The Golden Age of Classical Culture

The Tale of Genji
& the Language of Japanese Aesthetics

Like most of his peers, Genji, at least in his youth, had little official business to occupy him at court, where affairs were controlled by a few leading Fujiwara ministers.  Instead, he devoted himself to the gentle arts and especially to the pursuit of love, an endeavor that involved him in a seemingly endless string of romantic entanglements.  In Genji’s circle, the typical love affair was conducted according to exacting dictates of taste.  Lovers delighted each other by exchanging poems written on fans or on carefully selected and scented stationery, which they adorned with delicate sprays of flowers.  A faulty handwriting, a missed allusion, or a poor matching of colors could quickly dampen a courtier’s ardor.  On the other hand, the scent of a delicately mixed perfume or the haunting notes of a zither on a soft summer night could excite his greatest passion and launch him recklessly on a romantic escapade whose outcome was more than likely to have embarrassing and even disastrous results both for the lovers and for others among the intimately associated members of Heian courtier society. [Paul Varley, Japanese Culture, Fourth Edition (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000), p. 65.]

  • If Genji is always allowing his passions to get both him and his lovers into trouble, then why is he such a beloved figure—the so-called “shining prince”?

I. Miyabi (Courtly Refinement)

Miyabi [courtly refinement] was perhaps the most inclusive term for describing the aesthetics of the Heian period.  It was applied mainly to the quiet pleasures that, supposedly at least, could be savored only by the aristocrat whose tastes had been educated to them—a spray of plum blossoms, the elusive perfume of a rare wood, the delicate blending of colors in a robe.  In lovemaking, too, the “refined” tastes of the court were revealed.  A man might first be attracted to a woman by catching a glimpse of her sleeve, carelessly but elegantly draped from a carriage window, or by seeing a note in her calligraphy, or by hearing her play a lute one night in the dark.  Later, the lovers would exchange letters and poems, often attached to a spray of the flower suitable for the season.  Such love affairs are most perfectly portrayed in The Tale of Genji and, even if somewhat idealized in that novel, suggest to what lengths a feeling for “refinement” could govern the lives of those at court. [SJT, 199]

In this world where aesthetics reigned supreme, great attention was paid to pleasing the eye.  Ladies dressed in numerous robes, one over the other (twelve was standard), which they displayed at the wrist in overlapping layers, and the blending of their colors was of the utmost importance in revealing a lady’s taste.  Often all a man saw of a lady were her sleeves, left hanging outside her carriage or spread beyond a screen behind which she remained invisible….

This concern for appearance also extended to the features of the gentlemen and ladies.  Both sexes used cosmetics, applying a white face powder, which in the case of the women was combined with a rosy tint.  The ladies took great pride in their long, flowing, glossy hair but plucked their eyebrows and painted in a new set.  Such customs are not unfamiliar to the modern world, but far more difficult for us to appreciate are the blackened teeth of the refined Heian beauty….Specific fashions change, but the concern for visual beauty remained, a lasting legacy from the Heian period.  Even today, for example, great care is taken over the appearance of food, and its impact on the eye is considered at least as important as its taste. [BHJC, 55-56]

Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book

“[The commoners] looked like so many basket-worms as they crowded together in their hideous clothes, leaving hardly an inch of space between themselves and me.  I really felt like pushing them all over sideways.” [BHJC, 55]
Hateful Things: A lover who is leaving at dawn announces that he has to find his fan and his paper.  “I know I put them somewhere last night,” he says.  Since it is pitch dark, he gropes about the room, bumping into the furniture and muttering, “Strange!  Where on earth can they be?”  Finally he discovers the objects.  He thrusts the paper into the breast of his robe with a great rustling sound; then he snaps open his fan and busily fans away with it.  Only now is he ready to take his leave.  What charmless behavior!  “Hateful” is an understatement.
      A good lover will behave as elegantly at dawn as at any other time.  He drags himself out of bed with a look of dismay on his face.  The lady urges him on:  “Come, my friend, it’s getting light.  You don’t want anyone to find you here.”  He gives a deep sigh, as if to say that the night has not been nearly long enough and that it is agony to leave.  Once up, he does not instantly pull on his trousers.  Instead he comes close to the lady and whispers whatever was left unsaid during the night.  Even when he is dressed, he still lingers, vaguely pretending to be fastening his sash.
      Presently he raises the lattice, and the two lovers stand together by the side door while he tells her how he dreads the coming day, which will keep them apart; then he slips away.  The lady watches him go, and this moment of parting will remain among her most charming memories. [The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, 22-3]



II. Mono-no-Aware
Sensitivity to (the sadness) of things

Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), the novel’s greatest traditional interpreter, admired it above all for its expression of mono-no-aware, a word frequently used by Lady Murasaki for “that power inherent in things to make us respond not intellectually but with an involuntary gasp of emotion.”  It could refer to joyous as well as sad experiences, but eventually the implications of melancholy predominated.  It involves a realization of the ephemeral quality of beauty, of all that is best in life, indeed, of life itself.  Clearly in this concept there are resonances of Buddhist teaching, which views life as an illusion, insubstantial as a dream.  To the Japanese, it was a beautiful but fleeting dream, and sadness was itself a necessary dimension of beauty. [BHJC, 64]

Ki no Tsurayuki, in his preface to the Kokinshu, was the first to describe the workings of this aesthetic(mono-no-aware).  For example, when inquiring…whether anyone can resist singing—or composing poetry—upon “hearing the warbler sing among the blossoms and the frog in his fresh waters,” Tsurayuki said, in effect, that people are emotional entities and will intuitively and spontaneously respond in song and verse when they perceive things and are moved.  The most basic sense of mono no aware is the capacity to be moved by things, whether they are the beauties of nature or the feelings of people, a capacity that Tsurayuki, at least, believed would directly lead to aesthetic expression. [JC, 61]

Murasaki Shikibu
On the Art of Fiction/Genji as “Shining Prince”

One day when Genji came into Tamakazura’s room he noticed several illustrated romances scattered about the place.  “Really,” he said with a smile, “you women are incorrigible.  Sometimes I wonder whether you haven’t been born into this world just so that you can be deceived by people.  Look at those books!  There probably isn’t an ounce of truth in the lot of them—and you know that as well as I do.  Yet here you are, utterly fascinated and taken in by all their fabrications, avidly copying down each word—and, I may add, quite unaware that it is a sultry day in the middle of the rainy season and that your hair is in the most frightful mess.”
            Genji paused for a while.  “But then,” he continued, “if it weren’t for old romances like this, how on earth would you get through these long tedious days when time moves so slowly?  And besides, I realize that many of these works, full of fabrications though they are, do succeed in evoking the emotion of things in a most realistic way….Thus, when we read about the ordeals of some delightful princess in a romance, we may find ourselves actually entering into the poor girl’s feelings….He smiled and continued, “The author certainly does not write about specific people, recording all the actual circumstances of their lives.  Rather it is a matter of his being so moved by things, both good and bad, which he has heard and seen happening to men and women that he cannot keep it all to himself but wants to commit it to writing and make it known to other people—even to those of later generations.  This, I feel sure, is the origin of fiction. [SJT, 201-202]