The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale of Genji is considered the first novel in the world, written in the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu. The novel is based around a central character, Genji, who though in line to become the Emperor of Japan, is demoted and exiled by his father. The novel follows his life in exile, his return, and the romantic aspects of his life. Gengi’s gives the reader a look into the life of the aristocratic people and the culture of Heian Kyo.

Murasaki Shikibu was uniquely able to write this because at the time she was a lady in waiting within the Heian Court. She could write about in characters based on her interactions and observations of prominent figures such as the Emperor, Empress, political leaders like Fujiwara no Michinaga, and others she was around. Ivan Morris’ The World of the Shining Prince takes an in-depth look at the world that Murasaki was created. Creating a review style history book regarding Heian Kyo allows Morris to inform the reader while couching it in a contemporary account.

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Morris, himself, finds his own qualifications of writing his book in his qualifications from Harvard and the School of Oriental and African Studies. He worked at Columbia University teaching and becoming the chair of the East Asian Studies. Finally, he was a founding member of Amnesty International.

The political, as well as the social life of the inhabitants of Heian Japan was dynamic in regard to systemic form, beliefs, and people. Much of Japan and its government had been informed by previous Chinese dynasties.

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Japan would take these ideas and then change them to suit their own purposes. The Fujiwara family controlled the government in Heian Kyo through careful political chess. The Fujiwaras worked to make sure that the Emperor was married to a Fujiwara daughter, who gave birth to a crown prince, and then a short time later the Emperor was to abdicate in favor of the crown prince. The crown prince’s grandfather would then become regent for the boy until he was of age, arranging the government and for his future marriage to yet another Fujiwara daughter. The Fujiwaras never tried to take over or become Emperor themselves, preferring to hold power in the background. The Emperor of Heian Kyo was more of just a figurehead in Heian Japan, as the Fujiwara family made the governmental decisions that normally would be done by the Emperor. The Emperor was expected to attend many different ceremonies both religious and secular in nature. The life and prosperity of the Heian Japanese people was based on how well the Emperor was viewed to have governed and behaved.

The city of Heian Kyo was at the time broken down by rank. The city was created along avenues. These avenues were then broken down into wards. The wards were then filled with families of a certain caliber. The first, second, and thirds wards were prime real estate being located close to the palace and other prominent buildings. In order to live there, the individual must be a high ranking official in good standing with the palace. The lower wards were closer to the market and businesses. Wards were so important to an individual’s identity that the ward’s name was worked into the individual’s name. Not found in the city of Heian Kyo were the everyday people or the peasants. Those people were found outside of the city.

In Heian Kyo, religious beliefs and superstitions were plentiful and important to an individual. Religions at the time consisted of Shintoism and Buddhism. Shintoism was practiced in Japan before Buddhism was introduced through China. Shintoism practices dealt with gods, spirits, and taboos. It is also considered a religion that is accepting and looks at the world through a lens of acceptance as well as gratitude. Shintoism was considered uncomplicated and did not have a strict structure surrounding it. In contrast, Buddhism comes with structure, is more complicated, culminating in being consumed with the idea that life is fleeting. When Buddhism arrived in Japan, it underwent the same metamorphosis that the political structure did when it arrived. The Japanese people took what worked for them from Buddhism and applied it. They also combined it with Shintoism, attempting to bridge the gap. Buddhism really found a home within Heian Kyo, while the people outside the city continued to practice Shintoism.

The superstitions of Heian Kyo revolved around the balance of yin and yang. To be ill suggested an imbalance and the individual must work in order to restore the harmonious balance. Heian Kyo had a whole official bureau to determine the yin-yang balance based on all factors available to them including, astrology, feng-shui, the day, or even just general randomness. In order to treat the imbalances or illness, doctors would check charts that corresponded to the symptoms and time of year to determine the exact issue. From there, the doctor would then consult the chart that dealt with treatments in order to determine the best course of action for the patient. Another reason that person might be ill is if they were possessed by an evil spirit or demon. If found to be suffering of such, the patient would need to undergo an exorcism in order to recover from illness. Exorcisms were performed by members of the Buddhist faith, showing a mixture of Buddhism and Shintoism.

For the people of Heian Kyo, it was important to strive for and be called a “good person” or be considered part of the “good people”. In order to obtain as much, one had to have a good reputation based on certain characteristics that Heian society felt were important. Good penmanship was one of these characteristics. Beautiful, pleasant handwriting was a thing of recognition and joy, whereas poor penmanship would bring disgust and shame. The mixing of one’s perfumes was also of great importance. Since one did not get to bathe often, due to superstition and practicality, perfumes were used every day. To create a scent that was pleasant and might even leave that pleasing scent for a time after the person was gone was the mark of a good person. These good people did not have the most exciting of lives. Males went to work, at posts they did not especially enjoy. The women were mostly at home, cut off from the world, and bored with the vast amounts of free time they had. The homes of these individuals were quite sparse, consisting of mostly bare floors, a screen, and a board game. When one went to sleep at night, they slept in their clothes, covering themselves with heavier pieces of clothing. In order to alleviate the monotony of their daily lives, these people would participate in the many rituals and ceremonies that the Emperor maintained. These rituals and get-togethers could lead to much drinking and antics stemming from it.

With their monochromatic daily lives, art gave the people of Heian Kyo an outlet of creativity that they needed. From an extreme appreciation of art and the beauty of it, culminated in the “cult of beauty” of Heian Kyo. At the time the value of education was lowering, which aided in the rise of art. What little the people had in their homes would be decorated to the point of extravagance. The screens, boxes, and game boards were painted or inlaid with precious decorations. Paintings were made and techniques of styles of painting were developed. One of the most important forms of art to the people was that found in poetry. Poetry was written by everyone and the ability of one to write beautiful, illusionary poetry was a mark of a good person. A lack of proficiency in writing poetry, in contrast, was looked at with disdain or at least pity. Coupled with the handwriting of the person, a poem could become an extraordinary piece of artwork.

In the Heian Kyo society, the position of women was very interesting and extremely mysterious. A woman in Heian Kyo had more liberties than a lot of women in history, but at the same time were confined. Women were able to inherit, they could own property, they were protected from being beaten by their husbands, and were able to divorce. Despite having all of this, women mostly kept to the home. Women, especially those of the Fujiwara family, were used as a way to maintain and gain power in the government. Marriages often in Heian Kyo consisted of one man with multiple wives. There would be a principal wife, secondary wives, and concubines found in homes throughout Heian Kyo. Women would often after marriage live at their family’s home or return to the family home when they became pregnant. Even when at home, they dealt with people behind a screen of state and when traveling, were hidden from view. In their homes, there were many servants and nannies who took care of the home and children. Women often became bored quite easily because there was nothing for them to do. This led to one of the most important things that women created in the Heian period: their writings.

While left with large swaths of idle time, the women of Heian Kyo took to their writing and art. Unlike men, who wrote in Chinese, the women of the period wrote in Japanese. Their books, diaries, and poems give historians the contemporary knowledge of the period that we have today. Women would write about their daily lives, days of celebration, the people they met, and fictional stories. Mystery surrounds the likeness of the Heian women because, in the books and diaries of the period, there were never detailed descriptions and pictures provided. It is surprising due to the detailed imagery involved in the description of men, but it has been suggested that women just did not find describing women or the female form appealing. The prominent books of the period are written by women such as The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book, and The Gossamer Diary. The number of poems written is a huge number and their diaries are equally as important to understand the daily lives and workings of not just women, but the entirety of Heian Kyo.

The most surprising aspect of Heian Kyo was the dichotomy of sparseness and ornamentation. A people that could live in simple surroundings and often found their lives boring also lived a vibrant, ornately, art-filled life. Though they lived with little furniture, those screens, and pieces they had featured carvings as well as mother of pearl or other materials. They created beautiful artwork including paintings and sculptures, many of which were religious in nature. This consciousness of art and its flowing ability carried over into their clothing. The people of Heian Kyo were careful with their dressing. They also placed a huge importance on the art of creating different scents of perfumes. This was not just a necessity, it became important to create just the right perfume or incense. It went so far as to have contests for incense. It is easy to have this dull image Japan during the Heian period because of their spartan living style, but beneath the surface it just as much color, design, writing, and vibrancy as in any other culture or time period.

I think that The World of the Shining Prince is a great, informative book on Heian Kyo and The Tale of Genji. I think it gives an excellent overview of the period. On its own, it would not be able to tell the reader about the entire culture and it really focuses on the capital. There were lots of people living outside of the capital and to get a complete, well-rounded view, one would need to add in more about these people. As a work that incorporated Murasaki’s novel, Morris created a history that gave the reader another source that they could compare his writings against. His facts were backed up by Murasaki’s contemporary accounts and viewpoints. The World of the Shining Prince would be an excellent book to aid the reader wishing to learn about the world of Heian Kyo.

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The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. (2021, Sep 08). Retrieved from

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