More Genji passion

Among the most beautiful hashioki in my collection are a set of hand-painted fan-shaped rests which portray five scenes from the The Tale of Genji.

As explained in my first post about The Tale of Genji (January 2016),  this eleventh century novel could be described as a soap opera about promiscuity and adultery. So you might think that subject matter would disqualify it from being Japan’s most treasured work of literature. But what I think fans of the novel value are not the affairs recounted in the novel, but the level of passion and depth of feeling that characterize these relationships. So it’s not a book about casual affairs, but a novel about how a single glimpse or even a poem can cause a person to fall head over heels in love, even if it’s only for a brief time. The characters in Genji are enlivened by their passions, and I think Genji’s readers long to do the same.

 
More Genji passionThe first hashioki illustrates chapter five, which is titled Wakamurasaki. Waka means “young” in Japanese, while murasaki is the name of a plant whose roots are brewed to produce a purple dye. Murasaki also connotates a close relationship and lasting passion. In this scene we see the heroine of the novel, who is named Murasaki, age 10, standing on the engawa or porch of her grandmother’s house. She is unhappy because her pet baby sparrows have escaped into the woods. While she is standing there she is secretly seen for the first time by the 19-year-old Prince Genji. He is captivated by her beauty, and when her grandmother dies shortly thereafter, he kidnaps Murasaki and brings her to his home, planning to eventually make her his wife.

We don’t know the real name of the author of The Tale of Genji, but tradition has assigned her the name of her heroine, paired with the title that indicates her status at the emperor’s court:  Lady Murasaki.

The next hashioki refers to chapter nine, or Aoi. This is name of a plant that was traditionally used for decoration during the Kamo Festival at Kyoto’s Kamo Shrine in May. The word Aoi also suggests “day of (lovers’) meeting”, and happens to be the name of More Genji passionPrince Genji’s first wife. The hashioki shows Genji trimming the hair of his ward Murasaki, now in her early teens, before taking her to the festival. After the festival Genji’s wife Aoi gives birth to his son Yūgiri, but then dies. Her death may have been caused by an evil spirit created by one of Genji’s lovers, who became jealous when she saw Murasaki in his carriage at the festival. In the wake of Aoi’s death Genji decides to curtail his extramarital relationships, and to make Murasaki his consort.

 
IMG_2271The third hashioki depicts chapter 12, entitled Suma. This is the name of a coastal area south of Kyoto where Genji is exiled after the relatives of Oborozukiyo, his most recent inamorata, falsely accuse him of plotting against the Emperor. Genji is very lonely in Suma, and misses Murasaki very much. In the hashioki we see him gazing mournfully out at the sea.

 
The fourth chopstick rest in this set alludes to chapter 25, Hotaru, which means “fireflies.” In this chapter Genji has adopted Tamakazura, the daughter of one of his former flames, as his ward. Although Genji isn’t sure whether he wants to be her father or her lover, he IMG_2272invites his brother — also named Hotaru — to consider marrying her. During the Heian period aristocratic women hid in dark rooms behind curtained screens when men who were not family members came to call them, but when his brother visits Tamakazura Genji releases fireflies from a bag, which enables his brother to see the young woman’s beauty. The two yellow spots on the hashioki represent the fireflies that illuminated her face.

The vendor who sold me this set said the final chopstick rest depicts chapter 48, or Sawarabi. That title means “bracken shoots,” and the traditional illustration for this chapter is two baskets of mountain ferns that were sent to a woman named Naka no Kimi, IMG_2273who is mourning the death of her sister. But I think this hashioki actually alludes to chapter 52, Kagerō, meaning “mayfly.” It seems to portray Kaoru, a man who was raised as Prince Genji’s son but who is actually the illegitimate son of his best friend. Kaoru was in love with Ukifune, a young woman who has apparently drowned herself in a river. Kaoru is quite distraught, we see him sitting on an engawa near the river she disappeared into. His right hand is raised as if he was reaching out to capture a small insect. The chapter ends with his poem:

“There it is, just there, yet ever beyond my reach, till I look once more,
and it is gone, the mayfly, never to be seen again.”(1)

I’ve now read The Tale of Genji a total of four times, in three different translations. I’m sure that I will read it again, like the many Japanese who have read it multiple times. I’m looking forward to capturing that mayfly vicariously again.  Meanwhile, I have these hashioki to help me remember the power of romance.

(1)  Murasaki, Shikibu and Tyler, Royall (translator).  The Tale of Genji.  New York:  Viking Penguin, 2001, p, 1073.

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