by setting up a system of Cloistered Governments (1068 A.D. - 1156 A.D.) by retired Emperors, but, due to the long established relegation of powers, this led to greater division. Attempting to reduce the private estates owned by Fujiwaras, the Cloistered Emperors gave private estates to themselves, further reducing the payment of taxes to the imperial government. (Sources of the Japanese Tradition by Tsunoda de Bary and Donald Keene, Columbia University Press, 1958, Ch. 8, 161-66) In 1165 A.D. Taira Kiyomori brushed aside alliances he had made with the Cloistered Emperors and made himself regent. (Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art by E. F. Fenollosa, Frederick A. Stokes Co., New York, Vol. 1, Ch. 9, 174)
The civil wars between clans and monks culminated in 1185 A.D. with the triumph of the Minamoto clan under the leadership of Minamoto Yoritomo, who was one of the three sons of Minamoto no Yoshitomo whose lives Kiyomori had spared after he had defeated their father in 1160 A. D. . A virile warlike culture emphasizing bravery and obedience was to exist in Japan from 1185 A.D. on in contrast with the easy-going, pleasure-loving, esthetically preoccupied culture of the Heian Period. Significantly the next novel in Japan of any importance (though compared with The Tale of Genji of mediocre importance), The Tale of Heike, written 1240 A.D. and describing the rise and fall of the Taira clan, opens with a chapter on swords, the most cogent symbol that could be juxtaposed against the love-intoxicated, withal graceful world of The Tale of Genji. (George B. Sansom, opus cited, Ch. 13, 268)
NOTE: The above paper is a revision of a chapter in a thesis written by the author toward a Bachelor of Arts Degree at Bard College in 1950.
December 27, 2000
For more articles by Richard Amero see: www.sandiegohistory.org/balboapk.htm