The Tale of Genji

I think of this pair as my Genji Monogatari hashioki, or as symbols of the famous Japanese novel The Tale of Genji.


I purchased them in the gift shop of Nagoya’s Tokugawa Museum, which is famous for owning three Genji monogatari emaki, or illustrated hand scrolls, which date from around 1130. They are three of the four survivors from of a set of 10 to 20 scrolls that once recounted stories from The Tale of Genji in painted pictures and calligraphy; the Gotoh Museum in Setagaya outside of Tokyo has a fourth scroll, while the others have been lost. These surviving scrolls are the oldest existent non-Buddhist scrolls in Japan, and are one of the National Treasures of Japan. The scrolls were not on display when we visited the museum, but we did see facsimilies of them.

The Tale of Genji is undoubtedly Japan’s most famous novel. It has also been described as the world’s oldest novel, and as the world’s first “modern novel” and first psychological novel. It centers on the story of Prince Genji, an uncommonly attractive and cultured “shining prince” whose grace, poetry skills and aesthetic sensibilities impressed all the aristocrats around him in the Heian period (794-1185) imperial court. Much of the novel centers on Genji’s affairs with a wide range of women; even though Genji was a serial romancer, most of his liasons treasured the time they spent with him as an exceptional experience. Later chapters of the novel recount tales of Genji’s descendants and others who wished to emulate him.

If we accept that these are indeed Genji Monogatari hashioki, then they depict Prince Genji and Murasaki, his greatest love, dressed in their finest court regalia. Some might say that this pair replicates the empress and emperor dolls that rule over the traditional display of  dolls in some Japanese homes near Japan’s Girl’s Day national holiday on March 3 (please look for a future post on Hina matsuri). However, I think provenance is everything; this pair are my Tale of Genji hashioki. I’m sure the millions of readers who have been mesmerized by the novel during the past 1,000 years would agree.

To me the most amazing thing about The Tale of Genji is that it’s a very long novel, stretching over 1100 pages in a recent English translation by Royall Tyler. It was written by hand during stolen moments on odd lots of paper by a woman who worked as a lady in waiting to an empress in the early years of the 11th. century. The author didn’t have a typewriter or a computer or a dependable light source; she probably didn’t even have a copy of what she had already written as she wrote the middle or last chapters. Yet it is a coherent novel, with an orderly timeline, compelling stories, and developed characters.
There is no mention of hashioki in The Tale of Genji; hashioki made their appearance in Japan much later. There’s actually very little reference to food or the act of eating in the novel. In The World of the Shining Prince scholar Ivan Morris suggests that a Heian aristocrat’s diet consisted mainly of rice, rice cakes, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seaweed. Even the elegant and fastidious Prince Genji probably ate with his hands.

While it may seem strange to include hashioki depicting garuma, or ox carts, in a discussion about a romantic novel, these carts play a significant role in the book. Aristocratic women in Heian Japan were not meant to be seen by men outside their immediate family. So when they traveled to a temple or festival women rode in these ox-drawn vehicles, and were shielded from view by blinds or shutters. However, many assignations in the novel begin when a man catches an inadvertent glimpse of a woman in a cart, or after a man merely imagines how beautiful a woman riding in such a cart might be.

Lovers in The Tale of Genji wooed and responded through poetry; there are almost 800 five-line tanka poems interspersed throughout the story. They also exchanged flowers and blossoming branches, jars of incense, clothing and lengths of cloth. If only they had possessed hashioki! A stylish chopstick rest would have been the perfect thing to slip inside to a love letter or secretly pass to a paramour.

My Tale of Genji hashioki pair would never have made an appearance inside the novel. They are, alas, machine made and mass produced; they were purchased in a shop and not commissioned from an exclusive artisan. Prince Genji would have disdained them.

IMG_1638Instead Genji might have conspired to have a hashioki like this lacquered bow, fashioned from handmade washi paper that perhaps recreates the colors of the cape he wore to a tryst the night before, and then magically appearing on the breakfast tray of his new love.

The object of his affections might have responded with an elegant hand-painted chopstick rest like this fan tied to poem proclaiming that even a fan couldn’t hide the IMG_1639longing on her face that the shining prince will visit her once again tonight. At least, that’s the way it might have been, to paraphrase the last line of Royall Tyler’s translation of The Tale of Genji.


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